Ghost movies have been with us since the dawn of cinema. Some ghosts are benevolent, some ghosts are malicious, but they all represent the mystery of what happens to us after we die.
- Chances are you or someone you know believes they have encountered a ghost. Ghosts make us question if there's something else beyond this life...and whether the afterlife might not be the paradise we hope for.
Films like Robert Wise's brilliant The Haunting (1963) conjure up chills without ever showing the spirits. That all changed when producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper made the special effects extravaganza Poltergeist (1982). Bringing ghosts out of spooky old houses and into a modern California suburb, Poltergeist is a rollercoaster ride that both entertains and comments on capitalist greed, our addiction to television, and the role of the nuclear family in the '80s. The spirit of Poltergeist lives on in Insidious (2010), in which a boy is haunted by ghosts from "The Further," an afterlife dimension filled with tortured souls. Lin Shaye's performance as a paranormal investigator turned her into a most unusual horror icon: an ass-kicking, ghost-busting 70-something-year-old woman.
Poltergeist and Insidious show us normal families bonded by a love strong enough to survive supernatural attacks. In Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Shining (1980), evil ghosts push an already dysfunctional family over the edge. King objected to the many liberties Kubrick took with his novel, but the film's champions argue that it's filled with stunning visuals, and it does a great job of turning a family's trauma cycle into supernatural terror. Like The Shining, The Sixth Sense (1999) features a boy who can see the spirits of the dead. Ten-year-old Haley Joel Osment's haunting performance went a long way to selling the film's underlying premise: that people's inability to communicate with each other is scarier than the supernatural.
The theme of ghosts looking to the living to solve unfinished business began long before The Sixth Sense. The Changeling (1980) is about a grief-stricken composer, played by George C. Scott, who moves into a house haunted by a murdered boy. It is perhaps the greatest example of the ghost mystery movie, in which the initially terrifying ghost is revealed to be the victim of a terrible crime and is looking for justice. It's a device that Guillermo Del Toro uses to great effect in his ghost movies The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Crimson Peak (2015).
Ghost stories are fundamentally about the ways in which the past casts a long shadow on the present. In The Ring, the sins of the past come back in the memorably monstrous form of the vengeful ghost Samara. The Ring (2002) was based on the Japanese sensation Ringu (1998). Although the plots are the same, the two films show that Eastern and Western cultures can have very different ideas of what is "scary."
Interviewees include Stephen King, Haley Joel-Osment, Craig T. Nelson, Doug Jones, Andy Muschietti, Lin Shaye, Jordan Peele, Leigh Whannell, Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Jason Blum, Joseph Bishara, John Landis, Martin Casella, Jordan Ladd, Mike Dougherty, Candice King, Martin Casella, Peter Deming, Bryan Fuller, Ryan Turek, Joe Hill, and Mick Garris.