When you sit down to watch a horror movie, you want to be scared, right? To quote the protagonist in E.F. Benson's horror short story "The Bus-Conductor," you want a movie to "creep and creep and creep" into your brain until you're left cowering under the blanket and texting your friends: "Have you seen this?!"
But of course there’s scary and then there’s scary. The scariest horror movies don’t just make us check the doors a second time before bed and sleep with the lights on the night we see them, they haunt us for days and weeks at a time. That's why we rounded up 32 of the scariest horror movies cinema has to offer. From gory international imports to killer boogeyman classics and paranormal nightmares that blur the line between fiction and reality, our list of cinema's scariest horror movies will ensure you experience terror in all its forms. Here are the scariest movies that permanently scarred our psyches and stole countless hours of beauty sleep. Proceed with caution!
32. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Let’s face it: The early days of cinema produced some great horror movies, but they can sometimes feel quaint to us modern-day viewers. This film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the first of its kind, is an exception. With a sinister performance by Charles Laughton, themes of vivisection and interspecies breeding, and fantastic sound engineering (the result of playing various recordings backwards), Island of Lost Souls delivers scares that will resonate with any 21st-century horror fan.
31. Black Christmas (1974)
A group of sorority sisters tries to outrun a killer in this early classic that is also one of the scariest horror movies of the slasher genre. Part of Black Christmas' effectiveness comes from its realism and holiday setting—still something of a taboo back in 1974—while the chilling reveal of the killer’s identity and whereabouts adds another layer of terror. The fact that director Bob Clark is also behind the beloved holiday classic A Christmas Story is just icing on this already twisted cake.
30. The Eye (2002)
Being around someone or something that's harmless but unsettling can be just as scary as the threat of death or serious injury. That’s part of the genius of The Eye, a Hong Kong creep show about a woman whose cornea transplant comes with an unforeseen side effect: the ability to see ghosts. For the real scares, skip the American remake and stick with the original.
29. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Director Mike Flanagan called this Stephen King novel “unfilmable,” but he proved himself—and everyone else—wrong with his creepy Netflix adaptation. The horror of Gerald’s Game is multi-layered: When the female lead’s husband dies mid-hanky panky, she’s left handcuffed to the bed with little chance of escape. So begins a horrific episode in which she must not only fight off hunger, starvation, and the rabid dog eating her husband’s corpse, but also confront traumatic memories that resurface during her hours of captivity. Gerald’s Game may not be of the monster or serial killer variety of scary, but it's still a slam dunk of a horror movie.
28. Martyrs (2008)
It’s a movie that begins with kidnapping and torture, and it only gets darker from there . . . In Martyrs, two survivors seek revenge against their abusers in a quest that takes surprising and disturbing turns. The movie's unapologetic depiction of physical and sexual violence that follows—a hallmark of the “New French Extremity” school of filmmaking—stirred up controversy at its Cannes debut in 2008. You’ll understand the blowback when you reach the grim, weird ending . . .
27. Triangle (2009)
There are different types of scary: Some movies have us jumping out of our seats; others evoke a horror so real, we can’t help but imagine ourselves in the same situation. And then there's the kind of scary that has us asking, “Ohmygodwhatisgoingon?” Christopher Smith’s Triangle definitely belongs to this last category, but to reveal much more would be to spoil some of the frights. Let’s just say that Triangle follows a masked killer’s rampage on a seemingly deserted cruise ship—and it doesn’t go where you might expect.
26. Lake Mungo (2008)
Horror author Paul Tremblay called Lake Mango “creepy at a downright cellular level” and acknowledged it as source of inspiration for his novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. What begins as a story about a girl’s “accidental” drowning spirals into a bizarre tale of secrets, grief, ghosts (maybe), and doppelgängers (maybe) that is as eerie as it is ambiguous.
25. The Changeling (1980)
If you’ve ever seen a movie in which a red rubber ball rolls out of the dark or bounces down the stairs, you’ve seen a movie that owes a debt to the haunted house classic The Changeling. But the copycats, while frightening, don’t hold a match to the original. Never has a simple image carried such implication and dread, making this underseen film a must-watch for anyone wanting to make their way through the scariest horror movies of all time.
24. Paranormal Activity (2009)
It’s easy to snub this film about a couple who can’t get rid of the sinister entity in their home—especially since it triggered an array of franchise rubbish. But in its defense, Paranormal Activity revived the found footage subgenre itself, essentially becoming the 2000s' version of Blair Witch. It also closes with a killer ending that belongs in the category of "things you can never unsee."
23. Cat People (1942)
Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur rose to fame by making horror movies with marquee-ready titles on a shoestring budget, using little more than shadows and suggestion. Their piece de resistance is Cat People, a black-and-white chiller about a young woman who believes she is cursed to turn into a panther if she becomes aroused. Among the film’s incredibly effective set-pieces is a stalking sequence that practically invented the jump scare as we know it today.
22. Hereditary (2018)
Hereditary hit theaters with a viral “heart rate challenge” where a group of people watched the film with a heart monitor. The results, released to the public by the studio, were meant to indicate just how terrifying the movie was. But does this film about familial dissolution, possession, and the flaws passed from generation to generation live up to the hype? We think so! Hereditary is a delicious slow-burn that benefits greatly from a misleading trailer, Ari Aster's stylistic vision, and a stellar performance from Toni Collette.
21. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This 1990 classic follows a Vietnam vet whose PTSD initiatives a terrifying unraveling. If Jacob’s Ladder gave us nothing else, its monsters, demons, and apparitions—with their rapidly and manically vibrating heads—would have been more than enough to guarantee it a spot on this list. But these visuals, combined with Jacob’s descent into madness, come together to form a story that has haunted us ever since we first watched it.
20. The Strangers (2008)
Loosely based on the Keddie Cabin Murders, this underrated horror film relies on ambiguity and near-silence to drum up scares. After their marriage proposal falls apart, a couple returns to their secluded rental—originally meant to be a romantic getaway—to lick their wounds. Their sudden unease with each other perfectly sets the stage for a home invasion led by three masked killers (think The Purge, but scarier). The Strangers is full of standout moments, but the killers' justification of their attack—"Because you were home"—will never not chill us to the bone.
19. Alien (1979)
"In space no one can hear you scream,” said the ingenious tagline of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece. But people can certainly hear you scream in the theater—and when Alien released in 1979, plenty of people did. The battle between the crew of the Nostromo and a violent extraterrestrial creature is one that resonated with viewers inside and beyond the horror sphere, with countless critics hailing Alien as one of the greatest films of all time.
18. The Hitcher (1986)
Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are terrifying, no question. But Robert Harmon’s interpretation of a murderous boogeyman has stalked us since the 1980s. Gone are the claw gloves and masks of other horror villains—in their place, we're given an everyday man in an overcoat. Rutger Hauer’s chillingly realistic portrayal of a killer hitchhiker does way more psychological damage than an actor in a costume.
17. The Orphanage (2007)
Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by J.A. Bayona, El Orfanato is a psychological thriller about a woman whose scavenger hunt with a little ghost boy—in the scariest sack mask ever—will hopefully lead to the discovery of her missing son. The story is elevated further by the creepy, seaside home—also a former orphanage for handicapped kids—in which the action is set.
16. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Perhaps it’s the setting, or perhaps it's the presence of an evil stepmother that hits a little too close to home . . . Whatever scares you about Jee-woon Kim’s work of psychological horror, its not something you'll be able to shake once the credits role. The titular sisters are Su-mi—fresh from a stint in a mental hospital—and Su-yeon, but their long-awaited reunion goes sour when their father remarries and strange events start occurring.
15. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
These days, found footage horror movies are de rigueur, but the genre was mostly unexplored territory in the 1990s. The marketers behind The Blair Witch Project put its newness to good use, creating a viral campaign that blurred the lines between truth and reality. The naturalistic performances—eked out of the cast by using less-than-above-board means (sympathy cards were sent to their families, for example)—also give Blair Witch an uncanny power that few of its imitators can match.
14. The Descent (2005)
Anyone who suffers from claustrophobia will lose some shut-eye after watching this underrated thriller about a cave expedition gone wrong. The New York Times hailed The Descent as "indisputably and and pleasurably nerve-jangling," and its all-female cast turns out exceptional performances as they go toe-to-toe with the creepy-crawlers lurking in the depths.
13. The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski’s English-language version of Ringu, a ghost story about a videotape that comes with a 7-day death sentence, doesn't veer too far from the original J-horror film. Sure, it finds a blonder scream queen in Naomi Watts, but its most important elements—like the ghost Samara, who is shrouded in a head of hair—remain intact. It's one of the few remakes that maintain the integrity of its predecessor while also serving up scares of its own.
12. Halloween (1978)
Taking the Gothic frights of a Hammer horror movie and transporting them seamlessly to the anxieties of modern-day suburbia, John Carpenter’s frightening masterpiece instantly gave us one of cinema’s eeriest boogeymen. It also cemented itself as the perennial Halloween horror movie. Hearing just a snippet of that score conjures images of the masked Michael Myers.
11. Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Considering the popularity of J-horror and found footage movies in the United States, it’s strange that more people haven’t seen this pitch-perfect mixture of the two. Fortunately, Noroi is now streaming on Shudder—which means you can join paranormal documentarian Masafumi Kobayashi on his descent into an increasingly creepy rabbit hole.
10. The Conjuring (2013)
There’s a reason The Conjuring became a runaway box office success and spawned its own cinematic universe—it’s pretty darn scary. Some people may “pooh-pooh” jump scares (and the Warrens, for that matter), but director James Wan stages them in such a way that doesn’t seem cheap. Scenes like the clap-clap game and the final exorcism have sealed it as an instant modern classic we won’t ever tire of.
9. Psycho (1960)
You can’t write a scariest horror movies list without including Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless classic, Psycho. It may not be as graphic as some of the other films on this list, but there are moments of tension and dread that remain unmatched to this day. And who can forget that infamous shower-stabbing scene?
8. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Though Wes Craven’s classic may read as a bubble-gum teen scream at first, it doesn’t take long for the movie’s grisly themes to bubble up like blistered flesh. Innocence is corrupted and lives are cut short when Freddy Kreuger—now one of the most iconic villains of the horror genre—preys upon kids when they're most vulnerable . . .
7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Child-bearing is hard enough, but giving birth to Satan’s spawn is a different beast entirely . . . Roman Polanski’s demonic thriller is another classic that ought to be on every horror fan's radar. It stars Mia Farrow as the titular Rosemary, who finds herself at the center of a series of strange events once she moves to a new apartment. But such spooky goings-on become the least of her concerns when Rosemary, now pregnant, begins to suspect that her unborn child is less than human.
6. The Haunting (1963)
Long before Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, director Robert Wise brought to life the first (and probably still the scariest) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel. The ur-text of doing a lot with a little, The Haunting will scare your pants off with sounds behind closed doors, wallpaper patterns straight out of a bad acid trip, and Jackson-inspired lines like, “Whose hand was I holding?”
5. The Exorcist (1973)
If there’s one thing that’ll get you to church on Sundays, it’s religious horror. William Friedkin’s contribution to the subgenre is arguably the most effective. It’s based on William Peter Blatty’s original novel, which is inspired by a bizarre true story of a boy who was possessed in 1949.
4. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King’s novel and ran with it straight to room of #237 of the Overlook Hotel. Using King’s manuscript as a bare-bones outline, the director reinterpreted much of the spine-chilling action—including Jack’s tryst with "the wet lady" and his frigid demise in the hotel's hedge maze—to suit his own masterful preferences. And we have to say, we’re not mad at him for it.
3. Ghostwatch (1992)
In 1992, the BBC had a War of the Worlds situation on their hands and inadvertently traumatized a nation. Running on October 31, this live TV movie was designed to look like an actual news program investigating a supposedly haunted house. And the network was really committed, going so far as to use real television personalities to play themselves. As the story devolved into horrific chaos, viewers began to panic—and the original airing has even been linked to at least one suicide.
2. Audition (1999)
Film critic Robin Wood once described Takashi Miike’s horror masterpieces as “almost as unwatchable as the news reels” of tragic devastation around the world. But what makes Audition so uniquely terrifying? The story of a widower seeking a new wife, the film features an easy-to-swallow first half that escalates into an outrageously violent finale that “makes Stephen King’s Misery look wholesome” (The Hollywood Reporter). This juxtaposition makes for a deeply unsettling film that has rightfully earned its place among the ranks of the world’s scariest horror movies.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s unflinching journey into the den of Leatherface and his killer hillbilly clan still racks up the screams decades after its release. It's hard to pick a favorite scene, but there's one in particular—aside from dinner with Gramps—that will never quite leave us. You'll have to watch and try to figure out which one we mean.
Featured Image: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: 40th Anniversary, Dark Sky Films