For supernatural horror movies to actually qualify as supernatural, we believe there must be some evidence to confirm the hauntings and happenstances are really occurring within the narrative of the film, and they’re not simply all in a character’s head. That’s why when we set out to make this list, we left off flicks like The Shining, where there is clearly some unexplained malevolence afoot. (Remember, Jack may have seen ghosts, but so did his son. That tells us the Overlook Hotel is a place you want to avoid when on your next movie vacation.)
Now that those ground rules are out of the way, we do want to share the 13 Supernatural Horror Movies That Aren’t Supernatural at All that qualify — flicks we believe have an easy explanation for their spooky situations.
(NOTE: Heavy, heavy SPOILERS AHEAD, so if you don’t want to have each of these movies ruined for you, bookmark this article and watch the ones that interest you before continuing.)
Oculus is a rare WWE Studios effort that is extremely watchable, if not on the verge of becoming a quality horror film. This is in large part thanks to writer-director Mike Flanagan, whose script collaboration with Jeff Howard makes for an interesting entry on this list of supernatural horror movies that aren’t supernatural at all, in the sense that it shows a lot of supernatural goings-on. A brother and sister with a dark past believe the horrors they experienced as children are directly blame-able on a possessed mirror.
However, there is ample evidence in the film that all of the supernatural happenstances are seen through one or the other’s eyes, and since they both shared this horrific experience of having their parents try to kill them, their visions are easily attributable to being damaged from the incident. It’s unclear whether this is what Flanagan wants you to think by the end of the film, but the evidence is overwhelming.
Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) have suffered with the knowledge of what their parents tried to do. As kids, we want to believe the best in our parents, so it’s easier to blame faults on an outside source. If Mom and Dad were mentally ill, then it’s also easy to see how that might affect Daughter and Son later in life, especially since their understanding of the incident is tied to a mini-group psychosis that spread from childhood into their adult lives, mixed with their shared love for the people who created them.
12. The Number 23
There are better ways of masking a psychological horror film as something supernatural than what the clumsy Jim Carrey thriller The Number 23 does. For starters, Carrey’s real identity — the author of the titular book that points out eerie coincidences surrounding the number 23 — is telegraphed from the start. The premise gets sillier from there, with his character being haunted by a murder he committed and got away with several years prior.
Now a family man, the guilt drives him away from his family as he worries that he will kill again, and that his next victims will be his wife and son. Throw in a subplot about the man who was wrongly convicted for the former crime, and you’ve got another convoluted mess from director Joel Schumacher (8MM, anyone?). Of course, the novelty to seeing this film is to watch Carrey try his hand at serious acting. To that, we say, stick with The Truman Show.
11. The Innkeepers
We know there’s a chance of catching flak over this one due to the final scene, but here goes. The Innkeepers from director Ti West keeps things mostly ambiguous and told through the point of view of Claire (Sara Paxton) until the film’s conclusion. The ghosts that we actually see are through Claire’s eyes, and they do not resemble in substance what we see of the apparition in the closing moments.
But what about that apparition, you ask? As we spend the last moments inside Claire’s head, we can see that what is going on with her is entirely different from what the other characters are seeing. No other character actually sees the apparition, so it’s entirely possible — and we would even say probable — that the last moment of Claire appearing and the door slamming shut is the final scrap of consciousness escaping from Claire’s head. She realizes at long last that she is dead, and believes that her spirit will go on haunting the hotel. The door-slam says otherwise. It says, “Nope, this is the end of the line, Claire; that was your last thought before the void of death.”
Of course, whether this is supernatural to you could depend on your interpretation of the afterlife and how long we hold onto our consciousness even after we are pronounced dead. To each his own, but by the ground rules set up in the film, this is clearly not supernatural.
10. Black Swan
Impassioned ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) wants nothing more than to land the role of the Black Swan for an upcoming production. Unfortunately for her, she is a White Swan through-and-through, and Lily (Mila Kunis) has the natural edge needed for the darker role. From that set up, a rivalry and then a dark and twisted friendship evolves between the pair.
What makes this supernatural (and horrific) on the surface are the visions that the Nina character has as she becomes more obsessed with getting the role. This leads her to do some pretty messed-up stuff in the film’s final act; but to the film’s credit, it never really tries to “fool” you into thinking it’s something that it isn’t as you spend more time with Nina. Still, you have difficulty fully trusting in the insanity plot, because Nina warps our perception of the genuineness of the other characters. It isn’t until her 51 cards are on the table that we really see the film for what it is.
9. Hide and Seek
A widower (Robert De Niro) and his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) try putting their lives back together after their wife/mother’s suicide. They move from their native New York City to a more secluded spot in Upstate New York, but they don’t move alone. The daughter picks up an imaginary friend with murderous ambitions. For most of the movie, director John Polson does a poor job of trying to convince you this is a supernatural horror movie.
You know that either the daughter or the father are the “friend,” hence committing the murders that soon follow. It’s further telegraphed it’s the father, since they try so hard to make you think the little girl is crazy. Along the way there are no surprises whatsoever, so what you’re subjected to is about 85 to 90 minutes of horror movie that tries to be supernatural, with most figuring out the twist at about the 10-minute mark. It’s ultimately a wasted opportunity with such a strong cast, and would have likely been 100 times more suspenseful if told straight-forward through the little girl’s perspective, where she creates an imaginary friend that she and the audience realize doesn’t exist in an effort to appease this unhinged caretaker.
8. The Boy
From the moment that Greta, a young woman in an abusive relationship, flees to the U.K. to accept a nanny position, we know that something is “off” about the assignment. The “son” she will be taking care of is really a porcelain doll named Brahms. His elderly “parents” are going away on holiday and need to make sure he is in the right set of hands. After they leave, strange things start to occur involving the doll — his apparent ability to move from room-to-room on his own being chief among them. Thing is, these movements are conveniently shielded from view of the audience.
It isn’t until the film’s closing moments that we learn why. Brahms, the namesake of the elderly couple’s young son, who “died” at eight, isn’t really a doll with supernatural abilities. He is the placeholder for the psychopath living in the walls of the estate. The doll’s movements are thanks to his unseen caretaker.
7. Carnival of Souls
Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) survives a traumatic car accident. In the aftermath, she finds herself drawn to a mysterious carnival with tons of spooky stuff happening around it, sending her on the run for what she believes to be her life. A word of warning here: you may have a tendency to dismiss Carnival of Souls because either you a) think it’s the awful remake from 1998 and don’t realize there was a classic horror film on par with Psycho before that; or b) have seen all those horribly murky transfers over the years and assume a crap-print means a crap-movie.
Suggestion: pick up the Criterion Collection DVD or watch their print on Hulu if you have it. Carnival of Souls inspired other horror greats like Soul Survivor (1983) and Jacob’s Ladder (a little further down this list). You will completely get that once you’ve watched all three films, and if you’ve just seen Jacob’s Ladder, then you probably already know what happens with this, so no point in going further into the spoilers.
6. The Hand
For our money, Oliver Stone never directed a leaner or more entertaining film than this horror flick from 1981 starring Michael Caine. Yes, all his critical and awards recognition stems from his more politicized efforts, but The Hand is great because it’s both suspenseful and entertaining without having the viewer succumb to Stone’s frequent tin-foil-hat-wearing proselytization of later efforts.
Caine is wonderful here as comic illustrator Jon Lansdale, who loses his right hand in a still-cringe-inducing-after-all-these-years car accident. His hand was never found, but Lansdale believes it has followed him and is now doing very bad things. Stone makes sure that you get most of the movie through Caine’s viewpoint to keep the ruse going, but by the end, you’re pretty sure you know what’s-what. Still, it’s so expertly paced with well-drawn characters that you don’t particularly care about — you just want to see how things turn out.
5. The Uninvited (2009)
You could call 2009’s The Uninvited a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters, but in reality, both films are based on a Korean folktale that received motion picture treatments in 1924, 1936, 1956, 1962, and 1972. The folk tale, “The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon,” is the source material, and it dates back to the Kingdom of Joseon (1392-1897).
The Uninvited is predicated on the belief of two sisters that their evil stepmother is responsible for their sickly biological mom’s death. She was her home nurse, and now she has the father in the palm of her hand. Add to this the fact that one of the sisters — our chief protagonist — was recently released from a mental institution. Now she is seeing disturbing ghostly visions, which lead to a third-act plot twist where the hauntings, the stepmom’s crimes, and even the other sister, are revealed to be in the mind of the violent and dangerous protagonist, who suffers from multiple personality disorder.
4. Jacob’s Ladder
Jacob’s Ladder has much more depth than your typical horror film. At the same time, it demonstrates what the genre is capable of in the right hands. Tim Robbins stars as Jacob, a Vietnam veteran mourning the death of his young son. Meanwhile, he is being pursued by malevolent forces about whom he knows very little. As the narrative stretches into the final act, it becomes apparent that much of what Jacob sees isn’t reality.
He is suffering from a severe case of dissociation and must figure out where his dreams and delusions end and his reality and life begin. The ending is moving and poignant — completely different in tone from the rest of the film, yet a fitting resolution nonetheless. Jacob is essentially dying on an operating table in a triage tent during the Vietnam War. The struggle he has experienced is his struggle to go from the hell he’s in to the heaven that awaits him.
3. The Babadook
The Babadook in many ways flirts with the same themes of Hide and Seek, but it does so in a much more competent way. Rather than basing its entire existence on a twist we see coming in the first five minutes, it roots into the characters and makes us care about what is driving their horrific experiences with the Babadook creature.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is mentally and emotionally drained following the death of her husband and the obnoxious antics of her 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). As Samuel’s fascination with the Babadook — a sinister creature from a children’s book — works more into the fabric of their lives, they both start to “see” it. In reality, the film is using the creature as a destructive symbol of Amelia’s grief, which is in direct conflict with her desire to be a good mother and do right by her son. It’s a conflict that puts them both in jeopardy until Amelia realizes at the film’s climax that the Babadook has its place as long as it is controlled.
2. The Last Shift
The Last Shift is a cross between John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten, with a supernatural twist that isn’t really, if you stay in it to the end. That can be difficult, however, as it has some surprisingly effective moments of suspense and terror that will hang with you long after the final frame.
Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is a rookie cop assigned to watch over a soon-to-be-shuttered police station for its last night. However, distress calls from a girl on the run and wickedly strange visions in many of the corridors and cells lead her to believe something more is going on. A predictable though well-orchestrated climax reveals that Jessica is a fragmented and delusional personality and that what is going on in her head will have deadly consequences for the real world. This is as much fun in a group as it is alone. Add it to this year’s Halloween playlist if you get a chance.
1. Session 9
Strong cast. Strong direction. Spooky setting. Session 9 has it all. Not only is it our favorite type of movie like this, it’s also one of our favorite horror movies, period. It has a surprising degree of re-watchability thanks to the fact writer-director Brad Anderson mines his material and location more for their inherent spookiness than any plot twists or jump scares.
An asbestos abatement crew leader suffering from lack of sleep and marital trouble agrees to a crazy turnaround time on cleaning out the Danvers State Hospital. His crew members, on the promise of a bonus upon completion, follow him into it against their better judgment, even as each struggles with their own conflicts — both with each other and the asylum itself. The film has some very eerie moments and the various interactions with the asylum lead you to think that maybe it is haunted by some type of malevolent force. Then, the ending clarifies things, as we learn Gordon, the crew leader, is revealed to have killed his wife and child prior to ever stepping foot on the premises. Any suggestion something supernatural was the cause becomes tainted by the fact that our “evidence” has played out within Gordon’s already-damaged sanity.
The next time you’re in the mood for a scary movie with a supernatural twist, we believe most these movies will still suffice; but don’t go into them looking to have your belief in the supernatural confirmed, because the evidence just isn’t there. With that said, which picks on the list do you agree or disagree with? And what were some films like this that we missed? Sound off in the comments section!