Scariest ghosts in cinema – ranked!

Anne Billson
·8 min read

20. Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The jokey sequels may have turned Freddy into a lovable goof, but in Wes Craven’s original supernatural slasher the razor-gloved ghost in a striped jersey who kills teenagers in their dreams is still a genuinely frightening bogeyman.

19. Daniel Robitaille in Candyman (1992)

With Nia DaCosta’s reworking stuck in Rona-limbo, it’s worth revisiting Bernard Rose’s transposition of Clive Barker’s short story from Liverpool to a Chicago public housing project. Looking into the bathroom mirror and saying “Candyman” five times will summon the hook-handed ghost of a black artist (Tony Todd) murdered by a lynch mob. Go on and say it, I dare you.

18. Emeric Belasco in The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Size does matter. If ever a ghost failed to live up to its reputation it’s the malevolent entity at the centre of John Hough’s screening of Richard Matheson’s haunted house tale (played by an uncredited Michael Gough) who has to delegate his havoc-wreaking to a black cat and unsecured chapel furniture. He still manages to rack up a body count.

17. Mitsuko Kawai in Dark Water (2002)

The damp stain on the ceiling is arguably scarier than the ghost of the little girl in the yellow raincoat, particularly when you learn why she is a ghost in the first place. But a sad backstory is no excuse for leaving the taps running and trying to drown living children in their bathtubs.

16. Delbert Grady in The Shining (1980)

Related: The Shining at 40: will we ever fully understand what it all means?

There’s stiff competition from the scary twins and the woman in Room 237 of the uber-haunted Overlook hotel, but the alarming way the ex-caretaker’s ingratiating stain-sponging in the gentlemen’s lavatories slides into racist invective and brutal understatement (“I corrected them, sir”) gives Delbert the edge.

15. Yone and Shige in Kuroneko (1968)

A woman and her daughter-in-law, killed by marauding samurai, are reincarnated as feline spirits who seek revenge by tearing out the throats of random warriors. Hard not to have some sympathy for these two, but the eerie bamboo forests and somersaulting ghosts in Kaneto Shindô’s kaibyo (a subgenre of stories featuring cat demons) are reminders that no one depicts the supernatural quite as beautifully as the Japanese.

14. Tomás in The Orphanage (2007)

Tip: avoid games of hide and seek in big old orphanages, especially when your seven-year-old son claims to have made friends with a little boy with a sack over his head. The Spanish film-maker JA Bayona combines the terrifying and the tragic into a sad, scary fable with a heartbreaking ending, anchored by a brilliant performance from Belén Rueda as the haunted mother.

13. Mary Meredith in The Uninvited (1944)

For sale at a suspiciously low price: big old mansion on a Cornish clifftop. Liabilities include inexplicable draughts, nocturnal sobbing and the hovering phantom at the top of the stairs. This super old-school yarn has a lovely score by Victor Young (the song Stella by Starlight became a jazz standard), some clever twists and a haunting performance by Gail Russell as the girl whose genealogy holds the key to the mystery.

12. Mrs Mills and Mr Tuttle in The Others (2001)

Spanish genre film-makers do it again with Alejandro Amenábar’s haunted house mystery that turns on nicely ambiguous performances from Fionnula Flanagan and Eric Sykes as the servants who know more than they’re saying about the creepy goings-on menacing Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) and her children in their creaky old house in Jersey, circa 1945.

11. Santi in The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The orphanage kitchen is haunted by a pasty-faced little boy spectre with an upwards-gushing head wound. Just because he has a tragic backstory (and ultimately gets a satisfying revenge on the film’s villain, albeit only after the latter has murdered nearly everybody else) doesn’t mean he won’t scare the bejeesus out of you in Guillermo del Toro’s achingly sad ghost story set during the Spanish civil war.

10. The girl under the sink in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Can the ghost of their late mother protect troubled teenager Su-mi and her little sister from their evil stepmother? You may think you have guessed what’s going on in Kim Jee-woon’s psychochiller, but odds are this Grimm-like spin on an old Korean folktale will still pull the narrative rug out from under your feet. And omigod, what’s that under the kitchen sink?

9. Melissa Graps in Kill, Baby … Kill! (1966)

Forget the Grady twins from The Shining – the scariest little girl ghost is the one with long blond hair (she is actually played by a little boy) who keeps peering through windows and making Carpathian villagers impale themselves in this chiller by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. She must have made an impression on Federico Fellini, who “borrowed” her for Toby Dammit, his ultra-spooky segment of the 1968 Poe anthology, Spirits of the Dead.

8. Toshio in The Grudge (2004)

Hard to keep track of all the remakes and sequels in the Grudge franchise, but this is a rare case of Takashi Shimizu’s American reworking being even scarier than his own Japanese versions. Not so much a coherent story, more a series of spine-chilling set-pieces as doomed characters troop one by one into a cursed house in Tokyo, where they meet the obligatory scary broad with long black hair and Toshio, the small boy who miaows like a cat – and who somehow manages to commute all the way across town to a modern office block for the film’s most hair-raising episode.

7. The man in the lift in The Eye (2002)

The downside of a violinist’s sight-restoring cornea transplants is that they make her see scary ghosts in the Pang brothers’ Hong Kong/Singaporean ocular horror. And none scarier than the old man in the lift. She doesn’t need to turn around to know he’s behind her, gliding ever closer as the lift moves upwards so very, very slowly. And part of his face is missing! Next time, take the stairs.

6. Sadako in Ring (1998)

You think it’s all over! Well, it is now that Sadako has crawled up from her well and out of the TV screen to frighten everyone to death. But what’s to stop her from breaching the fourth wall and emerging into your living room? If ever a ghost needed a haircut and a manicure, it’s this one.

5. The old lady in Black Sabbath (1963)

Mario Bava certainly knew how to shred your nerves. In A Drop of Water, the final segment of this horror anthology, a nurse makes the rookie mistake of stealing a diamond ring from the finger of a dead medium. And, of course, the corpse comes a-visiting to reclaim it. The spooky old lady makeup may be panto level but, with a few sickly coloured filters and masterly command of ambience, Bava elevates this apparition to the stuff of nightmares.

4. The stumbling woman in Pulse (2001)

Japanese creep-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa reinterprets the ghost story for the computer age in a story about mysterious disappearances on a university campus. It is probably a metaphor for alienation in the modern world, but don’t let that put you off. And don’t expect to be spoon-fed with reassuring logic; do expect an atmosphere of mounting apocalyptic dread, people fading into shadows, a soundtrack full of ominous rumbling and – scariest of all – the ghost who stumbles.

3. Jennet Goss in The Woman in Black (1989)

Related: The Woman In Black: why did Britain's scariest horror film disappear?

For chills that go all the way down to your marrow, forget the Daniel Radcliffe version of Susan Hill’s novel and go for the TV adaptation with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale. If you thought you couldn’t be frightened by such hoary cliches as old dark houses, foggy marshes and black-clad figures looking vaguely malevolent in graveyards – think again. And brace yourself for what devotees invariably refer to, with a shudder, as “that scene”.

2. Abigail Crain in The Haunting (1963)

Maybe it’s the dead heiress haunting the house in Robert Wise’s film, the first and best adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story or maybe the malignant force is the house itself – but this is a ghost so scary you don’t even need to see it to be frightened out of your wits. Never underestimate the primal fear of unexplained noises, hammering at the door, the sort of overelaborate wallpaper you really do not want to examine too closely – and the realisation that the person whose hand you thought you were holding is on the other side of the room.

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents.
Deborah Kerr in The Innocents. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

1. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Innocents (1961)

Are the ghosts real, or figments of the febrile imagination of the governess who sees dead servants peering through windows or lurking on the far side of the lake in a fair approximation of an early Black Sabbath album cover? It doesn’t matter, because either way they will chill your blood in the first and still the best adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Directed by Jack Clayton, every frame of Freddie Francis’s deep-focus black-and-white cinematography seems designed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.