A Familiar Presence: 7 Friendly Ghosts in Films

We usually associate ghosts with terror, but there’s more to these supernatural beings. Across the history of cinema, there are those filmmakers that have been sympathetic towards them, revealing their friendly and eccentric sides, and even presenting them as captivatingly cool. Adam Stovall’s A Ghost Waits recently released on ARROW, joins a long tradition of films that have sought to subvert a narrow-minded perception we share of ghosts, and we’ve compiled a selection of essential films that celebrate these gentler spirits.

Topper (1937)

For friendly ghosts, look no further than director Norman Z. McLeod’s supernatural comedy. Following a car accident, George and Marion Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) realise while they were enjoying their carefree wealthy lifestyles, they neglected to accumulate enough good deeds to get them into heaven. Upon realising they’re stuck in limbo, they pay their banker friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) a visit. They plan to add some excitement to his otherwise dull life, hoping this good deed will fix their predicament, but their meddling leads to a near death experience and almost ruins Cosmo’s marriage.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

Set in the early 1900s, in the English seaside village of Whitecliff, Lucy (Gene Tierney), with her daughter and maid, rents Gull Cottage. Unbeknownst to her, it’s haunted by the ghost of sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who is reputed to have committed suicide. When her investment fails, Lucy’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law plead with her to return to London, but Gregg asks her to stay and write his memoirs. He uses his supernatural presence to rid her of the pair, and as he recounts his adventures to her, they fall in love. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film, adapted from the novel by Josephine Leslie, is a gentle love story, with a twist of eccentricity. This simple presence of a widow writing the memoirs of the ghostly sea captain has a romantic and timeless charm. It’s complimented by the hopelessness of their love, and the teasing conclusion whether he was real, or just a dream. Separated by more than 70 years, Mankiewicz’s and Stovall’s gentle, humorous and eccentric stories perhaps find in one another a kindred spirit.

House (1986)

The 80s classic horror-comedy centres on author Roger Cobb, who decides to live alone in the house of his recently deceased aunt, to write a novel based on his experiences of the Vietnam War. A haunted fun house, this is the filmic equivalent of being on the ghost train. Ghosts turn up here, there and everywhere, including his wife attacking him after turning into a creature, who is then decapitated by a pair of garden clippers. Never taking itself too seriously, not only does it offer us a nostalgic experience of a bygone era of genre filmmaking, but guarantees a stonking good time. It’s essential viewing for anyone with a love of ghosts or haunted house movies. They don’t make them like this anymore folks!

Beetlejuice (1988)

A quintessential troublemaker, this poltergeist remains a tour de force with Michael Keaton’s expressive and physical comedic presence on show. Director Tim Burton brings a dark spin to the friendly Betelgeuse, a freelance bio-exorcist with a reputation as a troublemaker. The recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), are warned to stay away from him by his previous employer, but when their antics amuse rather than frighten the new ‘living’ home owners into leaving, they seek his help. Betelgeuse is obnoxious and helpful, if not a little narcissistic, but it’s his humorous wit that makes him unsociably cool.

Field of Dreams (1989)

“If you build it, he will come” are the famous words that compel Kevin Costner’s character Ray to build a baseball field in his Iowa corn field. Phil Alden Robinson’s adaptation of W. P. Kinsella’s novel is a beloved film of the 80s, and features the ghosts of famous baseball players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
At its heart, Robinson’s film is a story of personal healing for Ray, who is haunted with regret at not having reconciled with his late father – a longtime baseball fan, who dreamt of playing professionally. The crowd that eventually come to watch the games in the corn field is a touching evocation of the sport referred to as, “America’s pastime.” It’s also a romanticised rite of passage shared between a father and son playing catch. All of this is woven into the story in which paths between the living and the dead intersect in a friendly, meaningful and cathartic way.

Ghost (1990)

A mix of detection, romance, horror and supernatural possession, director Jerry Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin bring a depth to the ghost story. Patrick Swayze plays banker Sam, a man murdered by an accomplice of Carl (Tony Goldwyn), his co-worker and friend who is laundering money. He stays close to Molly (Demi Moore), and while piecing together the reason for his murder, he recruits the help of psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg).
It’s a touching story with Sam playing Molly’s guardian angel, while darker shades of horror are present, including a subway poltergeist and creepy entities that take the souls of the guilty. The possession scene when Sam enters Oda’s body to dance with Molly, is a touching moment shared between a ghost and their loved one, that recalls the moment shared between father and son in Field of Dreams.

The Frighteners (1996)

Frank (Michael J. Fox) with the help of his three deceased business partners, a nerd, a gangster and a gunslinger judge, run a con on unsuspecting homeowners – they haunt a property and Frank exorcises it. The trio are an interesting mix of personalities, offering director Peter Jackson plenty of humorous beats to hit. Meanwhile, Frank tries to thwart a cool looking Grim Reaper with an amusing backstory from killing any more people, which has landed him as the FBI’s lead suspect. The mix of friendly and cool ghosts gives this often overlooked quirky and original gem, its cool swagger.

For the latest from Arrow Films,  follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Paul Risker

Paul Risker

Writer and expert

Paul Risker is a European (not British or English) based film critic, interviewer and editor, whose work has been published by PopMatters, Cineaste, the Quarterly Review of Film & Video, PopMatters, LWLies, FrightFest and VideoScope. He's on the advisory board of Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration (MSJ), and serves as interview editor.