The Best Horror Movies Based on Ghost Stories

Even some of the most fearsome movie ghosts have their roots in a divinely good book.

Ringue and The Shining Among Movies About Ghost Stories
Photo: Hammer / WB / Toho / British Lion

Ghost stories have been around forever, and will haunt us long after we are ghosts. Before film, most apparitional tales came from novels or short stories. Yes, there were oral traditions of the spooky place down the block or the hitchhiker on a lost highway, but usually someone put it down in a book. Some of the greatest films about hauntings originate as full cinema creations, with a director’s dark vision on the screen, others come from true cases or urban legends. These ghost stories are novel ideas.

This is by no means a complete list. Almost every Edgar Allan Poe film adaptation has a spectral presence; Charles Dickens’ nighttime visitors in A Christmas Carol are only ghosts of presents we wrap for seasonal coverage; director Lew Allen’s 1944 horror feature The Uninvited isn’t here because I haven’t read Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold (1941), which it was based on yet; The Amityville Horror comes from a novel, but is allegedly “a true story” (which you can read about here). These ghost movies come from the imagination and the page. Two things that go well in the dark.

Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black

11. The Woman in Black (2012)

Director James Watkins’ The Woman in Black lists Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role, but the most intriguing character is the mansion. Local children avoid it, only one road leads to it, and that trail is submerged by a bog a few times a day. Just like the opening in any version of Dracula, superstitious carriage drivers don’t make stops at the Eel Marsh House. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black is genuinely haunting, though not particularly scary. The Hammer Horror production drowns the proceedings in gloomy atmosphere and the tone of Victorian-era ghost fiction, but only really lets loose in one truly creepy all-nighter.

Set in 1906, Arthur Kipps (played here by a post-Harry Potter Radcliffe) is a widowed lawyer from London with a four-year-old son when he travels to the remote village Crythin Gifford. A vague black spirit, believed to be the vengeful ghost of a mother who lost her child, is terrorizing the locals. Kipps is there to settle her legal affairs. If he fails, his firm assures him this will be his last assignment. To ensure that end, distrusting locals fill his head with notions until secrets and rumors are hard to tell apart, and the Woman (Liz White) herself, never gives him the time of day, and only barely in the evenings. Elegant and mannered, The Woman in Black contains all the ambiance of classic late night reading.

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Cast of Burnt Offerings

10. Burnt Offerings (1976)

Buyer beware! If the owner of the mansion you’re about to rent says the place takes care of itself, you might want to rethink the offer. Based on Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel, Burnt Offerings is director Dan Curtis’ only theatrical film—-made after he redefined horror on television. Curtis flubs the book’s ambiguous ending, but he does present one of horror’s most unique fixer-uppers. Like the novel, the story feels disjointed, but it could be the house. Filmed in the Dunsmuir House, the neo-classical 19th-century, 37-room mansion is the main attraction of the film, and would go on to star as the mortuary in Phantasm (1979).

The Allardyce mansion seems like the perfect vacation spot for Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black), and their son David (Lee Montgomery). The sibling owners, Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), only need one thing looked after. Not the house, of course, as they said, it takes care of itself. It’s their elderly mother (Lee Montgomery), a recluse who takes in trays of food when no one is looking and deposits them outside her room for thrice-daily refills. Nothing spooky there.

Bette Davis plays Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth, an artsy woman with an eye for detail, something Marian could use when her husband and son roughhouse in the pool. Karen Black’s split personality reading of the house’s possession of Marion is hair-raising. One look in those delusional eyes is as emotionally damaging as Black’s entire chase in Trilogy of Terrors. The horror is psychological in Burnt Offerings, but very real to Marion.

Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow

9. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is very loosely based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Washington Irving’s 1819 short story studies the myth of the Headless Horseman, believed to be a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball. That head would be easier to find than Irving’s original tale in this adaptation.

The film follows New York City police constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) who is ready to bring the legal system into the “dawn of a new millennium,” with improved methods of investigation and true justice. His do-gooding enthusiasm gets him sentenced by an ill-intending judge to the rural upstate New York village of Sleepy Hollow—banished there to investigate a series of beheadings performed by what witnesses believe to be a mysterious headless horseman.

“The heads were not found by the bodies?” asks Ichabod, only to learn no noggins have been found at all. The Horseman takes the skulls with him. The heads show up eventually, along with an iron maiden and other tortuous implements of horrific wonder. Sleepy Hollow is a gory movie that feels like an elegant Hammer Horror film. It is as sumptuously shot as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The production design, art direction, and cinematography create a distinctly skewered atmosphere, and there are times we feel like fleeing on horseback in fear. Christina Ricci glows darkly as Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of Baltus (Michael Gambon), the richest of the old burghers. Too bad he can’t buy his way out of his by-the-book-but-not-the-novel ending.  

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Deborah Kerr in The Innocents

8. The Innocents (1961)

The ghosts are both metaphoric and literal in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, where sexual repression and childhood curiosity are a lethal mix. Henry Jamess 1898 novella The Turn of The Screw has been adapted 27 times for the screen. The Innocents is the most faithful, even if it personalizes the details on the broader brush strokes. The screenplay was co-written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, the playwright of the 1950 stage adaptation. They imagined it as a ghost story. It is entirely possible the governess acts on spectral evidence only her mind could see, but from the camera’s perspective, the ghosts are real. Young Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens) recently lost their parents, and their hastily hired new governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) has much to learn about them and the manor they call Bly.

The former governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), resigned under vague circumstances, but may have left something behind. A fired valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), was a drunk and a roustabout whose musk can still be discerned in the walls. While she may find the spectral evidence alluring, Kerr’s Miss Giddens is a generation older than the character in the book, and concerned with the responsibilities of more adult topics. “Most of all, I care about the children,” she insists, but the children are, to put it nicely, disconcerting.

Precocious and vaguely unnatural, every phrase from their lips teeters between innocent flattery and threatening suggestion. When Miles is expelled from school as a bad influence, Miss Giddens is empathetic. She likes a boy with spirit and senses an older soul. “Oh, miss, are you afraid he’ll corrupt you?” housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) laughs, perhaps too indulgently. It’s creepy.

Cast of The Legend of Hell House

7. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Director John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House, adapted by Richard Matheson from his 1971 novel Hell House, is a spooky paranormal investigation film with an endless supply of chandeliers to drop. Wealthy Rudolph Deutsch (Roland Culver) wants to know what lies after death, and is almost willing to kill himself to find out. He hires, at exuberant rates, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his sensitive wife Ann Barrett (Gayle Hunnicutt), and mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) to go that extra mile. Roddy McDowell plays physical parapsychologist Benjamin Franklin Fischer, who is reluctant to join the fun. He is the only survivor of a previous on-site investigation of the Belasco House, notorious as “Hell House” after its infamously decadent owner disappeared in the aftermath of a massacre within its walls

“In the name of God, what did he do to make this house so evil?” Ann asks. “Murder, vampirism cannibalism, drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, mutilation,” Fischer answers. How did it end? “If it had ended, we would not be here,” Fischer warns. Strapped to bio-monitors, and surrendered to the abyss, the researchers open themselves to the fates of prior victims who now haunt the estate. Considerate enough to drop ectoplasmic residue in jars, the ghostly bully collects power from the interloping investigators. But he is powerless against Fischer’s incessant height-shaming. Be sure to lock the door on your way out.

Corpse in Ghost Story

6. Ghost Story (1981)

Ghost Story opens with John Houseman’s Sears James, Esq., telling a terrifying tale as if he were sitting around a campfire in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), which opened with the same unmistakable voice. He is talking to the “Chowder Society,” an informal men’s club who sip brandy, sniff cigars, and scare each other with horrific improvisations. The elderly orating attorney is normally drinking alone in his den all night, every night. He is afraid to fall asleep; nightmares also plague his former partner, the businessman Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire); and Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) screams himself awake from terrible dreams. The mayor of the snowy New England town of Milburn, Vermont, Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), is downing a double shot of night terrors. His son David Wanderley (Craig Wasson) appears to have gotten himself engaged to a rotting corpse, and she looks like the Chowder Society muse.

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Based on Peter Straub’s 1979 novel, Ghost Story is best known as the last film legendary stars Astaire, Douglas, Fairbanks Jr., and Houseman made together. As both David’s fiancé, Alma Mobley, and the Chowder Club’s mutual long lost love, Eva Galli, Alice Krige could have stolen this ghost story, but respectfully allows herself to sink into murky oblivion while the light shines on the veteran performers. Directed by John Irvin from a script by Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, they should have been given more screen time. The cast is amazing, the direction is steady, and the book has so much more to offer. Two hours does not do it justice.

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

5. Don’t Look Now (1973)

“Nothing is what it seems,” John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) explains in the opening of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 short story, the script by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant sticks to the source, and does not recoil at the conclusion. But it is the opening which colors the cinematic experience. The accidental drowning of young Christine Baxter, who played too near a pond in her shiny red raincoat. We see that red raincoat throughout the film. It is mirrored in the water, through a stained Venetian church window, on a distant bridge, behind two arches in a Venice canal as a boat passes, and reflected in the eyes of Sutherland’s horrified father character, who notices his daughter’s misstep, far too late.

After the tragic loss of their daughter, John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie), relocate to Venice. A killer is loose in the foggy city, and a child’s doll lies at the edge of a canal. Police are pulling up a body. The Grand Canal is alive with rats. Figures in red slip away from John throughout his many walks in the Venetian streets, but the grieving daddy, working as a church restorer, doesn’t believe in second sight, omens, or the afterlife. The architect has no blueprint for the unknown, and drowns in his skepticism.

At a lunch, the Baxters meet British tourists Wendy and her sister Heather, who is blind but psychically gifted, and claims to see Christine. She also sees the kinetic charge in John, knows he foresaw his daughter’s death, and senses he knows what is going to happen. But the future is as uncertain as the dead ends and wrong turns on a trip through deserted late-night Venice. Every bridge, canal, and street promise untold horrors which never come, as Roeg leaves you lost in the suspenseful expectation. The film builds ominous off-kilter anticipation and leaves only dread in its wake.

Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

4. Rebecca (1940)

Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s ghost romance Rebecca never shows the title character. There are no portraits of her, no photographs, sketches, or drawings. No actor plays her. The grand painting which tops the family collection is of a Lady Caroline de Winter, an ancient relative. Rebecca de Winter, the late wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), owns the film by her absence, like the most memorable spirits in ghost movies. She haunts it with beautiful foreboding. “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” we hear as the film opens while Hitchcock’s camera shows the ruined remains of a grand and gloriously gothic past on the Manderly House. “It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”

There is a new Mrs. de Winter now, played with tangibly hopeful optimism by Joan Fontaine, living in the brightly vibrant East Wing while the West Wing is closed in time like a tomb. Mr. de Winter never calls his wife by a first name. She forfeited that for her husband, along with any dreams she hid, because she flattered herself to believe he was in love with her, or so she is told.

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She could never hope to live up to the name Rebecca made her own. So we never hear hers. It is a ghost. Judith Anderson is more ghostly than any specter as the head of housekeeping, Mrs. Danvers. Her every wry aside drains the very life out the new Mrs. de Winter, forever branded a terminal disappointment. It really is enough to make one leap from an open window to an assured death. If only the family crypt wasn’t so filled with the bodies of unnamed Mrs. de Winters.

Crazy in The Haunting (1963)

3. The Haunting (1963)

We don’t see the ghosts in Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting. The audience catches doors as they slam shut, shadows fading down a spiral stairway, or the last few sways of a rocking chair as we enter a room, just a moment too late. “What does it take to convince you that the dead do not always rest in peace, but some houses, like Hill House, are born bad?” we are asked, but the evidence is frustratingly elusive.

Faithfully based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, there is no blood or jump scares in the film, only forbidding atmosphere, intriguing characters, and a nagging uncertainty that we just missed something.

The slow-burning horror works from the inside, just like the 90-year-old Hill House, sitting still in the opening as its history of suicides and murders is told by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson). His paranormal research study brings spiritually sympathetic seekers of the unseen to the site. Sensitives like Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) get lost in the past, witches like Theodora (Claire Bloom) are blindsided by the future, and those who are called to the house are bent to its malevolent will. Russ Tamblyn plays the cynical Luke Sanderson, who will inherit the house, although a deed does not mean possession.

No one owns Hill House; the house possesses them. But it is Eleanor, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child, and gave her adult life for her invalid mother, who holds the most unnatural attraction to the house. The chills are as understated as Theodora’s biting double entendres, but they build into devastating conclusions.

2. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick‘s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining is a masterpiece, whether the Overlook Hotel is haunted or not. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is a teacher who takes an off-season job maintaining a shuttered luxury vacation spot. He wants to get some peace and quiet in order to write. The Overlook Hotel is not quite the easy job that was advertised. The boiler needs constant scrutiny so it doesn’t blow up (at least in the book), and there’s an elevator which spews hallways of blood. It requires occasional mopping. Oh, and some of the former guests have never really checked out. Or have they?

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Jack’s son Danny (Danny Lloyd) has an imaginary friend named Tony who lives in his mouth. The stay-overs at the Overlook may only be in Jack’s mind. It’s already got an open-door policy because his son is psychic, and the chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), shines so bright he can read thoughts like the cans in the spacious hotel pantry. It’s scary how much food is in there, hidden among the Tang.

The horror is part of the world in Kubrick’s film. Most of the scenes happen in broad daylight through a wide-angle lens so the audience misses nothing. By the time Jack announces “Here’s Johnny!” to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), it feels like his breakthrough is aimed at the audience. We are involved in the terrors taking place, not removed by darkness. We are fully awake during the nightmare, and might be afraid to shut our eyes when it’s over.

The Shining is filled with ghosts—the Brady twins, the bartender, and the lady in Room 237 among them—but Kubrick’s film is about madness, isolation, possession, and visionary imagination. What do you see when you notice Jack smiling front and center in the final photograph in 1921? It is a Rorschach test for horror fans.

Televsion scene in Ringu

1. Ringu (1998)

Based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, Ringu is the most viscerally frightening ghost movie ever made, to this writer. It is infinitely more subliminal and disturbing than the extremely well-made 2002 American remake, The Ring, because of one small piece of dialogue in a mid-section backstory which I won’t spoil. This is essential viewing, not only for fans of the horror genre, but for fans of filmmaking ingenuity. You might not, however, want to watch it on a television screen. The movie really comes alive on TV screens, and in ways which creep right up on you, a little too close.

Ringu is not just one of most influential Japanese horror films, it revolutionized the genre, and is in the upper tier of any Hollywood horror classic. Based on the legendary ghost of the Onryo, Sadako Yamamura, played by Rie Ino’o, is as iconic a horror figure as Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Pennywise the Clown, the Frankenstein monster, or Godzilla. Ringu is visually immersive and feels mentally toxic, eliciting dread from the terrifying psyche which resides inside us all. Everyone, everywhere, can relate to an urban legend.  So, when Tokyo teenagers start passing around a cursed videotape that kills its viewers seven days after they see it, we all want to watch. And we get to see it. We feel as marked as the characters we are watching.

Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) goes hunting for clues to an already-distressing mystery. Her niece Tomoko (Yūko Takeuchi) was one of a group of teenagers who died after visiting a cabin in the woods. Investigating the scene, Reiko finds a videotape, unmarked, but politely rewound and ready to instill subliminal nerve damage on whoever presses play. Sadly, she catches her son Yōichi (Rikiya Ōtaka), in an overt nod to the 1982 ghost film Poltergeist, watching the videotape just as the boy falls into the blue light of the static-blurred image of a well, which will haunt viewers long after the film ends.

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The cursed videotape blurs Japanese ghost mythology with modern anxiety as technology acts as a virus and a remote control can trigger the delivery system. Director Hideo Nakata doesn’t go for shock or gore. The slow pursuit and subtle suspense of the mangled and oily Sadako is more effective than any jump scare.