A good scary movie makes us afraid of its ghosts; a great one sees ghosts for what they are: specters of the past. That past can be horrific — filled with darkness that we can never quite outrun. Ghosts can also be seductive, drawing us back to a past that we ought to have outgrown, teasing us with the idea that we can visit long-dead people and abandoned places, if only in shadow. We love ghost stories, perhaps, because we love the idea that there’s life beyond the grave, and that the past is never really gone. But the logic of story ensures that the gift of that reassurance comes with a price, and reminds us to be careful what we wish for.
Here are a handful of the best and most interesting ghost stories.
The Uninvited (1944)
It’s surprising that, before 1944, ghost stories were hardly a presence at all in feature films, and were overwhelmingly played for laughs when they did appear. The Uninvited’s cool, serious demeanour changed that almost singlehandedly, ushering a wave of ghost movies in the 40s. A brother and sister played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey get an extraordinarily good bargain on a windswept house overlooking a cliff — just the kind of thing to kick off any good ghost story.
That adult brother/sister dynamic (if it weren’t clearly spelled out, you’d fully believe them to be a married couple) is just one of the many deliberately disorienting touches in a film that’s full of them. A local young woman starts hanging around, believing that the weird occurrences at the house are signs that her mother is haunting the place, but it turns out her mother might have been had more going on with the woman who runs the local sanatorium (the queer subtext here being barely subtext at all). The result is genuinely haunting and full of atmosphere, one of the first being one of the best.
The Innocents (1961)
In tone and style (and even in plot), many, many films have attempted to match director Jack Clayton’s work on The Innocents, but few if any have succeeded. An updating of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, adapted by Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr, it’s possible that the elements brought together here are impossible to replicate. The story of a new governess with good reason to be concerned by her charges, a huge part of the appeal is the stunning deep-focus photography, bringing with it the constant feel that something is lurking off in the distance.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
It’s shocking how readily available Carnival of Souls is (just look at that list of streamers). The first time I saw it, it was on a ragged old VHS tape, well into the DVD era, because that’s all there was. Yes, it’s technically in the public domain, but even Criterion has made a slot for the micro-budget independent story of a young woman who stumbles into an incredibly atmospheric, existentially dreadful fairground full of sunken-eyed tourists who don’t always seem to be having that much fun. It plays a bit like a mash-up of George Romero and David Lynch, but pre-dated the work of each of them.
The Haunting (1963)
Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, the movie starts out with a fairly stock premise and builds to something unexpected. A scientist invites a disparate group of visitors to spend the night in the reputedly haunted Hill House, a beautiful but oddly designed structure. As in Jackson’s novel, director Robert Wise (about whom we don’t speak enough) creates character drama out of a terrifying night, exploring each character in turn but focusing on sheepish and awkward Eleanor, who spent most of her adult life caring for her mother, only recently deceased. It evolves into a movie about two lost souls who find what they’ve been looking for in each other. Forever.
The book on which it was based has been adapted multiple times, and inspired imitators like goofy-but-fun The House on Haunted Hill. They’re almost all worthwhile on their own terms, though the 1999 remake is probably best avoided.
What look like modern horror tropes (vengeful ghosts and demons, in particular) go back a long way in Japanese culture: J-horror was a thing long before we had a collective term for it; centuries earlier, in fact. So it’s no surprise that some of the best ghost movies come from Japanese filmmakers.
Kwaidan, from an archaic form of the word for “ghost story,” is an anthology film — horror being a genre that very often works better in small bites. The downside is that there are often peaks and valleys in quality. Not so here, with each of the four tales being very different but brilliantly constructed, and also influential: horror lovers will recognise some of the imagery here that became iconic (as in the first story: “The Black Hair.”) The film is also stunningly beautiful, with tremendous use of colour.
A revenge story with surprisingly feminist themes, the stark, spare Kuroneko starts simply and grows more complex before an impressive, if ambiguous, climax. Two women, mother and daughter-in-law, are raped and murdered by a troop of travelling samurai. Vowing vengeance and making a pact with the underworld, their spirits seduce wandering warriors and then murder them ruthlessly. Eventually, a military hero is sent to deal with the deadly spirits — a samurai who soon learns that the two ghosts are those of his wife and mother.
A flying disembodied head bites someone in the arse; a girl is eaten by a piano, a woman disappears into a refrigerator. That’s just a taste of the fundamental and deliberate weirdness of House (or Hausu), the story of six friends invited to visit a spooky old house. It’s hard to make out any real themes or even much of a plot: the movie is almost entirely a triumph of style over substance, but what style! The bright, candy-coated visuals of the earlier parts of the film only paves the way for the bloodbath to come. The whole experience is like a music video fever dream — not scary, really, but unforgettable.
The Changeling (1980)
Once again: unless you like the idea of living in a horror movie, please think twice about cheap real estate. In this case, it’s a giant and inherently creepy Victorian mansion that, for some reason(!), nobody has lived in for over a decade. George C. Scott can’t see the problem, and, following the deaths of his wife and daughter in an auto accident, decides that the place might represent just the change of pace he’s looking for. Of course, all the best haunted houses have at least as much to do with the baggage we bring into them as with the events of their pasts, and Scott’s character has plenty as he investigates the increasingly weird happenings in a house that most people would vacate before even unpacking.
It’s a cult classic for a couple of reasons: the always reliable Scott’s performance, and also the technical proficiency of the haunted house scares…it’s a cornerstone of that particular genre.
Before his aesthetic became a brand, Tim Burton was genuinely one of the most original and transgressive filmmakers of his generation, bringing a very specific spooky, dark comedy weirdness to each and every project. After creating a single, extremely memorable ghost trucker in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, he took us on a full-fledged tour of hell with Beetlejuice, and, as with all of his early projects, goes to great lengths to make the case that the outsiders (the dead, in this case), are generally having more fun.
With all the trappings of a slasher movie (including a very memorable slasher in Tony Todd’s Daniel Daniel Robitaille), Candyman became a cult classic by defying its genre conventions — not only by foregrounding Black characters, but by building a gothic romance into its story of a vengeful ghost in the Chicago projects. Robitaille was murdered for his love affair with a white woman, the evil and trauma of that event and others like it spreading for decades. When his vengeful spirit encounters the woman who could be the reincarnation of his beloved Helen, Candyman haunts her to a tragic conclusion.
Audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of Beloved upon release in 1998: it’s director (Jonathan Demme) and stars (Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and Thandiwe Newton) suggested a prestige drama, but it’s also very much a ghost story, and not a gentle one — the opening scene leaves that in no doubt. The plot involves Winfrey’s character, Sethe, who escaped from slavery years before but finds that the specter (quite literally) of her enslaved life, and the brutal, impossible choices she was forced to make, won’t leave her be.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Time, and two decades of only sporadically effective M. Night Shyamalan twists, may have dulled its impact somewhat, but repeat viewings make one thing clear: the movie is more than just its ending, and it retains its chilling atmosphere and effectiveness even when viewed with that well-known conclusion in mind. Haley Joel Osment, who was somehow turned down for the lead role in The Phantom Menace, gives one of film’s all-time great kid performances, and Bruce Willis has never been better.
The Others (2001)
There’s a twist ending here, which I won’t spoil, but what impresses me most about Alejandro Amenábar’s gloomy ghost drama is its rewatchability — the atmosphere is so relentlessly chilling that the scary bits still work, even when you realise that you were meant to be looking elsewhere. Nicole Kidman is excellent as the stolid-but-brittle mother to two children in an isolated house in the Channel Islands, waiting endlessly for her husband (Christopher Eccleston) to return for the war. The youngest child happens to be extremely photosensitive, to the point that he can never be in direct daylight — cleverly and conveniently ensuring that large portions of the house remain dark at all times. And what’s the deal with the friendly but secretive servants (including the great Fionnula Flanagan), mysteriously arrived from out of nowhere? The mysteries build to a brutal, but satisfying climax.
Spirited Away (2001)
Spirits don’t have to be scary, though that doesn’t mean that they can’t be capricious and a little dangerous. Hayao Miyazaki’s triumph is, not surprisingly, also one of the greatest animated pictures of all time — a week of tremendous beauty, and great care in every single frame. It’s the story of stubborn Chihiro, who goes on an adventure in a world of spirits to rescue her parents and to reclaim her name.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Through the eyes of young Carlos, we’re introduced to the world of Spain, circa 1939: the final year of the Spanish Civil War. General Franco is in the ascendant, and two leftist sympathizers maintain a secret and remote home for orphans, with the full knowledge that they’ve cast their lot with the losing side. The ghost here, Santi, used to sleep in Carlos’ bed, and del Toro makes just the right use of ghost-story conventions — using the memorable and creepy spirit to test the film’s living characters as they face the end of their world. His more recent Crimson Peak is a very different kind of ghost story, but equally effective.
Lake Mungo (2008)
This Australian import is a more restrained take on found footage horror, though the presentation is more documentary than shaky cam. Less interested in scares than in exploring the hole left by a death, it follows a family working to come to terms with the death of sixteen-year-old Alice. Her brother becomes convinced that he’s seen her spirit, and so sets up cameras to document what he believes is happening. Typical setup, in some ways, but the movie is much more interested in using the supernatural to explore grief, and also, as Alice’s life is explored, the ways in which we construct identities for those we love without always knowing them as well as we think.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Claire and Luke are working the desk for the last weekend at the formerly grand Yankee Pedlar Inn, mostly there to turn out the lights. They’re both ghost enthusiasts, though, and realise that it’s also their last chance to gather evidence for some of the long-reported ghostly activity that surrounds the business. What begins as a series of slightly goofy attempts by the staff to come up with examples of ghostly activity grows gradually into something darker when the last guest checks in. I’m not sure that the movie breaks any new ground, but it’s an incredibly well-constructed example of the form: funny when it needs to be, but still smart and with some genuinely chilling moments. Ghost stories often turn on their endings, and this one builds to something worthwhile.
Director Ti West based the film’s location on the real-life — also supposedly haunted — Yankee Pedlar. The exterior and several scenes were shot there…and the actual hotel went under just a couple of years later. Was is a ghostly curse? Did the Peddlar’s spirits take umbrage at being the subject of a horror movie? Or…did attempts to goose the business by converting it into a Best Western go south? You decide. (Probably that last one.)
Personal Shopper (2016)
Beginning as a more straightforward ghost story, Personal Shopper shifts and morphs itself into something wholly unique, a story of personal shopper who’s also something of a medium, attempting to make contact with her dead brother. The mysterious text messages she begins to receive might be messages from the beyond or evidence of a stalker, and the disconcertingly fragmented nature of the movie’s structure works in maintaining a tone that’s both off-kilter and playful. Shopper is a follow-up to a previous collaboration between Stewart and director Olivier Assayas, the very highly acclaimed Clouds of Sils Maria, and this one’s even better.
A Ghost Story (2017)
David Lowery is one of our most impressive modern visual stylists (as anyone who’s seen his more recent The Green Knight will understand), which perhaps begins to explain how a film that involves a man in a sheet playing a ghost can be so evocative and interesting. The story of a man who dies unexpectedly and yet remains at the poverty shared by him and his wife, the story is haunting rather than scary, in the sense that the exploration of love and loss lingers after the end credits. The sheet device, which could be silly in other hands, makes the ghost into a figure that we can easily identify with.
La Llorona (2019)
Confusingly, this isn’t The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring-adjacent American film also released in 2019. That one is perfectly serviceable, but not terribly memorable. This Guatemalan film (from director Jayro Bustamante) does something far more interesting with the legendary weeping woman, tying her into the very real history of the Indigenous Mayan genocide that reached its most horrifying depths in the early 1980s. In the film, a fictionalized version of the former Guatemalan President has only recently avoided prosecution for his crimes, retreating to his palatial home amid his very divided family. They’re soon joined by a new housekeeper, Alma, whose name means “spirit” — not subtle, but it’s not meant to be. The typical thriller movie scares are largely absent here in favour of atmosphere and the chilling reality of the horrors it portrays.