[Editor’s note: This list was originally published in October 2019. It has since been updated with new entries.]
Like witches, vampires, and zombies, ghosts can be scary as hell. But there is something about the stories of lingering dead spirits that can be both awe-inspiring and spooky at once. The often invisible presence of ghosts allows filmmakers to explore the unsettling aspects of character psychology through the use of sound and space. Some of the best ghost stories aren’t scary at all; instead, they liberate directors from the restrictions of space and time to mine spiritual and existential depths. It’s a genre that has attracted some of the medium’s greatest artists to create some of their finest work.
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One of the great aspects of ghost stories are their ambiguity, how their presence reflects more on the humans who see them then the spectral beings themselves. Maybe the great, definitive ghost story in the literary world is Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” his 1898 novella about an innocent nanny who grows convinced that the remote estate she has moved into is haunted by dead spirits. James maintained during his lifetime that the story was a straightforward gothic work, but today many critics read it as a story of an unreliable narrator descending into insanity.
“The Turn of the Screw” was faithfully adapted into 1961’s “The Innocents,” which maintained the original story’s ambiguity. Many other great ghost films — like “The Haunting” or “The Others” — are similar in how they withhold information from the audience, or focus more on the psychology of the characters than on jump-scare frights. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s plenty of great films where the ghosts are very clearly real, whether they’re romances like “Ghost,” comedies like “Ghostbusters,” or straight horror like “Poltergeist.”
In celebration of the Halloween season, IndieWire updated our list of the greatest ghost films of all time. Read on for the 40 best.
Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Chris O’Falt, Zack Sharf, and Anne Thompson also contributed to this piece.
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