A clown who feeds on fear. A star murdered in the first scene. Rural cannibals. Haunted houses, real and figurative. Space, when it’s literally the final frontier. An urban legend through the looking glass. Satan himself. These are just a few driving forces within the films we have chosen as our top horror movies...that are actually scary. What does it mean for a movie to be actually scary, instead of just attempting to go there? The simplest explanation is that the extreme, in some form, creates the indelible. This can come in many forms. It doesn’t necessarily depend on gore (though that can work) or routine jump scares (though they can do the trick). At best, it’s something more primal—a meditation on human despair, the suggestion of previously unimagined depravity—packaged to go down easy and remain in our systems long after the credits roll. As list contributor Jess McIntosh writes: “The absolute best of the genre recognizes that none of us are ever really safe; there are real life horrors that we don’t escape.”
The comfort here, cold as it may be, is the sense that we can escape the movies by simply turning them off or never watching again. After an assault to our senses, what we are left with under our skin is collateral damage. In a way, an effective horror movie does its artistry a disservice by rendering itself watchable only once. Here is a list that dares you to keep watching, and for the bravest, to take a second look.