Seriously Scary Ghost Films for History Fans

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Young boys running to the nearest shelter near the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Image courtesy of the Google Art Project.

Creaking floorboards, the tickle of icy fingers on the back of the neck, and the smell of cigarettes and perfume in a room that was empty for years: This is what you’ll find in the perfect Halloween movie. Ghosts can be funny, like Beetlejuice, or romantic, like Patrick Swayze’s unforgettable dedication to Demi Moore in Ghost, but history fans prefer to find their ghosts hopelessly roaming about in the past.

The films in this list have the intense suspense, shock, and fear required for spooky entertainment, enough to leave you sitting up in the dark, afraid to cross the room for the light switch – but each of the films takes place in a historical setting, increasing the terrifying pleasure enough to keep you wide awake long into the night.

These movies are skilfully-made and worth the sacrifice of sleep.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The Devil’s Backbone is set in a boy’s orphanage in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and the war plays a huge role in this film. When his father dies in the war, Carlos’ tutor abandons him, and the overburdened headmistress and professor who run the orphanage reluctantly accept him.

One of the first things Carlos sees in the orphanage is a large, un-exploded bomb in the center of the courtyard. This impotent bomb plays an important role in the film, both in plot and metaphor.

Carlos quickly makes both enemies and friends among the orphans, and ghosts. Although most of the cast consists of exceptionally-talented child actors, this is not a childrens’ movie. It is terrifying, and realistic in every respect from the plot to the scenery.

The film’s director, the celebrated Guillermo del Toro, also received a nomination for an Academy Award for his 2006 horror film Pan’s Labyrinth.


Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company submarine which first entered WWII in the Pacific Theater on 2 April 1943. Courtesy of the United States government.

Below (2002)

It is World War II, and the U.S.S. Tiger Shark has arrived to rescue survivors from a sinking hospital ship. The submarine is plagued with strange events from the moment these strangers arrive on board.

The film makes great use of the isolated, claustrophobic atmosphere. It also uses shock and surprise to the fullest extent. Imagine: A ghost on a submarine. Where would you run? Where would you hide?

The writing is flawless, and the actors play their roles to perfection. The character of the female doctor, Claire, played by Olivia Williams, is rather interesting for a horror film in that she is not a Scream Queen, does not fall in love, have sex, or run out into the night to check on strange noises.

Instead, Claire is strong and intelligent. Below may be classified by some as a b-movie, but it is destined to become a horror classic.


Nicole Kidman at the Cannes Film Festival, 2013. Photo by Georges Biard.

The Others (2001)

This movie has all the great elements of a ghost story, including a never-ending supply of fog, darkness, forests thick with trees, and isolation. The Others takes place in an isolated country house in the British Crown Dependency of Jersey during the aftermath of World War II.

This is the story of two pale, sickly, terrified children, Anne and Nicholas, who live with their mother, Grace Stewart, in a gloomy mansion with long hallways, heavy wood doors, and plenty of antique furniture as well as books of the dead-albums of photos of deceased family members.

The children have a rare condition. They are allergic to light, which increases the gloomy atmosphere of the film.

The greatness of this movie is its plot, which has more twists and turns than a roller coaster ride.

The beauty of this movie is in the impeccable performance of Nicole Kidman who never fails to convince her audience that she is experiencing every emotion she shows onscreen, as well as Alakina Mann, who plays her traumatized daughter, Anne, and James Bentley, who plays the emotionally-tortured son.


The Stanley Hotel, home of the inventor of the Stanley Steamer. Photo by Miguel Vieira.

The Shining (1980)

This Stanley Kubrick horror masterpiece set the standard for ghost stories for many years before M. Night Shyamalan hit the scene. Based on a novel by Stephen King, The Shining is the story of a recovering alcoholic writer, his high-strung wife, and his son, who is gifted with ESP. The story takes place in a historically-preserved hotel that is closed for the season-yet another perfect setting for a ghost story. It is the modern version of the dark mansion with many rooms.

Shortly after the movie begins, a blizzard isolates the hotel from the outside world. The hotel is stocked with a full bar and many gruesome spirits, including a bartender with keys to the liquor cabinet. Stephen King came up with the idea for The Shining while staying in Room 217 at the famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, just before it closed for the season.

The Stanley Hotel, built by the same man who invented the Stanley Steamer, also has a reputation for being haunted-but by its previous owners, the Stanleys.

The Changeling (1980)

A grieving widower, John Russell (George C. Scott), moves into a dark, gloomy mansion and suddenly finds he is not alone. The mansion is also inhabited by the ghost of a sick, disabled boy in a wheelchair and his strange, toy ball, which is expertly used for its shock value as it bounces noisily down stairs or rolls into a room.


What was left of the Denver Cemetery in 1950. Photo from the Denver Public Library courtesy of Legends of America.



George C. Scott takes on his usual role with great finesse as he investigates the history of the house, searching for the child’s past. This story has an interesting background, as well. It is loosely based on the true story of a man who purchased a home across the street from Denver’s Chessman Park, which was built on top of a former miner’s cemetery, and this was built on top of a Native American Indian burial ground. The graves were moved in a horrific, haphazard way that was documented in local newspaper accounts.

The Lady in White (1988)

Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is locked in a school closet by bullies. He thinks he witnesses a murder, but he’s not really sure, and this is the challenge-the events in this story are seen and interpreted through the mind of a child.

Although the main characters are children, and the film is about children, this is not a childrens’ movie. The plot is about a child murderer, and there is a graphic shooting during the film, as well. The story takes place in 1962 and addresses important social issues of that time-such as racial prejudice-which greatly enrich the plot. Some of the special effects seem a bit juvenile, but the well-written story makes up for this minor flaw. There are also some comic elements, particularly between the two brothers, that make the film quite enjoyable.

Scary Movies For Halloween

Are scary movies on Halloween a tradition in your family? These films incorporate history into their plots, so you’ll get a little bit of insight into the past, as you enjoy films that’ll have you afraid to peek into the closet and under the bed. Sleep? Who needs it.


Director: Twohy, David. Performers: Matthew Davis, Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams. Below. (2002). Dimension Films. Film.

Director: Medak, Peter. Performers: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas.The Changeling. (1980). Chessman Park Productions. Film.

Director: Guillermo del Toro. Performers: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve. The Devil’s Backbone/El espinazo del diablo. (2001). El Deseo, S.A. Film.

Director: Frank LaLoggia. Performers: Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Catherine Helmond, Jason Presson. The Lady in White. (1988). New Sky Communications, Inc. Film.

Director: Alejandro Amenabar. Performers: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann, James Bentley. The Others. (2001). Cruise/Wagner Productions. Film.

Director: Stanley Kubrick. Performer: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers. The Shining. (1980). Warner Bros. Pictures. Film.

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© Copyright 2013 Darla Dollman, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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