Prepare to jump out of your seat if you plan on seeing The Woman in Black this weekend in theaters. The surprisingly scary PG-13 horror thriller stars Daniel Radcliffe as a young London lawyer who journeys to a small village to settle the affairs of a deceased woman whose mansion strikes fear into the hearts of locals and prompts them to lock up their children for safekeeping. According to legend, the Woman in Black is the ghost of a scorned woman unable to save her child from drowning. Whenever she is seen, a child dies soon after.
Ghosts have been go-to subjects for cinematic scares for decades. One of the most frightening is 1963's The Haunting in which a group of people stay at an old mansion called Hill House with a sinister past to investigate paranormal activity. The movie was later remade into a stinker starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the original is a classic creep show. The same goes for 1961's The Innocents, in which Deborah Kerr applies to be a governess at a mansion where she begins to believe the children are possessed by spirits. The story was later adapted into The Others, an old-fashioned ghost tale starring Nicole Kidman as the head of the manor who thinks her children are allergic to sunlight.
Some of the scariest ghost tales involve people that seem to be haunted, like little Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people everywhere. In Poltergeist, the Freeling family has to endure repeated supernatural attacks because the ghost of a dead evil preacher wants the life force of young Carol Anne, who must evade his otherworldly grasp for two more sequels. In the more recent Insidious, a young boy slips into a coma by getting lost in the Further—a dark world between worlds—and attracts some nasty entities that want to possess his body. Speaking of entities, Barbara Hershey is repeatedly raped by an invisible attacker in The Entity, based on the true story of a California woman named Carla Moran. Likewise, the sisters Katie and Kristi in the three Paranormal Activity films have had angry ghosts follow them their entire lives.
Americans don’t have a corner on the market where ghosts are concerned. Many other cultures, especially Asian ones, have classic folklore involving the spirit world. It's not surprising that so many Japanese horror films like Ringu and Ju-on have had English-language remakes. Can anyone look at a VHS tape the same way after Naomi Watts saw that little black-haired girl crawl out of the TV in The Ring and The Ring 2? Another sinister black-haired ghost woman and her ghost son curse anyone who comes into the home where they were murdered in the three The Grudge movies. Forget about the American version of The Eye starring Jessica Alba, though. Check out the freaky 2002 pan-Asian film of the same name directed by the Pang brothers in which a woman starts to see ghosts after a cornea transplant. The tragic Spanish chiller The Orphanage about the ghosts of dead children haunting a dilapidated orphanage is also slated for an unnecessary English-language redo.
If we are to believe Hollywood, spectral visitors want one thing above all others: revenge. In the underrated 1999 film Stir of Echoes starring Kevin Bacon, a murdered girl tries to reveal the truth of her demise to the current owners of the house where she died. In the Hitchcockian What Lies Beneath, Michelle Pfeiffer gets signals from beyond the grave that her picture-perfect husband (Harrison Ford) isn't what he appears to be. The ghosts that come ashore in John Carpenter's chilling The Fog seek revenge for being shipwrecked on the rocks and lingering in any icy grave for a century. In the case of the titular character in Candyman who was slathered in honey by locals and stung to death by bees for loving a white woman, the slasher and his hooked hand show up when you say his name five times in the mirror.
For sheer ghostly ghastliness and genuine scares, no ghost story will ever top Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as a caretaker and convinces his wife and young son to spend the winter at the Overlook Hotel, but all work and no play soon makes Jack a raving lunatic. Ghosts start to appear everywhere, including two creepy twin girls who were killed with an ax, a naked old woman who hides in one of the rooms and tries to strangle you, a bartender who doesn't give Jack the best advice about handling his family, and a slew of long-dead guests still partying like it's 1921. The 1980 horror classic featuring an elevator that holds back a lake of blood and a snowy hedge maze of terrors still makes one's hair stand on end.