In honor of Amazon’s new series Truth Seekers, we’re rounding up our favorite embodiments of that good ol’ scary-movie trope: ghost hunters! Technically all of these folks succeed because they all find ghosts (that’s why there’s no Scooby-Doo gang on this list), but some triumph more than others.
Just want to preface this list by saying we’re not necessarily ranking by how good the movie is—we actually like and recommend most of these!—but by how successful the investigators are: do they get rid of the ghost and/or ghosts? Do they survive? Do other people around them survive? Do they save the entire city of New York from a supernatural apocalypse? You get the idea.
Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz’s 2011 film gets around the found-footage dilemma of “why are they filming every damn thing?” by making it about people who do that for a living: the crew of a ghost-hunting reality show. Led by the Zak Bagans-esque Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), the group barricades themselves inside an abandoned psychiatric hospital with cameras galore, ostensibly to capture some evidence of paranormal goings-on (even though none of them are believers). But they’re in for it when malevolent entities start making their presence felt, and the asylum itself seemingly manipulates time and space to keep everyone trapped in perpetual darkness. Thankfully, the spirits don’t monkey around with anyone’s battery life, so we get to see how the whole production spirals out of control—and it doesn’t end well for anyone, except the ghosts.
Want to see a nightmare-inducing horror movie? Watch Demián Rugna’s excellent 2017 release Terrified. Got a spooky situation in your house and need professional help? Maybe don’t contact the paranormal enthusiasts in Terrified. While they’re all highly respected, to the point of the Buenos Aires police allowing them free reign to do their thing, the elderly trio—Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), Albreck (Elvira Onetto), and Rosentock (George L. Lewis)—isn’t exactly a crack team in the field. Early in the movie, Albreck takes so long getting back to a petrified would-be client that he’s disappeared when she finally visits his house. Then, when it becomes clear his plight is tied to other weird occurrences in the area—including a brutal murder by an apparently invisible assailant—the group finally gets organized. Sort of.
First mistake: they separate immediately, posting up in neighboring houses that’ve all reported strange activity. Only Rosentock shows up with anything resembling high-tech equipment, not that gadgets would help much in this particular scenario. And they don’t really have a plan other than “observe and report,” which suggests that despite all their smarts, they don’t understand how much danger they’re putting themselves in. It’s really not all that surprising when Terrified’s creatures emerge and start picking them off in variously gruesome ways, but holy hell is it scary.
Claire (Sara Paxton), the endearingly awkward protagonist of Ti West’s 2011 The Innkeepers, isn’t a professional ghost hunter—she’s not even that into her job at historic hotel the Yankee Pedlar, a feeling enhanced by the fact that the place is about to shut down permanently. But what might otherwise be a dull routine of checking guests in and out and bringing them extra towels is spiced up by the fact that the hotel is said to be haunted, something Claire’s similarly bored co-worker, Luke (Pat Healy), has attempted to capitalize upon with his website, “Real Hauntings.”
Luke claims to have had genuine supernatural encounters at the Yankee Pedlar (conveniently, he didn’t have his camera with him at the time), but Claire is determined to witness something herself, and capture it for Luke’s site, on her last weekend working there. Armed with headphones and audio recording equipment that targets EVPs, she sets out to make contact—and though there’s a certain amount of goofing off that goes on, her eventual journey into the hotel’s very creepy basement proves to be unwise. As The Innkeepers shows us, and another movie on this list further underlines (The Awakening, a few places down), it’s a very bad idea to mess around with ghosts if you’re at any risk of scaring yourself into a fatal asthma attack.
In James Wan’s 2010 blockbuster, the Lambert family packs up and moves out of their new house after only living there a short while—wouldn’t you, if you thought your digs were haunted? Alas, they start having similar issues in their new new house. Enter paranormal investigators Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who went on to direct this year’s The Invisible Man). They’re dressed like the Pulp Fiction guys, and they bicker endlessly as they set up their equipment, which involves several cameras and other doohickeys so specialized Tucker is sure to announce that made them himself. These two characters invite some levity into what’s otherwise a pretty tense movie, but the real MVP is the third member of their team: psychic investigator Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who instantly intuits that this isn’t a typical haunted house situation, though there are evil spirits involved.
The scene with the gas mask, in which Specs scribbles down Elise’s otherworldly whispers, is one of cinema’s most terrifying séances ever. But one of those creepy entities gets the better of Elise in the end, which is why Insidious’ ghost-hunters rank so low on this list. That said, Elise made such an impression with fans that she’s appeared in every Insidious film that followed (she’ll probably even pop up in that just-announced fifth Insidious film, timeline be damned). Thank goodness for flashbacks and prequels.
Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel Hell House formed the basis for this 1973 John Hough film about ghost-hunters—two psychics, plus a guy with a ghost-neutralizing contraption who brings his wife along for fun—who are offered a princely sum to investigate the ghouls of Belasco House. The sprawling British estate’s reputation is pretty well summed up by its nickname, but as Roddy McDowall’s character dryly informs us, the deceased former owner of the home casts a shadow of evil thanks to his fondness for “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” The house is dripping with gothic atmosphere, deceptive spirits, and attack cats, and not everybody survives through act three—but the machine, which is never really explained but is sort of like a giant EMP that zaps away spirits—ends up making a convincing case in favor of techno-powered exorcisms.
Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 The Haunting of Hill House, titled simply The Haunting, actually got there first with a very similar tale of a haunted mansion that’s targeted for paranormal investigation with tragic results. But unlike The Legend of Hell House, which ends with an inkling of hope that the ghosts have been purged, you get the sense that Hill House will always be haunted (unless you’re watching the ghastly 1999 remake, which serves up a smidge of closure enhanced by some very iffy CG effects).
Author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) has made a decent enough living writing “haunted” travel guides, though on all his research trips—armed with stuff like an infrared camera, an EMF reader, and his handheld recorder—he’s never actually encountered a ghost, or witnessed anything particularly spooky for that matter. He’s grown so jaded and skeptical that he’s just going through the motions at this point...until he receives a mysterious tip about a New York City hotel and is intrigued enough to go check it out.
Mikael Håfström’s 2007 film 1408 is based on a Stephen King short story, and though the room Mike stays in—over the strenuous objections of the hospitality manager, played by Samuel L. Jackson—is only the second most famous hotel room King’s ever written about, its malevolence and mind-fuckery capabilities actually give the Overlook Hotel a genuine run for the money. Mike’s experiences somewhat mirrors those of the crew in Grave Encounters, though unlike those unfortunate would-be TV stars, Mike manages to squelch the evil at its source before making his own unfortunate exit off this mortal coil.
Florence (Rebecca Hall), a wealthy British woman grieving her soldier fiancé who died in World War I, hopes to make contact with him from the beyond—but instead makes a name for herself debunking fake mediums and disrupting contrived séances. Pushed to the brink emotionally, she nonetheless agrees to investigate an alleged haunting at an all-boys’ boarding school, where a decades-old legend and a student’s recent death have stirred up some bad PR (“You must be the ghost lady,” the headmaster sighs with a mix of relief and resignation when she arrives).
Florence uses her equipment (the best the 1920s could provide, including a “Marconi magnetic field detector”) to quickly uncover the expected hoax, but soon realizes there’s some deeper truth to the stories after all—and she’ll need to look within herself to confront the school’s all-too-real lingering souls. Director Nick Murphy’s chiller veers off the expected narrative path about midway through, and though the jury’s still out on The Awakening’s ambiguous ending, the rest is helped along by some lovely cinematography and strong performances by Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, and Isaac “Bran Stark” Hempstead-Wright.
About 40 minutes into this 1982 Tobe Hooper-Steven Spielberg classic, desperate dad Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) seeks help from a trio of UC Irvine parapsychologists. These are people whose field he might have scoffed at under normal circumstances, but considering his young daughter’s been kidnapped into the spirit realm, he’s suddenly become far more open-minded. Setting the standard for paranormal-investigator characters in horror movies for decades to come, Drs. Martha Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan Mitchell (Richard Lawson), and Marty Casey (Martin Casella) fill the suburban Freeling home with specialized equipment and settle in for an action-packed night that’ll blow all their previous research out of the water.
That first experience proves so harrowing (that skin-peeling scene gets me every time), the team calls in the big guns: psychic medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein). Her guidance proves incredibly valuable—she helps Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) contact and rescue little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) from the other side—though her famous declaration of “This house is clean” does end up proving a bit premature.
Peter Jackson’s first Hollywood venture (after finding success in New Zealand with movies like Bad Taste and Heavenly Creatures) remains one of the most unique ghost-hunter movies ever made. Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has turned his talent for communicating with ghosts into a tidy little scam, getting his spectral pals to “haunt” houses that he’ll then be hired to exorcise.
That’s already a very clever premise, but things get even more complicated when a serial killer’s ghost starts claiming victims from beyond the grave—and Frank has to endure a couple of near-death experiences in order to stop him. No other movie on this list dares to push its storyline so far into fantasy, and in less capable hands (and with crappier effects; for 1996, The Frighteners is top-notch) it might not have worked so well. But who better to catch a ghost than a guy who can talk to ghosts—and will even turn into a ghost himself if the circumstances demand it?
Another James Wan horror juggernaut, 2013's The Conjuring purports to tell the true story of the Perron family, who move into a rustic Rhode Island farmhouse filled with cast-off furniture and trinkets left by previous owners, along with—much to their horror—a ferocious demonic presence. Whether or not this tale resembles real-life events is up to the viewer to judge; what’s certain is that the paranormal investigators in the movie are based on actual people: Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.
Not only do they collect cursed objects for safekeeping in a creepy museum attached to their house, they give lectures on their past cases while selectively taking on new ones. Ed’s the gadget guy, Lorraine uses her clairvoyant gifts to communicate with whatever’s skulking in the shadows, and they have assistants who step in to help them on big projects—like rigging the Perron’s home with cameras and other recording devices. They also have the resources to dig up historical information when they need it, which comes in handy when the property has a tragic past involving, for instance, a vengeful witch. To that end, they also have the Catholic Church on speed-dial, which helps when they need the go-ahead to perform an urgent exorcism. The Warrens are seasoned pros; they succeed because they have this ghost-hunting thing on lock. It seems pretty safe to assume the upcoming Conjuring 3 will continue their winning streak.
Obviously. They weren’t the first to find a way to monetize their spirit-hunting skills, but only they had backpack-rigged proton packs, an upcycled Cadillac ambulance/hearse, a converted firehouse as their HQ, and even their own catchy-as-hell theme song. Plus they got real results, overcoming some serious EPA sabotage to defeat the towering threat of cross-dimensional beings with the power to summon giant marshmallow men at will.
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