3 Major Kinds Of Horror Movie Ghosts (And What Makes Them Work)
Full disclosure: I don’t believe in ghosts. Sure, I saw something like a ghost once that I thought was my dad when I was a kid, but I also know that it wasn’t really a ghost — it was simply my brain doing strange things while trying to cope with some bad stuff I’d seen. Our brains are incredible and unpredictable and can do all kinds of powerful tricks, like make us believe that there is someone or something standing behind us whenever a random person says, “Hey, whatever you do, just don’t look behind you.”
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in ghosts or not, but it probably will influence what you find scary. The same goes for religious horrors and any scary movie featuring demon spirits and possession and whatever the hell people think Hell is like (for me, it’s filled with rotting cheese and a screeching parrot constantly reciting Elon Musk tweets).
Nevertheless, let’s look at the three major types of ghosts usually featured in horror movies that are regarded as universally scary.
Also, try not to look behind you.
The Kid Ghosts
Kids truly carry a universe of potential: They possess both innocence and malice, both purity and absolute carnage. It’s why they work so well in horrors: They are flexible enough to utilize on either side of the good/bad coin, and they will most surely elicit a response from most audience members. We fear for little Danny Torrance riding his bike down the hallways of the Overlook Hotel, but little Danny soon scares the bejeezus out of everyone when he starts speaking in reverse.
It’s why Kubrick’s depiction of the Grady twin ghosts is so unnerving:
It’s why we feel for little Santi in The Devil’s Backbone, even though the kid still scares us stiff:
It’s why we can know Samara’s sad backstory, but that doesn’t mean we’ll willingly volunteer to peak down a dark well any time soon:
Personally, that was the most scared I’ve ever been inside a movie theater, when Samara crawled out of that old TV set like that. It was the unknown unexpectedly coming at you, and on top of that, it’s a young kid. That’s some scary (and great) ghost work right there.
The Psychological Ghosts
Or as I like to call them, the “Head Ghosts,” because these types of ghosts are the ones truly out to mess with people’s minds and cause all kinds of horror to happen. It’s the ghosts from Spanish gothic horror The Orphanage, there to screw with Laura’s mind and make her feel all the guilt:
It’s the ones that straddle haunting and possession, like that insufferable Simon in Session 9:
It’s the ones we all saw in The Sixth Sense, and it’s the ghost girl in A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s the manifestations that aren't necessarily about the trauma of the spirits — like many of these I just mentioned — but also those that deal with the trauma of the person experiencing the haunting. A great modern example of this is the 2020 Relic, a haunted house horror about three generations of women who experience the reality of Alzheimer's:
It’s a chilling, brilliant film that illustrates the haunting quality of losing a human mind to Alzheimer’s disease. Relic director Natalie Erika James explained the spooky reality of seeing someone slowly go out: “Those with Alzheimer’s can be found talking to people in the room who aren’t there, and often they can be straddling two timelines, talking to people who are long dead. That happens a lot.”
These types of ghosts — hauntings that we can understand because it’s clearly the mind doing all kinds of deranged dances — are some of the most frightening because they’re so close to us, almost tangible, but so wholly uncontrollable. One of the best and modern examples of the Head Ghost can be found in the 2021 film The Night House. I’m not going to give away any spoilers here, so watch this one. It’s the simple definition of a psychological ghost.
It would be irresponsible, no doubt, to leave out the all-around favorite English-language Spanish film The Others here. It’s the supernatural psychological gothic horror that asks the very simple, very spine-tingling question, “What would haunt a ghost?”
Man, Spanish horrors are the best.
Yes, a terrifying name for a terrifying spirit. There’s nothing scarier than an evil entity being evil simply for the sake of. People killing others “just because they can” are terrifying. Ghosts being horrible simply because? Equally so. It’s the absence of any real and logical explanation of what “made them that way” that is so disconcerting.
Think about that … thing from It Follows. Where did it come from? Why does it choose the bodies it chooses? There’s clearly some psychological head ghosts involved here, too, but … huh? This thing doesn’t make sense, and that is what makes it scary as hell.
Shape-changing ghosts are pretty scary, period, and so are ghosts that have a very distinct look going for them — especially a look that says, “I’m about to pull your insides out and wear it like a bloody necklace .”
Thirteen Ghosts (2001) may not be the scariest supernatural movie (it really isn’t), but it does have some of the most hardcore ghosts in cinematic history. And that brings up an interesting point: Where are the real scary-looking ghosts? Movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have introduced a trend of “invisible malice” where we don’t see the evil ghosts or spirits, but only the effects they have on people. It’s a method that works, sure, but where are our Juggernauts? Where are our Jackals?
Jeepers! Forget we asked. That face is terrifying.
That face is not standing behind you right now.
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Top Image: Warner Bros. Pictures