Winter is a time for ghosts. The dark nights and colder weather make it perfect for cosying up in your armchair for a good ghost story – on page or screen.
The telling of such tales is a pastime that stretches back long before the advent of cinema, with the festive ghost story defined as far back as Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.
This tradition outlasted the Victorian period in the work of writers such as M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, and later with TV adaptations of their works – notably in the BBC’s annual strand of Ghost Stories for Christmas, which spooked late-night audiences throughout the 1970s.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Although many of us no longer have open fires to send flickering shadows across our living rooms, we still have a huge appetite for spooky film and TV. Anything to fill that long reach of nights between Halloween and Christmas, then on into the bleak, dead days of January.
It’s a time of year when ghosts take on a particularly visceral character. As Scrooge himself asks in one film adaptation of Dickens’ famous fable: “Are these the shadows of things that must be?”
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
No list of winter ghost stories would be complete without a version of A Christmas Carol. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 adaptation is undoubtedly the best, rendering the famous ghosts of Christmas past, present and future with richly gothic detail. The plot follows the eponymous Ebenezer Scrooge, the skinflint humbug of London town who requires help from several spectres to remind him of the true meaning of Christmas.
Scrooge is played by the wonderful Alastair Sim, who brings a winning mix of warm comedy and natural, winking pathos to the role. But he also gives some of the typically darker sequences an enjoyably unnerving tone. Take the ghost of Christmas future’s foretelling, which is shot in full-blown horror style by the miser’s empty graveside. As he begs the ghost, “Tell me I’m not already dead…”, Scrooge’s whimpers are still surprisingly eerie.
The Haunting (1963)
Director: Robert Wise
Director Robert Wise read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, when he was in the final stages of making his Oscar-winning musical West Side Story (1961). He found it so unnerving that he decided it would be his next film. The result was one of the most starkly original ghost movies ever made, and one with a distinctly chilly turn.
The Haunting is seen from the depressive perspective of Eleanor (Julie Harris), who is invited to Hill House in order to help with a paranormal investigation. But she soon begins to lose her grasp on reality.
Although set largely indoors, there’s a sense of crisp, bitter air around the whole film. The leaves have long fallen from the trees, and the house, as famously stated at the beginning of Jackson’s book, is vile. So vile that the characters can barely cope with staying within its bulging, watching corridors.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Coming a decade after Kenji Mizoguchi’s supernatural classic Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Masaki Kobayashi’s epic upped the ante for Japanese ghost films, setting a high bar for horror anthologies that’s rarely been surpassed. Faithfully based on the short stories of Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan mixes dreamlike, often awe-inspiringly beautiful visuals with moments of genuine terror.
The film’s second story, ‘The Woman of the Snow’, is the wintriest offering here. It follows a woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) stuck in the middle of a forest during a severe snowstorm. He makes a bargain with a strange woman (Keiko Kishi), supposedly a winter spirit, in return for safe passage. But when he forgets his promise, the mistake comes back to haunt him years later. Told against the cold light of a sky bedecked with watching eyes, this is as stylish (and stylised) as winter ghost stories get.
Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966)
Director: Mario Bava
One of Italian horror king Mario Bava’s most overtly supernatural films, Kill, Baby… Kill! relishes in the unreasonable and the ghostly. We follow Dr Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who has been sent into the depths of a wintry and superstitious Carpathian village to perform an autopsy. There he finds strange rituals carried out by the locals, who are terrified of the spirit of a dead girl. They place coins in the hearts of the deceased in order to fend off evil spirits, while a local witch is doing her utmost to keep the child’s deadly spectre at bay.
Filled with vivid colour and extravagant, haunted set pieces, Kill, Baby… Kill! is typical of Bava’s lavish approach to storytelling. The winter fog hangs low over the ground; even the gothic walls of the town’s mansions and houses won’t keep out the cold or its spectres for long.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968)
Director: Jonathan Miller
Although it was broadcast in the sunny, rebellious May of 1968, Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of M.R. James’ story ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is distinctly wintry in feel and has been retroactively labelled as an official part of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas cycle. In fact it was filmed as part of the Omnibus series, with Miller turning James’ tale – one of the reasoned coming into contact with the supernaturally unreasonable – into a psychological drama.
Professor Parkin (played wonderfully by Michael Hordern) is a fusty academic on a winter trip to the coastline, with plans for reading and wandering along its windswept shores. He finds a whistle in a graveyard crumbling into the sea and foolishly blows on it, summoning something ungodly that follows him in his dreams. What really makes Miller’s film work is how dead the landscape feels, with great tension created merely by the quiet loneliness of the country paths and beaches.
A Warning to the Curious (1972)
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Although all of the Ghost Stories for Christmas, mostly adapted from M.R. James and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, boast a superbly chilly atmosphere, perhaps the most effective of the lot is 1972’s A Warning to the Curious.
We follow the tragic fate of Paxton (Peter Vaughan), a recently sacked bank clerk taking a last chance to earn some money through his amateur interest in archaeology. Travelling to the Norfolk coastline, he hopes to find the last crown of Anglia, a priceless Saxon relic. On finding the crown, however, he unleashes the wrath of its ghostly protector. Filming on a brisk stretch of East Anglian beach, Clark relishes capturing the desolate winter landscape. It makes you grateful to be indoors.
The Signalman (1976)
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark
Moving away from M.R. James’ accursed stories, Clark opted to adapt one of Charles Dickens’ most celebrated ghostly tales, ‘The Signalman’, written in 1866. Again, the setting is in the depths of winter. The narrative follows a wanderer (Bernard Lloyd) passing by a lonely signalman (Denholm Elliott) and his cabin near a railway tunnel. On becoming acquainted, the signalman feels compelled to tell the traveller of his woes, involving a ghost that appears near the entrance of the tunnel as a foretelling of disasters.
The original story was based on the real trauma that Dickens suffered after involvement in a train crash, and The Signalman makes for an especially melancholic Christmas ghost story. Whether it’s when the haunting dramatically unfolds or, in the late hours, when the traveller wanders back alone to his lodgings through the thick country fog, it certainly captures the moody, chilly loneliness that winter often brings.
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Perhaps the most famous winter ghost story in cinema, The Shining is also one of the most terrifying. Based loosely on Stephen King’s novel, Stanley Kubrick’s narrative presents a labyrinth of ideas, all taking place against the backdrop of an oncoming and increasingly desperate winter. The Overlook Hotel is a dangerous, alluring trap, which seems fully aware of its inhabitants stranded by the snow.
We follow Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the new caretaker of the hotel, an isolated resort that requires constant maintenance when left closed over the winter months. After moving there with his family, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny (Danny Lloyd), strange things begin to happen as the snowstorms arrive and trap them. Filled with the ghosts of traumas long since past, The Shining is the ultimate story of malevolent spirits in winter.
The Woman in Black (1989)
Director: Herbert Wise
Screened on Christmas Eve in 1989, Herbert Wise’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black, is still one of the best TV ghost stories, yet remains little seen. The narrative follows Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), a young solicitor sent to deal with the estate of the deceased Mrs Drablow, much to the dismay of the superstitious locals. The estate in question is Eel Marsh House, an isolated coastal cottage that’s cut off regularly by the winter tides flooding its causeway. But it’s not just these waters that pose a problem for the young solicitor: a terrible tragedy befell the previous occupants, and their ghosts are determined to be remembered.
The story was remade in 2012, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, but it’s this original version that remains the most frosty and desolate. With a script adapted by Nigel Kneale, it creates a creeping sense of dread that ebbs just like the water surrounding the bleak setting.
Ghost Stories (2017)
Directors: Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
This is a chilling collection of supernatural tales from Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, transferring their original, terrifying stage play to the screen. Set in the mould of the portmanteau horror films of the 1970s by Amicus and the like, the film nods to many previous examples of winter ghost stories while updating them for modern day Britain.
Nyman plays Professor Goodman, a sceptical investigator of paranormal occurrences. Tracking down an old pro in the same field who was first thought to be dead, Goodman is challenged to investigate 3 cases that turned the old non-believer into a believer. But beyond all these ghosts is an even more terrifying past of which Goodman himself is in denial.
With some effective jump-scares, Ghost Stories is a tale of spectres for the modern age, with desolate moors and empty beachscapes straight out of M.R. James.