A taxonomy that breaks down the horror genre into a moderately comprehensive collection of sub-genres, each with their own list of must-see films. This section deals specifically with paranormal horror films.

Sub-Categories

  • Paranormal Horror
    • Ghosts
    • Haunted Memes
    • Haunted Objects
    • Haunted Spaces
    • Curses
    • Possession
    • Cults
    • Religious and Spiritual Horror
      • Demons
      • Witches and the Occult
    • Supernatural Horror

Paranormal Horror

While defining a distinction between paranormal and supernatural is a bit arbitrary, it’s a useful division to discussing horror. Paranormal, here, refers to anything beyond physical senses. This means that paranormal refers to the relationship between science and something other. This relationship is very often oppositional, generally more so in supernatural horror than paranormal horror, but paranormal horror nonetheless encompasses phenomena that challenges and undermines conventional science.

As Carol Clover explains in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, occult (and I would argue most/all of the paranormal/supernatural genre) is based on a primary conflict between White Science and Black Magic. Before explaining what she means by this in the context of film, I’d like to point out that the racial overtones here are intentional. To be fair, Clover makes note of the frequency with which paranormal/supernatural phenomena are based in “ancient knowledge” or “native rituals” and other racially coded, stereotypes. Beyond the recurrence of racist tropes in this sub-genre, the implication that people of color are inherently opposed to science and rational or verifiable thought perpetuates toxic notions of inherent underachievement that have historical, systemic, and institutional roots. These tropes fall into a number of categories, usually defined by race and ethnicity, but the most common are the magical negro, which Matthew W. Hughey defines as “lower-class, uneducated, and magical black characters who transform disheveled, uncultured, or broken white characters into competent people,”[1] and the noble savage, who “reflect[s] Enlightenment preoccupations and romantic ideals, is the child of nature, a spiritual creature, and a proud warrior, endowed with superhuman strength, grace, and bravery” according to Richard King.[2] Returning to Clover’s main argument, she explains that

White Science refers to Western rational tradition. Its representatives are nearly always white males, typically doctors, and its tools are surgery, drugs, psychotherapy, and other forms of hegemonic science. Black Magic, on the other hand, refers to satanism, voodoo, spiritualism, and folk variants of Roman Catholicism. […] The inevitable lesson of the modern occult film is that White Science has its limits, and that if it does not yield, in the extremity, to the wisdom of Black Magic, all is lost.[3]

This genre’s conflict, then, is between science and something else, so the first step in figuring out how to address a particular film is to determine what that something else is. In the case of paranormal horror, the something else is generally science taken to its far extreme, so that the anxiety or fear at the heart of the film has to do with a fear of taking technology too far, about what happens when the deus ex machina (the god in the machine) is no longer under human control, and no longer abides by human (natural) laws. As Clover explains, supernatural horror is about the limits of science, as opposed to the ways in which it could be unlimited. Science cannot solve demonic possession or defeat witches.

Paranormal Film List

Ghosts

I’ve talked about ghosts quite a bit on the site already (here, here, and here) and distinguishing whether a film falls into this sub-genre is pretty straightforward. Does the movie have a ghost in it? 99.9%[4] of the time that makes it a ghost movie. The important part of the sub-genre is less about what qualifies a film as a ghost horror movie, and more what ghosts mean and why a filmmaker might choose to use them rather than some other staple of the genre. Regardless of a movie’s explanation for how ghosts come to be, what abilities and limitations they have, how to exorcise them, etc., a primary consistency among ghosts is that they symbolize a deep, abiding fear of the past. As Avery Gordon[5] explains in her foundational text, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “[S]pecters or ghosts appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view. The ghost, as I understand it, it not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention.”[6] In many cases, the trouble (or, as I’m proposing, the history) that the ghost represents and threatens to expose is particularly violent and involves some kind of major transgression of social order (like murder, rape, or suicide). Beyond just exposing the violent past of a person/place/object/etc., ghosts are representationally conceptual. What I mean by this is that they don’t just point to violence; they’re more than sign posts for bad things. They create the larger systemic violence that leads to interpersonal violence possible. For example, as I discussed a bit in relation to rape-revenge films, rape is made possible by historical, systemic, institutional sexism and misogyny. Ghostly Matters is framed around a discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and what the novel’s ghost, Beloved, means, does, and represents. In this case, as with many Reconstruction-era ghost stories, the ghost doesn’t just point out her own violent murder, but the larger, pervasive violence of slavery, the trauma it causes, and how that trauma is (not) remembered.

Ghost Film List

Haunted Memes

What I had listed here is still applicable and important, but on further reflection I found a link between most/all films that might fall into this category: they involve some kind of haunted technology. In this I’m tentatively including Cold War-era “ghost in the machine” films like War Games and Demon Seed. The films that fit the category best, however, are post-VTR (video tape recorder) and have to do with the propagation of haunted visual media. These movies are specifically meta, with the haunting disseminating from videos and games within the movie. There’s a pretty substantial amount of overlap here with haunted object films and urban legend films, so the distinction I’m drawing has to do with the ambiguity of the haunting in these movies. These “ghosts” are ephemeral, they aren’t necessarily linked to a specific thing and/or the film never fully clarifies how the haunting works.

In case you’re wondering about my use of the word “meme” here, I mean something very different from Philosoraptor or Doge. I came to think of the term “meme” in relation to horror after reading Caitlyn R. Kiernan’s explanation of it in The Drowning Girl. According to the novel’s narrator, Imp:

Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways. A book, a poem, a song, a bedtime story a grandmother’s suicide, the choreography of a dance, a few frames of film, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a deadly tumble from a horse, a faded photograph, or a story you tell your daughter (Kiernan 12).

Just like when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, these films are concerned not just with contemporary anxieties but with technological developments. The immediate danger may come from a killer video game or a VHS tape, but the actual threat is rapidly evolving communications technology that makes spreading ideas faster, easier, and more effective. In a lot of cases these films start to look dated within a few years of their release because they’re so period-specific. This may hamper their commercial success, but it also makes them important, informative media texts in terms of historical, thematic, and aesthetic developments in the genre.

Returning to my original explanation of haunting as a general category, Avery Gordon explains haunting as follows:

What’s distinctive about haunting is that it is an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly. I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.[7]

You may recognize this quote from my podcast on The Shining and it’s equally applicable here. Her articulation of haunting could very well be taken as an articulation of the uncanny (also discussed in that podcast; also linked to liminality here and here). For those who haven’t listened to any of that yet, here are some quick definitions for you:

    • The uncanny: the uncanny (unheimlich in the original German) is one of Freud’s theories and is linked to his work in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in that it’s tied up with repetition compulsion and the death drive (see definitions below). Simply put, it’s anything that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. There is more nuance to it, of course, but perhaps the most effective example of the uncanny is the experience of getting lost walking through a housing track. You know that you’re close to home, and everything seems familiar because the houses are architecturally similar. Even while the houses look familiar, however, things like what plants are in the yard, the drapes in the front window, the cars parked in driveways, are all different from what you remember. So even though the houses should be recognizable to you, they’re completely unrecognizable.
      • Repetition compulsion: Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion is based on some very flawed work dealing with trauma and its psychological impact on survivors. According to Freud, people who have experienced trauma tend to relive or recreate that trauma. For Freud, humans relive traumatic events in order to move closer to death; the death drive becomes less a slow march; it creeps, it is an impulse that solidifies and amplifies with time; it is a more frenzied, repetitive need as it escalates.
      • Death drive: the death drive, as alluded to above, is the human desire for death, but here death refers primarily to the biochemical, organic consequences of ceasing to live—decomposition and bodily stillness. Freud theorizes that people possess some innate impulse to return to an inert state, to essentially stop moving, to become static again through death.[8]
    • Liminality: liminality is a term borrowed from anthropology, and refers to those times, spaces, people, and places that exist in between two things. The way I’m using it here comes from Arnold van Gennep’s explanation of it in terms of rites of passage (in the imaginatively titled Rites de Passage). For van Gennep, initiation rituals encompass three stages: pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal.
      • Pre-liminal rites: rites where the individual is preparing to transition from one social position to another, but they are still firmly situated in their previous position. Think of this as final exams, presentations, or interviews for high school seniors. They’re necessary for students to graduate, and they are a final task to determine the students’ preparedness for graduation, but high school seniors are still students throughout the exam process.
      • Liminal rites: the liminal phase of the initiation ritual is when the individual exists in both the social position they are coming from and the one they’re moving to. This is the graduation ceremony itself, but especially the moment when participants are handed their diploma on stage (usually positioned intentionally at the center of the stage). In this phase, participants are both students and graduates at the same time, they have one foot in both subject positions at the same time.
      • Post-liminal rites: these are the parts of a ritual immediately following the transition ceremony. An increasing number of high schools (in SoCal at least) have begun holding Grad Night immediately after the graduation ceremony. This is intended to keep seniors on their best behavior in the days leading up to graduation (because it gives the school something to take a way if students vandalize things, fail to return textbooks, etc.), but it also serves as a clear post-liminal ritual. Alternatively, some communities have traditions involving parties or receptions after the ceremony. Post-liminal rites have two main purposes: first, they celebrate a successful initiation of a member of the community, and second, they confirm and solidify that person’s status as a full community member.

Haunted Memes Film List

Haunted Objects

The important aspect of haunted object films has little to do with the haunting itself and everything to do with the object. The point of haunted object films is that the haunting becomes corporeal, it has matter and occupies physical space in the world. It becomes tangible, and, furthermore, the haunting can be transmitted in a similar way to a virus. The unsettling reality that a person can unknowingly touch something or pick up a knick-knack at a garage sale evokes anxieties attached to horror films both about contagions (which I’ll explain in more detail when I cover zombies) and about ghosts. This formulation of haunting-as-contagion will come up again in relation to haunted spaces in terms of the accidental nature of  “picking up” a haunting.[9]

Haunted Object Film List

Curses

Curse films break from the rest of ghost and haunting films in that there’s no way to be cursed accidentally. Instead, curse films are thematically fixated on transgressions against moral laws. Additionally, curse films tend to be some of the most problematic in the sub-genre because marginal groups (voodoo practitioners, g*psies, ancient Egyptian priests, witches/crones, etc.) represent the majority of characters who cast curses, while characters on the receiving end tend to be young, pleasant, likable, upper-middle class white men and women.

*Note: I’m not including werewolf films here because I’ve set aside a section in the monster movie sub-genre to cover them. I do acknowledge, though, that there’s huge cross-over between these two sections of horror.

Curse Film List

Haunted Spaces

As mentioned in my first podcast, liminal spaces are spaces that represent an in-between-ness; they’re transitional spaces. In horror movies about haunted spaces (houses, asylums, prisons, etc.), the most haunted places, the places where the haunting actually happens, tend to be those liminal structures in a home. For example, if you’re going to see a ghost in a haunted house, chances are it’s going to appear in a doorway (between two rooms), a hallway (between two parts of a house), a bed (between waking and sleep), a window (between inside and outside), and other similar spaces. Beyond the literal liminality of spacial structures in haunted space films, most, if not all, also include some backstory that links the space to a past trauma. A lot of these films have to do with suicide and/or murder, although there are some films (13 Ghosts and Grave Encounters, for example) that deviate from this to different degrees. Asylum and mental institution films, like haunted prison films, don’t necessitate actual deaths to have happened in a place because the image of emotional turmoil and trauma in these spaces resonates so intensely in social consciousness that it’s sufficient to explain the haunting. These films tend to be some of the most problematic in this category because, first, they rely on stigmatizing stereotypes of mental illness, and second, they depict mental hospitals as dangerous, terrifying spaces, so that seeking help is seen as a punishment.

Haunted Spaces Film List

Possession

Both Barbara Creed and Carol Clover cover possession in The Monstrous-Feminine and Men, Women, and Chainsaws so this is mostly a quick gloss on each of their theories.

Creed’s theory, as with most of her book, revolves around abjection and its implications for women in horror. She’s using Julia Kristeva’s articulation of abjection, which describes a space or subjectivity that is necessarily compelling and revolting. This means that we are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by that which is abject, and in order to exist within a patriarchal world of systems, laws, and rigid structures, the individual must reject the abject. (Examples of things that are abject are bodily fluids like saliva, vomit, and blood, but also the decomposing body itself; abject things remind us of our fragility, our soft, wet, humanness, our mortality.) Creed discusses the abject, possessed female body in connection with The Exorcist, specifically pointing out abjection’s inherent (transgressive) sexuality. The film is about 12-year-old (pre-pubescent) Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) who is possessed by a demon. One of the most upsetting parts of the film at the time of its release, according to Creed, has to do with how sexualized Regan is and her overt references to sex both with the priests who come to exorcise her, and with her mother. Creed’s discussion of the film includes an in-depth analysis of the connection between religion, patriarchy, and social order, as well as lesbian coding that is both problematic and simultaneously troubles traditional heteropatriarchal horror that involves religion.

Clover’s theory takes possession films into account as part of a larger consideration of occult horror. For Clover, possession films, in particular, have to do with moving both male and female characters closer to a neutral/non-binary gendered position, except that by the end of the film the possessed-now-exorcised woman is expected to return to her former binary position. What I mean by this is that, in the process of being possessed, women take on masculine characteristics: physical and sexual aggression, inappropriate language and exclamations, openness about bodily functions, and in most cases a deeper voice and less feminine facial features/expressions. At the same time, in order to rescue these damsels in distress (the women who “belong” to these male protagonists) men in possession films must become more feminine: more emotionally available, considerate of others, selfless and/or self-sacrificing, sexually reserved, and open-minded. Once the male protagonist has opened up in these ways (to borrow Clover’s phrasing), the woman is exorcised and is free to return to her more feminine “true” self, while the man remains transformed, evolved, changed for the better.

Cults

Cult horror could be further divided between paranormal horror and serial killer horror depending on whether the cult’s beliefs are validated in the film. In some cases, like with Martha Marcy May Marlene the cult isn’t paranormal at all and the film’s horror comes more from the psychological terror involved with gaslighting, abuse, rape, and the aftermath of PTSD. In contrast, The Invitation leaves the validity of the “paranormal” aspects of the film’s cult in question through most of the movie, but the film’s conclusion decisively declares that the cult’s paranormal power is very real and that they have succeeded. Regardless of whether these films are technically serial killer or paranormal horror, they’re all concerned with the societal implications of collective mania. Which is to say that they’re concerned with what happens when small segments of the population redefine the world in ways that are contrary to the status quo. This makes them allegorical for most, if not all, radical political movements (on either side of the political spectrum), extreme and increasingly popular religious movements, and a general increased awareness of other cultures or nations that do things in markedly different ways from the US/West. The horror in cult films is not necessarily that the cult exists and is scary all on its own, but that the cult will encroach on society at large, that it will be influential enough or violent enough to swallow up the world as we know it and recreate the world in the cult’s image.

Religious and Spiritual Horror

This is another sub-category that could be divided up into progressively smaller groupings, but there are two primary groupings that religious horror produced in the West: movies about Western Judeo-Christian tradition, and movies about…everything else (I’m not saying we’re self absorbed, but…). In this first category, is everything from evil priests to the birth of the antichrist.The second category includes both real-world religions (often drawing from mythological and Pagan traditions) to purely fictional or mostly fictional religious traditions (pretty much anything based on H.P. Lovecraft). Most of the time, religious horror films signal a historically situated, cultural anxiety concerned with major changes in the church or social attitudes about religion (as with Rosemary’s Baby, for example). Films about non-Judeo-Christian religions additionally signal fears about historical resurgences, similar to the implications that vampires and ghosts carry with them.

Demons

There are several horror sub-genres that draw heavily from graphic novels in terms of inspiration and adaptation, and demon horror is one of them.[10] This might be because for Western audiences are relatively familiar with what demons are, so there’s more opportunity to rely on that knowledge and then define them in detail. It could also be because demons have a lot of preexisting visual context and lend themselves to graphic interpretation. Either way, adaptations change and add to the landscape of live-action horror in interesting, often visually innovative ways. Aside from the visually rich nature of demon horror films, demon films also narratively enter into the larger discussion of non/sub/post/anti-human entities in horror. Specifically, they set up a counter-point to humanity, allowing us to define what is human by what it isn’t. This opens up possible cultural critiques for marginal groups that have, on various levels, been denied personhood.[11]

Witches and the Occult

Like with so much of horror, paranormal or otherwise, if the movie is about witches or the occult, it’s a safe bet that it’s actually about women. This means that it generally falls either in the realm of containing and disciplining (usually young) women or empowering them (literally). In the former, like in the case of The Mother of Tears and the rest of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, witches are women who are overreaching, striving for more power than they deserve, and generally stepping outside of their prescribed gender role. In the latter collection of films, these films begin with women who are disempowered, marginalized, or otherwise oppressed. As the film progresses, these characters seek out or otherwise find witchcraft and begin accumulating power. In some unusual instances (like The Witch), the film ends with the witch in the middle of this accumulation, having become empowered but not having experienced the consequences of being an empowered woman yet. Aside from these films, however, both the first collection of films (about women who have disavowed their gender roles and must be stopped) and the second (about women finding strength in supernatural power) require that the women in question be disciplined. In most cases, this means that the witch(es) in question get more power than they can control and burn themselves out either by depleting their power or by killing themselves.

Supernatural Horror

While the words paranormal and supernatural may be interchangeable, but as explained in the description of paranormal horror, paranormal refers primarily to things that are beyond physical senses (but still related to those senses) while supernatural has to do with the unexplainable and things that are not of this world.[12] So, while things like ghosts, psychics, some forms of possession, and some cults can be categorized as still being related to natural laws, religious, spiritual, and magical phenomena in horror films are best categorized as supernatural. If it’s easier to think about in terms of monsters (which could very well be included here, but they deserves their own segment), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is rooted in science, there is a scientific explanation (albeit an unfounded one) for the cause of the monstrosity. In contrast, Dracula [13] is entirely based on religious ideology, particularly pertaining to the soul, Satan, and the notion of a complete, singular goodness of spirit.

[1] Hughey, Matthew W. “Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in ‘Magical Negro’ Films.” Social Problems, vol. 56, no. 3, 2009, pp. 543–577. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.543.
[2] King, C. Richard, Walter R. Echo-Hawk, and Paul Rosier. “Media Images and Representations.” Contemporary Native-American Issues Series. Infobase Publishing, 2009. 22.
[3] Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: BFI, 1992. Print. 66
[4] This was almost 100%, but upon reflection I realized a case could be made for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon. Technically, since the Samurai is dead and nonetheless gives testimony with the help of a medium, you could argue that the film has a ghost in it but it’s not a ghost movie. That’s not horror, of course, so it may not be relevant to the ghost horror sub-genre, but it’s still something to consider. TL;DR: it’s not a good idea to generalize, kids. There’s usually an exception you didn’t think of, and you can be sure someone will point it out to you with much haste.
[5] You’re going to be hearing a lot about her in this section, partially because her work is so applicable to the paranormal horror sub-genre, and partially because Ghostly Matters is a genuinely great text and presents some really great, interesting, innovative theories about ghosts/haunting/violence. Go read it, thank me later.
[6] Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. Print. xvi.
[7] ibid
[8] If you’re interested in explorations of this theory outside of the psychoanalytic realm of film analysis, I’d recommend Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. If you’re interested in a reading of this in relation to media and/or lit, feel free to let me know in the comments, I’ll consider where it fits into upcoming projects.
[9] For a more in-depth look at the significance of materiality I recommend looking into phenomenology and specifically Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like Being a Thing. But be forewarned, it’s not an easy read so you’re jumping into the philosophical deep end feet-first.
[10] For a more thorough, historical look at the development of horror graphic novels and their influence on cinema, I’d recommend Rue Morgue Magazine’s “Blood in Four Colors” which you can find here
[11] For more on theories surrounding the post-human subject, I’d recommend starting with Donna Harraway
[12] The phrasing there is intentional; for those who aren’t familiar with the brand, Not Of This World®️, it’s a Christian brand. The brand name is a reference to an explanation Jesus gives to Pontius Pilate:  “‘My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jews. But now, My kingdom is not of this realm.’” (John 18:36)
[13] This is how Mina is able to be helpful to the endeavor of capturing/killing Dracula, and how she’s able to resist his allure when Lucy can’t.

Image Credit: Blumhouse Productions © 2010

Author: Geneveive Newman