The oldest horror stories are probably ghost stories, about the souls of the dead coming back to haunt us. Maybe we wronged them, maybe they wronged us, but there is unfinished business and the only way to put an end to the nightmare is to confront our pasts and admit to our shames. And ghost or no ghost, that’s scary as hell.
Ghost stories may have originated around a campfire, but ghost movies have populated the multiplex as well for over a century. Some of the best movies ever made have been tales of the supernatural, and that’s why – with films like Crimson Peak and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension coming out this Halloween season – we wanted to know: What are the best ghost movies ever?
We polled our critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to find out which film, if they could only pick one, represent the height of this spooky genre. They all skewed towards the classics, but as usual, none of them could agree. Find out what they picked as the best ghost movies ever and come back next week for another highly debatable installment of Crave’s The Best Movie Ever!
The Best Ghost Movies List
Brian Formo’s Pick: The Innocents (1961)
20th Century Fox
There was a time when virgins did not survive in horror movies, and often their undoing came from the puritanical torment of not being able to do it. Obvious examples of this pre-Scream phenomena are Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. A less obvious example is Jack Clayton and Truman Capote’s The Innocents. The Innocents, which Capote adapted from Henry James’ Turning of the Screw, seems to solely be about ghosts, but there’s some serious repression and a feminine recoil to the promiscuous boasting of men that gives the film an extra meaning to what we do in the shadows.
And there are shadows here, my friends. The Innocents is one of the most evocatively shot horror films of all time. Color was already standard for film by 1961, yes, but this gothic tale was shot in black and white. It heightens the creepy shadows and makes the candle flickers look much more unpredictable, sure, but it also highlights the silliness of puritanism or any belief system that is staunchly black and white, right and wrong. Such systems that block and shame desire manifest themselves in other forms, and in The Innocents that repression manifests itself as ghosts. A governess (a career best Deborah Kerr) believes that the spirits of the grounds previous servants will inhabit the bodies of the children in the house. The governess begins to have ghostly sightings almost immediately after pushing aside her desire for the Uncle (Michael Redgrave), whose robust tales of fornication make her pearly skin become rouge (even visible in black and white!).
We do see ghosts in Clayton’s film, but we never actually know if they are actually there or just in the mind of the governess. And that is the eeriest effect imaginable in one of the eeriest films ever made. The Innocents is a horror film that elevates the woman-going-crazy sub-genre because we never actually know if she’s crazy.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: The Haunting (1963)
Sometimes I wonder if the whole concept of ghosts is a symptom of our imperfect minds, which seek patterns where there are none to be found, and project greater meaning on shadows in the dark. You are alone in the house, you hear a noise you can’t quite make out, and you automatically assume it’s the grim specter of a murdered resident, or your vengeful relative, or something else that’s out to get you… you… YOU.
To that end, I think the best ghost stories are less about the ghosts and more about how people respond to them, whether or not the phantoms are – in the context of the story – actually “real.” And so I can state with absolute confidence that, more than 50 years later, we still haven’t told a better cinematic ghost story than Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting, about a group of impressionable people invited to a haunted house to investigate its strange history.
Shot in ghoulish black and white and painted in uncomfortable angles, this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s horrifying novel is full of mysteries and portent. There’s dread in the halls and walls of Hill House, and watching the terror and morbid fascination befall our heroes is frightening and twisted. But this film belongs first and foremost to Julie Harris, who begins to think she belongs in this crumbling facade. We watch her lose her mind, thinking she’s only just now finally found it, and we weep when she realizes just seconds too late that maybe this haunting was all in her mind.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t. The house got what it wanted, after all. The unanswered questions linger, and the fear sticks to it, forever.
Witney Seibold’s Pick: The Shining (1980)
What are ghosts if not memories? The notion of a haunting is based in the idea that a place (a house, a hotel, a museum, etc.) can “remember” the events that took place inside of it. So when you enter a haunted place, you’re not merely walking into a room that’s full of disembodied human souls. You’re walking into, essentially, the subconscious brain of a building. You are seeing the dreamlike echoes of what it witnessed in the past. Sometimes you see its good dreams (parties, drinks, trysts), although more often, you witness its violent nightmares, its dark obsessions, its hurtful impulses. If a house has enough bad dreams, it becomes a violent being unto itself.
The film that most vividly captures this notion is most assuredly Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King, and one of the best of all horror movies. A family moves into a distant, empty Colorado hotel to look after it during the winter months, only to find that dad (a sublime Jack Nicholson) begins behaving oddly, and young Danny begins having visions of people who may have died there in the past. What I love about The Shining is that the ghosts reflect fewer direct corollaries to past events than you might think. We see a random, out-of-sequence series of… things. As if the hotel were recalling various past parties in a somnolent haze. But the hotel knows that these things were violent. Hence the elevator of blood. The skeletons.
King notoriously objected to this version of The Shining, insisting that his book was about the dissolving of a family unit (as well as the psychic powers) and not necessarily about the haunting itself. Kubrick retained King’s domestic angst, but transformed it into something larger, stranger, and, frankly, better.
Let us know what you believe are the best ghost movies ever in the comment section below!
Top Photos: MGM/20th Century Fox/Warner Bros.
The Longest Running Horror Movie Franchises
The Longest-Running Horror Franchises
Saw (Seven Films)
The Howling (Eight Films)
Hellraiser (Nine Films)
Halloween (Ten Films)
Coffin Joe (Eleven Films)
Friday the 13th (Twelve Films)
Witchcraft (Thirteen Films)
1313 (Fourteen Films)
Amityville (Fourteen Films)
Godzilla (Thirty Films)