Looking for gore-free, non-explicit movies, shows, book suggestions
February 17, 2015 12:58 PM   Subscribe

Horrors, psychological thrillers, mysteries, etc. Please no vampires, werewolves, or high fantasy, but mega points for ghosts and hauntings!!

I'm looking for recommendations for movies, tv shows, podcasts, books etc. for my mom, who is currently undergoing breast cancer treatment and would greatly appreciate some stories to get lost in!

She's a big fan of mysteries, horrors, and thrillers, particularly involving hauntings or a generally spooky atmosphere (ie. abandoned orphanage). However, she has a very low tolerance for gore, gratuitous sex, high fantasy and swearing, and zero tolerance for vampires and werewolves. Showtime's Penny Dreadful proved too much for her, while she loves gore-free and psychological thrillers like Mama and Dream House. She also loved the book Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and I already have the second in the series ordered for her. She's a big (non-fantasy) Stephen King and Micheal Crichton fan as well.

She has both basic cable and a Netflix account, so she's pretty thoroughly exhausted the campy selection of instant watch thrillers already. I'd really like book suggestions, since these are far more portable for her, and podcasts/really good audiobooks. Any suggestions for blood- and orgy-free scary stories that you can really immerse yourself in would be great; thanks in advance!
posted by Drosera to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
All of the "Paranormal Activity" movies, which believe it or not, get better and better as the series progresses. I would think any J-horror film rated PG-13 or below would be good, too.

As far as books, "House of Leaves" messed with my head so much I had to put it upside-down on my nightstand for a while. Clive Barker's "Mister B. Gone" is also very good in this regard.
posted by jbickers at 1:09 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think The Sixth Sense would be a good movie for her.

Jane Eyre (any version) has a lot of supernatural/gothic stuff in it. I linked to the mini-series, which is one of my favorite versions.

For a tongue-in-cheek look at gothic stuff, check out Northanger Abbey (there's a version on Netflix.)

How about Top of the Lake?

Those are some thoughts off the top of my head.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:11 PM on February 17, 2015

People had lots of great suggestions in this previous thread that she might enjoy.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:15 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ohhh ... Welcome to Night Vale! Such a fun rabbit hole to fall into.
posted by jbickers at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I enjoyed The Secret of Crickley Hall.
posted by pibeandres at 1:20 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh nice, thanks Flannery Cup! I missed that one in my cursory mefi search pre-posting. Thank your for the suggestions, Ruthless Bunny and jbickers. House of Leaves looks great although it may fall under the category of "too weird" for my mom (arbitrary, I know; she and I find it hard to like the same themes :) ) As does Top of the Lake, I'll pass on that suggestion.
posted by Drosera at 1:20 PM on February 17, 2015

I've only recently started reading horror novels, so take this as an amateur recommendation.

Floating Staircase, by Ronald Malfi, is a ghost story about a young couple, an old house, and the family that used to live there. A very personal book--it felt almost like a memoir--and it was very rewarding to try and puzzle things out along with the protagonist.

Plus, it had a happy ending. Well, not happy-happy, but ...
posted by General Tonic at 1:21 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is she an X-files fan? She might enjoy this well-reviewed graphic novel continuing the series.
posted by apparently at 1:30 PM on February 17, 2015

The movie The One I Love might be of interest. It starts out like it's going to be a rom-com but quickly veers into creepy suspense territory. There is one love scene, it's brief and not explicit.
posted by trunk muffins at 1:35 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really enjoy Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger". Don't read too much about it before you dive in
posted by kariebookish at 1:38 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Others. Don't Google anything about it to avoid spoilers. Great film, very creepy. I may have squealed like a Banshee at one point while watching it in a packed cinema but I was not alone.
posted by billiebee at 1:39 PM on February 17, 2015 [10 favorites]

Season one of American Horror Story.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

If she hasn't read it yet, I bet she'd like We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
posted by jabes at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sounds custom written!
posted by fshgrl at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Came here to recommend The Little Stranger but kariebookish got there first, and I'd definitely second it. Kim Newman's An English Ghost Story may be just the thing for her.
posted by tiger tiger at 1:55 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Babadook was scary (not sure when it will be out on DVD).
The Fall on Netflix now.
Night of the Hunter classic!
posted by brookeb at 2:09 PM on February 17, 2015

People are probably tired of me recommending The Changeling (the 1980 Peter Medak film with George C Scott, not the more recent Clint Eastwood one) in these "must-watch scary but not gory" film recommendation threads. I'd say it meets just all of her criteria.

Book-wise, perhaps The List of Seven, by Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks) which is a really fun and spooky Victorian historical fiction romp with Arthur Conan Doyle as the protagonist. I don't recall gratuitous sex or any great amount of cursing (certainly no more than in any of Stephen King's work) in that one either.
posted by usonian at 2:17 PM on February 17, 2015

Susan Hill's The Woman in Black for sure. I haven't seen the movie in part because I don't want to spoil my recollection of the book--a perfect Gothic ghost story.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:33 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Another Shirley Jackson, the Haunting of Hill house. The old black and white movie of it is also great (not the newer Cathrine Zeta Jones remake though)
posted by BoscosMom at 2:42 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

My wife and her family and friends adore the Flavia de Luce mystery series, which kicks off with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Given your stated criteria, it might be worth a shot. (Also based on your criteria I'd argue against House of Leaves, which is great but very odd and has some fairly explicit sex.)
posted by Mothlight at 2:46 PM on February 17, 2015

My 76 year old mum's tastes sound exactly in line with your parameters and for some reason my mum LOVED Breaking Bad (caught it for the first time during the marathon before the finale). She liked mostly that there was little, if any nudity, f-words and not really all that much gore. She could appreciate that nothing was gratuitous, everything served the story.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:01 PM on February 17, 2015

If she has any tolerance for animation she might like Mushishi, which is about a person named Ginko who can see tiny natural bug-spirit things called mushi that most people can't see. They cause a lot of ghostly phenomena and mysterious happenings, but are never gory. Available online too!
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:26 PM on February 17, 2015

2nding the Paranormal Activities series...so scary, and yet almost nothing happens (it's one of those things where your mind fills in the blanks for MAXIMUM SCARY). Also Oculus by the same producers is really horrifying...it's about a haunted mirror, so yes, complete and unnerving narrative and temporal breakdown. Bonus: Amelia Pond from Dr. Who.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:28 PM on February 17, 2015

OK, I'm a Victorianist, so I'm going to go all nineteenth-century on you (OK, some early twentieth century for good measure)! Plenty of stuff that's still scary, but rarely any gore to speak of.

The late Michael Cox's The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories and The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories.

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (especially if preceded by Jane Eyre and followed by Waters' The Little Stranger, as recommended above; A. N. Wilson's rewrite, A Jealous Ghost, may have too much gore for your mother's tastes, but John Harding's Florence and Giles is quite spooky)

Lay in a good supply of M. R. James.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu has plenty of creepy atmosphere.

Edith Wharton wrote some interesting ghost stories.

Seconding Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and thirding Hill's The Woman in Black.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:29 PM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

The cabin in the woods is also great fun. It seems at first like a Friday the thirteenth clone, but it's josh whedon, so it keeps upping its game up to and including (somewhat spoiler?) the human race and all of planet earth is haunted.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:33 PM on February 17, 2015

Nth Jonathan Strange! Great book, looks like BBC has done a mini series too. YAY!

Might also like BBC Sherlock or some of the Mary Russell books by Laurie King. The Moor, Justice Hall, and... The one set in India (?) had great brooding, creepy atmosphere.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:34 PM on February 17, 2015

I think your mom would like Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi:
...It is the 1920s, and Spiritualism is all the rage. With seances taking place in parlors across the country and Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arguing metaphysics in the papers, the media embraces the feverish obsession with the paranormal. Twenty-three-year-old Harvard graduate Martin Finch is sent by Scientific American on the investigative opportunity of a lifetime: an examination of the powers of Philadelphia "society psychic" Mina Crawley. But Finch, prepared to debunk a fraud, instead finds himself falling under the spell of the beguiling Mrs. Crawley—and uncovering a truth darker than any he could have imagined.
About the earlier suggestion for The Fall: I thought it was good, but it might challenge your mom's tolerance for gore, sex, and swearing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:39 PM on February 17, 2015

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer might fit the bill. I haven't read the others in the series but only because I am so far behind in my to-read pile that I stopped getting more books all together. Also the Russian Night Watch novels (and the two related films).
posted by palindromeisnotapalindrome at 3:40 PM on February 17, 2015

(Uh, the climax of Cabin in the Woods is INCREDIBLY gory and as I recall, the rest of the film is, too. That said, I loved it.)
posted by crush-onastick at 4:16 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, another no for Cabin in the Woods... I loved it, but I also have a low threshold for gore and I watched most of it through my fingers and the rest of it with my head buried in the pillow, asking my friend to tell me when whatever-was-happening was over.

For mysteries, how about Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries? Set in 1928 Melbourne, absolutely fantastically delicious costumes and houses and cars, and clever stories. On Netflix. No real violence. Miss Fisher has a modern, rather libertine view of romance and no shortage of paramours, but there's nothing explicit. It played on PBS in America.

Also, I find tremendous comfort in Murder, She Wrote. Which is squeaky clean and in all ways delightful.
posted by mochapickle at 4:33 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I loved The Babadook, but there was some gore. Nothing that I'd consider extreme, but it was there.
posted by yasaman at 4:37 PM on February 17, 2015

Abandoned orphanages and hauntings? The Spanish horror film The Orphanage is almost entirely gore-free (there's one rather gruesome reveal on the screen for about a second), has lots of ghosts and more atmosphere, and I found the ending extremely satisfying.

Anything Shirley Jackson is a great idea, but I would go with the books rather than the films. Bird Box is a pretty creepy recent book that may also work.
posted by Paragon at 4:40 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Enthusiastically nthing the excellent, classic haunted house books The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. See also these books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and Help for the Haunted by John Searles.

Make sure she watches The Awakening on Netflix (period thriller set at a haunted English boarding school) if she hasn't already seen it. Best wishes to your mom!
posted by hush at 5:27 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley might appeal to her. Hope all goes well for her!
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 7:29 PM on February 17, 2015

Everyone here has given excellent movie suggestions. I personally really enjoyed "The Others" and "The Woman in Black". For the former I agree - do not spoil it by trying to find out the twist. For the latter the book was far superior - the framing of the tale and ending is quite different.

I did not see this mentioned, but I would strongly suggest the crime thriller "The Secret in Their Eyes" which is available on Netflix, at least here in Canada. Everyone I have suggested this film to has been glad they saw it. It is subtitled but the story is riveting. My elderly mother who is not a quick reader and hates violence really enjoyed the film when I suggested she watch it. I was astonished by how much the actors and actresses could convey with just their eyes and body language. No need for violence or gore - the truly phenomenal acting is such that even someone not following the subtitles 100% will be moved. It is not something you see often in North American cinema. Technically there is no ghost, but when you reflect on how a murder early on the film affected all the characters lives, one can conclude this is a truly effective albeit unconventional ghost story. Even for those disinterested in the supernatural, it may make you think long and hard about your life choices.

Regarding books, your mom has great taste. I am assuming she has read the best of Stephen King (I love his short horror up until the 90s and dislike his fantasy) and will suggest Andrew Neiderman's "Someone's Watching". Scary but not gory. He went on to become the ghost writer for V.C. Andrews instead of a Dean Koontz / Stephen King type which I feel is a real loss for the horror community. Before that change of pace he wrote some amazing novels - such as "Pin" and the "Devil's Advocate" - both which have been turned into films. I wish he kept writing in his own style as he was great.

In terms of TV if she is not interested in rooting through the X-Files for the better supernatural episodes, definitely try and get some episodes of the excellent Night Gallery to tide her over (the superior and grittier cousin of the Twilight Zone).
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 7:36 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

She might like The Lost Room miniseries, and has she seen The Lady in White?

She might also try the Haunted Home Renovation Mystery series by Juliet Blackwell. There are currently five of the books in the Haunted Home Renovation series. The first is If Walls Could Talk. They are not high art, but are entertaining, have ghosts, and should fit the other criteria.

Also, the old Night Gallery tv series includes a sweet ghost story called "The Dark Boy". Here's a fairly detailed description with complete spoilers. It can be viewed online.
posted by gudrun at 8:04 PM on February 17, 2015

Ah, you want Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.
posted by jrobin276 at 8:28 PM on February 17, 2015

No, it's not "good", but it is creepy and will keep her distracted for a few hours!
posted by jrobin276 at 8:34 PM on February 17, 2015

I don't remember The Devil's Backbone as being especially gory (there's some translucent shimmery ghost-blood), but there may have been a shooting or something I'm forgetting.

Housebound gets a bit bloody in the third act, but it's, uh, slapstick gore? So it might be okay.

Nthing The Others and The Orphanage.

Ghostwatch used to be available on Google video and YouTube (there was an FPP about it), but those links appear dead, from my phone at least.

Dead of Winter with Mary Steenburgen was pretty good, psychological-horror-wise. I saw it too long ago to remember if it's bloody, but I'm thinking it wasn't.

Wait Until Dark is a frigging classic of suspense.

Sleuth, the original with Lawrence Olivier. I found the remake a huge letdown.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:13 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Session 9
posted by PenDevil at 12:42 AM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

A couple of British ones - Sea of Souls, Afterlife - both kind of ghost investigating mystery type thrillers, pretty scary.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:05 AM on February 18, 2015

Thanks everyone so much for all the suggestions - these are great. Keep 'em coming if you have them!

RE Cabin in the Woods, definitely too weird for her taste, she's pretty turned off by distopians and compters-control-everything type stories. The Others, Sixth Sense, Woman in Black are all great ones, which of course, she's already seen :). Tried to get her through The Orphanage (one of my favorites!) but subtitles aren't ideal.

General Toxic, thank you in particular for recommending Floating Staircase; looks great, and Amazon is ferrying it to my mom right now.

As much as I'd love for her to get on the Breaking Bad wagon, I'm not sure a protagonist with lung cancer will help take her mind off chemo. We'll save that for after she's through that.
posted by Drosera at 11:34 AM on February 18, 2015

The BBC adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes and the Laurie King books have already been mentioned, but I'd also recommend the original stories by Conan Doyle. I think they fit all your criteria, and they're still great reads.
posted by rjs at 11:57 AM on February 18, 2015

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