October is the start of fall and the lead-in to Halloween, making it the perfect time to settle down with some popcorn to watch these scary classics.
The best horror movies often depend on a number of factors. Mostly it depends on where you saw a film, and how old you were when you saw it. The films listed below represent the best of the horror genre over the past decades. Whether one of these films is an old classic from your youth or a new film to create new memories, there is surely one you will love. Now, maybe you have never seen one of the best horror movies before. Maybe you think it will be too scary. Or you could think that it would be too ridiculous. Even if you feel that way, there are movies on here you would love. These aren’t just the best horror movies, some of these rank among the best pieces of cinema ever made.
What the Best Horror Movies Have in Common
The list below represents a varied selection of what the horror genre has to offer, as well as some that cross over with other genres. The best horror movies have three main ingredients: the story, the scares, and the visual magic. The story, like with any film or television show, is the most important part. The audience has to care about the characters if they are going to care about the supernatural element. What they do and what happens has to make sense. It can be pure fantasy. You can accept a demon or a monster more than you can accept a story and characters that don’t have a logic to their actions. At the core of all of the films listed below are built around great stories.
The other two elements can be related, but they don’t have to be. The visual magic consists of both the special effects but also the hand of the director. For example, George Romero’s creature effects in Night of the Living Dead are consistent with the time. However, the way he filmed the picture adds to the tension, fear, and weirdness that the audience experiences. On the other hand, the creature effects in Alien play a key role in making that film work. If the alien looked like a rubber dinosaur, the movie would be a farce. As for the scares, that’s just how the film scares you. Usually it’s the “jump scare,” but it can also be the kind of quiet suspense found in films like Get Out, Psycho, and A Quiet Place.
What is the Best Way to Watch These Movies?
If you’re watching the best horror movies, it only makes sense to use the best home theater set up you can. Movies are immersive experiences, with what you see and hear contributing to how you experience the story. With the best horror movies, this element is arguably even more important. So, if you want to make the viewing experience as scary and creepy as possible, keep the lights out and the sound up. On the other hand, if you’re easily scared but still want to check out the movies, fear not. Keep the sound down and the lights up. Maybe even watch on a smaller screen, like a bedroom TV, tablet, or your laptop. That way you can still experience the story, but not so much so that you feel like you’re there.
In a practical sense, you are going to need a 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray player and a 4K Ultra HD television to get the best experience. Some of the movies below have been reissued in this groundbreaking visual format. Once you watch something in 4K Ultra HD, regular HD doesn’t really compare any more. Some of the movies, however, are just regular Blu Ray and one is only available on DVD. Still, any Blu Ray player can play a DVD and the 4K players can handle regular Blu Rays. There are also other formats, including digital, available.
The Best Horror Movies for a Spooky October
The below list is presented in alphabetical order (save for the final entry), so feel free to mix it up as you see fit. Either way, here is our list of the best horror movies to watch each day of the spookiest month of the year. Rank them best to worst or favorite to least favorite in the comments or just tell us which ones you like best.
1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
This movie is dubbed the “first Iranian vampire western” and also one of the best horror movies. This film is complete with a bloodsucking ghoul. However, it’s also a story about pain, loss, and the weight of responsibility. Finally, it’s a kind of love story, but a sinister one. It began as a short film from writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour. She then crowd-funded a feature-length version of the film. (It made back almost 12 times that at the box office.) The film screened at the 2014 Sundance film festival, eventually being distributed by VICE Films. It’s a must-have for any fan of the best horror movies, foreign films, or indie cinema.
2. A Quiet Place
Best known as Jim from the Office, Jim Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt wrote, directed, and star in this film. There has been an alien invasion of some kind by creatures who hunt by sound. The film focuses on a family trying to survive, and also dealing with the heavy emotional issues families do. What makes this film unique is the way it uses silence to be scary. When the characters do make noise, the payoff of those moments are satisfying. This is one of those movies that will scare you after the movie as well as during it, as you think about how you’d fail to be as quiet as the characters. This straight-forward and serious film takes a fantastic premise and makes it very relatable and real.
Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of sci-fi makes for one of the best horror movies, Alien is one of those films that seems to be “more” than a horror film. In fact, the movie was only made after the success of Star Wars, and Fox wanted another sci-fi hit. However, the story was born from a grotesque (but gorgeous) drawing by H.R. Geiger of the eponymous creature. At its core, this film was always a horror movie. It was just one that happened to be set in space. If Fox wanted another delightful space romp like the one set in a galaxy far, far away, they didn’t get it. Instead they got a horror film that not only became a hit at the box office, but one of the classic works of American cinema. Pick it up, and then go down the rabbit hole with the half-dozen sequels.
4. The Amityville Horror
Based on the supposedly “true” book of the same name, this film spawned an entire genre of horror, further cementing its spot on any list of the best horror movies. The story is familiar today. A young family moves into a house with a past they don’t know about. Suddenly strange and horrifying things happen to the family. They start acting strange or getting injured. Finally, all hell breaks loose. There have been no less than 20 movies based on this story, but the first is still the best one. Josh Brolin and Margot Kidder turn in amazing performances, though critics panned them at the time. Today, film scholars recognize that this film is a classic.
5. The Blair Witch Project
This film is actually very important to the history of filmmaking, while also being a unique and interesting take on a horror film. This was one of the first “found footage” style of the best horror films to become a hit. In fact, the marketing for the film on the early internet sparked controversy as people thought it was an honest-to-goodness documentary. The charade went on for some time, until the filmmakers admitted it was fiction. Nonetheless, this movie tells a compelling story about three researchers in the woods encountering something they cannot explain. The hand-held cameras and how close they are on the actors make this a very emotional horror story. It’s light on special-effects visual magic, but the cinematography of this film went on to define the standard in found-footage films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.
The first of three stories on this list by modern horror master Stephen King, Brian De Palma’s film of his first novel is a horror classic. A young girl, played by Sissy Spacek, has to face down cruel peers at school, an insane religious mother, and mysterious unexplained powers. It’s a dark, emotional tale of youth, loneliness, and revenge. Many of the scenes, especially the climactic prom scene and the final scene of the film, have become iconic in popular culture. Of all the best horror movies, this one is in the conversation of the best horror film ever made.
Sometimes a movie can become such a pop-culture phenomenon it can be robbed of its original power. Such is the case of Bela Lugosi’s take on this vampiric villain. One look of him in the iconic make-up and costume, and you’re not scared but thinking of all the other places he’s turned up. This take on the story from the 1990s, however, does not suffer from that problem. Featuring stunning performances by Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and others, the Francis Ford Coppola-directed epic is the most serious and fully-realized take on Dracula to-date. What really sold the film’s scariness were the costumes, make-up, and sound of the film. All of which, not coincidentally, went on to win Academy Awards. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula may be the most recognizable one, but this one is the scariest.
8. The Evil Dead
Before the sprawling franchise, before the web-slinger, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell were just two guys working on a crazy low-budget horror movie in the woods of Tennessee. The Evil Dead, a magic and zombie thriller, was a modest commercial success when it was released. However, over the years it’s gained a cult following. A genuine scary film, it also infuses those moments of terror with (seemingly) unintentional moments of comedy. At times silly, the movie is an intense exercise in terror and helplessness. Yet, even though it shouldn’t be, it’s also incredibly fun to watch. You will laugh just as much, if not more, than you scream.
9. The Exorcist
Based on William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name, this movie is one of the most culturally influential and best horror films of all time. The score by Lalo Schifrin creates dread in the hearts of even those who haven’t seen the film. The premise, that a child is possessed by the devil, is one on which countless scary stories have been based, likely for millennia. Yet, this version of the story stands above the rest. The film’s make-up and special effects are still as terrifying as they were on release. The emotional and psychological themes explored in it are as relevant as ever. And this film has its own evil legend. A series of accidents and other unfortunate events caused some to believe the set was cursed.
After the success of Lugosi’s Dracula, Universal Studios was keen to make another of the best horror films. They settled on the 19th century tale written by Mary Shelley, casting Boris Karloff as the iconic monster. Made before the film code, there are many controversial scenes of death and what was considered at the time to be blasphemy. While the scandal helps the film’s legend, it doesn’t need it. This is an early example of cinema at its finest, and this version of the character is part of the fabric of American culture. And unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Monster is still frightening, even though we’ve seen him everywhere. This film is a fantastic representation of early cinema and how even in this age of CGI and no limits on storytelling, these old stories still hold up.
11. Get Out
A breakout hit in 2017, the film is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, formerly of comedy duo Key and Peele. In this psychological thriller, it centers on a black man who goes to meet the family of his girlfriend, all of whom happen to be white. Using this racial element combined with a storied horror premise, Peele creates an intensely frightening drama. While the racial allegory is obvious in this short description, the film prioritizes the story and characters over any larger message. Just trust us, because to give away any more details about the plot would ruin what a mind-blowing experience it is to see this story unfold. This film has it all. You will laugh, squirm in your seat, jump in fright, and cheer with delight before it’s all over, and thus, it's one of the best horror movies.
One way the best horror movies scare us is by taking something innocuous and making it terrifying. In this film, written by Leigh Wannell and directed by James Wan, it’s a young boy who is at the center of most of the horror. It’s not just the evil child trope, and that’s what makes this film stand out. The reason that the child does what he does takes the film in an entirely different direction than you would expect. It’s gone on to become something a franchise but taken alone this film is almost perfect in the realm of the best horror movies. It’s not a complicated story, but it is a compelling one. A fresh take on a number of storied horror premises, this film is a must for any movie collection.
13. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Many sci-fi and horror films, including (to a degree) Get Out, owe a debt to the story at the core of this film, a novel written in the 1950s. A sensation even then, it was made into a very popular film, a classic in its own right. However, this 1978 remake is one of the few such films to genuinely surpass the original. The added layer of paranoia and disquiet of a post-Watergate world is the perfect complement to the premise. An alien race is duplicating humans, replacing them with exact copies devoid of all that makes them human. It’s chock full of stars, too. Donald Sutherland, father to Kiefer, Brooke Adams, and Veronica Cartwright star. Leonard Nimoy and a young Jeff Goldblum also make scene-stealing appearances.
Stephen King’s sprawling novel about a terror that haunts a town every 30 years was given the mini-series treatment in the 1990s. This 2017 remake takes the story in the book and cuts it in half. The book covers two appearances by the titular “it,” known as Pennywise the Clown. This film only deals with the first appearance, when the main characters were all children. Unlike most haunting stories, the creature here haunts the whole town. Nowhere is safe. Where this film excels is using modern visual effects techniques to really ratchet up the surreality of the Pennywise appearances. One moment, when we learn why he’s called “Pennywise the dancing clown,” stands out for it’s innate creepiness. Arguably, the novel itself was always too big of a story. But this film is just the right amount.
15. It Follows
There is a classic trope in the best horror movies where people who have sex are the first to fall at the hands of the monster (or whatever). With It Follows, David Robert Mitchell took that trope and built an entire movie out of it. Without the supernatural element, this would be a compelling relationship drama. The characters are wounded and searching, just the kind of imaginary people we like in our stories. Yet, they are pursued by a strange entity that, as the title suggests, follows the characters around. A study in intimacy, madness, and the lengths we go to survive, this film is enjoyable on many levels.
A young Stephen Spielberg wanted to make one of the best horror movies about a giant shark. Originally, he envisioned a big-budget, effects-heavy monster extravaganza. However, during filming, the mechanical shark never worked the way it should. This forced Spielberg to change his approach, and the world is all the better because he did. You may not think of Jaws as one of the best horror movies, but it is. A group of people track a (seemingly) supernatural monster and face their own demons on the way. In keeping the titular beast off-screen for most of the movie, the characters took center stage. The more we cared about them, the more the tension would build when that iconic John Williams score would signal the arrival of the great white. Yes, this film also has elements of a thriller and an on-the-water action piece, at its heart this is a horror story. It’s just that the monster is something that really exists.
17. John Carpenter's The Thing
It’s not a new thing for an artist to be before his or her time. However, it is a unique situation when the work of that artist is actually a remake of an old movie. John Carpenter love the 1951 film A Thing from Another World, and he was given the chance to remake it. Carpenter’s vision was an anti-authoritarian, almost nihilistic view of the story. The visual effects were graphic, which makes sense since Carpenter came out of the slasher school of horror movie-making. On its release, the film was almost universally panned. However, with the benefit of hindsight, critics and scholars reveal that Carpenter’s film was a masterwork in his oeuvre. This film had a huge cultural impact, too, as numerous films and series reference or pay homage to it. This just goes to support its acknowledgement as one of the best horror movies.
Another classic family-in-a-haunted-house film, Poltergeist was another Stephen Spielberg horror film that touched off a cultural sensation. It spawned catchphrases like “They’re here” and made folks look at television static differently. A huge box-office hit, Poltergeist spawned a franchise and recently was remade. However, there is nothing like the original film. Just the right combination of effects-scares and more quiet suspense, the film delivers the ultimate horror movie payoff in its final scenes. Even if you know every detail, this movie is eminently rewatchable.
Inspired by a novel of the same name, this seminal film from Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the first-ever “slasher” film. While this is the story of Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother, Hitchcock made a significant change. He set up the film as if it were Janet Leigh’s character who were the protagonist. So, when the iconic shower scene happens, audiences were floored. Like real-life, they realized that anyone in the story could go at any time. This film is a masterpiece of art from Hitchcock, both beautiful and terrifying to look at. The use of shadow and mirror images were especially ground-breaking. It’s a terrifying story told well amongst the best horror movies.
It is common practice for popular movies in one country to be remade for others. The Ring series from the early 2000s is a famous example of this. Yet, in this case, the Japanese original far surpasses the American version. The 1998 version of Ringu (or just “Ring” translated) is the definitive telling of this tale of old evils and modern moral panics. All of the elements that made the American movie good are present in this film. Unfortunately this film has not yet been released on Blu Ray, but it’s good enough that a DVD does just fine.
21. Rosemary's Baby
This 1968 film by Roman Polanski is both a psychological and supernatural thriller, whose ending (if you don’t already know it via cultural osmosis) shocked moviegoers of the time. The world was in turmoil and a very scary place during the 1960s. This story about a mother, a child, and terrifying mystery touches on many themes related to that strife. Divorced from the context of the time in which it was made and released, this film still works. It’s a solidly scary story, and the underlying themes are (sadly) as relevant as ever. So, whether you are looking for a straightforward horror thriller or a fantastic story with thematic ties to the real world, Rosemary’s Baby is it.
22. The Shining
Our third Stephen King story on the list, this one also was directed by legendary director Stanley Kubrick. The acclaimed horror author said he didn’t like this adaptation of his novel (and remade it for TV), but he’s alone in that opinion. The story of a family living in a haunted hotel as off-season caretakers is strange, eerie, and thrilling. Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall deliver stellar performances. Nicholson’s slow descent into madness is a joy to watch. This film is not just one of the best horror movies, it is a significant piece of cinematic art. We only have so many Kubrick films, and the late director is at his best here.
23. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
While some believe this is a true story, this classic, independent slasher film is the fictional brain-child of writer Kim Henkel and writer director Tobe Hooper. This film has all the elements of the best horror movies. It deals with isolation, helplessness, and chaotic violence. Hooper said that this was a reflection of what he’d seen working as documentary cameraman and in the news. The deliberate misinformation about the film being a true story was an artistic statement about how the government lied to the people in the Watergate era. Yet, unlike some of the other films on this list, the politics are so subtextual they barely even warrant a mention. This film is bloody, with images and subjects so graphic it was banned in many countries and even some places in the U.S.
24. The Babadook
A widow and her son are plagued by the monster of a mysterious pop-up children’s book that keeps coming back after they destroy it. This film diverges from the typically monster-plagues-a-family story, because the titular creature is actually a stand-in for grief and mental anguish. The ending of the film is also surprising and unexpected, offering a final statement on the subject you will think about long after the film. Nonetheless, this is a great thriller, especially thanks to Essie Davis’s intense performance. Also the Babadook itself is a frightening creature and is such a great monster it almost demands they make this a franchise. Yet writer and director Jennifer Kent said that she will never make a second film. This gorgeous movie is all we’re going to get.
25. The Night of the Living Dead
Writer and director George A. Romeo’s previous experience was filming field segments for the children’s program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. So, when he made his first feature film about reanimated ghouls who eat human flesh, some folks were surprised. Still, this film shot outside of Pittsburgh, PA, redefined the horror genre. Even though the word is never used in the film, Romero’s take on zombies has persisted from this film to the zombie movies and television series today. This is the film that started it all, featuring incredible performances and a unique directorial vision. While not without its humorous moments, this film is still very scary.
26. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
This film is based on the tragic true story of a young girl named Annaliese Michel and dramatizes the real-life court case following her death. The fictionalized version presents the exorcism that Jennifer Carpenter’s titular character undergoes as ambiguous. Director Scott Derrickson described himself as a “believer,” and his co-writer Paul Harris Boardman is a skeptic. So, the film deliberately leaves it ambiguous whether or not something supernatural is happening. This only adds to the scariness level of the film, as it shows how close to the real-world these fantastic things can be.
27. The Fly
This story about a scientist developing teleportation technology merging with a fly has been told a number of different times. With this box set, you get them all. The 1958 version featuring Vincent Price and a shocking ending. There is also the classic 1986 version directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Film scholars and horror fans debate to this day which version is the better one. So, why not get both of them and decide for yourself. Each one is horrifying in its own right, and each version is a great film. Thanks to this boxed set, you can own them all, and you’ll likely never get tired of re-watching them.
28. The Sixth Sense
This film is a milestone in cinematic history as both the first film from director M. Night Shyamalan and the last film in which we saw Bruce Willis with hair. While most folks pay attention to the stunning twist ending of this film, we often forget that up until that moment this was a classic ghost story. Except the real twist in this movie is that the characters treat these ghosts as sympathetic figures, not ones to be feared. Instead of defeating or destroying the scary monsters, the heroes in this film try to help them. It’s still a great ghost story, but also one that challenges us to reflect on our own perceptions.
29. The Omen
The story of the “Anti-Christ” is one that has long pervaded myth and, today, horror stories. Yet, the most iconic version of this tale is the one told in the Omen series. Thanks to this box set you can watch the 2006 remake, and the first three movies in the series. The original film by Richard Donner is a masterwork, but the tale continues in the sequels. In Damien: Omen II, we learn about the forces of evil seek to protect the Satanic child. In the third film, we see a young Sam Neill as a fully-grown Damien about to ascend to his evil throne. A great, creepy series that tells a complete story.
30. The Wicker Man
This mystery thriller is not your traditional horror fare, but rather tells a story about the power of religious belief. A detective looking for a missing child finds himself on island where the people worship a pagan god, building a giant figure out of wicker for a festival. On the surface this seems almost quaint, but as the film unfolds the darker underbelly of the ritual is revealed. The late actor Christopher Lee, who starred in nearly 300 films including the Lord of the Rings series and Star Wars, considered this to be his best films. A terrifying look at how remote and alone we can be even in a civilized world, this movie is one of the best horror films around.
Most of this list is in (semi-)alphabetical order, except for this one because October 31 is Halloween. Look for a list later this month for the best Halloween movies, but this is maybe the scariest one of them all. This film put John Carpenter on Americas radar, as well as represented the screen debut of Jamie Lee Curtis. Of all the films in the slasher horror genre, this is the most definitive one. It examines the raw horror of being pursued by the iconic Michael Myers character, while also delving into the psychology of these movies in general. This film spawned a decades-long franchise, and this year Curtis returns to the franchise in what’s being dubbed a direct sequel to this film. While there are plenty of movies in this series, this film is the best one.
The best horror movies are always about something more than the monsters or the ghosts, instead reflecting our own inner-human horrors.
Like myths of old, we turn to fantastic stories both as an escape from real-world problems and a way to examine those problems through allegory. Whether you are looking for the deeper meanings behind the monsters or just want a good scare, the best horror movies listed above will satisfy you either way. These movies are scary, exciting, funny, grotesque, and complicated. Like all good art, these films give people a chance to stare down the things they fear the most in a controlled way. Whether the heroes in the film prevail or the villains persist, it’s audiences who really come out on top.
What do you think? Did we leave off any of your favorites on this list of the best horror movies? Disagree with one of our choices? Let us know in the comments below and share which ones you think are the best horror movies. Don’t forget to share the article on social media, so you can get your friends in on the discussion.
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