LOS ANGELES -- Halloween is still more than two months away, but ghosts are filling up movie theaters like it's already October.
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, opened a week ago.
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, opened Friday.
On the docket for this Friday is The Possession, from producer Sam Raimi, about a young girl who is possessed by an evil dislocated Jewish spirit called a dybbuk.
And on video-on-demand Aug. 30, there's V/H/S, a grisly "found footage" anthology horror film that features a ghost story.
More specters will be haunting the theaters this fall with Hotel Transylvania, House at the End of the Street, Sinister and Paranormal Activity 4.
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 in October, believes it is part of the cyclical nature of horror films. "I think audiences are just probably on vampire overload," he said.
The devil inside
The 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 that the ghost films are also part of the 2012 phenomenon made up of eschatological beliefs that cataclysmic or transformative events will take place 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 The Innocents (1961) 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 film adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. "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."
Message in the madness
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 ParaNorman and directed it 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."
Stephen Volk, who co-wrote The Awakening, as well as Ken Russell's 1986 Gothic, said he doesn't believe in ghosts but that many people do -- or want to.
"It is kind of wish fulfillment," he said. "There might be something more than material reality."