You probably all know the story of Charles Dickens’ endlessly adapted 1843 holiday story A Christmas Carol, even if you’ve never read it. Tight-fisted, mean old miser Ebenezer Scrooge falls asleep on Christmas Eve and is visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, a man in a sleeping cap; the Ghost of Christmas Present, a rotund, jolly fellow; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a harrowing, silent specter of death. These three ghosts convince our miserly man to change his ways, but the third one does the heavy lifting, showing Scrooge how soon he’ll be dead and buried, while nobody mourns his passing.
In the text, Dickens describes the ghost as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” This leaves a lot of leeway for adaptations to interpret, and A Christmas Carol is one of the most-adapted works of fiction of all time.
So in the holiday spirit, I decided to watch every film version and evaluate them on one single criteria: How scary do they make the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? Don your sleeping cap and come with us on a journey into holiday horror.
60. A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006)
If you were going into this one expecting to be spooked, I don’t know what to tell you. Oscar the Grouch as Scrooge contends with a CGI floating robot with googly eyes as the Ghost of Christmas Future. We get it, you don’t want to terrify the preschoolers, but there’s a reason it’s lowest on the list.
59. A Christmas Carol (1954)
Fredric March stars as Scrooge in this, the first color televised version of the tale. Unfortunately, the only surviving version is a black and white kinescope. In a strange choice, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come doesn’t appear in human form at all. Instead, a myna bird caws Scrooge to the graveyard, where he finds not only his grave, but also Tiny Tim’s.
58. Christmas Cupid (2010)
Christina Milian is the Scrooge figure in this ABC Family holiday comedy, and the three ghosts are her ex-boyfriends. Depending on your relationship history, this might seem scarier than it is. The third ghost is her boss, who she is also dating, dressed up like Santa Claus. He tells her that in the terrible future to come, they get married, then divorced. Bummer. Fortunately, as part of amending her wicked ways after the ghostly visitation, she dumps him.
57. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
It’s a stretch, but this Matthew McConaughey rom-com is based on the Dickens story, so it counts. The “Ghost of Girlfriends Future” that shows McConaughey’s womanizer protagonist Connor Mead the error of his ways is played by stunning Russian model Olga Maliouk, dressed in white rather than the traditional black cloak.
56. Rich Little’s Christmas Carol (1978)
It’s almost impossible to explain how popular comedic impersonator Rich Little was in the 1970s, but “HBO gave him a Christmas special in which he played every single role of A Christmas Carol as a different celebrity character” might do it. Scrooge is Rich Little as W.C. Fields, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is Little playing Peter Sellers as the Pink Panther movies’ Inspector Clouseau. So not scary, but extremely weird.
55. The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol (2011)
The real revelation here is that Grouchy Smurf (the Scrooge of the story) acts like a dick all the time because Papa Smurf gives him a hat every year for Christmas. The ghost is Hefty Smurf. Not scary unless you have a phobia of gym bros.
54. My Dad Is Scrooge (2014)
This is probably the only Christmas Carol where Scrooge gets headbutted by a llama. Our miser here is a farmer named EB, who is taught the magic of the season by a trio of talking animals. The third one is a dog that hypnotizes EB. This thing is so cheap and weird that when the animals talk, it’s sometimes just their lips moving over a still photograph. The dog doesn’t even dress up!
53. A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)
This is a tough watch for numerous reasons, especially if you’re not a fan of Broadway musicals. Kelsey Grammer plays Scrooge, and he’s confronted by a white-clad Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come played by Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, most recently seen in Netflix’s The Crown). The costuming is pretty dire — she looks like she’s covered in damp toilet paper.
52. Chasing Christmas (2005)
Tom Arnold has tremendous divorced energy as the Scrooge figure in this mediocre comedy, where the Ghost of Christmas Past goes AWOL and leads him and the Ghost of Christmas Present through a series of scenes. Scrooge and the second spirit eventually make out, and there are a lot of cartoon sound effects. Yet to Come only shows up at the movie’s climax, and is just a sleazy-looking Euro guy in an ascot.
51. Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006)
Here, the ghost is the Tasmanian Devil. He starts out the scene in the typical black shroud, but doffs it a minute or so later to engage in the usual Warner Bros. schtick.
50. Carry on Christmas (1969)
The long-running British slapstick film series tackled Dickens for a Christmas special at the end of the swinging ’60s, but the Ghost of Christmas Future is just actor Bernard Bresslaw playing an incredibly broad hippie impersonation. Oh, and Frankenstein and Dracula are also in this, for unexplained reasons.
49. It’s Christmas, Carol! (2012)
Carrie Fisher plays all three ghosts (and the Marley role to boot) in this Hallmark Channel take on A Christmas Carol set in the modern age. Emmanuelle Vaugier is the Scrooge figure, transformed into a hard-charging CEO with no time for Christmas. Not scary.
48. A Christmas Carol (2015)
This extremely cheap-looking Canadian musical production of the story was a labor of love (director Anthony D.P. Mann also plays Scrooge), for what that’s worth. The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come talks and sings in this rendition. She’s just a lady with a white face in a big black hat. The whole thing has a community theater vibe.
47. Brer Rabbit’s Christmas Carol (1992)
The early ’90s were such a dire time for animation. This made-for-TV special — not produced by Disney, and with no connection to Disney’s Song of the South — is an ordeal to watch, and all the ghosts are just Brer Rabbit messing with Brer Fox through the use of household props and woodland actors. So the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come here is just a sheet on a mop with a jack-o’-lantern on top.
46. An American Christmas Carol (1979)
Henry Winkler — the Fonz himself — dons old-age makeup to portray Benedict Slade in this adaptation moved to Depression-era New England. The spirit who shows him the misery that awaits him after death is played with soulfulness by Dorian Harewood — the fill-in voice of Shredder from the Ninja Turtles cartoons!
45. A Christmas Carol (1969)
From a series of Australian animated adaptations called Famous Classic Tales, this is a pretty standard take on the story, complete with a third ghost that could pass for an unimaginative Scooby-Doo villain.
44. A Christmas Carol (2000)
This odd British TV adaptation moves the action to the present day, with Ross Kemp playing Scrooge as a council-estate loan shark despised by his clients and community. The third spirit that visits him on Christmas Eve is an eerily silent young boy who shows him the bad end that awaits, and in the film’s coda, we learn that the kid was his yet-to-be-born child. In theory this could be scary, but it’s executed so clumsily that it’s more laughable than chilling.
43. Skinflint: A Country Christmas Carol (1979)
David Bond plays the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in this honky-tonk musical adaptation of the Dickens story, with Gremlins’ Hoyt Axton in the Scrooge role. This was only aired once, during the late-’70s peak of Grand Ole Opry country music. Bond eschews the hood in favor of what looks like dollar-store Dracula makeup and some deeply weird hand gestures.
42. A Christmas Carol (1910)
The oldest surviving film version of Dickens’ tale (except for the 1906 one, which didn’t have the three ghosts) is a 13-minute silent speedrun of the whole tale. The ghosts aren’t terribly scary, and as far as I can tell, the gimmick for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is “big lady.”
41. A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
This 70-minute animated take, featuring the usual Flintstones characters, depicts the ghost as a pretty generic hooded featureless figure. The one notable thing about this movie is that it actually shows Fred Flintstone’s corpse — or at least his massive, pale-white big toe sticking out from under a sheet.
40. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
A low-effort Rankin-Bass animated musical version of the classic story, with a hooded figure pointing a bony white arm at Scrooge’s tombstone. Perfectly competent, but nothing to write home about.
39. A Carol Christmas (2003)
This Hallmark movie had some serious stunt casting — Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past! William Shatner as the Ghost of Christmas Present! Storied actor James Cromwell is the third and final ghost, and his expressive face does a lot to sell it, even though he’s just a mute limo driver. The bit where he closes Carol (Tori Spelling) into her coffin is a little freaky.
38. Old Scrooge (1913)
Ghosts in these early silent adaptations were always very tall. In this silent version of the tale, our future ghost is just a lanky fellow wrapped in some bedsheets. Marley is actually significantly scarier.
37. A Christmas Carol (1982)
I think this animated Australian version of the story is the baseline “solid C” for scariness. It’s not imaginative at all — if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed that the ghost here is a big figure in a black cloak — but the rendering is fine, and the music really sells the scene. Perfectly decent but nothing to renounce your miserly ways over.
36. Scrooge & Marley (2012)
Chicago drag legend Jojo Baby plays the third ghost in this campy gay take on the tale, with Scrooge recast as a penny-pinching club owner visited by his deceased partner. Mr. Baby does a fine job, wrapped up in a mummy-like sheath of black fabric that casts a very glam silhouette.
35. Ebbie (1995)
A Lifetime original movie starring Susan Lucci as the first female Scrooge? Look for scares somewhere else, pal. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is played by busy Bill Croft, most notable for playing prison guards or convicts in shows like Airwolf and Viper. He’s just a quiet but imposing guy in a hat and a black trenchcoat.
34. A Christmas Carol (1997)
DIC was the go-to studio for affordable animation through much of the ’80s and ’90s, and this holiday special was as average as possible. Tim Curry plays Scrooge, and the adaptation gives him a bulldog named Debit because all cartoons must have a cute animal character. The ghost here is a glowing cloaked specter, nothing fancy or special, but it’s well designed.
33. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000)
Vanessa Williams plays “Ebony Scrooge” in this perplexing made-for-VH1 holiday movie, which also stars Duran Duran’s John Taylor and Chilli from TLC. The stunt casting could have gone any number of ways for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but for some reason, it’s a haunted television set showing an episode of Behind the Music where everybody talks about how much they hate Scrooge now that she’s dead. Then it sucks her in, Poltergeist-style. Extremely weird.
32. A Christmas Carol (1994)
Cheaply made animated special with the artwork done in Japan in a vaguely anime style. Our final ghost is a hooded figure wearing a rope as a belt. The whole enterprise is pretty artless and uninspired.
31. 2nd Chance for Christmas (2019)
Direct-to-DVD (and streaming) cornball starring Brittany Underwood as a spoiled pop star in the Scrooge role. Vivica A. Fox is mostly wasted as the third ghost, credited as “Death” — she enters the scene in cloak and bones, inspiring Underwood to ask whether she “died at Comic-Con.” But she plays through the flick just as her normal, fine self.
30. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Disney animated projects are occasionally pretty scary — even the Mickey Mouse stories. But the Ghost here is just frequent Mickey nemesis Peg-Leg Pete, wearing a brown shroud and puffing a stogie. It’s a testament to how good the framing and animation is that he still feels threatening. The addition of a cigar does explain the billows of smoke around the spirit.
29. An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
The last film in the All Dogs Go to Heaven series has a convoluted plot about evil bulldog Carface scheming to hypnotize pets to steal Christmas presents. The good dogs dress up as the three spirits to change his ways, and the Ghost of Christmas Future starts off as an imposing hooded figure before whipping his cloak off to do a bizarre riff on Jim Carrey in The Mask. He does take Carface to literal hell, which is a little intense.
28. A Christmas Carol (1977)
Yet another BBC adaptation of the tale, with a perfectly acceptable shroud-clad spirit. He loses a few points because he doesn’t really seem to know what to do with his hands, leaving them hanging awkwardly while Scrooge monologues. But the massive hanging hood and creepy silence are both on point.
27. Una Meravigliosa Notte (1953)
I don’t speak Italian, so it’s difficult to evaluate how well the ghost comes off in this adaptation, which stars Paolo Stoppa as greedy Antonio Trabbi, visited by a trio of spirits who show him the error of his ways. This is the second film on this list where the ghost has no physical form, instead manifesting as an echoing voice-over. The cinematography does a lot to sell it, as Stoppa seems genuinely deranged and unsettled by the all-knowing voice in his head.
26. Ms. Scrooge (1997)
Cicely Tyson plays the Scrooge role in this gender-swapped version of the tale, in which the Ghost of Christmas Future warns her that the IRS will take all her money after she dies. He’s played by actor Julian Richings, who has a memorable face, but spends his whole part of the movie standing around expressionless in a suit. It’s just weird enough to be truly creepy.
25. A Christmas Carol (1938)
One of the more famous adaptations, this one is solid, but the ghost is just a guy in a black cloak. When he walks, he sometimes sticks both of his arms out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster. Every once in a while, you can see his weird skinny hand.
24. John Grin’s Christmas (1986)
This all-Black TV adaptation of the story has Robert Guillaume as the Scrooge figure John Grin, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is played by Trinidadian dancer/actor Geoffrey Holder, probably best known as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. The costuming isn’t anything to write home about, but Holder’s expressive face and wild mannerisms definitely deliver.
23. Tales From Dickens: A Christmas Carol (1959)
Early television programming didn’t have much to offer in terms of special effects, so the Ghost in this Basil Rathbone-starring adaptation is a black cloak walking around in some studio fog. Some nice stiff-armed pointing and a commitment to stillness and silence makes it one of the better of its type.
22. Scrooge (1951)
Alastair Sim is one of cinema’s most famous Scrooges, and he puts his whole back into cowering in fear of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It’s another shrouded figure, but its introduction is pretty good — a pale white hand held in the foreground of a shot for more than a minute as Scrooge freaks out. The best thing about this one is his implacability: None of Scrooge’s pleas move him in the slightest.
21. A Christmas Carol (1914)
Another silent flim, this one running a little over 20 minutes. The ghost is a big guy in a black hood and cloak, played by the awesomely named and completely stone-faced H. Ashton Tonge. Charles Rock is an overacting machine as Scrooge, chewing scenery like it was a Christmas goose.
20. A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghostly Tale (2006)
This direct-to-video CGI animated film casts anthropomorphic animals in the lead roles. You will never in a million years guess what kind of animal the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is, so I’ll just spoil it for you: It’s a walrus with one broken tusk, crackling with some sort of eldritch electricity. It’s so inexplicable that it wraps around to being scary.
19. Scrooge (1922)
This is, chronologically, the first film that depicts the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come with its face fully shrouded, and it’s effective, even though the ghost is barely on screen for a minute in this silent short.
18. Ebenezer (1998)
Jack Palance as Ebenezer Scrooge in a version of the tale set in the Old West? Incredible, and the legendary actor goes wild as a card-cheating swindler who hates Christmas. The ghost here is a shrouded figure with some wisps of gray hair coming out from the cloak, and at the end of his scene, he reveals his face as Scrooge’s dead partner, Jacob Marlowe.
17. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
The hapless blind codger has been cast as Ebenezer Scrooge in a theatrical adaptation of the Dickens story, possibly for insurance-fraud reasons. The third spirit is the stereotypical silent hooded shadowy figure, but animated in the classic UPA style, so it looks pretty cool and imposing. The original songs written for the movie and sung by Magoo kind of undercut the drama, though.
16. Scrooge (1935)
The first feature-length Christmas Carol film with sound takes a pretty interesting approach with our third ghost, portraying him as an amorphous shadow that sometimes enfolds Scrooge, and at other times appears as a pointing finger cast on the snowy ground. Not super scary, but cool.
15. A Christmas Carol (1923)
Another shadowy cloaked figure in this silent adaptation, but Russell Thorndike’s Scrooge sells the hell out of it well enough to bump it up a few spots.
14. A Christmas Carol (2012)
This relatively obscure adaptation directed by Jason Figgis does some odd things with the source material, deliberately removing some scenes to make the narrative bleaker. It’s pretty low-budget and obviously shot on video with the actors in different rooms, overlaid with cheap digital effects, but it manages to work OK. The ghost has a red cloak and some gross zombie makeup on his outstretched hand, earning points for being different.
13. A Christmas Carol (2018)
The introduction of the final spirit in this Scotland-set version is straight out of a horror movie, all ominous whooshing noises and creaking violins. But in a departure from the norm, we never actually see it. Instead, it speaks in one-word pronouncements in a gravelly voice as Scrooge reacts to it. Points for originality and solid sound design, but the actor playing Scrooge doesn’t sell it as well as he could.
12. Spirited (2022)
Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds mug it up in this comedy holiday musical made for Apple TV. It’s got good production values, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, played by former Raptors power forward Loren Woods (but voiced by Tracy Morgan), makes the most of its few minutes on screen.
11. A Christmas Carol (1984)
George C. Scott stars as Scrooge in one of the all-time best versions of the story, and the ghost is really solid — tattered, shadowy, silent, and imposing. Nothing particularly innovative about this rendition, but expertly executed.
10. Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
In general, this animated version of the story is pretty low-quality, even though the celebrity voice cast includes Kate Winslet and Nicolas Cage. But the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is handled pretty marvelously. Its depiction eschews realism: It’s drawn with sloppy brushstrokes outlining a cadaverous figure. It’s one of the few animated versions that really takes advantage of the medium, even if it’s just for a short time.
9. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Michael Caine in a world full of Muppets is disconcerting enough, but this one takes a turn for the eerie when Scrooge runs into the third spirit — a huge figure clad in black robes, with an infinite, featureless void where its face should be. Not a lot of time on screen, but a really strong design.
8. Scrooge (1970)
For the first part of the ghost’s appearance in this musical (with Albert Finney as Scrooge), he’s the usual black-cloaked figure. But when Scrooge realizes he’s looking at his own grave, the Ghost reveals a skeletal face and hands that are simultaneously corny and disconcerting.
7. A Christmas Carol (2019)
Guy Pearce starred as Scrooge in this series, one of the darkest adaptations of Dickens ever. There’s even a sexual-abuse subplot to Scrooge’s childhood, along with several other adult themes. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is well played by British actor Jason Flemyng, who appears as a pallid man in a black suit and top hat with his mouth crudely sewn shut.
6. A Christmas Carol (2020)
This ambitious dance film features celebrity voices and professional dancers. It’s one of the more visually compelling takes on the story, with some dynamic sets and beautiful motion. Both Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are played by dancer Brekke Fagerlund Karl, who is magnificently threatening with his spare movements.
5. A Christmas Carol (1971)
Legendary animator Richard Williams won an Oscar for this brilliant adaptation, which is just tremendous from start to finish. The ghost is a hooded figure, as per normal, but the incredible fluidity of the drawings here gives it an uncanny hyperrealism. Coupled with some unsettling camera movement, the design gives us a very high placer.
4. A Christmas Carol (1999)
The Patrick Stewart-led Christmas Carol was the first Scrooge story to use digital special effects. Our Ghost here is played by British actor Tim Potter, but we don’t really see him. Instead, it’s a baleful black shroud with two unsettling amber eyes buried within. Sometimes the primitive VFX of this period could be really effective, and this is a great example.
3. A Christmas Carol (2009)
I’m not the biggest fan of Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture animated films, as they always veer a little too far into the uncanny valley for comfort. But you can’t deny that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in his holiday effort is effective. CGI lets the spirit be a creature of pure shadow, changing size at will for some truly impressive effects.
2. Scrooged (1988)
Bill Murray meeting the hulking Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the elevator is one of many great scenes in this classic ’80s dram-com. Then the ghost opens the front of his cloak to reveal tormented souls trapped in his ribcage, and forces Bill Murray to experience his own cremation. A great fusion of the traditional and the contemporary, and it’s definitely scary!
1. A Carol for Another Christmas (1964)
Leave it to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling to max out the scare factor. This adaptation stars Sterling Hayden as industrialist Daniel Grudge, who is visited by three ghosts attempting to argue him out of his isolationist policies. The third ghost is played by Robert Shaw, who isn’t that scary on his own — until you realize that the “future” he’s showing Grudge is a world ravaged by nuclear armageddon and senseless, murderous violence. Shadowy figures and impending death are typically scary enough to turn a Scrooge around, but the threat of global thermonuclear war? That’s enough to save a whole lifetime of Christmases.