Top 10 Ghost Movies
October 26, 2012 4 Comments
Zombies, vampires and demonic possessions have become the popular topics of horror movies in the last few years, but really, there is nothing more terrifying than a well-crafted ghost movie. A well-directed ghost film can build up an unbearable sense of dread and agonizing psychological suspense the one minute and the next it can stop your heart with a ghoulish image that may linger in the mind for years to come. Ghosts in movies can chill you to the spine in a way that other supernatural foes just can’t do. As much as we love vampires, monsters and even demons in our horror movies, they are ultimately too incredulous to really enter into your nightmares. But there is nothing as threatening as a tortured spirit haunting a group of living mortals as it all seems somewhat plausible. We all die – some of us die in horrific circumstances – perhaps the idea of a lost soul trapped between two worlds, contacting, or tormenting the living isn’t as implausible as other horror creations. How often do you get the sense someone or something is watching you when you are completely alone? If you’re anything like me, after watching a good ghost movie, you’ll have a heightened sense of awareness to the sinister sounds and sights of creaking floor boards and ominous shadows. In the run-up to Halloween, I’ve watched a plethora of great ghost movies in preparation for this blog. Now each night I’m fighting the urge to sleep with the light on. If you watch the following films in a row, be prepared to jump when the floor boards in your house creak.
10. The Fog – 1980 U.S
An old seaside fishing town is terrorized by a menacing mist, which contains vengeful ghosts of victims once wronged by the founders of the town.
John Carpenter was the master at creating atmospheric and moody films in the late seventies and early eighties. Nothing on this earth is more atmospheric than fog, so the combination of subject and director was a recipe for a strange and eerie film. Carpenter cleverly played on the mystery of mist – the film has an ethereal mood that combined with a trademark electronic score from Carpenter, hypnotizes the audiences, before sucker punching them with some startling violence as the ghouls within the mist attack those unfortunate to be engulfed by the fog. Perhaps the film’s eighties production values – occasionally it looks like an eighties music video – have caused it to date, but The Fog is still a creepy, frightening and well written ghost story.
9. The Innocents – 1961 B/W UK
A young women appointed to care for two precocious children in a large country house, begins to be concerned for their safety when she suspects ghosts may be lurking ominously around the premises.
A testament to the power of suggestion, the considerable sense of tension in this eerie ghost story is undiminished by time. From the moment you hear the chilling opening song, forlornly sung by a young girl, the film begins to cast audiences under its creepy magic spell. The song conjures up images of sorrowful ghost children playing ring-a-roses in a darkened forest – it is an extremely haunting song that adds such mood to the film. All the characters initially appear remarkably wholesome and quaint, but as the film progresses, you see that underpinning their innocence is something potently unnerving. The film is ingeniously ambivalent – you are never quite sure whether there are actual ghosts haunting the characters or whether they exist entirely in the imagination of the increasingly frantic central character. Is it a film about ghosts or one women’s descent into madness? Who is the biggest risk to the children the ghosts, or the girl? It’s wonderfully open ended. With no effects, just eerie lighting and nerve jangling sound design, the film creates a series of understated imagery that chills to the bone. This film was a massive influence on The Others.
8. The Eye – 2002 Hong Kong
A blind girl gets a cornea transplant that allows her to see for the first time, but she slowly suspects that her new eyes have caused her to see the dead as well as the living.
Although the film does unravel with an odd ending that defuses the considerable sense of tension the film otherwise builds up throughout, The Eye is still a fantastically chilling ghost story. The story contained one of the most original ghost story concepts of the decade: the central character is just so vulnerable, as, because previously she had never experienced sight, she just assumes that the beings she encounters are ordinary folk, we know otherwise of course and our awareness of her vulnerability heightens the sense of tension in the film considerably. As the film progresses and the lost souls she encounters become stranger and more disturbed, she begins to suspect that her recent transplant has caused some terrifying abnormalities and thus a delayed sense of terror hits her. The Eye contains at least four terrifying set-pieces that are so unbearably frightening you might find yourself gnawing on your knuckles to release the tension.
7. The Changeling – 1980 U.S
A man, who recently lost his family in a horrific accident moves into an old house in an attempt to readjust back to normalcy, but he soon finds that he is not the only inhabitant of the house, and the house contains some very dark secrets.
There have been hundreds of haunted house films in cinema history, but this suspenseful example of the genre ranks as one of the best. George C Scott’s central character is a composer so it’s fitting that The Changeling has one of the most nerve jangling scores of all time. It does a wonderfully effective job at enhancing the threat that permeates each frame. It remains a pretty seminal genre classic. So many films – particularly The Others and The Sixth Sense – are massively influenced by this film. The séance scene, pivotal in revealing key details in the wonderfully layered story, has massively influenced films that followed it. It’s an intensely disturbing scene that hints at the insidious mysteries the film later reveals. The scene in which the spirit causing all the hauntings finally reveals itself, is so spine-tinglingly freaky – it stays in your brain for days afterwards. It’s also another film that shows just how frightening everyday objects can be if the director can successfully infuse the objects with the psychologically affecting sense that said objects are being controlled by forces unknown beyond the world of the living. A wet ball and a wheel chair become terrifying objects of dread within The Changeling. The story has a depth, intelligence and significance that most horror films don’t have, hinting strongly at the abuse of children at the hands of high-society that has been buried in the past. The ghost story is something of a metaphor to illustrate how some powerful men have skeletons buried in their past. It’s a cult film, but it’s such a great example of how unnerving a well-made ghost film can be – it is bewildering the film isn’t widely known.
6. Ringu. – 1998 Japan
A strange video has the power to kill anyone who views it, but how do they die?
Prior to Ringu, the idea of a night gown wearing Asian girl with long hair over hair face, didn’t exactly seem like the most frightening of images. Nakata changed all that with the skin-crawlingly terrifying climax to this film, which easily ranks as one of the best horror climaxes of all time. Sure, the rest of the film was a little scarce on scares, but the lack of shocks in the lead up to that ending, lured the audience into a false sense of security and a feeling that the film is pretty tame – just as the audience had given up on seeing anything really frightening, the film oh so suddenly sent audience jaws crashing to the floor with a shocking final scene.
When I first saw the ending to Ringu, way before it gained publicity, I was so petrified that I found myself clambering over the back of the sofa in an attempt to escape the horrors unfolding on, and potentially out of, my screen. It was inventive enough to kick-start a trend in creepy Asian ghost girls.
5. The Others – 2001 U.S/Spain
Tense, suspenseful, and eerily atmospheric, The Others was an old fashioned ghost story with a stunning difference. The ending of The Others is one of the best endings to a supernatural thriller of all time. Prior to that phenomenal finale, the film had been a moody, strange and goose-bump inducing ghost story that appeared to be a really well done re-tread of the genre conventions. The big reveal at the finale of the film however, completely transforms all the creepy build-ups that precede it, revealing that The Others is a far more original ghost story than had previously been suggested. By the end you realize that the reason why the film seemed so strange and creepy is because you have been in the company of ghosts for the entire duration of the film, without even realizing it. With the exception of the last few minutes, the whole film is populated by lost souls; it’s the reason why the film has an ethereal mood to it. Ironically, the most frightening moment features a human, in a brilliantly crafted horror set-piece; at the point she enters we perceive her to be a terrifying old hag of a ghost, as her image is something we associate strongly with death. The film is remarkably subversive of the ghost movie conventions. The powerful séance at the end is an unsettling and terrifying scene as essentially your viewing a séance from the perspective of the ghosts, ghosts who are only at that moment having the dawning and troubling realisation that they are in fact dead. You will never feel such a profound sense of sympathy for ghosts as you do watching that scene. You realize, quite starkly about how traumatizing it would be to have no inclination you are a ghost. The film becomes even more eerie on repeat viewing, as when you know you are watching ghosts, the film is even more disquieting since you are in the presence of ghosts for longer than any other film has allowed for before. You also realize the sense of tragedy going on in the film and a strong sense that to be a ghost would be such a lonely and forlorn experience. Few ghost films have been as eerie as The Others.
4. The Orphanage – 2007 Spain
A young women moves back to her family home where she decides to reopen an orphanage for disabled children. But when her son claims to have made some invisible friends she starts to investigate. An encounter with a strange masked boy makes her suspect that there might be something supernatural going on.
Spanish cinema has experienced something of a new wave in foreboding horror films in the last few years. The Orphanage was absolutely one of the most frightening films made in Spain or Europe last decade. It’s an eerily old-fashioned ghost story that gradually builds a slow-burn sense of dread and suspense.
The film ingeniously subverts the maternal instinct. The central women, a perfectly well adjusted mother at the start of the film becomes so affected by crimes against children done in the past that her instinct to nurture extends to all the children in the film – living or dead. There is something ultimately clever going on in The Orphanage, the idea that sometimes the maternal instinct can be so strong that it can override rational senses of fear and danger in order to care for wronged children. It’s unnerving to watch a sound minded women lose a grip on reality, and face the dead without fear in order to connect emotionally with children in this world, and indeed the other. She is perfectly composed when faced with ghost children, which leaves the audience incredibly on edge almost as a way of compensating for her strange calmness. Plus, the potato sack wearing masked ghost boy that pops up is a chilling horror creation as is the creepy old lady. Great horror movies and creepy old ladies are never far apart, probably as they are both close to death.
3. The Sixth Sense – 1999 U.S
A troubled young boy can see dead people.
It’s remembered now mostly for that earth shattering final twist, but twist aside, there were many more memorably shocking moments in the N Night Shyamalan’s debut film. The film is creepy and scary all the way through. Despite the considerable fear factor in The Sixth Sense, the film got a 12a certificate on its release in the UK, showing that film classification boards do not give psychological horror films the respect they deserve in terms of an ability to play on the mind of the viewers.
I first watched it as a teenager and I’ve been unable to shake some of the vivid ghostly imagery I saw in The Sixth Sense ever since. The film is generously packed full of bone-chilling ghoulish imagery. The scene with the family quietly and tragically hanging from the rafters still chills me to the bone. The ingenious decision for Shyamalan to not show the ghost with the most violent intent and instead have the scene play out behind a closed door, was and continues to be excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch. Personally, I’ve been thinking about what horrors Hayley Joel Osment’s character encountered behind that door for years. It also contained the most traumatizing scene of child vomiting since The Exorcist. Prior to that scene, children would be able to seek sanctum from the ominous dark shadows in their room and their irrational fear of ghosts, by cowering under the save haven of their duvet, like Haley Joel Osment’s character does in the film. But after that scene, there was always the lingering fear that whilst covering your head under your blankets for comfort, a pale faced, sickly child ghost could slowly enter it, and vomit vile ghost bile over your head. All this combined with Hayley Joel Osment’s permanently haunted expression was enough to make The Sixth Sense one of the most frightening ghost films ever made.
2. Dark Water – 2002 Japan
A beautifully crafted ghost story about a young, recently divorced mother struggling to keep custody of her little girl over the twin threats of her vindictive ex-husband, and also an eerie yellow raincoat clad apparition who forlornly wanders the corridors of a depressed looking apartment block.
One of the most unsettling, atmospheric and moving ghost stories of all time, Dark Water’s director gave a master-class in how to subvert the ordinary into something extraordinary. Everyday objects as seemingly innocuous as a child’s red bag or a dripping tap become sinister omens of dread in Dark Water. The film ingeniously uses water to literally drip-feed the tension. You quickly get the impression that whatever is haunting mother and child in Dark Water may well have had an aqua related death. The director anchors the association of water with the supernatural in your mind during this film, leaving himself with the suspense inducing option of using water to convey a sense of the macabre. You’ll never look at a damp patch again after experiencing Dark Water. The film is consistently skin-crawlingly edgy, and the subtlety and restrain showed early on allows the film to build an intensely frightening mood as the mysteries are slowly revealed, the shocks rapidly increase and the thing tormenting the central character finally reveals it’s motive in one of the most intensely horrifying celluloid moments you’ll ever experience. There’s a fantastically chilling moment in this where the mother, frantic with worry, offers comfort to her traumatized young child, only to discover that what she is comforting may not be of this world. Dark Water is a haunting horror masterpiece. Hideo Nakata is the only director to get two ghost films on my list.
THE SCARIEST GHOST FILM OF ALL TIME IS…
The Shining – 1980 U.S
A man and his family are assigned the task of looking after an old isolated hotel through a harsh winter. But the hotel has a history, which bears pressingly on the sanity of the family.
It might be boringly predictable for a Top Ten Ghost Movies article to have The Shining at number one, but to have anything else in the top spot would be a questionably controversial decision since The Shining is unequivocally the most frightening haunting house film in cinema history. Out of all the ominous buildings in cinema history, this is the last one I would want to spend a night in, let alone a whole winter maintaining the spooky corridors and various eerie rooms – like Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrence. They have the echoes of unspeakably evil crimes of the past imprinted in the walls. I’d take a night in The Amityville Horror house or Vincent Price’s shadowy mansion in The House on Haunted Hill before I spent any money in this particular hotel. Heck, I’d bed down at the Bates motel before I entered the hotel in The Shining. How they managed to entice any customers to this ultimately disturbing vacation spot is quite beyond me. Step into this hotel and you’re likely to see the creepiest of child twin ghosts threateningly standing in the corridor; take a bath and you might be joined by some monstrously ghoulish abomination, and try to escape by walking to the elevator and you might be washed away by a tidal wave of blood. Or perhaps – that won’t happen. Perhaps, even more horrifyingly all these things will take place in your imagination, an imagination manipulated by the various malevolent presences that occupy the hotel in which case more horrors will permeate your mind and you might find yourself with a sudden strange fondness for axes; you might decide that an axe is a perfectly acceptable tool for correction and subsequently you might wield said axe in the direction of your family, whilst ranting about a large work load you consider to be making you rather dull. Step into this hotel and like Jack Nicholson’s character you will be consumed by madness; your only company on this descent to complete mind loss will be ghosts, or perhaps ghoulish figments of your imagination. Either way you’re pretty screwed.
The more you watch The Shining, the more you feel like you are being sucked into the foreboding atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick’s macabre horror masterpiece. It’s one of the few horror films that becomes more frightening the more you watch it. Even after the shocks have been revealed countless times, it can still play on your mind. Its potency is undiminished by the thirty-two years it has been in existent; ‘RedRum’ flows through its DNA. It is the ultimate ghost film. Other ghost films can only cower in its menacing shadow – like the rest of us really.
Other recommended ghost films
The following films had um, a ghost of a chance of making my list but after much deliberating I decided to leave them just outside the Top 10.
Ju-on The GrudgeFor those who thought there wasn’t enough demented ghost girl madness in Ringu, there was Ju-on The Grudge. Japan’s take on the haunted house movie went for the jugular more than any ghost film before – bombarding the audience with wave upon wave of monstrously nightmarish ghost attacks. Some were very effective – the blank faced ghost lurking under the sheets is horrible – but the film does get quite repetitive and the story is all over the place.
Is it a ghost movie? Is it a slasher film? Is it a monster movie? Is it all of the above? Quite possibly, it gives you an idea of how unconventional a horror film The Candyman is that it is so difficult to pin to a genre. It’s also very psychologically affective. Whatever he is, if you say his name three times he comes. It’s so affective at playing on the old bloody Mary urban myth that I refuse to write the name of the film a third time for fear of consequences.
The Devil’s Backbone
This was another one that was hard to leave out. Typical of Guillermo Del Toro this is an atmospheric, creative and brilliantly crafted Spanish ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish civil war. The visual design of the ghost is particularly ghastly yet it has an artistry not seen in other ghost films, it typifies the superb art direction, but really the ghost story is something of a subplot and there really is nothing nearly as frightening as the title suggests.
House on Haunted Hill
This 1959 black and white film from William Castle starring Vincent Price, looks a little kitsch now but it still has a few quite frightening supernatural moments. Watch out for the creep crazy old lady in the basement – it’s still the stuff of nightmares.
Robert Wise’s The Haunting
Like The Innocents, this is another film that stands as an example of just what mood you can create with scary lighting and ominous sound design. There aren’t any shots of ghosts in this film, and in a way, that’s more frightening as the sound design here is exceptional at conveying a sense of a supernatural threat.
Thanks for reading. What do you think I missed then? If you have any ghost film recommendations, please leave a comment below.