Nerd Culture

The 20 Scariest Horror Films of All Time

'Tis the season to stay up late and be kept up even later by watching ultra-creepy horror flicks to prepare for Halloween. It's hard to pick just 20 favorite films out of an entire genre dedicated to suspense and spooks. From the 1930s all the way to the 2000s, scary movies have spanned the history of filmmaking for a reason: They're addicting to watch, even though you might have to look away from time to time. You might miss some of the gorier details, but as long as you don't miss these 20 movies, you'll be in good shape.

The Shining
Deeply unsettling, Stanley's Kubrick's horror masterpiece is so much more than cheap scares. Jack Nicholson's standout performance in the film will make you feel like you're slowly going insane, while the layers of metaphorical meaning will keep you guessing (and watching) again and again. Creepy twins, ghost sex, extreme isolation, and psychic powers are just part of it. Chances are the phrase "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" still gives you the chills anytime you hear or read it.

Event Horizon
Massive spoiler alert here, but if you haven't seen this film, just go watch it and then read on. Anytime a horror movie goes for the gateway-to-hell plotline, chances are it'll evoke all of those Sunday school lessons you learned as a kid. Add to that the fact that the crew of the Lewis and Clark is trapped in space on the damned ship that shares the movie's title and you've got a real FUBAR situation on your hands. If this movie taught us anything, it's not to mess with the space-time continuum. Trust us, you'll never look at Sam Neill the same way again.

Blair Witch Project
People like to harp on BWP, but the film created a genre of found-footage horror that's somewhere between a snuff film and ghost stories. Go back to the times when you thought it was a actually a true story, and camping will be ruined for you forever. Even knowing it's fake, the odd mythology behind the witch is still so creepy. It takes a pretty special movie to make popping noises, bundles of sticks, and piles of rocks horrifying, and Blair Witch does it. Seriously, though, does anyone know what body part is supposed to be wrapped in Josh's shirt?

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Very, very loosely based on Ed Gein's crimes, this 1970s classic was (and still is) one of the grittiest, most disturbing slasher flicks out there. Made on less than $300,000 with a cast of unknown actors, the low budget just adds to the backwoods realism. Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding antagonist, is only part of what makes this movie so scary. The whole clan behind him is just as deranged after years of working dirty jobs in middle-of-nowhere Texas slaughterhouses.

Twenty bucks says you just thought of John Williams' iconic score immediately after reading that title. Although the Steven Spielberg film doesn't linger on horror elements long, it effectively builds suspense in a way that makes you question every dip you take in the ocean after seeing the movie. Plus, who doesn't love Quint's USS Indianapolis monologue? Word to the wise, though, definitely don't watch Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge if you wish to keep the film's premise unsullied.

Evil Dead
Sam Raimi is at his best when he's making campy horror, and his campy horror A-game is truly on point in Evil Dead. A very young Bruce Campbell is trapped in a cabin infested with demons and has to fight to not succumb to their evil. Don't feel too bad for him, though. He and his dumb friends should've never played that 1980s Book of the Dead audiobook. Isn't that pretty much rule number one? Well, unlike Jaws, Evil Dead's sequels are both pretty great, too.

The Ring
You might be so over this Gore Verbinski horror movie, but you can't act like it didn't scare the bejeezus out of you the first time you saw it. Remember the first time you saw Samara crawl out of the TV screen to claim a victim? Yeah. Terrifying. Best of all, the film demonizes something pretty much anyone has in their home, making it haunt you every time you pass the old flat screen. Plus, the only way to escape Samara's curse is to curse someone else. What a witch.

Clive Barker proved his importance to the horror genre with a four-film series called Hellraiser. Solving a puzzlebox seems pretty tame, but turns out that when you do that in Barker's world, you unleash a gaggle of monstrous demons hellbent on some crazy sadomasochistic business. Pinhead and the Cenobites are the stuff nightmares are made of, and the fleshy rematerialization of one of the main characters is totally gross and creepy.

Silence of the Lambs
Hello, Clarice. Guess what. It's another film kind of based on Ed Gein. The odd thing about this scary movie is it's tough to know whom to be afraid of. You can focus your fear on the cross-dressing, human skin suit-wearing Buffalo Bob or on Hannibal Lecter — you know, the guy who wants to eat your innards and even has a wine pairing in mind. It's no wonder this horrifyingly realistic movie inspired prequels, sequels, and even a TV show. The story is the perfect blend of compelling and just plain messed up.

A lot of people prefer Aliens to Alien, but in terms of horror, the first film has the second beat, hands down. Sure, the sequel is more action-packed, but Ridley Scott's first foray into the Alien franchise is suspenseful and surprising. From facehuggers to xenomorphs, there are plenty of nasty aliens courtesy of the twisted mind of H.R. Giger. Most importantly, though, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is a total badass.

Read on for more truly terrifying horror flicks.

Imagine a giant malevolent alien orb that can derive your greatest fears and manifest them into real life just to terrorize you. People might not consider Sphere a particularly scary movie when they're making their lists, but the film, which is based on a Michael Crichton novel, is not one to be overlooked. If you don't believe us, look no further than the infamous jellyfish scene above. Not so whimsical anymore, are they?

Yep, this is the third film to make the cut that's based somewhat on Ed Gein. That guy really did a number on the horror film industry. Anyway, this Alfred Hitchcock film has everything you're looking for in a good slasher: intensity, uncertainty, and even a graphic murder scene, despite being filmed in black and white. As Phoenicians, we love getting caught up in our hometown's cameo at the beginning of the movie, but everyone can agree that the shower scene is one of the most pivotal moments in horror movie history.

The Thing
In terms of non-CGI special effects, John Carpenter is the master. The Thing is chock-full of all the creepy crawly monsters and gooey severed limbs that you could hope for in a scary movie. Undeniably, Kurt Russell is a total babe as the Antarctic scientist protagonist, but the movie's more than just his pretty, pretty face. The uneasiness and distrust builds between the characters so well in the movie that it's hard to know who has been infected with the alien virus. It keeps you guessing and jumping a bit when people explode a new batch of E.T. monsters.

Rosemary's Baby
There are people who are completely freaked out by this 1968 classic, and then there are men. However, even the unfairer sex can feel sympathy pains for Mia Farrow's character as she carries a demon baby to term thanks to her evil neighbors. You might've thought your pregnancy stories were a nightmare, but trust us, it's nothing compared to Roman Polanski's take.

Really, there shouldn't be a whole heck of a lot more explanation needed than saying there's a murderous clown named Pennywise on the loose and he's ready to terrorize your dreams for the rest of your life. If you insist on more, just know that this film adaptation of work by the prolific horror writer Stephen King is a deeply disturbing story about a clown that sucks kids into the storm drain to eat them or whatever it is he has planned. We know it isn't good.

28 Days Later
You're probably mad right now that Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead aren't on the list and this movie is, but you know what? Slow zombies aren't scary. What is scary is ravenous, infected cannibals running at full speed toward you. This movie doesn't spare any of the gory details, either. Prepare to see a fair amount of people being eaten by other people. Yikes.

No good horror movie list is complete without including a Dario Argento movie. The master of horror expertly melds beauty with gore and madness with subtlety. Visually striking and unique, there's no mistaking an Argento movie. While we also love Inferno, you can't deny how creepy this witch coven masquerading as a top dance academy actually is.

It says a lot that this film, made in 1932, has stood the test of time for more than eight decades. Though there's supposedly an even more distressing version of the film that was deemed pretty much unfit for society back in those days, we're fine with the Freaks that's out there. If you haven't seen the movie, which stars real people with physical deformities, you might think the title was patently offensive. However, there's a twist and the real "monsters" in this movie might not be who you'd think, despite being made in the pre-politically correct era.

The Exorcist
You're probably possessed if you genuinely thought we'd leave The Exorcist off this list. It's widely hailed as one of the best, if not the best, horror movie of all time for a reason: It pretty much invented the formula for movies centered around demonic possession. This movie stands out to this day for a number of reasons, but we think that Linda Blair's performance as the possessed daughter Regan is unbeatable. And the film won two Oscars, so that's got to count for something.

Nightmare on Elm Street
It's like you can hear the conversation that Wes Craven was having when he came up with the idea for this 1980s horror movie. We're guessing it was something to the effect of, "Oh yeah, let's make everyone literally afraid to sleep" — and that he did. Freddy Kreuger is a twisted S.O.B., and Robert Englund's mix of humor and terror will definitely make you uneasy when the lights are out. Worst of all, he's relentless. So just don't fall asleep ... ever.

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version, which first appeared in October 2014.
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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch