This is not a list of the best horror movies. This is not a list of the most disturbing horror movies. This is a list of the movies that have the greatest potential to scare the crap out of you. This is also not an exclusively ‘personal’ scare list. I will explicitly state which ones I found terrifying, but I’ve also included many that usually come up in conversation with others. Everyone is different and it’s quite possible that you will not find any of these films scary, but I’ve cast a wide net, so hopefully at least one or two of these will freak you out, even if you disagree with their placement on the list.
Also, this is not a list that has any respect for which film was first. As such it is also a list that necessarily changes over time as technology, technique and ideas evolve. Many of your favorites will not be on this list because they have lost their ability to scare as much as they used to. For example, Halloween (1978) is a movie that broke out of the Psycho (1960) serial killer formula with great effect. But it was so successful that it single-handedly created a new formula that became the basis for the slasher sub-genre. A lot has been taken away from the original because it has been copied and hackneyed so many times. But the same can’t be said for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which could not be formulized. Even today, while Halloween has lost the punch it packs for new viewers, Texas Chainsaw remains uniquely scary in a way that audiences are not prepared for.
All movies are ranked based on first-time viewing experience, irrespective of how well the film holds up afterwards. Special emphasize is placed on the experience, because all of these films have the common factor of being able to suck you in, so you feel the fear, not just witness it.
But in the end, all scares are subjective. We appreciate your thoughts on what you would include and what you would exclude.
What are the scariest horror movies?
10) The Blair Witch Project (1999)
You are part of a documentary filming crew hiking through the woods. You don’t know where you are and neither do the other two members of your crew. You try to follow the map, but keep winding up in places that don’t match the terrain depicted on the map. To make matters worse, the map itself is now missing. You try not to panic. It’s really hard to stay lost in America these days. There are towns and roads everywhere. If you just pick a direction and start walking you’ll stumble on something, right? Right?
Rationale: It’s difficult to think of another movie that captures fear of the unknown as well as this one. Without question there is not another movie that better portrays the vulnerability associated with being lost. The Blair Witch Project would be up at #1 or #2 if audiences hadn’t become so accustomed to the found footage format, which was relatively unheard of at the time of release. Thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign, the format added considerably to the horror, causing many who saw the original in theaters to believe they were watching real events. But even sixteen years on, Blair Witch is still unmatched in the tension it squeezes out of found footage. And although it is not very creepy, the movie as a whole leaves you so unsettled that you will never look at the woods in the same way again.
Note: I was one of the few who saw this one before it became mainstream and its impact on audiences was not exaggerated. For several years thereafter many I encountered thought Blair Witch was the scariest thing on film. But after the initial found footage craze ran its course, opinion about Blair Witch tapered off. This one may fall off the list in a few years, because all the copycats out there have desensitized audiences, but I don’t think so. Most of the copycats are either inferior, or just similar in format. Unlike with Halloween (1978) there’s not really a formula to rip-off of Blair Witch. It simply captured fear. Raw fear.
The Blair Witch Project Trailer:
9) The Shining (1980)
You are trapped alone in a deserted mountain resort with your son and husband during a blizzard. Unfortunately your husband seems to be losing his mind. Your only contact with the outside world is a radio that can reach a sheriff’s office, but doesn’t function well in bad weather. As your husband grows more violent you slowly realize that your only means of escape is a snowmobile that you can’t operate very well. To make matters worse, your son keeps seeing the ghosts of people who have been violently killed.
Rationale: Like Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick’s technique sucks you into the film in a way that reaches past the conversation and even the actions, so that you feel the shear power of the scare. The imagery, the timing, the sound effects, the visual IV drip of information, fuse to create the gold standard of psychological horror that has yet to be duplicated. At a basic level, The Shining taps deep into the fear all of us have that a loved one may go insane.
Note: Even though I was in my twenties the first time I saw this movie, it gave me nightmares. In my thirties, I still find myself looking over my shoulder, especially when those creepy twins show up. As far as others go, this is usually the third most commonly mentioned ‘scariest’ movie.
The Shining Trailer:
8) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
You are with your family in your house enjoying a quiet evening of TV. There is a knock at the door. When you go to answer, two men force themselves inside. They kill your husband. Then one rapes you while the other butchers your kids. Now you pray that the one killing your kids will quickly kill you, so you don’t have to endure the torture of knowing what’s actually happening a second longer.
Rationale: Henry captured a level of realism never before seen in cinema. Killers from Psycho (1960) through the slashers of the early 1980s could never scare as much as this one, who was absolutely merciless and worse, true-to-life. The gritty, low budget nature of the film only highlights the realistic portrayal of Henry. Unlike Michael Myers and Jason who have mostly outworn their scare potential, Henry resonates and will continue to, because he is so real. So, although not the creepiest, this one will probably be one of the most enduring. Long after The Ring (1998) and Ju-on (2002) have outworn their scare potential, Henry will remain. The film would probably be on top of this list were it not for the quality of the acting and the dialogue, which at times makes suspension of disbelief difficult.
Note: I saw Henry long after I had done the slasher rounds. I found myself checking the doors a lot that night.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer Trailer:
7) Ju-on (2002)
A malevolent entity is stalking anyone who seems to come into contact with you. What terrifies you most is that you don’t know how to stop it. Now, while you are lying in bed with your eyes peeled, your only hope is that it won’t get you in the next few minutes.
Rationale: As ghost stories go, this is by far one of the creepiest. The demon is a force of pure darkness and up until the end it is depicted as exactly that. Unlike in The Ring (1998), the timing of the visuals and soundtrack of Ju-on are calculated to maintain a high level of tension throughout the film. Like Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), any kind of human attributes that would encourage sympathy are done away with, so we are left staring into the face of pure malevolence.
Note: This is a very creepy film with a great ending, but the ending has been copied and hackneyed over the last twelve years, hence now it seems a little predictable. It detracts from the scares slightly (but only slightly), which bumps Ju-on lower on the list (otherwise it would be in competition for #1).
6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 & 2003)
You are on vacation with your friends and staying in a family house in a remote part of Texas. Things were going great. You were having a lot of fun with them, especially your new beau. But now some of your friends have gone missing. There’s an old house just beyond your family’s property line. They must’ve gone in there, so you investigate. There’s a rotten meat smell inside. You feel uneasy. What’s the worst that could happen?
Rationale: Although older than Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s ability to terrify endures. Director Tobe Hooper’s adeptness at making us feel the fear and shock of the victims is unmatched: The camera angles; the gritty quality of the film; the timing of the kills. It is simultaneously the quintessential fear-your-neighbor and fear-the-countryside movie. The 2003 remake maintains the tension of the original and updates the graphic content to compensate for thirty years of desensitization. The story is altered, but you will still be on the edge of your seat virtually the entire time.
Note: I saw the original (DVD version) for the first time in my twenties. It was a Sunday evening and I had poured myself a glass of wine. I took a sip at the beginning of the movie and didn’t touch the glass the rest of the evening. I couldn’t. My eyes were glued to the screen and my hands were gripping the chair for dear life. Texas Chainsaw sucked me in and didn’t let me go until the closing credits. Astonishingly, the remake successfully captured the same quality (even if it was directed by Michael Bay).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Trailer:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) Trailer:
5) The Thing (1982)
You are trapped in a research station during an unforgiving Antarctic winter. There is an alien entity disguised as one or more of your colleagues, but you don’t know who, or how to find out whom, before you become the next victim.
Rationale: This is the penultimate you-can’t-trust anyone film. The concept began with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but reaches its zenith with The Thing. For anyone who is even just a little paranoid that things around them aren’t as they should be, or that there is something others aren’t telling you, this movie will scare the hell out of you.
Note: I never found this movie that scary, but so many people I meet tell me that it is the scariest film they’ve ever seen. (Probably the second most commonly mentioned.)
The Thing Trailer:
4) High Tension (2003)
You are staying at a friend’s house in the countryside. One night, a large beastly man breaks into the house and slaughters her parents before kidnaping your friend. Fortunately the man doesn’t know you were staying there, so you are able to successfully hide from him. But now he has your friend who you love more than life itself. You must go after her.
Rationale: As the title suggests, the tension is kept extremely high for the duration of the film. It is a slasher movie that genuinely terrifies, especially if you happen to live in the countryside. The protagonist faces a series of grim choices, each of which requires immense courage to contemplate. And unlike the more predictable slasher films, High Tension completely shreds the formula of good versus evil (with a chainsaw). Once the formula is in tatters, we are left with nothing familiar to cling to and the full terror of not knowing what awful thing will happen next is unleashed.
Note: Much like the original Halloween (1978), High Tension’s deviation from the serial killing formula ended up creating a new formula, which has become somewhat clichéd over the past decade. But knowing it doesn’t detract from the movie’s scare potential in the slightest.
High Tension Trailer:
3) The Exorcist (1973)
Your teenage daughter is sick and no one knows what’s wrong with her. She also is using a lot of profanity and saying other disturbing things. Her mattress rattles. She pees on the floor. One day you open her bedroom door and find her stabbing herself in the crotch. You can’t look. You don’t want to believe it. Finally you decide it’s time to call a priest.
Rationale: Even more than forty years after it’s release, The Exorcist remains the movie most often mentioned as the scariest of all time. The devil. An innocent girl. Sadistic acts. Cherished beliefs. The most sacred parts of our lives are woven masterfully together with the greatest evil known. Thanks to Director William Friedkin’s unusual directing style, we see genuine reactions of terror from the actors, plus intermittent shots of the demon itself at intervals least expected (which was not in the original release). The elements of the story make it disturbing, but the execution makes it scary – very scary.
Note: If I had taken a poll when compiling this list, The Exorcist probably would’ve been on top. And as far as best horror films (considering all factors) go, it probably is on top, or at least very close. But I never found the movie to be that scary. Plus, consider that in general scares degrade over time. Each generation becomes either desensitized to content, effects, technique, or in this case, the quality of the medium – the film itself. Just as it’s difficult for my generation to get fully drawn into a black and white film, it’s difficult for generations beyond mine to get caught up in outdated color. I suspect that in my hypothetical poll, The Exorcist would win for scariest by a landslide for those over age 40. But for those who have not yet reached 30, it would be a different story. The Exorcist is still very creepy and very scary, but not the scariest. Not anymore.
The Exorcist Trailer:
2) 28 Days Later (2002)
You wake in a hospital bed. It’s quiet. Too quiet. You wander around the building. It’s deserted. You go outside and wander the streets … Nobody. Finally you encounter someone skulking around an abandoned church. As soon as he notices you, he charges you with a crazed look that you remember seeing once in a rabid dog. You run. But his growls and roars attract more of them. Before you know it, you are attempting to outrun a crazed mob. You notice that in addition to their eyes, their arms and legs are bloodied. Their clothes are in tatters. It seems like any shred of humanity is gone.
Rationale: Most zombie movies are not scary. The beauty of 28 Days Later is that it takes the zombie-concept and augments it with speed, rage and hyper-violent acts. Instead of the dead rising, what if all but a few of us transformed into feral beasts? How would the ones left try to survive? What lengths would they go to? Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced us to the no-way-out scenario. 28 Days Later brings it to its creepiest and grimmest apex.
Note: Like Romero’s Dead series, 28 Days Later emphasizes how the (uninfected) survivors turning on each other is a horror unto itself. Yet unlike the Dead series not so much time is spent on this as to make it a heavy-handed commentary about humanity. It’s the cherry on top of the horror.
28 Days Later Trailer:
1) The Ring (1998-Japanese or 2002-US)
You stick a video in. You see a few images that are nothing special. They look like they could be outtakes from an old home movie. Next you get a call and a girl’s voice informs you that you will be dead in a week. It’s unnerving. It creeps you out. You have trouble sleeping that night. But the next morning you dismiss it as a prank. You forget about the whole thing until… Seven days later… The phone rings again. But this time it’s not a little girl’s voice on the other end.
Rationale: Although studios in Tokyo had been making horror movies since the 1960s, The Ring, more than any other film is responsible for the reputation they have earned as elite producers of horror. When released more than fifteen years ago, the creepiness was unprecedented and remains so today. What makes The Ring so special as to earn the top spot is that it makes the act of viewing itself the trigger that unleashes terror upon the victims. The film doesn’t sloppily attempt to shame audiences like Peeping Tom (1960), but imbues fear by making us the target of the supernatural horror. We – the audience – become the ones who should fear for our lives. Once more, the American remake, although a little light on the backstory, maintains a similar intensity and even scores a touch higher on the creepiness scale. Either version will scare the hell out of anyone who even believes, just a little, in the supernatural.
Note: Okay, so I cheated a little by including two films in my #1 pick. It’s because they both are that scary. (Reminder: This is not a list of the most original horror movies.) Like most horror fans, I saw the American version of The Ring first. I didn’t sleep more than an hour the first night. I kept expecting to see that creepy chick show up at the foot of my bed. The next few nights were a little better, but not much. I didn’t really get another good night’s sleep until seven days after I saw the movie. Hmmm … Seven days. Imagine that. I wonder how many others subconsciously (or consciously) recorded the days until reaching seven, because part of you was afraid, just a little, that you would get a phone call.
The Ring (Japanese) Trailer:
The Ring (American) Trailer: