A Ghostly Dozen: My Favorite Spooky Movies

A version of this list was originally posted on (and is reposted with permission from) borg.

Hallowe’en is right around the corner, and you might be starting to think about wintery festivities, but if you’re anything like me, you are always in the mood for a ghost story! Several years ago the editor of borg asked contributors to list their favorite spooky movies, and my list still holds up. I have a couple newer films to add, including 2015’s gothic “Crimson Peak,” and last year’s ghostly twist on a real historical mystery, “Winchester,” so be sure to check those out, as well. As always, parental guidance and viewer discretion recommended, as appropriate.

Enjoy!

To be honest, this was a challenging list for me.  On the one hand, there is nothing I love better than a really great ghost story, so you’d think I’d be able to rattle off a list of ‘em just like that.  But that’s the thing—the really great ones, the ones that well and truly conjure up that perfectly spooky atmosphere and transport me wholly to the Hallowe’en, ahem, spirit… well, they’re pretty rare, actually.  I’m a little bit critical; I acknowledge that.  But that’s another reason to love these lists: I’m always on the lookout for the next The Others or Watcher in the Woods.

For me, atmosphere is everything.  Strike the right spooky ambiance in a film, and you can overcome any number of shortcomings—including the total lack of an actual ghost in the story.  So here’s an assemblage of ten films that get the mood right, at least, making them excellent viewing when the lights are off and the late October wind howls outside.  In no particular order…

1.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Ok, I hear you.  A Harry Potter movie on a Hallowe’en list?  Well, bear with me here.  Everything franchise-related aside, Azkaban has everything you’d want: the redesigned, gothic Hogwarts; the ghostly manifestations of the dementors haunting the castle and campus; the homicidal maniac on the loose; and oh, yes, the werewolf!  The film also drips with backstory and dark secrets, another element paramount to a great spook story.  And did I mention the werewolf?

2.  The Others (2001)
This one is creepy almost without trying.  Nicole Kidman plays the harried and pathologically overprotective mother of two light-sensitive children, occupying a remote English manor house in the days following World War II.  Though the scares here are primarily psychological, skin-crawling elements abound (what is up with those creepy kids? And those servants! Egad!), and the story has one of the best twist endings you’re likely to find.  So pull the blinds, get away from the windows, and watch for the seriously unsettling appearance of The Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, as Kidman’s estranged (or something) husband.  I can almost guarantee you’ll want to watch this one again, straight through from the beginning, when it’s over.

3.  Watcher in the Woods (1980)
For me, this film is the archetype of everything I want in a ghost story (erm, absent the actual ghost, I mean).  This 1980 Disney offering, based on a young adult novel by Florence Engel Randall, follows a pair of young American sisters who are renting a haunted English manor house for the summer, and who awaken the property’s chilling secret—and its chilling landlady, Mrs. Ayelsworth (Bette Davis).  Many years ago, Ayelsworth’s daughter disappeared from the estate, in a secret ritual her now-grown friends have sworn to keep silent.  But the past won’t be buried, and the apparent ghost of Karen Ayelsworth tries desperately to communicate with our heroines.  The setting here is pitch perfect, from the foreboding house to a murky lake, to the chapel ruins with ravens stirring through the dead leaves.  I loved this movie as a child, and it’s lost almost none of its wonder, atmosphere, and suspense. (Extended DVD scenes notwithstanding.)

UPDATE: This film has become hard to track down and is not available in any legitimate digital version. A 2017 Lifetime production starring Anjelica Houston still plays on cable and streaming and is worth a viewing, although it’s not quite as magical as the original. 

4.  Rebecca (1940)
This 1940 Best Picture Oscar winner is a faithful rendition of the Daphne du Maurier novel by the same name. Du Maurier’s writing, Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, and George Barnes’s Academy Award-winning cinematography are so skillful and subtle that you will swear you’ve seen the ghost of Rebecca de Winter haunting Manderley yourself—though she makes no actual appearance in the film.  While the entire cast (particularly stars Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier,) turned in top-notch performances, the disturbing heart of the film is the unforgettable performance by Star Trek alumna Dame Judith Anderson as the first Mrs. de Winter’s devoted lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers—the archetype for every creepy British servant to come.  This is psychological horror at its best; an exploration of how our own memories are the most frightening ghosts to put to rest.

5.  Skeleton Key (2005)
I’ll admit that I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I wanted to when it first came out, but the fact that someone in our house bought the DVD (um), and our TV is mysteriously tuned to this movie every time it airs, must count for something!  Set in rural Louisiana, Skeleton Key drips with Southern Gothic creep-factor: Spanish moss, an old plantation dank with rot, an aging Southern belle, evocative local folk magic, and the unmistakable tinge of old racism.  Add a smart heroine in over her head in something she doesn’t understand, plus a satisfying twist ending, and you’ve got a solid haunter with staying power. Strong performances by the whole cast, and layers of meaning that become creepier on repeat viewing, cement Skeleton Key’s place on this list.

6.  The Sixth Sense (1999)
This measured, thoughtful story of a boy with a problem, and the child psychologist who goes to unparalleled lengths to help him, is a mastery of mood, pacing, and misdirection.  You can watch it as a straightforward drama, and it’s a perfectly solid film.  The characters are skillfully drawn and acted with sincerity and subtlety, and you feel for the plight every single one of them is going through: the haunted boy, the caring therapist who can’t understand that his marriage is over, the lonely wife, and the desperate mother struggling to understand her troubled son.  But it’s in the moments we peek inside the child’s terrifying world that the horror of this story comes home, and whether or not you see dead people (or saw the ending from a mile away), you know you were a little skittish walking into your kitchen alone.

7.  The Ring (2002)
It’s not immediately obvious why this adaptation of the classic Japanese thriller is so frightening—is it the disturbing iconography in the underground video?  The ghoulish backstory?  The jarring cinematography and special effects?—but it all adds up to seriously unsettling viewing.  Bolstered by a strong mystery, a determined and believable lead, and the chilling ordinariness of her investigation, the contrasting horror seems all the more convincing, no matter how far-fetched a haunted videotape may sound.  Trust me: you’ll be glad you ditched your VCR.

8.  The Turn of the Screw (1999)
Henry James’s dark, “are they or aren’t they?” tale of two haunted siblings and the devoted governess desperate to protect them has been baffling audiences for 125 years, but that hasn’t stopped people from making movies out of it.  1961’s The Innocents, penned by no less a scribe than Truman Capote, is considered a modern classic, but this 1999 BBC version starring the brilliantly-cast Jodhi May in all her sloe-eyed anxiety captures all the frightening bewilderment of the original.  It’s never entirely clear what’s bothering the children in her care.  It could be ghosts, it could be abusive adults, or it could be the overactive imagination of the governess herself—but it’s from that uncertainty that the horror emerges.  With no true resolution to the tale—no laying to rest of the ghosts, no cozy denouement now that the danger has passed—The Turn of the Screw is ultimately unsatisfying, leaving you vaguely uncomfortable yet somehow wishing for more.

9. The Fog (2005)
At first glance, there really wasn’t an obvious reason to remake John Carpenter’s classic tale of a seaside town getting a belated and ghostly comeuppance.  But unlike many other remakes, The Fog loses nothing in translation—and even manages to surpass the original.  One of the most vital elements of a ghost story is arguably its backstory—the chilling past that rises to menace the present—and this 2005 adaptation gets it absolutely right.  The story of a town’s ill-gotten fortune at the cost of a doomed ship of people suffering from leprosy comes alive (or undead, at least) in rich period details, elaborate sets and costumes, and a powerful enriched storyline, all of which combine to create a pretty much perfect ghost story.

10.  Dead Again (1991)                                                                                             This 1991 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film deftly blends film noir, gothic romance, and the paranormal in a gripping, genre-bending mystery thick with atmosphere and suspense.  In two parallel storylines, Dead Again explores a post-Word War II Los Angeles murder mystery that continues to haunt two people into the modern age.  Playing dual roles, both Branagh and Thompson excel, first as doomed lovers Roman and Margaret Strauss, and as their modern counterparts, trying to unravel the secret of how that epic romance ended in a gruesome murder.  With its edgy, atmospheric soundtrack racing to a shocking twist ending, Dead Again is another film that will have you hitting the “replay” button on your remote as soon as the end titles roll.

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone! Please share your own favorites in the comments! I’m always looking for more.

Making a Book Cover: Premeditated Myrtle

I am so excited to finally share the now-public cover for Premeditated Myrtle! The Big Event was hosted at Middle Grade Book Village, so please head on over there and check it out!

All the links (pre-order, etc) should now be active, huzzah! (Sending giant thanks to my in-spouse social media manager, CJ, for his help! He has further words on the subject today at borg, so check that out, as well.)

MG Book Village has the pertinent information, but I’ll add some further details here.

Book Cover Afficianados will no doubt recognize the art of Brett Helquist, probably best known for his work on the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books. Brett was my editor’s first choice for the Myrtle Hardcastle covers–and you can see why!

The process of Making this cover was delightful and fascinating, particularly since I had all the fun and none of the work.

I have consultation rights for these covers–honestly, I thought that meant they’d show me the covers and ask if I was OK with them. But in fact, I was invited to offer input from the very beginning. Back in January, I spent a lovely afternoon on the phone with my editor, Elise Howard, Googling book covers we loved together, talking about her vision for the books, and sharing my hopes for the cover.

Soon after that, Elise asked for detailed descriptions of characters and settings from the book. Although Brett had read the manuscript, this provided some extra details that might not have made it into the text itself. I took the opportunity to stress the singular importance of the book’s muse, our late cat Sophie, the real-life inspiration for Myrtle’s feline sidekick Peony (and her portrait made it into the book, too!).

I also sent this period photograph I stumbled into during a research foray. This unknown Young Lady of Quality is from Pennsylvania, and I don’t know anything more about her than that—except when I saw her face, I saw Myrtle looking back at me:

I first saw an initial sketch for the cover, with the request to suggest modifications for more period hairstyles and clothing. I fell in love with Myrtle’s perfect expression and her sense of Positive Forward Action immediately, and went to Brett Helquist’s website and Instagram for the suggested changes:

All Brett’s own work + my presumption

That focused face comes from his work on Martina & Chrissie by Phil Bildner, and the bodice collar and neckline from one of his many Victorian illustrations. I felt that this would get the idea across much better than me trying to explain anything–or, heaven forbid, drawing it. (And if you haven’t yet been to Brett’s website or IG, go there now! It’s full of all kinds of delightful eye candy. This is my favorite! Or maybe this one. Or…)

What impresses me most about this truly gorgeous artwork is the incredible attention to detail–all of which calls back to something from the story. I want to point out every amazing feature right now… but I’ll restrain myself. You’ll have to wait and read the book to discover just how perfect everything really is.

…always a peek of cat

Myrtle Hardcastle and Peony are coming to bookstores and libraries near you in May 2020.

Welcome to the New Site!

Hello! You’ve found me! If you’ve visited the site before, you’ll have noticed some big changes. I’ve been busy this summer Making new books and working on this site. The beautiful new format is the design work and technical wizardry of Jenny Medford of Websy Daisy. I told Jenny what I was looking for, and she came back with something that I didn’t even realize I’d always wanted (she’s spooky good that way). I love how it conjures up a hidden storefront in a side street that you’ve wandered down by chance, a dusty little shop full of oddments and curiosities and antiques that are probably haunted…

Illus. by C. Green for The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

 

There is much afoot in my writerly life these days. In addition to the new site, I’m hard at work on a new series. My first book for middle graders, Premeditated Myrtle, launches in May, from the wonderful team at Algonquin Young Readers. I can’t wait for everyone to meet my new heroine, and join in her misadventures in Victorian criminology. We have a spectacular, very very secret cover by an Incredible Famous Artist, and I’m told that will go public next month, so stay tuned!

I’m just about to turn in revisions on the second Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery, and get started working on Book 3. But I’ll still have plenty of time for school visits and workshops, so check out the Events page for where you’ll find me in the next few months, or to schedule an appearance.

I also have all-new professional portals on Pinterest and Facebook, which you’ll find at the social links at the bottom of every page, or on the Contact page.

gratuitous cat photo

 

This blog is where I’ll be periodically posting news and information on upcoming events and bookish things, thoughts on the writing process, and random musings on various other projects. Make sure to subscribe to posts to stay up to date.

Thanks for stopping by!

 

 

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