You play a disembodied pair of eyes wandering around a darkened four-story house. You're there to find the three pieces of an urn that once belonged to a man named Zachary Graves. But the house is haunted by Zachary's ghost, and occupied by tarantulas and a bat. If they touch you, you'll be 'scared to death' and lose a life. You have 9 lives.
The house is completely dark, but you have an infinite number of matches to light a small area around you. The match works for a limited time and another one has to be lit. The match also goes out when there's a monster in the same room with you. With a match lit, you can find items in the rooms: A master key to open locked doors, a scepter to protect you from the monsters, and the urn pieces. You can only carry one of these at a time (the urn assembles as you collect the pieces, and is considered one item).
The monsters wander from room to room and floor to floor. If a monster enters the room, or you enter a room with a monster in it, it'll give chase. At lower difficulty levels, if you leave the room, it'll go back to wandering; but at higher difficulty levels, it'll keep chasing you from room to room. Zachary's ghost can pass through locked doors, and the other monsters can too at higher difficulty levels. When there's a monster in the room, the wind blows, blowing out your match, and lightning flashes (or not, depending on the left difficulty switch setting).
There are nine Difficulty Levels, ranging from Easier Than Easy to Nintendo Hard. At level 1, there are no doors, the walls are lit, and you can see if a monster is in another room. At level 2, the scaring starts. It's completely dark, and the rooms are separated by doors, so you don't know if there's a monster in the next room. Even if you stand still, a monster could wander in from any direction. Higher levels lock some of the doors, have three tarantulas instead of one, make the monsters more aggressive, make the bat steal your item, speed up the monsters, make Zachary's ghost immune to the scepter, and let the other monsters move through locked doors.
Haunted House provides examples of:
- All There in the Manual: The plot.
- A Winner Is You: The screen flashes and some spooky music resembling The Twilight Zone theme plays.
- Backtracking: If you don't have the master key, you'll do a lot of this.
- Bat Out of Hell: The bat is one of the three enemies.
- Bedsheet Ghost: Zachary.
- Blackout Basement: The whole house.
- By the Lights of Their Eyes: Even when you've lit a match, only your eyes are seen. This is changed in the remake.
- Collision Damage: Zachary, the spiders, and the bat all damage you by simply touching you.
- Cut-and-Paste Environments: All four floors are exactly the same; six rooms in a two by three grid. Only the locations of stairs and locked doors are different, and in the dark, you can't see them! Only the status bar can tell you which floor you're on.
- Difficulty Levels: Nine in the Atari 2600 version, used to great effect.
- Dismantled MacGuffin: The urn.
- Empty Room Psych: Well, there are 24 rooms, five objects, and three or five monsters, so...
- Evil Old Folks: Before his death, Zachary Graves was a mean, rotten old man who was hated by the community for his attitude. He was also a thief who stole a magic urn that belonged to the town.
- Excuse Plot: You are trying to recover a magic urn that belonged to the town, while dodging the ghost of Zachary Graves, the bat, and the spiders.
- Fan Remake: One was made in 2004.
- Fan Sequel: The homebrew Haunted House 3D for the Atari 5200.
- Featureless Protagonist: Two eyes, with pupils that point where you're going.
- Averted with the remake, which starred two siblings investigating the disappearance of their grandfather (who, incidentally, was the guy the pair of eyes belonged to in the 1983 original).
- Grumpy Old Man: The manual reveals that prior to his death, Zachary Graves combined this with Evil Old Folks. He was a mean, rotten old irritable grump. He wasn't just grumpy though, as the manual clarifies that he was actually evil and stole an item that belonged to the town.
- Haunted House: The house is haunted by the ghost of Zachary Graves.
- Inventory Management Puzzle: Very tricky with only one inventory slot.
- Invincible Villain: Zachary on levels 8 and 9, where he is not affected by the scepter.
- Locked Door: Starting at difficulty level 3.
- Meaningful Name: Zachary Graves. While everyone dies eventually, it's fitting that a man with the last name "Graves" would become a ghost instead of passing on.
- Palette Swap: The tarantulas.
- Preexisting Encounters: Difficulty level 1.
- Roaming Enemy: All three enemies wander around.
- Scoring Points: You get a score based on how many matches you use and how many lives you lose. Lower the score, the better it is.
- Shout-Out: If you beat the game, The Twilight Zone (1959) theme plays.
- Spiders Are Scary: The spiders will scare you to death if they touch you.
- Survival Horror: May be the Ur-Example (which would also make it Older Than the NES).
- Top-Down View: You view the house in a "blueprint" style, as though from above.
- Video-Game Lives: Nine.
- Video Game Remake: The Xbox 360/Wii remake, which gave the game 3D graphics and a more complex story.