Top Ten: Ghost Stories

I love a good ghost story. They are without doubt my favourite strain of horror movie. Vampires are fine, werewolves are fine, psychotic killers with masks are just fine, but for me there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a ghost. As a kid I would scare myself witless with tales of the supernatural, both fictional and otherwise, aided in no small part by my father, an anthologist of Victorian ghost stories.

Cinema struggles a little with ghost stories. In literature the best of the genre are usually short stories, and some of the finest on-screen examples were a series of British TV shorts based on the stories of M.R. James (Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Lost Hearts, A Warning to the Curious). Often, in trying to fill a 90-minute running time, feature-length ghost stories can lose much in terms of atmosphere and momentum. Also, a good ghost story requires subtlety and suggestion in addition to shocks, qualities which most modern horror movies seem unable to cultivate.

Here is my list of the 10 best feature-length ghost stories. I’ve strictly limited it to scary movies, so there’s no place for the likes of Ghostbusters or Always, even though I adore those movies. After all, ghosts are meant to be scary.

I also have a question. You’ll notice that the majority of the ghosts featured here are female. Personally, I believe that women make scarier ghosts than men. I have no idea why, though. Do you agree? And if so, why do you imagine this is? I look forward to hearing your theories.

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10. Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey – 1962

Made for a paltry $33,000 dollars, and shot in just three weeks, this was director Herk Harvey’s only feature-length movie. The story follows organist Mary Henry, who begins seeing strange apparitions after surviving a traumatic car accident. As she tries to rebuild her life, Mary finds the haunting becoming increasingly worse. Harvey builds an unnerving mood, using some excellent locations. Candace Hilligoss, in the role of Mary, was the only professional actor involved in the movie and projects an iciness and detachment vital to the part, as it builds toward its final revelation. One which M. Night Shyamalan clearly remembered.

Meet the ghost: Harvey himself appears throughout as ‘The Man’, a pasty-faced, raccoon-eyed spirit with a message for Mary. And he’s not the only one after her.

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9. What Lies Beneath

Robert Zemeckis – 2000

Back when Zemeckis was still making live action pictures, he used the six-month break in filming Cast Away (so Tom Hanks could do some serious dieting) to put together this Hitchcock tribute. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer star as the couple whose lives are interrupted when Pfeiffer becomes convinced there is a ghost in their house. As she digs deeper, she begins to uncover some very dark secrets. Although it is a little heavy-handed at times, What Lies Beneath has a great atmosphere. Zemeckis fills the silence of the big, old house and its garden with unsettling sounds, making the ghostly presence felt even if it is rarely seen.

Meet the ghost: It would be giving away too much to give you the full details of this wrathful spirit. Suffice it to say she’s young, angry and nowhere near as dead as her killer would have liked.

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8. Ghost Story

John Irvin – 1981

Based on the novel by Peter Straub, the simply titled Ghost Story does just what it says on the tin. The tale is spun around four old men, who get together every week to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their number loses a son in bizarre accident, and his brother comes to them with a story of his own, they realise that the very old secret they all share has come back to haunt them. Set within a snowbound New England town, Ghost Story takes all the classic ingredients of the genre and serves them cold.

Meet the ghost: Alice Krige gives an intense and chilling turn as the vengeful Alma, probably one of the most brazen spirits in movie history. She doesn’t just go after you, but your entire family. This is one girl you don’t want to piss off. Or kill.


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7. The Eye (Gin Gwai)

Danny and Oxide Pang – 2002

Blind violinist Wong Kar Mun has a successful cornea transplant and begins seeing ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor. The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.

Meet the ghost: Actually, make that ghosts. There’s a whole buffet of grisly spirits on offer here. Highlights are a great scene in an elevator and a very angry schoolgirl. Oh, and you’ll never look at the hanging food in Chinatown the same way again.

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6. The Devil’s Backbone

Guillermo del Toro – 2001

Something of a companion piece to del Toro’s more famous Pan’s Labyrinth, since it is also set during the Spanish civil war, The Devil’s Backbone is a rich and complex tale of a boy, Carlos, who arrives at an orphanage while his father fights in the war. Carlos finds himself involved in the nefarious plans of one of the orphanage’s staff and attracts the attention of a resident ghost, who warns Carlos of impending disaster. A great ghost story and much more besides.

Meet the ghost: Wandering the orphanage and watching events from a distance, Santi is just one of the mysteries waiting to be solved in The Devil’s Backbone. With the help of minimal special effects, Santi carries the haunting signs of his murder with him, in the form of an ever-bleeding wound.

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5. The Fog

John Carpenter – 1980

Carpenter, a huge fan of ghost stories, gave the genre his all with this tale of drowned mariners returning to the coastal town of Antonio Bay, 100 years after they were betrayed. Originally intended as a straight ghost story, Carpenter was unsatisfied with the finished result and re-shot large parts, upping the violence somewhat but still retaining the brooding atmosphere and sense of foreboding that mark out the best of the genre. It even starts with a ghost story from John Houseman, a prelude to his role in…Ghost Story.

Meet the ghost: More a crew of ghosts and a ghost ship. For the most part Blake and his men are shadowy figures, masked by the fog, and they’re all the creepier for it. Something the creators of the dismal remake failed to grasp.


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4. Ju-on: The Grudge

Takashi Shimizu – 2003

The third in Shimizu’s Ju-on series, but the first to get an international theatrical release, The Grudge centres on a cursed house and the characters who come into contact with it over varying timelines, usually to their extreme detriment. Complex, layered and often disturbing, The Grudge is also very, very creepy. This one will definitely make you feel less safe under your covers, which is traditionally where you are supposed to feel safe. Neat trick. The movie spawned an American remake and further sequels but this remains the finest.

Meet the ghost: Another movie boasting more than one spectral star, including another little boy. However, it is the crawling, bloodied woman, Kayako, who sticks most in the mind as the final credits roll.

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3. The Haunting

Robert Wise – 1963

Based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise’s movie sees paranormal investigator Dr. Markway invite a carefully selected, eclectic group of people to spend several nights with him at the supposedly haunted Hill House. Almost immediately the group are besieged by a series of terrifying things that go bump in the night, all of which seem to focus on the shy, reclusive Eleanor. Wise makes sure that it is what you don’t see that scares you. Never has thumping on a door or voices heard through a wall been so utterly spine-tingling. Just make sure you stick with the original rather than Jan de Bont’s laughable 1999 remake.

Meet the ghost: Or not. The Haunting leaves the finer details to your imagination, and it works beautifully.

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2. Ringu

Hideo Nakata – 1998

Journalist Reiko Asakawa’s niece dies, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape. Reiko views the tape herself and is warned, by way of a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After catching her son watching the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, race against the clock to discover the secret behind the cursed video. A hugely influential movie, Ringu is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ringu slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment.

Meet the ghost: Sadako is one of the scariest ghosts ever committed to film. Although she is very rarely seen until the end, her reputation is cleverly crafted beforehand, priming you for her grand entrance. And what an entrance it is.

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1. The Woman in Black

Herbet Wise – 1989

The Woman in Black is a little known (and hard to find) English TV movie, based on the novel by Susan Hill. A lawyer is sent to a coastal town to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow. Once there, he finds the locals reluctant to discuss both her and the mysterious woman who sometimes appears around the town. Deciding to go alone to the widow’s house and unravel the truth, he attracts the attention of something utterly malevolent. If you enjoy an old fashioned spine-chiller you won’t find anything better than this on film. It is the perfect ghost story. This year’s Hammer produced remake has a lot to live up to.

Meet the ghost: She’s glimpsed only a few times and yet remains a constant presence. And when she does appear, particularly in a scene toward the end, The Woman in Black is terrifying.

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41 people thought reading “Top Ten: Ghost Stories” would be a good idea. Stranger still, they left messages...

  1. rtm

    Hi Richard, you are absolutely right that there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a ghost, that’s why I won’t see any of these. I might check out Paranormal Activity one day though. Btw, a lot of Japanese ghost stories are definitely very, very scary. My home country Indonesia also produced a lot of terrifying ones (based on what my friends said), so I’d avoid those like a plague.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Awww, Ruth. You’re missing some real gems here. I should have tried to find a ghost story with Timothy Dalton in it to try and win you over. ;-)

      I’d be very interested in seeing some of those Indonesian ghost stories if you can suggest some titles to me. Always on the lookout for a good scare. :-D

      Reply
      1. rtm

        Ha..ha.. Dalton was in a horror movie Possession but even he would not entice me to see it :) I don’t really have any Indo horror flick to recommend, besides, I don’t think there is an English subtitles in it for you to understand what it’s about. Here’s a good source if you’re interested in Asian horror flick in general: http://www.asian-horror-movies.com You have nerves of steel Rich!

        Reply
        1. Novroz

          You’re replying at the same time as I am Ruth ;)

          The good Indonesian horror flick is Jelangkung for the new one, the rest are trash. The old ones with Suzana were incredibly scary, I remembered being afraid to go to the toilet because I was afraid a hand would appear from the toilet just like in the movie. But that was when I was still in elementary, it might not be that scary anymore if I watch it now

          Reply
        2. Richard Post author

          Thanks for the link, Ruth. I’ll beef up the to-watch list with that. :-)

          I’m not sure I have nerves of steel. I just enjoy the thrill of a scary movie. Trouble is, so few of them scare me these days. Sucks.

          Reply
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  3. Margaret Reyes Dempsey

    Great post, Rich. You already know my opinion of “The Woman in Black” so I won’t beat that horse. ;-)

    “Ghost Story” sounds like something I’d like. And I have to say once again that your screenplay “Dark Road” left me chilled to the bone.

    Reply
  4. susan gibbons

    The woman in black has got to be the scariest film I have ever seen and although I haven’t seen it for years it still sticks in my mind. I also agree with Margaret that “Dark Road” was really creepy and should be made into a film. So any filmmakers out there looking for a good script to film, take note.

    Reply
  5. Novroz

    Great list Richard :)
    I’m glad you choose all the original Japanese/Taiwanese Horror than the remake. To tell you the truth, I would have stop reading if the remakes are in your list ;)

    I agree that Ju-On 3 is the best of all. I watched the 4th but not too exciting. I would include the others if this is my list.

    As for Indonesian Horror (continuing your talk with Ruth), I am not sure if they had subtitled the movies. But don’t get mix up with nowadays Indonesian Horror flicks…all of them are nothing but trash. The old ones are still the best.
    Have you heard of UNINVITED? it was said that that movie is a remake of Indonesian horror flick called Jelankung.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      I’m glad you carried on reading, Novroz. :-)

      There were two films which nearly made this list, but had to be sacrificed. One was a 1944 movie called The Uninvited, and the other was a Korean movie called A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) which was remade in 2009 as The Uninvited. I looked up Jelankung, and it’s an Indonesian movie from 2001, also known as The Uninvited. Popular title. A Jelankung is a wooden puppet used to summon spirits, apparently. Cool. :-)

      Reply
      1. Novroz

        Hahaha the title is so popular! I didn’t know that.

        Jelankung is kinda like quija board. That movie is pretty scary. After Jelangkung, none of Indonesian Horror flicks are good to watch :(

        Reply
  6. Anna

    I loved the Devil’s Backbone but didn’t get What Lies Beneath. TBF I missed the first 10 minutes of it, since I watched it on tv (I never ever do that, watch a film if I haven’t seen the beginning but I was bored) so maybe I missed something. Pfeiffer’s hot though.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      This is what happens when you break your own rules of movie viewing. It was a bit of a twisty-turny movie, though. :-)

      Reply
  7. joem18b

    jeez i’m feeling kind of wimpy here, with favorite ghosts like Capt. Daniel Gregg and Pete Sandidge and Marion and George Kirby. And Charlie B. Barkin.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      And well you should, my friend. Add Sam Wheat and Casper to the list and your journey toward the dark side will be complete. ;-)

      Actually, I did consider a companion piece to this post with my top ten non-threatening ghosts. Some of those names would have made it. But not Charlie B. Barkin.

      Reply
      1. Cynthia

        Loved the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, had the worst crush on Edward Mulhare as a child – even watched the Gidget Goes to New York movie to get more of him. Richard, I enjoyed reading your list, but will trust your judgment – I cannot watch horror / terror films, I get nightmares. Love reading MR James and le Fanu, as you rightly point out, one’s own imagination is so much more terrifying than any explicit special effect will ever be. Somehow, the stories don’t give me nightmares like a graphic visual will.

        Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          I’m the opposite, I guess. No movie visual can scare me the way my own imagination can while reading a story. I think that’s why I prefer the less is more approach in movies. Ghosts and special effects rarely sit well together. On-camera is best.

          Thanks for reading my list, Cynthia. :-)

          Reply
  8. joem18b

    and while on the subject of male and female in horror movies, maybe you could answer this question for me: when a female person makes the change to female werewolf, does she develop six or eight additional teats, or what?

    Reply
      1. Cynthia

        Not wholly scientific, but if you look at Shakira’s Loba video, it would appear no such change occurs – the manicure grew rapidly though, red paint and all, which I thought was a neat trick.

        Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          I never imagined this post would lead to a discussion on she-wolf teats and Shakira’s nail care. Wondrous diversions. :-)

          Reply
  9. Dan

    Right, The Woman In Black is on the top of my to-see list because I too am a huge fan of a good ghost story. There’s a couple missing from this list that I do like a lot – The Changeling and more recently Stir of Echoes. If The Blair Witch Project counts that would be in my top 10.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Good luck trying to find a copy of The Woman in Black, Dan. Bootleg copies on Ebay are about all that’s left these days.

      Tha Changeling nearly made the list, but I wasn’t that impressed with Stir of Echoes. And while I enjoyed Blair Witch Project, I thought it was one of those rare examples of less being less, rather than more. I actually thought it left a little too much to the imagination. Scary movie, though.

      Reply
      1. Dan

        I think Blair Witch still stands out for me for being one of the first to employ the POV perspective that has become so popular since. The scene when the children start attacking the tent is terrifying!

        Is The Woman In Black ever played on TV – I would expect it to turn up on ITV 3 or 4 sometime.

        Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          Unfortunately you may have a long wait, Dan. I read that Universal now own the broadcast and DVD rights to the movie, and are sitting on it since they have a distribution deal with Hammer over the new version out this year. Whether they’ll cash in after the new version’s release remains to be seen.

          Reply
  10. Josh

    Nice list, a few of these I haven’t seen though. However, The Devil’s Backbone is in my Netflix queue and I do want to eventually get around to seeing The Woman in Black. I’d also mention The Orphanage, The Others, and The Sixth Sense.

    And if you want to count them: Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity and The Shining.

    Also, if you want to go a different route – ghost stories that aren’t scary, but still good ghost stories: A Christmas Carol and Ghostbusters.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Welcome, Josh. Thanks for reading. :-)

      All of your suggestions made the shortlist except The Shining, which I’m not a big fan of. The Orphange was okay, but disappointing toward the end and is totally outshone by The Devil’s Backbone (which I hope you enjoy). I did think about A Christmas Carol, but since I was doing scary I kept coming back to the fact that there hasn’t been a truly scary interpretation yet. Let’s face it, Marley’s ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Future are prime for scares. ;-)

      Reply
      1. Josh

        I was thinking about that point about A Christmas Carol too. I bet they could make a very awesome horror movie if they truly dove into the scary aspect of A Christmas Carol. Though, you just have to wonder: is the story itself too played out at this point to truly be effective?

        Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          That’s never stopped anyone churning out another one. I’d love to see a version playing up the fear factor. I mean, let’s fact it, A Christmas Carol is about someone being scared into changing. Or is that too cynical? :-)

          Reply

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