When does one become a horror fan? I think you have to be a child, or a teenager, to be bitten by the bug, and it never quite leaves you.
My 15-year-old cousin has spent the last couple of weeks living with me while studying English. We both come from a very down-to-earth, anti-horror family, but several years ago I noticed he had the seed in him, so we both knew we had to use our time together wisely. In these two weeks I’ve showed him horror classics, monster movies, slashers and sci-fi horror, only to discover that his favourites, like mine, are eerie, old-fashioned ghost stories.
There are many ghost films out there, but not all of them are equally satisfying. Being genuinely creeped out is great, but not enough. Most of my favourite ghost films are set in the past, either in the Victorian or Edwardian eras or in the period between the two World Wars, a time in which people were obsessed with ghosts, looking for answers. Most are set in the British Isles, but this is because no one does Gothic like the Brits. They created it (perhaps because the past seems so alive here) and they’ve mastered it.
I would have loved to have a top 10, but it was difficult to think of any others that could compare to these. If you have any recommendations, I’m dying to hear them (pun intended).
5. The Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)
My godfather gave me The Turn of the Screw for Christmas, just after I turned 14 (he, wise man, also gave me The Dunwich Horror, my first Lovecraftian experience, but that’s another story). I started it when I went to bed and couldn’t put it down. I hadn’t previously encountered an unreliable narrator and I was completely taken: it instantly became one of my favourite books, as it was a sort of twisted version of Jane Eyre (which I had just read, and also adored). Even at 14 I was aware of the undertones of the novel, the drives of sex and death under the heroine’s nightie.
Of course, this was many years before the Internet. I found a reference to The Innocents in an old film encyclopaedia and tried to get hold of a copy, but no one had heard of it in my neighbourhood’s videoclub, the last frontier before you ventured into unexplored, specialist territory. It wasn’t until I moved to England and the BFI released a new print that I finally watched it, on the big screen, and it turned out to be more perverse and much darker than the book.
4. The Changeling
(Peter Medak, 1980)
I borrowed a video copy of this 1980 film from my friend and had the brilliant, unprecedented idea of watching it at night, home alone. It terrified me — it still does. Minimal details (a ball rolling down stairs in a seemingly empty house, a piano key pressed by an invisible hand) keep us on edge as the story slowly unfolds, revealing the terrible events at its core before reaching a brutal, unexpected climax.
3. The Awakening
(Nick Murphy, 2011)
I can’t tell you how much I love this film. It’s got everything I love in a story: a strong, independent, flawed heroine; a fascinating period setting (the 20s, after WW1), a love interest who, albeit slightly Byronic and definitely tormented, isn’t an asshole; and finally, a boarding school rather Victorian in its methods that happens to be haunted by a spectral child. Also, Rebecca Hall and Dominic West.
2. The Woman in Black
(James Watkins, 2012)
My friends mock me for loving The Woman in Black and I will never understand why. It’s a flawless horror film, and even though it might overuse jump scares, it never falls into the trap of showing too much. In terms of atmosphere, it couldn’t get more Gothic than this: marshlands, graveyards, creepy old toys, a rocking chair and an evil spirit who will never rest.
1. The Others
(Alejandro Amenabar, 2011)
Set in a dark, Gothic mansion seemingly in the middle of nowhere, raising questions from the very beginning, this ghost story not only has the most perfect title (if you think about it, you’ll feel a prickle at the back of your neck), but also a great twist that I won’t reveal here. The spot-on use of Victorian mourning photography as a plot point ushers in a climax of ancestral horror (that gif!). I was pleased to discover that this was also my cousin’s number one.
So is there a formula behind my favourite ghost films, something that makes them perfectly eerie? I would argue that’s the case:
- The setting must be suitably atmospheric, respecting Gothic conventions, preferibly in a bygone era. An old mansion full of secrets behind closed doors is a sine qua non.
- The protagonist must be flawed, and in vulnerable life circumstances. Perhaps she’s suffered a recent loss, perhaps he’s alone in life.
- The haunting is most effective when it bears a link to a terrible life event, usually involving the death of one or more innocent children at the hands of a monster of an adult. The spirit can be both the monstrous adult or the child victim, but, in any case, the juxtaposition of innocence and evil needs to be exploited.