While last year marked a massive renaissance of Stephen King adaptations, 2018 is the year in which the supernatural quietly dominated genre offerings. If you’re looking at 2018 in terms of major theatrical releases then it’s been a fairly light year in horror, dedicated almost solely to remakes and sequels. But if you’re looking beyond major releases then you’ll find a wealth of independent horror, streaming service originals, and a wave of foreign releases that continued horror’s hot streak from 2017. When looking at 2018’s horror as a whole, a major recurring trend emerged, revolving around one of horror’s most tried and true villains: the ghost.
The first quarter of the year brought the theatrical releases of Insidious: The Last Key and Winchester, both profitable though unexciting entries in supernatural horror. Despite compelling leads in Lin Shaye and Helen Mirren, both relied on familiar haunted house tropes that ultimately deem them as fairly unforgettable. Luckily, horror’s continued evolution meant ghosts were about to get much more interesting.
Writer/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson adapted their well-regarded British stage play Ghost Stories for the big screen. Released on digital and limited theaters in April, Ghost Stories follows skeptical Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), a television presenter devoted to debunking the supernatural. When tasked with solving three previously unsolvable cases, Goodman is sent on a terrifying journey that shatters everything he thought he knew about the supernatural. Invoking the Amicus anthologies of the ‘60s, Nyman and Dyson put a new spin on the anthology format. More importantly, the story segments are actually scary. Though the film’s climactic payoff has proven divisive, the ghosts in Ghost Stories succeed in eliciting chills.
It wasn’t the only foreign film to give a refreshing take on ghosts and haunted house fare either. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and The Devil’s Doorway brought international flair to found footage haunters. The former proved to be a massive success in native South Korea and followed the exploits of a horror web series crew seeking major clicks during their live broadcast show set at the very haunted Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital (where it was also filmed). Naturally, they’re in way over their heads. Interestingly, Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital is one of the most purportedly haunted places in the world. As for The Devil’s Doorway, co-writer/director Aislinn Clarke uses found footage horror to explore the real-life horrors of ‘Fallen Women’ in Ireland, set in the 1960s. Granted, if you despise found footage, these won’t win you over. However, both bring unique perspectives and histories to the mix.
Indonesia ushered in not one, but two terrifying features about families haunted by the sins of generation’s past. Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, a remake of a 1980 Indonesian horror film of the same name, unleashed nonstop thrills and chills from beginning to end. Family matriarch Mawarni Suwono was once a successful singer but the money has since dried up and she begins the film at her deathbed. When she dies, strange supernatural occurrences start to plague the family, and details emerge about Mawarni’s past that suggest that she might have sold her soul for fame. Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You, on Netflix, may have a similar plot set up, but it’s executed in a very different way. Think gruesome gore and biting humor, with scares a plenty, in a very Sam Raimi manner.
Hailing from Argentina came Demián Rugna’s aptly titled Terrified, a Shudder exclusive. Set in a seemingly idyllic neighborhood in Buenos Aires, a trio of paranormal specialists and a cop on the verge of retirement investigate a rash of bizarre activity that may or may not be connected. Terrified is light on plot, and even lighter on explanation, but it more than makes up for it with effective scares and unnerving atmosphere. It’s the feature length equivalent of a haunted house attraction, and it works. So much so, that reports have recently surfaced that Terrified is already receiving an American remake. This doesn’t even touch on sequel rumors.
The magnum opus of 2018’s ghost stories, though, belongs to Mike Flanagan for his emotionally devastating, loose reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. The ten-episode series on Netflix recaptured the themes of Jackson’s source novel while becoming something wholly new as the narrative toggled between the past and present nightmares of the Crain family. Flanagan crafted some of the year’s best scares, as well as memorable ghosts, but he also reinterpreted the very definition of a ghost. Memories can be just as haunting and traumatic, and nothing cuts deeper than grief.
That same concept was explored in the lesser seen adaptation of the gothic ghost novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger. And family bonds were tested in writer/director Andy Mitton’s quiet chiller The Witch in the Window, and especially for the Graham family in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The cause of their strife was much more occultist and complex than just ghosts, but they were haunted both literally and emotionally all the same. Writer/director Austin Vesely opted for a comedic approach to his ghosts in A24’s Slice. Valak may be pure demonic evil, but the latest entry in the Conjuring universe featured no shortage of ghosts with The Nun.
Ghosts are a powerful tool for portraying lingering sins and trauma of the past, a common motif that resonated in 2018’s collection of haunted families. For many in this year’s ghost-centric horror, the children were the ones to suffer the most for their parents’ pacts with the devil. For others, ghosts were used as a reflection for the ugly truths the characters were unwilling to face on their own. And for the rest, ghosts were means of eliciting the year’s most effective scares.
2018, one could argue, was the year of the ghost.