Being able to see ghosts in horror movies is often seen as a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you can see and usually communicate with whatever dead entity is hanging around, which means you’re far more likely to figure out what they want and how to get rid of them. However, the downside is you have to come face-to-face with some terrifying apparitions or are always surrounded by dead people, which can make it hard to get on with your day-to-day life.
To be clear, we’re not talking about anyone who has ever seen a ghost in a horror film, but more specifically, those who have some sort of psychic ability that allows them to see the dead where others can’t. After all, many characters encounter a ghost when they move to a haunted house or buy the wrong possessed object at an antique store. However, there are those who see ghosts on the regular, and there are many implications that come with this talent.
Let’s take a closer look at the lives of those who can see the dead in horror movies, and how this ability affects them, their lives, and those around them.
If you’re able to see the dead in the world of horror, then it seems logical to use that skill to make money from it. While some use their talents as a genuine way to help others, some are far more unscrupulous. However, this usually bites them on the ass eventually.
In The Frighteners (1996), Frank Bannister is actually able to see dead people, and yet he uses this gift to scam rather than help those who are actually in need. Frank uses his ghost friends, Cyrus, Stuart, and The Judge to haunt people’s houses so they have no choice but to call Frank for help. He then fakes an exorcism and charges quite a lot of money to do it.
However, Frank soon has to face up to what it’s like to come up against a real evil ghost when the spirit of Johnny Bartlett continues his murder spree from beyond the grave. In fact, Frank figures out that it was Johnny that killed Frank’s wife years previously, and he finally realizes that he can use his powers in a positive way and get rid of Johnny once and for all.
Then there are characters like Dennis Rafkin from Thirteen Ghosts (2001). Again, Dennis has a real gift, but instead of using it to help people, he’s making money by helping Cyrus Kriticos trap the violent ghosts he needs for his evil plan.
“While some use their talents as a genuine way to help others, some are far more unscrupulous. However, this usually bites them on the ass eventually.”
However, both Frank and Dennis have something in common with each other. Their gift and the trauma that comes along with it has left them alone and isolated. Cut off from the outside world; they have little choice but to try and make the best of their gift and at least make some money to survive while they’re at it.
Frank lives with his ghost friends because he doesn’t need to explain his power to them. They know he’s telling the truth already because he can interact with them. Therefore, having them as housemates and using them to help make his job more successful means Frank has the company he needs, but he can still separate himself from the rest of the town.
Unfortunately for Dennis, he mistakenly believes that Cyrus is his friend, rather than simply using him for his powers. Dennis clearly has no one else in his life to support him, and so even the slightest bit of connection from Cyrus is enough for Dennis to believe they are friends.
While anyone can end up with the power to see the dead, it seems that children are a bit more susceptible when it comes to visits from the other side. Kids such as Cole from The Sixth Sense (1999) and Danny from The Shining (1980) show how difficult it can be for a child to understand the full extent of their powers.
It can be easy for kids to focus on the scary aspect of seeing ghosts before considering the wider implications of their powers. For Cole, this is definitely the case. When he first realizes he can see dead people, he tries to ignore the ghosts as much as possible due to how much they scare him. However, with the help of Malcolm Crowe, Cole realizes that he can help the spirits with their unfinished business so that they might move on.
It takes Danny a long time to get to grips with his powers, especially because the ghosts from the Overlook continue to haunt him long after he and his mother have fled. While his family is staying at the Overlook, he has trouble convincing his parents that anything weird is going on because they are pretty confident they are the only people living in the hotel. Even when his mother starts to believe him after being attacked by the old woman in room 237, Jack has started to slip under the hotel’s grasp so much that he lies about what he sees in the room to make Danny look like a liar.
Years later, in the events of Doctor Sleep (2019), Danny has to lock all the ghosts from the Overlook away in lockboxes in his mind to prevent them from terrorizing him on a regular basis. Unlike Cole, he was unable to find a way to balance his power as a child, and so as he ages, the effect his power has on him only worsens.
Overcoming Past Trauma
For those who have been coping with seeing the dead for some time, horror movies often deal with the past trauma these characters may have experienced because of their power. This is something that Lorraine Warren deals with throughout The Conjuring (2013) universe. In The Conjuring, Ed tells the story of how something Lorraine saw in an exorcism led to her locking herself in her room for eight days. While Lorraine manages to recover and continue to use her gift to help others, we find out in The Conjuring 2 (2016) that Lorraine is suffering repeated visions of her husband’s death thanks to the malevolent spirits she keeps encountering.
Similarly, in Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) and Insidious: The Last Key (2018), we see the effect that seeing the dead has had on Elise Rainier throughout her life. Due to her terrible experiences in ‘The Further,’ Elise is initially resistant to help teenager Quinn in Insidious: Chapter 3. Insidious: The Last Key delves deeper into Elise’s past as she returns to the house she grew up in, and we find out about her abusive father and how a demon killed her mother.
In both cases, we assume it would be easier for both Elise and Lorraine to walk away from these situations and not put themselves in a position where their powers cause them so much trauma. However, they both recognize the unique role their ability puts them in, and how they are likely the only people who can help others in danger.
While they are dealing with serious issues of their own, both women are incredibly selfless and put helping others above their own mental and physical wellbeing.
While some may use their gift disingenuously to make a pure profit, there are some who offer their assistance out of a real need to help people. In The Gift (2000), Annie Wilson is a local psychic who reads cards for other townsfolk. While many are wary of her gift, when a local woman, Jessica King, goes missing, Jessica’s father asks for Annie’s help in tracking her down.
While Annie’s cards are unable to help, Annie soon starts having dreams and visions of Jessica’s ghost and is able to help the police find her body. Even when a man is put in prison for Jessica’s murder, Annie continues to be visited by Jessica’s ghost and knows that the wrong man has been jailed. Annie demands that the case be reopened and makes sure she brings the real killer to justice to Jessica’s spirit can rest.
We also have characters like Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist (1982), who willingly put themselves into terrifying situations to ensure they help a family in need and rescue a little girl. It’s through Tangina’s guidance that Diane is able to enter the portal in the family’s house and rescue Carol Anne from the other side. Without her help, it’s likely Carol Anne would have remained stuck forever.
Also, in Indisdious (2010), Elise knows there is a ghost in ‘The Further’ who wants to kill her, and yet she continues to do her job because she can’t stand to see people suffer when she knows she could help them.
All three of these women recognize the unique gift that they have been given and know how important it is for them to reach out and help where others cannot.
While many are born with the power to see the dead, others often acquire it later in life. In The Eye (2008), Sydney suddenly finds herself able to see both dead people and the spirits who come to claim them when she has a cornea transplant. Sydney receives the cornea of a young woman who recently killed herself after she could not deal with the guilt of not preventing an explosion at a local factory. Sydney cannot escape the spirits who appear everywhere, including an old man in her apartment building elevator and a little boy who roams one of the corridors.
Tom Witzky also finds himself able to see the dead after being hypnotized in Stir of Echoes (1999). Tom soon figures out that the ghost he keeps seeing is that of missing local teenager Samantha, and he tries to figure out what she wants so that he can free himself from her constant presence.
In both cases, the sudden presence of a power that wasn’t there before leads to some intense research. The person who has suddenly been bestowed with this gift wants to find out why and what they can do to stop it, if possible. Rather than having a lifetime to deal with these powers and how to control them, these characters instead need to cope with the intensity of suddenly getting these powers and having to know what to do with them right away.
A Family Gift
As if often the case with things like magical ability or special powers, the ability to see and communicate with the dead is often passed down the generations of a family.
In Stir of Echoes, while Tom acquires the gift later in life, it seems as though his son, Jake, already has a much stronger version of the power. In fact, Jake has been talking to Samantha for quite some time, as she tries to use him to help uncover her murderers. There’s the suggestion that because Tom gains the powers after he’s instructed to be more open-minded under hypnotism, that perhaps these powers were lurking in him the whole time, but he was choosing to ignore them.
Similarly, in Insidious: The Last Key, we find out that Elise’s niece, Imogen, has been given the same gift as Elise. When Elise ends up trapped in ‘The Further,’ it is Imogen who is able to go in and help her.
Being able to bond with family members who also have the gift makes dealing what the pressure of it a lot easier. Elise’s father would frequently abuse her for “lying” about seeing ghosts, and so having Imogen sharing her power not only gives Elise someone to bond with, but it also means Imogen knows she is not alone and should grow up more confident in her abilities than Elise did.
As I mentioned above, the importance of being able to bond with someone who shares your gift can be a vital lifeline to someone with ghost-seeing abilities. It lets them know that they aren’t alone and that their powers are real.
In The Shining, Danny finds this guidance from Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef. While they only have a brief face-to-face encounter when the Torrance family first arrives at the Overlook, it’s the start of an incredibly vital friendship for Danny. Not only does he know he’s not alone, but he comes to understand his powers a little more. Dick warns Danny about the hotel’s powers and tells him to stay away from room 237 because he knows the bad things that could happen to Danny if he enters that room.
Even though Dick dies at the end of The Shining, his relationship with Danny continues into the events of Doctor Sleep when he returns to Danny as his ghostly guide. Dick teaches Danny how to lock away the ghosts of the Overlook in boxes in his mind so they cannot continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.
This is a relationship that comes full circle for Danny when he meets Abra Stone. While Abra is quite in control of her powers, she’s never met anyone with the same abilities as her before. She reaches out to Danny because she senses his power and feels safe with him. When Abra learns of the True Knot and Rose the Hat, she goes to Danny because she knows he will believe and help her.
“[…] the importance of being able to bond with someone who shares your gift can be a vital lifeline to someone with ghost-seeing abilities.”
If Danny had not had such a strong relationship with Dick as he grew up, chances are he wouldn’t have been able to form this bond with Abra. Even though the Overlook ghosts are the worst thing that ever happened to Danny, he is still willing to go back to the old hotel to find a way to destroy the True Knot and save Abra’s life.
Overall, the life of someone with these powers is not an easy one. The overarching theme with characters who can see ghosts is the isolation they deal with regularly because people either don’t believe them or are scared of them. This isolation and disbelief can be even stronger for characters who suddenly acquire their powers, as those around them find it hard to adjust their way of thinking.
While it can be an incredibly stressful and challenging thing to live with, most characters realize that the best way to cope with their situation is to at least do something helpful with their powers. Not only can they help the living escape from a terrifying situation, but they can also help the dead find rest and cross over to the next life.