To help celebrate Halloween, we’ve put together an informative-yet-creepy list of some of our favorite specters, shades, phantasms, and restless spirits from popular culture, literature, folklore, and myth. The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, of course, and we hope that you’ll add in your own favorite ghouls and ghosts in the comments….
So without further ado, we present the spookiest, creepiest, most haunting collection of wraiths and phantoms this side of the underworld: Ghosts from A to Z!
“Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad”: One of several ghost stories told in One Thousand and One Nights, Ali the trader spends the night in a notorious haunted house…where the jinn end up being pretty cool, actually.
Annie Sawyer (Being Human, BBC): On of the three original protagonists on Being Human, along with George (a werewolf) and Mitchell (a vampire), Annie struggles to piece together the events leading to her untimely death, and to deal with her newfound ghostly status, with all its new abilities and unfortunate shortcomings.
Banquo (Macbeth): Murdered on Macbeth’s orders, noble Banquo’s ghost appears at a feast, causing quite a scene. The historical Banquo was thought to be an ancestor of James I, which colored his depiction in Shakespeare’s play.
Bob, aka Hrothbert of Bainbridge (The Dresden Files): In the Dresden novels, Bob is a “spirit of intellect” who assists Harry Dresden with magical tasks. On the television series, Bob is more of a presence (played rather sassily by Terrence Mann) as Dresden’s close friend and ghostly sidekick.
Betelgeuse (Beetlejuice): The Ghost with the Most.
Boo Berry (General Mills Monster Cereal): Ghostly cereal-hawking mascot, often appearing in conjunction with Count Chocula and Franken Berry; former associate of Fruit Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy (both discontinued. RIP). Powers include impersonating Peter Lorre as a ghost, pretending that fake blueberry flavoring isn’t gross.
Mr. Boogedy (Mr. Boogedy): The star of a surprisingly unsettling late-80s Disney movie, Mr. Boogedy is the ghost of cranky pilgrim who sold his soul to Satan for a magic cloak, and ends up haunting David Faustino and Kristy Swanson, for some reason.
Bogle/Boggle/Bogill (Scottish/English folklore): Goblin-esque ghostly beings who delight in messing with humans, usually to annoy, perplex, or simply frighten (rather than inflicting serious harm). For example, “Tatty Bogle” would hide in potato fields and cause blight, when not attacking unsuspecting humans. Hilarious!
Bhoot/Bhut (Indian folklore): The restless ghost of a deceased person, usually appearing in human form but with backward-facing feet. Bhoots tend to appear in white, often floating above the ground or in trees, and cast no shadow.
Bloody Mary (American folklore): Other urban legends may come and go, but proud Mary keeps on burning. As long as there are sleepover parties, there will be someone bold enough to say her name three times in front of a mirror at midnight. We should totally hook her up with Betelgeuse. Or the Candyman.
The Candyman (Candyman): In life, the Candyman was the son of a slave who became a well-known artist; when he fell in love with a white woman, an angry mob cut off his hand, replacing it with a hook, smeared him with honey, and watched as he was stung to death by bees. According to the film’s urban legend, he can be summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror, but since we’re talking about Tony Todd with a hook-hand, it’s not recommended.
The Canterville Ghost (“The Canterville Ghost”): Oscar Wilde’s first published short story tells the humorous tale of a modern American family who move into an old English country house haunted by the titular character, Sir Simon. Simon undertakes a dramatic haunting of The Otises, but unfortunately, the family remains sunny, pragmatic, and unimpressed with his efforts at horrifying them. A wonderful story, which has inspired multiple movie versions (with another one slated for 2014).
Casper the Friendly Ghost (Cartoons/comics): Starting out in (some oddly dark) animated cartoons in the mid-40s, Casper has been through various incarnations in serial cartoons, comic books, and TV, with a live-action film in 1995. Casper’s backstory has changed a bit over the years, but regardless of how he became a ghost, it seems clear that he probably isn’t out to get us. Unless he’s just been lulling us all into a false sense of security for the six decades.
Chindi (Navajo folklore): The ghost that leaves the body with a person’s last breath, containing everything that was bad or unharmonious in their spirit. After death, the dead person’s name is never spoken and their remains and possessions are avoided in order to avoid chindi-inflicted “ghost sickness.”
Christmas Ghosts (A Christmas Carol): Everybody knows these guys: the three spirits who take their respective turns with miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in order to show him the error of his ways. In Dickens’ original novella, The Ghost of Christmas Past is an androgynous spirit who shows Scrooge his old boarding school days and his treatment of his former fiancée, Belle. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a festive party giant who takes Scrooge around the city, peeking in on the Cratchits and revealing the emaciated personifications of Ignorance and Want. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a fearsome, black-robed spirit who shows Scrooge the aftermath of his own death, as well as Tiny Tim’s, finally pushing him to a moment of epiphany and transformation.
Cihuateteo (Aztec mythology): The ancient Aztecs regarded childbirth as a form of battle, so women who died giving birth were honored as fallen warriors. In death, they became the fearsome Cihuateteo, known for haunting crossroads, causing sickness and madness, and stealing children. Do not get on their bad side.
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (The Sixth Sense): Child psychologist played by Bruce Willis, and…what? You haven’t seen The Sixth Sense? But it’s been out for 13 years!!! Okay, okay: fine. SPOILERS. Just forget we said anything.
Clytemnestra (Greek myth/drama): One of the first ghosts to appear in a work of fiction, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BC) portrays her as a scheming femme fatale who murders her husband and is in turn killed by her son, Orestes. Her vengeful spirit appears to spur The Furies to action, urging them to torment and punish Orestes. Even in death, she’s not a woman to be trifled with…
Elvira Condomine (Blithe Spirit): The disruptive ghost who causes trouble for her former husband in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
The Crypt Keeper (Tales from the Crypt): In the 50s, the Crypt Keeper started out as the narrator of EC’s horror comic anthology series Tales from the Crypt, until the Comics Code quickly brought about its untimely death. In 1989, however, the character was revived as a cackling animated corpse in order to host the HBO series of the same name. With lines like, “Hello, boils and ghouls!”, the Crypt Keeper’s moldering puns were usually the most deadly part of the show.
Edwina Cutwater (All of Me): Spoiled heiress played by Lily Tomlin who dies and ends up sharing a body with Steve Martin in 1984’s All of Me.
Draugr (Norse mythology): Undead Vikings who possess superhuman strength, the ability to swell and increase their size or shapeshift at will, and reek of decay. They delight in violently slaughtering and sometimes consuming their victims, usually people who have trespassed on the graves or burial mounds the draugr guards, although sometimes they roam and rampage, killing animals and humans alike.
Dybbuk (Jewish Folklore): Malevolent spirit believed to be the soul of a dead person, able to possess the living. Contrast with Ibbur.
Emeric Belasco (Hell House): Insane millionaire whose legendary depravity and sadism lies at the heart of Richard Matheson’s haunted Hell House. And yes, we are cheating by filing him under E; Emeric Belasco doesn’t play by the rules.
Faddeev-Popov ghosts (Physics): One for the physics fans; good ghosts, known for haunting quantum field theories. We can only imagine the kind of stories Richard Feynman used to tell about these guys around a campfire, playing his bongos and terrifying the other Nobel candidates.
Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. (Six Feet Under): Killed in a car accident (while sitting in a hearse) on Christmas Eve, Nathaniel Sr.’s death sets off the events of the HBO series, as the rest of Fisher comes together in its wake (Not a pun. Sorry, Crypt Keeper!). Played by the great Richard Jenkins, Nathaniel remained a presence around the family funeral home, conversing with living characters and occasionally dispensing advice to Nate Jr. and his other children.
Flying Dutchman (Marine folklore): Legendary ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever, never making port. Sightings of the Dutchman date back to the 18th century, and are said to be a bad omen or portent of doom. The legend has inspired paintings, an opera, films, and works by others from Edgar Allan Poe to Brian Jacques.
Georgia “George” Lass (Dead Like Me): The sarcastic protagonist of Bryan Fuller’s late, lamented Dead Like Me, George is killed by falling space debris in the first episode and begins work as a grim reaper with a penchant for dead pan.
Ghost Dad (Ghost Dad): A movie which haunts us all. With badness.
Ghost Rider (Comics/movie): A personification of vengeance often embodied by a fictional man named Johnny Blaze, or Danny Ketch, or Nicolas Cage. Although the spirit that grants its human host the powers of Ghost Rider is Hell-bound, it’s left up to the human as to how those powers are used, unless the story calls for some serious drama, oh my god.
Gjenganger (Scandinavian folklore): The ghost of a dead person (often murderers, murder victims, or suicides) who, though undead, took on corporeal form and threatened the living with violence or torment. They could also administer the dødningeknip (or “dead man’s pinch), which would cause disease and death to befall the victim.
Gozer the Gozerian (Ghostbusters): Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg. Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you…
Captain Daniel Gregg (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir): This roguish sea captain is the titular ghost from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (both film and TV versions), whose attempted haunting of a young widow quickly turns into a warm friendship (with a hint of romance on the TV show, and definite romance in the film version, starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison).
Gui (Chinese folklore): The general Chinese term for ghosts, there are many different types and categorizations of Gu?; Yu?n Gu?, for example, is the term for a ghost who has died a wrongful death, Wú Tóu Gu? is a wandering headless specter, and Shu? Gu? are ghosts of the drowned, who attack the living and drag them under water, hoping to drown their victims and take possession of their body. The spirits of the dead are celebrated in Chinese culture are celebrated in an annual ghost festival, when the realms of the living and the realms of Heaven and Hell are open, allowing the dead to interact with the living, and particularly their family and descendants.
Hamlet’s Father (Hamlet): Technically, King Hamlet, but referred to only as “Ghost” in the stage directions, Hamlet Sr. was a mighty warrior, and his ghost demands that his son avenge his death at the hands of Claudius. Rumor has it that the role of The Ghost was first performed by Shakespeare himself, but it’s never been confirmed or denied.
Hogwarts Ghosts (Harry Potter): A few specific ghosts show up elsewhere on the list, but since Hogwarts is home to more than twenty ghosts (plus Peeves the Poltergeist). Each house is home to its own resident ghost: Nearly Headless Nick (Gryffindor), The Grey Lady (Ravenclaw), The Fat Friar (Hufflepuff), and The Bloody Baron (Slytherin).
The Headless Horseman (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”): In Irving’s classic short story, the Horseman is the ghost of a Hessian soldier decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution. While it is suggested in the story that the “spirit” who chases schoolteacher Ichabod Crane might really be Crane’s romantic rival impersonating the ghost to scare him off, the legend of the Headless Horseman remains potent (and if you haven’t seen the Disney adaptation or Christopher Walken’s take on the character in Sleepy Hollow, then you are missing out).
Hungry Ghosts (Buddhism/Chinese folklore): The concept varies slightly in different traditions (from Chinese folk religion to Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism). In China, hungry ghosts are understood largely in terms of ancestor worship—food and drink is set out to satisfy them during a yearly festival. In the other Buddhist traditions, the ghosts have tiny mouths and huge stomachs, and can never be satisfied (providing a metaphor for illusory material desires), or are the spirits of greedy or selfish people, cursed in death with an insatiable desire that can never be slaked.
Ibbur (Jewish Folklore): Unlike the dybbuk, a positive form of possession in which a benevolent soul temporarily inhabits a living person in a beneficial and positive way.
Shoeless Joe Jackson (Field of Dreams): Known for emerging from haunted cornfields, throwing the World Series. If you build it, he will come.
Jima (Amazonian folklore): Feared by the Wari, an Amazonian rainforest tribe, Jima are terrifying specters known for grabbing their living victims with their incredibly strong, cold, poisonous hands and attempting to tear the victim’s spirit away.
Jinn (Quran/Islamic mythology): Jinn (also known as djinn or genies), are described in the Quran as spirits made of smokeless, scorching fire, and can be evil, good, or neutral in their interactions with humans.
Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street): Introduced as a child killer who escaped justice on a technicality, Krueger was set on fire and burned to death by the parents of his victims. After his death, his spirit preys on the minds of the neighborhood’s teenagers, entering their dreams and killing them in their sleep. Later in the series, it is revealed that he is ”the son of a 100 maniacs.“ He is also overly fond of awful (usually morbid) puns. Freddy and the Crypt Keeper should go bowling sometime.
Large Marge (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure): A trucker who offers Pee-Wee a ride during his epic search for his missing bike. She tells him a story about the worst accident she’s ever seen (”There was this sound, like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building…“). After Marge drops him off at a diner, Pee-Wee finds out that she’d died ten years ago in the same accident, and that he’d been riding with a ghost. Hands down, the scariest part of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. (Stubby is still traumatized, to this day).
La Llorona (Spanish/Mexican legend): The Weeping Woman, a spirit who drowned her children in order to be with her lover, but was rejected and committed suicide. Constantly crying, La Llorona is doomed to eternally search for her children in vain, sometimes attempting to steal living children who wander or misbehave.
Jacob Marley (A Christmas Carol): Ebenezer Scrooge’s former partner, Marley’s ghost appears on Christmas Eve to warn Scrooge to change his miserly ways before it’s too late. Although Scrooge ignores his early appearances and tries to reason away the apparition, Marley’s unearthly howls and chain-jangling eventually make an impression, and he tells Scrooge that his misdeeds in life have led to an eternity spent wandering the earth in ”an incessant torture of remorse.“
The Mary Celeste: Real-life ghost ship discovered in 1872, abandoned by her crew, who were never heard from again. One of the most famous maritime mysteries, the Mary Celeste has inspired authors from Arthur Conan Doyle to Philip Jose Farmer to Terry Pratchett.
Moaning Myrtle (Harry Potter): Muggle-born witch, killed by a Basilisk when she caught Tom Riddle opening the Chamber of Secrets. Her ghost haunts the Hogwarts bathroom in which she died (occasionally branching out to other bathrooms in the castle). Myrtle sometimes helps Harry, when she’s not crying or desperately flirting with him.
Nachzehrer (German folklore): Supernatural being similar to a vampire, often tied to suicide or accidental death. The nachzehrer awakes after death and often attempts to devour its living family members, but sometimes consumes its own flesh in the grave. Powers include causing death by casting a shadow on the living, or by ringing church bells, killing everyone within hearing.
Nearly Headless Nick (Harry Potter): Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is Gryffindor’s resident house ghost, wizard executed after a magical mishap involving a lady of the court of Henry VII. Thanks to a dull axe, the execution did not go smoothly, and his was never completely severed, leading to his eventual nickname among the residents of Hogwarts. Affable and helpful, if a little longwinded, Sir Nicholas is portrayed by John Cleese in the films.
The Overlook Hotel (The Shining): Isolated resort in the Colorado Rockies with a sordid history; the hotel has a habit of possessing its inhabitants and forcing them to commit unspeakable acts. One former caretaker murdered his family with an axe before hilling himself, and their ghosts remain at the hotel, tormenting young Danny Torrance while drawing his father, Jack, over to the dark side. On the bright side, murderers drink free at the creepy ghost bar!
Pac-Man Ghosts (Video game): Pac-Man’s nemeses, each ghost has a nickname and is associated with a particular character trait within the game. “Blinky” (red) shadows Pac-Man, chasing him; “Pinky” (pink) is speedy; “Inky” (blue) is bashful, and “Clyde” (orange) is pokey, slower and more random in his movements. This developed out of the original Japanese version, Puck-Man, in which the ghosts’ personalities can be translated as Chaser, Ambusher, Fickle, and Stupid, respectively.
Pishacha (Hindu mythology): Demonic ghosts that feed on flesh and human energies, capable of possessing humans and altering their thoughts, sometimes leading to madness. Like bhuts, pishacha are often depicted as haunting cremation grounds.
Phi Tai Hong (Thai folkore): The most feared type of ghost in all of Thai folklore, a restless and angry spirit of a person who suffered a violent death.
Poltergeist (Various folklores): While the common term for this comes from the German words for “noisy ghost,” poltergeists feature in the folklore of many cultures. The term usually denotes a disruptive entity that haunts a particular person via strange noises and even petty physical attacks. Poltergeist activity is a popular subject in TV in movies, featuring in everything from Blithe Spirit to Harry Potter to the Poltergeist movies.
Alice Pyncheon (The House of the Seven Gables): The ghost of the beautiful Alice haunts the House of the Seven Gables after dying from shame in Hawthorne’s classic New England gothic novel.
Queen Anne Boleyn (English history): The ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII, she was found guilty of adultery, incest, and high treason after her relationship with the king had soured, and was beheaded in 1536. Along with many other ghosts, Anne Boleyn is thought by some to haunt the Tower of London, where she died and is buried.
RMS Queen Mary (Real life): A retired ocean liner that was active between 1936 and 1967, now permanently moored in Long Beach, California. After the ship was docked, reports of ghostly activity and hauntings began: splashing noises in drained swimming pools, children crying in the abandoned nursery, and so on. One of the cabins is no longer rented out due to “extreme paranormal activity,” and the ship is supposedly haunted by several ghosts of guests who were murdered or died in violent accidents while the liner was still operational.
Revenant (European folklore): General term for an undead corpse or visible ghost that returns from the grave, usually for malevolent purposes. Stories involving revenants usually depict a specific undead person who returns with a purpose, such as revenge against a killer or those responsible for their death, or to harass people who wronged them during life.
Ringwraiths (Lord of the Rings): Not technically ghosts, perhaps, but certainly spooky enough to make the list, the Ringwraiths (also known as Nazgûl or Black Riders) began as nine mortal men to whom Sauron gave Rings of Power. The rings gave them power and extended their lives, but it also corrupted and destroyed them, turning them into undead thralls even after their corporeal form faded away.
Samuel’s Ghost (Biblical): According to the Old Testament, King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of the recently prophet Samuel. Samuel’s ghost is not happy about being summoned, and predicts Saul’s downfall in battle the next day. It comes to pass, and Saul commits suicide. The story has been interpreted in a number of ways, of course: some see Samuel’s ghost as a demon masquerading as the prophet, while others view his reappearance as an act of God.
Slender Man (Internet myth): No one knows what the Slender Man is; his defining characteristic is mystery, with the ability to inspire fear a close second. An urban legend for the 21st century, the Slender Man stalks his victims, sometimes over long periods of time, and may inspire amnesia, paranoia, and madness; he is allegedly responsible for various unexplained disappearances. All we really know is, the Slender Man is terrifying.
Slimer (Ghostbusters): Made of pure ectoplasm, Slimer is classified as a focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm, or a Class 5 full roaming vapor (and a real nasty one, at that). After the Ghostbusters stop him from haunting the Sedgewick Hotel, he became kind of a pet and a mascot, and became a more developed character in the Animated Series. Dan Ackroyd has referred to Slimer as ”The Ghost of John Belushi.”
Space Ghost (Space Ghost and Dino Boy/Space Ghost Coast to Coast): One of the greatest talk show hosts of all time, often accompanied by his nemeses/sidekicks Zorak, Moltar and Brak. Designed by the great Alex Toth, Space Ghost started out as superhero who fought villains and faced off against The Council of Doom (in space. Natch.), before signing on to host his own show on the Cartoon Network.
Strigoi (Romanian folklore): Troubled souls risen from the grave, a tradition dating back through Indo-European Dacian/Thracian mythology. Strigoi are often seen as being similar to vampires, immortal undead, but also manifest as evil spirits who haunt the living, often their living family members.
Patrick Swayze (Ghost): The sexiest ghost of all. Good with clay and Whoopi Goldberg.
Tomás (El Orfanato/The Orphanage): The protagonist of Spanish suspense/horror film The Orphanage first encounters Tomás as the imaginary friend of her adopted son, Simón—but as events turn sinister, he becomes more of a definite, if ghostly, presence. Depicted through most of the film as a small boy wearing a disturbing mask stitched together out of sackcloth, Tomás is simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking.
Urban legends (Various): Whether it’s Bloody Mary or the familiar story of a ghostly vanishing hitchhiker, American folklore is steeped in tales of phantom vehicles, haunted highways and roads, and malevolent spirits that haunt Lovers’ Lanes. Take the legend of Skinned Tom, for example: caught in the act by a jealous husband and skinned alive with a hunting knife, Tom’s vengeful ghost supposedly attacks amorous couples in their cars to this day! Because sometimes heavy-handed morality tales need a little gore to really help drive the point home.
Vetala (Hindu folklore): Spirits who tend to haunt places of burial and charnel grounds; trapped between life and the afterlife, they can take possession of corpses and cause all kinds of crazy trouble for the living.
Vigo the Carpathian (Ghostbusters II): He is Vigo! Originally Vigo Von Homburg Deutschendorf, also known as Vigo the Cruel, Vigo the Torturer, Vigo the Despised, Vigo the Unholy, and possibly Vigo the Butch. Powerful 16th century magician, tyrant, lunatic and genocidal maniac, he returns to life through his creepy self-portrait, looking to regain physical form and return to power. Thwarted by slime.
Oliver Welles (Slings and Arrows): Temperamental director Oliver Welles is run over by a ham truck in the first episode of this darkly comedic Canadian series. When his troubled protege steps into his role as artistic director of the New Burbage Shakespearian Festival to stage a production of Hamlet, Oliver’s ghost refuses to move on, and meta-hijinks and high drama ensue.
The Wild Hunt (Ancient European myth): A spectral group of huntsmen, horses and hounds, rampaging in violent pursuit across the sky, on the ground, or floating somewhere in between. Seeing the Wild Hunt is thought to be an omen of death, war, plague, or other catastrophe, and has often been depicted in art, literature, and music. Occasionally the participants in the hunt are thought to be faeries, gods, or ancient heroes, but the tradition is strongly associated with the dead: lost souls, spirits, and ghosts.
Wiedergänger (German folklore): Category of undead spirits who would trouble or torment the living in different ways; some types would jump on the backs of their victims and grow heavier and heavier until they broke down, exhausted or dead. Another variation is the headless rider, which made its way from European ghost story to American literature thanks to Washington Irving.
Xunantunich (Real life/Archaeology): The name of this ancient Mayan archaeological site in Belize comes from Mayan words for “Stone Woman,” after the ghostly figure who has been seen haunting the site since 1892. Dressed all in white with fiery, red glowing eyes, the woman reportedly appears at the site, ascends the steps of the ceremonial pyramid and disappears into a stone wall.
Yurei (Japanese folklore): Used as a general term; there are also more specific types of ghosts, like the Onryu (vengeful spirits who return from purgatory), Goryu (aristocratic ghosts, often vengeful martyrs), or Zashiki-warashi (mischievous ghost children).
Zhong Kui (Chinese mythology): By some accounts, Zhong Kui is the ghost (Gu?) of a man who failed his civil service exams and committed suicide, he is a vanquisher of ghosts and evil spirits: a ghost who hunts other ghosts.
Zuul (Ghostbusters): The Gatekeeper of Gozer; minion of The Destructor. Lovely singing voice, but with an unfortunate tendency to manifest as a Terror Dog and/or take over your fridge.
Originally published in October 2012 as part of Tor.com’s Ghost Week.
Stubby the Rocket is the voice and mascot of Tor.com. There is no Stubby, only Zuul.