Fear is subjective but there are a few things that will almost always make a terrifying movie. Shocks and gore help, but really effective horrors also build atmosphere, contain characters that are relatable, and tap into the uncanny.
There are many modern horror films that almost made it on this list, but the classics are classics for a reason.
A few honourable mentions that are also filled with intense scares are: The Descent (2005), Nightwatch (1994), High Tension (2003), Livid (2011), House of the Devil (2009), Creep (2004), The Collector (2009), Black Christmas (1974), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and Deep Red (1975).
But here’s our top ten list of the scariest movies of all time.
The Lamberts (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move into a new house. After son Dalton mysteriously falls into a coma Mrs. Lambert starts to believe that the house is haunted.
They move, but things get worse. The couple turns to demonologist Elise who informs them that a dark spirit has attached itself to Dalton who is trapped in an astral plane called ‘the further’.
Insidious (Wan, 2010, US) is a smarter, scarier updated take on Poltergeist than the abysmal remake of Poltergeist was.
This is because it hits the right tone; the Lambert family are likable, the auxiliary action provided by the paranormal investigation team is light-hearted and the demon itself is absolutely terrifying.
9 A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are all having the same nightmare; a man with a burnt face and ‘knives for fingers’ is chasing them.
Soon her friends are being murdered in their dreams and dying in real life. Nancy must stay awake to survive, but as tiredness sets in it is hard to tell the waking nightmare from deadly ones.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984, US) killer Freddie Kruger, in his original incarnation, was a heartless and disgusting child molester who was burned to death by the towns’ people in a cover-up.
His power over the children and their parents continues even though they deny his existence.
8 The Innocents
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes on a job as governess to orphans Miles and Flora after the death of the previous governess.
She has little experience with children and finds the relationship between the siblings to be ‘unnatural.’
She gradually starts to believe that the spirits of the dead Governess and the Valet are working through the children.
The Innocents (Clayton, 1961, US) is easily as psychologically disturbing and powerful as The Exorcist, below, but is not as relatively well known.
There is something uncanny about the children but the audience is left to decide for themselves who the real victims are at the end of the movie.
7 It Follows
Jay (Maika Monroe) goes out with a guy she barely knows. They have sex and he ‘transmits’ a monster to her.
The monster can look like anyone and will follow her across the earth until it gets her. The only way to avoid death is to pass the monster on to someone else but if they die it will come back down the line.
It Follows (D. R. Mitchell, 2014, US) owes a lot to Halloween (an unstoppable thing slowly but relentlessly stalking) but ten years from now It Follows will be the film new filmmakers will be referencing in their work because of the new, original way it handles classic horror tropes.
6 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Sally, her brother Franklin and their three friends visit her grandfather’s cemetery after reports that graves in the area have been desecrated.
They decide to continue the road trip but after picking up an unhinged hitchhiker the friends find themselves tangled up with a family of murderous cannibals.
Texas Chainsaw (Hooper, 1974, US) was one of the first films to successfully use the ‘based on a true story’ line to ramp up the terror.
Although inspired by killer Ed Gein, the events of the film are fictional. The title of the film and the opening prologue alone are enough to conjure up fear for most people.
In Candyman (Rose, 1992, US/UK) Helen (Virginia Madsen) is working on a thesis about urban legends when she hears the story of a vengeful spirit (Tony Todd) with a hook for a hand who terrorises the residents of the Cabrini-Green housing projects if they call his name five times into a mirror.
Helen becomes obsessed with the legend, but after accidentally ‘summoning’ Candyman her life is turned into a brutal nightmare.
Candyman, with its beautiful Philip Glass soundtrack, is a truly dark, modern fairy tale. Cabrini-Green is a labyrinth drawing Helen increasingly further in towards her fate.
The themes of the film are also a comment on continuing race segregation in America.
4 You’re Next
Erin (Sharni Vinson) and boyfriend Crispin visit his parent’s remote holiday home for a family reunion.
His family is extremely dysfunctional, descending into an argument over dinner until they are interrupted by a home invasion.
Erin must use her survival skills to try and keep everyone alive as masked men attack the house with crossbows and axes.
You’re Next (Wingard, 2011, US) is a full throttle slasher movie and probably the best of the 21st century so far.
It is stylish, well-acted, filled with witty dialogue and has many thrilling twists and turns.
After the ordeal is over you will want to keep on listening to Dwight Twilley’s Looking for the Magic. (If you can find it.)
3 The Exorcist
Father Karras (Jason Miller) is having a crisis of faith when he is asked by Chris (Ellen Burstyn) to help her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) who she believes to be possessed by a demon.
Karras witnesses events at their house first hand and petitions the Church to let him perform an exorcism on Regan.
Thanks to director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (1973, US) is a psychologically powerful film.
Theatre audiences were sick and fainting in the aisles, due to the film’s subliminal editing and unusual sound design.
Even today the film is uncomfortable to watch, sending a chill down the spine.
2 The Silence of the Lambs
FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is used as bait to get dangerous, yet intellectually brilliant cannibal psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) help to profile another dangerous serial killer; Buffalo Bill.
What her boss doesn’t realize is that Clarice is a strong, tough intelligent woman who will become integral to catching the murderer.
A few series of a TV show later and Dr. Lecter may have become some vaguely romantic figure but in Silence of the Lambs (1992, US) director Jonathan Demme never forgot what he was; a killer.
When Lecter kills his prison guards late on in the film it is one of the most brutal, shocking and violent scenes in cinema.
As a child, Michael Myers murders his sister on Halloween. He is locked up and becomes a psychological vegetable.
His doctor (Donald Pleasence) is convinced that Myers is evil incarnate and tries to keep him in maximum security but Michael escapes and returns home to wreak murderous havoc on teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends on the anniversary of his original crime.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978, US) may owe its own existence to Hitchcock’s Psycho but Halloween has itself become ‘year zero’, laying the foundations for the filmmakers who followed.
JC wrote the score for Halloween himself and piercing synth punctuates each moment of terror.