As many of you may know, I am a big fan of ghost stories. I enjoy them as folktale, and for what they say about the culture and time from which they emerged. But, I’ll admit I also love them simply because they are fun. Last Halloween I discovered Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (winner of a Best Book of the Year Award from NPR). It was so good that I read it again over the last few nights to get in the Halloween spirit. Dickey is a fine writer with a healthy cynicism about ghosts. He explores many of the more famous American ghost stories that are a product of particular moments in American history, and he effectively roots the tales within solid historical context (such as the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century). He is less interested in the alleged ghosts than he is how these stories came about and how true events help to explain their creation. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.
But for today’s blog I wanted to do something different than I normally do. Besides ghost folklore, I am also a big fan of what I call “spook movies.” These are films about ghosts, and are not horror movies filled with shock and gore. They’re more subtly scary stories about what may or may not be paranormal. I am most impressed with films that do not utilize a ton of over-the-top special effects, as I am a big believer that nothing has the potential to scare you more than your own mind. With the right lighting, camera angles, sounds, and intelligent storylines, ghost movies can produce a lot of eery fun without cheap shocks or gross visuals.
Every Halloween I enjoy watching such films. They create the perfect mood, staying with you long after the lights go out and you crawl into bed. So in very carefully considered descending order, let me present my top 10 spook movies—all from an historian’s perspective.
-Why not start with a little comedy before we descend into darkness? The Ghost Breakers is a Bob Hope film which was remade by the legendary comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff. I have a fondness for both films because at a young age they introduced me to the joys of ghost movies. Both are played for laughs, but there are some truly creepy moments involving both “zombies” and ghosts. Of the two, Ghost Breakers is superior, with Hope playing a radio show host during the Golden Age of radio broadcasting. It was made at a time when celebrities like him did double-duty as both radio and film stars. (Whenever I teach my classes about the American home-front during WWII, I am dismayed by the increasing number of students who have never even heard of Bob Hope, much less the role he played in entertaining our troops during so many of the 20th century’s wars). The film also provides a glimpse of how zombies were portrayed in films before George Romero changed the rules with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Prior to that groundbreaking film, zombies were creepy, but essentially harmlessly catatonic and tied to voodoo practices. The film is also set in Cuba before the Cuban revolution, when it was a fashionable tourist destination for wealthy Americans. Shamefully, it features a comedically stereotypical black character such as Hollywood was prone to depicting in the Jim Crow era, reinforcing white America’s racist assumptions. Willie Best’s performance in the major role is laudatory, however. Meanwhile, Paulette Goddard plays a spunky woman who shows much less fear than Hope or Best, and it is her bravery that fuels most of the action. For you that may not know, Goddard was married to Charlie Chaplin and was a finalist for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. (I believe she would have been perhaps equally as stunning in the role as was Vivien Leigh). This one is great to pop in before the kids go to bed.
9. The Innocents (1961).
Starring the magnificent Deborah Kerr, this film is based on Henry James’s classic novel, The Turn of the Screw. I love it because like most of the movies on this list, it is more psychological drama than horror. A governess in charge of two young children, Kerr becomes convinced that their house is haunted, and/or that the children are possessed. But are they? Or is she just slowly losing her mind? Everything about how to make a truly creepy movie without shock and special effects is on display in this intriguing character study.
8. The Sixth Sense (1999).
No real reason to say much about this movie because I am sure that most of you are familiar with it. I like that it is set in Philadelphia, where colonial ghosts abound. And while I was one of those that sensed the surprise twist ending coming, it still carried quite a jolt. The best thing about it, however, is that in an age when CGI special effects could have really sent this movie over the top, director M. Night Shyamalan opted for restraint and traditional special effects. The film is all the more effectively creepy because of it.
7. The Innkeepers (2011)
Okay, here is one that many of you may not have seen even though it is a more recent film. I am not a big fan of most current horror movies because I feel that they rely too much on shock and CGI special effects. Director Ti West’s The Innkeepers is an exception—for the most part. Set in an old New England hotel (filmed in Connecticut’s real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn, founded in 1891), the film is purposely slow at delivering its story and relies mostly on character development. We come to really like the two protagonists, and are fascinated by their interest in capturing proof of the paranormal in a hotel with a ton of history. The film builds its suspense in the old-fashioned way and, like the hotel itself, seems a product of a bygone era. There is no use of CGI in it at all! Sadly, I feel that it goes over-the-top in its climatic finale, but like any truly great spook movie, the biggest chills come from what you do not see rather than what you do. (FYI: The cast and crew claims to have had some paranormal experiences while filming the movie at the historic inn).
6. The Shining (1980).
Again there is probably not much to say here about a movie that most have seen. To me the power in this film is that like The Innocents, it leaves you wondering if the protagonist is simply losing his mind. Some 1920s Jazz-era spooks are truly and clearly haunting the deserted hotel, but the real terror comes from Jack Nicholson’s slow-burn dissent into madness. If you ever get a chance to see this film on the big screen, take it. It is a much different experience than on TV. Trust me. Danny’s big-wheel rides and the pursuit through the maze are stunningly more effective and terrifying on the big screen.
And now the top 5!
5. The Body Snatcher (1945).
Here is another one that many of you may not have seen. The film was produced by legendary filmmaker Val Lewton, who was hired by RKO in the 1940s to tap into some of the success that Universal studios had with “creature feature” films like Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man (1941). (All great movies–especially the Bride of Frankenstein— with an appeal all their own, but this list is about spook movies). Working with a very limited budget, Lewton and his team of directors and editors were masters at using lighting, music, camera angles, and sound to scare you with what they did not show rather than what they did. Lewton’s greatest masterpieces are Cat People (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but neither of those involve ghosts. The Body Snatcher is directed by Robert Wise, featuring Boris Karloff (who had played both Frankenstein and the Mummy for Universal) as a seedy early 19th century slum-dweller who makes a living producing freshly dead bodies and selling them to a prestigious doctor who uses them for anatomical research. Does Karloff dig them up, or murder them? Either way, the doctor is unconcerned. The plot is rooted in historical fact (and based loosely on a series of Scottish murders in 1828). In the 1700 and 1800s, this sort of thing did indeed occur in the name of medical progress, and even Benjamin Franklin was probably somewhat involved in this nefarious trade when he lived in London. A ghost does not make an appearance in the film until the very last moments and it is a situation where we have to question whether or not it is supernatural, or if there is a more psychological explanation. This ambiguousness is its brilliance, and either way, the ending provides a powerful punch.
4. The Others (2001).
This is another one that many of you have probably have seen. It is heavily inspired by The Innocents (with the always brilliant Nicole Kidman), building its drama by forcing us to consider whether the events are paranormal or if there is a psychological explanation. It is set just after WWII, but one scene builds the plot and creates a very eerie mood by portraying the mourning photographs that were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s (In which grieving families took photographs of their beloved dead, often propping them up and posing with them). It has a surprise twist ending, and to me the brilliance of it is that once you know the ending, watching the film again creates an almost completely different movie because you see events from a totally different perspective.
3. The Uninvited (1944).
Not to be confused with the 2009 film with the same title, this film broke the mold for how Hollywood dealt with ghosts. While Universal studio’s “creature feature” movies gave us real monsters in the 1930s, ghosts were almost always explained in the end with a natural explanation–usually involving some bad guy trying to fool people. (à la Scooby Doo). But during the dark days of World War II when many films started exploring darker themes in almost every genre, The Uninvited played the ghosts straight. This makes it perhaps our first true spook movie. It features a haunted house with two spirits, and a mystery that our protagonists (including the ever-dapper Ray Milland) must solve in order to give rest to the restless dead. This storyline and many of its scenes seem clichéd now, but this is because this film created the clichés. For instance, a séance scene (that is very rooted in the practices of 19th century spiritualists like the Fox Sisters) harkens to almost every ghost movie you have seen that was made after 1944. And like all the other movies on this list, the film’s power derives from character development and eeriness generated from what you do not see rather than what you do. This one was a game-changer.
2. The Changeling (1980)
Again do not confuse this film with a more current one with the same title. This George C Scott film will truly freak you out. If you think The Shining is scary, I dare you to watch this one alone. The film is set in a Gilded Age mansion that carries a dark secret involving a quintessential robber baron magnet who was determined to pass his empire on to a son that could maintain the fortune and make it grow. Mourning the recent loss of his family in a car accident, George C. Scott’s character moves into the mansion during the present day, and while dealing with his own problems, discovers a spirit with much bigger emotional issues than his own. Like The Uninvited, the film also has a séance scene straight from the practices of 19th century spiritualists, and provides subtle moments of terror that will freak you out the more you think about them afterwards. The power of this film is that it will terrify you with simple images, such as a child’s ball rolling down the stairs.
And my #1 spook movie!
1. The Haunting (1963)
Please forget about the 1999 remake. It is crap.
The less I tell you about this film is probably for the better, because everyone deserves to watch this brilliant movie the first time without any preconceived notions. All I will say is this: if you’ve read all of my list so far, you’ve now got a good sense of what I feel creates the best spook movies. Simply put, The Haunting is the finest blend of all these elements, and regardless of genre is a true cinematic masterpiece. Produced and directed by a Val Lewton protégé, the legendary Robert Wise (who also directed The Body Snatcher, but also such classics as West Side Story, and The Sound of Music), the movie is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Legend of Hill House. Honestly, I am still waiting for this film to be topped by a better spook movie, though I suspect it never will. Watch this one and then try not to dream about Hugh Crane as you drift off to sleep.
And remember, no one will hear you cry out for help.
“In the night.
In the dark.”