The Best Horror Movies That Are Actually Scary, Ranked

The Best Horror Movies That Are Actually Scary, Ranked

From the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Hereditary, our list spans 50 years and incalculable screams.

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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.

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2 / 19

17. Sinister (2012)

17. Sinister (2012)

Sinister Trailer - Official (2012)

Who doesn’t love a haunted house story? And the set up packs a punch: True crime writer Ethan Hawke (his name is technically “Ellison Oswalt,” but he’s always Ethan Hawke, and the movie is better for it) is in a creative slump — until he finds a snuff film of an entire family’s hanging and decides to solve the murders by moving his own unwitting young family into the house where it happened. What could go wrong??

Sinister stands out by leaning in hard to the genre—it’s got a creepy Super 8 projector (legend has it the movie was born when the writer had a nightmare after watching The Ring); it’s got a child-eating monster, played brilliantly by stuntman Nick King; it’s got a writer-going-crazy dad we want to root for, because he is Ethan Hawke; it’s got ghost kids skittering over every creaky floorboard; it’s got a whole lot of bloody walls; and of course, there’s a little girl with an ax. Literally something for the whole family. —Jess McIntosh

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3 / 19

16. It (2017)

16. It (2017)

IT - Official Trailer 1

There was a moment in my childhood in which it seemed like each time I channel-surfed and landed on USA, Tim Curry’s—and it is, without question, Tim Curry’s—It was playing. And because I, not unlike anyone else, have always been afflicted by morbid curiosity, I’d linger on the two-part miniseries until one particular scene: Eddie, the most neurotic member of The Losers Club, is confronted by Pennywise, the killer clown, as he takes a shower in the locker room at school. Just as the ancient, trans-dimensional evil entity emerges from the drain (!), my frantic pointer finger would punch at random numbers on the remote. A naked, vulnerable pre-teen forced to bathe in public and taunted by the rasps of a demonic Ronald McDonald? Needless to say, I stood—both feet over the drain—until I was 18.

When, in 2017, the story was adapted, I wasn’t certain it would have the same effect on my adult self. Thanks to a pretty damn respectable performance from Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise and a deeper exploration of the gruesome psychological wounds being incurred by The Losers Club—from sexual abuse to bullying—I once again find myself desperate but unable to change the channel upon each viewing.

As Jamie Lee Curtis said (repeatedly) of the Halloween franchise: “It’s a movie about trauma!” Well, I’ll be damned if there’s anything more traumatic than being a kid plagued by shitty parents, asshole bullies, and a clown in the confines of a small town. –Audra Heinrichs

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4 / 19


15. Suspiria (1977)


15. Suspiria (1977)

Official Trailer: Suspiria (1977)

Everything about Dario Argento’s Suspiria is designed to rattle you. There’s the grandiose gore, the endlessly gurgling and taunting score by Italian prog rockers Goblin, the stunning lighting and rich colors that look like sweet poison tastes. It’s unnerving and discombobulating, enforcing empathy for Suzy (Jessica Harper), a young dancer who enrolls at the Tanz Akademie in Germany to study. It’s weird from the moment she arrives, during a downpour, when she watches another student flee and is turned away at the intercom. What follows is a gaslit trip through kaleidoscopic hell so singular in its vision that Luca Gaudagnino knew better than to even try to replicate it in his 2018 remake, with its earth tones and warbling courtesy of Thom Yorke. –Rich Juzwiak






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5 / 19

14. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

14. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Official Trailer: The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

Maybe it’s the mutated family living in the desert and wreaking havoc on unsuspecting victims they trap to torture and cannibalize. Maybe its the brutal rape scene involving two sisters, a loaded revolver to a baby’s head, and a seriously disturbing breastfeeding exploit. It could also be the father set ablaze in front of his family that makes The Hills Have Eyes haunt my nightmares to this day. The 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s third film is debatably less raw than the original, but Alexandre Aja’s version still lands a gut-punch of a movie. The characters are more deeply developed and better acted than the original, making their fear and agony even more visceral. The Tomandandy score blankets another layer of eeriness over the whole picture.

Was I ever realistically going to take a road trip with my whole family from Cleveland to San Diego, or from anywhere to anywhere? Probably not. But after seeing this movie, HARD PASS. This is the kind of film you only need to see once for it to set up camp in the back of your mind, permanently. -Anna McGorman

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6 / 19

13. Get Out (2017)

13. Get Out (2017)

Get Out - In Theaters This February - Official Trailer

There’s much discussion to be had about Get Out’s place in the firmament of horror, be it a rehash, reimagining or reinvention of the genre and its tropes. But Jordan Peele’s film’s creeping sense of foreboding, of inherent wrongness predicated on the singular defining aspect of the main character’s identity, inarguably created a new cinematic shorthand in the public lexicon for what Black folk in America experience much too often.

The last 20 minutes of Get Out contain some of the most terrifying moments ever committed to film. Some can complain about the ending–that such sugar shouldn’t come after wine–and imagine the alternative veering closer to the truth of the real world, muddling the barrier between horror and reality. I don’t think those people realize that the film already made that point for them. -Chris Maltby

 

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7 / 19

12. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

12. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs - back in cinemas across the UK | BFI

The Silence of the Lambs is not a haunted house movie, but many of its greatest moments feel connected by dark hallways and rooms born of nightmares. The movie’s horrors have nothing to do with the supernatural, but with real people in places that could plausibly exist: a cell in a mental institution where a murderous cannibal waits to meet you through only a pane of glass; a deep pit in the home of a serial killer who skins his victims; a long-abandoned storage unit, where a human head remains preserved in a jar; Ohio. (Sorry to Ohio.)

What elevates The Silence of the Lambs from pulp fright show to genuinely scary classic is that we experience the movie through the eyes of Clarice Starling, a normal woman who could be any of us. Through her eyes, a movie centered on conversations with a psychopathic psychiatrist who eats his patients seems all too believable. And the film does not waste a single second of screen time–every moment is either thrilling or terrifying, which surely inspires its enduring, passionate fanbase. The lambs that torment Clarice in her nightmares may have stopped screaming by the film’s end, but I personally will never stop screaming about why it’s so great. -Rex Santus

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8 / 19

11. The Exorcist (1973)

11. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist - Original Theatrical Trailer

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is famous for twisting heads, projectile pea soup vomit, and insults about a priest’s mother performing oral sex in Hell. But those are not the reasons The Exorcist has haunted me for so long. There is something elemental about it: The evil in cannot be escaped. It cannot be killed. You cannot lock your doors to hide from it. It is eternal and knows all of your secrets, fears, and shame. Late in the movie, the devil inside Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) calls out to Father Karras (Jason Miller), haunted by his mother’s recent death, “You killed your mother. You left her there to die.” It’s enough to make any lapsed Catholic briefly consider: Dude, what if I am wrong and Hell is real?

I love The Exorcist for the reason I love any horror film: It attacks your base fears and anxieties, shocks you, excites you, and leaves you afraid to turn off the light before going to sleep in the way only a great scary movie can. -Rex Santus

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9 / 19

10. Scream (1996)

10. Scream (1996)

Scream | Official Trailer (HD) - Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Drew Barrymore | Miramax

Picture it: It’s 1996, and a movie with minimal marketing and an intriguing-but-generic name creeps into theaters the week before Christmas. All you know is that it was directed by Wes Craven, a master of the horror genre, albeit one whose recent work has paled in comparison to his earlier classics, like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes, and that it stars Drew Barrymore. And then, during the opening sequence, we see Barrymore tormented by a prank caller’s death threats, only to reveal that said threats were not empty. She dies. The apparent star of the movie: immediately dead!

For those who arrived early enough to be surprised, before Scream blew up into a (still-going!) franchise and phenomenon that spawned a string of snarky slasher copies, the opening scene was so shocking that it set the rest of the movie on shaky ground. Anything could happen if they saw fit to kill off the putative protagonist (and way earlier than Marion Crane in Psycho, the obvious inspiration for the radical move). Barrymore, then the biggest star in the movie whose involvement got the project off the ground, has been credited with the idea of taking the smaller role to resolve a scheduling conflict and shock audiences with her early departure. It worked. What a genius. –Rich Juzwiak

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10 / 19

9. Event Horizon (1997)

9. Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon - Trailer [HD]

“Where we’re going we won’t need eyes to see.”

This is the moment that sticks with you in Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, a movie about a crew investigating a spaceship that, unbeknownst to the rescue team, just got back from a seven year trip into hell via a black hole. At the peak of the film, the ship’s designer (Sam Neill) turns in his chair and delivers the classic albeit corny line to Captain Miller (Lawrence Fishburne), revealing that he indeed does not have eyes in his head anymore.

This is a movie that I shouldn’t have watched as a child. It’s a slow descent into paranoia and isolation and madness, bookended by stressful scenes of action, gore and demonic possession. The best and scariest moments happen in the calm of space, when it’s unclear if the spooky things happening to the crew are real or paranoid hallucinations.

Roger Ebert ripped it to shreds at the time, and it has a horrible score on Rotten Tomatoes, but it boasts cult status now for good reason: The movie holds up well, especially for those of us who feel like we’ve been dragged through hell alongside all our friends over the last decade. It’s nonsensical and flashy sci-fi/horror at its core, and for me that’s a good time. —Andy Campbell

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11 / 19

8. Audition (1999)

8. Audition (1999)

Audition International Trailer (Takashi Miike, 1999)

Takashi Miike’s Audition has your classic rom-com set up: Middle-aged sad sack Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) wants a girlfriend, so he teams up with his producer buddy to hold auditions for women who don’t realize the role they’re trying out for. The film is bright, funny, touching and sweet. Jaunty piano music underscores the genuinely hilarious audition scene, the whole thing lulling you into a false sense of When Harry Met Sally security…until the bag on the floor moves.

If this were a ranked list of audience fake-outs, Audition would take the number one slot. What starts as a rom-com works because we know what’s supposed to come next: Shigeharu will actually fall for one of the women and have to come clean about his ruse, and heartbreak and hijinx will ensue. Of course, just like the women in Shigeharu’s audition, the audience is not going to get the experience they thought they were showing up for–and neither does Shigeharu, who has made the mistake of falling for the best smile in horror.

The less said about the last 20 minutes of Audition, the better. It’s a true night-ruiner. It tests even the most seasoned viewer, not just by being especially gruesome, but by having so much fucking fun doing it. —Jess McIntosh

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12 / 19

7. Hellraiser (1987)

7. Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser (1987) Trailer

This one time at San Diego Comic-Con, my friend and I spent an evening drinking with Clive Barker, who had to be at a panel early in the morning to promote his new line of children’s novels and cuddly stuffed animals. That, of course, descended into a long, drawn-out instruction on proper fisting techniques, but that’s beside the point—Barker’s cheekily morbid, fascinatingly lurid, and altogether unholy desecration of norms remain thrilling.

And Hellraiser, which Barker wrote and directed, is an absolute artifact of a sexually fluid, darkly gothic moment in American film. The anti-GOP-nuclear-family spirit spoke to a generation whose prurient tastes had graduated beyond a simple “Boo!” It spoke of dark sex magics and utter self-debauchery and annihilation. It gleefully took a hammer to comfortable ideas regarding standard religious orthodoxy and re-imagined the darkness of the human soul as a bondage-clad, self-mutilating shriek destined for a purgatory of infinite suffering. It spit in the face of prudishness, then licked it off, all while whispering loathsome things into Family Values’ ear, its leather clad fist delivering a velvet reach-around. —Chris Maltby

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13 / 19

6. Candyman (1992)

6. Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992) - Official Trailer

When it comes to sophisticated slashers with a social conscience, few have the staying power of Bernard Rose’s Candyman. Equal parts societal critique and the kind of scary story that easily lends itself to an elementary school sleepover, Candyman holds a mirror to the real-life horrors of a community haunted by two kinds of boogeymen: gentrification, and a homicidal supernatural entity with a hook for a hand. Then, just when you think you haven’t seen anything more bleak, the how and why of it all arrive like a slash across the jugular. One must give a nod to the terrifying Tony Todd in the titular role and, of course, Virginia Madsen as a white woman hellbent on pathologizing Black trauma. Both are convincing, but only the former manages to speak—very alluringly, I might add—right to the inherent curiosity for the macabre within us all, revealing that the stories that often become lore are far scarier than any one man. –Audra Heinrichs

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14 / 19

5. Ringu (1998)

5. Ringu (1998)

Ring - 20th Anniversary Trailer HD

What goes around comes around. It’s an urban myth as easily recognizable as a hooked hand or the repetition of a forbidden name, a concept so high as to be elemental: There is a video; you watch it; and unless you share it with someone else, you’re dead in seven days. Ringu, the Japanese indie film that was remade into The Ring (2002), leans into its low budget aesthetic, and when coupled with the haunting sense of foreboding, terrifying imagery, symbolism, and unsettling mythology, establishes its mood and statement of purpose so well that it translated almost seamlessly into an American milieu–a challenging feat for most international fare, let alone a horror flick. This is also due to its underlying, well-worn theme: the suffering of women at the hands of men. Sadako (Rie Inō) is an avenging force, a totemic spirit unstoppable in her agency and will, all evidenced by the film’s final moments and that iconic shot, that last thing you see before you die. What goes around comes around. —Chris Maltby

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15 / 19

4. Alien (1979)

4. Alien (1979)

Alien | Modern Trailer | HBO Max

A haunted house movie in space. A grim reverie on loneliness and the increased corporatization of our lives. The nightmare of enduring forced violence against oneself resulting in mortal complications. All these things have been hung like medals around the neck of Alien, and for good reason. The film is, in essence, the slice of light off the knife before it cuts; the wet, hungry mouth in the alley. It’s a flick that transmits the electric terror of being prey in an open field at night, while simultaneously being claustrophobic as hell. It elicits that xenophobic terror of being locked in with something utterly unknowable that cannot be reasoned with or explained–all while delivering a stark vision on the murky nature of gender identity, the worthiness of heroism, rape (hello boys, pregnancy!), and institutional betrayal.

Also, it somehow is raining inside the spaceship, and no one EVER questions it? That’s how fucking good this movie is. —Chris Maltby

 

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16 / 19

3. Martyrs (2008)

3. Martyrs (2008)

MARTYRS (2008) Trailer Remastered HD

In the grim list of films that absolutely batter the soul into submission, this flick holds a premium cache. Martyrs opens, literally, by hitting the ground running, and it never, ever stops. It is a relentless freight train of a film, bent on the total annihilation of the viewer. It’s abusive, sinister, and unpredictable, neck-breaking in its tonal changes and brutally unflinching in its attack on your senses. It’s a yard stick for what the torture porn genre would eventually evolve into. The person you are after watching this film is not the person you were before, unless you embarked a gibbering, broken shell of a person whose faith in humanity lies shattered in pieces. It is an ultimately harrowing experience, which only the most nihilistic and self-loathing of individuals should undertake willingly.

Consider this blurb both recommendation, a warning, a recognition of this film as a truly great piece of art that should never ever be seen by decent, God-fearing people, and an abdication of editorial responsibility for whatever YOU (indicates entirety of willing population) are left as after seeing it. —Chris Maltby

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17 / 19

2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - Original Trailer (4K)

Before a chainsaw even so much as revs, let alone massacres, there’s grave-robbing, matter-of-fact conversations about headcheese, and performative self-harm. It’s not the titular, almost gore-free killing-spree that makes Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic scary—it’s the fetid atmosphere. It’s the hopeless whine of the camera flash during the documentation of a crime scene. The slam of the metal door after Leatherface ensnares a victim. The feathers that carpet the floor and bone sculptures that litter the living room (if you could call what they do “living”) of the cannibalistic backwoods family a group of young adults unwittingly stumble upon somewhere in rural Texas. Hooper and his cowriter Kim Henkel based antagonist Leatherface on skin-wearing serial killer Ed Gein, who’d already provided inspiration for Psycho and would go on to do so for Silence of the Lambs. Many movies tried to recapture the terror of Massacre—‘80s slashers owe as much to it as anything—but this particular brand of stink proved difficult to rebottle. –Rich Juzwiak

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18 / 19

1. Hereditary (2018)

1. Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary | Official Trailer HD | A24

Horror is a spectator sport. The audience can’t help but put themselves in the movie, no matter how wildly unlikely the situation. We believe we’d make better decisions, we wouldn’t read the Latin, we wouldn’t get in the car. Enjoying horror movies is also about enjoying the smug safety of your couch.

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. Hereditary is this kind of movie, taking on one of the most ancient and brutal of boogeymen. I won’t name him here, but you’ll recognize him—he sounds like generations of seemingly untameable women breaking their bodies into dust to prop up an utterly mediocre man.

Hereditary is maddening (no one will listen) and arbitrary (the mundane confluence of peanuts and telephone poles) and terrifying (just about every second)—and it’s made even scarier because our real lives are also all those things. Sometimes you need someone else to articulate the terror, someone really skilled, who can channel all the howling rage and immolation and self destruction involved in being a woman and splatter it all over the goddamn scenery. Sometimes you need Toni Collette. Sometimes, instead of screaming not to go into the basement, you need to watch a movie knowing there is absolutely nothing you could have done differently to save yourself.

The spectators at the end of Hereditary are not OK. Leaving the movie theater, we learned the ushers liked to congregate outside so they could watch the latest victims emerge–ashen-faced, vaguely clinging to one another–and laugh at them. —Jess McIntosh

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