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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.