Late at night, there's nothing quite like cozying up under a blanket and indulging in a scary ghost movie.
Even the most devoted cinephiles might not realize that the presence of ghosts in film dates back almost as far as the inception of cinema itself. During the late 19th century, when movies were in their nascent stage, trailblazer Georges Méliès breathed life into ghosts on film for the first time with his 1896 creation The House of the Devil, and in the 127 years since, hundreds of ghost stories have chilled audiences around the world.
From sinister entities haunting homes to narratives of vengeful spirits seeking justice, and even more lighthearted horror-comedies, there are plenty of ghost movies out there for viewers ready to take an otherworldly journey with those on the other side. But which are the best of the best ghost movies? We’re counting them down, right here.
7. The Frighteners
Before Peter Jackson became a household name with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he directed the horror-comedy The Frighteners. In one of his last roles before retirement, Michael J. Fox stars in this film as scam artist Frank Bannister, who collaborates with the undead to scare the living into paying his bills, with mostly humorous results. However, things turn deadly serious when mysterious numbers start appearing on the living — right before they expire.
Though the film starts out as a mostly lighthearted affair, the third act takes a very serious turn, and the film’s multiple mysteries coalesce in a shocking finale with multiple twists and turns. Though the film garnered mostly positive reviews when it was released in 1996, it didn’t impress at the box office. However, in the years since the film has become a cult hit, and many consider it a seminal entry in Jackson’s overall catalog.
6. The Others
The 2001 film The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is a moody, gothic ghost story set in 1945, shortly after World War II, and stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, a widow who lives in perpetual darkness with her two young photosensitive children, Anne and Nicholas. When both Grace and her children start hearing voices and experiencing vivid hallucinations, Grace becomes convinced the house is haunted and takes drastic measures to protect herself and her children.
The film takes its time unraveling its central mystery, but patient viewers will be rewarded with a truly haunting performance from Kidman as well as one of the most shocking twists ever put on film, which truly demands a second viewing as soon as the credits roll.
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5. The Devil’s Backbone
Guillermo del Toro often cites The Devil’s Backbone as his first real film, and fans of this director can definitely get a sense of what would eventually become his signature style in his earliest work. The Spanish-language film is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and follows Carlos, a young boy who is left at an isolated orphanage after his father dies in the war.
Carlos is haunted by visions of a young boy named Santi, who disappeared the night an unexploded bomb fell. Santi warns of a large calamity that will befall the orphanage and claim the lives of many of its inhabitants, and while Carlos is initially afraid of the spirit, he realizes he must work with the ghost, not only to save as many lives at the orphanage as possible but also to bring justice to the person responsible for Santi’s fate.
The film seamlessly blends horror, fantasy, and historical drama, and explores themes of revenge, betrayal, and the impact of war on children, all while maintaining a creepy, unsettling atmosphere that viewers simply won’t be able to look away from.
4. The Conjuring
When it was released in 2013, expectations were average for James Wan’s The Conjuring, which re-tells the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigation of the Perron family haunting in Harrisville, Rhode Island.
However, thanks to Wan’s sharp direction (which he honed on 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious), The Conjuring became more than just a run-of-the-mill haunted house flick, thrilling audiences and critics with its suspenseful atmosphere, effective jump scares, and compelling storytelling, defying expectations at the box office. In response, an entire Conjuring universe has been created in the years since, which comprises 8 films as of 2023, including two direct sequels as well as the Annabelle and The Nun spinoffs. But for many, it doesn’t get better than the film that started it all.
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3. The Ring
When it comes to 21st-century ghost stories, it doesn’t get creepier than 2002’s The Ring, from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski. The film is a masterful remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu, and revolves around a cursed videotape that brings death to anyone who watches it exactly seven days after viewing it.
This unsettling movie follows investigative journalist Rachel Keller (played by Naomi Watts) who is determined to unlock the secrets of the cursed videotape after her niece dies, reportedly one week after viewing the tape herself. The film’s terrifying imagery, masterful use of color, and shocking ending made it both a critical darling and a horror fan favorite.
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2. The Shining
One of the most iconic horror films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining stands the test of time thanks to Kubrick’s arresting visuals, haunting atmosphere, and Jack Nicholson's career-defining performance in the movie.
Loosely based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, the film follows aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, who accepts a job as an off-season caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. As Torrance and his family spend time alone in the desolate hotel, several terrifying events occur as the result of malevolent spirits who are revealed to dwell within.
The film relies heavily on ambiguity and symbolism (ever notice what happens every time Jack is near a mirror?) and fans still debate exactly what they think happened at the Overlook Hotel over 40 years after its release, making this one ghost story worth revisiting over and over again.
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If you’re looking for a truly terrifying ghost movie, it’s hard to beat Poltergeist. The 1982 film, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced/co-written by Steven Spielberg, follows the Freeling family, whose young daughter Carol Anne has been communicating with malevolent spirits through the family's television set.
Initially, the phenomena seem harmless, but they escalate, leading to the abduction of Carol Anne by the spirits into another dimension, where she is kept hostage by a malevolent entity known as “The Beast.”
Despite only being rated PG, Poltergeist is known for its intense and frightening scenes, as well as its masterful use of practical effects to produce truly unsettling visuals. The film was a critical and commercial success when it was released, and remains one of the scariest ghost-related films of all time.
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