Horror cinema has long been a space where storytellers can explore the vast depth of human emotions—and into which they can dive deeply into universal human fears and anxieties. And while horror provides ample space to traverse the underbelly of the human spectrum of emotions, ultimately we do so in order to exorcise our own demons.
We explore the taboo to get at the heart of our psyches; we explore our fears of loss and death in order to live more fully. While many outside the genre see horror as grotesque and vile, those of us submerged in these murky waters understand that we do so because, ultimately, we know it's imperative to face all aspects of our human experience. We retreat to the shadows because we know light cannot exist without darkness. Horror breeds empathy—for ourselves and for others. In order to truly love, understand, and connect with each other, we must confront our (personal and collective) grief, pain, sadness, and wounds.
Whether you're a long-time lover of the genre or a newer convert, there are so many classic horror films it's easy to get overwhelmed. But knowledge of classic horror movies is essential to understanding where the horror genre has come from, how it's shifted over time, and how it's evolving forward. But with so many options, how do you decide which classic movies to watch—and which ones you can skip?
We've worked very hard to compile an ultimate list of the classic horror movies every die-hard horror fan should see at least once.
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Psychological horror is a subgenre that turns the focus inward onto our greatest fears. Instead of there being an external force of evil, the call is coming from “inside the house”, so to speak. And if there is a monster or other entities, they are typically manifestations of repressed and denied parts of our psyches. Here are some classic psychological horror films that focus on disturbing our mental, emotional, and psychological states.
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Directed by horror film legend Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho is one of the most iconic horror films in history—and its infamous shower scene terrorized a generation of movie-goers. Norman Bates is a disturbed motel owner who lives with his overbearing mother in the house behind i. The problem is, “Mother” won’t stop killing the female hotel guests who get too close to her precious boy.
The Birds (1963)
In the town of Bodega Bay, California, citizens begin to experience random and violent bird attacks. While this could also be considered a creature feature, the psychological tension created by the film's mood is unmatched. This film is another Hitchcock classic.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Released in 1960, this aesthetic French horror film is a twisted treat for the eyes—even if it will disturb you. Dr. Génessier is a plastic surgeon who accidentally disfigures his daughter disfigured—forcing her to wear a mask. Determined to make up for the trauma he inflicted upon his daughter, Génessier kidnaps women and slices them up—with the hope that he’ll be able to graft their surgically removed features onto his daughter’s face.
Vampires are creatures of the night who have made such an impact within the world of monsters that they’ve built up a following big enough to warrant their own subgenre. Based off of the bloodsucking, undead folklore from around the world, horror films centered on vampirism have taken a turn for either the highly creative or the deeply trite over the years. But what films sired the enthralling subgenre of vampire horror?
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Based on the classic novel of the same name by Bram Stoker, this film follows Transylvanian vampire Dracula (Bela Lugosi), who turns the locals of an English town into his unwitting victims.
Fright Night (1985)
Teenager Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) makes the terrifying discovery that his new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a nefarious vampire. To protect all he holds dear, Charley teams up with washed-up horror actor Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall).
The Lost Boys (1987)
When a family moves to the California town of Santa Carla, the teenage brothers get pulled into a world of trouble. As the older Michael (Jason Patric) gets mixed up with a dangerous gang of vampires led by David (Kiefer Sutherland), the younger Sam (Corey Haim) teams up with the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) who claim to be vampire hunters.
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
An epic tale based on the novel of the same name by Anne Rice, this film follows centuries-old vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) as he recounts the many years of his tortured life, encompassing his transformation and betrayal at the hands of seductive aristocrat Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise).
30 Days of Night (2007)
One of the more recent films on this list of must-watch classics, this 2007 flick takes place in Barrow, Alaska during its annual 30 days of polar night. Plunged into unending darkness, the townspeople are terrorized by a vicious gang of vampires.
For a long time, werewolves and vampires in horror fiction went hand in hand—but these half-man, half-beasts have clawed out their own niche in cinema. A curse that causes uncontrollable bloodlust and an animalistic transformation, lycanthropy wreaks havoc on anyone that crosses its path. These werewolf horror films show where it all began.
The Wolf Man (1941)
When Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his family's home in Wales, his connection with a beautiful woman is darkened by a werewolf bite. Unable to control himself, he becomes the target of the townspeople's deadly hunt.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
When two American college students go on a tour of Britain, a werewolf attack leaves them forever changed. As one of the young men feels pulled between two worlds, the locals refuse to admit the existence of this brutal creature.
The Howling (1981)
After a disturbing experience with a serial killer, newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) heads off to a secluded retreat to emotionally recover. Unfortunately for her, the eerie townspeople are not quite what they seem.
Macabre sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are outcasts in their quaint suburban town—until Ginger is bitten by a creature in the woods, and begins a transition that is deadly for everyone around her.
Many audiences often equate horror and thrillers as one and the same—but there are defined, if not ignored, differences. Horror is about the atmosphere of fear and dread, while thriller movies are about the active mood, bringing forth anxiety, suspense, and anticipation. Both elicit a sense of unease in viewers, so it’s no wonder the lines are often blurred.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
When a family travelling to California gets in a car accident, they find themselves stranded in an Air Testing desert closed to the public. But they’re not alone—they’re being hunted by a family of crazed cannibals.
I Spit On Your Grave (2010)
When writer Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) leaves the big city to isolate herself in a cabin to work, she finds herself helpless as she’s brutalized by a group of sadistic men. Left for dead, Jennifer gathers herself to set out on a mission of violent revenge.
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, successful author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds himself in a precarious situation after a car wreck lands him in the care of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie demands that, as he recovers, he write a new book that brings her favorite character back to life—or else.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Young FBI cadet Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) must work with a conniving cannibal, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), to catch another serial killer who skins his victims.
Everyone loves a good ghost story. Due to its unknowable nature, death is a concept that frightens many people. Whether or not there is life after death is hotly debated. Ghost movies are terrifying because they embody this uncertainty—and our own fears about what could happen to our souls when we leave our physical bodies.
Written by Steven Spielberg, this film follows a family’s attack by malevolent ghosts in their suburban home. The ultimate nightmare—ghosts that can cause physical damage.
The Shining (1980)
A Stanley Kubrick classic, The Shining is the adaptation of the Stephen King’s novel by the same name (although King notoriously wasn’t thrilled with the adaptation itself.) Still, this film is an iconic classic. The notorious Stanley hotel, the twins in the bloody hallway, the ghosts in the bar, Jack’s descent into madness. It may not be a true representation of the source material but it’s become a classic in its own right.
The Ring (2002)
This is the American version of Ringu (1998)—and frankly, both versions are worth the watch. I was a teenager when I first saw this movie in the theater—and the ghost of the dead girl crawling out of the television is a visual I will never forget.
From shambling, decaying brain-eaters to hyper-aggressive, fast-moving mutations, zombie movies and other media seem to have reached a soaring peak in the past couple of years. While the genre may have been revolutionized and reimagined several times over, it maintains one key throughline: a highly contagious sickness that turns those infected into mindless aggressors.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Just because a film is a classic, doesn’t mean it is without its problems. In fact, plenty of old staples are rife with outdated social norms, which lend themselves to being wildly offensive in today’s social landscape—even if the initial intention was to be the opposite. The racism in this 1943 film is no exception, despite its mark on cinematic history.
Canadian nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) arrives on a Caribbean island to care for the catatonic wife of a sugar plantation owner, Paul Holland (Tom Conway). As Betsy becomes entangled in Paul’s complicated life, she seeks out voodoo practices to heal his broken wife.
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
This pivotal classic from director George Romero follows a mismatched group of people holed up in a farmhouse as the dead begin to rise. As the flesh-eaters descend, the tension amidst the group threatens their chances of survival.
28 Days Later (2002)
Four weeks after a dangerous virus is released from an animal testing lab, a man wakes up from a coma alone. London is deserted, fallen to the savage infected, and he and the few survivors must fight for what remains of their life.
Creature feature films are a big staple of the horror genre, tapping into fears that go beyond human cruelty. It doesn’t matter where these terrors come from—a place beyond our world, the mind of a man defying nature, or even somewhere inexplicable and ancient—these monsters are the stuff of nightmares.
Based on the ultimate classic novel of the same name by Mary Shelley, this film follows the hubris of Doctor Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) as he attempts to discover the secret behind creating life. Cobbling a monster together out of dead parts, he succeeds—but his creation is not fit for the harsh world of the living.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
Deep in the jungle of the Amazon, a gilled, prehistoric man lives within the Black Lagoon. But as scientists attempt to capture this ancient creature to study him, the beast falls in love with a woman named Kay (Julie Adams).
After receiving a strange transmission, the crew of a commercial spacecraft must investigate a disturbance on a distant moon. What they encounter there is a horrifying creature far more dangerous than they could ever imagine.
The Thing (1982)
Isolated in a research station in Antarctica in the dead of winter, an American research team stumbles across what appears to be an alien life form. Terror unfolds as the life form begins to hunt them—shapeshifting into the form of their allies.
While technically released as a two-part miniseries, this three-hour adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name can easily be viewed in one sitting. In the 60s, seven young teenage outcasts face off against an otherworldly child-eating clown. Three decades later, they must reunite as adults to stop him once and for all.
Related: Top 10 Stephen King Adaptations in the Last 20 Years
While it seems like they might fall under the banner of creature features, shark movies are really in a league of their own. While there are many shark movies available to watch these days, the roots of the subgenre really boil down to one ultimate classic—and we're sure you can guess which one that is. This movie is grounded in a more realistic form of horror—since it’s entirely possible that a shark could be waiting in the water at almost any beach.
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The original summer blockbuster, Jaws tells the story of the town of Amity Island as it is terrorized by a murderous shark. After local politicians refuse to close the beaches, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) enlists the help of a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter to hunt down the creature.
This is a subgenre that often gets a bad rep. But body horror movies are about more than mere gore. Our bodies, resilient as they are, are also frighteningly fragile. For many of us, to live in a body is to experience horror—whether it’s the way a body changes during puberty or mutates during pregnancy, or the way they could become dismembered in a freak accident. Body horror, at its core, explores the anxieties of moving through life in a form that could easily experience pain or strange transformations.
House of 1,000 Corpses (2003)
The Fireflys are a tight-knit family that preys upon innocent travelers for their depraved rituals. Some of their victims’ bodies are sculpted into grotesque art while others are otherwise mutilated.
The Fly (1986)
A David Cronenburg classic, this film explores the horror of bodily transformation. After a teleportation science experiment goes wrong, Dr. Seth Brundle’s DNA is accidentally fused with the DNA of a fly and slowly morphs over the course of the film into a 185-pound fly—to the great despair of both himself and his girlfriend. A body horror masterpiece.
Why is found footage such a terrifying device in horror films? It cranks up the “real” factor. Found footage-style films feel incredibly freaky, because the low-budget quality of the video and the “found” quality effectively blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The “home video style” footage is disconcerting—even though logically you know it’s not real, a big part of you can’t help but wonder if you’re viewing some long-forgotten real footage from someone’s basement.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Three young aspiring filmmakers head in the woods with camcorders, hoping to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. At the time it came out, most people hadn’t seen anything like it. The low-budget style of the footage led many people to wonder if it was an actual documentary.
Lake Mungo (2008)
This mockumentary-style film follows a family (mother, father, and son) trying to process the death of their daughter/sister. Their pain is palpable, as well as their longing to understand what happened. As the documentary progresses, strange phenomena are recorded in the house…and the family begins to wonder if they’re being haunted by more than grief.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
A family experiencing bizarre supernatural experiences in their home sets up video cameras to capture what’s going on. You’ll never look at a baby monitor the same way again.
Short for “record,” Rec is a Spanish found-footage film that follows firefighters answering an emergency call. Things go downhill quickly when an infection begins to spread…
Occult horror has terrorized people for a long time—often due to its taboo nature as well as the influence of Abrahamic religions. These movies usually involve a person or group of people—witches, perhaps?—who get involved with demonic entities through methods that are traditionally associated with the occult like black magic.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
As Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) prepares for the arrival of her baby, she is helped by her neighbors, the eccentric Castavets. But as her due date gets closer, strange and horrific events begin to occur that lead Rosemary to suspect that everyone around her knows something about her baby that she doesn’t.
Night of the Demons (1988)
On Halloween night, a group of high school students have a party at an abandoned and supposedly cursed funeral home. But after a séance goes wrong, they release a demon that begins possessing them one by one.
High schooler Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) spends her days being bullied by her fellow students and her nights being tormented by her religious fanatic mother. When she discovers that she has telekinetic powers, Carrie eventually decides to take her revenge.
American student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at a prestigious dance school in Germany hoping to make something of herself as a ballerina. Instead, she discovers that the school is hiding an evil occult presence.
Demonic possession movies don’t just involve contact with demons, but full-on bodily possession. Usually, one or more innocent people become possessed and a heroic figure then must wage a battle to save their souls.
The Exorcist (1973)
When young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) begins acting strange and violent, a local priest, Damien Karras (Jason Miller) believes she has been possessed by a demon. Once he gets permission from the church, Karras and the more experienced Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) attempt to perform an exorcism to save Regan.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
After an attempted exorcism resulted in Emily Rose’s (Jennifer Carpenter) death, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is put on trial for her death. As the trial plays out, Father Moore is forced to relive the events of that terrible night.
The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)
After recently divorced socialite Norah Benson’s (Shirley MacLaine) brother Joel (Perry King) returns to New York from a trip, he seems to lose his grip on reality, attacking a man and being sent to a mental institution. As Norah investigates, she begins to suspect that Joel has been possessed by the spirit of a serial killer.
The Evil Dead (1981)
When a group of college friends discovers an ancient Sumerian text hidden in the remote cabin they’re vacationing in, they unknowingly release a demon who quickly begins possessing them one by one. The one unharmed is Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), who now must do battle with the forces of evil just to stay alive.
Every house’s owner leaves their mark, but some are a little more tangible than others. Haunted house movies often follow a group of people that move into an old—sometimes abandoned—house where a previous event has tied restless spirits to the space. Horror ensues.
Related: 21 Haunted House Books That Will Leave You Sleeping with One Eye Open
The Haunting (1963)
Based on the Shirley Jackson classic The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting follows a group of people who move into the mysterious Hill House to investigate claims of the paranormal. But is the house really haunted, or are the ghosts of their respective pasts catching up with them?
The Amityville Horror (1979)
One year after 112 Ocean Avenue becomes the site of a horrific murder, the Lutz family moves in. But almost as soon as they arrive, they begin to suspect that the house is haunted by a deeply evil presence.
Folk horror movies draw on legends and folklore both real and fictional for their premises. There is also often an added element of a connection to nature and history.
Related: These Bewitching Folk Horror Books Will Haunt Your Dreams
The Wicker Man (1973)
When a child goes missing, conservative police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to a remote island to investigate. There he finds that the residents have developed a sexually charged cult centered around old Celtic gods, but that turns out to be far from the most disturbing thing he will uncover.
The Witchfinder General (1968)
During the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) uses his position as the Witchfinder General to spread terror throughout the English countryside as he brutalizes suspected witches until they confess. After Hopkins’ assistant assaults his wife and Hopkins himself executes her uncle, soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Oglivy) vows revenge.
While researching for her graduate thesis on urban legends, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) learns about the story of the Candyman, who, if anyone says his name five times in front of a mirror, will appear to kill them. As a series of murders rocks the area, Helen comes face-to-face with a legend that is all too real.
The horror subgenre that defined the 1970s and 80s, slasher movies are a bloodbath through and through. These movies involve a group of people—usually young people—terrorized by a single killer who hunts them down one by one.
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Friday the 13th (1980)
Ever since the summer young Jason Vorhees drowned, Camp Crystal Lake has had a troubled history. Now, as a group of counselors works to reopen the camp, someone begins killing them off one by one.
One year after her mother was horrifically murdered, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) finds herself being stalked by a killer. At a party thrown by her horror-movie obsessed friends, she will have to face her deepest fears.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
When Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother, and their friends go to visit her old family homestead, they stumble upon a family of murderous cannibals. As the imposing and mute Leatherface begins to hunt them down, it seems like there is no escape.
Years ago, six year old Michael Meyers murdered his older sister on Halloween night. Now, he has escaped and returned to his hometown, where he has his sights set on teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A group of teenagers are terrorized by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a vengeful spirit who chases them in their dreams. If he kills them in the dream, they die in real life.
Black Christmas (1974)
While a group of sorority sisters enjoy their annual Christmas party, a mysterious man starts making threatening phone calls to them. As several sisters go missing over the course of the next few days, it's a race against time to track down the killer.