"ParaNorman,"a stop-motion animated film about a boy who talks to ghosts and zombies, and "The Awakening," a period tale of a grieving young woman in 1920s England who is a ghost hunter, open this Friday. On tap for Aug. 24 is "The Apparition," a horror film about a group of parapsychology students who make a big mistake when they decide to conjure a presence in an experiment.
On the docket for Aug. 31 is "The Possession," from producer Sam Raimi, about a young girl who is possessed by an evil dislocated Jewish spirit called a dybbuk. These films follow the July release"Red Lights," a thriller dealing with a paranormal investigator out to debunk a psychic. And on video-on-demand Aug. 30, there's "V/H/S," a grisly "found footage" anthology horror film that features a ghost story.
For a while, apparition-based horror films were taking a back seat to vampire and werewolf romances and thrillers, such as the "Twilight" and "Underworld" franchises. So why are ghosts having their moment?
Joe Swanberg, who directed the "ghost" episode of "V/H/S," which opens in theaters Oct. 5, believes it is part of the cyclical nature of horror films. "I think audiences are just probably on vampire overload," he said.
"Possession" director Ole Bornedal thinks something else is at work. "With all the crazy things happening in the world, people are searching for the roots of evil," he said. People, he added, believe evil is "something outside of us, something that can invade us. But the thing is, evil is inside of everybody. Evil is not an exterior thing. Evil is, unfortunately, an interior force: It is inside of you and me."
Todd Lincoln, writer-director of "The Apparition," believes the ghost films are also part of the 2012 phenomenon made up of eschatological beliefs that cataclysmic or transformative events will take place on Dec. 21, 2012.
"With the whole thing hanging over us, people are thinking about the ending of things and life and death," he said. "I feel in some ways it is just a reaction...."
Of course, ghost stories have long haunted our cinematic landscape. They've run the gamut, from atmospheric terror tales such as Jack Clayton's 1961 "The Innocents" to comedies like 1984's blockbuster "Ghostbusters" and faux-documentaries like 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" and the"Paranormal Activity"franchise, which began in 2007.
Audiences relish the experience of sitting in darkened theaters in communal fear, gasping at specters, cowering at muffled cries and scary sounds emanating from attics, wondering what lies behind the closed door of an old, spooky house.
"Watching ghost stories allows audiences to confront their fear," said Gloria Shin, a critical studies expert and adjunct professor at USC. "This genre in particular really wants you to exorcise these feelings as the characters are confronting them. Audiences have been seeking the extraordinary and supernatural for a very long time," she said.
A number of films among the current crop of ghost stories are about more than scares — they are parables, allegories or vehicles for larger commentary.
Chris Butler, who wrote and directed "ParaNorman" with Sam Fell, said that the film really isn't about ghosts and zombies, but how a young boy deals with being bullied in school and the fact that his parents are inattentive. Butler used the genre as a "way to tell a story about a kid who didn't fit in," he said.
"It seemed appropriate because zombie movies have always had some of the best social commentary," he said. "There are so many ghost stories.... Everyone is so familiar with zombies and ghosts, it's fun to turn those preconceptions on their head. This movie is very much more about not judging a book by its cover."
Shin takes the message of "ParaNorman" a bit further. She said the film also revolves around "a larger metaphor about the eradication of a town and he saves the town … by his ability to talk to ghosts. He becomes heroic because of his special magical abilities."
Bornedal said "The Possession" isn't just a horror film about a girl and a malevolent spirit — it's an allegorical tale about a divorced family. "It sounds incredibly boring to call it a divorce movie, but it is about a story about a man and a woman who are actually meant to be together and for some reason can't. The victims are always the kids."
Jason Hawes, star of the Syfy Channel's long-running"Ghost Hunters" reality series, said he's thrilled that several of the ghost stories now coming to theaters feature equipment — such as special cameras and audio-recording devices — that illustrate attempts to capture or debunk the paranormal.
"We have always tried to advance technology," said Hawes. "It is good to see the movies starting to connect on that. It is not just about a bunch of people walking into a room and saying 'I feel something.' That is not what it is about. It is trying to actually catch this stuff, to have evidence that you are able to put out in the real world and to see the movies grabbing onto the technology is huge."
British writer Stephen Volk, who co-wrote "The Awakening," as well as Ken Russell's 1986 "Gothic," said he doesn't believe in ghosts but many people do — or want to.
"It is kind of wish fulfillment," he said. "There might be something more than material reality."