Nothing is scarier than ghosts. Why? Because unlike the legions of zombies, vampires, werewolves, troglodytes, rokurokubis, mummies, ghouls, flesh golems, and other assorted monsters, ghosts are real.
No matter how good the story or the make-up, deep down you know you aren’t going to meet a werewolf coming home on a dark night under a full moon. And no matter how much you wish it were so, no centurial babe with pale skin is going to show up and offer you superpowers and eternal life for just a few pricks in the neck.
But ghosts, on the other hand—they linger far past the final frame of the film. They float around the edges of your consciousness until that moment when you are home in the bathroom, brushing your teeth, and you get a tickle on the hairs on the back of your neck and an overpowering sense that looking into the mirror right now would be a Very Bad Thing.
In spite of this (or because of this), good ghost movies are rare. They require a more subtle, atmospheric hand than other horror genres. They require restraint and mood, not gore, jump-cuts, and pop-up monsters. Few directors can pull it off, and as a result there are far more bad ghost movies than good ones.
But there have been many excellent ghost stories over the years: Poltergeist. The Changling. The Others. The Sixth Sense. Blair Witch Project. Dark Water. The Uninvited. Kwaidan.
There was no way to actually assemble a “Top 5” without leaving out something important, so I just went with my five favorite.
5. Ugetsu (1953)
Probably the most beautiful ghost story ever filmed, Ugetsu is visually stunning, like an ancient painting shrouded in fog and silence. Director Mizuguchi Kenji took Ueda Akinari’s eponymous 1776 literary masterpiece as his starting point, and wove his own spell of shame, death and love that lasts beyond the grave. With its reliance on eerie atmospherics over special effects and cheap shocks, Ugetsu laid the foundation for modern Japanese horror.
Ugetsu isn’t going to scare you. It’s not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination. They only genre I would classify Ugetsu with is the Japanese genre kaidan, meaning weird tale. But call it what you will, it is a haunting film.
4. The Haunting (1963)
THE haunted house film. The Haunting – based off of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – mixes the perfect cocktail of psychology and the supernatural. All of the tropes of a haunted house film are here; the cold spots, the blood on the wall, the whispering voices, the fools who go in search of the supernatural only to find what they are looking for. And even though the ghosts of Hill House are never seen, but their presence is felt on every frame.
I first saw The Haunting when I was a kid, where I watched it on TV with my mother, who was a fan. I wasn’t a brave horror flick watcher back then, but I was mesmerized by The Haunting and watched it all the way through. And to this day I still get the shivers if I walk into a part of a room that is a little bit colder than the surrounding temperature.
3. Ju-On (2003)
Parodies and a string of ever-worsening sequels have robbed Ju-On of some of its power over the years, but it cannot be denied that director Shimizu Takashi made one of the greatest modern ghost films. With almost no budget, Shimizu tapped into that primal fear we all have of empty rooms, and the idea that when we think we are alone, we aren’t. Everything in Ju-On comes from somewhere out of our vision, from under a blanket, or behind us in the shower.
I was surprised when Ju-On was a hit in the US. I was living in Japan at the time, and I knew just how much Shimizu made use of the Japanese home, with all its little nooks and hidey-holes, to tell his story. He certainly made me scared of my own house. The idea of a lingering curse is deep in the Japanese psych, and Shimizu tapped into that fear perfectly.
2. Ring (1998)
Nakata Hideo took the best bits of ancient and modern when he made Ring. Ostensibly banded on Suzuki Koji’s novel, the film’s story is actually quite different from the book. Nakata mixed in two Edo period kabuki plays, spiritualist practices like spirit photography, and the primal human fear of technology. We are always aware that there are some things the human eye cannot see.
I love Ring. It is a film that improves on multiple viewings, something that is rare in horror films that rely on the initial shock. When Sadako climbs out of the television, it is never quite the same as that first time, but that doesn’t make it any less good. There are many layers to Ring, many allusions to decipher.
1. The Shining
What is The Shining? A ghost story? A psychological thriller? A modern Grimm’s Fairy Tale? A metaphor and revenge-thriller for the treatment of American Indians? A statement on the Holocaust? All of these have been put forth as theories to explain The Shining. There are those who say that there are no ghosts in The Shining, and point out that every scene with a ghost also has a mirror, showing that they are all in the imagination and that Jack Torrance suffers from nothing more than cabin fever.
But that’s all academic bullshit. The Shining is full of ghosts. The Overlook Hotel is bursting with them. And The Shining is one of the scariest ghost stories ever filmed.
I saw The Shining when I was young, probably too young, and it scared me for life. The sign of a really good ghost story is if it can keep you scared long after you have seen it—years even. To this day, I hate walking down hotel corridors; the long, silent, dimly lit row of doors. The corners you can’t see around. I know full well that one of these days I will turn a corner in a hotel corridor and see two of the creepiest girls ever born, saying “Come and play with us Zack. Forever, and ever.”
Brrrrrrrr. . .
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.