Ghosts have long been fixtures in the entertainment world. Houdini’s counterparts tried to call on them in séances, and modern day TV bros try to hunt them down in old houses and hospitals. Ghosts have also featured prominently in movies since damn near the invention of cinema, and as such, have meted out—if you believe in that sort of thing—any number of valuable supernatural lessons to the viewing public. As part of our occasional feature I Learned It At The Movies, The A.V. Club compiled some of the most essential tidbits of ghostly advice we could find, just in time for Halloween.
The haunter: Deceased young couple Barbara and Adam Maitland, freelance “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse.
The haunted: Charles, Delia, and Lydia Deetz, an art-centric new family that moved into the Maitlands’ old home.
Practical, universal lessons: Everyone looks good in vertical stripes. If you think you’re a ghost, you’re probably a ghost. Harry Belafonte really livens up a party.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Even ghosts have to deal with red tape.Ghosts are required to stay in their old homes for 125 years, and if they want to live alone, they’ll have to drive out current residents. Ghosts can consult both afterlife caseworkers and their Handbook For The Recently Deceased should they run into problems.
Over Her Dead Body (2008)
The haunter: Ex-fiancée Kate, slain on her wedding day by a falling ice sculpture.
The haunted: Ashley, the psychic/caterer contacted by Kate’s would-be groom—who ends up falling for the guy, much to Kate’s consternation.
Practical, universal lessons: When planning a wedding, perform due diligence on the vendors. Taking advantage of someone’s suffering will only bring personal suffering. A ghost’s unfinished business is rarely what they think it is. Catering is always a sensible fallback.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When a couple is as superficially mismatched as Paul Rudd and Eva Longoria, there’s a greater, cosmic reason. Only the haunted can hear the haunter—particularly when the haunted is trying to evacuate the gym mid-shower. When a ghost farts, it leaves behind only the stench of romantic-comedy disappointment.
Ghost Dad (1990)
The haunter: Elliot Hopper, a widower and workaholic whose ride on the promotion track is disrupted by the cabbie from hell.
The haunted: Everyone in Elliot’s life—particularly the three Hopper children, who discover they can interact with their see-through father in darkened spaces.
Practical, universal lessons: If you think you’ve died, you might just have left your body out of fright. Don’t put off until Thursday what can be done today. Between life and death, a man can be the father he never was. Roller skates and staircases don’t mix. The energy that made Bill Cosby one of TV’s most beloved performers doesn’t translate to high-concept film comedies (See also: Leonard Part 6).
Narrow, film-specific lessons: In a cinematic universe where ghosts communicate telepathically, invent a paranormal device that allows them to do so while moving their lips. The bandaged “Invisible Man look” is a quick fix for all transparent beings. Satanists are terrible drivers. Don’t call a man’s daughter a bitch, even if he is nominally dead.
The haunter: Spirits displaced by the construction of a subdivision atop an old cemetery.
The haunted: The Freeling family, particularly little Carol Anne, who’s abducted by an evil spirit into some weird plain between the physical world and the other side.
Practical, universal lessons: At the first signs of a haunting, get the hell out and don’t come back. TV static may offer a portal to the other side (See also: White Noise).
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Spirits will possibly use your house as a portal to another dimension if your house sits atop a cemetery. When building a subdivision where a cemetery once stood, move the bodies as well as the headstones, not just the latter.
White Noise (2005)
The haunter: Various demons.
The haunted: Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), who discovers electronic voice phenomena (EVP)—basically, the dead speaking through white noise—as a way to contact his dead wife. As he grows more obsessed with it, he draws the attention of some evil spirits.
Practical, universal lessons: Listening intently to TV or radio static for the voices of dead people is an insane waste of time.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re the kind of person who believes he can hear dead people in white noise, then you’re the kind of person who should heed a psychic’s advice not to get in too deep with it.
The haunter: Pasty, peeved prepubescent Sadako Yamamura, who has long, stringy black hair that hangs over her face—quite blessedly, as you really don’t want to look her in the eyes
The haunted: Reporter Reiko Asakawa, as well as her ex-husband Ryūji and son Yoichi, all given a single, remaining week to live because of their cursed curiosity.
Practical, universal lessons: Carefully monitor your kid’s watching habits. Screwing over some complete stranger is fine if you’re trying to save your own loved ones. Just to be safe, believe every urban legend you hear. Ghosts have not made the conversion to DVD.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Freeing a ghost from its physical prison will not save you from its wrath. Unplugging your telephone will not save you either. If you encounter a VHS tape that’s said to kill anyone who watches it… you’re probably okay, because who owns a VCR anymore?
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The haunter: A little girl poisoned by her stepmother, an abused woman who committed suicide, hanging victims, a lonely psychiatrist, etc.
The haunted: 8-year-old Cole Sear, who sees dead people.
Practical, universal lessons: Ghosts have very selective memories. Getting shot in the gut will probably kill you. If your wife hasn’t said a single word to you in months, you’re probably dead.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Any time you can see your breath or the hair on the back of your neck stands up, a ghost is nearby—no exceptions! If you can see dead people, and want to convince someone of this, tell her really personal anecdotes about her deceased loved ones. Ghosts’ voices can be recorded, but you have to crank the levels to hear them. Settle a ghost’s unfinished business, and he will stop scaring the shit out of you.
The Others (2001)
The haunter: Bereaved mother Grace Stewart and her kids, Anne and Nicholas.
The haunted: The current inhabitants of the house Grace can’t bring herself to depart.
Practical, universal lessons: When having ghost problems, check first to make sure the ghost isn’t you.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Being a ghost can be just as much of a mind-fuck as being haunted by one—up to and including psychotic episodes, symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and massive denial that you’re the one who’s actually dead. Oh, and there’s also the massive denial of the fact that you committed murder-suicide with your two children—like, a hundred years ago.
The haunter: Casper The Friendly Ghost and the Ghostly Trio, his three uncles Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso.
The haunted: Paranormal therapist Dr. James Harvey, called to investigate the haunted Whipstaff Mansion by greedy inheritor Carrigan Crittenden, and his daughter Kat.
Practical, universal lessons: The dead stay dead. Autographed sports memorabilia does not equate to highly valuable treasure.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Unlike the ’60s and ’70s, when Harvey Comics explained Casper’s origin as the product of his ghost parents’ marriage, it is best to at least obliquely suggest that a child ghost results after the death of a child.
Susie Q (1996)
The haunter: Susie Quinn, a teenager who dies in a car accident on her way to prom in 1955.
The haunted: Zach Sands, whose family moves into Susie’s old house 40 years later.
Practical, universal lessons: Don’t drink and drive under any circumstances. Styles of prom dresses have grown progressively more revealing since the 1950’s. The evil banker is behind the plot to destroy the small town.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: The way to rediscover your love of basketball is by helping a restless spirit into the afterlife. Avoid being typecast as the Pink Ranger by starring in television movies.
The Eye (2002)
The haunter: Eyes donated from Ling, a psychic woman who killed herself.
The haunted: Mun, a blind violinist who receives Ling’s eyes.
Practical, universal lessons: Always act in a calm, rational fashion when trying to clear people away from a disaster area. Make sure all organ donations are fully sourced. Parents should always tell their children they love them.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Never sit in a ghost’s chair, because they really, really don’t like it. If you have magical powers, don’t sign up to be an organ donor.
The haunter: An army of spooks that’s descended on New York in advance of the coming of vengeful Sumerian deity Gozer, who plans to bring about the end of the world.
The haunted: New York in general, and Central Park West neighbors Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis in particular.
Practical, universal lessons: While most ghost stories involve people fighting the supernatural using supernatural means—often with great difficulty and at great cost—phantoms have nothing on science, as these specters are captured with high-tech-sounding proton packs, neutrino wands, and positron gliders.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes! Also, ancient Sumerian gods are just as deadly in marshmallow form, so be careful out there.
The Shining (1980)
The haunter: Delbert Grady, former winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, and other assorted former employees and residents.
The haunted: Jack Torrance, alcoholic frustrated novelist and current winter caretaker, and his wife and son, who are snowbound together at the hotel.
Practical, universal lessons: Ghosts carry their personal issues, whether they be homicidal tendencies or a streak of racism, into the next life with them. Take any marital advice you receive from them with a grain of salt. If you are the sort of person who bonds easily with an ax murderer, the snowbound life may not be for you.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Nothing is more creepy or unsettling than big-band music echoing through the halls of a supposedly abandoned hotel. If you find yourself in a haunted hotel in the Smoky Mountains where most of the ghosts have British accents, the ghosts are the least of your problems: You’re in a Stanley Kubrick movie.
The Fog (1980)
The haunter: The passengers and crew of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that crashed on the rocks of Antonio Bay in 1880, where they had hoped to found a leper colony.
The haunted: The residents of the town, whose ancestors deliberately set a fire on the beach a hundred years earlier, so that they could plunder the ship and kill its inhabitants.
Practical, universal lessons: Lepers are human beings, just like you and me, and it is wrong to murder them just because they creep you out. Though it’s not as if letting them marinate in salt water for 100 years is going to make them any more appealing.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Revenge is a dish best served cold, and if you’re able to bide your time for a century, you can serve that shit up like it’s frozen gelato. Of course, this will mean you’re not avenging your wrongs with the people who did you wrong, but their great-grandchildren. But then, leper-killers are famous for caring less about themselves than about the generations to come.
The Frighteners (1996)
The haunter: Cyrus and Stuart, ghosts who are in the employ of professional ghostbuster Frank Bannister; Johnny Charles Bartlett, an executed serial killer who is continuing his work from beyond the grave.
The haunted: Frank’s prospective clients, who he sics his ghost friends on so he can be hired to “exorcise” them; anyone Johnny thinks it would be fun to kill.
Practical, universal lessons: The living should learn to move on, which is an option not open to the dead.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Not only are the dead not capable of moving on, they remain frozen in whatever styles and fashion choices they had adopted at the moment of their death, which makes the Afro-topped, leisure-suited Cyrus a walking argument against dying in the 1970s.
The haunter: George and Marion Kerby, a rich, happy-go-lucky married couple who die in a car crash and, finding their spirits trapped on earth, figure out that they’re not bad enough to be consigned to hell, but haven’t been good enough to be welcomed into Heaven
The haunted: Cosmo Topper, their square banker friend. The Kerbys decide to get in solid with St. Peter by teaching Topper to have fun.
Practical, universal lessons: Use your time among the living to pick one side or the other. Spending the days following your demise trying to convince a middle-aged banker to get drunk and do the Lindy Hop might just strike St. Peter as a case of too little, too late.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If a couple of ghosts show up on your doorstep and insist on doing you a favor, better to ask them to empty your wastebasket or program your DVR and then act insanely grateful than try to discourage them.
Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
The haunter: Nina, a grief-stricken young woman whose lover, Jamie, has died unexpectedly.
The haunted: Jamie, who finally responds to her pleas to the universe for his return by reappearing in her home, along with a pack of his ghost buddies.
Practical, universal lessons: Those who feel they cannot go on unless their deceased loved ones are returned to them posthaste should be careful what they wish for—and not even in some ghoulish “The Monkey’s Paw” way, but just an everyday, “I’d forgotten just how annoying you could be” sort of way.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Ghosts abuse the thermostat and hog the video player, or maybe your loved one always did that and you’d forgotten, but now that he’s dead, he still does it—it’s ambiguous. In any case, better to accept that invitation from the nice, still-living guy than moon about the lost romance that your memory had done so much touch-up work on.
Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968)
The haunter: Captain Edward Teach, the notorious pirate more commonly known as Blackbeard.
The haunted: Steve Walker, the new track coach at seaside Godolphin College.
Practical, universal lessons: Supernatural companions can be massive hassle, but they also prove handy in a pinch. Only the person being haunted can see a ghost. Performing good deeds is the way to break a ghost curse.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: A ghost can be great for a small business, especially if it’s an inn owned by the descendants of the ghost pirate’s old crew. Reading from spell books hidden in old bed warmers is a very bad idea. Using a ghost to cheat at the track and win a bet isn’t a bad thing if the money goes to a noble cause. Mobsters are afraid of the supernatural.
The Lion King (1994)
The haunter: Mufasa, ruler of the animal kingdom who is killed when his brother betrays him.
The haunted: Simba, Mufasa’s son who turns his back on his destiny after blaming himself for his father’s death.
Practical, universal lessons: A visit from a ghost can be the perfect catalyst for self-discovery (See also: Hamlet and A Christmas Carol). Losing a parent really sucks. Loved ones are watching from on high and live on in the hearts of those they’ve left behind.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Ghosts are a total buzzkill and interrupt a life of “hakuna matata.” Ghosts don’t need to take their old forms when they visit the living, and can occasionally appear as celestial bodies made of stars. Shakespeare’s storylines work remarkably well when adapted for a cast of cartoon animals voiced by actors like James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons.