Scariest Horror Movies of All Time
You’re safe at home in your living room. You’ve got popcorn, some soda. Maybe the lights are on, maybe you’re brave and they’re not. But the blinds are drawn. Your door is locked. You’re perfectly safe. Ghosts, demons, zombies, monsters … they don’t exist, right?
As a rational adult, you know this. But there are certain films that can make your muscles tense, send an icy shiver up your spine, quicken your heart at a sudden sound — a quiet creak, a soft breath, the scratch of a nail on the windowpane? Probably just a tree branch, you tell yourself. But you don’t turn around, because you wouldn’t dare take your eyes away from the screen.
The horror movies on GAYOT’s list of the Scariest Movies of All Time don’t just shock or frighten — they get under your skin in the most delightfully creepy way.
These selections are presented in alphabetical order.
1. Alien (1979)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
Released by: Twentieth Century Fox
Run Time: 117 min.
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi
What makes the Ridley Scott-directed film, “Alien,” effective is the atmosphere of claustrophobic horror.
Though it spawned several action-packed sequels (those face-hugging aliens really can breed), what makes the original, Ridley Scott-directed film effective is the atmosphere of claustrophobic horror. It’s true that in space, no one can hear you scream; there’s also nowhere to run. Suffocating blackness outside, a huge, acidic-blooded monster inside … these are not good odds. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley beat them, even as the rest of her crew is decimated, never ceases to thrill, terrify, and make one view the starry sky just a little more warily.
2. Audition (1999)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki
Released by: American Cinematheque
Run Time: 115 min.
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
“Audition” follows the story of Aoyama, a lonely, middle-aged widower who holds a mock audition for the “role” of his new wife.
On-screen torture, when done correctly, can be so unsettling as to linger in the viewer’s consciousness for days after the credits have rolled. Such is the case with Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” a Japanese horror film that features a notorious torture scene so disturbing that it obliterates any memory of the film’s fairly plodding first act. “Audition” follows the story of Aoyama, a lonely, middle-aged widower who holds a mock audition for the “role” of his new wife and promptly falls for an enigmatic young contestant named Asami. It turns out that Asami has some pretty serious skeletons in her closet — the people in her past have a habit of turning up dead or horribly disfigured. Before this unlikely love story can bloom, Asami discovers evidence of Aoyami’s ex-wife and becomes psychotically jealous. We’ll spare you the graphic details of what happens next, but suffice to say that poor old Aoyami learns firsthand the painful meaning of the adage, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
3. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
Released by: Warner Bros.
Run Time: 122 min.
The quintessential must-watch scary movie that will have you up for nights.
Linda Blair projectile-vomiting pea soup has become something of a cultural joke by now, but actually seeing “The Exorcist,” you’ll find it surprisingly hard to maintain a detached, ironic air. Instead, watching trapped, transformed Regan MacNeil (Blair) spider-walk down the stairs or make highly-inappropriate use of a crucifix while her terrified mother (Ellen Burstyn) looks on, you won’t be laughing. You’ll be crossing yourself.
4. Halloween (1978)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran
Released by: Compass International Pictures
Run Time: 91 min.
Genre: Horror, Thriller
“Halloween” remains one of the most frightening and influential horror films of all time.
Evil never dies, as is evidenced in the case of Michael Myers, the mask-wearing serial killer from 1978 slasher fave “Halloween.” No matter how many times he’s shot, stabbed or blown up, nothing can stop Michael from slaying countless numbers of unsuspecting teenagers. That creepy sense of utter futility in the face of evil, coupled with the haunting theme music, plays a big role in why this film is so unnerving. The success of “Halloween” spawned a host of similar murderous flicks (“Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street”) and established a legacy of memorable horror movie clichés. Amazingly, although the movie itself doesn’t contain much graphic violence or gore, “Halloween” is still one of the most frightening and influential horror films of all time.
5. Let the Right One In (2008)
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar
Released by: Magnolia Pictures
Run Time: 115 min.
Genre: Horror, Romance, Drama
The best vampire movie that’s also frightening, not just playful.
The artful Swedish original freaked out moviegoers in 2008 with its snowy set pieces and gruesome violence, and it’s just as creepy on the small screen. A timid and introverted young boy finds out that the pale, peculiar girl living in his apartment complex is actually a bloodsucking vampire. In 2010, an American remake was released that – shockingly – received positive marks from critics. That being said, we’ve still opted for the original film to hold a place on our list.
6. Misery (1990)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 107 min.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Based on a novel by Stephen King, “Misery” stars Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance as nutty nurse Annie Wilkes.
“Misery” is the perfect title for this nerve-wracking thriller about a famous novelist who suffers severe injuries in a car crash, and then more pain at the hands of his rescuer. Based on a bestseller by horror master Stephen King, “Misery” stars Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance as nutty nurse Annie Wilkes, who can’t believe her luck when the man she saves turns out to be her favorite author who just finished a manuscript. As he recovers at her house, his self-proclaimed “number one fan” complains that she isn’t happy with his latest work, and lets him know it in a variety of painful ways.
7. The Omen (1976)
Directed by: Richard Donner
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens
Released by: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 111 min.
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Mystery
“The Omen” has been inducing nightmares since its 1976 release.
With the power to disturb even jaded fans of the scary-movie genre, “The Omen” has been inducing nightmares since its 1976 release. This is probably due to its excellent lead, a young actor who convincingly and creepily inhabits the role of the satanic kid. Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn, a recent father who secretly swaps his diseased newborn for an orphaned infant in order to protect his wife’s mental well-being. Over time, Robert realizes the young boy may in fact be the Antichrist. With horror movie elements that inspired such films as “Orphan” and “The Ring,” “The Omen” was a major technical and even musical advancement for the genre — composer Jerry Goldsmith won an Academy Award for the score.
8. Session 9 (2001)
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Starring: David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle
Released by: USA Films
Run Time: 97 min.
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Brad Anderson creates an unsettling portrait of madness in the 2001 horror movie, “Session 9.”
Filmed on location at the former Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, rumored to be the birthplace of prefrontal lobotomy, the bleakly atmospheric “Session 9” revolves around the members of an asbestos removal crew who all begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre and violent behavior after beginning work at the asylum. Featuring a cast of relative nobodies (apologies to David Caruso), the film is gradually ratcheted up to heightened levels of spookiness by director Brad Anderson, who went on to thoroughly creep out audiences with “The Machinist.” By utilizing an array of tension-inducing camera techniques — most notably the slow zoom — and taking advantage of the inherently eerie locale, Anderson creates an unsettling portrait of madness.
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Released by: Orion Pictures
Run Time: 118 min.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Sir Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal that really gets under your skin.
Look at Hannibal Lecter. He’s so charming! So articulate! So dignified, even strapped down with a bite guard over his face. He’s just so … alluring that you really would be tempted to accept his invitation to dinner. Which would be bad. ‘Cause he eats people. (And washes ’em down with fine wine.) Sure, Buffalo Bill’s flashy, hide-tanning efforts form the bulk of the film’s plot, but it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal that really gets under your skin. Yet, despite his bewitching persona, no amount of Chianti can ever change the fact that Hannibal Lecter is one of cinema’s greatest villains of all time.
10. 28 Days Later (2002)
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston
Released by: Twentieth Century Fox
Run Time: 113 min.
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi, Drama
Alex Garland and Danny Boyle change the picture of zombies we’ve all had in our head.
Before “28 Days Later” came out in 2002, the mental picture of zombies was universally that of a slow, shuffling, rotting corpse with an unquenchable hunger for “braaaaaaiiins.” But the writer-director team of Alex Garland and Danny Boyle changed all that. These new rage-infected zombies terrorizing a quarantined England’s few survivors are real speed demons: charging down tunnels, smashing through glass, leaping at you out of the dark. Once scary only en masse, just a single specimen of this new breed of zombie is deadly. Twenty-eight days later, you’ll still be nervous walking down an empty street after dark.