I am a sucker for a good ghost story. In fact, I would go as far as saying that when it comes to horror films, it is quite possibly my favourite type of horror. There’s just something about dark, unseen forces that create a sense of dread that I simply do not get from stories about more tactile dangers.
While Western cinema has delivered many great ghost stories over the decades, I must admit that many of my all-time favourites and certainly a lot of the scariest films of this particular sub-genre, can be found in the rich tapestry that is Asian horror cinema.
In this list I have done my best to collect together the scariest ghost horrors that Asia has to offer. This was by no means a small or an easy task and I’m sure that I have inadvertently missed out on some very deserving films, but nevertheless I hope you enjoy this compilation of some of my personal favourites.
(not in ranking order)
When talking about Korean ghost horror it seems only natural to start with Tale of Two Sisters by one of Korean best-known directors, Jee-woon Kim. Based on a popular folktale from the Joseon Dynasty era called Janghwa Hongryeon jeon (translates as The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon), it is a story that has adapted several times before, although none quite as successfully as this particular version. It’s a story of two sisters, one which, Su-mi, has recently been released from a mental institution. While family tensions tighten and old secrets come back to haunt the sisters, it soon becomes clear that not all is quite as it seem in this off-kilter household. While the mood of the story is somewhat sombre and the first half of the film might feel slightly slow going, Tale of Two Sisters is a film worth sticking with. It has some exquisitely creepy ghost sequences as well as a genuinely absorbing mystery behind the hauntings.
Sung-ho Kim’s supernatural mystery, Into the Mirror offers some great scares as well as very beautifully planned and executed cinematography. It’s a tale of an ex-cop, turned security guard, who finds himself in middle of a ghostly murder mystery when working in soon-to-be re-opened shopping mall. The story is a combination of crime mystery and a ghost story, both of which come together very smoothly to create a moody, atmospheric piece of horror cinema. But what really sets Into the Mirror apart from other crime driven ghost stories is indeed it’s cinematography. Mirrors do not only play a massive role in the plot, but also in the visual side of the film. From filming the actors via a mirror to creating incredibly stylish shots using symmetry created by reflections, mirrors are utilised in some form or another in almost every scene. Some may say this excessive use of the prop is a slight overkill, but personally I think that sticking with the theme and just running with it has certainly payed off in this instance. Into the Mirror keeps loyal to it’s theme till the very end and even manages to offer one final plot twist which you might not see coming.
Phone by Byeong-ki Ahn was the film that introduced me to the world of Korean horror. It tells a story of a young journalist Ji-won, who after writing an expose on a local paedophile ring must go into hiding in order to avoid the unwanted attention the article has brought her way. But when she changes her phone number and inadvertently ends up getting a phone number of a young girl that disappeared in mysterious circumstances, she finds herself not only being stalked by an angry maniac out for revenge, but also by an unsettled spirit somehow linked to her phone. The premise of Phone might sound somewhat silly when spelled out like this, but do not be fooled; this gem delivers on ghost and crime story fronts. It’s a great combination of murder mystery and the supernatural and keeps the tension going all throughout the film.
A recent add the Korean ghost horror cannon, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, by Beom-sik Jeong, is something to keep an eye out for. At its heart it’s a very basic supernatural found footage film, telling a story of a web series crew who get a bit more than they bargained for when they decide to do a paranormal investigation in a closed down asylum. But while the main premise does not take the genre in to any new waters and the first half of film drags on slightly, Gonjiam still manages to offer some honestly hair-raising moments. Once you get passed all the paint-by-numbers scares, such as slamming doors and dolls moving on their own accord and the real ghostly happenings get going, they do carry on in rather unrelenting manner. The special effects are great quality and will be sure to creep out even more seasoned horror fans. For the maximum scare factor, I would highly recommend watching this one on your own, in the dark.
Directed by Hideo Nakata and based on the novel by Koji Suzuki, Ringu hit the cinemas in 1998 and changed the landscape of ghost horror forever with it’s terrifying antagonist Sadako Yamamura. With her long black hair and white gown, she was an epitome of a classic onryo (a vengeful spirit), which in itself is terrifying enough. However, Ringu’s modern take on the vengeful ghost updated old conventions and brought a new kind of terror with it; one much closer to our contemporary lives. This hateful spectre didn’t lurk around a creepy old house or an isolated roadside. It came to your home through your TV set and even more terrifyingly, absolutely anyone could end being the victim of its wrath. All you had to do was to watch the wrong video tape and your days were numbered. Since its release the film been borrowed from, parodied and shamelessly plagiarised and one thing is for sure: much like Sadako’s curse, Ringu’s mark on the face of ghost horror is irreversible and abiding.
A few years later another film benefitting from the revengeful ghost tradition made its debut in the big screens. Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, Ju-on is in fact the third film in the series (predated by Ju-on and Ju-on: The Curse 2, both of which went straight to video), but the first one to get a theatrical release. It steps the whole concept of a haunted house up a gear and presents you with a curse that there is no escape from. This simple suburban home is inhabited by not one, but three scornful spirits that take no prisoners. Their hate filled existence knows only one purpose: mindless revenge. In this aspect Kayako, Toshio and Takeo are much more frightening characters than Sadako ever was. While her curse can be escaped by simply passing it on, there is no running away from this family. They will keep coming after you until there’s nothing left. Some of the best scares of all times, guarantee to give you a few sleepless nights.
07- Sweet Home (Sûîto Homu, 1989)
While perhaps slightly more western take on the haunted house genre, firmly bringing to mind such films as The Haunting (1963) and The Legend of Hell House (1973), Sweet Home is none the less a film well worth seeking out. Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, this tale of a haunted mansion was originally released in tandem with a video game by the same name; a game that would end up being the inspiration behind the Resident Evil game empire. The story follows a TV crew documenting lost paintings of the famous artist Ichiro Mamiya in his long-abandoned mansion. Of course, things soon take a turn for the paranormal as the restless spirits roaming around the mansion are awakened and the crew finds themselves in grave danger. Super fun ghostly action and some genuinely eerie special effects. Sweet Home if a treasure amongst haunted house horrors.
08 – The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959)
If you really want to get to the root of the vengeful ghost tradition you cannot go wrong with The Ghost Story of Yotsuya. It is only one of many film adaptations of this classic kabuki play, but this glorious technicolour version by Nobuo Nagakawa is most definitely one of the best ones. It tells a tale of beautiful Oiwa, who after being betrayed and murdered by her deceitful husband Iemon, returns to seek her revenge as an onryo. The story is undoubtedly the most famous ghost story in Japan and a perfect example of a classic vengeful ghost story. Even though 60 years have passed since the release of this film, much of its power is still intact. The scenes with Oiwa haunting her murderer are genuinely creepy even with today’s standards and even if you don’t happen to find them that scary, any horror fan can still appreciate the artful execution behind them. An absolute must see!
As mentioned, Ghost Story of Yotsuya has been told and re-told many times over the years. One of the most recent re-imaginings of the same story came from none other than Takashi Miike in Over Your Dead Body. It takes this classic Edo-gothic tale to modern day and mixes traditional ghost story with psychological horror. In true Miike fashion there’s also some rather graphic violence thrown into the mix (which, it has to be noted, is also very much in keeping with the original material, as Ghost Story of Yotsuya is a very violent story indeed), but much less so that what audiences have perhaps used to seeing from Mr. Miike. Instead the focus is firmly on the moody atmosphere and recreating the major themes of the story, betrayal and revenge, in a modernised setting. I will admit that this particular piece might be better enjoyed with a bit more knowledge of the original story, as there are several small details that are easily missed otherwise and that help you understand the story a little bit better. That being said, I do keep recommending this film to everyone, as I do think it is a thoroughly successful modernisation of a bona fide classic.
10 – Infection (Kansen, 2004)
Masayuki Ochiai’s Infection is often forgotten, but still brilliant little supernatural tale set in run down old hospital. When a mysterious patient with an unknown and potentially highly infectious disease is dropped off at the hospital ER by a passing ambulance, already difficult night goes from bad to worse. Past sins surface as tensions run high and the remaining staff find themselves hunted by alien infection as well as ghostly apparitions. Some western viewers have found this particular story somewhat confusing and hard to follow, but I personally have never felt that. I do think there’s several different ways of interpreting the strange events that occur, but for me, that just adds to the appeal of the film. Every time I watch it, I find something new that I haven’t noticed before, which keeps the story fresh for every viewing.
This stunning black and white ghost story is easily one of the best ones out there. Director Kaneto Shindo has turned an old folktale into a stylish, moody piece full of unforgettable cinematography and wonderfully built atmosphere. Kuroneko tells the story of two women (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) who after being brutally raped and killed by a group of soldiers, come back as murderous spirits, ready take their revenge on any unlucky samurai that happens to come their way. It’s sleek, beautiful and haunting piece of cinema and while it might not get you with cheap jump scares or keep you up at night out of fright, it will most definitely haunt your thoughts long after watching it. Absolutely must see for anyone wanting to familiarise themselves with classic Japanese cinema.
From Thailand comes a beautifully creepy ghost tale by the name of Shutter. Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parpoom Wongpoom it’s a story of a young photographer who, after being involved in a tragic car accident, find himself haunted by a malevolent entity. But what seems like a straightforward haunting, lies a more complex story of guilt and dark secrets. Besides the rather intriguing mystery, Shutter also delivers in the scare department and there’s plenty of spooky moments sure to creep you out. It also has satisfyingly dark ending offering no escape from past sins to anyone. Perhaps slightly pedestrian, but still very enjoyable, gloomy piece with a continuing sense of impending doom.
13 – The Promise (Puen Tee Raluek, 2017)
Sophon Sakdaphisit’s The Promise is story of two friends, Ib and Boum, who make a suicide pack after their families are hit hard by the 1997 financial crisis. However, when Boum chickens out on the deal she will find that her decision has a long-lasting effect on her life. Somewhat slow and sorrowful in tone, The Promise still manages to dish out some surprising scares and tense ambience. The main actors (Bee Namthip and Apichaya Thongkham) do a creditable job in their respective roles and the story keeps you hooked till the very end. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the ghostly action takes place in Bangkok’s famous Sathorn Unique Tower; a 47-floor condominium complex whose construction was put on permanent hold during the financial crisis. The building has since become a popular destination for urban explorers and is of course rumoured to be haunted. Safe to say that this is a fantastic back drop for this specific story, so even if you find the ghostly appearances too tame for your taste, you might just end up enjoying the marvellously eerie atmosphere this location has to offer.
This Hong Kong/Singaporean horror by the directing team Pang Brothers is likely to be a film every horror fan is familiar with. Its success generated two sequels and three remakes and for good reason; it really does deliver in the scare department. While the pace of the film is somewhat slow, The Eye does a great job in catching you on the offbeat. Even 17 years after it’s release it still has some of the best jump scares quite possibly ever to be seen on the silver screen. While I have always found the ending ever so slightly disappointing, it still does not take away from the fact that that scene in the calligraphy class scares the living day light out of me. A solid choice for anyone new to Asian horror.
15 – The Tag-Along (Hong yi xiao nu hai, 2015)
This Taiwanese ghost story utilises local mountain folklore and modern urban legends and combines them into a very neat little package. The urban legend the film draws from is of a group of hikers who upon going through photos of their latest hiking trip, discover that a young girl in a red dress has been following them the whole way through the hike. This together with some Taiwanese folklore about mountain spirits forms the basis of the plot. The premise has a fresh feel to it and I personally really enjoyed learning some more about Taiwanese mythology. The spirit that follows the unfortunate people who have happened to cross her way is also rather creepy and the first half of the film especially gave me a proper scare or two. As a slight disclaimer, I do have to mention that the second half of the story does suffer from over exposure of the ghost, which unfortunately diminishes the fright factor somewhat and comes as a bit of a disappointment after such a strong start. Despite that, I would still recommend Tag-along to those in search of something little bit different in the ghost horror genre.
16 – The Imp (Hung bong, 1981)
With a title like The Imp one would not necessarily expect a story of a haunting (I know I certainly didn’t), but in fact that is exactly what you get with this great little (pun intented) Hong Kong horror by Dennis Yu. It’s a story of a Keung, a young man desperately trying to find a job to be able to provide for his pregnant wife. When he finally manages to get a job as a night security guard in a local commercial building, Keung reckons his luck must be changing, but it is not long until strange incidents start occurring and people around him start dying left, right and centre. Even worse, with a help of Taoist priest Keung learns that the spirit lurking around his new place of work is not only after the people who work there, but indeed his unborn child. In true Hong Kong horror fashion, it’s not all doom and gloom, but there some rather silly humour thrown in the mix as well, but as a whole The Imp does deliver some great ambience. Yes, some of the effects are dated and maybe not as effective as they could be, but damn, if this film doesn’t stick to your mind. If you like your Hong Kong horror with black magic and a side of evil spirits, The Imp is definitely the film for you!