It’s no secret that I love a good ghost story. Among the ranks of demons, vampires, werewolves, psychopaths, and all the other nasties that haunt our media and our collective nightmares, ghosts have always held a special place in my heart. They’re timeless and atmospheric, figures as embedded in our own psyches as they are in our folklore. They are intrinsically tied to our very real anxieties (and, perhaps, our hopes) about what waits beyond the veil; our fear of letting go of what we’ve lost; our preoccupation with the mingling of past and present. There’s a sort of romanticism to ghost stories, whether it originates from the existential questions and subliminal fears and desires they evoke or the Gothic tropes in which they’re so frequently mired.
In honor of the incipient Halloween season, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten essential ghost movies. They span from modern to classic, frightening to romantic. You might be surprised at some of my inclusions—and, for that matter, exclusions—but I can promise that each of these films beautifully captures the spirit of the quintessential ghost story (pun intended) and is well worth repeated viewings.
Presented in ascending order, here are my top ten. Enjoy!
10. The Woman in Black (2012)
Solicitor and newly widowed father Arthur Kipps is sent to settle the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, a reclusive woman whose home—the hulking and dilapidated Eel Marsh House—is accessible only when the tides recede enough to allow for passage over a narrow road through the marshes. Meanwhile, the townsfolk live in fear of sightings of a spectral woman in black whose appearances precede local children’s imminent, violent deaths. Based on Susan Hill’s novella of the same title, the film is rife with classic haunted house scares and steeped in ghostly atmosphere. Daniel Radcliffe’s unlikely performance as a grief-stricken husband faced with the very real fear of raising his son alone lends an emotional weight that anchors the film and realistically drives Kipp’s journey toward its frightening resolution. This one flew a bit under the radar but is well worth the watch.
9. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Upon returning from unexplained treatment at a psychiatric facility, teen Su-Yi is glad to be reunited with little sister Su-Yeon, with whom she shares a close bond. But tensions soon rise between the girls and their new stepmother—who also happens to be their dead mother’s former live-in nurse. With their father oblivious, Su-Yi positions herself as Su-Yeon’s protector against the strict and psychologically abusive stepmother. As they become locked in a battle of wills, a series of bizarre occurrences and frightening apparitions escalate the conflict to a shattering climax. There’s an American remake of this Korean horror drama (2009’s The Uninvited—no relation to wonderful 1944 film of the same title) starring Elizabeth Banks and Emily Browning; but it’s nowhere near as good as the original.
8. A Christmas Carol (1984)
Okay, so it may not have quite the same Halloween crossover appeal as The Nightmare Before Christmas; but it’s easy to forget that the Dickens classic is, in essence, a ghost story. What’s more, it actually has some genuinely creepy moments. Scrooge’s moral redemption tour is kicked off by an encounter with the chain-dragging, eternally damned specter of former partner Jacob Marley, who heralds the three ghosts that will be his guides. Marley is frightening both in appearance and in what he represents, as is the Ghost of Christmas Future. The part that really scared me as a kid, though, is the bit of nastiness at the end of Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present…
(The 1984 version, starring George C. Scott, is my favorite of the many adaptations.)
7. The Ring (2002)
When journalist Rachel’s niece dies suddenly, her investigation leads to an unmarked VHS tape said to cause its victims to die exactly seven days after viewing its disturbing contents. Her search for answers becomes increasingly dire as she and her young son fall under the tape’s curse. This film kicked off a slew of Japanese horror imports and introduced American audiences to the trope of the stringy-black-haired ghost girl; and I’d argue that it remains the best of the bunch. The climax features what may be the most frightening moment in modern horror history—an image that, once seen, will likely be seared into your nightmare reel pretty much forever.
6. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Haunted by the suicide of a former patient, a child psychologist vows to help a boy with an identical ailment: he claims to “see dead people.” Even without the infamous twist ending (which, let’s be honest, was pretty damn phenomenal the first time you saw it), The Sixth Sense is a great ghost movie. It’s frightening, moving, and at times genuinely funny. Say what you will about Shyamalan’s subsequent work. This one remains not only a cultural zeitgeist, but also a masterpiece of modern horror.
5. The Others (2001)
As much a domestic drama as it is a ghost story, The Others features a young mother struggling with the stress and isolation of raising her children—both of whom suffer from a rare and deadly “allergy to light”—while waiting for her husband to return from WWII. A trio of servants arrives to help ease her burden; but soon thereafter, unexplained disturbances begin to transform the darkness meant to protect the children into a haven for something more sinister. Henry James’ influence is palpable in this frightener, which is brimming with more traditional scares than The Innocents (see below), but which simmers with the same slow-burning, psychologically thrilling flare.
4. The Haunting (1963)
Eleanor is an introverted dreamer who has spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. Guilt-ridden after her mother’s death but finally ready for an adventure of her own, she joins an anthropological study of a reputedly haunted house. The whole group is frightened by the undeniably supernatural phenomena they experience; but Eleanor in particular begins to fall under Hill House’s thrall, as the house—increasingly a sentient character in its own right—seems to direct its interest and will toward her. This faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (still arguably the best and most influential haunted house novel of all time) has almost none of the special effects, jump scares, or gore saturating today’s horror films…but it will still scare the shit out of you.
(Yes, there’s a remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson. No, we will not speak of that atrocity.)
3. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Rumors that Gull Cottage is haunted by the ghost of a sea captain don’t prevent young widow Lucy from moving in with her daughter. Salty rogue Captain Gregg indeed shows up to frighten Lucy away, but the two end up striking a begrudging agreement to tolerate each other’s presence. When financial woes arise, Gregg suggests he dictate his memoir to Lucy to publish and sell—and their new partnership begins to shift into something more romantic. Screw Ghost. This is the best supernatural romance of all time. There’s a reason it’s rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (spoiler alert: it’s pretty much perfect).
2. The Innocents (1961)
A young woman accepts a position as governess to two children at a remote estate called Bly. She is instantly enchanted by her charges, the charming Flora and Miles, but begins to suspect that something is amiss when the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disquieting. Are the children conspiring with—or even possessed by—spirits from Bly’s past? Or are her suspicions the result of her own unraveling psyche? Based on the classic Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw—and sticking close to its source material—The Innocents relies on subtext and innuendo rather than spectacle to incite its most unsettling moments. The payoff is well worth it.
1. The Uninvited (1944)
Composer Roderick Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela purchase Windward House on impulse, hoping to find some peace and quiet on the seaside cliffs of Cornwall. Instead, they are plagued by a ghostly and increasingly malevolent presence in their new home—a presence whose focus seems to be the young Stella Meredith: daughter of the home’s previous occupants and recent object of Rick’s affection. A classic haunted house story, The Uninvited tempers its scares (and indeed, there are some truly chilling moments) with romance, humor, and good-old-fashioned mystery as the Fitzgeralds sleuth into Windward’s past for answers. I could go on at length about this one, but instead I’ll just urge you to see it. The Uninvited is not only my favorite ghost movie—it’s one of my all-time-favorite movies, period.
(It’s also a rare instance of a film adaptation surpassing its source material—in this case, Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold.)