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The 10 Creepiest Ghosts in Cinematic History

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Tuesday, Mar 19, 2013
For many of us, a good ghost story was our first exposure to horror. Here are ten examples of spirits who surpass their cinematic situation to become nightmare fodder... even years later.

For most of us, the first thing we fear is ghosts. No, not the actual spirits themselves. Those are left to our imaginations as marshmallows sizzle over an open campfire and some specious adult decides that a kid’s coming of age should have them wary of hooks on car doors and axe wielding maniacs in the backseat of a car. Ghosts tie into our Puritanical society, one steeped so heavily in religious rectitude that any afterlife must make room for those unwilling to walk the path of paradise. Naturally, when cinema went scary, ghosts became one of its most endearing double exposure nightmares. Not all specters are special, but when they are, they are worth pointing out, especially since they continue to invade our dreams sometimes decades after they first haunted our motion picture past time.
Of course, there are some preemptive caveats. We kept out question mark monsters like Freddy Krueger (isn’t he just a lethal dream???) and the true unknown quantities like those in The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House. We’ve also avoided some of the more obvious fiends, like the spooks in 13 Ghosts and its remake update. In general, we’ve picked the creeps that gave us the same, that made us wince when they were about to be revealed and shriek when their true purpose plays out. We’ve also made it very clear that, just because you feature ghosts in your narrative (like those in the new reality-based fright flick, Shadow People, now out on DVD and Blu-ray) doesn’t mean you make the most effective use of them.

So, without further boo ado, here are SE&L’s Top 10 Creepiest Ghosts in Cinematic History, beginning with a bunch of spooky swashbucklers:

#10 - The Dead Pirates from The Fog

They begin as legend, part of a story told to scare children along a sleepy California coastline. Then, without warning, the title terror arrives, and within it, a group of decaying buccaneers who are after a rumored king’s ransom in booty. Blood and boos ensue. As the master of mood, director John Carpenter has no problem drumming up the dread. Sadly, we have to wait almost the entire film to get to these creepers, but it’s worth the wait. They turn an otherwise engaging exercise in suspense into a solid shocker.

#9 - The Beast from Poltergeist

There are actually a lot of spooks taking on the Freeling family. We have the Indian burial ground angle. Then there’s the whole “you didn’t move the bodies” idea behind reclaiming and building on an old cemetery. We’ve got the creepy corrupt cult preacher conceit that would form Parts 2 and 3. Still, it was the diminutive psychic Tangina who spoke of “The Beast,” an entity with an agenda against living humanity and wants nothing more than to possess little Carol Ann. Whoever’s behind the boo, they make for one stellar fright fest.

#8 - The White Faced Man from Carnival of Souls

After a horrible car crash, church organist Mary Henry starts seeing ominous visions, dancing figures at a vacant carnival, one of which is a fright masked man whose visage is a pasty, pasty white. What he symbolizes becomes obvious after a while, but there’s no denying that, for those moments he’s onscreen, he chills one to the bone. Even more amazing, writer/director Herk Harvey improvised much of the horror material, utilizing primitive make-up and an abandoned location to deliver the shivers… and it worked.

#7 - The Obsessed Nurse from Fragile

Few have seen this amazing movie from one of the two filmmakers behind the brilliant [REC] series. In it, Calista Flockhart plays a nurse from the US helping to transfer some sick kids to a new ward in an old hospital. There, she runs into a horrific effigy with terror on its mind. The twist comes when they finally ID the specter, and it’s not who everyone thinks it is. Instead, we get a decent denouement and one of the creepiest ghostly figures ever.

#6 -  Johnny Charles Bartlett from The Frighteners

As the spirit of a serial killer who wants to be known for the most murders ever, Gary Bussey’s son Jake is a wonderful monster. Initially, he is viewed as a vision of the Grim Reaper, full cape flowing and scythe ready to rip people apart. But once ‘debunked’ medium Frank Bannister is brought in to solve the case/take the rap, we get to see what Bartlett really looks like, a buzz-cutted brute who wants nothing more than to satiate his sizable bloodlust.

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