Friends, skeletons, ghouls, gremlins, etc. etc.: At long last, it’s Halloween season. Which might not be for you! And that’s okay. Roll up to a pumpkin patch, wear a big sweater, drink some coffee, do whatever people who don’t like Halloween do during fall. Just know that the following is not for you.
Still here? Good. Good. Aside from the making of jet-black cocktails and dressing up to your heart’s desire on the big day, Halloween demands a serious marathon run through the horror movie genre.We’re not talking about oldies like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. (Although we highly recommend a rewatch.)We’re talking about the genuinely scary stuff. Jams from the minds of Kubrick, Argento, Peele. Tales of doomed cave-dives and camping trips. For all of your Halloween-season needs, here are the scariest movies of all time.
Director: Robert Eggers
Before creepy-vibes mastermind Robert Eggers has Robert Pattinson and William Dafoe drunkenly running around in The Lighthouse, he scared the hell out of us in The Witch. The Puritan horror-thriller (what a genre!) is not only one of the scariest movies in a stacked decade for horror films—but one of the most frightening of all time.
Director: Neil Marshall
Things were a little weird for the horror genre in the 2000s (see: The Wicker Man), but The Descent is a gem from that era. The tale of a spelunking gone wrong still has a cult following today. If you don’t have claustrophobia now, you absolutely will after watching the cramped cave horror of The Descent.
Director: Dario Argento
While Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 reimagining of fellow Italian director Dario Argento’s horror classic is well worth the watch, there’s no beating the original. Argento’s tale of a ballerina-school-turned-coven is a masterclass in horror-movie suspense, spooky music, and mystery.
Director: John Boorman
Sometimes the scariest films don’t need to venture into the supernatural or the grandiose to strike fear. Put a deep-woods boy on a bridge and give him a banjo and that’s all you’ll need to send a chill up a lot of people’s spines. Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, this 1972 film about a foursome who decide to venture down a rural Georgia river likes to label itself as “an adventure drama,” but the phrase “Squeal like a pig!” begs to differ.
Director: Ari Aster
After her estranged mother dies, Annie (Toni Collette) begins to notice some peculiar activity around her house. After another shocking tragedy, Annie begins to spiral out of control. Is there a supernatural force attempting to manipulate her family, or is it all in her head?
The Vanishing (1988)
Director: George Sluizer
If Hollywood titles like Taken and The Call have primed you to want to get to the bottom of every abduction movie, Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (also known by its original Dutch title, Sporloos)will make you wish Liam Neeson had just hung up the phone and gone to bed. Following one man’s hellbent quest to find his girlfriend after she goes missing at a rest stop, this psychological thriller has a climax that has often been rated as one of the scariest endings of all time.
The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
A team of researchers in the Antarctic tundra encounter an extra-terrestrial “thing” that can shape-shift into the appearance of its victims. Among a new wave of sci-fi horror films, The Thing’s groundbreaking special effects will make you weary of all that you see at first glance.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Director: Joel Anderson
When a mourning family begins to experience strange occurrences following their teenage daughter’s drowning, a series of unearthed clues reveals that her life was as shrouded in secrecy as was her untimely death. Told through hyper-realistic cinematography and heavily-improvised acting, this mockumentary questions the fine line between grieving and being haunted.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
While the Babadook’s reading as a queer icon may have since past its internet shelf-life, there is plenty of subtext that still haunts this Australian psychological horror film. First appearing as a demonic storybook in the home of a mourning mother and son, the haunting presence of the Babadook soon proves to be far from fabled. As menacing as it is beautiful, The Babadook reminds us that there’s no way to stay safe from our demons once we are aware of them.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Under the Skin (2013)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who is sent to earth to lure Scottish men back into her apartment, where they enter a black void. This visually stunning thriller is a slow burn, but it’s worth it to see what happens to the dudes when she’s finished with them.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Director: David Lynch
The prequel to Twin Peaks, made after the original run of the show was cancelled, follows Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in her last week on earth. For all of its wacko images and sounds (ghost David Bowie, the Red Room, Chris Isaak playing an FBI agent), Fire Walk With Me is a devastating story about family, trauma, and loss.
Director: Fritz Lang
A serial killer who hunts children has caused city-wide panic (all captured in extremely moody German expressionist photography). While police use modern technologies to track him, an underworld of criminals being targeted by raids decides to bring the killer to justice. You can thank M for Seven and all your other favorite serial-killer thrillers that have copied it—which is basically all of them.
Director: Wes Craven
The one that set off the trend of postmodern scary movies about scary movies, for better or (probably) worse. Nineties icons (Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan) are terrorized by a killer while everyone debates the rules of slasher movies. It’s fresh, funny, and genuinely shocking when it came out—and it still holds up.
Cabin Fever (2002)
Director: Eli Roth
Roth’s first, and still by far best, movie dishes out Evil Dead-style camp, but it also significantly ups the stakes and cringe factor with a skin-eating disease spreading among drunk assholes (well, except for Rider Strong, who of course plays the nice one) who quickly turn on each other.
The Lords of Salem (2012)
Director: Rob Zombie
Zombie’s artful take on the Salem witches who now seem to be haunting a recovering drug addict is ominous thanks almost entirely to its meticulous use of sound and set design. And—rarest of all for a movie like this—it has a lot of heart. The visions of a witch ritual and bodies heaped in a pile rank up there with anything Stanley Kubrick ever made.
The Witches (1990)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Yes, this Roald Dahl adaptation is ostensibly a movie for kids, but it fucked me up when I watched it over and over on VHS as a child, and I’m still not sure why my mom thought that was okay. Witches all over the world disguise themselves as normal-looking, professional women, but they lure children to their death using sweets. Anjelica Huston’s head witch in charge—who has a full-on heaving, orgasmic reaction to the thought of turning children into mice and stomping on them—is a masterclass in scenery-chewing.
God Told Me To (1976)
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Director: Fred Walton
A murderer (Tony Beckley) torments a babysitter (Carol Kane) over the phone. Years later, an obsessed investigator (Charles Durning) follows the killer, who’s escaped an asylum and drifts around, while Kane’s character has to grapple with her guilt and anguish over what happened. The opening 20-minute phone sequence is one of the most effectively creepy in movie history.
Director: Bernard Rose
Sadly one of the few horror movies interested in exploring Black culture, Candyman follows a graduate student (Virginia Madsen) researching the legend known as the Candyman (Tony Todd), who’s supposedly the reincarnation of a black man killed by a lynch mob now taking out revenge on residents of Chicago’s projects when they say his name three times in the mirror. Madsen doesn’t believe it, but you, smart horror viewer, know better.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
A 12-year-old boy falls in love for the first time, and it’s with a child vampire. The stark Scandinavian style gives the film a romantic and devious quality, and the tossed-off nature of the horror—a person suddenly bursting into flames, a swift poolside murder—is what makes it so scary.
Director: Steven Spielberg
A rogue Great White Shark is eating people in a New England resort town, and a trio of brave men—a small-town sheriff, an oceanographer, and a surly sailor with his own past run-ins with sharks—are the only people who can stop it. The films opening image of a woman being slowly tugged down by a shark in the moonlight is what made many people, including me, swear off nightswimming forever.
Deep Red (1975)
Director: Dario Argento
A musician (David Hemmings) and journalist (Dario Nicoldi) team up with lots of sexual tension to solve the whodunit mystery behind gruesome murders in Rome that involve childhood trauma. While not the scariest movie on this list, its ending will make you question your own perception of what you just saw.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Director: Ti West
A college student (Jocelin Donahue) reluctantly accepts a babysitting job from a total creep (great character actor Tom Noonan), only to find that everything is wrong in his house. Infused with early ’80s nostalgia (satanic panic, Dee Wallace Stone), the horror comes so quickly you barely have time to process it.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play a couple trying to escape the grief of their young daughter’s accidental death in Venice only to find it haunting them in every corner of the city. Daphne du Maurier’s short story gets the psychological horror treatment it deserved.
Director: Tod Browning
Browning dared to imagine a revenge fantasy from the perspective of a group of circus “freaks,” and had his career ended, but his masterpiece remains as jaw-dropping and moving as ever. (And it still gets fans shouting “gooble, gobble” at drunk midnight screenings.)
The Others (2001)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Nicole Kidman lives in a country house shielded from sunlight with her kids, who say they’ve seen ghosts. Soon she starts seeing things, too, but not quite what you expect. With all due respect to The Sixth Sense, this is the scariest turn-of-the-millennium ghost movie with a twist ending.
28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
Cillian Murphy wakes up fully naked on a hospital bed a month after a virus has infected humanity and finds that all of society has collapsed. Streets are empty, except for the packs of zombies who are more aggro than a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert. When the survivors take shelter in a military compound, and things get even darker than zombies foaming at the mouth.
Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele
A young Black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) joins his perky white girlfriend (Allison Williams) for a visit to her Obama-supporting parents’ home and discovers that liberals can’t be trusted any more than Ku Klux Klan members. Its humor aside, the image of a white woman eating Fruit Loops while researching black men’s bodies to hijack is chilling because it’s different only in degree from a million thoughtless comments about the special “physicality” of black men.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
It’s hard to pull off the children-from-hell movie, which makes it all the more remarkable how beautifully this Austrian thriller unspools the mystery of twin boys (who for some unknown reason are always wearing matching tank tops) and their mother whose face is disguised in bandages—and may not be their mother.
The Strangers (2008)
Director: Fruit Chan
A stunning woman’s (Bai Ling) agelessness involves a monstrous secret. Just wait until you finally realize what’s inside those plump, juicy steamed dumplings. (I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.)
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Director: Georges Franju
In the very literally titled French art-horror classic, a famous and unhinged surgeon kidnaps beautiful women and tries to transplant their faces onto his daughter who is, yes, missing a face. This movie really tapped into the power of masks. It also inspired everything from Face/Off to Billy Idol.
Black Christmas (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
A sorority on winter break is stalked by a serial killer, who first makes obscene phone calls and slowly begins to take down the house girls one by one. The final reveal of who—and where—the real murderer is will leave you breathless (and you’ll never think of Clark’s other famous film, A Christmas Story, in the same way).
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Director: Ruggero Deodato
It may not have popularized the found-footage genre, but this notorious banned-from-so-many-countries exploitation movie kicked things off. Footage is recovered from a documentary crew that went missing in the Amazon after encountering a cannibalistic tribe. The (still) real-looking human violence led to accusations that actors were killed, which is not true, though the nauseating image of an impaled woman may make you think otherwise.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Director: Takashi Miike
A widower arranges for women to audition to be his new wife. One of them gets her revenge—and then some.
The Fly (1986)
Director: Brian De Palma
A quiet high school loner (Sissy Spaceck) does what every quiet high school loner dreams of doing: she unleashes total hell on her abusive classmates at senior prom. The performances from Spacek and her on-screen mom Piper Laurie were so incredible that both earned Oscar nominations, a rarity for a horror movie.
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
In this unflinching Italian study of depravity and fascism, powerful men round up teenage boys and girls and subject them to humiliating sexual acts and torture. It’s full of unsettling images (you could pick any number of particularly terrifying moments), but there’s nothing more disturbing than men laughing at their prisoners’ cries of pain.
Wolf Creek (2005)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
A preacher/serial killer who has “HATE” and “LOVE” tattooed on his hands (never a good sign) charms his way into marrying a woman in order to steal a hidden stash of money, and her children have to stop him. The murky black-and-white photography is beautiful and sinister as hell.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Three snarky college students go into the woods in search of a local myth that turns out to be way too real, and only their footage is left behind. Yes, you can blame this movie for every lazy, cheap, and insanely profitable found-footage horror movie that came after it. The lack of a “witch” annoys some people, but the scariest thing is always what we can’t see.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)
Director: Tom Six
American tourists looking for help instead find a German surgeon who, yes, definitely gives off Nazi vibes and has plans for them far worse than death. If you haven’t already passed out by the surgery exposition, good luck when you figure out the digestive mechanics of the “human centipede.”
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, a writer with a drinking problem, arrives with his family to become the caretaker of a snowed-in hotel that’s inundated with creepy signs, from his own son muttering “redrum” over and over, a duo of creepy girls hanging out in the halls, and an elevator gushing with blood. Not to mention the film’s catchphrase: “Here’s Johnny!” Who says axe-wielding comic actors can’t be terrifying?
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Director: Wes Craven
Craven was one of a few masters of horror who plumbed the depths of America’s Vietnam War-era cultural divides in this grimy, arty thriller about two teenage girls who encounter escaped prisoners in the big city—and how the tables get violently turned. The torture and abuse in this film make Deliverance look like an after-school special.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
In the most disturbing allegory for childbearing gone wrong, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary becomes increasingly panicked about her painful pregnancy and the mysterious neighbors in a building with a history of Satanism. You probably know hot it ends, but it doesn’t matter: Rosemary’s slow descent into madness is the true horror here.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: John Carpenter
Michael Myers, a man made of pure evil who killed his own sister as a six-year-old, escapes a sanitarium as an adult and returns to his hometown for revenge. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has to face him. Director John Carpenter scored the film, and simple, chilling theme music playing as Myers stalks Laurie and her friends is always tough to get out of your head.
Director: Pascal Laugier
In the most stomach-churning movie in the already very stomach-churning “New French Extremity” movement (don’t ask), a bourgeois family’s home hides a basement with the most disturbing experiment ever conceived. While it’s beautifully made, I can’t say I recommend this movie if you’re feeling even a little emotionally maladjusted.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
At the height of the Vietnam War, a group of young hippies travels through Texas and discovers that America is crawling with its own backwoods terror. The movie was originally billed as a true story in a genius bit of marketing and political commentary, and broke all the rules of what was acceptable in a mainstream movie.
Paul Schrodt is a freelance writer and editor who also contributes to Esquire, GQ, Money, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
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