What is “scary?”: Ghosts

Not all scary movies can be classified as horror, and not all horror movies are scary.  Horror  of the non-scary variety can have a multitude of thrills outside the fear factor: action, humor, colorful characters, bizarre locations, blood and guts, campiness, group dynamics, social commentary and general entertaining wackiness.

But what is “scary?”

I used to measure the value of a horror film by how many chills and jumps it produced.  However, there are so few movies that make me legitimately afraid, either because I’ve developed a high tolerance or because only specific things frighten me.  I’ve recently figured out that the one kind of film that really gets under my skin is a good ghost story. On an intellectual level, I don’t believe in ghosts, but  although I try to keep that in mind, I’ve spent a few sleepless nights staring at the odd shadows in the corner of my bedroom.

Ghosts scare me because you can’t fight them or run away.  You can’t stop yourself seeing the spirit if it wants to be seen.  The ghost doesn’t really have an inner life of its own; it exists solely to scare the shit out of you.  Why?  Who knows?  Spirits don’t always have the clearest motives, nor do they always have a focused target for their haunting.  They haunt indiscriminately, even if you haven’t done anything to deserve their wrath.  At least 99% of what makes a ghost movie scary is anticipation.  You know the spook is going to pop up at some point — that’s a given, but you don’t know when or where.

The success of the Paranormal Activity movies relies on a mostly stationary camera that, in each sequence, gives us a view of a single room.  In that shot, we can see doorways, corners, furniture, hallways, and staircases, all excellent locations from which a shadow can emerge. We want to keep an eye on everything so the ghost will not catch us unawares, but it’s not possible; there are too many corners to keep in our gazes.  We want to peek down hallways, under the furniture, or around corners, but the camera does not move, showing us too much and not enough at the same time. We don’t get to control where we look.

Ghosts scare me in the movies, but they also scare me after the fact.  Much like Samara in The Ring (or, if you prefer, Sadako in Ringu) the power of a ghost lies in its image.  Once the image of the ghost has imprinted itself upon my mind, I have a hard time shaking it off.  This doesn’t happen to me with zombies, slashers, or monsters.  But those are physical things.  They can be sliced and diced.  Ghosts appeal to my fear of powerlessness because I cannot exert my will over them.  They have won simply by existing.  If I see them, they have won.  For a ghost, causing fear is the ultimate goal – not killing, maiming, or giving chase.

So why do I do this to myself?  I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it’s about wanting to feel something different, a little surge of adrenaline.  Or it’s a weird way of proving to myself that I’m a tough girl (I’m not tough).  I don’t watch ghost movies very often because I know how much they creep me out, and when I do watch them, I try not to do it alone.  Or before bedtime.

Here’s a handful of ghost movies I have found effective:


J-horror got played out pretty quickly, but I liked the contrast in sensibility between Japanese and American ghosts.  American ghosts seem to have a bit more method in their haunting; they are either seeking to avenge their deaths or they have some unfinished business to attend to.  The protagonists of the story will fix this ghost’s “issues” so that the spirit can finally move on to the other side and stop scaring people.  I don’t know if this is a symptom of our Western therapy-obsessed culture, or what.  Japanese ghosts, on the other hand, seem to be relentless, single-minded and completely unforgiving in their pursuit of causing crap-your-pants terror.  They don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice, and trying to help them sort out their issues will get you just as dead as all the victims before you.  Facing such an irrational and unstoppable force is scary.  It doesn’t hurt that these two movies have some heart-stopping sensory details: the clicking death rattle and rigor mortis movement of the woman crawling down the stairs, the black hair spilling out of the screen as the dead girl emerges from the television set…

The Devil’s Backbone

If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you are doing and watch it right now.  I should probably re-watch it since I saw it years ago, but it’s one of Guillermo del Toro’s earlier films and it’s fabulous.  Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it is set during the Spanish Civil War and uses the setting as much to make social commentary as it does to tell a good ghost story.

The Innkeepers

I really like Ti West’s old school approach to making a horror movie here, as well as his other acclaimed film, The House of the Devil.  I even enjoyed ¾ of Cabin Fever 2, with its retro-pastiche silliness.  The Innkeepers is a relatively straightforward ghost story that makes full use of its setting in an empty, old hotel that’s about to be shut down.  The two leads, hotel employees who do a little paranormal investigation on the side, are charming and have a good rapport that makes for a nice tension reliever between the spooky scenes.

Paranormal Activity 1, 2 & 3

These movies are so simple.  And almost nothing happens!  And yet… My roommate and I spent most of 2 and 3 peeking through our fingers or over a blanket.  As I said above, the way the shots are framed makes it hard to know where to look.  The houses where the films take place are so normal, so suburban, it’s easy to put yourself in the characters’ places.  And the way the films seem to waste time, with whole sequences in which nothing happens, makes the anticipation burn just a bit more.  By the time there are only 20 minutes left, you know shit has to happen and it has to happen fast.  Looking forward to number four.

What ghost movies have you found effective?

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About Candice

I like horror movies, poetry, and weird things. ATX

One response to “What is “scary?”: Ghosts”

  1. blake says :

    Awesome! I can’t agree more on some of these points. I also can’t agree more on how awesome the Devil’s Backbone is.

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