Best Horror Movies by Decade

Claw your way through the three freakiest horror movies of each decade.

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It was a bloody job, but someone had to do it. Looking as far back as the 1960s, we clawed and crept our way through the years to bring you the three best horror movies from each decade. This list of freaky flicks will bring out the rabid fan in us all—and keep you up for weeks. Sweet dreams.

The 1960s

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  • This decade of old-school scares moved from the cheesy B-movies of the 1950s into a genre ripe with damaged psyches, the human will to survive, and the fact that even everyday Joes and Janes go a little mad sometimes.

    Photo Credit: Shamley Productions

3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A group of strangers hole up in a farmhouse and try to not get bit during the witching hour in George A. Romero’s classic zombie thriller. A must-see for any horror genre buff, Night of the Living Dead was shockingly modern for its time, as it redefined the zombie from a Voodoo puppet into a stumbling, starving, unstoppable monster.

Although it has been fifty years since Night of the Living Dead was first released, the movie’s representation of race is still relevant. The relationship between Ben (Duane Jones) and the white people hiding with him in the farmhouse cellar arguably represents a dynamic that’s all too familiar in the real world.

Romero said that he didn’t set out to make the film a commentary on race. Still, the implicit biases depicted in the movie are still resonant today. As Get Out director Jordan Peele explains it, “the way that movie handles race is so essential to what makes it great. All social norms break down when this event happens and a black man is caged up in a house with a white woman who is terrified. But you’re not sure how much she’s terrified at the monsters on the outside or this man on the inside who is now the hero.”

2. Repulsion (1965)

Most would single out Rosemary's Baby as the top pick from Roman Polanski’s horror resume—but that’s because they haven’t seen Repulsion. Polanski’s first English-language film stars Catherine Deneuve as an obsessive woman who slowly but surely goes mad in her London apartment.

With her sister and her sister’s boyfriend away on a trip, Carol descends into utter madness. The movie hints at past traumas that influence the disgust Carol feels with regards to sex, and with the men who are attracted to her. When some of those men make the mistake of visiting her as her disorientation fully sets in, there will be horrific consequences.

1. Psycho (1960)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated contributions to cinema, the Ed Gein-inspired thriller has had a profound impact on both the film industry and pop culture. Starring a lonely motel owner with serious mommy issues, Psycho put a skirt on a homicidal maniac and coined the term “shower scene.”

The iconic movie follows Norman Bates, who co-runs a motel with his elderly mother. But all is not as it seems at the Bates motel— Norman has a distinctly toxic relationship with his mother that puts the motel's guests at risk.

The 1970s

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  • A decade in which visceral terror dominated the box office—and the Oscars, the 1970s offer horror fiends a ton of fodder to sink their teeth into.

    Photo Credit: Compass International Pictures

3. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s indie slasher flick cleaned up at the box office while simultaneously putting every babysitter club on edge. Aside from influencing Halloween costumes for years to come, Carpenter’s classic put masked maniacs on the map, employed one of the best original scores to date, and established the prototype for all future faceless-stalker films.

It also introduced Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, a high school student and babysitter stalked by the killer Michael. Curtis reprised her role in six of the ten existing Halloween movies, and will return as Strode for a new Halloween movie that Carpenter claims will hit screens October 19th, 2018.

2. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1977)

The squeals and screams emitted from Tobe Hooper’s unrelenting massacre are enough to make even the most tenacious horror cinephile break out in a cold sweat. Based on a true story of murder and mayhem in the flatlands of Texas, Hooper’s classic spawned many a sequel and several an imitation, though none possess the visceral power of the original.

The movie’s “based on a true story” marketing sparked a rumor that a real chainsaw killer was in fact living with his ghoulish family in Poth, Texas. But in reality the deranged crimes depicted in the movie were inspired by Wisconsinite Ed Gein, the grave robber and serial killer whose crimes also influenced Psycho.

1. The Exorcist (1973)

Thank God for whatever possessed William Friedkin to make a movie about a little girl consumed by ancient demonic forces. The Exorcist, an intense religious horror coupled with explicitly graphic imagery, continues to top best-of lists. And with all its bed-shaking, soup-spitting, head-spinning glory, you can see why.

A chilling movie that balances gross-out horror scares with a thoughtful exploration of morality and faith, The Exorcist is an enduring classic that inspired a sequel as well as an ongoing TV series. Plus, it forever changed parents’ perception of their children’s imaginary friends. If your kid starts talking to Captain Howdy, you’ve got trouble.

The 1980s

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  •  Many modern horror filmmakers use the 1980s as their cauldron of inspiration by remaking, reimagining, and rebooting the classics. Understandable, since it’s the decade that gave us The Evil Dead, Child's Play, and The Thing—as well as these freaky classics.

    Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

3. Poltergeist (1982)

Not only was the suburban family in Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper’s supernatural exemplar tormented by evil spirits, but the milieu behind the lens was famously wrought with misfortune. Whether the cursed movie set myths are true or not, the fact remains: We refuse to look a clown doll in the eye anymore.

If the original movie (and its chilling behind-the-scenes legends) didn’t leave you helplessly shaking in your boots, there’s even more Poltergeist out there: 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, and a 2015 remake.

2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A man with knives for fingers and blisters for a face slaughters teens in their dreams. As if that’s not enough to keep you awake, Wes Craven’s nightmare narrative was ripped straight from the headlines. He was inspired by a slew of deaths that happened in California when kids died in their sleep.

Craven’s original story of teenagers stalked through their dreams by a murderer has inspired nine movies, various comic series, and the 1998 prequel TV show Freddy’s Nightmares

1. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick is a master of any genre, but what he did with horror still has film buffs chattering. On the surface, The Shining is a movie about a family man on the fast track to insanity. Underneath it’s a masterpiece brimming with symbolism and complexity—firmly rooting it in that requires-multiple-viewing category.

Surprisingly, Stephen King may be one of the few people who’s not a fan of Kubrick’s adaptation. The author has criticized the movie for changing the arc of Jack Torrance, and depicting Wendy Torrance as a “screaming dishrag.” Despite criticism from the master of creepy himself, The Shining movie continues to inspire fervor. In 2012, the documentary Room 237 even analyzed the many theories, from the plausible to the crackpot, that fans have about the visually and thematically dense film.

The 1990s

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  • A decade obsessed with urban legends and shaky cam syndrome, the 1990s can also be credited with birthing the modern teen scream.

    Photo Credit: Dimension Films

3. Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s Ghostface is somewhere up there with Michael and Jason in the hierarchy of masked madmen who slash their way through teenage wastelands. But what separates this meta-horror film from the pack is Kevin Williamson’s irresistible whodunit script fused with gory murder scenes fit for Argento.

The movie is particularly chilling given that it was based on real events. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson loosely based the movie on the crimes of Danny Rolling, a serial killer who murdered five students in August 1990.

RELATED: 50 Fascinating, Little-Known Facts About Horror Movies

2. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Who’d have thought that after seeing dead people in this Oscar-nominated hit, moviegoers would quickly leave its director for dead? Say what you will about M. Knight Shyamalan’s more recent work—this atmospheric, emotionally taut thriller is one of a kind.

The movie follows Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy who claims to be able to talk to the dead, and his psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). Terrifying but surprisingly touching, The Sixth Sense is good enough to make us forgive Shyamalan for some of his messier movies.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

It’s easy to write off Blair Witch in today’s found-footage-saturated climate. But Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s witch hunt is anything but dismissible. Though it’s not technically the first of its kind, it is credited with launching the now-popular subgenre of shaky cam scares. It’s also the first to trick its audience into thinking the footage was real.

A 2000 sequel Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was critically slammed, but a follow-up 2016 movie recaptured some of the disorienting chills that made the original so enduring. Still, the first cut was truly the deepest where this franchise is concerned: it’ll be hard to replicate the chill that came with being introduced to the story of the Blair Witch for the first time.

The 2000s

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  • From J-horror (Ju-on) and torture porn (Hostel) to gory satire (Shaun of the Dead), there’s a massive quantity of quality horror that haunts this decade. For our purposes, we steered clear of those that made us laugh and chose those that made us a blubbering mess.

3. 28 Days Later (2003)

Given Danny Boyle’s kinetic style, it’s only natural the filmmaker would catapult the zombie into its contemporary incarnation: A high-octane flesh eater who moves at the speed of fright. About a rage virus that morphs English citizens into speed demons, this bioterrorism film is propelled not only by a dominating performance from its lead, Cillian Murphy, but by the effective sounds of John Murphy’s original score.

The movie is perhaps best known for the chilling sequence in which protagonist Jim wakes in a hospital bed and realizes that, while he’s been unconscious, something has gone very, very wrong in London. As he explores the deserted metropolis, searching for clues, the tension is nearly unbearable — the audience knows about the horrors that Jim will soon stumble on.

RELATED: 8 Spooky Movies Inspired by Real Ghost Stories

2. Let the Right One In (2009)

A Nordic noir thriller, Tomas Alfredson’s feature based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is more fun than a bucket of blood. More ethereal nightmare than biting horror, it follows the relationship between bullied Oskar and the petite vampire who helps him get revenge.

1. The Descent (2006)

Moviegoers went into Neil Marshal’s sleeper hit thinking they were in for a middling horror about a bunch of hot chicks exploring an unmapped cave network. Little did they know, the British indie, layered with emotional backstory and human emotion, taps into fear on many different levels: 1) the fear of losing a loved one 2) the fear of being stuck between a rock a hard place and 3) the fear of coming face to face with sinister albino cave-dwelling humanoids.

A claustrophobic thrill ride that will make you question your reality — and how well we can ever really know each other— The Descent plumbs our deepest fears.

2010 to Present

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  • Still in the throes of a horror boom, genre fiends are exploring crafty narratives and special effects that are redefining the genre. From haunted house horrors and indie psychological thrillers to mumblegore galore, today’s genre is a new beast. And we couldn’t be giddier.

3. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Drew Goddard packs enough bloody references into his horror satire to satisfy every decade on this list. But rather than just stuff a film with every trope in the book, he deconstructs them, scrutinizes them, then releases them on his lead characters, while giving a nod and a wink to every genre fan watching.

Cabin in the Woods mines every corner of pop culture to create a smart, savvy ride. Joss Whedon produced the movie, and his skill for sincere but self-referential storytelling is evident throughout.

2. Black Swan (2010)

Requiem for a Dream writer/director Darren Aronofsky and his composer BFF, Clint Mansell, composed what can only be called their magnum opus with Black Swan. A companion piece to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the psychological thriller whirls around a ballerina’s struggle for perfection, while employing classic horror techniques and jarring Tchaikovsky melodies.

Natalie Portman is on point (pun fully intended) as a perfectionist dancer who must tap into her repressed desires to portray the Black Swan, but Winona Ryder steals the show as an unhinged prima ballerina nearing the end of her career. Body horror and hallucinations result.

1. It Follows (2015)

This certainly isn’t our first time to cover David Robert Mitchell’s retro-inspired homage to classic horror. And it probably won’t be the last. The narrative belongs to lead scream queen Maika Monroe, who plays Jay, a teen whose recent sexcapade results in a slew of menacing visitors. But the modern influences, aura of intrigue, and alluring subtext that make it this year’s It film belong solely to Mitchell.

It Follows will have you covering your face in fear throughout, but thinking about the movie’s commentary on sex politics for a long time after the final shocking moments.

Photos (in order): Still from "Psycho" via Paramount Pictures; Still from "Halloween" via Compass International Pictures; Still from "Poltergeist" via Warner Bros.; Still from "Scream" via Dimension Films; Still from "28 Days Later" via 20th Century Fox; Still from "Cabin in the Woods" via Lionsgate

Published on 21 Oct 2015