The 10 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time
With movie theaters beginning to reopen and films like The Unholy and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It set to premiere this summer, we’re taking a look at not the best, not the worst, but some of the scariest horror movies of all time (some spoilers may follow).
But what makes a movie scary? On this list, you’ll find films that have horrified audiences across decades. With standards of horror ever-changing in our increasingly tolerant society, it’s easy for one person to be scared by one thing and not another.
This list is going to dive deep into some of our most recent horror scares, as well as some of the classics. So don’t turn off the lights, here is our list of the 10 scariest horror movies out there…
1. The Exorcist (1973)
The original demon possession movie, The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, still frightens audiences today with iconic sequences of supernatural terror that most horror movies have failed to recapture since the film’s release. The Exorcist, based on the book by William Peter Blatty (who also wrote the screenplay), follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and the exorcism conducted by two Catholic priests, one of which is having serious doubts about his faith.
The Exorcist is most well-known for its various moments of terror including head twisting, levitating, spider-crawling, and various demonic voices as the demon Pazuzu terrorizes and possesses the young Reagan MacNeil (portrayed by the talented Linda Blair). The use of practical effects (such as the “stair dive” at the end), advanced puppetry, and the historic Georgetown help set the scene, making The Exorcist feel both aetherial and spiritual.
Less well known, however, is that the production was nearly a horror film itself, with the set burning down due to unknown circumstances and the seemingly random deaths of nine members of the cast and crew. To this day, The Exorcist remains one of the scariest horror films of all time and has led to various sequels, television series, books, and more. The film has become a phenomenon, securing its rightful place on our list.
2. Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s Hereditary quickly became one of the most notorious horror films of the past decade when it made over $80 million at the box office (on a $10 million budget). The film was highly praised for its cast, with stand-out performances by Toni Colette and Alex Wolff, as well as its creepy score, claustrophobic themes, and fascinating takes on cults, grief, and mental illness.
There are a few scenes that make Hereditary one of the scariest out there, but the “stand out” moment that you’ll be hard-pressed to get out of your head is the car scene near the beginning. It’s not exactly horror per se, but it’s certainly horrific. The score (masterfully composed by Colin Stetson) lends itself well to the film, keeping you strictly on the edge of your seat, especially during the ending sequence of the film which will both horrify and amaze.
If you enjoy disturbing themes and a good scare, Hereditary is the film for you. Its various jump scares will keep you constantly terrified, especially when you see characters crawling on the ceiling. Hereditary is not like any other horror film out there, but it’s definitely one of the scariest.
3. The Conjuring (2013)
Written by brothers Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, and directed by horror superstar James Wan (known for his work on the Saw and Insidious franchises), The Conjuring is definitely one of the scariest horror features out there. Based on a real-life poltergeist that haunted the Perron family in Rhode Island, the film follows paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played to perfection by Patrick Wilson and Vera Framagan.
The original Conjuring film plays upon all our fears, producing the horrifying scene in which Carylon Perron (Lili Taylor) travels down to the basement, only to be attacked by a malevolent spirit. Other highlights include a possessed Carylon atop the wardrobe and the final exorcism sequence which is just as terrifying as the one from The Exorcist. But what really sets The Conjuring apart from the rest is the look into Ed and Lorraine Warren’s personal lives. Lorraine is plagued by nightmares and visions as well as a feeling of helplessness due to a failure in their most recent case.
The Conjuring was revolutionary in that it birthed not only a sequel but an entire franchise-worth of stories. We now have the Anabelle trilogy, The Nun, The Curse of La Llorona, various short films, and several projects in development including a third film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, set to be released on HBO Max and in theaters this summer.
4. The Babadook (2014)
What Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror The Babadook proves is that it isn’t always the monster itself that’s scary, but often what the monster represents. Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother who is working to get over her grief, seven years after her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) died in a car accident on the way to the hospital for them to give birth to their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Her depression and grief have now manifested into the creature known as “the Babadook.”
Similar to the themes explored in Hereditary (minus the naked cult members), The Babadook’s true antagonist is mental illness. The film deals with the prisons we lock ourselves into by isolating ourselves and how we take out our anger and pain on others, especially those we should love and care for the most. This is Amelia’s plight, and what makes her rocky relationship with her unruly son so terrifying. Well, that and the scary images of the Babadook itself…
Although The Babadook is slightly unconventional as far as horror films go, it nevertheless paints a frightening picture of what the scariest monsters in our life really are and is definitely one to check out.
5. The Witch (2015)
Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) knocks it out of the park with his directorial debut, The Witch: A New-England Folktale, which certainly lives up to its name. This dark and twisted tale of a 17th-century family banished from their Puritan hometown reveals the horrors settlers felt when first coming to America, and the fears they faced upon isolation.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a young girl and the eldest child of the family, The Witch does a great job curating suspense while cultivating a high-stakes family drama. From the peek-a-boo scene near the beginning to the climax between Thomasin and her parents near the end, this film checks all the frightening boxes of what it was like to live in the 1600s and be haunted by Satan himself. The interesting interpretation of the family’s Puritan faith provides an understandable backdrop as to why they may be afraid of witches at all.
Ultimately, The Witch is a film about temptation, which becomes clearer as the film goes on, and although The Witch leaves its audience with more questions than answers by the time the end credits roll, it also gives you all the tools necessary to find them.
See more about - The 10 Best Monster Movies of All Time
6. Halloween (1978)
What horror list would be complete without John Carpenter’s original horror masterpiece: Halloween. Forever a horror staple, and career boost for star Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween spawned a series of (mostly bad) sequels and remakes that all tried to mimic the spooky genius of the original.
Nick Castle’s presence as “The Shape,” aka the deranged serial killer Michael Myers, is both astounding and horrifying. Myers, who terrorizes the small midwestern town of Haddonfield, Illinois, is one of the scariest movie villains out there. Myers, like the Terminator, doesn’t stop; he just keeps coming until he kills his prey. Well, except for Laurie Strode that is…
Carpenter’s score also shines bright with the classic Halloween Theme raising the tension with every Myers kill. The score is actually even scarier than the bloody visuals and one of the iconic film scores ever created.
Halloween has recently made a resurgence in pop culture with a new Halloween, released in 2018 as a sequel to the original set forty years later (and retconning the events of the previous nine sequels). With two more on the way (Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends) set to be released in 2021 and 2022, Michael Myers appears to be alive and well.
7. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Taking its title from the 1938 song of the same name (and Daphne’s catchphrase from the classic Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?), Jeepers Creepers is definitely the most controversial film on this list. Written and directed by Victor Salva, the film follows siblings Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Phillips) as they travel back from college during spring break, only to stumble upon the mysterious Creeper (Jonathan Breck).
The Creeper himself is a horrid creature whose lair is even more frightening than anything we physically see him do. Justin Long (known more for his comedic roles) is outstanding in the lead role as he and Phillips convey real fear as they run, hide, and investigate the Creeper. One of the scarier parts of Jeepers Creepers is a car scene near the beginning of the movie in which the Creeper pursues our heroes via his old, rusty truck. The idea that the Creeper can not only fly but drive as well is a horrifying addition to its already unnerving nature.
Although it was a commercial success (and spawned two sequels with a reboot on the way), Jeepers Creepers was met with mixed reviews from critics, though cult audiences have praised the film for being an interesting and unique take on the horror genre.
8. The Ring (2002)
A remake of the Japanese film Ring, Gore Verbanski (who just sounds like he should be directing horror films) made horror movie history with The Ring. Starring Naomi Watts, The Ring follows a journalist, Rachel Keller, as she investigates a cursed videotape that seemingly kills the viewer seven days after watching it. The film paved the way for English remakes of Asian horror films, including The Grudge, Dark Water, and The Eye, among others.
But what makes The Ring so scary? Well, for starters, the whole film is about a cursed videotape that the characters watch, resulting in the vengeful spirit Samara walking through your TV screen and killing you after you watch it. A videotape which, by the way, you actually watch in full along with the characters…
Since horror films started to populate movie theaters, horror fans (and those of us who generally don’t watch scary movies), have had nightmares about the ghosts and monsters who terrorized us on screen. The Ring brings those fears to life, and if that isn’t spooky, then I don’t know what is.
Two sequels (The Ring Two and Rings) have been released since and Samara’s legendary tape continues to plague all who watch, even adapting with the times and expanding to the internet. The Ring continues to haunt all those who watch it, just hopefully once you turn your TV off it doesn’t turn itself back on.
9. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele has proven himself a horror master in more recent years with hits like Get Out and Us, but between the two of them, Us is certainly the scariest. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see yourself in real life? As in, someone who looks exactly like you? Us answers that question for all of us with wide eyes and a haunting smile that will keep you up at night.
The film follows the Wilson family: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex) as they attempt to outrun, outlast, and out-think their murderous doppelgangers: Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto. These actors, especially Nyong’o, truly commit to their roles as both the terrified members of the Wilson clan and as their evil, deformed counterparts, making us believe that each member of “the Tethered” is entirely different from our protagonists. The slasher-horror is not to be taken lightly and its fantastical imagery (and its twists) will haunt you long after the credits roll.
Unlike Peele’s first hit Get Out, Us isn’t the type of existential horror movie to be overthought – instead, demanding that its audience takes it at face value, through all the ballet twists and turns that make this movie truly horrifying. The ending “villainous plan” monologue from Red is one that will chill you to the bone, and maybe even get you to turn off your TV.
10. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In an age where mass hysteria and fear of ritualistic satanic cults coexist, The Blair Witch Project thrives. Written, directed, and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project revolutionized the horror genre in a way that hadn’t been explored before and had yet to be fully realized. The found-footage horror film has been made popular with Paranormal Activity and its sequels, but The Blair Witch Project started it all.
When the film came out, it was promoted as having been “real found-footage,” with most audience members believing the experiences of film students Heather Donahue, Mike Williams, and Josh Leonard were “real.” Even when viewed through the lens of fiction, The Blair Witch Project still terrifies audiences with its spooky use of sound, inconsistent visuals, and an unseen antagonist which manages to haunt not only our heroes but those who watch as well.
As one of the most successful independent films of all time, and a sleeper hit at the box office, The Blair Witch Project produced a Scooby-Doo parody (The Scooby Project) and two sequels (Book of Shadows and Blair Witch), both of which show more of the supernatural and tend to be less scary, proving that sometimes less is more.
See more about - The 10 Best Zombie Movies of All Time