For as long as there have been stories, there have been ghosts. So it only makes sense that there have been ghosts for as long as there have been movies.
Every other horror movie seemingly deals with the undead in some way, but ghosts are a special breed. They're frequently just as pitiful as they are scary, aimless spirits who only seek to tidy up the business they left behind on Earth. However, some are malevolent, angry forces whose rage was powerful enough to tie them to the mortal plane. In both cases, they provide the perfect excuse for filmmakers to make movies where creepy things suddenly appear and make you jump out of your seat.
With The Quiet Ones opening soon, we combed through horror history and pulled out 10 of the scariest ghost movies ever made. These are not necessarily the best ghost movies (although some of them would certainly fit that bill), but they are the ones that are forever burned into our nightmares.
One final note: in order to qualify for this list, the film had to specifically deal with ghosts. So no demons or possessions or monsters or zombies. We're talking about transparent wraiths and creepy dead kids who want the current owners of the house to solve their murder and what-not.
The Haunting (1963)
There were ghost movies before Robert Wise's The Haunting, but none that felt so visceral and so modern. Countless horror movies that followed owe everything to this black-and-white masterpiece, which backs up its scares with a sense of Hollywood scale and class that has practically vanished in modern horror movies. Interestingly, the film has only gotten scarier over the years. We're conditioned to see older films like this and expect tame scares, so when things get intense and harrowing in the midst of an otherwise traditionally shot film, it's truly blindsiding. This may be the definitive haunted-house movie, a classic that every horror fan should see to complete their genre education.
The Changeling (1980)
Like The Haunting, there's a sense of class in every frame of The Changeling. The story may hit its fair share of familiar beats (Ghost child! Objects that move on their own!), but director Peter Medak and and star George C. Scott emphasize chills over jump scares and gore, crafting a simple and straightforward tale that feels like it was woven around a campfire. A mystery in a haunted-house shell, The Changeling manages to craft a terrifying story even though the ghost at the center of the story is a victim reaching out to the living to solve his murder. Scott is the glue that holds it all together -- when an actor as tough and assured as him gets scared, the only possible reaction is to follow suit.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece has amassed quite the reputation over the years, but there's a reason The Shining continues to endure to this day. Deliberately paced and written without any kind of discernible structure, the film works because it throws the audience into an uncomfortable and odd rhythm from frame one, forcing you to adapt to a story that cannot be predicted or understood. Kubrick knows that the unknown will always be scarier than the known and he withholds any concrete explanation as to why the spirits that haunt the Overlook Hotel would transform Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance into a raving maniac. The surreal images will give you a jolt, but it's the implication that this will happen again and gain that gets under your skin and stays there.
I say this at the risk of sounding like an old man, but they really don't make 'em quite like this anymore. Poltergeist represents the best kind of mainstream horror moviemaking, a PG movie that plays to families and horror buffs with equal power. Although he only acted as a producer, Steven Spielberg's fingerprints can be felt all over this classic tale of "ghosts kidnap young girl, family ventures into netherworld to bring her back." There's a sense of fun and adventure that gels perfectly with Tobe Hooper's grisly menace, making this the rare horror movie that actually seems (kind of, sort of) like it would be fun to experience.
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Few filmmakers have the imagination of Guillermo del Toro and The Devil's Backbone represents him at the height of his powers. A humane and haunting ghost story, del Toro melds his love of history and horror to craft a horror movie that manages to be unsettling and surreal while having both feet planted firmly in reality. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the film follows a young kid sent away to a remote orphanage to stay away from danger, only to find himself embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy involving his nation's politics and the truly creepy ghost kid who haunts the area. Under del Toro's direction, familiar beats are feel totally fresh and the potentially cliched ghost becomes a masterpiece of horror makeup and design.
The Others (2001)
It's a shame that The Others has become more known for its twist ending than everything that preceded it because the entire package is one of the best ghost movies in cinematic history. Granted, that twist ending is brilliant, informs the rest of the screenplay, and takes the entire concept of a ghost story and turns it on its head, so it's no wonder people only remember that part. But there's so much more going on beneath plot machinations. Like so many of the best ghost movies, this is a bloodless affair, a movie that concentrates on atmosphere to deliver. And man oh man, The Others has atmosphere to spare.
Like so many Japanese horror films, the plot of Pulse is pure nonsense. But like so many Japanese horror films, the plot of Pulse is secondary to all of the truly terrifying on-screen occurrences that will haunt your nightmares forever. The story has something to do with ghosts invading the living world through the Internet and triggering the apocalypse, but you won't remember that. You will remember the ghost that moves with an unnatural slowness. You will remember the brutal suicide that looks waaay too real. You will remember the insane imagery of the third act, even if you don't remember the cause. Skip the American remake -- this is the version worth seeing.
The Eye (2002)
Forget about the lousy 2008 remake -- the original version of The Eye directed by the Pang brothers is only version of this story worth your time. The setup is as clever as any horror movie, following a young blind woman who undergoes a radical eye transplant and gets more than she bargained for along with her newfound sight. Now able to see the undead, our heroine embarks on a journey to understand her newfound connection with the undead and, along the way, she gets tormented every 10 minutes or so by some of the most effective jump scares ever committed to film. Seriously, make sure you go to the bathroom before you watch this because there are few films so committed to forcing you to have an unfortunate accident.
The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage is a genuinely terrifying movie, but the horror acts as a buffer between the audience and the truly tragic core of the story. You're so busy jumping out of your seat that you don't notice that your heart is breaking until it's too late. Like The Changeling, The Orphanage is built around a supernatural entity that has no malevolent intent, so the scares come from director J.A. Bayona's truly creepy visuals and tone. Take away the horror aspects and you're left with a powerful drama about a shattered family. The fact that the final film is as terrifying as it is only doubles the pleasure -- this is a great movie even when you strop the genre elements away.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Ti West's The Innkeepers is one of the most disarming horror movies ever made. Jumping from screwball comedy to all-out horror show on a scene-by-scene basis, the film sets you up for its handful of truly terrifying scenes with tons of witty banter and slacker humor. Following two hotel employees in the days before their (supposedly) haunted historic hotel closes its doors, West takes his time getting to the actual ghost story, but the wait is worth it. When the s**t hits the fan and the humor evaporates and the tension ramps up, you realize that all of the jokes that made you care about the characters in the first place were just part of an elaborate setup to get you personally invested in every story beat. There are few horror movies that invite you to empathize with the characters quite like this and it all pays off when they start fighting for their lives.
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