The Scariest Horror Movies of All Time
What makes a gal like me qualified to rank the scariest horror movies of all time? Let’s go back to the beginning. I was a sick child. I had a rare illness that doctors didn’t know how to treat: the heebie-jeebies.
The smallest thing could set me off: A little gray cloud in the sky meant that a tornado was coming. A little stomach gurgle meant that I would soon die of food poisoning. A little creak of the floorboard at night meant that something was in my house, and I had about three seconds to make my piece with God before whatever it was decided to unzip my skin and wear me like a little coat. Naturally, horror movies were off limits.
I was at a sleepover with seven of my friends, and they wanted to watch The Shining. I was 15. I was old enough, right? If a monster were coming to come get us I only had a 14.285714% chance of being the one that it got first. Besides, I’d seen pictures of the “monster.” Two little girls. I could take them, easy.
They showed up on screen and I nearly went into shock. I would be this way forever. There was no cure.
Until there was. I was saved by an experimental procedure developed not by a doctor, but by a film school kid. My dear friend Freddy was a movie buff, and one October he decided that we would watch a horror movie every night of the month. Something in me said “yes.” Perhaps this was the exposure therapy I needed. Or at least I would be put out of my misery and die on the sofa beside him.
But I lived. And now I love horror movies. I think they’re the shit. And to celebrate Freddy and his groundbreaking achievements in psychology and modern medicine, I’m writing a list of the scariest horror movies I saw during that time.
I was lucky enough to survive, but I can’t say the same for you.
While the following horror flicks are scarier overall, I believe that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse) features the single scariest scene ever put to film. Set in Japan, Kairo tells the story of a citywide haunting in Tokyo. Ghosts are appearing on people’s computer screens! On the streets! In their apartments! The scariest scene of all happens when a young man is walking home one night and discovers a taped-off building. In defiance of all horror movie logic, he slips underneath the tape and decides to check out the abandoned building.
And then a ghost appears.
All this ghost does is walk towards him. That’s it. Just walk. No blood. No jump scares. Nothing. Just a spooky walk. But when I say even typing these words sends a chill down my spine in remembrance of that scene, I AM NOT KIDDING. It’s one of the most effective dread-building scenes of all time. The worst part? The ghost so traumatizes this character that he actually gets depressed for the rest of the film. Scared all the serotonin right out of his brain.
Psh. A late ’70s film? Really? How scary could Ridley Scott’s Alien actually b- OH MY GOD IS THAT A WALKING PENIS? While Alien appears to be a sci-fi horror flick about a group of astronauts trapped onboard a spaceship with a deadly extraterrestrial, it’s actually a deeply psychosexual exploration of one of humanity’s greatest fears: rape. Phallic and yonic alien life forms leap out of the darkness to force themselves upon helpless human beings, making for a deeply uncomfortable watch.
More horror from beyond the stars! John Carpenter’s The Thing centers on a team of scientists—including Kurt Russell—in the Antarctic wastes who find themselves hunted by an alien shapeshifter that can perfectly mimic other lifeforms. What results is a body horror bananza. People’s heads grow legs! Stomachs grow mouths! The alien uses its disgusting powers to pick off the team one by one, until the scientists don’t know who among them is real and who is in extraterrestrial imposter.
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs is hard to watch. Essentially, the film is an exploration of torture and human suffering. And it proceeds to explore these themes using … torture and human suffering. A lot of it. The film is about a young orphan girl named Anna who falls victim to a cult that tortures people in order to figure out the secrets of the afterlife. The cult believes that if a victim is tortured enough, their suffering will grant them transcendental insight into the world beyond. Instead of jumpscares, Martyrs uses long and drawn-out torture sequences that put films like Saw to shame. It’s not “scream out loud” scary, it’s “I think I’m gonna throw up” scary.
The premise of Takashi Miike’s Audition is scary enough: after the death of his wife, a lonely widower named Aoyama invites women from across Japan to audition for a role in a fake production in order to find a new wife. The beautiful Asami Yamazaki manages to catch the widower’s eye. Asami gets the part, and the pair begin a relationship. However, as Aoyama digs deeper into the young woman’s past, he realizes that things don’t always end well for the people in Asami’s life. In fact, they usually end up in pieces. Literally.
Among the scariest movies of all time, The Exorcist is an O.G. It’s about a little girl named Regan who lives with her movie star mother Chris in Washington, D.C. Chris hears strange noises in the house one day, and Regan tells her mother that her imaginary friend “Captain Howdy” is responsible for the ruckus. Bad sign.
Eventually, Regan starts exhibiting strange physical behaviors. She urinates on the carpet in the middle of a party, and begins to convulse when her mother tries to put her to bed. Regan undergoes a series of medical tests, during which a “shit your pants” scary demon face inexplicably flashes on-screen. It’s the greatest jump scare of all time; it appears out of nowhere and is totally silent.
Eventually, Regan is possessed by a demon (possibly Satan himself) and begins doing some iconically scary things like crawling down the stairs upside down, spinning her head completely around, and stabbing herself in the genitals with a crucifix. The movie is not jumpscare-scary, but it is disturbing. The Exorcist grapples with the real-life horror of a parent caring for a sick child.
I’m aware that this is a hot take, but I have to include it. See, most of the other horror movies that you think deserve a spot on this list (The Blair Witch Project, The Shining, or Suspiria, for instance) are films in which the characters can actually avoid their grisly fates by making intelligent decisions. The Blair Witch Project: don’t go into the fucking witch woods in the first place. The Shining: don’t take a job at an isolated hotel where people get murdered. Suspiria: girl, stop investigating and just leave.
But the German home invasion horror flick Funny Games is one in which there is nothing that the characters could have done. Michael Haneke’s film concerns a husband and wife whose only decision is to go on vacation with their young son and their family dog. They are subsequently harassed by two dorky twenty-something kids who knock on the family’s door and just sort of goof around for a little while and break a few eggs they wanted to borrow. Then they show up again and murder the family’s dog with a golf club before taking the family hostage.
“So fight back!” I’m sure you’re thinking. Well, here’s the thing, they do. But their attackers know something the family doesn’t. They know that they are characters in a movie. I won’t spoil anything, but this movie is truly horrifying to watch because it makes you feel so bad. Funny Games makes you feel like you are tied to a chair and being spoon-fed shit and there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. It is the most forlorn, depraved, and hopeless film on this list. It is a great film, but you will not enjoy it.
That said, Haneke directed a shot-for-shot English-language remake released in 2007, which is every bit as unpleasant—just without subtitles.
Hereditary is emotionally brutal. It is perhaps the most grounded film on this list and has some of the finest acting that I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Ari Aster’s feature debut concerns a family slowly being driven mad by a hereditary curse. And that’s not even the worst part. The absolute worst part of the film is what happens when the family’s teenage son Peter takes his little sister Charlie out to a party while their parents are away.
Consumed by grief and resentment, Peter and Charlie’s mother Annie (Toni Collette) becomes possessed. And that’s still not the end of it. The film is a horror parable about what happens when families stop being able to communicate with one other, and toxicity creeps into their relationships. It’s a hideous film, and no doubt one of the scariest. It is also the only movie that I have ever walked out of since The Shining. I came back and finished it, but sometimes I wish I hadn’t.
Some people might not think that this movie deserves such a high slot on this list, but if they had seen It in theaters with all their friends when it first came out, they’d think differently. So first off, “It” is the scariest horror movie entity in existence, bar none. It ticks all the boxes. Sadistic killer? Check. Supernatural powers? Check. Eats what it kills? Check. Can take the form of your worst fears? Check. Comes out in the daylight? Check and mate.
It is the brainchild of master of horror Stephen King, and it shows. The entity is so witheringly scary in the film because it’s different every time: A headless kid. A horrifying leper. A creepy painting. A room full of burning people. It just never gets old. And the worst part of it all is that It is kinda funny. When It waves at the boys with the half-eaten arm of a previous victim? That’s funny.
I would argue that this movie is so scary because there are so many good laughs in the film. When you show an audience only scary scenes, eventually they will become numb to the scares. When you show an audience funny scenes, the scary things seem scarier because you have something to offer contrast. It’s like a Rembrandt painting. The light in his famous paintings looks so bright because there’s so much shadow. And vice versa. It is kinda like a work by the Dutch master himself, except if he used blood instead of oil paint.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the scariest movie of all time, and I also believe that it is the best horror movie of all time. I think that the finest horror movies fill their audiences with a sense of inevitable doom and make them aware that there is no way out for the characters, no matter what they do. The movie then unfolds like a tragedy in the classical, Shakespearean sense: You know that everyone is going to die, and you are helpless to stop it from happening.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does exactly this. The film opens on a group of twenty-somethings driving through Texas in search of a gravesite. One of them reads a horoscope saying that Saturn is in an “evil place” in the sky, and you realize that the stars have aligned against these kids. Things only get worse from there. The movie has some of the most iconic horror scenes in history, including perhaps the most shocking death in all of horror movie cinema. I won’t spoil anything, but for those who know, it’s the one with the chainsaw.
The film’s ending also brilliantly subverts the tragic horror movie ending that audiences have grown accustomed to, and it was one of the original pioneers of the “final girl” trope. For a film made in 1974, it still holds up. With brilliant acting, a terrifying plot, and phenomenal cinematography, this film is able to go toe to toe with the best that modern horror movies have to offer and emerge bloody and victorious.
(featured image: A24 / Universal Pictures / Toho / 20th Century Studios / Vitagraph Films)
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