Just about every horror sub-genre in the world is best viewed with friends. There is something about the shared collective experience of either being frightened together or emboldening one another by laughing together that makes watching a horror movie fun.
There is however one exception to this rule and that is the ghost movie. To my mind there is nothing more potentially terrifying than sitting in a room alone at night and putting on a great ghost movie. I think it is perhaps because when one is alone, it is easy to dismiss the believability of the other horror sub-genres; in the company of others it is easy to let yourself believe for a moment that monsters are real. When you are alone, it is easy to deny the existence of vampires, Frankensteins, wolf men, and zombies. It is easy to notice the preposterous nature of most slashers or to at least notice the irrational behavior of the slasher’s victims.
In the calm light of day or in the company of other people it is also easy to dismiss the paranormal. When I rationally think about it, I am firmly a non-believer in ghosts. But unfortunately that non-belief usually fails under the most tenuous of circumstances. When the shadows grow longer, the house grows eerily quiet, and something goes bump into the night, my rational certainty disappears. Because the tricky thing is, while one can prove the existence something with absolute certainty it is impossible to prove without a shadow of a doubt the non-existence of something. That is the beauty of watching a ghost movie alone and why it is my absolute favorite sub-genre of horror. Without other sane people to reassure you on the non-existence of the paranormal it is easy to slip into wondering, if only for a few moments, whether there might be spectral beings after all. And once you let that certainty slip it becomes that much easier to terrify yourself.
And if you have read my blog for awhile, you know that I count being terrified as an entirely underrated experience.
But if we dive one layer deeper, I think there is something specific about ghosts and ghost stories that makes them perhaps the best kind of horror movies to view alone. So many of the great ghost stories deal with humans who while they were alive did something that inspired regret, and a regret so deep that it followed them beyond the grave. A ghost represents unfinished business and an incomplete life, and thus even the most terrifying and vengeful ghost carries with it a tinge of unbearable and tragic sadness. Monsters, goblins, witches, and slashers? These are things that we can easily go our whole life avoiding with just a little bit of smarts (and the immutable laws of probability). But personal regrets and things we have done that might follow us beyond the grave, or the regrets and actions of others affecting us beyond their grave? Not so much. And that, to put it bluntly, is terrifying.
Without much further ado I present the ghost movies that have literally had a haunting affect on me. I only have two rules for this list, with the most important being the “no Scooby-Doo rule”. For a movie to qualify for this list, the ghosts in question have to be real to the world of the movie and not some dude in a mask or some variation of that basic theme (sorry Diabolique and House on Haunted Hill). The other rule is my standard “one film per director”, which mostly ends up hurting Guillermo Del Toro and James Wan (sorry, Crimson Peak and Insidious). With that in mind, lets jump in:
25. THE FOG (1980) dir. John Carpenter
Admittedly “ghost pirates” do not sound like the most terrifying things in the world, and the ghost pirates that occupy this movie are more “silly” instead of “frightening”. But there is such a wonderful “campfire ghost story” feel to Carpenter’s Halloween follow-up that I just could not bring myself to leave it off the list. The Fog is also a wonderful example of Carpenter’s ability to create and sustain a spooky atmosphere filling this movie about a ghostly invasion on a sleepy seaside town with heavy dread. And with the presences of scream queen royalty in Janet Leigh (Psycho) and daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) peppering a solid cast, the movie is never wanting for popcorn entertainment, even if it is lacking in providing anything resembling an actual chill.
24. STIR OF ECHOES (1999) dir. David Koepp
Stir of Echoes suffers from the unfortunate timing of its original release. While the ability of a human to see ghosts is certainly one of the foundational concepts of a ghost story, Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of making that concept the central hook of its narrative in the same year The Sixth Sense – the most successful horror movie of all time – came out. As a result the movie unfairly was seen as derivative. But thanks to an unhinged Kevin Bacon performance, who plays a working-class schlub who becomes an unwilling psychic after a hypnosis experiment goes wrong, and a highly satisfying (if tragic) mystery to be solved Stir of Echoes remains a compelling ghost movie in its own right.
23. JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) dir. Takashi Shimizu
Part of what makes a ghost story so terrifying is the uncanny factor; that a ghost looks so much like a living and breathing human yet is just not quite the same as us seems to unsettle us at a primal level – we instinctively know something is off even if everything seems normal at a surface level. It is this uncanniness that Ju-On exploits as from frame one the movie’s world seems slightly askew with the appearances of the child ghost Toshio and vengeful spirit Kayako simply punctuating the fact that things are not alright. The non-linear storytelling simply adds to our unsettledness, making us focus so much on trying to piece together the puzzle that we altogether unready when these spirits decide to scare the living daylights out of us.
22. CANDYMAN (1992) dir. Bernard Rose
While it might be category fraud to include Candyman in this list and strong arguments can be made that it is more at home in the slasher genre or even the monster genre but this fact remains: Candyman was a black man who was killed by a white lynch mob in the 1890s after he married a white woman, and now is a vengeful spirit who kills all who summon him. Ergo, he is a ghost.
And while Candyman addresses the issues of race and equality in what can be charitably described as a clunky way, it is also one of the few ghost movies that even attempts to draw a meaningful connection to the metaphorical ghosts of America’s past, so it is at least worth a watch on that front. That it is also terrifying is merely a bonus.
21. THE UNINVITED (1944) dir. Lewis Allen
In many ways The Uninvited is the antithesis of a typical ghost story, with its traditionally lush classic Hollywood score, a tone that is mostly jovial, a romantic seaside location, and lead performances that seem more at home at times with a screwball comedy than a horror movie. But it is precisely all the ways this movie doesn’t follow a typical horror movie that gives The Uninvited its chilling power. When ghostly appearances start occurring in the romantic seaside home of brother and sister Rick (Ray Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey), it comes across as a violent intrusion into an otherwise genteel Hollywood tale, making every appearance eerie and off-putting and all the more terrifying as a result.
20. POLTERGEIST (1982) dir. Tobe Hooper
Old Victorian mansions, art-deco hotels, abandoned asylums, and fog-filled cemeteries are admittedly easy places to believe in the existence of ghostly spirits. The genius of Poltergeist was in suggesting that a typical suburban home, so much the image of safety and stability in Reagan’s America, could in fact be the locale for something paranormal and sinister. And while whole dissertations can (and have) been made of the symbolism in Poltergeist of a ethnically monolithic suburbia being built on a literal Native American graveyard, what makes Poltergeist particularly terrifying is that it gets all the details of suburban life, particularly its mundanities, spot-on and then explicitly preys on the fears and hopes of suburban life in deriving its scares.
19. THE WOMAN IN BLACK dir. Herbert Wise
The mere concept of this ghost story – a young solicitor is sent to settle the estate of an old widow alone in a mansion known to be haunted by a vengeful ghost who curses anybody who sees her with the death of their children – is enough to give me the heebie-jeebies (did I mention that this mansion is frequently cut-off from the mainland by high tide?). And with all respect to the pretty-good Daniel Radcliffe-led remake of this movie, I prefer the original ITV production for one clear reason: Somehow the cheap film quality (I’m 99% sure it was shot on video) lends the movie a hyper-real quality to the proceedings, simultaneously giving the movie a British-play stuffiness and an eerie sterile quality that makes the inevitable appearance of the titular character all the more chilling.
18. PULSE (2001) dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Almost every ghost story is an intimate affair, with the terror coming from the isolated encounters the living have with the dead. Pulse is the rare ghost movie that dares to take a ghostly haunting and raise it to an apocalyptic level. Taking the phrase “ghost in the machine” quite literally, the movie tells an epic story about spirits looking to invade and consume the living through the internet – a metaphor that had some power in 2001 when the internet was still in its relative infancy but has only taken on more poignancy with every passing year as the internet literally takes over most of our functional lives.
17. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
In many ways the reputation of Shyamalan’s breakout hit has unfairly been sullied by its infamous “plot twist” – a device that he uses in most of his future movies to diminishing returns. But what gets forgotten is that the “plot twist” of The Sixth Sense works so well because so much work has been done in the prior 100 minutes or so before to not only hint at the true nature of this story but to expertly obscure it as well. At its core The Sixth Sense is a simple story about a child (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people and a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who works tirelessly to help him, but thanks to the performances of the principal actors and the level of filmmaking craft, it becomes so much more.
16. BEETLEJUICE (1988) dir. Tim Burton
Say his name three times and you’re in for a world of hurt, yet summoning the titular ghoul is such an entertaining delight that you might be tempted to do so anyway. Beetlejuice asks a very rare question in ghost stories: What if the ghosts were more yawn-inducing than terrifying? This is precisely what afflicts Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) when they die unexpectedly and find themselves so blandly vanilla that when a new family moves in, they find themselves completely unable to muster up any scares worth mentioning. And though turning to the devilish Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) certainly ups the ante in the terror department, nothing in this movie can is more fearsome than Catherine O’Hara’s wonderfully zany aesthetic.
15. THE FRIGHTENERS (1996) dir. Peter Jackson
As much as I am indebted to Peter Jackson for bringing my beloved The Lord of the Rings to life, I cannot help but wonder if his undertaking of that saga robbed us of the wonderful and weird Peter Jackson who made unabashedly goofy, gory, and gross horror movies prior to his trilogy’s blockbuster and critical success. The Frighteners, featuring Michael J. Fox as a sleazy ghost hunter (in his last live-action film role), represents the final movie to fully bear Jackson’s imprint as maverick horror director, and it is a hoot featuring the perfect mix of striking visuals, macabre humor, and a truly devilish and frightening mystery at its core.
14. THE CONJURING (2013) dir. James Wan
Yes, the Conjuring-cinematic universe is defined by a reliance on jump-scares and a compulsion to provide needless backstory to terrifying mysteries in its spin-offs (here’s looking at you The Nun), but don’t let that detract from the fact that the core Conjuring franchise is without a doubt one of the more terrifying ghost stories to come out recently. It was honestly a coin-flip whether I put the original or The Conjuring 2 in this slot, but I went with the original simply because of the outstanding world-building it manages in its taut time-frame. Using a fictionalized Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) gives the movie just the right amount “real world” believability and grounds even its most fantastical elements with the veneer of a “true story”. And while the direction leans on the usual cinematic bag of tricks to derive scares, Wan uses these tricks like a virtuoso musician, constantly keeping us on the throes of terror until even something as simple as a hand-clap is enough to send even the sturdiest viewer into whimpers.
13. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) dir. Ivan Reitman
Most of the fear that comes with a great ghost story is knowing that there is very little you can do against the supernatural. What makes Ghostbusters so much fun (among other things) is that they imagine a world where the concept of getting rid of ghosts is as simple and mundane as any other municipal department’s duties. The greatest trick that Ghostbusters pulls is that it is really a workplace comedy dressed up as a spooky ghost story, with Misters Aykroyd, Hudson, Ramis, and of course Murray perfectly cast as nearly-but-not-quite bored ghost exterminators who find more trouble battling bureaucratic red-tape than they do with anything paranormal.
12. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) dir. Brian Desmond Hurst
There is no way a list about the best ghost movies would be complete without including an adaptation of what is possibly the most famous ghost story of all. And I can think of no better adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story that Alastair Sim’s, not the least because the first time I saw it while tucked under blankets on an all-too-quiet Christmas Eve I was absolutely terrified for the first twenty minutes or so. With ghosts Marley, Christmas Past, Present, and a terrifying future, and Sim’s Scrooge just on the edge of being completely unhinged, this adaptation adds just the right amount of edge to bring a slight chill to the usual warmth and joy of the season.
11. RINGU (1998) dir. Hideo Nakata
The brilliance of Ringu is that it takes one of a 90’s horror movie fan’s greatest joys – finding an unknown videotape with a notorious reputation – and weaponizes it into something we should be terrified about. The narrative of a piece of media being cursed and predicting doom upon those who view it is a film is a tired cliche nowadays, but its potency was never stronger than in Ringu, perhaps its first iteration. While the American remake is the rare remake that is successful in its own right, it cannot compare to the original, partly because no other country has a more complicated and nuanced relationship between the tradition and modernity than Japan; within that context the terror of the cursed-VHS has its most potency.
10. THE CHANGELING (1980) dir. Peter Medak
Part of the appeal of a great ghost story is the constant tension between our need to shield ourselves from being terrified and our similar need to have our curiosities sated and our mysteries solved. That tension is very much visible in John Russell (George C. Scott) as he finds himself staying in a cavernous and shadow-filled Victorian mansion in Seattle only to discover that he is not in fact, alone. Where most people would find the appearance of supernatural phenomena in an unknown mansion as an excuse to high-tail it out of there, Russell instead chooses to dig deeper, leading to the rare ghost story that also doubles down as a satisfying investigative procedural. To say anything more would be to spoil the fun, but just know that seeing this movie might also make you irrationally afraid of wheelchairs and balls for awhile.
9. GHOSTWATCH (1992) dir. Lesley Manning
This infamous “fake” broadcast really shouldn’t have worked. First, the filmmakers had to fool a British audience into believing that the BBC would seriously try to do a “live” paranormal investigation, and then they had to find a way to make that audience believe that the paranormal happenings that happened in the broadcast were “real”. At best what Lesley Manning could have hoped for was to have the audience appreciate the craft, but see through the ruse. The fact that it jammed the BBC’s phone lines with complaints from terrified viewers speaks to just how well they pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes. It is precisely the filmmakers commitment to verisimilitude that gives this “fake” broadcast its afterlife, making it only a little bit scarier to watch today as it was on that fateful Halloween night in 1992.
8. THE WAILING (2016) dir. Na Hong-Jin
Including The Wailing on this list might be a case of category fraud, and the problem is that I have no way of defending its inclusion here without giving away some very specific details. But in broad strokes, The Wailing is simply one of the best supernatural horror films to come out this century. This slow-burner of a movie takes place in a rural village in South Korea where a mysterious disease is spreading through the town, causing physical rashes to appear, and then turning its victims homicidal before it kills the victim. Jong-Goo, the police officer assigned to this case, finds himself overwhelmed trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. And the deeper he gets the more he drags those in his circle into the supernatural danger that seems to be haunting the town.
7. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) dir. Guillermo Del Toro
No other director more deftly dances between wonder and terror than Guillermo Del Toro and while Pan’s Labyrinth may be his most famous mixture of fantasy and horror, it is The Devil’s Backbone that is his most chilling tale. Set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, it is a harrowing tale of survival as a group of orphans of left-wing families await their untimely end at the hand of Franco’s fascists; a supposedly defused bomb in the courtyard that is still ticking proving to be the perfect metaphor for their predicament. Carlos, a recent arrival, soon stumbles upon a ghostly spectre during a hazing initiation with the other kids, which prompts him to dig deeper into the possible hidden sins of the past. While the ghost may be the most terrifying entity in this movie, inevitably we realize that the most dangerous still lives and breathes.
6. THE ORPHANAGE (2007) dir. J. A. Bayona
Even thinking about the childhood game Laura (Belen Rueda) plays at the end of this movie is enough to send me into shivers and reaching for the light switch and/or a stiff drink. But as terrifying as this slow burn of a ghost story, it is somehow eclipsed by its sadness. Perhaps of all the movies on this list, The Orphanage stands as the perfect encapsulation that what terrifies us most about ghosts is not their ethereal nature but by what they represent: the manifestations of the incomplete lives and deepest regrets we carry with us not just in this life, but can affect us beyond our metaphorical graves. If the movie’s ending does not leave you an emotional wreck, I might question if you still count yourself among the living.
5. KWAIDAN (1964) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
Where most Western ghost stories predicate themselves on doubt, Japanese (and other Asian) ghost stories tend to place the existence of ghosts firmly in the realm of possibility. Kwaidan (literally “ghost story”) proves that just because people can fully believe in ghosts doesn’t mean that they are any less terrifying as Kobayashi weaves four traditional tales of spirits dishing out comeuppance upon a series of vulnerable and terrified mortals. Less of a scary movie and more of a morality play about the importance of keeping your vows, especially to the spiritual realm, Kwaidan derives its horror by the strange fever dream it manages to cast upon its viewers, leaving us with images and feelings that haunt us long after the movie’s unsettling power has sunk its claws into us.
4. THE HAUNTING (1963) dir. Robert Wise
In many ways The Haunting is the prototypical ghost movie. Take one extremely creepy looking house. Give it an extremely compelling and haunting backstory. Fill it with a bunch of curious people ranging from pure skeptic to true believer to investigate its “hauntedness”. And then sit back and watch the inevitable unfold. And though this basic formula will be repeated ad nauseam by a bunch of pale imitators, The Haunting stands out because of its utter commitment to the simplicity of its premise. There are no gimmicks, no last-minute twists, and no narrative cheats (apart from perhaps one unreliable narrator); just four individuals forced to encounter the unknown only to find themselves by the end none-the-wiser but much more terrified.
3. THE OTHERS (2001) dir. Alejandro Amenabar
A pretty good twist is enough to elevate any story, except for the fact that once a twist is known it usually severely diminishes that story’s replay value. However a great story is one that loses none of its power, even when it’s central twist is known. At the center of what makes The Others so captivating is Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman in arguably her best performance), a woman whose eccentricities and paranoia are so believable alluring because they stem from the traumas and trials she has to face as a widow living in the days following World War II. When her photosensitive children are oppressed by the sudden appearance of spirits in their vast Victorian mansion, naturally we find it easy to root against these paranormal hauntings, to our own peril.
2. THE INNOCENTS (1961) dir. Jack Clayton
One of the great comforts a child can have is knowing that the adults in the room are in control and know best. This comfort is what is horrifyingly exploited in the harrowing tale of The Innocents, in which the recently appointed governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) arrives at the Bly estate and soon begins to suspect that there are some ghosts possessing the two children under her care. And for most of the running time of this movie her theory seems to pan out; she encounters ghostly spectres in the darkened corners of the estate, seemingly stalking Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens, who with his performance here and in The Village of the Damned instantly makes him eligible for the horror hall-of-fame). But what Clayton does so brilliantly is to sow just the right amount of doubt into the veracity of Miss Giddens, our maybe-not-so-reliable narrator, so that it becomes unclear if the ghosts or Miss Giddens poses a greater danger to the children.
1. THE SHINING (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Much to Stephen King’s chagrin, Kubrick decided to be much more ambiguous as to whether or not the Overlook Hotel was subject to ghostly hauntings. But it is precisely that uncertainty that makes The Shining such a terrifying movie. Until the very end we are uncertain as to whether we are simply witnessing an abusive man and his understandably less-than-stable family suffer the worst kind of cabin fever, or if there are in fact forces beyond their control manipulating the events to increasingly homicidal effect. Thus while King’s novel places us firmly in Jack Torrance’s camp, here we are left feeling as helpless and isolated as Wendy as she feels her safe world increasingly breached by danger. And yes, the fact that The Shining sits on top of this “Ghost Movies” list means that I think Jack Torrance ultimately did not act unaided by the supernatural; it still does not mean that the scariest entity in this movie is very much of flesh and blood.