Ghosts in the Movies

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Ghosts in the Movies

From the very beginnings of photography and cinema, spiritualists and psychical researchers have hoped to be able to capture evidence of ghosts on film and thereby offer proof of the survival of the human spirit. While there are thousands of alleged spirit photographs that psychics claim to be authentic; reel upon reel of ghostly phenomena caught on film that investigators purport to be genuine; and, more recently, an increasing number of videocassettes of glowing lights in haunted houses that the amateur photographers insist are real, the great majority of such photographic evidence has only garnered charges of trickery or gullibility from the skeptics. However, even the skeptics like a spine-tingling ghost story now and then. Among the best are the following films:

Topper (1937)A comedy with decidedly nonthreatening ghosts, this film delighted theater audiences and removed tales of hauntings from the familiar creepy castles and the wild-eyed people with psychotic impulses that had become overly familiar in the horror films of the 1920s and 1930s. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, the script was adapted from the Thorne Smith novel about Cosmo Topper, a meek and mild banking executive, who was the only one who could see George and Marian Kirby, the ghostly couple who harassed him and tried to get him to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. The fact that the ghostly couple were played with wit and style by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, two popular and attractive actors, no doubt boosted the appeal of the film and its two sequels.

The Uninvited (1943)This motion picture presents an eerie and compelling story, as well as delivering a serious study of haunting phenomena. Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) move into a home on the Cornish coast of England that has been abandoned for many years. Soon, they discover that the house is haunted.

Milland and Hussey portray two ordinary, but intelligent and rational, people who must deal with a place occupied by an evil entity. The film is extremely subtle in presenting the spirits, and therein lies much of its power to seize the imagination and to provoke genuine chills. Director Lewis Allen never forces his hand, but focuses instead on allowing the audience to feel the emanations from the spirit world along with the actors.

The Innocents (1961)This adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898) is made particularly effective by director Jack Clayton's decision to allow the audience to see the ghosts only through the eyes of the protagonist, the governess Miss Gliddens (Deborah Kerr). The film is a psychological masterpiece, dealing with ghosts that may or may not be truly there.

The Haunting (1963)This film has become a classic with horror film buffs and serious psychical researchers, both of whom laud director Robert Wise for choosing to use subtlety in the manner in which he presents the ghosts in this adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Although the motion picture contains a number of chilling scenes, the spirits themselves are ambiguous, as well as frightening. The presentation of the haunting phenomena in this motion picture is extremely effective, and Wise uses camera angles and lighting techniques that emphasize a sense of a terrible reality within a surrealistic world of the supernatural. The 1999 version is far inferior.

The Shining (1980)Adapted from Stephen King's 1977 novel, director Stanley Kubrick crafted a film that many assess as a masterpiece of horror. Director Kubrick manages to create a film that interacts with the viewer's own imagination on many levels, thereby making even more credible the appearance of ghosts and the protagonist's descent into violence and insanity.

Ghost Story (1981)Four successful elderly men (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and John Houseman), members of the Chowder Society, have shared a terrible secret for 50 years. Although the Peter Straub novel upon which this film is based held many more levels of ghostly and ghastly surprises, director John Irvin does a fine job of converting a multigenerational ghost story to the motion picture medium.

Poltergeist (1982)Steven Spielberg stated that in Poltergeist he, as screenwriter, and Tobe Hooper, who assumed the directorial reins for the film, sought to walk the thin line between the scientific and the spiritual. Starring Craig
T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as Steve and Diane Freeling, who move into a new home which unknown to them has been built over a graveyard, the film became extremely popular with motion picture audiences. The tension in the film centers on little Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke), who announces that "they're here," shortly before the entities pull her into a spiritual vortex. The challenges faced by the Freeling family as they struggle to reclaim Carol Ann from the spirit world make for a presentation of unrelenting suspense. Neither of the sequels was able to maintain the edge-of-the-seat tensions of the original film.

Ghost Busters (1984)Three parapsychology professors (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis) lose their funding at the university, so they establish a ghost-removal business. Big trouble arises when Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) discovers an ancient god in her refrigerator and becomes possessed by Zuul, the Gate Keeper. Ghosts and evil spirits galore will plague the entire planet if the Gate Keeper meets with Vinz Clortho (Rick Moranis), the Key Master. It is up to the Ghost Busters to save the world. The sequel, Ghost Busters II (1989), although retaining all the principals of the original, lacked the energy and the excitement to sustain another box office success.

Ghost (1990)In addition to presenting an interesting depiction of the interaction of a ghost (Patrick Swayze) and a spirit medium (Whoopi Goldberg), this film also offers a touching love story. Ghost is ranked as number 32 on the list of the top-grossing movies of all time.

The Sixth Sense (1999)M. Night Shyamalan won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated as Best Director for this film, ranked as number 14 on the list of the top-grossing movies of all time. The plaint of young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) to child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) "I see dead people" was among the most familiar quotes of 1999. Because the audience is able to see the ghosts, the "dead people," along with Cole, the spirits are presented as solid, physical beings, rather than wispy, ethereal images. The film has a twist ending that brought many audiences back for a second viewing.

The Others (2001)While Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) awaits the return of her husband in the final days of World War II (1939 45), she lives with her two children (James Bentley, Alakina Mann) in an old mansion on the island of Jersey. The children suffer from a disease that does not allow them to be touched by direct sunlight.

The children begin to fear that the large old house is haunted, and they insist to their mother that they have even seen ghosts in certain rooms. Grace Stewart will have none of such talk, and she reprimands Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), her principal domestic, that neither she nor any member of the household help should ever encourage such childish fantasies. But eventually, Stewart must also face the reality that has overtaken all of them.

Delving Deeper

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Hardy, Phil. The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Internet Movie Database Inc. [Online]

Maltin, Leonard, ed. Leonard Maltin's 1999 Movie & Video Guide. New York: Dutton Signet, 1998.

Stanley, John. Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide. New York: Boulevard, 1997.

Steiger, Brad, and Sherry Hansen Steiger. Hollywood and the Supernatural. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.