Paranormal Activity (2009)
I tried to fight the Paranormal Activity craze as people fawned over it like it was the next big thing. There’s no way it could be scary, and after watching the first 20 minutes, I was sure I was right. Eventually, I sat down and watched the whole thing, and boy, I was wrong!
Paranormal Activity revives low-budget horror films like Blair Witch once did. Personally, the second and third are the cream of the crop, but you have to watch the first to get an idea of what you’re in for. Also, don’t watch the last three. They’re not so great and just a huge waste of time.
28 Days Later (2002)
Looking back, it’s no surprise that 28 Days Later was such a good movie. It popped up around the start of the zombie media popularity and featured something we’d never seen before: running zombies. They didn’t amble or shuffle – they ran faster than you did. This meant you couldn’t outrun them.
Even worse, there are people out there that could take advantage of you. There’s no one you can really trust, and when you do finally get a connection, they can be ripped away from you in seconds. Papa Frank showed us that much when he got infected.
The Birds (1963)
The Birds is easily the oldest entry on this list, and it doesn’t scare you like most movies do nowadays. It won’t keep you up at night, and it probably won’t make you scream. That being said, you’ll think twice about a flock of birds when you see them flying around.
Back in the day, Alfred Hitchcock was a master of horror, so he knew what he was doing. The Birds still stands as an excellent movie, and it makes you think about what harm birds can really do when they’re grouped together. Talk about a murder of crows!
It Follows (2014)
It Follows had an extremely unique premise. It’s a joke at this point (and a cliché) that getting intimate in a horror film equates death. It Follows turned that idea on its head. The film was about a creature that was spread through sex.
This paranormal STD would take the shape of a person and kill you once it finally caught up. Some of the figures were downright disgusting, but the giant guy and little kid with dark sunken eyes? Terrifying. That’s one that’ll haunt my dreams.
A Quiet Place (2018)
It’s hard to think that any movie would be successful if people rarely talk (much less scary), but A Quiet Place is. This movie’s threat is monsters that are attracted to noise. Any little noise would bring them your way.
How do you live without making noise? Every little burp, hiccup, and step threatens your existence. It also showed that raising a family would be nearly impossible since a baby always cries and children love loud toys.
The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook was a movie that seemingly showed up out of nowhere, but it spread like wildfire. While some people found it annoying, others found it pretty scary (yours truly included). It wasn’t the visuals that scared me, though.
It was the sounds. I’m a sucker with any film that has terrifying sounds, and this one made my hair stand on end. Granted, it would’ve been a lot better if they never showed the Babadook, but it was still a pretty great film.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs plays on something even scarier than demons – real-life serial killers. The serial killer was partially inspired by Ed Gaines, a murder that would skin his victims (thus the lotion scene).
One of the most thrilling parts isn’t even with Buffalo Bill, though. It’s the tension between Clarice and Hannibal. Many of us can quote lines from the movie, but the one that really gave everyone goosebumps was the question, “have the lambs stopped screaming?”
Thirst has a twist that I haven’t seen in many films – at least, not American films. This one is about a priest trying to conduct a medical experiment. The only issue is that it goes wrong, and he becomes stricken with vampirism. Naturally, he can’t continue being a priest.
On top of that, he’s overwhelmed with this primal thirst. The director of this South Korean film is the same one who did Old Boy, so it has a lot of the same grittiness we know and love. If you haven’t seen this one, you really have to.
Psycho is a unique movie, especially compared to a lot of the cheap jump scares that come out nowadays. The fear comes from a steady build-up and tension. Not once does the movie slip up, and any time it reveals something, it’s on purpose.
The shower scene is absolutely terrifying, and you’re lying if you say you didn’t look behind the shower curtain a couple of times after seeing it. Also, the fact that Norman Bates is just a psychopath and not a demon from hell is a cherry on top of the sundae.
On paper, Alien may not seem like the goldmine that it is, but who would’ve guessed that chest busters would turn into a multi-million-dollar franchise? Ridley Scott not only made sure the audience would be scared but also the actors.
Apparently, he didn’t tell the cast what would happen during certain scenes, including when the alien first bust through Kane’s chest. No one knew anything, so the fear on their face was genuine. That fear is precisely why we were so scared for Ripley.
Hereditary became insanely popular overnight, and it’s clear why. There are two different perspectives in this film. The first is that there’s a Satanic cult terrorizing a family, and the second is that mental illness can be a complicated situation to deal with (or maybe a little of both?).
Whether you believe in the former or latter, there’s some pretty disturbing stuff that’s hard to get off your mind. The little girl dying by getting her head knocked off, subsequently seeing her decapitated head covered in ants, and the mother slamming her head on the attic entrance is just three of them.
The Omen (1976)
Kids are pretty scary. They can say some terrifying stuff, and you’re just supposed to laugh it off. That’s why The Omen hit home. Little Damien is adopted, and the family begins to realize there’s something wrong with the kid.
Before long, the kiddo starts pushing people off balconies. It becomes clear that Damien is none other than the Devil’s son. The original movie was so good we’re going to forget the abomination that was the 2006 remake (and all the awful sequels).
There are two versions of Shutter. For this list, I’m bringing up the 2004 Thai version because the American one can’t seem to catch the same ambiance. Without spoiling too much, Shutter starts off with a couple driving and hitting a young woman with her car.
The woman then becomes obsessed with finding out who she hit after finding her in photos with her boyfriend. As time goes, secrets are revealed, and you find out a twist at the end that makes your hair stand on end.
Audition isn’t for the faint of heart. In fact, the torture scenes in the movie are enough to make some people sick. Worse yet, it lures you into thinking it may not be so bad, and then it crosses line after line. The reputation of this movie sort of ruined it since you’re not supposed to know much about it from the beginning.
For that reason, I’ll keep it vague. This Japanese horror is about a girl who starts dating again by using auditions as a fake dating service. She meets a guy, and they seem to hit it off. Except, things don’t go exactly how either of them planned.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is still one of the only movies out there that genuinely pushes the boundaries. It goes above and beyond to make the audience unsettled. It almost feels like you’re sitting at the dining table when the girl lets loose on the carpet.
Then there’s the whole crucifix scene, which I’m still shocked by. How did they even get that in theaters? Finally, the special effects still stand strong. The movie had a legendary makeup artist, and it shows. Apparently, those who made it are cursed, so The Exorcist earned its spot.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining stands the test of time. They couldn’t have chosen a better cast – this is Jack Nicholson at his prime. Is there anything more terrifying than a madman wielding an ax?
It’s also worth noting that The Shining was set in an actual haunted house. Located in Colorado, the Stanley Hotel is one of the most haunted places in America. Real ghosts plus madmen equals real scary.
Insidious is one that will keep you up late at night, staring at the darkness in your corner because you could swear it moved a little. While there are some jump scares, the film mostly banks on the creepy atmosphere to raise your heart rate. Saying Insidious is intense doesn’t do it justice.
The guy that did Insidious is the same one that did the Conjuring. So, if you loved the Conjuring you have to see this one. There are two sequels in addition to the original, but in my opinion, the OG Insidious is the scariest one of the bunch.
Ringu is the one that started the whole turning Asian horror films into crappy American remakes, and there’s a reason it spread like wildfire – it’s absolutely terrifying. It uses the same story as the American remake where a person watches a tape, and they’re set to die in seven days.
Ringu was also one of the first ones that crossed the line into making the audience think they may not even seem safe. After all, who’s to say a girl wasn’t going to come crawling through their screen after watching it? The glass removes us from danger, but not with Ringu.
Train to Busan (2016)
Zombie movies and TV shows were pretty boring by the time Train to Busan hit America, but it nearly brought the trend back. Similar to other movies on this list, these zombies didn’t mess around. They ran with full force and would tackle you like a linebacker.
That’s what made this movie so good; it wasn’t the usual lame shuffling we’re used to. Train to Busan also had some pretty emotional moments, which made it an all-around fantastic movie. Definitely watch it if you haven’t seen it yet.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Koreans do something to make their movies absolutely terrifying. Gonjiam goes above and beyond to put you on the edge of your seat. A group of college kids investigates the Gonjiam asylum (torn down in 2018 – sorry, folks). Turns out, it’s actually haunted.
It’s a found-footage movie, but it puts the Blair Witch Project where it belongs...the trash – sorry, not sorry. There are some parts that are a little cheesy, but this Korean horror is one you have to watch.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street had one of the best villainous actors in history: Robert Englund. Freddy was horrific and hilarious, and the main characters couldn’t get away from him. The only way to stay safe was not to fall asleep, an impossible feat.
Eventually, no matter how hard you tried, Freddy would get you. No one can help because there’s nothing that can stop him. The remakes failed to create the same ambiance, which is why the 1984 version will always reign supreme.
The Eye (2002)
The Eye may not be one that many people have seen, or at least, not the Hong Kong version. The movie is about a girl who gets a corneal transplant only to find out she can see what the donor saw – ghosts. Some of the ghosts are friendly or sad, but most? Scary as hell.
The elevator scene, in particular, remains seared in my brain. There’s a guy with a dented head hovering, threatening the main character as she ascends. Talk about toe-curling fear! The remake destroyed everything that stood out with the movie, including changing the ending.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a newer Mexican horror movie that makes Guillermo del Toro look like child’s play. This movie is one of the more unique ones on the list because it combines fantasy and horror in a dark fairy tale that keeps you on edge.
It’s about a group of five children who are kidnapped by the drug cartel, but no one knows why. No one knows what happens to the children, but they're never seen again. These kids, though, they’re different. They’re not afraid and are hellbent on escape.
The Descent (2005)
The Descent is certainly one to remember for the ages – if anything because of Sarah totally covered in blood. The movie does a fantastic job of building the tension by not showing the monsters for the longest time. This isn’t your typical movie of women running from guys with knives!
These monsters are actually terrifying. Apparently, one of the actors playing the monsters fell while filming and had to go to the ER. Could you imagine seeing a crawler rushed to the hospital? The nurses definitely remember that day.
The Final Destination Series
I’m not saying these movies are the best out there. I will say that the Final Destination series has had the most impact, compared to others in the genre. We’ve all been behind a log truck and decided to pass them in another lane – you know…just in case.
The same goes for rollercoasters, nail guns, tanning beds, and planes – oh god, the planes. The movies aren’t terrible, but they’re not utterly amazing. Still, the horrific deaths will be in our minds for the rest of our lives.
Broadbandchoices did a study to figure out which movie was definitively the scariest movie out there. Gotta say that I agree with their #1 choice. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty scary. I dunno if it’s the scariest out there, but it’s definitely up there. Apparently, people’s heart rates jumped up to 131 BPM while watching the film while it sat at an average 86 BPM throughout the film.
That’s just five below a “high” heart rate – all that due to fear. The director was fantastic at the slow buildup, and Ethan Hawke was a great choice. It’s another film that made buying a house (and digging into history) a little scarier than it ought to be as if it wasn’t scary enough already.
The Conjuring Series
The Conjuring has spawned several different movies at this point, and some of them are pretty bad. The first two? They stand up pretty strong. They created a sense of dread and fear that makes Asian movies so good.
The first two are still the strongest, with The Nun being a close second. Valak is one of the scariest demons of all time. Also, points to The Nun for using Taissa Farmiga, Vera Farmiga’s much younger sister. It really rounded out the film.
It’s still hard to digest how fantastic a comedian is at making horror movies, but Jordan Peele is a man of many talents. He gave us Get Out and followed it up with Us. Us is scary because the villain doesn’t take the guise of a demon or ghost. It’s ourselves.
The main characters, the Wilson family, have to kill murderers that look like their friends and family. It’s gotta be hard watching a killer that looks like your daughter slowly die in front of you. Jordan Peele is beyond creative, and the twists are out of this world good.
The Orphanage (2007)
The Orphanage is a Spanish movie that was brought to you by the minds of J.A. Bayona and Guillermo del Toro. The dark tone is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth and the edge-of-your-seat tension you’d expect from this pair.
What made this movie so much better than a lot of others is that there weren’t cheap jump scares. The movie earned its fear by superb acting and twists. It’s no surprise that it got a 10-minute ovation during the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
IT: Chapter 2
While the first (and original) IT was fantastic, the second is so much better. It had an all-star cast, including James McAvoy and Bill Hader, who have both been nominated for Golden Globes. Maybe that’s why their fear is so believable.
The scariest parts were when Pennywise took the form that was personal to each of the Losers. The elongated, lengthy, naked old woman isn’t one we can forget – unfortunately. The kid in the glasshouse was also pretty shocking.