10 Great Ghost-Themed Movies and TV Shows (1940-87)
10 Different Flavors of Old School Ghosts
1. Fantasia (1940)
With many different directors, Walt Disney's Fantasia promised to offer many different visions. Some of them are on the cute side, but Wilfred Jackson's take on Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" is actually on the spooky side. The classic segment was animated by Vladimir Tytla. Featuring a towering, demonic figure commanding spirits and lesser demons around, it's likely that this segment of Fantasia gave — and could still give— certain children nightmares.
It's also stylish as Hell, with slowing skeletal ghosts and all kinds of beautiful and sinister scenery. Frankly, this may be Disney at its finest moment, as so much else Disney has to offer lacks this kind of backbone. So watch Fantasia for its saccharine charm but stay for the occasional fiendish delights. Also, Mussorgsky's composition is simply bad-ass. There's no way around it!
2. Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (1969–1970)
This entry is a bit of a swindle, but that's sort of the point! Scooby Doo's early episodes rarely (if ever) featured genuine ghosts because those are too outlandish. Of course, that never stopped them from having a talking dog or an endless supply of eye-rolling cartoon physics! Still, Scooby Doo, Where Are You! remains a classic for kids of all ages.
Plus, some of the ghost concepts are pretty cool. If you don't recall the Ghost Clown, Ghost of Redbeard, Creeper, Old Iron Face, or Jaguaro, you'll surely know of less original characters like Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman. Such creepy, conniving criminals can also be found fighting Scooby and the gang!
3. The Amityville Horror (1979)
I have written about this film before, calling it a "haunted house classic" and examining the real-life atrocity linked to the story. As I said there: "You might live in a run-down shack, but it’s probably not haunted by demon-pigs with glowing red eyes, right? (Apologies if I’m wrong about that.)" While this movie isn't quite a masterpiece, I still feel comfortable calling it a classic, with decent performances by Margot Kidder and James Brolin. I will also reiterate the delightful craziness of the Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) scene where he's swarmed by flies.
4. The Shining (1980)
Other filmmakers have tried to match the quality of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, including 2019's Doctor Sleep and the 1997 Shining mini-series. However, neither of those efforts really come quite close. In fact, it's almost funny how much certain critics, and even Stephen King himself, expressed hatred for this film over the years.
Still, its constant sense of foreboding, creepy pacing, and strange, menacing spirits adequately captivate many viewers as they ravage Jack Torrance's brain (in one of Jack Nicholson's best over-the-top performances). Like any ghost story, this movie is pretty far-fetched. However, unlike Doctor Sleep which is usually more silly than scary, Kubrick manages to convey a sense that a hotel really could be haunted, and the Overlook is a place you simply wouldn't want to be.
5. Poltergeist (1982)
It's often debated if Poltergeist was directed more by Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg. Personally, I think this movie does have the mark of Tobe Hooper, as he generally had a great sense of what is scary and what isn't. One thing's for sure, though: This movie does have some freaky moments, despite being way, way, way over the top at times.
Crazy, violent trees, moving furniture, melting faces and virulent little clown dolls abound, and we're reminded to never build houses on top of cemeteries, lest the spirits try to haunt you (or something dumb like that). If it wasn't for the skill of the storytellers here, this movie simply wouldn't work. The performances are pretty good, too...especially Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons and Heather O'Rourke as Carol Anne.
6. Christine (1983)
A haunted car? Really? Yes, really, and John Carpenter makes the premise work shockingly well. As you watch Christine, you may also be smitten by this vengeful red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury. There's also the sense that Arnie (Keith Gordon) is an "everyman" character, and easy to root for as his car makes him feel way more confident and cool.
However, it seems to start possessing him, making him not quite the person he once was. This sort of trope appears in other Stephen King adaptations, too, like the character of Hugh Priest (Duncan Fraser) in Needful Things, who ends up doing the unthinkable to pay for a college football 1950s jacket. Do we own possessions or do possessions own us?
7. Ghostbusters (1984)
On another site I discussed how Ghostbusters almost embody big city life. However, let's not forget another part of the Ghostbusters formula: The ghosts themselves! People love those ghosts, whether it's the Library Ghost (Ruth Oliver), Gozer the Destroyer (Slavitza Jovan/Paddi Edwards), Clortho the Keymaster, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Billy Bryan), Zuul the Gatekeeper (Sigourney Weaver), the Three-Armed Monster Chair, the Zombie Taxi Driver, or frickin' Slimer (Mark Bryan Wilson) himself! Ghostbusters would not be the same without all these crazy characters.
Crazy little bit of trivia: Ghostbusters is also haunted by the brief cameo of porn star Ron Jeremy as an extra. That's not paranormal, but once you've seen it, will you be able to un-see it?
8. House (1985)
Steve Miner's House is ostensibly a tale of love and loss. However, as I've noted elsewhere, none of that seems to have much to do with " thrashing swordfish, flying garden tools, closet monsters, and bloated she-beasts." Still, these are some ways in which ghosts haunt Vietnam vet Roger Cobb (William Katt). We don't know why these things happen, but they are entertaining.
9, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
One of my favorite horror films of all time, Chuck Russell's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors expands the universe of a well-known, villainous ghost: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). While some will always prefer the original "Nightmare," I think this film takes our wicked ghost to new heights.
Through creative nightmare concepts and interesting psychosocial dynamics, this movie builds on the original concept, introduces new characters, all while bringing back Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) for another showdown against the gloved one. There's another ghost present as well: Freddy's mother, Amanda Krueger/Mary Helena (Nan Martin), whose backstory is tragic and feeds the twisted mythos of her son. This is also the film debut of Patricia Arquette.
10. Evil Dead II (1987)
One of the best horror sequels of all time, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II does an incredible job of blending gross-out horror, comedy, and even light drama. It also did far more with the character of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), who was considerably less bad-ass in the original Evil Dead (which is still a great film, mind you). This movie continues the original's trend of blurring the lines between demons, witches, and ghosts, and layers on both the blood and the slapstick elements.
In lesser hands, this movie would have been absolutely pathetic, but Sam Raimi knew exactly how the make this movie work, blending the surreal elements together with a sizzle rather than a fizzle. Few horror movies match this one in terms of quality, which is exactly why Ash Williams has permanently entered horror's pantheon as a top "good guy" — which is fairly rare, both for male or female heroes.