Ghost hunter Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) and his neurotic psychic assistant Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) lead a team on a mission to capture a spirit, called the Juggernaut, in a junkyard. Several of the men are killed during the ensuing fight, including Cyrus himself. However, the team is able to catch the ghost.
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub), an embittered and naïve mathematician who is also a widower, is informed by the estate lawyer of his uncle Cyrus, Ben Moss (JR Bourne), that he has inherited a mansion. Arthur and his financially insecure family plan to move into this mansion with his two children, Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts). Their babysitter/nanny Maggie (Rah Digga) accompanies the family.
Dennis Rafkin, disguised as a power company employee, meets the family and Moss as they tour the mansion. The residence is made almost entirely of glass. It contains Latin phrases etched on floors and movable glass walls, along with priceless artifacts. Arthur and his family are eager about inheriting this new home, and while Arthur is discussing financial matters with the attorney, Kathy and Bobby venture off on their own to explore the mansion. After seeing several ghosts in the basement, Dennis frantically runs upstairs to warn Arthur about the home he is about to own. Moss assures Arthur that Dennis is crazy and should be ignored. Dennis tells Arthur that there are twelve spirits imprisoned in the house, held captive by the spells written throughout the residence.
Ben Moss is seen sneaking off to collect a valise of money which was intended to be payment. However, upon taking the money, he activates a mechanism set up by Cyrus that seals the entrance and releases the ghosts, one by one. Consequently, Moss encounters the first one to be released, the Angry Princess, and backs up into an open doorway, which snaps shut and slices him in half. Later the existence of ghosts is proven to the skeptical Arthur, when he witnesses an attack on his daughter by the ghost known as the Jackal.
Bobby, the younger of the two children, disappears after getting separated from Maggie and he wanders into the basement. There he encounters several spirits, including the Torso and the Bound Woman. Arthur manages to find Kathy, and the two battle the Jackal. Kalina Oretzia (Embeth Davidtz), a spirit liberator, helps Arthur free Kathy from the Jackal's grip, only to be lost again a few moments later. After this, Arthur's objective is clear—to find his children and leave this house as soon as possible. This becomes problematic for two reasons: only those equipped with special glasses are able to see the ghosts; and the walls continue to shift, making navigation difficult.
Arthur and Kalina then meet up with Dennis and Maggie and set off for the library. Dennis falls behind, though, hindered by one of his psychic visions. He comes to just in time to see the Jackal attack Arthur. Dennis is able to toss one of Kalina's flares at the Jackal, knocking the ghost off Arthur who is wounded.
In the library, Kalina explains that this is not a house - it is a complex machine built by Cyrus, designed by a possessed 15th century astronomer to open the "Ocularis Infernum" (Eye of Hell.) Created by the Devil and powered by the dead, once this demonic device opens the Eye, the Eye would allow its user to see everything in the past, present and future, on earth, in heaven and hell. To Arthur's horror, he discovers the fourth ghost powering this machine is the spirit of his dead wife, Jean. Kalina goes on to tell Arthur that his children are in grave danger, and the only way to ensure their successful return is to offer his soul in exchange. If Arthur takes his place as the 13th ghost, his sacrifice of pure love would combat all of the evil contained within the machine, thus shutting it down.
Arthur and Dennis make another attempt to save Kathy and Bobby, using a detached pane of glass as a shield against the ghosts' attacks. Facing the Hammer, Dennis pushes Arthur into a corner where he is then protected by the glass, sacrificing his own life in the process. After combating the Hammer, Dennis finds himself cornered by the angry spirit and the newly released Juggernaut; he is brutally beaten and is killed when the Juggernaut breaks his back on a metal pole.
Cyrus is revealed to be alive, having faked his death in order to lure Arthur to the house; Kalina turns out to be his secret partner and lover, and knocks Maggie unconscious. Cyrus has orchestrated the previous events, including the abduction of Kathy and Bobby, so that Arthur will become the 13th ghost not to stop the machine, as Kalina had claimed, but to trigger it. Kalina says the only flaw in the plan is that Arthur will only sacrifice himself if his children are in jeopardy. When she balks at Cyrus's order to make it so, Cyrus sighs and traps her in a small chamber, telling her that "greatness requires sacrifice," just before she is crushed to death between two glass walls.
Trapped behind the glass, Arthur is visited by Jean's ghost. Then, all the ghosts disappear from the basement, responding to a tape-recorded summons played by Cyrus. Kathy and Bobby have been placed at the center of a set of whirling, razor-sharp rings. Arthur and Cyrus have a violent confrontation, which is interrupted when Maggie removes the tape and messes up the machine. Due to this breakdown in equipment, the ghosts are released from their trance, and the machine begins to malfunction. All the ghosts except Jean immediately grab Cyrus, and hurl him into the spinning rings, slicing him to pieces. Dennis' ghost then appears, telling Arthur to go to his kids. Waiting for a break in the razor rings, Arthur jumps to save his children, making the leap without dying. The house's glass walls shatter, releasing the spirits from captivity. A peaceful-looking Jean lingers briefly to say goodbye to her family, then departs with the others.
The film ends with a battered Maggie walking through the wreckage, yelling out to Arthur and the kids that she did not agree to this when she came to work for them, and that she is quitting.
The thirteen ghosts that make up the fictional "Black Zodiac" each have their own unique back stories. Although these stories were not described in the film, on the DVD, the production and make-up teams explain their guidelines. Cyrus narrates each ghost's back story.
1. The First Born Son - The Firstborn Son is the ghost of Billy Michaels, a boy who was a fan of cowboy films. One day, a neighbor found a real steel arrow in his parents' closet. He challenged Billy to a duel, with Billy using a toy gun. However, his plaything was no match for the arrow, and he died when the neighbor shot it through the back of his head. In death, Billy is in his cowboy suit and holding a tomahawk, with the arrow still protruding from his head. His ghost whispers "I want to play."
2. The Torso - The Torso is the ghost of a gambler called Jimmy "The Gambler" Gambino. He spent most of his days on the track, making bets and brainwashed into winning. One day, he made a deal with a rich business man, and so sealed his fate. When he bet heavily on a boxing match and lost, he tried to renege his bet and slip out of town. The mob and the winning boxer, to whom he owed money, caught up with Gambino and cut him into several pieces, wrapping them in cellophane and dumping the corpse into the ocean. His ghost is just his torso, trying to walk around on its hands, while his head lies nearby screaming within the cellophane.
3. The Bound Woman - The Bound Woman was a cheerleader named Susan LeGrow, who was born privileged and had a penchant for seducing men and tossing them away. This left a long trail of broken hearts. When her boyfriend found her cheating he strangled her and killed the other boy. He buried her body at the 50-yard line of the local football field. The boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to death; before his execution, he was quoted as saying, "The bitch broke my heart, so I broke her neck." Her ghost is in her prom dress, hanging suspended by the strangling implements with her arms tied behind her back.
4. The Withered Lover - The Withered Lover is Jean Kriticos, Arthur's wife. She was burned severely saving her family from a devastating house fire, and later died of her wounds in the hospital. Her ghost initially appears in a hospital gown, hooked up to an IV pole and showing severe burns on her face. Unlike the other ghosts, she is not a vengeful spirit, electing to help her family rather than show malevolence. At the end of the movie, she appears fully healed and in her normal clothing.
5. The Torn Prince - The Torn Prince is the ghost of Royce Clayton, born in 1940, who was a gifted baseball star in high school, albeit with attitude issues and a superiority complex. In 1957 he was challenged by a greaser named Johnny to a drag race, but was killed as his car spun out of control and flipped over; the cause of the accident was a cut brake line. He was buried in a plot of earth that overlooked the baseball diamond. His ghost carries a baseball bat, and in the background of his cube, his wrecked car can be seen. Half of his body is torn to shreds from when he was dragged under the car.
6. The Angry Princess - The Angry Princess is Dana Newman, who did not believe in her own natural beauty. Abusive boyfriends fueled her low self-esteem, which led to much unneeded plastic surgery for imagined defects. Eventually she got a job working for a plastic surgeon, getting paid in treatments rather than cash. Alone at the clinic one night, she tried to perform surgery on herself, but wound up blinding herself in one eye and permanently mutilating herself beyond saving. She committed suicide in the bathtub by slashing her body repeatedly with a butcher knife. When she was found, people noted that she was as beautiful in death as she had been in life. Her ghost is naked, still carrying the knife she killed herself with and showing all the wounds, and the inside walls of her cube are splattered with her blood. In her bathroom scene, the phrase "I'm sorry" is visible on the floor in blood; subtitles also reveal that the blurred, hissing speech that announces her arrival is her whispering "I'm sorry." This was written on her suicide note.
7. The Pilgrimess - The Pilgrimess is the ghost of Isabella Smith, an Englishwoman who traveled across the Atlantic and settled in New England during colonial times. She was an outsider to the town she moved into, and this isolated her from the other townsfolk. She was found guilty of witchcraft after livestock began to die mysteriously; when she emerged from a burning barn completely unharmed, she was sentenced to the stocks (pillory) with no food or drink until she died. As a ghost, she is still locked into her stocks.
8 and 9. The Great Child and The Dire Mother - The Dire Mother is the ghost of Margaret Shelburne, who was an attraction in a carnival due to her being only three feet tall. She was raped by the "Tall Man," another carnival freak. Her son, Harold (the Great Child), was born as a result of that rape; he eventually weighed over 300 pounds (136 kg). Harold, spoiled, was raised as his mother's protector and kept a childlike mindset, to the point that he wore diapers his entire life. One day some of the carnival employees decided to play a little practical joke on Harold, and kidnapped his mother. Enraged, he set out to look for her, but when he caught up with the culprits, he found that his mother had accidentally suffocated to death in the bag that she was kept in. Harold killed the kidnappers with an axe, keeping their remains and displaying them for paying customers. Later, when the owner of the carnival found out what Harold had done, he ordered a mob of people to tear Harold apart. Their ghosts are always together, and Harold still wields the ax and wears a bib stained with food that his mother has spoon-fed to him. An alternate version of the story is told in the DVD commentary: It was said that their deaths were caused by the Great Child rolling over on the Dire Mother while asleep, thus suffocating her, then him starving to death.
10. The Hammer - The Hammer is the ghost of a blacksmith, George Markley, who lived in a small town in the 1890s. He was wrongfully accused of stealing, and when threatened with exile, refused to leave town. A gang led by his accuser hanged his wife and children and burned their bodies; in revenge, George used his sledgehammer to beat the culprits to death. He was then subjected to a cruel form of frontier justice by the townsfolk, being chained to a tree and executed by having railroad spikes driven into his body with his own sledgehammer. As a final touch,they cut off his hand and attached the sledgehammer - handle and all - to the hand that was cut off. His ghost is seen with the railroad spikes protruding from his body and a sledgehammer for a left hand.
11. The Jackal - The Jackal is the ghost of Ryan Kuhn, who was born in 1887 to a prostitute. Ryan had an insatiable lust for women, rape, and murdering prostitutes. Wanting to be cured, he committed himself to Borehamwood Asylum, but after attacking a nurse, he was put in a straitjacket and thrown in a padded room. After years of this imprisonment, he went completely insane, scratching at the walls so violently that his fingernails were torn completely off. The doctors kept him permanently bound in his straitjacket, tying it tighter when he acted out, causing his limbs to contort horribly. Still fighting to free himself, Ryan gnawed through the jacket until the doctors finally locked his head in a metal cage and sealed him away in the dark basement cell. There, he grew to hate any kind of human contact, screaming madly and cowering whenever approached. When a fire broke out in the asylum, everyone but Ryan escaped. He chose to stay behind and face the fire. As a ghost, his arms are free from his jacket, and the bars of his cage are ripped outwards.
12. The Juggernaut - The Juggernaut is the ghost of a serial killer named Horace "Breaker" Mahoney. Standing seven feet tall, he was of such grotesque height and appearance that everyone ostracized him as a child. His mother abandoned him at birth, so his father raised him, putting him to work in the junkyard crushing old cars. After his father died, Horace was left on his own, and soon went mad. He would pick up female hitchhikers and drive them back to his junkyard, then tear them apart with his bare hands and feed them to his dogs. One day he picked up an undercover female police officer, who called for backup, bringing a SWAT team to surround the junkyard. Since close combat was impossible, the police instead struck the yard, and arrested the giant. However, Horace broke free from the cuffs, and three officers lost their lives. Quickly, five SWAT officers took out their guns and brought Horace down in a hail of bullets. When he finally went down, they shot an extra round into him, just to be safe. His ghost still shows bullet holes all over his clothing, and the round that finished him.
13. The Broken Heart - The thirteenth is meant to be Arthur but he doesn't die.
For alternate backstories, see the articles 'Misery Loves Company' and 'Terror in the Aisles: About the Story, Characters and Cast' on the Official Movie Website .
- Tony Shalhoub as Arthur Kriticos
- Embeth Davidtz as Kalina Oretzia
- Matthew Lillard as Dennis Rafkin
- Shannon Elizabeth as Kathy Kriticos
- Alec Roberts as Bobby Kriticos
- Rah Digga as Maggie Bess
- F. Murray Abraham as Cyrus Kriticos
- J.R. Bourne as Ben Moss
- Mikhael Speidel as Billy Michaels/The First Born Son
- Daniel Wesley as Jimmy "The Gambler" Gambino/The Torso
- Laura Mennell as Susan LeGrow/The Bound Woman
- Kathryn Anderson as Jean Kriticos/The Withered Lover
- Craig Olejnik as Royce Clayton/The Torn Prince
- Shawna Loyer as Dana Newman/The Angry Princess
- Xantha Radley as Isabella Smith/The Pilgrimess
- C. Ernst Harth as Harold Shelburne/The Great Child
- Laurie Soper as Margaret Shelburne/The Dire Mother
- Herbert Duncanson as George Markley/The Hammer
- Shayne Wyler as Ryan Kuhn/The Jackal
- John DeSantis as Horace "Breaker" Mahoney/The Juggernaut (credited as John De Santis)
In the US, the film opened ranking 2nd, making $15,165,355. It spent 10 weeks in the US box office, eventually making $41,867,960 domestically, and $68,467,960 worldwide.
Reviews for the film were mostly negative, with Thirteen Ghosts garnering a "Rotten" rating of 14% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, where the consensus was, "The production design is first rate, but 13 Ghosts is distinctly lacking in scares." Roger Ebert praised the production values saying, "The production is first-rate. The physical look of the picture is splendid." However, he criticized the story, lack of interesting characters, loud soundtrack, and poor editing. It is on his list of "Most Hated" films.