The heart-clutching dread of a nameless HORROR! From the resting place of the dead, IT comes! Do THEY ever return to possess the living? SCREAM—stop yourself if you can! These are just a few of the foreboding vintage headlines meant to scare audiences out of eating their popcorn even before the apparitions started, and they weren't even in Technicolor. Every single one of these movies will give you nightmares in black and white.
When it comes to hauntings, there are certain advantages black and white film has in bringing the dead back to life. Light and shadow can play some pretty spooky tricks on the eye. Ghosts are often portrayed as nebulous and transparent to begin with. With no color to contrast them against, spectral silhouettes make you think twice about whether you’re seeing things (until glass shattering and a high-pitched scream in the background suggest you aren’t). The cumulative effect suspends disbelief in a way no CGI technology can.
Turn off the lights for an all-night marathon of 13 vintage black and white ghosts of the past that will never die. Every day this month we're bringing you a different Top 13 list. You can see them all here.
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Also known as The Phantom Chariot, Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! and The Stroke of Midnight, this eerie tale of postmortem regret and remorse emerges from the dark winters of Sweden—and is proof that even silent films can be nightmare fuel. Screams seem to echo even without sound. It will make you hope you don’t end up dying on the last day of the year, because the moment the clock strikes midnight, the first ghost to rise has to ride around on a skeleton carriage reaping souls. The characters are also creepy without a word. That hooded figure who shows the spirit of an unconscious drunk the aftermath of his earthly sins is kind of like a rogue version of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
No black-and-white ghost story list would be complete without a scare from Hitchcock. This masterpiece of gothic glamour based on Daphne du Maurier’s doomed romance has everything a haunted manor should, from the ghostly trappings of a dead first wife to paintings you uncomfortably feel are always watching you. Not to mention the lingering echoes of that first wife’s suicide and a deranged housekeeper who wants you dead. Spoiler warning: while the novel originally had the wanton Rebecca, who taunts her husband into thinking she is pregnant by anyone but him, die by a gunshot, the Hollywood Production Code of the time demanded that any character who murders a spouse onscreen also had to be arrested onscreen. Producer David Selznick reluctantly Frankensteined that part for the movie police.
The Uninvited (1944)
When Guillermo del Toro names a horror film as one of his all-time favorites, you know it has to be good if not epic. Windward House seems almost unnaturally perfect (emphasis on “unnaturally”) until disembodied moans echo through the halls at night, flowers wither at a spectral touch, doors open spontaneously and the temperature drops for no explainable reason. It also hides more secrets than even ghosts. Don’t let the mimosa perfume fool you. There’s a reason the daughter of the dead woman who once owned the house isn’t allowed to return—and it might have something to do with her almost getting pushed off a cliff by unseen hands when she does. Homidical phantoms aside, everyone still looks en vogue because the legendary Edith Head designed the costumes.
Dead of Night (1945)
Horror anthology Dead of Night wins the award for most recycled footage in a single film, and with good reason. It is also the movie singlehandedly responsible for making us unreasonably terrified of ventriloquist dummies. During an era when horror films were banned from production in the UK because of real horrors raining bombs from above, Ealing Studios still dared to bring this portmanteau of haunted mirrors, fatal accidents and paranormal encounters to the silver screen. The real star here turned out not to be human. That possessed dummy went on to inspire multiple incarnations of itself, including an episode of the almost immortal CBS radio show Escape, the memorable Goosebumps book Night of the Living Dummy, and the maniacal painted murder-doll in American Horror Story: Freakshow.
Forget everything you know about A Christmas Carol, because this is the version that didn’t make it to Radio City because it was too frightening for that time of year. More ghost story than Christmas story, Scrooge is considered to be the best adaptation of Dickens’ holiday classic, no matter how many times it’s been remade. Looming shadows haunt the film with an ominous chill that later versions just haven’t been able to capture in Technicolor. Alastair Sim’s ghoulish miser and Michael Hordern’s phantom in chains are more twisted than a candy cane. No wonder a certain Christmas show didn’t want this particular Scrooge and Marley to share a season with Santa Claus or a stage with the Rockettes. So when was it released instead? Halloween night!
Maybe I’m just a shameless otaku, but Japanese ghost stories have always been some of the most terrifying to me ever since the third grade when I watched an animated version of one on TV that wouldn’t let me sleep with the light off for nights on end. Ugetsu is like a flashback of that childhood freakout in the best possible way. Meant to be a ghastly metaphor for the ravages of World War II, it blurs the veil between the world of the living and the dead to the point that you can no longer figure out who still has blood in their veins and who is a ghost. The eerie interplay of light and shadow shrouded in black and white only intensifies the creep factor.
The Screaming Skull (1958)
Part haunted house and part whodunit, The Screaming Skull messes with your head almost as much as it does with ex-asylum patient Jenni’s. Thinking either her new husband’s mysteriously deceased first wife or her own mother (who supposedly looks like said first wife) is haunting her, she keeps running into skull apparitions that may or may not be a morbid and possibly murderous scam. Director Alex Nicol believed it to be terrifying enough that he actually prefaced it with a disclaimer, appropriately framed like a death certificate against an open coffin, that promised free funeral services to anyone who expired from fright. Whether the movie has a body count remains unknown. Anything here seem familiar? Parts were later featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price will make your plasma run cold as the psychopathic millionaire whose haunted house party offers a prize of $10,000—if you survive. Easy to tantalize potential guests with cash when the invite is to a place infested with demonic forces that will make them want to kill each other. It might be most surprising that what looks like it was filmed in an ornate Victorian mansion was actually shot on elaborate sound stages. To terrify anyone who dared buy a ticket, director Wiliam Castle rigged the theater with a pulley system that sent a plastic skeleton flying over the audience. The decapitated heads, dancing skeletons and Price’s sinister echoing laughter in the original are as scary as it gets. Don’t bother with the much-maligned remake.
The Innocents (1961)
You might be crazy if you don’t put this psychological thriller on your Halloween to-watch list, because those disturbingly possessed kids will have you in for a serious mind warp. Far from innocent, this “ghost story created especially for the adult moviegoer” based on Henry James’ chilling The Turn of the Screw was taken very seriously by the film ratings office. It was given the dreaded X rating that allowed no one under 16 was allowed in the theater (it still wouldn’t exactly be recommended for anyone not old enough for a driver’s license). The Innocents is a mental horror coaster that is still intensely atmospheric. Freudian undertones and the lush Southern Gothic feel of bloom and decay is a spell cast by another literary genius: Truman Capote.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Before Beetlejuice, there was another movie that helped you figure out whether or not you were really dead. When party girl Mary’s car crashes into a river, an apparition known only as The Man (played by director Herk Harvey in ghoulishly smudged black eyeliner) rises from the black water and stalks her in the night. He tries to lure her into a carnival where there is no popcorn or cotton candy, but spirits twirling to a chilling organ score that sounds less like guileless fun and more like funeral music. If you need any more proof that this movie will give you insomnia, the original trailer includes a statement that “Carnival of Souls arouses such emotion that the management has been forced to state ‘positively no refunds’.”
The Haunting (1963)
Psychics looking to study paranormal activity in a reportedly haunted mansion collect much more material than they bargained for when its ghostly inhabitants make their presence known. While a house that has many suspicious deaths to its name seems like a fantastic place to gather data, it's not when voices start moaning and things start flying. Many ghosts of today’s special effects appeared in The Haunting: a warped camera caused unnerving distortions, the spiral staircase is filmed backwards and run in reverse to create the illusion of climbing it lightning-fast, light filters and makeup made the actors appear unusually cold, and ceilings in all the rooms were meant to conjure a claustrophobic feeling. Watch this in the dark and you’ll feel like you’re on a never-ending horror coaster.
The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)
Whispered ghost stories and urban legends can sometimes be scary enough to manifest themselves as movies. So can rumors that keep kids from wandering around at night. The Curse of the Crying Woman is based on La Llorona, the infamous weeping ghost from Latin American folklore who drowned her children as revenge on her cheating husband and now wanders the earth crying out for them. Those who hear her shrieks are doomed to die. Depending on who you ask, she may also have a habit of drowning stray boys and girls who are out after dark. The film version goes all out, incorporating vampires and werewolves into the legend after newlyweds Amelia and Jaime visit a spooky country estate owned by an aunt who practices the dark arts.
Castle of Blood (1964)
Also known as Danza Macabra (“Dance of Death”) in Italian, Sergio Corbucci’s cinematic bloodbath is attributed to a short story by Edgar Allen Poe in the credits, though it isn’t based on any particular one. It was also shot in a supernatural 15 days. The dark flavor of Poe’s nightmares lingers throughout the film as a skeptical journalist takes on a dare to spend All Souls’ Eve in a castle of the damned. Ghosts of murder victims with a thirst for blood reenactment their grisly deaths through the night. If watching this gives you déjà vu, it’s because of a phenomenon that might not be paranormal, but popular among Italian sci-fi and horror films of the era: it reuses Medieval scenery from one of Corbucci’s earlier films.