The darkness is closing in… The log fire is roaring… The clock has struck midnight… Such clichés will be all too familiar to those fond of the archetypal ghostly tale but they’re clichés that movies are able to exploit brilliantly.
And what better time of year to kick back with an old-fashioned spooky tale than Halloween? So here are 14 of our favourite ghost stories on film. Watch if you dare...
"An evil old house, the kind some call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored..." The chilling opening to this classic 1963 ghost story sets the tone for one of the greatest horror movies ever made, a note-perfect adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel about a group of disparate individuals at the mercy of the forbidding Hill House.
Central to the plot is vulnerable spinster Eleanor (Julie Harris) – but is the haunting real, or all in her head? Director Robert Wise's expert use of sound and black and white visuals creates an acute sense of terror without resorting to gore.
Chilean director Alejandro Amenabar honours the spirit of the Hollywood masters with this effortlessly classy and atmospheric chiller, one featuring a career-best performance from Nicole Kidman. She plays Grace, a mother isolated inside her Jersey mansion with her two photosensitive children – but something appears to be locked in with them...
With Kidman beautifully portraying a sense of mounting hysteria, some genuinely shriek-inducing set-pieces and an emotional storyline playing on themes of motherhood, it's top-quality horror.
Henry James' landmark ghost story The Turn of the Screw was described by none other than Oscar Wilde as "a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale". The unsettling account of a governess who comes to suspect her young charges are under threat from two malevolent spirits, it brilliantly blurs the lines between the supernatural and the psychological.
And in 1961, the heavyweight duo of director Jack Clayton and screenwriter Truman Capote did justice to James' novel with this fabulously frightening big-screen adaptation, one that laid down the template for all such movies with its memorable use of light and shadow, plus an unforgettable central performance from Deborah Kerr.
Japanese horror (or J-Horror for short) is justly celebrated for its surreal and often malevolent atmosphere in which the worlds of the living and the dead don't so much co-exist as overlap with one another. The most famous example is this blockbusting 1998 spooktacular, the most successful movie released in Japan at the time, about a cursed video tape that kills everyone who watches it within seven days.
Brilliantly playing on our fear of technology and with a steady atmosphere of mounting dread, it culminates in one of the most frightening reveals ever seen in a horror film. New trousers, please!
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights of this skin-crawling classic by a matter of hours – but it's hard to imagine even the Master of Suspense topping Clouzot's achievement here.
Shot in crisp black and white and with a complete absence of music, it completely invests the audience in the terrifying story of a brutal headmaster's persecuted wife and mistress who together conspire to drown him in the bathtub... only for the body to later disappear. Ruthlessly building a sense of suspense until the famous twist ending, it's a model of classy Euro-horror.
Stephen King famously hated Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his sprawling ghost story, but the director's decision to turn the novel inside out is precisely why it works. Far more ambiguous and surreal than King's original, the movie uses a disconcerting barrage of Steadicam shots, piercing music and a foaming performance from Jack Nicholson to scare the pants off us.
You also have to hand it to a director who is able to terrify us with sequences shot in bright light as opposed to total darkness – but that's exactly what one would expect from one of cinema's most pioneering directors.
A lesser-known ghost story but one that's equally effective, this is the eerie tale of a group of asbestos workers who fall under the influence of the forces within an abandoned mental institution. Or do they?
The Machinist director Brad Anderson brilliantly has us questioning the fabric of the story throughout as the vulnerabilities of the central characters, in particular the traumatised Gordon (Peter Mullan), appear to manifest as terrifying evil. Superbly acted and with a truly hair-raising sense of location, it's well worth checking out.
No, we're not talking the Clint Eastwood abduction drama starring Angelina Jolie. Rather, a sorely underrated and quite brilliant 1980 creeper in which George C. Scott inherits a sprawling old house and is plagued by the spirit of a young child – but is the ghost in fact crying out for help?
By embracing all the cliches of the genre from seances to creaky staircases, what we have is a wonderfully old-fashioned horror story that is guaranteed to have you looking at bouncing balls in a whole new light.
Whistle and I'll Come to You
Not a theatrically released ghost story but one packing just as much punch as its big-screen brethren, this unforgettable BBC adaptation of M.R. James' masterful short story is more than enough to keep you up at night.
Director Jonathan Miller brings us the windswept and clammy tale of a fusty academic (Michael Hordern) who makes the apparently innocuous discovery of an ancient whistle on a deserted beach – but what it summons up changes him forever. A model of how to use unsettling sound design and discreet visuals to make the flesh creep, it remains one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.
Not as widely regarded as its fellow J-Horror blockbusters like Ringu or The Grudge, this underrated Hong Kong chiller nevertheless packs in some genuinely fearsome scares. After a young woman undergoes a successful cornea operation, she's petrified to discover that her restored vision has granted her sight of something altogether more menacing... The lift sequence alone deserves to go down in history as one of the most genuinely unsettling horror moments we've ever seen.
The Devil's Backbone
Described by its director Guillermo del Doro as the "sister film" to his groundbreaking fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, this Spanish Civil War-set chiller deserves just as much acclaim and recognition.
Set in a remote Spanish orphanage, one with an unexploded bomb embedded in its courtyard, it's a ghost story with an overtly political and emotional edge as the manifestation of a frightening childhood spectre appears to act as a tragic reflection of a country that's tearing itself apart. Atmospheric and engrossing, it's one of del Toro's finest films, compelling us to reflect on the very nature of what a ghost is.
The Woman in Black
Forget the jump scare-laden Daniel Radcliffe version. That was decent but in terms of distilling the quiet, creeping menace of Susan Hill's bestseller, you can't beat the 1989 TV adaptation (annoyingly, never released on DVD) that places emphasis on a mounting sense of terror as opposed to loud, shrieky shocks.
The story remains the same – a young lawyer sent to sort a deceased client's papers is tormented by the evil spirit of a dead woman – but there is a far greater sense of escalating terror in this version that eventually builds to a genuinely bleak climax.
James Wan's blockbusting haunted house chiller does ultimately descend into the usual jump scare tactics but it also knows when to hold back and properly freak us out as well.
The true story of paranormal investigators the Warrens, who are called to investigate a haunted house in 1970s Rhode Island, it gains great mileage from its period setting. Devoid of trappings like the internet and phones it subsequently makes the plight of the central characters' feel all the more helpless and desperate, plus the hide and seek clap game still lingers in our minds now.
"They're heeeeere..." A horror movie that flip-flops between genuine nastiness and crowd-pleasing special effects more akin to sci-fi than ghost stories, Poltergeist bears all the hallmarks of (allegedly) having had two directors behind the scenes. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Tobe Hooper was officially credited but producer Steven Spielberg is said to have had extensive input behind the camera.
Regardless of its messy production history it's an enjoyably scary story of supernatural disruption in suburbia, featuring strong performances and several genuinely petrifying moments, including this one that gives whole new meaning to the phrase 'face peel'.