Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Ghost Stories

Is August a particularly spooky time of year? Perhaps not, but Warner Bros. and Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment have chosen to release the supernatural thriller ‘The Apparition’ now anyway. This got us to thinking about some of our favorite cinematic ghost stories. Won’t you share some of yours in this week’s Roundtable?

Before anyone expresses disbelief that none of our staff members chose to mention ‘The Sixth Sense’ here, be aware that I specifically imposed a moratorium on both that title and ‘Ghostbusters’ for this Roundtable. They just seemed too obvious.

Tom Landy

I think my all-time favorite ghost movie has to be Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining‘, based on the novel by Stephen King. The film has a gorgeous setting, gut-wrenching suspense and terrific performances all-around, including Jack Nicholson in one of his most memorable roles. The “Here’s Johnny!” sequence is now an iconic part of cinema history. For me, this is really one of the creepiest movies ever made.

An honorable mention has to go to Kaneto Shindo’s spooky 1968 fable ‘Kuroneko‘. Set in medieval Japan, this story of two women who unleash their vengeance and fury from beyond the grave is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric horror films you’ll ever see. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, it looks better than ever in high definition.

Mike Attebery

Depending on how you look at it, I’m either stretching the category a bit by choosing ‘The Ghost Writer‘, or being much too literal. (The original title of the book and movie was ‘The Ghost’.) Though you never see an apparition in the course of this mystery, by my count there are at least three of them. The one we never meet is the one that haunts this mystery/political thriller from start to finish. Wherever we and the characters go, the ghost was there first. I think this is one of Roman Polanski’s greatest films, right up there with ‘Chinatown’. Truly. If you buy it, get the Canadian Blu-ray. That one doesn’t have any ridiculous audio dubbing to censor random swear words.

Brian Hoss

I considered ‘The Crow’, ‘Rashomon’ and even ‘Ghost in the Shell’, but for me, the superlative film about ghosts has to ‘Beetlejuice‘. You can have your “Planet of the Franken-Alice in Dark Shadow Factories,” but once upon a time, Tim Burton could make a movie without involving Johnny Depp or Helen Bonham Carter.

‘Beetlejuice’ covers just about ever clichéd story element for a ghost movie. After a sudden and unexpected death deprives the living world of young couple the Maitlands, their picturesque house is sold to the entirely gauche Deetz family. As the dead try to exorcise the living and protect their turf, the world of the undead – comprised of stereo instructions, the DMV and the planet Dune – becomes a character unto itself. And then there’s the “ghost with most,” Beetlejuice, played by Micheal Keaton at his most frenetic and zany. Beetlejuice manipulates the young Lydia Deetz and pushes the conflict between the two families toward a climax that helps the film transcend the typical plotlines that haunt so many ghost films. (I’m looking at you, entirely unnecessary and forgettable ‘The Possession’.)

Luke Hickman

I’ll go against the grain with my response, because I fear that others will pick the more obvious titles like ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘The Frighteners’. ‘Ghost Town‘ tackles the ghost genre from another angle. It’s a genuinely hilarious comedy that nobody (not even the studio) had faith in. Back before Ricky Gervais pissed off the world, he starred in this little comedy alongside Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni. Gervais plays his typical smug self (which I’ve loved since his ‘Office’ days), and he couldn’t be funnier. The blend of rom-com and ghost story actually works very well. Prior to its opening, very few studio advance screenings were planned. Once the positive work broke, the studio scrambled to lock down last-minute screenings. Everyone I know who has given the movie a shot has found it to be a delightful gem. I highly recommend giving it a chance.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Originally released in 1980, ‘The Changeling‘ easily ranks among the most unnerving horror films I’ve ever seen. Its intensity doesn’t stem from barrel drums of splatter or overbearing stings in the score. ‘The Changeling’ instead chooses to emphasize characterization, strong performances and atmosphere, immersing me so deeply in its world that everything that happens is much more powerful. Not nearly enough praise can be lavished upon George C. Scott’s leading turn here, particularly his acting in the film’s haunting, devastating opening. Something as simple as a rubber ball bouncing down the stairs can rattle me to the core. If there’s been another haunted house film in the same class as ‘The Changeling’ at any point in the past thirty years, it’s managed to escape my attention. ‘The Changeling’ hasn’t yet found its way to Blu-ray yet, but its DVD release from HBO Home Video is widely available for under $6 online.

M. Enois Duarte

A long-time favorite supernatural film of mine is Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents‘ with Deborah Kerr. The movie is really more of a psychological horror. It builds a dark, disturbing atmosphere around two creepy sibling children who live by themselves in a mansion. Originally based on Henry James’ novel ‘The Turn of the Screw’, the story crawls under your skin and makes you fear the unexplained sounds in your house. That’s ultimately due to the marvelous cinematography of Freddie Francis. The production is not about jump-scares, like so many ghost stories. It’s about generating an unnerving and bloodcurdling experience that’s unforgettable and lasting. ‘The Innocents’ is an amazing classic horror film I enjoy watching every time.

Josh Zyber

Guillermo del Toro likes to alternate back and forth from making big studio projects to smaller, personal films. In between the Hollywood productions ‘Mimic’ and ‘Blade II’, the director went to Spain to make the atmospheric ghost story ‘The Devil’s Backbone‘. Much like his later ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, this movie is set near the end of the Spanish Civil War. It tells the story of a 12-year-old boy deposited at a remote orphanage after his father, a rebel fighter, was killed in the struggle against the Franco regime. While there, he discovers that the orphanage has some dark secrets, including a restless spirit known as “The One Who Sighs.”

‘The Devil’s Backbone’ is a tightly scripted and stylishly directed little spook-show. Despite being made in the wake of ‘The Sixth Sense’ (and around the same time as ‘The Others’), the film doesn’t resort to pulling out any sort of twist ending. The movie sets up a chain of events and follows it through to its inevitable conclusion. This is a simple story, elegantly told, and there’s great pleasure in that.

Tell us your favorite movies about ghosts in the Comments.


  1. Alex

    For truly classic ghost stories, one need look no further than the oft-adapted “A Christmas Carol”, which you might be surprised to know was originally subtitled with “A Ghost Story of Christmas”. For my money, the best adaptation is the Albert Finney version which has some genuinely spooky and unsettling scenes, in particular Scrooge’s flight with Marley over London seeing the souls of the damned and then Scrooge’s ultimate descent into hell itself. Creepy stuff, but a classic ghost story.

    • Alex

      For more typical spectral fare, I’m a big fan of “What Lies Beneath” and “The Others”. I also genuinely enjoyed the more recent “The Woman in Black.”

  2. Combining beautiful photography, good story, and excellent creepiness, my top picks are The Others, The Orphanage, and The Innkeepers.

  3. Jason

    The Orphanage is a favorite of mine though it definitely needs to be seen with a good audio setup. A friend of mine told me he didn’t care for it after having watched it on his laptop and I almost smacked the guy. He later changed his mind after watching it in my home theater. The atmosphere is awesome in that movie.

    I also find the Japanese horror/ghost flick House to be an excellent go to for those special occasions that call for the bizarre.

  4. Barsoom Bob

    Second on The Orphanage. Very atmospheric and also plausiable, doesn’t really go supernatural except for the end coda. Didn’t hurt that the mother was super sexy in that natural european way.

  5. JM

    Does ‘The Exorcist’ count? They say the set was cursed…

    Otherwise I select ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ by Kim Ji-woon.

    ‘The Uninvited’ (1944) sounds like it needs to haunt my Q.

  6. Farniboy

    Scariest Ghost story by a country mile is The Changeling starring George C Scott. It ticks all the boxes for a cracking ghost story. A creepy house, seances and a great back story. It relies on a slow build up to create tension and not loud noise and cheap thrills.

  7. EM

    I’m surprised the introduction didn’t mention a couple of other ghost movies currently playing: The Awakening and ParaNorman.

    As for favorites, I very much like E’S pick of The Innocents. But I’m going to go with Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting. Like The Innocents, The Haunting is rich in atmosphere and character psychology; unlike The Innocents, The Haunting chronicles unmistakably “real” paranormal events and isn’t above jump scares. Still, it’s an intelligent thriller that exercises restraint (it’s not perfectly clear that all the paranormal events are in fact paranormal) and manages to be all the creepier for it. The scene in which the relentlessly skeptical member of the ghost-hunting party finally becomes convinced is visual poetry.

    • M. Enois Duarte

      Ooh, ‘The Haunting’ is a great pick. When it comes to classics (before CGI and gore took over, making more dependent on mood and atmosphere), I also love ‘The Sentinel,’ ‘The Changeling,’ ‘The Uninvited,’ ‘Scrooged’ and of course ‘Poltergeist.’

      For newer movies, other than those already mentioned, I’ve enjoyed ‘Shutter’ and ‘A Tale of Two Sisters.’

  8. I’m quite fond of Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts”. It was a bit cheesy, but Stan Winston did a great job directing and creating the creatures. I only have the VHS (I wonder if it was ever released on DVD!?) and wanted to buy the LaserDisc two weeks ago, but it’s become expensive since June 2009.

  9. kudos for knowing about and recommending “The Changeling”. Not only does it have great acting all around, the film is the scariest thing and ranks up there with the Shining.

    Great music, truly creepy atmosphere and even the ghost has a character arc rather than just going bump.

    Great movie and if you like scary movies then watch this with the lights off.

  10. William Henley

    My favorites are not really scarry, or at least, I don’t think they are.

    The Others is one of my favorites. It’s just fun to watch with people who have never seen it.

    Lady In Black has a few jumpy moments in it that is fun with people who haven’t seen it before.

    And my all time favorite, Poltergeist