Is Christmas Eve a spookier night than Halloween? The liminal, magical energy of the night feels far older than any modern conception of the holiday, as if the energies of pagan midwinter beliefs are quietly humming beneath the frozen ground, ready to burst in on our fortresses of colored lights and television specials. In pagan Europe, people believed that spirits were equally active at the midwinter solstice as on October 31st. Odin lead armies of the dead across the December night sky in the “Wild Hunt,” and any mortal who witnessed it was doomed to die. Believe it or not, this belief is likely an origin point for the idea of Santa Claus. People stayed inside around the Yule log not just to celebrate the season, but to keep dangerous ghosts out in the cold.
Sadly for modern spooky folks, the creepy side of Christmas has fallen by the wayside in favor of family-friendly holiday cheer. But as recently as the Victorian era, Christmas was still the time for horror. In the 19th century, especially in England, no Christmas Eve was complete without everyone telling ghost stories around the fire. The tradition was prominent enough to live on today in popular Christmas song lyrics; “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”
There’s no time like Christmas Present to revive this old tradition. It’s creepy, cozy, and adds wonderfully to the magical feeling of the season. So if you’d rather watch a ghost story than weave one yourself, here are the top ten films that capture the spirit of the Yuletide ghost stories of a bygone age.
10. The Uninvited (1944)
The Uninvited is arguably one of the first haunted house horror films. It’s sincere about its ghosts in an era of filmmaking that rarely took hauntings seriously. It also features some of the best atmosphere and plot twists in all of haunted cinema! The Uninvited features such classic Christmas ghost story themes as dark coastal houses and hidden family secrets. The 1944 film tells the story of siblings who purchase a vacant house in Cornwall, only to find it haunted by disembodied sobs and cold spots. The evocative, film noir-inspired cinematography suggests spirits in the shadows and is perfectly suited for a cozy Christmas Eve.
9. The Changeling (1980)
Peter Medak’s 1980 haunted house classic is also worthy of becoming a spooky Christmas tradition. It’s got a snowy opening, a gorgeous and foreboding mansion, mystery, a locked room, and a child ghost. It’s got arguably the best seance scene of all time, evoking a Victorian vibe even though the film is set in the 80s. The film tells the story of a composer (George C. Scott) who moves into a historic home in Seattle and begins to experience frightening echos of the past. The unjustly killed child ghost ties The Changeling to classic Christmas ghost stories like M.R. Jame’s Lost Hearts (1895), which happened to be written for Christmas.
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8. The Haunting (1963)
Every solid Christmas ghost story has a good haunted house, but Hill House tops them all. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was the first story to feature a cursed house as the cause of paranormal phenomena. Its 1963 adaptation, directed by Robert Wise, brings Hill House to life with brilliant set design by Eliot Scott and cinematography by Davis Boulton. Wise and Boulton used a number of brilliant camera tricks to increase the sense that Hill House is a living entity, giving us one of the scariest ghost stories to never show a ghost. With its famous ambiguity and tense atmosphere, The Haunting is a great addition to a midwinter marathon of horror.
7. The Others (2001)
Alejandro Amenábar’s gothic ghost story is a tribute to classic yarns like The Turn of the Screw, The Uninvited, and The Changeling. It’s also a perfectly wonderful haunted tale in its own right with an innovative new perspective on the classic haunted house story. By this point, the twists of The Others are widely known, robbing it of its originality. But it retains its deliciously foggy atmosphere, its uneasy vagueness, and Nicole Kidman’s excellent performance. Its reverence for a number of Christmas ghost stories makes it the perfect addition to a seasonal marathon to boot.
6. The Little Stranger (2018)
Lenny Abrahamson’s 2018 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ gothic novel is a moody, bleak, and intriguing ghost story. Its themes of class and obsession in post-war Britain are smartly depicted through a haunted house tale that keeps you guessing until the surprising conclusion. The classic British ghost story is subdued, unnerving, and ambiguous, and The Little Stranger hits all those marks with aplomb. The film’s debt to the writings of Henry James and Shirley Jackson is undeniable, but it stands alone as a work of originality and depth. It’s just the right mood for Christmas, certain to fuel some discussions over eggnog long after the credits roll.
5. The Woman in Black (1989)
Susan Hill’s masterful 19th-century style novel The Woman in Black has been adapted into a successful West End play (which premiered with the subtitle “A Christmas Ghost Story”) and a 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe. But if you’re looking for a movie adaption to watch, the 1989 television film is the way to go. It premiered on Christmas Eve 1989 and was a surprise success for Britain’s ITV Network. The ‘89 film captures the mood and dread of Hill’s masterful ghost story perfectly, and despite some changes, remains far more faithful to the straightforward original than the 2012 version. The Woman in Black is a homage to the Victorian tradition of Christmas Eve ghost stories. The novel opens with the narrator asked to recount a frightening story for a holiday gathering, and the ’89 adaptation carried the tradition on, making it the perfect spooky way to mark the season.
4. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is not often associated with Christmas, but hear me out. It’s as snowy as any horror film has ever been. It’s very likely that its most horrifying events take place in December. And it’s probably one of the best ghost films of all time. The uncanny terrors of Kubrick’s ghosts are very reminiscent of the imagination of M.R. James, who specialized in uncanny specters and even predicted the iconic appearance of the “Shining Twins” with the ghostly children of Lost Hearts. M.R. James wrote his ghost stories to read aloud to friends at Christmas, and his work was hugely influential on Stephen King. Celebrate this confluence of Christmas past and horror classics with a snowbound stay at the Overlook Hotel this Christmas Eve.
3. Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to Victorian gothic novels also happens to be an ideal Christmas ghost story. Not only does it have a Victorian setting, mystery, creepy families with a dark past, ghosts, love, and a plucky heroine, it’s covered in snow. The relentless snow and howling wind juxtaposed with the bright reds of the film’s stylized color palette evokes a true gothic Christmas. If your season is spent in a particularly snowy locale, this is the Yuletide ghost story for you. It will also probably make you feel better about your family, however dysfunctional, when faced with the disturbing dynamics of the Sharpe siblings (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain).
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2. The Innocents (1961)
Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is a ghostly story within a story. It opens with an unnamed narrator joining a gathering of people telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and the story itself is read during the festivities. The Innocents, one of the best horror films of all time and a very faithful adaptation of the novel, drops the Yuletide framing. But the film is still a powerful and disturbing ghost story, straight out of the era where Christmas ghost stories were at their height. The ‘61 film boasts a terrifying use of cinematography and shadows, chillingly silent apparitions, phenomenal child actors, and possibly the best performance of Deborah Kerr’s career. If you want to be thoroughly scared this Christmas, The Innocents is the December 24th film to pick.
1. A Christmas Carol
The granddaddy of all Christmas ghost stories. And yep, despite its regular recycling and watering down in popular culture, A Christmas Carol is very much a ghost story. Charles Dickens referred to it as his “ghostly little book,” and he wrote it in the spirit of what would have been a popular Christmas tradition to his readers. For yuletide viewing, there are countless adaptations to choose from. But for the horror inclined, any that stay true to the frightening aspects of the original book are the best bet. The 1984 A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott doesn’t hold back on the frightening scenes, and it favors a dark and foggy London atmosphere over too much cheer. And if you’re in the mood for a reimagining, Scrooged (1988) is a great way to go. The Bill Murray classic is dark, morbid, and has a wicked sense of humor. It’s got awesome 80s practical effects and a Danny Elfman score to top it all off! Perfect for a ghostly Christmas.
If you’re a little tired of all the warm and fuzzy cheer of Christmas Eve, consider reviving an old tradition and celebrating as the Victorians did. A good ghost story makes you feel cozy and all the more grateful for the comforting lights of your tree and the warm embrace of loved ones. And if you are just an incurable Scrooge, maybe a chilling movie or two will save those three spirits the effort this year. Either way, all of us here at Nightmare on Film Street wish you a wonderful, and spooky, holiday. Share your creepy Christmas traditions with us over on our Twitter, reddit, Instagram, or on The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!