If you don’t believe in ghosts, there’s a chance ghost stories still appeal to you. It stands to reason that any list of the best ghost movies would appeal to you, as well. Because whether or not you actually believe in ghosts is not a requirement to appreciate one of the oldest subgenres in film. All you have to do is connect the film to the part of your mind that likes to imagine such stories are plausible. Because there will always be a part of most minds that wants desperately to believe in the unknown.
You may not believe in God, but our imaginations largely still think it’s reasonable to accept other worlds and dimensions. At least, as far as our entertainment is concerned. Ghost stories can come in a variety of different forms, particularly when we are talking about movies.
Ghosts can inhabit love stories, horror films, slapstick comedies, immersive psychological studies, and many other locales. Again, you don’t have to believe in ghosts to imagine these things, to be transfixed by a human being who has to walk down a dark hallway. We’ve walked down those hallways. We were the kid who had to cross through the empty parking lot at night. We had to go into the basement, as much as we didn’t want to.
Even now, most of us can tap into those memories, into those often-unreasonable fears. That certainly helps to explain the continued popularity of ghost stories in film. At the same time, we can use the idea of ghosts, or of what ghosts represent, to tell a wide range of ghost stories. We can even tell ghost stories that aren’t about ghosts at all, but it’s debatable that such movies belong on this list.
To put it another way, our minds can make a lot out of a sound we didn’t expect. That thought informs many of the entries on this chronological list of the best ghost movies.
The 15 Best Ghost Movies
1. The Uninvited (1944)
Director: Lewis Allen
Oscar-winner Ray Milland has one of my favorite filmographies of all time. A Welsh-American actor whose career spanned seven decades, Milland’s resume includes the Best Actor Oscar for 1945’s The Lost Weekend, sharing a body with Rosy Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, an appearance on the original Battlestar Galactica, and much more.
The Uninvited is a good example of Milland taking the material seriously, no matter what. The Uninvited is one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time, but the cast is as important to that as the pacing and atmosphere. Both of those are excellent, yet Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Donald Crisp give us very human, very reasonable responses to the increasingly-strange events going on around them. The human element is often vital in ghost stories.
Watch if: You want to see a true black and white classic in the haunted house subgenre
Avoid if: You don’t like uninvited people or things. That’s just rude.
2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
There are quite a few ghost movies in which a spirit falls in love with someone still among the living. Few have the inherent sweetness, humor, and chemistry of its leads that you get with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) directed this appealing romantic film, pitting a young widow (the effervescent Gene Tierney) against a sardonic, unhappy spirit (Rex Harrison). It stands above many other films of its type for the sheer joy of watching Tierney and Harrison verbally spar with each other.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir doesn’t dive too deeply into its more supernatural elements, and that is perhaps another reason why it resonates so well. It’s a stirring character study, but it also all seems perfectly plausible.
Watch if: You want to see a nice love story.
Avoid if: You’re hoping to see Mrs. Muir catch some of that jaunty ghost D.
3. The Innocents (1961)
Director: Jack Clayton
One of the best horror movies of all time, this adaptation of the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw is a powerhouse of psychological horror.
Deborah Kerr as young governess Miss Giddens is the key element to just how deep this movie can get into your head. Her performance is so perfect to the unfolding of this bizarre story, it drives the atmosphere and tension like nothing else.
At the same time, to be clear, The Innocents is perfect in every way. Don’t get lost in any one aspect, such as the beautiful set designs and memorable score. This is a deceptive film in the sense that it’s almost counting on you to miss the big picture. You may have to watch it more than once.
Watch if: You want to a horror movie as well-acted as it is genuinely terrifying.
Avoid if: You’re starting that governess job in a couple of weeks.
4. The Haunting (1963)
Director: Robert Wise
Based on the frightful, brilliant novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting remains a stellar example of how to tell a haunted house story.
A fairly straightforward film, The Haunting provides a potent balance of genuine supernatural terror with fascinating character studies. The movie favors ghosts and creaky atmospheres above all else, but there’s nothing really wrong with that. The Haunting is slick fun with a style that you can still spot in some of the horror works being developed today.
The Haunting, like many classic ghost movies, also delights in subterfuge. Is it all madness? Something more?
Watch if: You want a great movie with an incredible literary background.
Avoid if: You prefer ghost stories that present themselves more honestly.
5. Kwaidan (1965)
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Japan has always seemingly had a knack for ghost stories. Many of those stories focus on very human mistakes with powerful otherworld consequences. Kwaidan presents four such stories, presenting people in the throes of a profound mistake, people driven mad by love or desire, and people who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are a number of consistent themes throughout this anthology, one of the most visually stunning horror movies of all time. One such theme is the idea that no matter what, the universe will collect on its perceived debt one way or the other. Beyond that, Kwaidan is also a gently surreal nightmare, with moments that will stay with you for years.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best in anthology horror.
Avoid if: You don’t have three hours to spare.
6. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Director: John Hough
How many horror movies are set in haunted English mansions? It’s a list unto itself. The Legend of Hell House remains one of the best. Part of that comes down to the movie’s willingness to throw just about anything at you. The Legend of Hell House doesn’t play with your psyche, as many examples on this list do. It is a pure carnival ride.
The concept of being a spook show above all else is not enough for some movies. It can be a difficult concept to sustain, if there’s really nothing else to suggest. The Legend of Hell House is a rarity in that it manages to top itself throughout.
Watch if: You have an affection for the scary and ever-so-slightly silly.
Avoid if: You need to be able to like at least half of the characters.
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7. House (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The best ghost movies can be straightforward endeavors. They can deal in some heady ideas about the afterlife, but they ultimately follow a pattern we can more or less understand.
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, House/Hausu does not care about our expectations. The movie wants to practically suffocate us with unrelenting strangeness, as well as a blend of horror comedy that can only be described as unique. This is a ghost story, but they are the ghosts in a movie that seems as though it was brought to life by a legitimate madman.
A bunch of kids descend upon a spooky house. That much we get. That’s about all you’re going to understand, as House continues to astonish for creating a rulebook only known to itself. Whatever those rules might be, the film breaks them with aplomb.
Watch if: You want to see one of the weirdest movies ever brought to life.
Avoid if: The idea of a cinematic acid trip doesn’t grab you.
8. The Amityville Horror (1979)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Despite being surrounded by several controversies regarding its legitimacy, the mythos surrounding Long Island, New York’s Amityville Haunting remains.
It has more potency than a lot of other famous hauntings, if only because it has the benefit of being connected, however loosely, to an entire franchise of books, movies, and even TV shows. Most of the locals certainly seem to like contributing to its enduring appeal, as well. If nothing else, the part that is wholly true, where Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family, seemingly out of the blue, is harrowing stuff. We can’t help but want to attach a ghost story to something so grisly.
The 1979 film, based on the book that claimed to depict the sufferings of the Lutz family, is still probably the best thing to ever come out of this wretched story. Even then, the movie is kind of a mess, but it gets a lot of strength from committed performances by Margot Kidder and James Brolin, as well as haunted house stylings that lend the movie an odd credibility.
Sure, this movie is ridiculous, but it’s done with considerable style. It also creates the idea of normalcy in a relatable way, making it impossible for our imaginations to resist the rest.
Watch if: You want to see one of America’s most famous ghost stories.
Avoid if: You can’t particularly stand movies that take themselves a little too seriously.
9. The Fog (1980)
Director: John Carpenter
The Fog is a pretty simple story about ghosts, inheriting the sins of our ancestors, and revenge. Yet other movies dealing in such things often fail to approach one of John Carpenter’s best movies, in which a dense fog brings about the ghosts whose murders helped build a town.
Right from the start, The Fog, which also features one of Carpenter’s best ensemble casts, establishes a sense of dread. It suggests the presence of vengeful spirits long before we ever actually see them. As the fog gets closer to the town where the film is set, the momentum of the movie continues, as well. It all culminates in a satisfying, intense conclusion.
Watch if: You want to see the likes of Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau squaring off against ghost pirates.
Avoid if: You live in the Pacific Northwest.
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10. Poltergeist (1982)
Director: Tobe Hooper
The alleged curse that ran through the first film has largely faded from public view.
What we are left with is a fascinating combination of Steven Spielberg’s commercial filmmaking sensibilities with the ability of director Tobe Hooper to put decent people through absolute hell. Poltergeist is also another good example of a ghost story in which some of the scariest parts consist of things we are largely left to imagine.
At the same time, Poltergeist also has the fantastical. It is a ghost story that uses a wide range of cinematic tools, and the end result is a proof that Hooper directed great films beyond Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Heather O’Rourke as the little girl targeted by interdimensional beings is another piece of this movie still scaring people after nearly forty years.
And who can forget Zelda Rubinstein?
Watch if: You want to see what happens when you screw around with a cemetery.
Avoid if: You do want to see that movie, but you’re afraid the family will get off too lightly for your liking.
11. Ghostbusters (1984)
Director: Ivan Reitman
Ghostbusters appeals to certain interests. It does this so well that we’re okay with a fairly shallow story, or an interpretation of ghosts that just barely scratches the surface of something rather interesting. Those things don’t particularly matter, with a crowd-pleasing story of a group of scientists working as professional paranormal investigators and eliminators.
While the technology, ghosts, and memorable snapshot of New York City in the mid-1980s are all fun, the real charm of Ghostbusters is in the cast. Among such names as Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts, it is difficult to imagine Ghostbusters being anything but brilliant. At least the first time around, it was.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best of the paranormal comedies.
Avoid if: You prefer ghost stories where the spirits are ultimately taken more seriously.
12. Beetlejuice (1988)
Director: Tim Burton
Like Ghostbusters, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is a visually-inventive supernatural comedy. However, unlike Ghostbusters, which brings the ghosts to the real world, Beetlejuice spends most of its time in a world in which both universes exist side by side. It just happens that they don’t directly interact a whole lot.
The sudden death of a young couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) sets in motion a dramatic change to the way things are done. Beetlejuice benefits from not just Davis and Baldwin as a sweet, naïve couple, but from a cast that features Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, and Michael Keaton in the iconic title role.
Beetlejuice does some fantastic worldbuilding as a ghost story. You could make the cast that it spends more time doing this than a lot of ghost stories. Personally, I never feel as though we get to spend enough time on the other side.
Watch if: You want to see a truly bizarre horror comedy, with the emphasis on comedy.
Avoid if: Good Tim Burton movies bring up too many painful movies, given his recent output.
13. The Frighteners (1996)
Director: Peter Jackson
It is sometimes difficult to believe that Peter Jackson once made films like The Frighteners. There is nothing wrong with an artist moving on to different things. Jackson is now forever the man who directed six movies based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s fine, but there is a sense of manic playfulness that has been lacking in Jackson’s work for quite some time. T
here’s an argument to be made that his 1996 film The Frighteners was the last time he made a movie that was just fun, with the grandeur being more in trying to make silly things as scary as humanly possible.
The Frighteners has one of the most unique ghost stories on this list. A man who can see ghosts (Michael J. Fox, reminding us what he a good actor he really is) uses that ability to run a bogus exorcism business. The sudden appearance of a hooded, ghostly figure that murders people in a sleepy small town at random forces him to deal with his past, among other things.
Fox somehow finds the right kind of frenzy for this intense, exaggerated story, while still creating a stark human contrast for the movie’s more extraordinary elements. His performance drives a movie that is full of surprises.
And where is John Astin’s Academy Award for this? Where?
Watch if: You want to see a very unique blend of special effects, gothic horror, and supernatural slapstick.
Avoid if: You just can’t find a sense of humor about ghosts.
14. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
One of the scariest movies to come out of South Korea, A Tale of Two Sisters is one of the great mindfucks for this list. Ghost stories that bend the surrounding reality to their wall can be great for tension and moments of absolute terror. The downside is that they can also get a little convoluted.
That is not the case with A Tale of Two Sisters. Directed by Kim Jee-woon, A Tale of Two Sisters delivers its utterly fascinating premise of two sisters who reunite, and respond in a very heightened way to their widower father remarrying, with a frightening precision. There is also a very unshaken attention to emotional detail, particularly in the characterizations and performances of Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young as the sisters.
Watch if: You want to see a modern horror masterpiece, complete with a shocking, twist-laden ghost story.
Avoid if: You’re not good with long periods of silence in horror movies.
15. Coco (2017)
Director(s): Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Giving Mexico’s Day of the Dead a respectful, visually-intoxicating spotlight, Pixar’s Coco is one of the most ambitious ghost movies on this list.
This isn’t just in terms of the way the film is directed, or in the way Pixar is forever raising the creative stakes for themselves with each release. It isn’t just in the incredible depiction of the afterlife offered by the movie, which focuses on the adventures of a young boy in and out of the Land of the Dead. Coco is ambitious for simply building such an elaborate world, and never once forgetting that the characters and plot need attention, as well.
Pixar has had a reputation with their best works for being able to satisfy almost every requirement one might have for a moving and entertaining film. Coco is a realization of that, and it is also one of the best ghost stories ever put to screen.
Watch if: You want to see a movie that really can appeal to just about everyone in the room.
Avoid if: You’re mad that this movie made the list, but we ran out of room for stuff like The Shining (which may or may not even be a ghost movie to begin with—don’t get started).
I wanted this list to spotlight more unlikely contenders, which is why some of the best ghost movies of all time didn’t make the non-ranked 15 above. If I missed yours, it seems likely that you will find it below.
The Shining (1980)
Stir of Echoes (1999)
The Changeling (1980)
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)