Fear is such an intensely personal sensation. What terrifies one person might strike another as funny. That’s why there are so many different kinds of horror movies out there, ready to tap into so many different phobias.
While paranormal movies may haunt some moviegoers long after the credits roll, others may be checking under their bed for zombies, monsters, or a very human killer with a sharp, shiny knife. Whatever scares you, you’re bound to find a new cinematic nightmare on this list of the top horror movies that will leave you sleeping with the lights on.
If not, let us know what movie we should have included, and prepare yourself for 23 really scary movies that you definitely shouldn’t watch by yourself. Sweet dreams…
A Tale of Two Sisters
Korean horror and its respective filmmakers are in a brilliantly horrific class of their own, and 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters is no exception. Often imitated, Ji-woon Kim’s creepy tale about a pair of siblings who leave a mental hospital and enter the house of the devil is one helluva head trip.
The Devil’s Backbone
Storytelling mastermind Guillermo del Torro continuously proves he’s a true reinventor of genre, horror and beyond. This Spanish Civil War-set fantasy horror centers on a 12-year-old boy sent to a haunted orphanage, who soon encounters a supremely eerie specter. Santi, the spirit in question, was actually inspired from del Toro’s memories of a ghost who frequently paid him visits as a child.
A near-perfect addition to the Giallo-genre, Dario Argento’s grim fairy tale about a bunch of witches will make your head spin—and not just because its a gory horror movie that takes place at a German ballet academy. The blood that spills across the screen is enough to keep your noggin flooded with grisly images for weeks.
The film that made Takashi Miike (in)famous in the West. The chilling thing about Audition is that, for its first half-hour or so, it could easily be a rom-com or a romantic melodrama. Once the horror kicks in—somehow otherworldly and altogether too human at the same time—it really kicks, though. You’ll never look at a cloth bag or a ringing phone the same way again.
Originally rated NC-17 and considered part of the New French Extremity movement, this horror movie from director Alexandre Aja follows Marie and Alex, two young women seeking revenge on the man who gruesomely murdered Alex’s loved ones. Plenty of bludgeoning and disemboweling turn the screen crimson, but it’s the high wire tension in between these fits of rage that keeps our palms sweating.
English director Neil Marshall plays on the horrors of bloodthirsty creatures and stifling claustrophobia in his 2005 film The Descent. Not long after the film kicks off, protagonist Sarah gets stuck between a literal rock and hard place when pile of boulders threatens to crush her petite frame. It’s enough to make any genre fan breathless—and the movie hasn’t even met the monsters that dwell below.
A group of friends on a yachting trip take refuge on a mysterious, derelict cruise ship, only to find that there is something or someone on board who wants them dead. If that sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, we promise you haven’t seen anything like Christopher Smith’s reality-bending 2009 flick Triangle.
Pascal Laugier’s notorious entry into the infamous New French Extremity movement starts off with a young woman escaping a slaughterhouse where she has been imprisoned and tortured for more than a year. And it just gets darker, more twisted, and more horrifying from there. If you think you know where Martyrs is headed, think again. This movie has more twists than a bag of pretzels—and is viewed by many as one of the best modern horror movies in recent memory.
As you’re scrolling through movies online looking for a good scare, it’s easy to dismiss Grave Encounters as yet another in a long line of movies where people run into kohl-eyed ghouls in a dark, abandoned building. But Grave Encounters has more than just your standard spooks to offer (though it’s got plenty of those, too). As the crew of a ghost-hunting reality show spends the night in a haunted mental hospital, time and space begin to bend and break in utterly terrifying ways.
Perhaps more horrifying than having something terrible happen to us is doing something terrible ourselves—especially to those we love. That horror rests at the heart of The Orphanage, even while it’s surrounded by plenty of classically Gothic spookiness—including an unforgettably creepy ghost kid wearing a burlap sack on his head.
The Ring or Ringu
It may be old hat by now, but The Ring still packs a punch. Whether you watch the 2002 American remake or the 1998 Japanese original, it’s easy to see why the idea of the cursed videotape that kills you when you watch it—combining, as it does, urban legends with a distrust of multimedia telecommunications and the motif of harmful sensation—became one of the most enduring horror icons of the modern age.
Abandoned mental hospitals are guaranteed creep factories, and when an abatement crew goes into the real-life Danvers State Mental Hospital—where the movie was actually filmed—things get creepy in a hurry. In one stand-out sequence, the dark history of the building is being recounted while the camera focuses on insects crawling in the grass—it’s one of those spooky movies that's creepy as hell without showing anything at all!
William Friedkin’s 1970s story of demonic-possession is one of the best horror movies ever made. It's so terrifyingly iconic, in fact, that its absence from "scariest movies of all time" horror lists is more shocking than its presence. Unless you’re completely desensitized to a little girl hissing sacrilegious obscenities from the black hole in her rotting head, then you know it belongs on this list.
There’s nothing scarier than something that feels like it could be real, right? Ghostwatch was originally broadcast on the BBC on Halloween night—and then never shown again. For good reason, too. Like War of the Worlds before it, this horror movie masquerading as a news program actually tricked viewers into thinking it was the real deal—and may have inspired at least one suicide.
What makes Ghostwatch so effective is a combination of its faux-reality—actual newscasters were used, playing themselves—and the way it skillfully, patiently builds up from nothing. The early parts feel just like what it’s pretending to be: a jokey Halloween special put on by the local news. But things begin to go more and more wrong and by the end you’re left with one of the most haunting Halloween films ever produced.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
It’s hard to find a horror fan in the world that can’t appreciate Tobe Hooper’s Texas-pig-farm-meets-human-skin-farm 1974 cult classic. Centering on a group of twentysomethings who are tormented by a family of backwoods cannibals, this high-octane horror remains one of the hardest films to get through. And we pretty much have the sadistic dinner scene to thank for that.
Dead of Night
One of the first—and still one of the best—horror anthology films, Dead of Night has a little something for everyone. Sure, the proceedings seem charming and genteel enough at first, but as the film’s framing story builds to its dizzying climax, and the tales being told grow ever more horrific (with the exception of one comedic interlude), you can see why this remains one of the creepiest and most influential old horror movies of all time.
While this horror film debut from writer and director Jennifer Kent premiered to mild commercial success in Australia following a small art-house release, the psychological horror film about trauma and a mother’s love found success with American audiences after premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Amelia’s having a rough go at the whole single-parent thing, and when her son becomes convinced there’s a monster hiding in his closet, things really take a turn for the terrifying—his monster just might be real.
Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s occult horror film is a strong addition to the genre's ever-growing catalogue of cautionary tales. In this story about the desperation that often accompanies Hollywood aspirations, we find a young actress willing to do anything to get her name in lights—including sell her soul to the devil. It’s a horror film that leaves you needing a shower once the credits roll. For those who haven’t seen Martyrs, do that next, though we recommend at least 24 hours between viewings to let the psychological wounds heal.
Upon watching, it's not hard to see why critics loved this unyielding home invasion torture porn, heralded as part of a new wave of French horror. Her first Christmas after her husband’s death, a pregnant Sarah decides to stay home alone—she’s about to give birth after all. Little does she know there’s a baby-napper at her door with a pair of scissors ready to make the first cut. The what, why, who, and how are revealed over the course of the bloodiest 82 minutes in recent memory.
Drawing inspiration for its visuals from the paintings of Francis Bacon, Jacob’s Ladder contains some of the creepiest stuff ever put on film. Those demons with the vibrating heads? Scared the hell out of us all. Plus, the story itself helped to inspire creepy video games like Silent Hill.
Since its wide-release, studio executives have arguably over-capitalized on the franchise’s near instant and far-reaching popularity. But Oren Peli’s original script-less creation about a couple and their ghost is no cheap thrill. Think back to that first viewing and imagine Katie, possessed by a demon, slowly climbing that dark staircase, each step a resounding boom … boom … boom. Freaked out? Yeah, we thought so.
Noroi: The Curse
Vastly under-seen in the States, this incredible (and incredibly weird) found footage horror movie from Japan showcases not only what found footage is capable of when it comes to credible scares, but weaves in elements of folk horror, psychic powers, possession, weird cults, and a whole lot more. It’s currently streaming on Shudder, and it has to be seen to be believed.
“Whose hand was I holding?” There are horror movies that scare you by jumping out and yelling “boo!” and then there are ones that scare you by getting under your skin. The Haunting—the first cinematic adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—is an example of that second kind. All shadows and suggestion, there are few scenes eerier than the ones in this black-and-white shocker.
Featured still from "Suspira" via International Classics