I’ve read a lot of books on the paranormal. I started on the Hans Holzer and Kathryn Tucker Wyndham books, went through the separate series by Richard Winer, Dolores Riccio and Michael Norman and graduated to Dennis William Hauck. His “National Directory To Haunted Places” should practically be the Bible of every serious paranormal enthusiast.
I’ve been through so many of these books that I became what I call a “paranormal purist,” I became aware of what activity was common in haunted houses and what sounded like a hoax. I mean – if you’ve heard or read enough accounts of experiences and sightings, you can form a certain ghostly inventory in your head. Every haunted house has the complimentary nightly footsteps, the traditional creaks in the night, the mandatory apparitions either in the form of surviving consciousnesses or as place memories, the creepy whispers and voices, the rare poltergeist activity… but it’s when you get to the activity that sounds, well, a bit too good to be true.
The ghosts that sip wine, the phone calls from nowhere, the ghosts that look and act a bit too “human”… like the account from Hannah House in Towson, Maryland where a non-existent servant gave a guest a tour before vanishing back to wherever ghosts go. Yes, it actually supposedly happened, and has occurred elsewhere too – an alleged Marilyn Monroe look-alike who might have been the real thing at her favorite Las Vegas resort. Orbs do not impress me, but I love seeing good photos of an apparition or a face looking in a window, but I’m also not impressed by the so-called “demonic” faces looking out windows that look more like patterns of light through a tree. I also can’t stand the haunted house attractions that proliferate around Halloween; what do guys screaming, yelling and waving axes and chainsaws have to do with a haunted house?
I can’t go watch a haunted house movie without treating it like a paranormal investigation. I’ll go through them muttering “Yes, that’s happened,” “That couldn’t happen,” or “Are they freaking kidding me?” When it comes to Hollywood writers and how they depict the paranormal in their film fiction, the grade comes down to an overall D- for effort and creativity and a complete absence of actual research.
Matter of fact, true paranormal activity might actually be boring to anyone not interested in the subject, and Hollywood writers might have to amp up the credibility factor to make it attractive to the masses. Hollywood ghosts are always either one: sources of amusement like “Casper” (1995) and “The Haunted Mansion” (2003), two: objects of terror like the thirteen from the “Thirteen Ghosts” (2001) remake, or three, relegated to atmosphere like the ghosts in “The Uninvited” (1944) or the original “The Haunting”(1963). Oh, and let’s not forget type four, the invisible and inaudible people which only Jennifer Love-Hewitt can see and hear on that TV-show of hers. I imagine the male majority of them are in her local YWCA women’s locker room.
So, boys and girls, get your pens and pencils out and let’s review ten of the top most remembered haunted house films of the last fifty years and figure out how they rank in terms of believability and accuracy. Let’s go!
House On Haunted Hill (1958|1990) – Vincent Price plays Frederick Loren, the macabre host of a dinner party in a house now considered haunted where ghastly murders once occurred. Created by William Castle, the plot is full of ghastly surprises with ugly heads in boxes and servants who vanish at will or glide from room to room. There’s a ridiculous concept that the house marks those “about to die;” the only real world scenario that comes close to this concept are the sounds of crashing chandeliers at the Hannah Mansion in Towson, Maryland which heralded deaths in the Hannah Family or even the white horse portent at the Cliff House in Hendersonville, North Carolina. What takes precedent is the murder mystery that unwraps, but we never see any ghosts besides the creepy lady acting like one in the basement. The remake improved on the idea with a haunted sanitarium with a wonderful basement maze of rooms and corridors, but the movie goes too far with a murderous black cloud that turned people to ash. I don’t think so… Maybe one could consider the black smoke the presence of the dark emotions Dr. Vannacutt flooded into the place, (Emeric Belasco also flooded his home in “The Legend Of Hell House” (1973) with negative emotions.) but giving that presence a life to commit murders and animate the house into a creature was too preposterous to be credible. I give the 1958 movie’s “ghosts” a C for effort, but for the remake, it’s a B- to rarely seen sanitarium ghosts and an F for the black smoke committing the gory murders.
13 Ghosts (1960/2001) – The Zorba family is penniless and losing their home, but fortunately, a mysterious relative into the paranormal has left them his spooky old mansion replete with his old equipment, the possessions of those passed on and a housekeeper who once terrified Dorothy in Oz. First off, William Castle was a creative sadist who liked to scare people in the theatre with flying skeletons and electric chairs. The special effects in the movie are weak compared to what can be done today, and the apparitions occur bit too frequent. The movie has an interesting invention in a set of eyewear to see ghosts if but to figure out how they could work in the real world. I suppose they worked using chemically treated lenses to peer into the invisible portion of the spectrum, but that’s just theoretical science. The one concept I can’t wrap my thoughts around is just how did Cyrus Zorba get thirteen surviving consciousnesses transplanted into his Los Angeles mansion from across the world. Kicking and screaming, I’d bet. I give the original B+ for credibility, but I give the remake D+ for violence, gore and a hokey occult ritual that just didn’t belong in the movie.
The Haunting (1963/1999) – Eleanor Vance’s mother has died, and now that she’s gone, the relatives swoop in and take everything, leaving Eleanor willing to stay in a house for Dr. David Marrow keeping secret its history and his motives. Based on the Shirley Jackson masterpiece, the film proves that it’s what you can’t see that scares you. The loud noises, the ambient noises, the ghosts that never reveal themselves… these are the things that we are familiar about in actual paranormal circles… all of it but the writing on the walls. The only instance of wall-writing I’ve heard about comes from the infamous Borley Rectory in England, but the spirit-writing in both movies is far too big and legible to be taken serious. While the remake basically follows the original, it went too far with the ghost trying to kill the cast. In the real world, if someone dies in a haunted house, it’s because of something “they” did – like stumbling while running down a set of stairs. I give the original an A+ for staying as true as possible but a B- for the remake that actually let us see the ghosts.
The Legend Of Hell House (1973) – Dr. Lionel Barrett is hired to see if the ghosts are real at Belasco House where two previous paranormal investigations ended violently. Based on an incredible novel by Richard Matheson, the movie is a watered down version of the novel with most of the sexual and adult references removed, but it’s still a very scary and atmospheric film. The opening declares that the film is based on theories on the supernatural that could very well be true, and that is quite obvious as Barrett’s views run contrary to that of a psychic Spiritualist named Florence Tanner. The theory is that one can negate the polarity of a haunted house using electromagnetism. The movie’s concept that electromagnetic radiation is related to paranormal energy is a theory that has popped up a lot on “Ghost Hunters,” but no one has yet created an invention like Barrett’s for turning “off” haunting activity. The move is basically belief versus science and the ending suggests they’re two sides of the same coin that can’t exist without the other. I give the movie an A for good balance of fact and horror that has yet to be conformed.
The Amityville Horror (1979/2008) – George and Kathy Lutz move their family moves into a house where the previous family was murdered by one of their own. First off, the move was not based on real events; it was based on the horror novel by Jay Anson who based it on the stories of the Lutzes and even then, their credibility is yet to be confirmed. Whether or not they were really haunted or if it was all a hoax has never been revealed. What we do know is that Ronald “Butch” Defeo never said voices told him to kill his family; that myth took a life of it’s own after the claims of the activity came out. Personally, I give the Lutzes the benefit of the doubt that “something” happened, but not what Anson said occurred. Little girls do occasionally have invisible playmates, and murder victims have haunted where they died, but the majority of “possessed” houses have been accused of being hoaxes. (The Smurls of West Pittston, Pennsylvania depicted in the movie “The Haunting,” and the Snedekers of Southington, Connecticutt, also documented into the movie, “A Haunting In Connecticut”) Where the movie accuracy works is in the gradual degradation of George’s state of mind as strange things occur. Where it does not work is the whole “demonic” pretense done over the top. It’s like “The Omen” crossed with “Married… With Children.” I give the activity a C for having little credibility; a D to the remake that did nothing further perpetuated the mythology and an F to the myriad sequels that we didn’t need.
The Shining (1980/1998) – Jack Torrance takes a job at a haunted hotel where he’ll be cut off from the world for several months. It’s a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece; it made Jack Nicholson a star and launched hundreds of really bad amateur impressionists. The huge sets are characters in themselves; it leaves a person wanting to explore every hall, room and corridor in the incredible edifice. Like “The Amityville Horror,” the movie wins excels in Jack’s gradual mental breakdown into the Joker, but where it fails is in explaining just why this stuff is happening. Stephen King rectified that plot point in the later three-part remake by delving into the son’s psychic potential. We have the ghosts left over from the days of Prohibition excited there’s a psychic in the house that can feel their presence, but we also have the lunatic dad instructed by them to exterminate his wife and kid. Yes to the first part, but “Are you kidding?” to the last part. We have the signs of apparitions up toward the end, which is when the ghosts finally come out and terrify Wendy Torrance (sounds like the cases where people have lived years in their homes before they notice activity) and an old photo suggesting reincarnation or destiny. A- on the activity for what there is of it in both movies.
Poltergeist (1982) – The Freeling family live in a house on a cemetery, but they don’t know it. There’s a nice very real novelty series of scenes involving psychokinetic activity in the kitchen, but the rest of the movie is Hollywood’s idea of what haunted houses are about with killer clowns, animated trees, paranormal portholes and caskets launched up through the concrete foundations of the house like an army of broken Jack-in-the-Boxes. Every time I think of them popping up, I hear Sheldon from the TV-Series, “The Big Bang Theory,” in the pit of plastic balls. Bazinga! Bazinga! Now, in the real world, there’s been many houses built on forgotten cemeteries and graveyards that turned out to be haunted, the Williams House near Crosby, Texas for one, but even in the pre-Elizabeth Smart/Natalee Holloway world, if a young girl vanishes, you know it’s going to become a media event. I give the initial activity a C and an F to following mishmash of impossible phenomenon – as well as the two ridiculous sequels we didn’t need for convoluting a tale that didn’t need continuing.
The Haunted (1995) – Parapsychologist David Ash is asked to come to the stately isolated British mansion of an old woman to get rid of her ghosts. During his stay, he becomes enamored of her granddaughter from among her demented grandchildren. The movie is a somewhat faithful adaptation of the James Herbert novel, but it soon becomes obvious that the movie title refers to Mr. Ash instead of the house. He’s faced with strange sounds, bizarre activity and odd dreams as he tries proving the house isn’t haunted, but the house is winning the paranormal wager. As it becomes a vendetta to prove the hauntings are possibly being hoaxed, he’s forced to face an unhappy memory and instead replace it with a threat to his life and existence, if but to put his own ghosts to rest. Up to the twist ending, the hauntings are pretty much feasible, except for the door that repaired itself and the plot points leading to the ending, which in itself is pure paranormal fiction. I give it a B- for a good paranormal activity hampered with a non-realistic ending.
The Others (2001) – Nicole Kidman plays a mother with two children allergic to sunlight but with the new servants comes possibly paranormal incidents. People she can’t see or find move through the house, locked doors open up, an unattended piano plays itself at night and the daughter hears voices in her room. It’s scary, atmospheric and very, very likely, and the incredible twist at the end leaves M. Night Shyamalan wishing he’d thought of it first. The hauntings plus the thick atmosphere creates what has to the best-haunted house movie since “The Shining” (excluding “Poltergeist” for being too preposterous) and proof that special effects aren’t necessary to create a decent haunted house movie. (What special affects there are are used in the atmosphere of the movie, the hauntings are mostly given life through the acting talents of the cast.) I give the movie an A+ for simulating something I’ve already wondered about: that ghosts are just as unsure of us as we are unsure of them.
Paranormal Activity (2009) – A young couple believe they have a ghost so the guy decides to capture the evidence on tape. The movie is more a statement on what’s becoming a very voyeuristic society than a simulation of fictional haunting. We have some credible instances seen only through the eyes of the audience as lights turn on and off, things move unseen, odd noises occur at night and sprinkled powder produces footprints, but where it falls apart is it’s just got to be evil. Why couldn’t just be a routine haunting? The reason: to make the “punch line” at the end that much more scary when it happens. The journey getting there is boring, tedious and peppered with foul language, brief paranormal instances, ridiculous “demonic” activity (A burnt photo in the attic? A Ouija board that writes on itself? That’s what you get for not listening to your girlfriend and bringing the stupid thing into the house!) and a buried sub-plot that fails to explain itself. I give a B on the “Blair Witch”-like plot but a D- on the far-fetched shock ending.
Bottom line, as Mike Ensign suggested in “1408” (2008), if you want to see ghosts, try the Haunted Mansion in Orlando, Florida….