The Surprising Variety of Ghost Ship Movies  

by Armin Egger

When I was preparing for the “Haunted Shores” conference, one of the things I struggled with was conveying the exact nature of my passion for ghost ship movies. Sure, they’re “spooky” and “eerie” and “atmospheric” and “fun” and maybe even allow for the exploration of a few themes, but I wanted more. I wanted to be able to answer the one simple question that came up again and again: “What are ghost ship movies?”

Yūreisen (幽霊船, Ghost ship) from Hokuetsy-Kidan (北越奇談). Black and white illustration of a ghost ship.

Yūreisen (幽霊船, Ghost ship) from Hokuetsy-Kidan (北越奇談).

It was a futile attempt.

In “Shades of Sail: Edwardian Nautical Hauntings”, Emily Alder points out that “the term ‘ghost ship’ is a flexible one, much like ‘ghost story’, which is often applied to a range of weird or horror tales which don’t always feature conventional phantoms, or phantoms at all” (p. 840).

The same is true of ghost ship movies. And while this impossibility to provide a simple definition might seem frustrating at first, ultimately it is embracing this fuzziness and (re)framing the lack of clear-cut definitions as a strength that allows an endless number of writers and filmmakers to eternally rework the basic frameworks.

“Embrace variety!”, then – but it’s still hard to deny there’s a formula. Many reviews of ghost ship movies feature the words “Alien” and “Event Horizon”. And even though reducing a movie to being a copy of another one is often a sign of lazy criticism, they’re also not wrong.

Before explaining why I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing, let me quickly sketch the two most common ghost ship movie setups:

The Mary Celeste: The Mary Celeste was a ship that mysteriously disappeared and reappeared months later, most things left behind on board, the entire crew missing. It is one of the most famous and enduring ocean-related mysteries, and trying to answer the question, “What happened to all the people?” has been the plot of multiple ghost ship movies. Examples include Phantom Ship / The Mystery of The Marie Celeste (1935) and Haunting of The Mary Celeste (2020).

The Abandoned Ship: This is by far the most popular basic setup. An abandoned ship is found by a salvaging crew (sometimes a rescue vessel), who attempt to bring the derelict home – but weird things start to occur, often supernatural. Examples include Death Ship (1980), Into the Deep (1998), Virus (1999) and Ghost Ship (2002). Below (2002) is an interesting case here as it does strictly speaking fit the template, but takes place on a submarine instead of a ship on the surface of the ocean.

Realizing that a movie fits neatly into a pre-established template can be a frustrating experience. But for me, it’s also part of the joy of engaging with media – seeing slight variations, recognizing subtle differences. Michael Crandol makes this point in his book Ghost in the Well: The Hidden History of Horror Films in Japan when discussing the fact that many of the most popular movies were (re-)tellings of a small number of traditional Kaidan (i.e. “strange stories”, similar to ghost stories): “Part of what made Nakagawa’s films successful with both audiences and critics was their ‘difference in repetition,’ what they did differently with the old formulas” (‘Introduction’). Paying attention to this difference in repetition strikes me as a fruitful way to talk about ghost ship movies as well.

Having said all that, none of those considerations should diminish an appreciation for the innovative and novel. What are probably my three favorite ghost ship movies – The Living Skeleton (1968), The Fog (1980) and Triangle (2009) – all do something far enough removed from those basic templates, they probably deserve a category of their own.

Maybe even their own blog posts in the future …

Armin Egger is an independent researcher currently based in Vienna, Austria. He currently works on developing a project tentatively called “Ghost Ships And The Gothic Seas They Travel”, which will investigate ghost ship narratives in (mainly Gothic) literature.

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