If you’ve ever wondered whether those noises were *really* old pipes, these movies might be for you.


13 Ghosts (1960). Dir. William Castle. US.

William Castle is just as important to horror history as Alfred Hitchcock, Vincent Price, or Roger Corman. Castle directed and/or produced such classics as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), Homicidal (1961), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The original 1960 version of 13 Ghosts has a similar tone and pace to Castle’s other work, and a lot of horror from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s somewhere between thriller and romantic comedy, sweet and endearing but with the elements of horror, prototypical jump scares if you will. The haunting in 13 Ghosts is unique in that it isn’t incidental, the ghosts aren’t in the house because they died there. They’ve been put there, trapped on purpose. There are 12 ghosts when Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) inherits the house from his uncle, Dr. Plato Zorba (Roy Jenson). In addition to the  ghosts, there’s also a hidden fortune that Dr. Zorba’s lawyer wants and is willing to kill for. The lawyer is eventually killed, making him the 13th ghost, setting the others free and allowing the family to uncover the money. The skeleton of this story was later adapted for Steve Beck’s 2001 film Thir13en Ghosts, although calling it a remake is a bit disingenuous. While Beck’s version is fun in its own ways, what makes Castle’s film so wonderful is the trick photography-era effects. Much like House on Haunted Hill, the effects used for the ghosts are more reminiscent of Georges Méliès early cinema. I’ve talked a bit more about Castle’s effects in House on Haunted Hill in my Murder Mystery Film List, so rather than re-hashing, here’s William Castle on the set of 13 Ghosts:

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And a bonus photo of Vincent Price, just for good measure:

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The Shining (1980). Dir. Stanley Kubrick. UK/US.

There are two camps when it comes to interpreting The Shining. Either Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is prone to violent outbursts and has a psychotic break while isolated at the Overlook, causing his murderous rampage, or the hotel is genuinely haunted and Jack is possessed. The second is by far more popular, and takes Jack’s alcoholism and history of abusive behavior into account while leaving the door open for paranormal entities. This reading of the film is supported by the conversation between Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) and Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) about what’s called “the shining,” or the ability to read minds, communicate telepathically, and see ghosts (whether those ghosts want to be seen or not).

The alternative readings of the film here make it a useful tool for examining subjectivity and constructions of reality in paranormal horror. It’s also helpful in looking at Cold War cinema. I talked about this in the last episode of my Everything is Liminal series. In short, like with so many ghost movies, it’s not really about the ghosts. The haunting is caused by past trauma, trauma so deep and so violent that it rips right through space/time and allows dead folks to completely ignore that fact that they aren’t really supposed to keep walking and talking. Or that personal space is a thing and possession is a serious violation of boundaries.

The trauma in The Shining is the shift in the way we think about war. This is where it gets complicated, because I’m using Jean Baudrillard’s explanation of “simulacra” as the foundation for my argument. A simulacrum, for Baudrillard, is a copy of a copy of a copy. First there’s an apple, then a painting of the apple, then a photo of the painting, then a movie about the photo, and by the end apple trees are extinct and all we have to remember them by is the movie. Baudrillard uses this model to discuss nuclear warfare. For Baudrillard, deterrence strategies like Mutually Assured Destruction forever changed the way we think about global wars because now they’re about the threat, the possibility of war. We have no idea what full-blown nuclear war would actually look like. Furthermore, if we believe scientific projections (which are, themselves, ephemeral) then we never can know what global nuclear warfare looks like, because we’ll all be too dead to see it. Therefore, the trauma in The Shining is the shift to nuclear capability and the ghosts are the unknowability of global war in the (post-) Cold War context.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Dir. Kim Jee-woon. South Korea.

When you Google A Tale of Two Sisters the top results, after the obvious IMDB and Wikipedia pages, are forum posts explaining the film’s ending. The ending is complicated, but it becomes less confusing when you think about it in abstract terms. There are things that we know: Su-Mi and Su-Yeon are sisters; Mrs. Bae (Park Mi-hyun) is dead; Mrs. Bae is Moo-hyeon’s first wife and Su-Mi and Su-Yeon’s mother; Su-Mi has spent time in a psychiatric facility. And that’s about it. There are other story points, like Su-Yeon’s death, Mrs. Bae’s terminal illness and suicide, and Heo Eun-joo being Moo-hyeon’s second wife that are probably true, but are still left open to some interpretation. Depending on how you think about the film, the house may not be haunted at all. As with the plot of Goodnight Mommy, it’s unclear whether the ghost, in this case Su-Yeon, is actually a haunting or if she’s a figment of Su-Mi’s imagination. There are folks who argue vehemently that the haunting is real, and that’s a perfectly fine way to look at it, but it’s so much less interesting than alternative readings. There’s a horror cinema precedent for this kind of reading: in Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining it is possible to accept that the ghosts are/are not real at the same time. Just remember, these are movies, they don’t have to abide by the strict concepts of reality that we rely on to structure our lives. By looking at it this way, A Tale of Two Sisters is more an examination of simultaneity and how trauma and violence fragment reality.

The Amityville Horror (2005). Dir. Andrew Douglas. US.

The Amityville Horror is probably the clearest example of a haunted house movie. The haunting isn’t tied to a person and isn’t connected to a single death, or even a single incident. The house itself is evil—when the priest Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall) spills holy water on the floor, it burns like acid. The space is imbued with evil that manifests as a haunting. This is fitting given the reason that the house is haunted in the first place. Much like Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic Poltergeist, the Lutz’s new home is built on the site where Reverend Jeremiah Ketcham, a 17th-century cult preacher, tortured and killed Native Americans. The house has already been host to numerous murder/suicides when George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds) moves his wife Kathy (Melissa George) and three step-kids in. George is eventually possessed, becomes violent and abusive, and tries to kill his family. Kathy is able to knock him out, however, and get him away from the house before he does any real damage. The Amityville Horror is a particularly good example of this sub-genre because the haunting is limited to the house’s field of influence. Unlike curse films, the haunting is tied to the place and doesn’t stick to people, even after they’ve been possessed.

Author: Geneveive Newman

Image Credit: Cineclick Asia/Big Blue Film © 2003