“Paranormal” as its own genre can sometimes be difficult to pin down, as there really isn’t a neat definition for what qualifies as a paranormal movie. While often focusing on the horror side of things, the best paranormal movies can in fact be told in a variety of formats, across numerous genres. There are love stories dealing in paranormal elements, comedies that don’t have a hint of horror, and other types of films that deal in ghosts, witches, demons, and other examples without necessarily being horror.
Our fascination with the paranormal can come from a variety of places. Whether or not you believe in these things is irrelevant when it comes to watching paranormal movies, though, as anyone who likes movies enjoys being exposed to a larger world or mysteries beyond our comprehension. Let’s take a closer look at just how many different ways there are to tell a paranormal tale through cinematic lenses with the best paranormal movies.
The Best Paranormal Movies
15. The Eye (2002)
Directors: Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang Phat
A young blind violinist named Wong Kar Mun (Angelica Lee, billed here as Lee Sin-Je) is given the ability to see again through an eye cornea transplant. The elation soon gives way to dread and the fear of something powerful and utterly unknowable that exists alongside her every waking moment, as her transplant now gives her the ability to see and be troubled by ghosts.
The Eye benefits from an intense atmosphere, great performances by its cast (particularly Lee, who excels with the desperation and determination running through her character), and moments in which reality seemingly collapses in a fashion that still makes sense for this movie. It’s a movie in which our footing never feels firm, which is particularly disconcerting in a story in which the threat is literally everywhere.
The success of the film led to solid-but-decidedly-unhinged sequels, as well as several remakes. The 2008 release with Jessica Alba in particular doesn’t do much to set itself apart.
14. Extra Ordinary (2019)
Directors: Enda Loughman and Michael Ahern
An unhappy woman working as a driving instructor in Ireland has the ability to communicate with ghosts. Extra Ordinary doesn’t spend a lot of time setting this up, as the film moves quickly to establish its main characters, particularly Maeve Higgins as Rose Dooley. The rest of the film builds on its principles by putting across the absolute hell of Rose trying to help a man and his daughter, whose encounters with the paranormal are beginning to take a serious toll.
Like many good horror-comedy hybrids, Extra Ordinary works on both fronts because it finds serious emotional depth in its comedy, while also creating substantial suspense and atmosphere. Rose is a fun, multifaceted, and seriously likable horror protagonist. Dooley’s scenes with Barry Ward as the father who seeks her out are hilarious, sweet, and strengthen the movie’s larger ghost story themes.
This is a horror comedy with a little more comedy than horror, but that’s a good thing in this instance.
13. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Director: William Dieterle
The fun of the 1941 adaptation of the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster some 80 years after its release still comes down to an electric, influential performance by the great Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch. Obviously the Devil himself, Mr. Scratch makes a deal with a local struggling farmer named Jabez Stone to restore him to glory and success. The catch is exactly what you think it might be. Jabez is soon forced to fight for his very soul, and eventually enlists the help of his friend Daniel Webster (who was a real person) to argue his case before a jury of the damned.
If this sounds like a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment involving Homer and a donut, then you’ve already got the basics of this story down. You don’t have to believe in the Devil to find the depiction of this story creepy as hell — the “moth” scene remains a visual you won’t be able to shake off anytime soon.
Avoid the modernized 2003 remake, a bottomlessly awful directing/starring effort from Alec Baldwin, as though the existence of Lucifer has been confirmed.
12. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Director: André Øvredal
Good chemistry between a father-and-son coroner team (Emile Hirsch and the outstanding Brian Cox) sets us up for the sparse, void-black humor present in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. With a simple setup of the pair investigating an increasingly strange death of a young woman, and an impressive supporting cast, including Ophelia Lovibond and Michael McElhatton, the movie has everything it needs to be one of the best paranormal movies around.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is much better than “just okay.” The intense, foreboding atmosphere is created within the first few minutes, and it only gets better and scarier from there. The film’s third act is a fast-paced and quite brutal realization of the mystery that is handled brilliantly in the script, direction, and editing by Patrick Larsgaard.
It’s fun and gets under your skin as any good paranormal story should do. These are ghosts that break into the fantastical, but still feel oddly almost plausible.
11. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Director: George Miller
It’s fun to see someone with energy as bold and relentless as George Miller (director of every Mad Max movie) doing one of the strangest big budget fantasy comedies of its decade.
There’s something heightened to not only this story and its energy, as well as the performances of Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher as three women in a small town. Their lives are changed forever by the arrival of a handsome, sinister stranger (a gleefully over-the-top Jack Nicholson) named Daryl Van Horne.
Daryl, who turns out to be much more than just another loud rich guy, sets about seducing each of the women, who in turn are slowly discovering their powers as witches. It’s a silly movie on paper, but this cast, its director, and the sense of humor that still manages to have some pointed, relatively scarier moments throughout, makes The Witches of Eastwick too entertaining to dislike. Its feminist undertones are impressive for the late 80s, and a lot that holds up well today.
10. Sinister (2012)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Whether or not you believe that Sinister really was the scariest movie ever according to science, it’s still one of the strongest horror entries of the 2010s.
The film utilizes an excellent cast and moody atmosphere of death and rage to start us on the path of a true crime writer (a tremendous, scary Ethan Hawke) who’s desperate to be relevant again. So committed to this ambition, he moves his family into a home that was allegedly used in the creation of a snuff film. This setup could go off the rails quickly in the wrong hands, but director Scott Derrickson navigates a film that doesn’t lose its creeping dread momentum.
Sinister has one of the strongest opening scenes in horror movie history, promising a lot from those first few minutes alone. With Hawke building a character who is pitiable and sometimes quite threatening, and with the supporting performances by his family giving us characters we fear for, Sinister is free to just be scary as hell.
9. Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Directors: Warren Beatty and Buck Henry
A remake of the 1941 paranormal comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, a lot of the appeal of the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait comes down to Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
Beatty is in his leading man prime as a football player whose death leads to an extreme misunderstanding in the afterlife. Suddenly left without a body to return to, Joe Pendleton is sent back to earth as a rich, morally hideous industrialist. He attempts to resume his football career, falls in love with an environmental activist (Christie), and yes, learns a little something about himself along the way.
Heaven Can Wait is the best version (though the 2001 remake with Chris Rock is pretty good) of this story thanks to its perfect pacing and attention to clever dialog that grounds this surreal depiction of what happens when we die. This is a paranormal comedy that runs at a pretty leisurely pace, but the movie is so likable in that ease, and so casual in how it sets up the afterlife, you get into it regardless.
8. The Ring (2002)
Director: Gore Verbinski
There’s just something about the paranormal that sets us up to expect the very worst. Even secular stories about the afterlife aren’t terribly optimistic about not only death, but also what happens when human beings encounter those on the other side. The Ring took the premise established by a 1998 Japanese horror hit and found its own things to say about a type of horror that’s essentially agoraphobia with actual stakes of danger.
The discovery of a simple video tape puts a young mother (Naomi Watts, whose performance is one of the reasons why this is more than just a beat-for-beat remake) into a search for the truth behind the death of a little girl. The mystery is built up well alongside the movie putting its characters into increasingly dangerous situations.
The Ring was a satisfyingly harrowing nightmare for audiences and critics in 2002, and none of that effectiveness has been lost in the last 20 years.
7. It Follows (2014)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
A seemingly innocuous sexual encounter leaves a young woman Jay (Maika Monroe, who is stellar) in one of the most inexplicable paranormal situations anyone has ever seen.
Suddenly pursued by an unseeable, unwavering entity, Jay is forced to contend with a lot of really scary stuff while running from something she doesn’t even understand. Her gradual understanding moves at the same pace as ours, with her friends struggling and largely failing to protect her. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on making all of this make sense, it just gnaws at our anxiety as it chips away at poor Jay’s sanity.
It Follows feels almost minimalist at times. However, as you understand everything going on in one of the best horror films of the 2010s, it’s anything but. This movie is ingenious on several levels and yet quite straightforward. It Follows’ larger explosions of pure violent terror are also masterful exceptions to this deceptively languid masterpiece.
6. Poltergeist (1982)
Director: Tobe Hooper
There will never be another marriage in filmmaking quite like Poltergeist. The film is equal parts director Tobe Hooper’s ability to put nice people from the suburbs through well-paced, visually intoxicating hell and writer/producer Steven Spielberg’s ability to create the perfect family for such an occasion. Poltergeist is one of the director’s best, and the elements Spielberg unquestionably brought to the proceedings work well within the structure Hooper creates.
What makes Poltergeist film more interesting than even that noble achievement is how believable the peril is for the family. There’s a sense of the paranormal here that feels overwhelmingly powerful, and far meaner than the movie’s early moments might suggest.
This movie moves back and forth between emotional/humorous and outright terrifying from start to finish without a bad example of either necessity. The cast of Poltergeist, including JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Zelda Rubenstein as the psychic Tangina, and Heather O’Rourke as the little girl who can’t stop watching TV, also propel this film to being one of the best paranormal movies ever released.
5. The Beyond (1981)
Director: Lucio Fulci
You can already guess that you’re in for a good time with something part of a thematic trilogy known as The Gates of Hell. The Beyond is the second in the series from Italian horror legend and gore icon Lucio Fulci, but you won’t need to have seen the previous film City of the Living Dead to appreciate this one.
The Beyond is like being trapped in a haunted house that aggressively and endlessly wants to destroy you inside and out. The movie establishes this tone entirely on its own, and it’s a series of brutal sequences that send its characters to the precipice of madness and death.
And then shoves them right off that edge.
The Beyond doesn’t let up in its griminess or crazed plot twists, subjecting a young couple to a frenzy they will never recover from. Doom pervades everything in The Beyond, and it’s of the most riveting kind, both visually and psychologically.
4. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Not every experience with the paranormal must be a soul-shattering descent into the gaping maw of blind fury.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was successful with audiences and critics of the day, and it remains one of the more enduringly popular romantic comedies of the 1940s. Contemporary reviews remain positive, with perhaps something timeless in its portrayal of an eccentric, willful woman (Gene Tierney) who falls in love with the ghost (Rex Harrison) who haunts the home she has inherited. The movie more often than not feels like a very long stage play, as the story consists largely of conversations between Lucy Muir and the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg, with the story developing around their relationship.
While the movie today may feel a bit like an overlong sitcom pilot, the voluminous charm and talent of Gene Tierney, as well as Rex Harrison at his brash, aggressive best, makes the film a compelling comedic love story.
3. Ghostbusters (1984)
Director: Ivan Reitman
It would be ridiculous to cover any ranking of paranormal movies, and not mention one of the most famous examples of a movie that indisputably fits the bill. After all, the Ghostbusters literally describe themselves as paranormal investigators and eliminators.
Another lighthearted entry on our list, Ghostbusters features memorable ghosts, intriguing technology, and a sense of fun that doesn’t waste the talents of a cast that includes Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, and Sigourney Weaver.
Most of us know this already. After all, we’re talking about one of the most culturally relevant movies of the past half-century. Ghostbusters is still, at its heart, a winning comedy that’s steeped heavily in a legitimate appreciation (shared by co-screenwriter and concept creator Aykroyd) of the paranormal. It’s just impossible to watch this movie at this point without being intensely aware of just how overwhelmingly popular it continues to be.
2. The Frighteners (1996)
Director: Peter Jackson
On his way up to bigger projects and even greater success, Peter Jackson was still very firmly working in the horror and bizarre cinematic spectacle traditions he’d been using since the beginning of his career.
The Frighteners is the story of an alleged psychic and paranormal investigator (Michael J. Fox) finding out that there’s something darker and unknown to his usual schtick of using the departed to pull con jobs on people in his town. The movie establishes ghosts and the afterlife as tangible concepts right off the bat. Where it goes from there, as Fox’s Frank Bannister gets his haunted (pun intended) past together, while digging deeper into the darker secrets of his town.
The Frighteners is fun and leans more into a horror-comedy mindset than favoring one over the other. It plays an eccentric ensemble against its consistently surprising presence, and ghostly performances from Jake Busey and a disconcertingly deranged Dee Wallace fit the unpredictable touches of Jackson and the rest of the crew.
1. Beetlejuice (1988)
Director: Tim Burton
Even if you don’t believe we go anywhere when we die, Beetlejuice creates a depiction of the great beyond that almost all of us can agree would probably be exactly how the experience would go. Everything is in a state of decay. Damnation for misdeeds in the waking world begins with an eternity of working as a civil servant, but things can get worse from there. Which, luckily for those of us in the audience, winds up being the funniest movie about the paranormal ever made.
Tim Burton cemented his position as a unique and visually moving director with a focus on the macabre. Beetlejuice was also a major success for its cast, including Winona Ryder, Michael Keaton, Catherine O’Hara, and Geena Davis. This is one of Burton’s clearest and most appealing interpretations of someone else’s material, with the director putting a number of singular touches on this story of a young couple who are forced to haunt the home they once called theirs. Their failures bring them to a professional named Beetlejuice, and there has been no better cinematic representative of what the paranormal should ideally entail.
Beetlejuice the character and film are a lightning storm of comedy, music, likable characters, and a vision that leaves us with more questions about death than answers — but that’s a good thing.
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