Horror movies have truly evolved over the last several decades. The genre first started in the 1890s in silent films and they’ve been pushing the envelope ever since. These days, most people think a movie is scary if it’s full of jump-scares and surprising, scream-worthy moments. That said, there is a lot more to the horror genre than a cheap scare. Instead, the scare should be well-crafted and perfectly timed – that’s what separates an okay horror flick from a great one. That’s also what separates the movies that were included on this list from – say – the House of Waxes and the Killer Klowns from Outer Spaces. Franchises tend to be hits or misses, but the following 17 movies are some of the scariest ones of all time…
34. The Exorcist
Some people might find it hard to consider The Exorcist all that scary considering the technology is dated (to say the least). However, the movie is cemented in the Horror Hall of Fame and rightfully so. The 1973 horror flick is basically the inspiration for every movie made about contacting demons via a Ouija board released ever since. Whether it’s the moment when Regan’s head spun all the way around, or the pea-green vomit scene, everyone who has seen The Exorcist has had at least one movie moment etched into their memories ever since.
33. The Shining
Over the last four decades, we’ve gotten countless Stephen King movies. The “King” of the written horror genre has had some of his best works made into some of the best movies of all time. The Shining wasn’t the first of his works to get the movie treatment (that was Carrie), but it’s still one of the biggest standouts over 38 years later. The author actually hated how the story played out on the big screen and gelt that there were too many creative liberties taken with the adaptation. That said, the moviegoers weren’t complaining after they got the sh*t scared out of them in theaters. Even today, it’s still pretty damn scary.
32. Rosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s Baby is the OG film about demon babies, a story we’ve now seen time and time again in the horror genre. If you were on the fence about having children, this is not the movie to watch to convince you. It is also not the film to watch if you’re considering moving into a new apartment. The titular Rosemary moves to a new apartment with her husband, and things quickly get a bit weird with her nosey neighbors over-invested in her getting pregnant. The scariest part for sure comes at the end, but since we don’t want to spoil anything, you’ll just have to watch to find out what happens!
Alien was not the first movie about a living species on another planet, but the movie sure as hell made a name for itself when it debuted in 1979. Gone was the idea of friendly little green men. Alien had the scariest monsters that you could think of, and those aliens were uglier than anything movie viewers had ever seen when the movie came out. In the film, a crew aboard the spaceship Nostromo received a distress call from a distant moon that they had to check out. It was only after they landed on the other moon that the realized there were foreign species living on the planet. Furthermore, the message wasn’t a distress call, but a warning to stay away. #LostInTranslation
Alien had three direct sequels, along with two crossover movies, and then the series was revamped in 2012. To this day, it’s still one of the scariest of all time.
30. The Purge
The Purge might not be a traditional horror movie, but it has made a huge impact on the genre. The movie is set in the not-so-distant future and followed the events of one Purge Day. On this day, people are allowed to do anything illegal – including murder. The Purge was created to eradicate all crime throughout the year by giving people one evening to do every bad thing they ever wanted. The government-sanctioned cleansing was a way for people to let loose. There’s gruesome murder, but the scariest part of The Purge is how much the franchise has delved into the politics behind the Purge.
29. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project was ahead of its time when it came to the “found footage” shooting style used. As if you need another reason to not go into the woods at night, this movie was proof enough. Three students traveled into the forest in Maryland to make a documentary about a local myth, the Blair Witch. According to the legend, many children had disappeared from those same woods since the 1940s, and the Witch was believed to be the cause. When the students got lost, chaos erupted. This very movie has inspired numerous other “found footage” films, camping films, and even had a sequel come out 17 years after its original release.
28. The Omen
The Omen made viewers terrified of adopting a kid. Obviously, not every adopted child is anything like Damien, but damn – he was creepy enough to instill nightmares for weeks. After Robert Thorn’s wife gave birth to a stillborn, he was approached by a priest with a different baby for them to care for. The priest told him that other infant’s mother had died in childbirth, so he suggested that Robert and his wife take the little boy, Damien, in – despite his creepy history starting with his fifth birthday. Robert didn’t want to believe that his son was the antichrist, but the evidence soon became overwhelming. The movie, based on the book series of the same name, spawned several sequels, some including a grown-up Damien that tried to stop the second-coming of Christ. The 1976 movie was remade in 2006, but anyone who has seen both films knows that the original is way scarier.
27. The Strangers
“Because you were home.” LITERAL CHILLS. After they attended a friend’s wedding, James and Kristen returned to an isolated house that they were renting and in the late hours of the night, all hell breaks loose when vandals break into the cabin and begin terrorizing the family for seemingly no reason. The movie wasn’t afraid to give its characters long, drawn-out deaths and while it was certainly scary on its own, the sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, which was released ten years later, was even more terrifying.
High school is basically a horror movie on its own, but Carrie took it to the next level. The movie was the first book of Stephen King’s to be adapted into a film, and it did not disappoint. Carrie White was a naive girl whose religious fanatic mother refused to explain anything – leading to a particularly embarrassing gym-class period moment.
As if that moment wasn’t traumatic enough, Carrie then was convinced to attend prom just to be humiliated in front of the entire school. What none of Carrie’s classmates knew was that she was telekinetic, and she would make them pay. The prom scene goes down in horror movie history as one of the bloodiest scenes of all time. There have been several reincarnations of Carrie, include a 1999 sequel The Rage: Carrie 2 and a 2013 remake, starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Ansel Elgort. The original is best, obvi.
Basically, horror movies have ruined everything possible – including cheap travel. To be fair, it’s not too tough to disparage the hostel name, as they can be a little grimy in the first place. But in Hostel, three backpackers are told about a place where the women love American tourists. The guys think they’ve found the perfect place to stay, but they learn quickly that the place is a trap and they were essentially lured into a torture chamber. Hostel has some truly horrifying gore, but no scene is worse than the one where one woman loses an eye. Be warned.
24. A Nightmare on Elm Street
In the ‘80s, the horror genre got a good dose of monsters with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. A Nightmare on Elm Street proved that *literally* nowhere is safe, not even your dreams. The teens living on Elm Street are attacked in their dreams, starting with a girl named Tina. It’s a classic slasher film, and every death in this movie is terrifying.
Freddy Krueger is now known as one of the best movie villains of all time. With seven movies in the original franchise, the final film gets pretty meta. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is about Freddy entering the real world to attack the cast and crew from the movies made about him. Freddy and Jason Voorhees were put head to head in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. FYI: the remake of the original film doesn’t hold a candle to its inspiration.
23. Friday the 13th
This is the slasher movie that made every child afraid of going to sleepaway camp. The story goes that in the ‘50s, Camp Crystal Lake was shut down after a boy drowned there and camp counselors were murdered. For some reason, the camp is set to be re-opened twenty years later and big shock – camp counselors are beginning to be murdered one by one. Full of some genuinely terrifying scares, let’s just say the second you think ANYONE is safe – they aren’t.
There were nine other films in the franchise directly related to the original. But the second movie, Jason is pretty much an entirely new (and more terrifying) villain. The movie also inspired Freddy vs. Jason and the 2009 reboot that pales in comparison. (Remakes are very rarely as good.)
22. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
…And this is the film that made us all afraid to go on road trips! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about siblings traveling to their grandfather’s grave with some friends. Apparently in the ‘70s, this wasn’t massively sketchy, and of course, they pick up a hitchhiker along the way. He turned out to be crazy (naturally) and thus begins their terrifying story.
The franchise had a few films in its original run but it’s already been revamped three times since the movie came out in 1974. It was first redone in the ‘90s, then rebooted (with Jessica Biel as the star) in 2003, and again in 2013, with a prequel released in 2017. The continuity in the franchise might be extremely confusing, but Leatherface remains crazy, scary, crazy-scary, and chainsaw-obsessed through and through.
What horror movie is more synonymous with the month of October than this one? Halloween gave us the original scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. Right away, the audience knows Michael Myers is deranged, as the movie begins with a six-year-old Michael murdering his sister in a clown mask. Fast-forward 15 years, Michael has escaped his psychiatrist on his way to court, and he’s back on the hunt. Soon, everyone around Laurie (Jamie’s character) starts to get murdered once Michael chooses her as the object of his affections.
The Halloween franchise was born after what seemed like a cut-and-dry ending in the first movie. There were seven sequels to the original, all following a special curse, revenge, and return of Michael Myers. Thankfully, 40 years after the movie came out in 1978, there will be a new Halloween and it’ll star Jamie Lee Curtis once again. This is what we’ve been waiting for!
20. The Ring
You might not have realized this, but horror movies ruin a lot of things for us all. When it comes to The Ring, you probably have never looked at a well the same way since seeing the movie. The movie was a remake of a 1998 Japanese film and was truly terrifying. There have been plenty of urban legend movies (even some with that exact name), but in The Ring, teenagers watch a creepy tape, get a phone call, then die within seven days. Samara’s creepy crawl has cemented itself into our psyches. SO CREEPY.
This was the movie that literally made people afraid to shower. Of all the daily activities to be afraid of, we never thought bathing would be one. Alfred Hitchcock created many masterpieces over the course of his career, but Psycho was likely his most memorable and influential one. The original Psycho first focused on a young bank secretary, Marion, after she embezzled money and went on the run but quickly turned in its focus once she checked into the Bates Motel. It’s a movie with a great twist ending, and you know anyone who doesn’t think this movie is “that good” is full of it.
Saw, quite honestly, is more of a psychological horror movie than anything else. The first film in the franchise, and all that can afterward, really get in your head. That said, there’s also a hell of a lot of gore in all of the installments. While the sequels to the OG movie have gotten over the top in terms of the wild deaths, the original movie was a wild ride. There’s one moment in every movie that is sure to shock you – even if you know it’s coming after movie #2. Even so, you’ll be watching through the cracks of your fingers.
17. Paranormal Activity
There have been many “found footage” movies over the years. The most notable for starting this trend in horror movies would be The Blair Witch Project. But no offense to those filmmakers, Blair Witch is hardly scary. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, is terrifying, especially the first time you watch it. There’s obviously a mind-blowing twist that comes into play about halfway through movie number one, and thus spurred sequels and even a successful prequel. For a newer scary flick, this one stacks up with some of the greats.
This movie was so scary; many Netflix users couldn’t even finish it. The platform announced that Veronica was the scariest new movie they offered for their viewers and basically warned that people who started it couldn’t even make it through the one-hour 46-minute runtime. The Spanish film, which has subtitles, it set in 1991 and is about Verónica, a girl who tried to contact her father after he passed away. But something went wrong during Verónica and her two friends’ Ouija board experience, and after that, Verónica began to experience a strange presence inside of her house… was it her dad? Or a much more sinister ghost? Our bets are on the latter.
15. The Invitation
At this point in time, everyone should know that having dinner with your ex is always a very bad idea – The Invitation just solidifies that knowledge. In the film, a man named Will learned that exes ought to be left in the past. Will was invited to a dinner party at his former home by his ex-wife, with whom he split with two years before after their son died. Her new husband was also there, and let’s just say, sh*t quickly got weird. In fact, Will figured out the couple was in a cult called “The Invitation” and they had some sinister plans cooked up.
14. The Descent
In The Descent, a woman named Sarah is the only survivor of a horrible car accident with her husband and daughter. A year later, as she’s still coping with her loss, Sarah’s friends invited her on a trip to explore a cave. While that pretty objectively sounds like an awful idea, the group sees it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, the group got trapped inside that very cave and learned that their leader had concocted this whole scheme. As if things weren’t bad enough, the group then started to be hunted by a strange breed of predators. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Obviously.
13. The Grudge
If you saw The Grudge, chances are you’ve been having nightmares about the groaning sound that little boy made ever since. The 2004 movie was a remake of a Japanese 2002 film of the same name and it terrified audiences. Starting with a woman’s obsession with her professor, this is a good cautionary tale not to fall in love with the wrong guy. When her husband found out, he brutally murdered her, their son, and even the family cat. The gruesome deaths left a dark mark on the house the murders took place in, leaving the next owners to pay the price. Can evil ever be defeated? The Grudge certainly won’t make you think so.
12. 28 Days Later
There have been many zombie movies over the years, but only a select few are actually terrifying. 28 Days Later is one of the few. In it, a man named Jim woke up after being in a coma to find that London had been deserted. It turned out that a group of activists freed chimpanzees from the lab they were being experimented on. But what they didn’t know was that the virus the chimpanzees were being tested with could spread to humans and it caused a massive zombie-like outbreak among the population. Jim connects with others like him, but time’s ticking, and it’s unclear if a happy ending could be possible.
11. The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan has created many thrillers over the years and The Sixth Sense is one of his best. In the movie, a man appeared to be in a struggling marriage. His wife wouldn’t talk to him, in fact, she wouldn’t even look at him. He took on a new client, a young boy who believed that he could see ghosts. The child psychologist tried to help the little boy understand what was real and what was not, but over the course of the movie, the ghosts appeared to be more real and the doctor began to believe his patient. While definitely more of a thriller than a horror movie, the jump-scares and twist-ending will still leave you terrified.
10. It Follows
On paper, the concept of It Follows seems absolutely ridiculous. An entity that will follow and kill someone after they’ve had sex? Sounds like a horrible idea, and a pretty problematic one at that. Then again, the virginity trope is nothing new in horror movies and if you can look past the somewhat concerning themes about premarital sex, this movie will freak you the f&%# out. We’ll say one thing though: the real scare comes at the very end.
9. The Conjuring
When it comes to new horror franchises, The Conjuring is one of the best. Which is saying something considering so many are complete fails. The film took the very overused “demonic presence in a house” plot but added the paranormal investigators twist. Both of The Amityville Horror films failed to totally scare us, but The Conjuring‘s compelling characters made it easier for the audience to get sucked into the narrative. Since the first was released, there have been two Conjuring films, two related Annabelle films, and there’s a third subsection coming to the franchise in 2018 called The Nun. You’ve got tons to catch up on if you’re looking to spend a full day getting freaked out!
8. The Babadook
Is there anything creepier than a disturbed child in a movie? The answer is obviously going to be “no.” The frankly annoying Sam begs his mom, Amelia, to read a book called Mister Babadook to him – and after reading some straight-up terrifying depictions of torture to her young song, Sam’s mom realizes that this book shouldn’t be in the house. That’s not before Sam thinks he’s seen the Babadook, though, lurking. The creature may have become an LGBTQ icon after Netflix erroneously categorized it as such, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less terrifying.
7. The Witch
The Witch is one of the only movies on this list that isn’t a remake or part of a franchise. It’s just a one-off terrifying scary movie. Set in 1630s New England, life back then was already scary enough. Some classic scary movie tropes are found in this horror flick including a disappearing baby, twins, and a talking goat. Just a quick warning – the baby’s death is shown, and it is gruesome. Sure enough, the movie deals with satanist witches doing some incredibly disturbing things. But if you don’t mind not sleeping for a week after watching a movie, then The Witch is a great option.
6. The Orphanage
WHY ARE ORPHANAGES SO CREEPY? After a family, made up of a mother, father and adopted son, moved into the woman’s childhood home, she decided to reopen the orphanage for disabled children. In classic horror movie fashion, her son, Simón, started to see ghost children, became friends with them, and grows almost too close to one particularly creepy one. His mother refused to believe that Tomás was real until, of course, her son disappeared from the orphanage and was nowhere to be found.
5. Night of the Living Dead
“They won’t stay dead!” Back in the ‘60s, we got our first mainstream taste of zombies. Night of the Living Dead was about what happened when the dead stopped being dead. The zombies had an insatiable hunger for human flesh and would stop at nothing to quench it. When two siblings were visiting their father’s grave in Pennsylvania, they were attacked by zombies in the cemetery. They meet other survivors in a barn they’re barricaded in, just to find that zombie outbreaks are happening all over the country.
Night of the Living Dead quickly became the most important zombie movie ever made when it was released in 1968. Since then, there has been a spike in zombie culture. It might not have been the first zombie movie ever made, but it just might be the most influential. The number of movies that have taken inspiration from Night of the Living Dead is insurmountable.
Fuzzy TV screens have never been the same since this movie released in 1982. The Freelings were a perfectly normal family, with an average life. That was until strange things started to happen in their home. The cabinet doors would open with no one there, the furniture started to rearrange itself, and chairs would slide across the room. The family thought it was all harmless at first. That was, until their daughter Carol Anne was kidnapped by the ghosts that were in their house. The only way they could communicate with her was through the white noise on the TV.
Poltergeist might be such a scary movie because of all the myths and urban legends that now surround the film. The film was said to be cursed and when a star of the movie, Dominique Dunne, was brutally murdered just months after the film was released. Many believed that her death was part of the curse. There have been several other deaths attached to the Poltergeist franchise, as the movie had two direct sequels and even a remake. But perhaps the saddest death of them all was that of Heather O’Rourke. Heather had played little Carol Anne and died shortly after the movie was released. She was only 12 years old and passed away due to cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal issue.
An apparent new trend in horror films is Patrick Wilson standing in the frame, looking contemplative, and having something truly scary just right behind him. Need further examples? Just watch: The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and Insidious. This is a movie that combines nightmares, the paranormal, and demons. So… three of the perfect ingredients for a scary movie.
Of the entire franchise, the first Insidious actually isn’t its best. The fourth one, Insidious: The Last Key, is a prequel to the original film and tells the story of how Elise, a major character in the first, became a demonologist. The entire series was created after James Wan felt too many people criticized the gore from the Saw franchise. He wanted to prove he could make a scary movie without all the blood and guts. He did just that!
2. Get Out
There is a reason Jordan Peele just won an Oscar for this movie! The movie is set up as a horror movie, and it succeeds in that regard, but it’s pretty clear that this is a social commentary about the status of racism in America — which pretty much defines “horrifying” as it is. Get Out artistically proves that racism is alive and well, even today, with nonchalant microaggressions by white folk when interacting with people of color.
The movie starts out seemingly innocent, with Chris and his girlfriend Rose going to meet her parents for the weekend. While the parents, at first, seem to be totally accepting that their daughter is in an interracial relationship, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s something weird happening with all of the black people he meets at her parents’ estate. There are twists and turns, some psychological horror, and some gore – making it pretty much the perfect combo for a scary movie night.
It’s very rare that a remake surpasses the quality of its original, but It‘s 2017 version did just that. No offense to Tim Curry’s brilliance, but when comparing the old to the new, the remake is scarier. The difference in special effects between the two is just glaringly obvious and leads to a more satisfying scary movie experience. Right from the beginning, you know that this movie is going to eff you up. That’s how horrifying the first scene is. There are so many moments when Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise made us leap out of our seats and scream, even if he is pretty hot in real life.