Tom Witzky is a phone lineman living in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago with his pregnant wife Maggie and his son Jake, who possesses the ability to commune with the dead. At a party one evening, Tom challenges Maggie's sister Lisa, a believer in paranormal activity, to hypnotize him. After putting him under, Lisa plants a post-hypnotic suggestion in Tom urging him to "be more open-minded". Tom then begins experiencing visions of a violent scuffle involving a girl who he later learns is Samantha Kozac, a 17-year-old that disappeared from the neighborhood six months prior.
While Tom and Maggie attend a high school football game, Jake is overheard by his babysitter, Debbie Kozac, as he speaks with Samantha. Debbie gets upset and snatches Jake, running off with him in the night. Meanwhile, Tom senses Jake is in danger and rushes home but finds him gone. Tom then sees strange flashes of red light that eventually leads him to the 'L' station where Debbie is speaking with her mother about Jake. When Tom and Maggie confront her, Debbie angrily questions them about her sister Samantha, explaining that she had an intellectual disability: having the mental capacity of an 8-year-old and thus a child's tendency to trust strangers. Tom denies knowing her to Debbie but admits to Maggie that she is the girl in his visions.
Tom becomes obsessed with Samantha and begins probing members of the community about her disappearance. This attracts the attention of his landlord Harry Damon, Tom's friend, Frank McCarthy and their respective sons Kurt Damon and Adam McCarthy, who all dismiss Samantha as a runaway teen. During an afternoon walk, Jake and Maggie encounter a funeral where Chicago policemen are saluting in a ceremony; here a policeman named Neil immediately recognizes Jake's unique talent and invites Tom to a private gathering of like-minded people to learn more about what is happening to his son. Maggie withholds her conversation with Neil from Tom and goes to the meeting herself, and Neil tells her the spirit that contacted Tom has asked for something and will grow upset if it does not get done. As predicted, Samantha begins plaguing Tom, eventually leading to his insomnia. He goes back to Lisa and demands she undo what she did, but when she hypnotizes him, Samantha tells him to dig. Tom complies and digs holes in the backyard and eventually tears up the house in a desperate attempt to appease Samantha.
While Maggie and Jake attend her grandmother's wake at a relative's house, Tom inadvertently knocks down a shoddy brick wall in the basement and discovers Samantha's decomposed remains. He receives a vision showing him that before his family moved in, Adam and Kurt lured Samantha into the house to rape her. When she resisted, they unintentionally suffocated her and hid her body. Tom brings Frank back to the basement to disclose to him the crime. Frank breaks down and admits that Adam and Kurt had already confided their secret to him and Harry. Frank pulls out a gun and demands to be alone. As Tom leaves the basement, he hears a single shot.
Harry and Kurt suddenly show up. Harry, in his capacity as landlord, voices displeasure with the torn up house. They corner Tom with the intention of killing him, but Maggie interrupts them when she arrives back home. As Harry takes her hostage, Frank emerges from the basement and fatally shoots both Kurt and Harry to save Tom and Maggie. Tom notices Samantha's spirit put on her glasses and coat, she smiles as she walks down the road and slowly fades away, suggesting her soul is finally at peace and is now free to fully move on.
Afterwards, the family packs up a U-Haul and moves out of the house. Meanwhile, Samantha's mother and sister are finally able to give her a proper funeral and burial. Tom and Maggie smile happily as they drive away to a new neighborhood, but Jake covers his ears as they approach their new home, overwhelmed by the spirits that linger in all of the houses they pass by.Kevin Bacon as Tom WitzkyKathryn Erbe as Maggie WitzkyZachary David Cope as Jake WitzkyIlleana Douglas as LisaJennifer Morrison as Samantha KozacLiza Weil as Debbie Kozac, the BabysitterKevin Dunn as Frank McCarthyLusia Strus as Sheila McCarthyChalon Williams as Adam McCarthyConor O'Farrell as Harry DamonSteve Rifkin as Kurt DamonEddie Bo Smith Jr. as Neil
On its opening weekend, the film ranked third in box office gross with $5,811,664, and stayed in the top ten for three weeks. After a 14-week run, its total domestic gross was $21,073,708. In the UK, the film grossed £818,213. Worldwide, it made more than $23 million.
Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reports the film as holding an overall 67% "Certified Fresh" approval rating based on 103 reviews. Many reviewers felt that the film suffered by being released shortly after previous high-earning occult films of the year: The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and The Mummy. (Reviewer Sara Voorhees gave it "the benefit of the doubt, because the movie, or at least the story for it, appeared long before The Sixth Sense, in Richard Matheson's 1958 novel.")
Roger Ebert wrote that Bacon "stars in one of his best performances" and that "Koepp's screenplay dovetails the supernatural stuff with developments among the neighbors which are, wisely, more sad and tragic than sensational." Empire, giving the film 4 out of 5 stars ("Excellent") wrote that "this quietly creepy adaptation of a Richard Matheson novel" was "[o]vershadowed at the American box office by The Sixth Sense" and adds, "There are neat camera tricks - the spook moves at a slightly different film speed to the living - and a couple of great bad dream moments, but the real skill Koepp shows is that he grounds the scary stuff in a believable reality and delivers a ghost story that doesn't lose its grip after the spirits have unambiguously been made manifest." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that "the film offers above-average occult entertainment" with Bacon's "most believable, heart-wrenching and charismatic lead performance in many years."
The San Antonio Express-News reviewer thought that Koepp "molds this ghastly ghost tale into a supernatural thriller that builds suspense at a fever pitch from beginning to end," while the reviewer for The Cincinnati Post, Voorhees, felt mixed, saying she thought the movie "too predictable" but also "a well-crafted psychological mystery"; "Koepp's dialogue is genuine and funny." The Baltimore Sun wrote, "Koepp and director of photography Fred Murphy have created some dazzling in-camera special effects, especially the ingenious idea of filming the story's ghost at a slow speed, six frames per second, giving the being a strange, otherworldly way of moving. If only they had sustained the suspense longer -- and resolved it in a less ripped-from-the-headlines manner -- they could have kept summer audiences scared sleepless for at least one more night." The Miami Herald reviewer wrote, "A good deal of effort was invested in setting up an atmosphere of mystery and dread: Stir of Echoes is a scream-out-loud movie, upsetting and deliriously effective. Problem is, Koepp relies almost entirely on the isolated shocking images, ignoring the human element at the center in favor of digitalized special effects and rapid-fire editing."
In 2007, Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming was released as an American television movie produced by Lions Gate Entertainment. The film premiered on the Sci Fi Channel. Originally titled The Dead Speak, it was written and directed by Ernie Barbarash and purports to be a sequel to the 1999 feature film Stir of Echoes, although its only connection to the previous work is the inclusion of Jake Witzky, who had a key role in the original film but is only a secondary character here.