The ghost story is one of the most enduring staples of spooky cinema, but it's also the most versatile. Tales of spirits, specters and phantasms have extened beyond the horror genre and been conjured in comedies, thrillers, fantasies, and historical dramas, oh my!
This October, Oscar Sundays at the Academy Museum is dedicated to proving ghost stories exist in many forms. The five films screening this month — Beetlejuice, Beloved, Blithe Spirit, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Kwaidan — couldn't be more different from one another and include phantoms that represent grief and loss, and one that's just the ghost with the most, babe.
In addition to Oscar Sundays, the Academy Museum is celebrating spooky season with two additional film series: Mexico Maleficarum: Resurrecting 20th Century Mexican Horror Cinema (which includes a screening of the supernatural classic, La maldición de la Llorona) and Monstrous: The Dark Side of New Korean Cinema (featuring ghost stories likes of Epitaph, R-Point, and more).
No matter how you prefer your spirits be unleashed on cinema, here are some of the must-see ghost stories coming to the Academy Museum, along with six bonus recommendations you can scream — uh, stream — at home.
A very different South Korean take on the traditional ghost story is this acclaimed period film from brothers Jung Sik and Jung Bum-shik, using the country's occupation by Japan during World War II as the backdrop for a story of lost love and vengeance. Overlapping timelines at a hospital reveal a doctor’s traumatic past tied to a recently arrived body at the morgue and a string of killings of Japanese soldiers at the hands of something that may not be human. The use of a ghost as metaphor takes on a whole new level here, traversing the nature of time and memory itself.
Screening: Friday, October 28 (get tickets)
Tim Burton's trademark style was already in full bloom with his second feature film, a remarkable balancing act between the hilarious and the macabre as recently deceased couple Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin resort to drastic measures to rid their house of its new occupants. The solution: undead and unscrupulous Michael Keaton, who gives them more than they bargained for. Stop-motion animation, a bouncy Danny Elfman score, eye-popping and Oscar-winning makeup, and Winona Ryder's classic performance as one of the screen’s greatest goths have made this an ideal Halloween viewing choice for decades — though it also works any other time of year.
Screening: Sunday, October 30 (get tickets)
Toni Morrison's classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was brought to the screen by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme, with a cast including Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, and Thandiwe Newton as the title character, a mysterious young woman who disrupts the makeshift household created by two former slaves. Over a decade in the making after Winfrey acquired the rights to the book, the film's attention to detail (including Oscar-nominated costumes by Colleen Atwood) underscores its moving use of the supernatural to represent a path through the most painful roads of the American experience.
Four poetic tales of hauntings in medieval Japan come to vivid, ultra-colorful life in this classic anthology from filmmaker Masaki Kobayashi adapted from the writings of Greek-born Lafcadio Hearn. The film comprises four segments, "The Black Hair," "The Woman of the Snow," "Hoichi the Earless" and "In a Cup of Tea." One of the most significant breakthrough works in Japanese horror, this stylized Tohoscope nightmare features a beguiling snow ghost, unfaithful spouses, an uncanny cup of tea, and most famously, a blind balladeer who concocts a novel way of evading an army of ghosts.
Where to Watch: Kanopy
The titular remote island south of Saigon is the epicenter of a war movie unlike any other in this nerve-rattling South Korean production. Shot in the evocative jungles of Cambodia and set near the end of the Vietnam War, the film follows a squad who receives a message from a missing platoon and find their mission tied to a terrifying decades-old secret. Be sure to pay close attention as the story accumulates significant spooky touches along the way that pay off in this supernatural study of the horrors of combat.
The tradition of Mexican cinematic horror stretches back to the early sound era, and one figure that's widely known is La Llorona, a ghostly weeping woman usually in white who has been used for many different metaphors through the most recent version in 2019. This 1961 tale, released in English years later as The Curse of the Crying Woman, is one of the most poetic and evocative of the 1960s wave of Mexican monster movies, charting the ghostly curse’s recurrence in a family whose witchcraft-practicing aunt plans to be the next in line, triggering a string of gothic and atmospheric encounters with the beyond.
Before taking the moviegoing world by storm with epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, director David Lean showed off his playful side with this classic adaptation of the hit Noël Coward stage play of the same name (with Tom Howard’s Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects making this the first of Lean’s many films to win an Oscar). Rex Harrison stars as the put-upon novelist whose séance research conjures up the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), much to the consternation of his current spouse, Ruth (Constance Cummings). Shot in lustrous Technicolor, this witty comedy of morbid manners features a scene-stealing performance by Margaret Rutherford as an unforgettable medium.
Not many ghost stories can make you fight off tears, but then again, there’s nothing else like this sweeping romantic classic from Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve). This time, Rex Harrison plays the specter, in this case a late sea captain upset at having his oceanside home infiltrated by a new owner, widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), and her young daughter (a pint-sized Natalie Wood). Bernard Herrmann's passionate, unforgettable score provides the perfect accompaniment to a story of true spiritual companionship.
One of the earliest and most influential Japanese ghost stories, this tragic romance from esteemed filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff) departs from his other, more earthbound dramatic chamber pieces and is now regarded as a key work in world cinema. This period morality tale set during the Sengoku era explores the conflict between love and commitment versus ambition and physical pleasure, seen through the eyes of a lowly potter and his friend drawn in by a spectral noblewoman. The use of Buddhist practices adds to the effectiveness of this precisely etched portrayal of human frailty and redemption.
Considered one of the finest literary ghost stories in the English language, Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was first adapted for the screen with this chilling adaptation from Oscar-winning director Robert Wise. An extended stay at a famously haunted estate by four researchers unleashes the barely contained instability within clairvoyant Julie Harris, who delivers a master class in mounting hysteria. Be sure to watch this one with the volume turned up loud. Available to rent and purchase on all major retail platforms.
Rightly regarded as one of the most frightening filmed ghost stories of them all, this immaculately mounted chiller from director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) stars George C. Scott as a grieving composer whose sprawling rented house conceals a decades-old secret from beyond the grave. Featuring the screen’s scariest bouncing ball and a melancholy undercurrent worthy of classic Christmas ghost stories from England, this is a stylish, elegant gateway film for those who say they don’t like horror movies.
Suburbia's most famous ghost story caught audiences off guard in the summer of ’82, spawning an instant catchphrase with "They're here..." and ensuring nobody would ever feel safe around clown dolls again. The seemingly happy Freeling household ripped apart by dramatic disturbances from beyond the grave struck a chord with moviegoers, who not only jumped at all of its classic scares, but shivered at the darker side of the American dream being publicized in its opening credits. Nominated for three Oscars and a regular fixture on lists of the scariest films of all time, this remains a visceral roller coaster of a spook show with two sequels and a remake inevitably following.
After terrifying viewers at the advent of the J-horror wave with Ringu (or Ring), director Hideo Nakata and author Kôji Suzuki joined forces again for this slow-burn blend of parental drama and icy chills (later remade in 2005 under the same title with Jennifer Connelly). Coping with a recent divorce, single mom Hitomi Kuroki finds that raising a child in an apartment building is even more challenging when she’s confronted with a restless spirit, sinister water stains, and a creepy bag that keeps turning up around her. The fact that this is ultimately as much a heartrending tearjerker as a straight-up horror film is a testament to the story’s pared-down effectiveness.
This debut feature from French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop made history at Cannes, where she was the first Black female director competing for the Palme d’Or and where it took home the Grand Prix. Based on her own short film, it uses ghosts and possession as the narrative device for a story of the dehumanizing nature of employment crises, immigration, and the unequal treatment of women. Here Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), forced into an impending arranged marriage, is upset when her construction lover disappears in what turns out to be an event that takes the class revolt to a paranormal plane. With its windswept ocean setting and tantalizing look at the transcendent power of love, this is a ghost story that truly sticks with you.