With Halloween fast approaching, EW is picking the five best films in a variety of different horror movie categories. Each day, we’ll post our top picks from one specific group—say, vampire movies or slasher flicks—and give you the chance to vote on which is your favorite. On Oct. 31, EW will reveal your top choices. Today, we’re talking about ghost movies.
Ghosts come in many forms: They can be shapeless and near-invisible, such as the dead in Poltergeist, or they can look as real as a living human, such as the wacky Beetlejuice. But whether they’re visible or not, they all share the same jarring quality of existing beyond the realm of the living.
A good ghost movie will play up that jarring quality, causing a sense of overwhelming discomfort in the viewer, because that’s what ghosts do: They make the living uncomfortable, whether it’s by playfully tormenting them or trying to kill them. What makes them frightening is their existence in a completely difference dimension, one that not anyone can access—meaning escape from a ghost is often infeasible. They’re omnipresent and persistent. In other words, they’re a pain.
All but one of EW‘s top picks for ghost movies were made in the ’80s, a decade that spawned now-classics like The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But that’s about where the similarities end: Between the terrifying Samara in The Ring and the could-they-be-real spirits in The Shining, each film portrays ghosts in extremely different ways — and none of them are the cute white ghosts you see on Halloween decorations.
5. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice is a rare ghost movie that anyone—kids, adults afraid of the supernatural—can enjoy. That’s because Beetlejuice is more silly than spooky and doesn’t do things like suck innocent children into televisions—although that does sound like a prank he’d enjoy. Instead, he’s a sort of “exorcist” who’s tasked with scaring a family out of a house so that the ghost couple who lived there first can live in peace. Predictably, he doesn’t do a good job. Also predictably, this Tim Burton film is a fun (and funny!) take on a phenomenon that’s usually more haunting than hilarious.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
As if nightmares aren’t scary enough, A Nightmare on Elm Street will make you never want to sleep again: The revenge-seeking Freddy Krueger stalks teenagers in their sleep and, if he gets what he wants, kills them. But because of the film’s structure, we’re never quite sure if what we’re seeing is reality or a dream—or if that even matters. Sometimes the dreams end in nothing but a frightened response once the victim wakes, but sometimes the dreams end in a bloody, real-life death. Whatever the outcome though, there’s no escaping Freddy Krueger.
3. The Ring (2002)
The Ring brings everyone’s worst fear to life: that they’ll die from watching a really, really bad movie. The movie in this case is black and white footage of creepy images like chopped-off fingers still moving and bulging eyeballs—and as if that doesn’t sound bad enough, you die seven days after watching it. That’s because Samara, a young girl who died, put a curse on the tape so that everyone who watches it will die. How to escape this curse is something that is revealed slowly, as if it’s a reward for all the dread viewers experience leading up to the film’s conclusion. Full of unsettling images and an atmosphere of constant unease, The Ring is a ghost movie for those who want to feel afraid.
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist changed the way we felt about TV static forever. The film, co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg, follows a happy family who find their lives destroyed when their house starts acting strange. Chairs rearrange themselves; 5-year-old Carol Ann insists she hears voices in the TV static… and then Carol Ann herself becomes one of the voices in the TV static when these ghosts capture her. Poltergeist exploits our fear of losing someone we love, and then intensifies that fear by putting little Carol Ann somewhere near-impossible to reach. Its effects, including inexplicable goo from the other realm and free-form spirits, haven’t aged well, but the story—and the actin—has: The film creates a sense of doom that never lets up, even when things are supposed to finally be going well for the Freelings.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining doesn’t have special effects or translucent ghosts—and that only makes it scarier. Between the grim music cues and the setting’s vastness, the Dr. Strangelove director creates an atmosphere that transports viewers into the haunted hotel right along with the tormented Torrance family so that even once the movie is over, the Overlook Hotel stays with you. Based on a Stephen King novel of the same name, The Shining is the subject of much scrutiny, and for good reason: Kubrick was a notoriously detail-orientated director—and has been criticized for that very attention to detail by The Shining’s stars, exhausted by his desire for perfection. But The Shining isn’t just Kubrick’s movie, but also very much Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall’s: Nicholson plays a man descending into madness with convincing precision, and Duvall’s portrayal of a wife and mother playing witness to this descent effectively mirrors the audiences shocked reactions to the increasingly violent, increasingly manic Nicholson.