When I was a kid, my friends and I crouched behind the couch and snuck a glimpse of a Freddy Krueger movie I definitely wasn’t allowed to watch. But my parents didn’t need to ground me because, well, I tortured myself plenty on my own. I gathered up every linen in the house and piled them all on my bed. If Freddy was hiding under my bed, his knives had no chance of slicing through my layers and layers of towels, sheets and blankets. Logical, right?
Despite those sleepless nights on a heap of blankets, I was hooked on horror movies. But why? Scientists have a few theories to explain why we love to be scared. Among them? We’re not actually scared during movies, but rather, excited. Or perhaps it’s because we experience a euphoric sense of relief at the end. The latest research reasons that we might love horror movies because human emotions are complex, and we’re capable of enjoying positive and negative emotions simultaneously. That might explain the sub-genre of horror movies that expertly blend scares with humor (see: “Cabin in the Woods”).
Of course, fears and phobias are diverse. Frightened by evil clowns? That’s a classic case of coulrophobia. Won’t go in the ocean years after seeing “Jaws?” That shark phobia is called galeophobia.
To steal a line from “Scream”: “Do you like scary movies?” If so, here are some of the most terrifying horror movies of all time.
“Mothman Prophecies” (2002)
In this supernatural horror film, Richard Gere plays a journalist whose wife saw a bizarre, moth-like vision before dying in a car accident. He ends up in rural West Virginia, where there have been “mothman” sightings that are seemingly omens of disaster. OK, OK … sounds a little creepy.
Now, brace for the goosebumps: The movie is inspired by real events, according to Entertainment Weekly. In the summer of 1966, residents in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, claimed numerous sightings of a man-sized, moth-like creature with red, glowing eyes. In December 1967, dozens of people were killed in a bridge collapse, and some in town believed it was linked to the collective terror they were experiencing in the months leading up to the tragic accident.
“Get Out” (2017)
The basic premise: A black man visits his white girlfriend’s family and finds out people of color are disappearing in the idyllic town. And, in a way, director Jordan Peele created a new genre type with “Get Out,” which uses a horror plot to explore racism. Peele said his movie couldn’t be put in a “genre box,” but he best describes it as a social thriller. “Get Out” scored a rare 100 on Rotten Tomatoes shortly after its release.
Killer clowns and red balloons are ingredients for nightmares, thanks to Stephen King’s novel “It,” which was adapted for the big screen. The 1990 mini-series got a makeover in 2017, starring a cast of misfit teenagers who are tormented by Pennywise, the evil clown.
Even the king of horror was impressed with the 2017 rendition.”It” got approval from King, who, in an interview, said, “I had hopes, but I was not prepared for how good it really was.” He went on to praise the character development.
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan kept movie-goers on edge with his antagonist who kidnaps three teenage girls, holds them hostage and cycles through 23 personalities. Big kudos to actor James McAvoy for essentially playing two dozen roles.
The movie even got praise from Shyamalan’s toughest critics. Take this one that ran in “Variety”: “There are plenty of proper twists to follow, none more unexpected than the fact that Shyamalan himself has managed to get his groove back after a slew of increasingly atrocious misfires.”
“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
Perhaps one of the most notable slasher flicks of all time, Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” introduced us to Freddy Krueger, and the movie had a special knack for making us never want to sleep again. That’s because teenagers in a Midwestern town were stalked and killed in their dreams by Krueger, who used hands gloved with razors to kills his victims.
“The Exorcist” (1973)
In this classic horror film, a teenage girl begins speaking in tongues and levitating, which stumps medical professionals. Her worried mother enlists the help of a priest and a religious expert to perform an exorcism. It’s among the few horror films that have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture.
If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the cast seemed unnerved, you’ve got keen senses. Director William Friedkin would occasionally shoot off blanks on set to keep everyone on edge. The movie spawned two prequels and two sequels.
“The Shining” (1980)
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who takes a gig as a winter caretaker of the historic “Overlook Hotel” in a Colorado mountain town. The previous caretaker went crazy, slaughtering his family. His young son’s psychic abilities give a window into the hotel’s chilling history. The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick and adapted from a Stephen King novel.
Fun fact: You can tour the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, and see the room that Stephen King was staying in when he woke up from a nightmare that was a muse for his novel.
If you were a teenager babysitting in the late-1970s, you probably remember being terrified by this movie. “Halloween” spins the story of serial killer Michael Myers. After being locked away in a sanitarium for killing his sister, he returns to his hometown and stalks his prey (babysitters) on Halloween night. Made on a shoestring $300,000 budget, the slasher flick raked in $47 million in the U.S. box office.
Financially speaking, “Psycho” was Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful film, grossing $32 million in its first year. The psychological horror film introduced us to Norman Bates, spurred sequels and inspired the eerie “Bates Motel” television series. Plus, Hitchcock convinced us he was the master of suspense.
“The Blair Witch Project” (1996)
A trio of filmmakers hike through the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, to film a documentary about the legendary “Blair Witch.” They disappear, but their video and sound equipment is recovered. The “found” footage, which is sometimes shaky, lends way to this spooky, supernatural film. Remember, we didn’t have easily accessible Wi-Fi back then, so fact-checking the legitimacy of their account wasn’t easy — and the film’s marketing took advantage of that.
“The Ring” (2002)
This suspense-filled movie exploits our fears of urban legends: Watch a cursed and gruesome videotape, get a phone call from a mysterious caller and then die seven days later. Add in a journalist trying to unravel the mystery, and this movie is a dreadful masterpiece. Who needs gore when you can have nightmares of Samara crawling out of a television screen?
“The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)
Part horror, part comedy, this movie involves five teenagers who head to a remote cabin in, you guessed it, the woods. There, they’re confronted by backwoods zombies and more.
IndieWire asked film critics to pick their favorite horror movie of the 21st century, and their very own critic picked this one, saying the movie “happily marries a classic haunted house tale with some snappy commentary on the nature of not just horror, but the horror movie itself and then wraps the whole thing up with a truly terrifying world-ending event. It’s scary and funny and it’s got one of the most hilarious and horrifying scenes.”
“Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Famous film critic Roger Ebert was pretty tough on the classic horror genre, lumping many into the “Dead Teenager Movie” category. That type of movie, Ebert explained,”starts out with a lot of teenagers, and kills them all, except one to populate the sequel.” But, he said, the horror genre has created some masterpieces, and he singled out “Silence of the Lambs” for praise.
In it, Jodie Foster stars as a FBI training academy student who seeks the advice of Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic killer, to help her hunt down another killer.
Before there was Shark Week or “Sharknado,” there was Stephen Spielberg’s fictional great white shark terrorizing Amity Island.
When Jaws turned 40, Esquire helped explain how the movie became one of the most influential horror films in history. For starters, it’s the story, not necessarily the special effects, that grips us. When you think about it, we really didn’t see much of the animatronic shark, which actually helped build suspense. Plus, we associate sharks with monsters of the sea when really, there are few unprovoked shark attacks.
“The Conjuring” (2013)
“The Conjuring” tells the story of a family that moves into a New England farmhouse … sounds charming, but you know where this is going. They’re haunted and even possessed by the spirits inhabiting the home. This isn’t just another haunted house tale, though, as family members who lived there and the paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, who was called in to check it out, vouch for its validity.
Warren told USA Today: “The things that went on there were just so incredibly frightening. It still affects me to talk about it today.” Creepy!
“The Babadook” (2014)
GQ declared “The Babadook” the scariest movie on Netflix. We’ll co-sign with that. Netflix sums up the independent thriller by saying this: “Sam’s frequent tantrums turn sinister when a creepy children’s book mysteriously appears in his room, and he asks his mother, “Do you want to die?”
Gore lovers, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to make it through this film without covering your eyes. The French film about a scissor-wielding psychopath who tries to steal a pregnant widow’s baby on Christmas Eve landed on Complex’s list of the scariest movies ever, with the magazine raving that the “this French shocker has it all: unbelievable gore for the bloodhounds, spot-on performances and stylistic direction for cinematic purists, and a quick, 80-minute length for those with the attention span of a sock.”
“Shutter Island” (2010)
We’re giving some leeway to the definition of the horror genre to accommodate Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller because its premise will haunt your mind for days. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a U.S. Marshal, heads to Shutter Island, a converted fort for the criminally insane, to investigate the implausible escape of a murderess.
The movie got a solid review from Roger Ebert, who wrote: “In its own way it’s a haunted house movie, or make that a haunted castle or fortress.”
Adapted from a Stephen King novel, Carrie is different than other horror films with teenage casts because it’s laced with a coming-of-age theme. But also worth noting: “Carrie,” which is a tale of a bullied teen seeking revenge with the aid of her telekinetic powers, strays from the misogyny common in horror films, and it had a largely female cast, The Guardian points out.
A classically creepy scene in this cult classic? When 5-year-old Carol Ann is watching spirits come out of the television screen and then announces to her family, “They’re here.” The ghosts haunting a California family start off friendly enough but quickly turn menacing.
“Poltergeist” secures its spot as a cult classic because it’s not just the ghosts that are scary; the movie provides some pretty strong hints that we should fear technology, too.
Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman … we’ll stop there. Urban legend has it if you say the Candyman’s name five times in a mirror, he’ll appear and kill you with his hook. Yes, urban legends have a way of evoking fear. But this movie also conjures up another primal fear: being a victim and calling for help, but not being taken seriously.
In 2004, Bravo counted down the scariest movie moments. Landing on the list was the scene where the Candyman opens up his coat and reveals he’s covered in bees.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
“I see dead people” became a popular catchphrase after this spine-tingling drama-horror featuring a kid who could see spirits hit movie theaters. This movie by M. Night Shyamalan was significant because it was nominated for a half dozen Academy Awards, a rare feat for horror movies, and was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1999.
Technically, “Alien” might best fit in a sci-fi genre. But the Ridley Scott masterpiece packs its fair share of terrifying scenes as an extraterrestrial antagonist stalks his prey, the crew of a spaceship. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
What’s scarier than a murderer? A chainsaw-wielding murderer who wears a mask of human skin. The suspenseful “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” introduced us to one of the creepiest antagonists of all time: Leatherface. Tobe Hooper’s film successfully developed a cult following, and the documentary-style camera work added grit.
A year after her mother dies, Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends are tormented by a creepy caller who asks, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Horror movie formulas are dissected throughout “Scream” (and its sequels), which engages those who love the genre. Plus, the movie gave Halloween party-goers an easy costume to wear for years to come: White masks and black robes.
“The Skeleton Key” (2005)
Kate Hudson plays a hospice nurse who quits her job to work for a family in a plantation home in Louisiana. She becomes entangled in a supernatural mystery and finds clues about voodoo rituals that happened in the home. While the movie wasn’t all that well-received by critics, it did garner Saturn Award nominations from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
“Salem’s Lot” (1979)
Another spooky Stephen King novel made into a movie, “Salem’s Lot” involves a novelist who returns to his rural hometown to find a vampire is terrorizing its residents. This film taps into the fears originally stirred up by “Dracula.”
“Pet Sematary” (1989)
Horror fans rejoice: “Pet Sematary” is getting a remake in 2019, proving that this plotline has staying power. The Stephen King novel was originally adapted into a film in 1989. A family buries their beloved cat in a pet cemetery, and it comes back as a demonic version of itself. Then, humans are buried in the cemetery with the idea that they too can come back. Things don’t go well.
“House on Haunted Hill” (1959)
In this eerie 1959 film, a millionaire offers $10,000 to five people who agree to be locked in a large and spooky house overnight. (Factor in inflation, and that’s a lot of money.) What we love about this premise is that it dares the viewer to question: “What would I do?” Decades later it got a remake; but if you favor style over gore, the original is your best bet for a scare.
Love it or hate it, “Saw” has become one of the highest-grossing horror film franchises of all time. There are eight gory films, starting with the original “Saw” that was released in 2004. While there’s a lot of gore, Jigsaw Killer tortures his victims with “tests” and “games,” wreaking havoc on their psyches.
Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the incorrect location of the “Mothman Prophecies.” The film was set in West Virginia, not Virginia. We regret the error.