Sharing ghost stories has been a global tradition for thousands of years. According to scholars at the History Channel, one of the first recorded ghost tales is included in a letter written in the first century AD by a Roman named Pliny the Younger. While haunting a home in Athens, this specter was recognized by his lengthy beard and noisy shackles. Since this ancient supernatural sighting took place, spirits have allegedly been spotted all around the world. As public fascination with ghost stories has increased, more haunting tales have made their way to the silver screen.
So, what makes a ghost story, a ghost story? The most frequently seen tropes in ghostly media include jump scares, possessed objects, locations with a bloody history, and, of course, a spirit that refuses to quit. As seen in horror films like Insidious, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, The Exorcist, and Annabelle these spirits are often depicted as dangerous forces who are capable of physical and psychological harm if their territory is disturbed. As a result, the portrayed relationship between the living and the dead is usually… strained. However, filmmakers are beginning to separate from these traditional narratives and reinvent what it means to be “haunted.” Viewers are rethinking everything they know about the presence of spirits among the living because of these modern ghost stories.
Updated on September 11th, 2023 by Federico Furzan: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
13 Smile (2022)
In Smile, Dr. Rose Cotter, a psychiatrist, witnesses a traumatic event involving a patient. Like falling dominos, terrifying experiences begin to disturb Rose’s life. In an attempt to control the frightening events unfolding before her, Rose must face her traumatic past. Although this film does focus on a frightening force that negatively impacts the lives of the living, the curse attached to this smiling entity also symbolizes its victims’ internal battle with severe trauma.
These themes closely resemble the work of filmmakers Mike Flanagan and Ari Aster who use their pieces to discuss generational trauma, mental illness, and grief, especially as it relates to familial structures. However, what makes Parker Finn’s Smile different from similar works is the reminder that anyone can fall prey to the monster of trauma. Even a mental health specialist, like protagonist Dr. Rose Cotter, cannot erase the scars of her past.
12 Nanny (2022)
Nanny presents the experience of Aisha, a young mother, who has just immigrated to the United States from Senegal. However, Aisha’s son, Lamine, remains in Senegal with his aunt. To earn the money needed to fly Lamine to America, Aisha accepts a position as a nanny for a wealthy New York City family. As the story unfolds, a menacing presence invades Aisha’s consciousness, endangering her quest for the “American Dream”.
What is so unique about Nanny is that the spirits that violate Aisha’s life are not specific to her new residence in New York City. She’s not trapped inside a haunted house or disrupting an ancient burial ground. Instead, she is haunted by Anasi and Mami Wata, spirits first recognized in African folklore. These narratives were likely popular within the culture and community Aisha was raised. However, their presence takes on new meaning after Aisha separates from Lamine and endures a traumatic immersion into American life.
11 Ghosts (2021)
Originally aired in the U.K. in 2019, Ghosts made its debut on American television in 2021 featuring a delightful cast of apparitions haunting a country estate. A married couple, Samantha and Jay decide to convert the property into a bed and breakfast. However, before long, the spirits are shocked to discover that Samantha is the first tenant who can see and hear them. This series combines ghostly mythology with sitcom tropes. While traditional ghost stories seek to evoke fear in viewers, Ghosts seeks to do the opposite.
A few ghost characters who enhance the series’ comedy include Alberta Hynes, a 1920s lounge singer, who died drinking poisoned moonshine. Aside from Samantha, Alexa devices can detect her voice. Flower is the spirit of a 1960s hippie who died while under the influence of drugs. When she passes through a living body, she can put them in an intoxicating trance. Finally, there’s Captain Issac Higgintoot: a gay, forgotten hero from the American Revolutionary War who is insanely jealous of Alexander Hamilton’s popularity. Even though the spirits seen in Ghosts conform to traditional ghost lore, they are all laughs and no frights.
10 His House (2020)
Remi Weekes’ His House is one of the best horror films in recent years. Unfortunately, not many people have seen this very dramatic horror piece that centers around a couple trying to survive in England, after getting their status of refugees when they escaped from Sudan.
However, a ghostly presence lurks in their new home. And this ghost seems to know a lot about them and how they made it to England. They’re suffering the loss of their daughter who could not escape with them, but the ghost inside the walls knows the real truth about them, and it won’t stop until they accept what they did. Inside the trauma-based premise of refugees, lies a great tale of moral ambiguity that’s perfectly represented by the two great leads the film has.
9 Candyman (2021)
Following up the 1992 original, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman spotlights a Chicago community threatened by a paranormal killer with one hook hand. When a local artist, Anthony McCoy, adopts Candyman as his newest muse, his sanity deteriorates while studying the legend’s troubling history. In Candyman, the horror genre marries social commentary. The legend of Candyman is largely concerned with racism and race-related police brutality.
Through research, Anthony discovers that the legend began after Sherman Fields, a black homeless man, was accused of putting razor blades in candy. After being murdered by the police, Sherman was proven innocent. Released after the 2020 U.S. police brutality protests, the film is strikingly relevant, showcasing a spirit seeking to remedy both personal and social injustice. Another unique feature of the Candyman lore is his “hive.” Candyman is made up of five spirits, each dying as a victim of racially charged killings. When a new victim is unearthed, the torch is passed to him: he is history’s newest Candyman. This film is a reminder that old, vengeful spirits linger when society refuses to learn from the sins of its past.
8 A Ghost Story (2017)
David Lowery divided audiences when he released A Ghost Story in 2017 and attempted to provide a variation of our consideration for what the concept of a ghost means. A fairly simple premise: the film tells the story of C, a man who dies in a car crash and then lingers in the form of a ghost in the house where he used to live with his wife. Her grief is clear, but time is weird in Lowery’s film. At some point, she manages to get over the loss and goes on with her life. Meanwhile, C remains a ghost, and out of jealousy, he decides to disturb her peace.
However, nothing happens and C’s arc is a representation of something we don’t often think about when mentioning ghosts: there’s a reason why they remain with us, and it’s not as creepy as everyone thinks. Sometimes, they’re trapped by their conception of reality and what they can do for those who remain in this realm.
7 The Black Phone (2022)
When Finney Blake is kidnapped by a serial child abductor known among Denver residents as “The Grabber,” Finney receives help from unlikely sources. In the kidnapper’s basement where Finney is trapped, a disconnected phone hangs on the wall. One day, it rings. Finney picks up and is met by the voices of the Grabber’s past victims. The ghosts of the five murdered boys tell Finney everything they know about the basement and the Grabber, determined to help him escape their fate.
The Black Phone rejects traditional ghost depictions by taking action to protect and liberate Finney. They challenge the perspective that lingering spirits of the dead only seek to harm the living. Not only do these kids become Finney’s collective voice of reason throughout his traumatic kidnapping, but they also protect his life, even though no one protected them.
6 The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
At the center of The Haunting of Hill House are the Crain siblings: Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. As children, the Crains lived in a large estate called Hill House. Now, as adults, they are forced to revisit the horrifying incidents they witnessed while living in their childhood home. Little by little, the siblings begin to understand that some of the ghosts they knew as children never left. One of the most frightening features of the Hill House spirits is their ability to prophesy the futures of the Crain kids. Each child’s individual experience at Hill House is reflected in the trauma they carry as adults. Most significantly affected were the youngest children: twins Luke and Nell.
Luke, diagnosed with OCD as a child while living in Hill House, developed a compulsion — counting to the number seven. It represented the seven members of the Crain family. “That keeps you safe. Sometimes you have to do it a lot.” Young Luke told Nell. Sadly, their mother’s death ripped away Luke’s veil of familial protection. While seeking comfort and protection into adulthood, Luke developed a heroin addiction. Nell, on the other hand, exhibited the most tangible fear during the family’s days at Hill House. An apparition she claimed to see frequently she named “The Bent-Neck Lady.” Her paralyzing fear of this spirit caused her to develop a sleeping disorder as an adult. The ghosts of Hill House remind audiences that old wounds must be healed. If not, the ghosts of our pasts may come back to haunt us.
5 The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
When a young American named Dani moves to England for a fresh start, she accepts a job as an au pair for two children at an estate called Bly Manor. However, she quickly realizes that things are not as they seem. A protective soul walks the halls of Bly by night, claiming anyone who lingers on her path. This tale distinctly strings together mental health issues, grief, spiritual possession, and ghostly hauntings. In most ghost stories, the living cannot stop a spirit from possessing their body. The Haunting of Bly Manor, however, contests that ghostly possession requires consent.
Characters use the following phrase to welcome spirits to inhabit their body: “It’s you, it’s me, it’s us.” This practice also reflects a character’s active choice to love another — to become “one” with them. However, the choice to love does not come without its share of pain. The series asserts that sometimes those who grieve their loved ones wish to be haunted. Rebecca Jessel, for example, is not frightened when Peter visits her as a ghost. His apparition gives her a false sense of normalcy; At least, in some way, they are still together. Similarly, early in the series, the narrator leaves her bedroom door cracked, hoping to catch a glimpse of her deceased lover. It would be an unusually welcome supernatural sighting. Flora says it best: “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a love story.”
4 Hereditary (2018)
Regarded as one of the most frightening films of all time, Ari Aster’s Hereditary focuses on a family forced to confront an evil entity that has been passed down from generation to generation. All the while, they must navigate their grief after suffering two familial deaths. As they attempt to manage the trauma, the spirit seeks its newest host. Tensions rise between Annie Graham and her son Peter as they undergo erratic bouts of dread, panic, and blame.
Because of the actions of the Grahams’ recently deceased matriarch, Grandma Hellen, the family unravels. This closely resembles the real-life effects of unhealed trauma and abuse within family units. When one individual maintains unhealthy or abusive behaviors, their children learn and/or inherit those traits. Hereditary demonstrates that the most insistent and horrifying spirits are those that haunt our homes, undetected and unnamed for far too long.
3 Coco (2017)
A great concept utilized for a children’s film. Disney’s Coco is a solid adaptation of an idea. That idea comes from the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, the joyous festivity in which towns gather to celebrate those who have left us for another realm.
In the film, Miguel is a boy who aspires to become a musician. However, he strums the wrong guitar and becomes a ghost. He notices this when the living can’t see him, but the dead people visiting from the Land of the Dead can. Coco is a beautiful film about a culture where ghosts aren’t exactly lurking to scare you. It’s all about meeting together for one day of the year and celebrating life with creepy masks and imagery.
2 La Llorona (2019)
Straight from Guatemala, La Llorona arrived in 2019 to teach us a bit about folklore, politics, and how trauma can be powerful enough to cloud the minds of those who deserve it. The film tells the story of a dictator on trial. He’s being accused of a genocide that took place years ago, but as it usually happens, he doesn’t get convicted. However, real revenge arrives in the form of a ghostly presence which will wreak havoc in the Monteverde household until guilt becomes too heavy.
Mixing history, folklore, and politics, La Llorona is more of a statement that fortunately was loud enough back when it was released, and people raved about it. Do you want to see Smart Horror? Lose a fear of subtitles and check this one out.
1 Personal Shopper (2016)
In Personal Shopper, grief isn’t exactly what you imagine. Maureen (Kristen Stewart in her best role to date) is a personal shopper working for a supermodel in Paris. Maureen spends her days picking out clothes, but also waiting for her brother to communicate from the afterlife. They had a pact, and she intends to find out if Lewis will follow their agreement.
However, Maureen’s reality becomes a disaster. She begins receiving text messages with weird instructions from an unknown person who seems to know a lot about her. We’ll leave it at that. This is a great psychological horror film that fell under the radar for being “too artsy”.