The 13 most haunting films, for ghost story lovers (and another 13+ worth watching.)Posted: January 7, 2013
NOTE: Thank you for visiting one of the most popular articles at The Paranormalist. Occasionally, I will add a link, which may of particular interest to ghost lovers, to this area of the post. Also, please note that this list is updated frequently to reflect developments in the genre. This page is being updated in August, 2015…a bit at a time.
The Ghost Story Genre:
In case it’s somehow possible for you to not know it, this is my favorite sub-genre of horror. Herein are the movies that most effectively creep-me-right-the-hell-out.
This is the genre that takes its time with me, the one that subtly builds eerie, evocative worlds, then populates those worlds with unforgettable characters. I remember the sly little thrills that glimmer in the corners of these films far longer than I remember the pulse-pounding chases of other sub-genres. (I am particularly vulnerable to a figure glimpsed in a mirror, or skulking through the frame, or simply manifesting quietly behind the main action.) I love the intimate scale of ghost stories. An entire tale can unfold in the space of a single room, on a single night, for a single person.
This genre’s slow and gentle approach seduces me into believing it all, even if only for a few moments. I am addicted to the escalating sense of dread provided by these films and I’m eager to share the best of the best with you.
You’ll see I’ve departed from my strict 13-best formula a little, I had to – there are just too many gems I would have had to discard if I’d remained faithful to format. It is also likely that you’ve seen many or most of the movies on the top 13 list. (Good ghost stories tend to do well at the box office.) I expanded the selection of recommendations here so there is somewhere to go after you’ve seen the blockbusters. As with all my Courting Creepy posts, I will update as I find even more great examples.
As always: Please let me know if I’m hitting my targets squarely, and feel free (even compelled) to make suggestions for inclusion.
[Click the linked titles to see each film’s IMDb entry.]
The 13 most haunting films, for ghost story lovers:
– Though the actual ghosts in this story are eerie, it’s the living who will unsettle you – especially the child Miles and the governess, Miss Giddens (played by a gorgeous Deborah Kerr.) That said, there is at least one chilling manifestation, near the lake, that will stay with you for a long time. It was watching this movie, back in October of 2011, that set me on the path toward Courting Creepy, though I didn’t know exactly what I planned to do at the time.
– Special acknowledgement for being the movie most likely to make one think twice about holding hands with someone in the dark. If it weren’t for The Changeling (below) I might list The Haunting as the best of the best. This is a classic for so many reasons. Be prepared for a leisurely pace and subtle effects.
– Best. Ghost. Movie. Ever.
This film’s effectiveness comes from the fact that the haunted protagonist is a smart, pragmatic, mature, manly man – John Russell – who is played beautifully by the great George C. Scott. If that’s not enough for you, there’s that creepy wheelchair too.
– Special acknowledgment for implanting into my mind the ghosts that I’m most likely to hallucinate when patrolling the ever-so-long halls of the hotel on the night-shift: The Grady Girls. Despite Kubrick’s emphasis on Jack’s mental disintegration (rather than the haunts of the Overlook Hotel) the effectiveness of the ghosts themselves is not diminished. Stephen King wrote creepy ghosts, period. The key, I think is in the mysterious nature of some of the dead – one finishes the movie wanting to know more details about why the spirits roam the Overlook.
This movie has a passionate, loyal following, and for good reason: it’s a clean, classic ghost story, well told. As a bonus, it’s beautifully atmospheric. I mean, come on, how could it be anything less than awesome, considering it begins with an appealing little boy being locked into a cloakroom, where he witnesses the appearance of a mysterious apparition, on Halloween, 1962. (If you are looking for more movies set on Halloween, check out: 13 movies – set on or around Halloweentime – to watch in the 13 weeks before Halloween.)
– Is there anyone alive who hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense? There’s still some fun to be had if you view it again with the intention of pin-pointing the exact moment when you SHOULD have figured out what was going on. Better yet, find a young relative who isn’t a movie buff and watch him/her experience it for the first time. (They are easier to find than you think they’d be – my son watches no television and few movies. It’s all about gaming and the internet these days … says the old woman.)
– I know, I know. Once a movie has been parodied as much as The Blair Witch Project has, it’s hard to take it seriously. Scoff all you like, then tell me where you’re taking your summer camping trip. I’ll be sure to drop by and leave a little arts & craft project dangling from a nearby branch. We’ll see how silly this film is then. Shaky-cam be damned – this is a scary film.
– Nicole Kidman. Elegant. Understated. Refined. Creepy as hell. And the movie is too.
This is a special film. Though it’s set in a glaring, arid desert, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, this movie evokes a mood that is dark, lush and timeless. Mysteries and secrets hide in every shadow. The characters are compelling, and we understand the very human emotions and motivations behind their actions. It’s beautiful too. (This film is in Spanish.)
– I preferred The Ring over the Japanese original, Ringu. The centerpiece of both films is a videotape, and it is the American version of this movie inside the movie that gets me.
– By the time I saw this film (on DVD, in September 2012) I’d all but given up on contemporary horror and taken refuge in older movies. After watching The Orphanage, I gushed about it here. This is the film that made me realize that great horror is still being created, it’s just that you might have to look a little harder and further afield for it than you did in the past. (This film is in Spanish.)
The Awakening (2011) *new to top 13*
– This film has just edged The Amityville Horror out of the top 13. I worry that my modern sensibilities are making me demote films that I feel are are dated, but I’m soothed by the fact that this is an excellent period piece, set in 1921. Like many of my other favorites, it is a subtle, beautifully filmed story that unfolds slowly. This is especially fun for we paranormal folk, because the female lead is a paranormal investigator.
I am not a big fan of the real-life Lorraine and Ed Warren. There I said it. ‘Seems to me they have a clear agenda, and that is to assign a demonic nature to the hauntings they come across. On the way to the movie with my husband, Ogre, I shared that opinion. (He’s not well-versed in paranormal studies, and had never heard of the Warrens.) AFTER the movie, he said, “Well it’s no wonder the Warrens approved the film, considering how the studio bent over backwards to …” be so complimentary. (I’m paraphrasing that last bit – I can’t repeat what he actually said. This is a PG-13 blog.)
But this list is about the quality of a MOVIE, not how closely it parallels true-life. For that reason, The Conjuring has rocketed into my top 13 – and I expect it to stay there. The cast is stellar, the acting superb. The production values are top-notch. It’s chock-full of effective scares. It will especially appeal to anyone who grew up in the 70s (or loves the era) – the details are dead on.
After you’ve seen this movie, do me a favor and go here: When would YOU get the hell out of the house in The Conjuring? to answer my one question poll.
~ bonus ghost movies ~
The Uninvited (1944)
– This is a much-beloved movie that reliably shows up on other best horror lists. Frankly, I don’t get it. It’s not even quite bad enough to make it to the campy list below.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
– A soundtrack consisting almost entirely of pipe organ music makes me crazy, but the uncanniness of Mary’s life after she survives a car wreak, takes a job in a new town, becomes obsessed with an abandoned theme park, deals with a smarmy fellow-roomer and repeatedly encounters a mysterious, threatening stranger, is strangely compelling.
Dementia 13 (1963) – *former top-13*
– The inciting story here is a bit trite and forgettable but – thanks to the much more interesting backstory about an estate’s pond – there are some killer visuals in this movie. ‘Probably most famous for being Francis Ford Coppola’s first Director credit.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
– Special acknowledgement for most perverse ghost: Emeric Belasco. Richard Matheson adapted, and toned down, his own novel for the screenplay. Another reason to watch it: Roddy McDowell.
Burnt Offerings (1976) *new*
Karen. Black. That’s a good enough reason to watch it. Otherwise, I think it’s a bit of a slow mover with an unexpectedly shocking scene in a pool. (At least to me.) Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bloody or graphic film, but that one scene made me flinch and I still don’t like to think about it. Gotta love horror that really lingers in the mind.
The Sentinel (1977)
– Because the beginning scenes in this movie are so wooden – so reminiscent of 70s porn – my finger had half-pushed the make-it-stop button … then Burgess Meredith showed up with a cat. I set the remote aside. Several intense elements stand out in this otherwise mediocre film: the introductions of the weirdly interesting and disturbing neighbors, a quick visit from a truly terrifying apparition, and a freaky crowd scene near the end. All that said, I do like the plot of this movie – I just wish it had been made better.
The Haunting of Julia (1977) aka Full Circle *new*
– Mia Farrow stars in this haunted flat movie. Her waifish appearance and neurotic manner is perfect for the role of Julia, an American housewife who separates from her husband and moves to London after accidentally killing her own daughter in the horrifying first few minutes of the film. The unfolding of the back-story of the London ghost(s) she encounters is both puzzling and engrossing. There is a lot of (not gory) cutting and breaking going on in the movie, and I believe the ending would have made more sense to me if I had been paying closer attention to that particular motif as I watched. Part of the effectiveness of this movie comes directly from the soundtrack, by Colin Towns.
The Amityville Horror (1979) *former top-13*
– Special acknowledgement for most successful warp-age of a harmless farm-animal into a terrifying demon-creature: Jody the Pig. Not the best writing, not the best acting. But those windows! That hip-shaped roof! This film is replete with so many images and ideas that have become horror tropes that it’s a must see.
Ghost Story (1981)
– John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, Fred Astaire, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. – This film is worth watching if only to marvel at the ridiculously appealing cast of aged leading men. They make the young actors in the film almost invisible, even despite the full frontal nudity.
Poltergeist (1982) *former top-13*
– Like The Amityville Horror, this movie has become canon. Toby Hooper and Stephen Spielberg teamed up to give us a ghost movie extravaganza of special effects – which is cool, if you enjoy that sort of thing. As for me, though, I have nightmares about a simple and subtle effect — those damned kitchen chairs.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
Kevin Bacon. And who doesn’t love bacon? Seriously, this is a pretty good film which I’ve firmly wedged into this list’s sister post: 13 unsettling films – for psychological horror fans – at Halloween (or anytime.)
What Lies Beneath (2000)
– This movie stars two actors I like: Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. It’s directed by Robert Zemeckis. I remember seeing it in the theater. I’ve just read the IMDb synopsis and watched the trailer. Yet I still can’t say that it made much of an impression on me.
Session 9 (2001)
– I added this film to the list upon the suggestion of a reader. I’m still not entirely certain it belongs here, but you’ll have to decide for yourself. The question, of course, is: Does a ghost haunt this abandoned mental institution? This is an eerie, unsettling movie, and well worth watching.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
– I had a terrible time following the plot of this time-shifting movie, but I didn’t care – because the visual scares were just brilliant. Wonderful use of mirrors and peripheral vision shots. I can’t tell you my favorite scene of all without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will tell you that it involves a bed and the direction of attack. I have not seen the American remake, The Grudge.
– A ghost movie with the star power of Halle Barry, Robert Downy Jr., Penélope Cruz and Charles S. Dutton. Very smooth and professional treatment. Both pretty and scary, but not particularly memorable.
– Special acknowledgement for creepiest ghost that we also feel sorry for: The Mechanical Girl.
The Skeleton Key (2005)
– A voodoo ghost story, set in a decaying plantation house, in the bayou outside New Orleans. This movie was made for me. (I have a thing about New Orleans.) The stand-out in this film is Gena Rowlands as the eccentric and unpredictable plantation owner. She deftly switches from charming to menacing and back again throughout the movie.
White Noise (2005)
– Not a great movie for me to watch this month as I prepare to do my first EVP recordings at the old hotel, in rooms 107 & 217. This is a decent movie – though probably not as scary for some as it was for me. The EVPs heard in the opening credits are purportedly genuine.
– The axe Jack Nicholson used in The Shining has a cameo in this movie. John Cusack stars in this film which is based on a Stephen King short story. You’d think I’d adore it, but it’s a little too special effects-heavy for my taste. I love reality bending in books, but it’s hard to portray it well on film. There is much to know about this film though – after you’ve seen it, read through the IMDb trivia page for lots of fun stuff.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
– This movie has some flaws, including characters that are hard to identify with or even like, and some well-parodied special effects. (Ouija board.) Despite that, I still get the willies when Katie watches Micah sleep.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
– I have dreams in which I find rooms I didn’t know existed attached to my home. In this movie, there is a locked room in the basement that reminds me of my dreams. The Haunting In Connecticut brims with make-you-jump-out-of-your-skin moments, but I have a little trouble suspending my disbelief long enough to really enjoy it – I can’t help but wonder what good mother would allow her sick, vulnerable son to choose the creepy basement room for his own when there are several perfectly good bedrooms upstairs. (Maybe there is an element, too, of being a bit freaked out, in a not-good way, by a ghost story that shows a teenage boy being tormented. My son is 17.)
– A great all-around thriller with an involving plot, spoiled slightly by the bizarre decision to go with a Darth Maul-like makeup. Like Annie, from The Pact, this family tries to do the sensible thing when things go wonky, which makes one want to root for them.
The Innkeepers (2011) *new*
– A good movie that takes a fresh approach to about half of its content. (It’s a strange blend of familiar, even tired, haunted-location tropes combined with innovative characterizations.) Sadly, I never really connected emotionally with any of the characters, so I wasn’t drawn in as much as I should have been. That said, it was great fun for me to see a haunted hotel film. Because of this movie, I wonder about the intentions of certain obviously single guests that check into my paranormal hotel. The movie was filmed at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, in Torrington, Connecticut, which is open for business.
An American Ghost Story (2012) *new*
– This is a micro-budget ($10,000) independent film, and it shows the love its creators have for it in every shot. There is nothing new here — in fact there is at least one very old trope — but I love it anyway. No blood. No gore. Lots of creepy atmosphere, even though it’s set in a modern house. You can watch this film with anybody except, perhaps, a very young child.
The Woman in Black (2012)
– I found the last third of this film to be a bit of a let down, but that’s only because there was so much to love in the first two-thirds. Lots of wonderful atmospheric stuff, beautifully shot.
– A solid spooker, with some great imagery and a building sense of menace. To me, it feels very traditional, though it has its own flare. Turns out, “Writer C. Robert Cargill got the idea for the script from a nightmare he had after watching The Ring.” And that explains my perception, I think.
The Pact (2012) *former top-13*
– Special acknowledgement for the most kickass, yet entirely believable, female lead in a ghost story: Annie, played by Caity Lotz. Unlike so many films, where you find yourself thinking “what kind of idiot would actually go down those stairs,” it’s hard to fault Annie for her decisions and actions.
Mama (2013) *new*
– I have always been fascinated with feral children. The twist in this film, of course, is that the two very young children who must survive without human companionship are raised not by a wolf or a baboon, but by a non-corporeal entity. I wish the movie had spent more time on how the children lived alone and the way that effected them once they were recovered. The story of how Mama came to be is interesting, but then the movie takes a somewhat cloying turn at the end. Jessica Chastain does a fantastic job of showing character development in this movie as she reluctantly transforms from a happily childless rocker to a responsible parent.
~ campy fun ~
13 Ghosts (1960)
– Another William Castle production. This one was screened with special glasses that allowed a theater-goer to “see” the actual ghosts.
The Fog (1980)
– Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh. Oh my.