10 best movies featuring a ghost story

Movie poster for Gothic ghost story Crimson PeakI love a good ghost story. Movies abound in the horror and slasher genres, some with quite effective soundtracks. Fewer films, however, qualify as a legitimate ghost story. That may be because it’s more challenging to subtly create dread than to shock with jump shots and gore. The 10 movies listed below don’t simply scare us. They use ghosts to explore themes of greed, guilt, loyalty, hubris, jealousy… Whether American, Spanish, British, Australian, Thai, or Japanese, these movies play with our sense of what is real. The characters themselves don’t quite know what to believe, but all of them must ultimately confront something fundamental about themselves or the world. The soundtracks, all using different approaches, effectively enhance the atmosphere.

Newer movies featuring a ghost story

1. Boys in the Trees—2016, dir. Nicholas Verso. On Halloween, two Australian teens on the cusp of adulthood, estranged friends from childhood, reunite to test the bounds of loyalty. Their journey takes them into territory prowled by ghosts, beasts, and memory. The score combines 90s metal music, atmospheric music by Shinjuku Thief, and Spanish lamentation effectively to represent different aspects of the characters.

2. Crimson Peak—2015, dir. Guillermo del Toro. This gothic ghost story, intertwined with a romance, tells a tale of greed and the unseemly lengths some people will go in its pursuit. Del Toro uses color symbolically. The rich, golden tapestry in the movie’s first half, centered in 1887 Buffalo, bleeds into deep blues, bloody reds, and ghostly whites when we move to the dilapidated English manor where the terror begins. Fernando Velazquez composed the haunting score, which must elicit both the tenderness of the love story and the frightfulness behind the manor’s dark secret.

3. The Others—2001, dir. Alejandro Amenabar. Nicole Kidman plays a nervous woman who escapes to the English countryside with her two photophobic children during World War II, waiting for her husband to return from the front. This twist on the classic haunted house theme is done with just the right touch of pathos and supernatural dread. Multitalented director Amenabar also composed the score, with Claudio Ianni.

4. The Sixth Sense—1999, dir. M. Night Shyamalan. Bruce Willis portrays a psychologist trying to help a troubled boy who can see and speak with dead people. The boy, however, ends up helping the psychologist address some unfinished business of his own. Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of the boy earned him an Academy Award nomination.

Older movies featuring a ghost story

5. Carnival of Souls—1962, dir. Herk Harvey. While on her way to take a job as a church organist, a woman is haunted by a bizarre apparition. It compels her to an abandoned lakeside pavilion, beginning an eerie chain of events. Harvey’s macabre, low-budget masterpiece, with its appropriately eerie organ score by Gene Moore, has become a cult classic.

6. The Haunting (original version)—1963, dir. Robert Wise. This original film version of Shirley Jackson’s novel follows a paranormal investigator and his three companions who gather in an old house known for its terrible past. Claire Bloom plays the psychologically fragile Nell who slowly falls under the maleficent spell of the house. Despite a few campy moments that don’t date well, the movie still manages to retain its power. Wise understood that terror often lies in what is suggested but not revealed.

7. The Innocents—1961, dir. Jack Clayton, based on the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw and its Broadway adaptation. A nervous young woman takes a job as a governess for two children in an English manor. She gradually becomes convinced that the ghosts of the former governess and handyman are playing out their aborted love affair through the children. Her efforts to force the children to confront the ghosts leads to a terrible result. Georges Auric (music) and Paul Dehn (lyrics) wrote the main theme “O Willow Waly,” featured throughout the film. The score oscillates between creepy innocence and explicit hellish horror.

Non-English-Language movies

8. Onibaba—1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo. This black-and-white Japanese horror movie takes place during the 14th century civil wars that rocked the country and resulted in mass starvation. A woman and her daughter-in-law survive by selling the armor of wayward warriors lured by the two women to their death. The element of the supernatural is subtle, and the minimalist use of images such as wind-blown pampas grass beneath a dark sky or the Noh demon mask, combined with the minimalist percussive taiko drumming, is masterly.

9. The Orphanage (El Orfanato)—2007, dir. J.A. Bayona. What theme is more heart wrenching than a mother and a missing child? This Spanish film takes the theme through eerie twists and turns. A woman and her husband purchase a former orphanage where she once lived. They plan to open their home to a small group of other unwanted children as they raise their own adopted son. Things turn sinister when the son’s invisible playmate starts playing tricks and the son vanishes. The mother’s quest forces her to confront the ghosts of a dark past and her own complicity in events. The sweet, sentimental soundtrack at times detracted from the film’s power, but the haunting climax gave me chills.

10. Shutter (original Thai version) — 2004, dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. A photographer and his girlfriend accidentally run over a young woman who appears out of nowhere on a dark highway, then guiltily flee the scene. The dead woman begins to intrude into their lives, appearing first in photographs and gradually taking on a more corporeal presence. The final scene is a disturbing image that will haunt you long after the movie ends. Be sure to watch the original Thai version, not the American remake.

Additional lists

For additional posts that provide interesting music lists, see About Music and This Site.

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