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There’s a reason the ghost story has been a facet of human storytelling for ages; our first encounters often occur at childhood sleepovers, spinning tales that have been carried by oral tradition for generations. Whether based on a true story or fabricated off the cuff beside a bonfire, stories from the supernatural realm bring us closer to the haunting question of our mortality: What happens to us when we die?
Like many of life’s mysteries that oft go unanswered, we’ve still tried our damnedest to figure it out like the mere mortals we are. However off our guesses have been, they’ve made for some chilling, saddening, unsettling, and sometimes hilarious movies. From hole-eyed sheet figures and folklore, to found-footage films and seances-gone-wrong, the ghost story has snow-balled into a genre of its own and, naturally, it’s become a fan favorite on the silver screen.
Whether you’re looking for a bone-chilling thriller, a spooky spoof, or just looking to get a bit existential with the whole life-after-death spiel, these are the best ghost movies of all time.
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Set in the now-demolished Chicago housing projects, Cabrini Green, Candyman follows a graduate student played by Virginia Madsen who is researching the titular urban legend—the malevolent ghost of a son of a slave who goes on a murderous spree whenever he is summoned. It’s a rare inclusion into the genre that also provides social commentary about race, gentrification, and black culture.
The Devil’s Backbone
Perhaps Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro’s best film, The Devil’s Backbone follows Carlos, a young boy who arrives at an orphanage after his father is killed in the Spanish Civil War. He is soon greeted by a ghost of one of the orphanage’s former residents, Santi, who reveals a dark secret that the orphanage is keeping from view.
Gore Verbinski’s stylish, gothic remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film stars Naomi Watts as a reporter who investigates the sudden (and shocking) death of a teenage girl. Soon she discovers a cursed videotape full of shocking imagery of a ghostly young girl—the subject of an urban legend that promises anyone who watches it will die seven days later.
Two young girls, having been abandoned in a remote cabin after their father killed their mother before committing suicide, are taken in by their uncle and aunt (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain). Not only are the girls slow to acclimate back into society, they are followed by a malevolent spirit who wrecks havoc in their new home.
Alejandro Amenábar wrote and directed this gothic horror film starring Nicole Kidman as the tightly wound mother of two sickly children who cannot tolerate in the sunlight. When three new servants arrive at their estate, supernatural activity begins in their dark and dreary home. With the children seeing ghosts and the mother slowly losing her mind, the tension builds and culminates in a surprising twist ending.
Years before he received international acclaim for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson directed this completely underrated horror-comedy that stars Michael J. Fox as a psychic who uses his supernatural friends to haunt the living and bilk them out of money by exorcising their ghosts. But soon he encounters a dark and deadly spirit that is committing mass murder in a small town.
Ivan Reitman’s iconic comedy about parapsychologist ghost-hunters (played by co-writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, plus Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson) is still one of the best horror-comedies ever made. And despite its wall-to-wall jokes, its spooks—from its opening scene to the explosive finale—still pack a scary punch.
Tim Burton’s comedy about the afterlife features a particularly manic performance from its star Michael Keaton. And while this movie about two ghosts (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) whose home is now “haunted” by a living family plays up the laughs over the frights, there are still plenty of super spooky moments—such as its exorcism-themed finale.
Based on Henry James’s classic novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as an impressionable young governess who takes a position raising two young children in the English countryside. As she learns to handle the troublemaking kids’ quirkiness, she also begins to suspect they are under the control of the former governess and her lover—who both died before her arrival.
The Amityville Horror
It’s an essential haunted house story, one that launched a series of sequels (and a remake) and set the standard for the sub-genre in the last four decades. James Brolin and Margot Kidder play a couple who move their family into a house whose previous residents died in a shocking mass murder. Full-fledged horror, as you might expect, quickly ensues.
Inspired by true events (and starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-live paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren), James Wan’s horror thriller takes a familiar trope—a family moves into old farmhouse, only to discover it’s haunted—and ups the ante with edge-of-your-seat thrills and deeply unsettling frights.
Based on Shirley Jackson’s brilliant novel The Haunting of Hill House, this film finds a small group of guests participating in a paranormal study of a supposedly haunted mansion. There are horrifying bumps in the night, but it may not just be ghosts who are the cause of the guests’ frights—but the spirit of the house itself.
The Sixth Sense
Still M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest work, The Sixth Sense is the rare horror film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And it’s easy to see why: It has an incredible script, one that slowly reveals, after a lot of discomforting tension, a chilling premise, and a shocking twist ending.
One of the greatest films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel uses its source material as the foundation for a terrifying exercise in psychological horror. Jack Nicholson plays a troubled writer who moves his family into the Overlook Hotel for the off-season, but he soon descends into madness as the resort’s longterm supernatural guests play games with his mind.
A suburban California family is terrorized by a host of invisible ghosts and monsters—some playful, some downright evil—in this Steven Spielberg-penned film. It’s full of jump scares, ominous moods, and psychological horror, and it features one of hte most iconic lines in the history of scary movies: “They’re heeeere.”
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