There are so many ways to be scared. There is the jump scare, psychological drama, journey inside the demented mind of the serial killer, and the fleeing alongside a desperate heroine as you realize along with her that there is no way out. Of course, fear is different for everyone. Some people are claustrophobic. Some people are afraid of heights. Some people fear being alone. Some people fear crowds. For this reason, it is difficult to choose the scariest movie of all time.
What we can do is talk about when a filmmaker has brought a fear to life. Whether it’s the extreme claustrophobia of The Descent, the psychological intensity of The Silence of the Lambs, or the straight-up slasher terror of Halloween, some films stand out from the horror pack when it comes to moving their audiences to sheer terror. Great horror films transcend their moment and tap into something deeper — scaring generations of film goers.
Even from a more macro level, these films have inspired generations of creators from all walks of life. Whether it be rappers like Eminem whose visceral portrait of murder and mayhem registered with millions, or fashion houses like Gucci and Calvin Klein honoring films like A Clockwork Orange, Jaws, Carrie, The Shining, and Rosemary’s Baby, horror films have become important elements in moving the needle.
There are no hard and fast rules for what’s scary. Let’s face it, you know it when you see it. Or, better yet, you know it when you scream because of it. Let’s discuss some of the films that have terrified audiences over the years, taking the things that go bump in the night and making them into the stuff nightmares are made of.
Scroll on to see our selection of the scariest movies of all time.
Director: William Friedkin
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Editor’s Note: Widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Exorcist is also one of the scariest movies of all time. While the film tackles issues of faith and belief, it is the visceral filmmaking that has truly scared generations of audiences. Flying furniture, agonized bystanders, and of course, projectile vomit: The Exorcist offers some of the most visceral scares in horror history while offering depth that few horror movies have every matched.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Editor’s Note: A lot of horror scares are psychological. But some of the best ones are visceral. The scares in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are physical as hell, down to the whirring saw blades, splattering blood, and yes, even cannibalism.
The bogeyman of this movie, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), is just as tactile and brutal as the rest of the film. And this is why the film, and its monster, have endured for decades. Leatherface is the perfect monster for this movie, a film that substitutes psychology and carefully plotted motivations for the kind of scares that reach out and grab you by the throat.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Editor’s Note: We have certainly had many more terrifyingly rendered monsters since Jaws first premiered in the mid ’70s. No one would look at this film’s mechanical shark and see the height of special effects prowess. But thanks to the craft of then young director Steven Spielberg, no creature has ever terrified audiences as much as this animatronic great white.
Taking the old adage “It’s what we don’t see” to its logical extreme, Jaws was so terrifying when it premiered that it caused really life reticence among beachgoers. And even if some of the special effects may feel dated, it’s hard to watch Jaws and not feel your heart racing as the monster closes in on a blissfully unaware swimmer. Through brilliant feats of technical filmmaking, you can always feel the sharks presence in this masterpiece.
Director: Richard Donner
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Editor’s note: Every parent worries that their child might end up a bad seed. The Omen takes this a step further; what if your child turned out to be the devil incarnate? Director Richard Donner takes this primal fear to extremely terrifying levels in this classic horror movie.
As we see well-intentioned adults subjected to vicious violence, The Omen dredges up that age-old fear that the trouble might actually be coming from inside the womb. Thankfully, young Harvey Stephens was up to the task of playing Damien, one of the greatest horror movie villains of all time, despite his cherubic exterior. Looking at Damien, you couldn’t imagine he would be capable of great evil, but it turns out that looks can be deceiving.
The Hills Have Eyes
Director: Wes Craven
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Editor’s note: The vast, empty parts of America between the big cities have long been a source of fascination and discomfort for the cosmopolitan set. Some fear cramped quarters while other fear the great endless unknown. After all, anything could be out there in the middle of nowhere.
The Hills Have Eyes taps into this long standing American fear to create one of the scariest movies of all time. In the unforgiving desert poisoned by government chemical testing, our main characters, and our audience, confront some things they have never seen before in places they would likely never dare to tread. But, it isn’t the strange land or the stranger creatures that ultimately deliver the biggest scare. The true terror the lurks beneath the film’s surface is that maybe we are no better than our basest instincts.
Director: John Carpenter
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Editor’s note: Michael Myers won’t stay dead. Ever since he slashed his way onto the silver screen in 1978, he has terrified audiences, and audiences still can’t seem to get enough to this day.
Despite all of the various reworkings of Halloween we’ve gotten in the intervening years, the original remains the best. Halloween is a horror movie, straight forward and masterful with all of the tropes you would expect. Yes, we get the post-sex murders and the disbelieving cops, but it doesn’t matter. Even when it indulges cliches, Halloween shines and terrifies. Halloween is so well made that it doesn’t need to be any more or any less than a straight forward horror movie to be considered one of the scariest movies ever made.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Editor’s Note: While it often gets credit as one of the best horror movies of all time, The Shining doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the scariest movies of all time. There is a psychological element to the film, of course, as Jack (Jack Nicholson) is combatting those twin demons of isolation and alcoholism. But, there’s more to it than that. There is something supernatural at play here.
What is beautiful about The Shining is you can never quite put your finger on the monster. Is it Jack? Is The Overlook Hotel? Is it something in the hotel’s dark and sordid history? It isn’t exactly a ghost that haunts Jack and his family. It isn’t exactly a psychotic break that results in Jack’s undoing. It is all more complicated than that. And it is this complexity that, along with the brilliant way Kubrick visualizes this complexity, that makes The Shining a masterpiece.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Editor’s Note: Ghosts, those invisible beings that go bump in the night, have fascinated and terrified man since the dawn of time. Many horror movies have incorporated ghosts in their attempt to scare and shock audiences. Though there have been many efforts to bring ghosts to the big screen, none have been as successful as Poltergeist.
Whether you want to call them ghosts or spirits, the creatures terrorizing the all-American family in Poltergeist are invisible and they are out for revenge. The brilliance of Poltergeist lies in the precision and scale of the special effects execution. These ghosts are restless, and even though you can’t see them, you can see the havoc they wreak. The invisible terror of Poltergeist offers some of the best and most terrifying sequences ever to appear in a horror movie.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Editor’s Note: Wes Craven was not the first person to realize that dreams can be scary. But he was the person who turned the age-old fear of our subconscious into one of the scariest movies of all time.
Freddy Krueger attacks his victims where they are most vulnerable: in their dreams. Craven takes this fear of nocturnal helplessness and backs it up with some of the best slasher directing and tightest storytelling in horror history. While the sequels and reboots have dulled the memory of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street a bit, if you return to the where it all started, you will find one of the best examples of the slasher sub-genre ever put on film.
Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Editor’s Notes: Where some great horror movies use jump scares or trick filmmaking to get a rise out of the audience, it is the unflinching, calm realism of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer that makes it one of the scariest movies of all time.
To Henry, killing is commonplace, something as normal as eating lunch or grabbing a beer, and it is that rote, numb attitude that makes this film mesmerizing. The film’s calm, calculated approach to murder has resulted in more screening walkouts than films with far more blood and gore. Perhaps the most terrible thing a killing can be is mundane, and one of the most terrifying things a filmmaker can do is present horrors as though they were everyday occurences.
Director: Clive Barker
Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Editor’s Note: The strange relationship between pain and pleasure – that perhaps we must feel pain being eased to experienced pleasure, or that intense feelings of pleasure can bring the pain of longing — is at the heart of Hellraiser. While Clive Barker’s film is not perfect, Hellraiser is admirable for taking such a common set of feelings and exploring them in one of the strangest, scariest ways possible.
As in most horror films, there is a creature doing some killing, but his motivations are wrapped up the kind of psychosexual baggage that would make Sigmund Freud blush. And whether you enjoy the film or not, you’ll agree the scares are unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Hellraiser takes into a fear that is inside of us all, a fear of losing control of our basest emotions. And if that fear is channeled in strange ways, this film speaks to something primal and terrifying.
The Silence of the Lambs
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Editor’s note: Very much a psychological thriller, some audiences might dispute whether or not Silence of the Lambs is scary, let alone one of the scariest movies of all time. But, if the cat and mouse complexity of the film hits you just right, it could be one of the most unsettling films you’ve ever seen.
The central relationship of the film is between FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), and the cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). This pairing has gone down in Hollywood history: it is one of the strangest and most uncomfortable relationships you’ve ever seen on film. Add in the horrific lotion loving killer Buffalo Bill and the pulse-pounding suspense, and you have to agree the The Silence of the Lambs is one of the scariest movies of all time.
Director: Bernard Rose
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Editor’s Note: Putting the “urban” in urban legend, Candyman tells the story of a monster who haunts Chicago projects. The film also unpacks the concepts of urban legends, choosing two skeptical academics as its protagonists. As you might expect, the legend of the Candyman proves all too real.
At the center of Candyman, there is a compelling question: what if believing in myths and legends made them manifest? Or perhaps a more creepy way of putting it might be, what if we could spend enough energy being terrified of something that our fears come true?
Director: David Fincher
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Editor’s Note: The weight and weirdness of Christianity casts a shadow over so much of American life, whether it manifests itself as Catholic guilt or evangelical fervor. Se7en takes America’s collective fascination with Christianity and creates one of the scariest movies ever.
In Se7en, we start with something we’ve seen before: cops chasing a serial killer, but we add a new, creepy twist: this killers murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins. The film is equal parts serial killer cat and mouse and psychological thriller as the detectives must investigate the killing and investigate themselves. Featuring one of cinema’s great tragic twists, our heroes find out too late that each of these investigations was equally important.
Director: Wes Craven
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Editor’s Note: Often imitated, parodied, and sequelized, no take on Scream has ever lived up to the original. At once a superb suburban slasher and a deconstruction of the horror genre, Scream is one of the smartest and scariest horror movies of all time.
Scream is a horror movie built for horror movie fans. Though the winking meta structure can be funny, it can also be terrifying. The characters know all of the rules of horror movies, but they still drop like flies. Once the audience stops laughing, a terrifying thought dawns: what if no amount of knowledge can save us?
The Blair Witch Project
Directors: Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Editor’s Note: Upon its release, many viewers thought The Blair Witch Project was the scariest movie ever. In the early days of the Internet, there was just enough online to create the idea that something was “real” even when it wasn’t, but there wasn’t enough online to thoroughly disprove a hoax. In short, it was the perfect moment for the found footage docu-style horror of Blair Witch.
Moviegoers at the time weren’t sure what to make of The Blair Witch Project. They knew it was fake, but it felt so real. This verite approach made for a worldwide phenomenon that swept the horror world by storm and gave birth to the found footage movement that is still playing out in the horror world today.
Director: James Wan
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%
Editor’s Note: While not a critical favorite, audiences have continued to view Saw as one of the scariest movies ever. It’s initial release was greeted with rapt, terrified audiences, launching it to become one of the best known horror movie franchises of all time.
If your perspective is that you need to care about the characters to endure guts and gore, this isn’t the film for you. If you come to a horror film for the gruesome spectacle, this might be one of the most rewarding horror movie experiences you can find. If being manipulated by an unseen hand is a deep-seated fear of yours, Saw could be one of the most terrifying artistic experiences of your life.
Director: Neil Marshall
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Editor’s Note: Until you’ve been in a cramped space with someone who suffers from claustrophobia, you don’t realize how terrifying an enclosed space can be.
This descent here is into a cave. And as any proper horror director would, Marshall makes sure that the cave represents the unknown — embodying the fears of our female protagonists. The relationships between these women are complicated — much is unsaid and unresolved between them — this too is embodied by the darkness of the cave.
And it wouldn’t be a true horror movie if there weren’t something more lurking in the caves, something totally unexpected…
Director: Jennifer Kent
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Editor’s Note: Another recent film that has embedded itself in the minds of horror fans is The Babadook. Where a number great horror films have focused on demonic children, The Babadook takes a slightly different tack, personifying the perils of motherhood in terrifying fashion.
With such high-minded thematic ideas on its mind as personifying and deconstructing the relationship between mother and son, you might think that The Babadook would indulge in indie ponderousness. But, the action-packed thrills actually bolster the psychological drama. The two sides of the film feed off of each other, resulting in one of the scariest movies ever, a high-water mark for horror in the 21st century.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Editor’s note: We’ve seen horror movie victims blindfolded. We’ve seen horror movie victims gagged. But, what if a horror movie victim couldn’t hear?
This is the premise of the wildly inventive and totally terrifying Hush. And though the film is only a few years old, it is already gaining consideration as one of the scariest movies of all time. Kate Siegel co-wrote the film and stars as a Maddie, a deaf writer being tormented by a psychopath. But, where some films might make Maddie a mere victim, here, Maddie is tormented but she is also resourceful. What we perceive as her limitations ultimately become a strength.
Hush understands that a great way to build a horror movie is to force the audience into an alien perspective as the scares start to arrive. This builds tension and offers a level of originality that simply can’t get from your stock scream queens and butcher knives of lesser films.