Ghost Stories

And so Halloween is upon us once more, that time of year when everyone gets scared shitless by the amount of Christmas stuff that suddenly appears in the shops, as if from nowhere. But this post celebrates some more traditional scares, with a selection of good old-fashioned ghost stories. Everyone has their favourite, but the ones highlighted below might have escaped your attention thus far. So why don't we venture down to the dusty cellar with a candleabra to seek them out. Come on! There's nothing to be scared of - you can even bring that faulty torch down with you. Honestly, we'll be back in no time....

"We're watching you"
Some of the best horror films of recent years have come from the Asian market, and A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003) is the cream of the crop. For starters, the story centres upon twin girls and, as everyone who has seen The Shining or The Cheeky Girls knows, there are few things in this world scarier than twin girls. Here, they live in a house with their father and cruel stepmother, where they experience disturbing visions and incidents, but what is causing them? I'm man enough to admit that, over the past decade or so, there have been three times when I have jumped out of my skin and genuinely yelped out loud in terror. Once was when I saw a barman drop and smash a whole crate of beer, the other two times were during this film. It's brilliantly put together; slow chills, quick frights, good twists and an emotional wallop to boot. And don't worry about it being subtitled, you'll not be able to read them from behind the sofa anyway. Thoroughly recommended. Two other bits of advice: (i) avoid at all costs the desperately poor US remake The Uninvited and (ii) make sure anyone who has twin girls sees this. Just for the laugh.

Back in 1999, Stir of Echoes (David Koepp, 1999) was a tidy supernatural thriller which was utterly overshadowed by the roaring success of The Sixth Sense. A pity, because it delivers a much more satisfying tale than the latter's twist-reliant, smoke-and-mirrors story. After being hypnotised, Tom (an excellent Kevin Bacon) discovers he can hear voices from the dead and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to one particular girl, who went missing in the neighbourhood years before. Cue some well-executed BOO! moments, unsettling hypnotism sequences and inventive camerawork to set the nerves on edge. But the really satisfying thing is that the supernatural elements are explained within the context of the real world, meaning it works effectively as both a ghost story and a thriller. Underrated and underseen, so give it some love.
"I'm watching you."
Director Guillermo del Toro is a big ghost movie fan and is responsible for a tasty little double-bill of ghost stories in recent years, both set around creepy, gothic orphanages. He directed The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) and produced The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007), both gloomy, character-driven tales which feature some nice creepy moments to get the skin crawling. Ultimately, though, in both films it's the emotionally involving narratives and rather sad revelations in each story that make them worthwhile. If you liked the Nicole Kidman ghost film The Others, you'll like those. Del Toro also likes Carnival Of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962), an obscure and odd little B-movie about the survivor of a car crash who is strangely drawn towards an abandoned carnival where the ghouls dance. Whilst modern horror fans won't find many real scares or surprises, it was incredibly influential for its time in both its look and storytelling. Made for only $33,000, it's creativeness and visual effects have been openly acknowledged as influencing better known horrors like Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead and Halloween. It all looks a bit amateurish now, but it's worth seeing as a curiosity item if you're interested in the history of the horror genre. Or in eye shadow.

"I'm watching you too"
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) is a superb adaptation of Henry James' disturbing novella The Turn of the Screw. When Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a job as a governess for two young children at a remote mansion, she is disturbed by ghostly visions, strange sounds in the night and by the odd, un-childlike behaviour of her charges. She begins to suspect the children are possessed by evil spirits, but perhaps it is her own sanity that is lacking? This is a superbly constructed, atmospheric horror, helped by brilliant photography which purposely blurs the edges of the frame to generate an sense of claustrophobia and the suggestion of something lurking just out of eyesight. However, it is the ambiguity of the story that makes it stick in the mind. Are the children really acting oddly, or are we seeing events unfold from the point of view of an unreliable narrator in the emotionally repressed Miss Giddens? It also carries uneasy undertones of sexual perversity in the narrative, with disturbing suggestions of child abuse hinted at. The censors were troubled enough by a scene in which the child Miles kisses Miss Giddens in a rather adult manner to slap an X certificate on it, and that scene is still rather uncomfortable to watch nowadays. All in all, it's a chilly, disquieting ghost story and it also features one of the great face-suddenly-appearing-at-the-window scenes.

"Someone's watching us"

"I'm behind this screen.
Watching you."
Long before he hit paydirt with Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson made the very entertaining comedy-horror The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996), starring Michael J Fox in his last leading role before Parkinson's disease limited his acting career. He plays a psychic who can communicate with ghosts, but who uses this ability to con money out of his customers. When the spirit of a mass murderer starts a killing spree in his town, though, he is forced into using his abilities to fight back. A poor marketing campaign meant it flopped at the box-office and many complained the balance of comedy and horror was rather uneven. But to hell with the naysayers! It's frequently very funny, has exciting action sequences and uses its special effects to If you like some laughs to go with your scares, you could do a lot worse.

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) appears regularly on greatest horror film lists and is still the definitive haunted house film, which sees a small group of people travel to the supposedly haunted Hill House to carry out a paranormal investigation. Needless to say, the house is not impressed. In almost every review of The Haunting, it is customary to acknowledge that not one single ghost is revealed throughout the whole film, the frights generated instead by the power of suggestion and reliance on atmospherics over visceral shocks. Having said that, although there is no CGI or stop-motion, the effects generated here are very special indeed. Skewed camera angles, staccato editing, inventive use of light and masterful sound design all combine to build up a palpable sense of dread, reaching a peak in the terrifying sequence where two characters cling to each other in a bedroom, while an unseen, malevolent force outside bangs and moans its way around the walls, threatening to burst into the room at any moment. Hill House itself is a marvellous creation, an uneasy mix of open spaces and dark shadows, with windows like eyes and distorted, oddly shaped rooms. The overall result is to make the house itself become the villain of the piece, a feat which few have managed before or since. But, best of all, The Haunting delivers more than mere scares. The entire film, and the character of Eleanor in particular, is open to tantalising interpretation, since it is suggested that the haunting is actually a manifestation of Eleanor’s inner demons, as her deep-rooted mental and psycho-sexual neuroses are overly-excited by her surroundings and companions. With such intriguing subtext, The Haunting succeeds in stimulating the brain as well as the nerve endings. Unlike the dire 1999 remake, which stimulated nothing but the yawn reflex.

"Stop watching us!"
So, there's some ghostly suggestions to watch on Halloween night this year. If you are genuinely worried about ghosts, make sure to put some water in the bottom of a used jam-jar and leave it out - the ghosts get attracted straight to it by the sugar. No, wait, that's actually bees I'm thinking of. Sorry, ignore that, can't help you with ghosts after all.

But if ghosts don't bother you, then why not check out my quick horror round up, featuring a cast of zombies, vampires and monsters, or perhaps remind yourself of those creaky old black-and-white horror movies you probably remember seeing on TV years ago in my Creature Feature round up. And for those who like a good urban legend, there's always a reminder of that terrible business on the site last Halloween, which resulted in the forum being closed down indefinitely.Whatever sends shivers up your spine, make sure you create a suitable atmosphere by turning off the lights, taking that creaky gate off the latch and leaving the back door slightly ajar before settling down with your chosen scary movie.

I'll even lend you my faulty torch for the night.

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