Supernatural horror is my all-time favourite subgenre of horror film. More than any other, supernatural scarers have an extra element of the unknowable that really draws me in. That isn’t to say other subgenres lack mystery. Psychological horror by nature keeps you guessing. Slashers can occasionally utilise the unknown well. Natural and sci-fi horrors tend to explore forces we can’t understand. But for the relatively short time I’ve taken up horror films as an interest, nearly all my favourites have been about ghosts or demons.
Some might say the style is overdone — and that’s a fair assessment to make. Streaming services are saturated with bad or mediocre possession movies that are neither scary nor coherent. But the ubiquity of supernatural films in horror is a testament to the formula. At its base, it works. And when it’s done well, it scares the hell out of you.
In honour of my favourite genre style, then, here are five of the best supernatural horrors I’ve ever seen.
1. The Last Exorcism (2010)
After Paranormal Activity hit cinemas in 2007, the found-footage format exploded in popularity. The unlikely low-budget hit went on to spawn one of the most profitable franchises in horror history, making $890.5m at the box office against a total budget of just $28.015m. And it didn’t just give birth to a franchise, either.
In the years after the first film was released, a multitude of found-footage horror flicks flooded cinema screens. Rec, a Spanish film released the same year as Activity, was centred on a rookie broadcast journalist and the fire crew she documents as they discover their callout involves something far more sinister than a fire. Canadian found-footage effort Grave Encounters, released in 2011, followed a team of reality-TV ghost hunters as they realise the location for their latest episode is actually haunted. In 2014, American director John Erick Dowdle released As Above, So Below, a flick about a film crew who find a road to hell in the Catacombs of Paris.
Of all the post-Paranormal Activity found-footage films, however, none stuck with me as much as The Last Exorcism. Released in 2010, director Daniel Stamm helms the story of Reverend Cotton Marcus, an unscrupulous cleric who performs fake exorcisms on paying clients. With an eye on retirement, Marcus hires a documentary crew to film a tell-all tale of his career-long grift. But when his final client begins to exhibit signs of a genuine possession, Marcus realises he’ll have more than the wits of his country-bumpkin marks to contend with.
The Last Exorcism has all the hallmarks of a great found-footage supernatural horror. Stamm consistently builds a sense of dread that in the final act explodes into a gripping climax. The scares are clever. The twists shock. And Patrick Fabian’s excellent lead performance elevates Rev. Marcus from a contemptible conman to someone you end up rooting for. Anyone feeling cynical about the found-footage format should give this one a go.
2. Oculus (2014)
It’s been some time since Blumhouse fully asserted itself as the leading production studio for low-budget horror flicks. In addition to Paranormal Activity, Jason Blum’s company boasts critically-acclaimed films such as Happy Death Day, Upgrade and Jordan Peele’s Get Out — a film now considered by many to be one of the best horror films ever made. And another of the studio’s stronger efforts is Mike Flanagan’s Oculus.
Released in 2014, Oculus tells the story of siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell, who were separated as children after Tim shot their father dead in self-defence. At the time, however, the two were convinced that their father’s acts of violence — among which was the torture and murder of their mother — were driven by a demonic mirror with malicious intent. After Tim is released from psychiatric custody as an adult, Kaylie meets him and reminds him of the promise they made at the time: to prove the demon in the mirror drove their father to madness and kill it, once and for all.
When they set out to do that, however, they realise that the mirror won’t go down without a fight. What follows is a mind-bending journey of supernatural suspense and second-guesses while the two try to figure out whether what they’re seeing is real, or whether it’s just what the mirror wants them to see.
Alongside stellar tension-building and clever scares on the part of writer-director Flanagan, the lead performances from Karen Gillan and Brendan Thwaites (and Annalise Baso and Garrett Ryan Ewald as young Kalie and Tim) help turn a subversive concept into a captivating and tragic possession film.
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
In the new golden age of arthouse and independent horror films, sometimes you just want to get back to a classic possession story with some old-fashioned and effective scares. Thankfully, Ouija: Origin of Evil, released in 2016, has that in spades.
Origin is actually a prequel to the 2014 movie Ouija, directed by Stiles White. But despite being a box office success — it took $103.6m at the box office against a budget of $5–8m — Ouija was panned by critics, who castigated the film’s inconsistent tone, characters and story. With an aggregate score of 6%, Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus reads: “Slowly, steadily, although no one seems to be moving it in that direction, the Ouija planchette points to NO.”
Following the critical failure of the original, Mike Flanagan was brought on to co-write and direct the prequel — and what a transformation it was. Flanagan’s prequel takes the tried-and-tested premise of Ouija — unsuspecting characters releasing a malicious spirit using a ouija board— and creates a film that fulfils the potential the first never managed to.
Origin centres on the Zanders — a family who make their money running a phoney séance business. When 15-year-old Lina suggests to her widowed mother Alice they should try using a planchette at the next consultation, Alice decides to try it out. While using the planchette, Alice unwittingly makes contact with a spirit named Marcus that possesses nine-year-old Doris, her youngest daughter.
Flanagan manages to infuse a classic storyline and scares with well-rounded characters and a family dynamic that deals with tragedy and loss very effectively. Don’t be fooled though — this is no subtle chiller. If your knuckles aren’t turning white gripping the arms of your seat by the third-act, you’re probably braindead.
4. The Shrine (2010)
Mediocre horror movies often share similar flaws. Maybe the characters are unlikeable or cliché. Perhaps they make decisions that are profoundly stupid and dangerous. In some cases, the premise demands absolutely zero scrutiny to stop it becoming absurd. In others, the dialogue may simply be used as a vehicle to drive the plot forward, rather than allowing the viewer to learn more about the characters.
To varying extents, Jon Knautz’s The Shrine is guilty of all these problems. But if you can look past those (and the extensive use of less-than-good green screens) Knautz’s supernatural mystery horror has so many great things to offer.
The Shrine follows Carmen, an idealistic young journalist whose editor keeps assigning her cookie-cutter and inconsequential stories. Along with her intern Laura, and on-again-off-again photographer boyfriend Marcus, Carmen decides to travel (against the advice of her editor) to an isolated town in Poland, where a number of young Americans have gone missing while backpacking across Europe. When they arrive, however, the townspeople quickly turn hostile — and begin to chase them through Polish woodland.
Despite all its flaws, The Shrine builds suspense brilliantly. Knautz keeps the leash tight and the viewer guessing until letting loose at the third act — and despite a budget of just $500,000 (Canadian!), the practical special effects and gore are used to great effect. If you’re looking for a B-movie that will have you cheering at the screen when the climax comes, give this one a go.
5. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Some of the best horror films take place entirely (or almost entirely) in one location (Green Room, anyone? Saw? Evil Dead?). André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, released in 2016, uses that same format — creating an insurmountable sense of claustrophobia to devastating effect.
After the success of his 2010 dark fantasy found-footage film Trollhunter, Øvredal said he wanted to prove he could do projects bigger than the found-footage format. Upon seeing James Wan’s The Conjuring in 2013, Øvredal said it “was such a classical horror movie that came at a time where all these movies had tried to do all kinds of different stuff and then suddenly it was like getting back to basics”. Inspired, Øvredal told his agency he wanted to find a “pure horror script” — and was subsequently sent the screenplay for Autopsy.
If Øvredal was trying to prove something with Autopsy, he did so with flying colours. The film follows Austen and Tommy Tilden (played by Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch), father-and-son coroners who are given the corpse of an unidentified woman to examine. As they cut into the body, however, the two begin experiencing supernatural phenomena, and fear they have awoken a force that now wishes them harm.
The father-son dynamic created by Cox and Hirsch gives Autopsy an anchor of authenticity, keeping the viewer invested amid all the scares. Øvredal manages to cram in some fantastic jump scares amid the creeping tension, all of which feel earned. By the time the credits roll, if you‘re not thoroughly creeped out by the 1954 song ‘Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)’, it’s possible you’re missing a soul.