The Scariest Scene In Thir13en Ghosts Hinges On One Of Its Most Frightening Characters

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: Matt honors the scariest of the Black Zodiac in Steve Beck's Thir13en Ghosts, and Ariel reaffirms that this movie is an underrated blast.)

The 2000s era Dark Castle Entertainment defender has logged on. In particular, to discuss Steve Beck's ceremoniously overproduced remake of William Castle's "13 Ghosts" from 1960. At the risk of sounding like a cigar-chewing cliche, they don't make 'em like they used to. I'm head-over-heels in love with this aughts classic that grossed only $68 million on a $42 million budget — that's certifiable box office dookie. But Dark Castle's massive investment is precisely why "Thir13en Ghosts" has earned a cultish following since premiering in 2001. It's a grandiose presentation, featuring practical effects by masters such as Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, and dedicates itself to funhouse appeal — CGI is used sparingly and only as a last resort.

I've written my love letter to "Thir13en Ghosts" under Ariel's command on the Shudder blog, analyzed Beck's remake against William Castle's 1960 original on Bloody Disgusting, and now I'm here at /Film to honor the Black Zodiac.

Specifically? The Jackal.

Ryan Kuhn, who would become the Jackal, haunted the late 1800s as a sexual predator until his death when he was a patient at Borinwood Asylum; he chose to remain in the institution as it crumbled into ash during an inferno. Ryan sought atonement through the purification of flames — instead he became the nastiest addition to a lunatic's zoo of damned, malevolent souls.

The Black Zodiac fosters some of the scariest ghouls you'll find in '00s horror, but The Jackal forever reigns over my nightmare domain.

The Setup

Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) leaves his estate and ghost hunting treasures to his nephew, Arthur (Tony Shalhoub), a widower accustomed to cramped apartment dwellings. Arthur, his eldest daughter, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), young son, Bobby (Alec Roberts), and nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) arrive at the glass mansion with Cyrus' lawyer, Ben Moss (J.R. Bourne). Cyrus' psychic partner, Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard), poses as an electrician to snoop around the glass labyrinth with oddly etched Latin phrases everywhere that Arthur views as a good-fortune upgrade.

That's until Dennis enters the basement.

Underneath the living quarters where Bobby zips his scooter and Kathy dreams about luxurious lifestyles exists a mechanical contraption. Ben snatches his remaining payday after ushering Arthur's family into Cyrus' maze, which triggers whirling gears that start moving around the soundproof, resilient Ectobar plates that form the home's walls. Dennis starts chattering about ghosts downstairs and convinces the others that they're not alone by using detector glasses that can illuminate spirits. The ghosts power a blasphemous gadget that can see into the past, present, and future, and it's almost time for Cyrus' master plan to achieve ectoplasmic completion.

The Story So Far

Arthur refuses to believe in supernatural stories at first. Dennis is thus far the only one to glimpse Cyrus' Black Zodiac collection — the Bound Woman, the Juggernaut, and more. Each unrested soul seeks mortal punishment, but barrier spell inscriptions hold the entities in their quarters. The problem? As the house transforms and alters passageways, the ghosts are surreptitiously liberated from their confines. Every time the house's beating iron heart shifts the floorplan, another fierce spirit is unleashed on Arthur's family.

Ben Moss tries to flee the basement but is sliced in half as one of the sliding glass panes closes around him, leaving his separated front-and-back to slip downward at different speeds. Elsewhere, Dennis attempts to warn Arthur about the Oogie-boogies in the basement who are invisible to normal eyes. Bobby's the first to see multiple apparitions, including the Torso, as he rides through the subterranean cell block of the lost. Bobby goes missing, which leads to a search and rescue mission down into the depths of Cyrus' madness.

The Scene

"What are you doing?! What did I just say? Did I just say there's a petting zoo downstairs? No. There are ghosts downstairs, Arthur."

At this point, Bobby has crashed his scooter in the basement, and we see his pair of spectral viewers hit the floor. Dennis' glasses are now the only available tool, which he uses in one last attempt to convince Arthur ghosts are real. Hidden protection language lines the platform underfoot, causing Dennis to wonder why extra safeguards are required to hold what's downstairs. Arthur takes a few steps towards the damned staircase, and Dennis' warnings fail — no talk of haunted houses until Bobby is located, as per Arthur.

"I'll pay you whatever Cyrus owed you; just help me find my son."

Dennis can't refuse.

Bobby regains consciousness and hears his mother, Jean, speaking through his tape recorder. She's become the Withered Lover, part of Cyrus' gallery. Jean urges Bobby to flee upstairs before other less compassionate monsters escape. He steps backward until pressing against a glass wall that reveals Cyrus Kriticos's outreaching arm — cut to Bobby being hoisted and his glasses hitting the ground.

Arthur commits the tactical blunder of sending Dennis and Maggie in the opposite direction, splitting the only pair of ghost glasses away from himself and Kathy. Dennis introduces Maggie to the Hammer to prove that ghosts are real, where he's confronted by a premonition of his own death at the hands of the Juggernaut. Arthur and Kathy find Bobby's discarded items — his recorder and glasses — and press onward. Little do they know that the Jackal is on the prowl, which Dennis and Maggie discover along the way.

"If the Jackal's out, screw the kid."

Cut to Kathy and Arthur, with Kathy growing more nervous. Arthur assures his daughter that ghosts aren't real, but as Kathy slowly raises the spectral glasses to her face, the Jackal snarls within licking distance. He pounces on Kathy, riding her like a surfboard down the hallways while Arthur only sees his daughter screaming in fear, being dragged. The Jackal's straight jacket flaps fly around as he howls through the broken steel cage boxed around his head.

So what's that about ghosts not being real?

The scene is pure chaos. Images flash between up-close-and-frightful glimpses of Kathy's wriggly defenses and the Jackal's cackling berserker's vileness. He lifts Kathy against a wall and grabs at her breasts, slashing through her clothes. More swipes draw blood as claw marks scratch down her cheeks. Arthur can't see what's abusing his daughter, helplessly tugging her legs as the Jackal gleefully pulls her arms in response. Kathy's cries for mercy are about to run out when spirit liberator Kalina Oretzia (Embeth Davidtz) chucks a flare towards the Jackal that makes him let go, freeing a traumatized Kathy from the pervert poltergeist's clutches.

The Impact (Ariel's Take)

The Jackal is one of those excellent character designs that owes its likeness to the work of Dick Smith. There's a lot of Regan MacNeil by way of Pazuzu in the Jackal's design, and that's a lot of what makes him so horrifying.

He's pure chaos like Matt said. Frenetic energy coupled with unbridled aggression and a manic desire to do harm. Left to his own devices, the Jackal is pure nightmare fuel. He scared the sh** out of me when I first saw "Thir13en Ghosts" shortly after its release, as did the Juggernaut because, of course. They're probably the two scariest characters in the movie — unchecked power and manic lust for carnage.

What always made this scene scariest for me wasn't the Jackal attacking Kathy, although, I'd be lying if I said that didn't phase me. Rather it's when Kalina tosses the quicksilver flare at the Jackal and he lets go that things really get terrifying for me. With no time to get Kathy up off the floor, Kalina and Arthur are forced to drag her by her feet to safety. Meanwhile, the Jackal is hot on their tracks, lunging and darting for her and she slides helplessly across the floor.

Things running at you at top speed are a hard pass from me. It's a great scare! Works like a charm. But also, wow, rude.

Regardless, Matt knows my love of "Thir13en Ghosts" like I know his. We're both super mega ultra fans of the movie, a bombastic junk fest with amazing practical effects and character design. It's a genuine blast. And if we're sticking with our food analogies — which you know we like to do here — where the scares in "Paranormal Activity" are as simple and elegantly executed as a Caprese salad, "Thir13en Ghosts" is cotton candy, and I can never get enough!