Yes, all horror movies are supposed to be scary, but only a few really succeed. Horror is a subjective genre; what some find terrifying, others might find tame. It’s impossible to definitively point at a film and declare that everyone will undoubtedly find it scary. However, there are a few exceptions.
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There are, of course, genuinely scary horror movies, whether it be an all too realistic slasher flick or a psychological horror that lingers long after the credits have rolled. Everything from the classics to new-age horror, some movies are guaranteed to cause a scare or two. And while there’s a slew of underground horror films that are certain to churn stomachs, this focuses on the more easily accessible, mainstream horror films.
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10 The Babadook Is A Haunting Psychological Horror
Jennifer Kent’s creepy psychological horror movie, The Babadook, is already considered a modern masterpiece. The film follows a recently bereaved mother and her son as they are haunted by a sinister being that comes into their home via an eerie children’s book.
However, this isn’t a movie about a monster; it’s about grief and depression and the monsters we create ourselves. It plays on one of humanity’s most vulnerable feelings, paranoia. The Babadook gets audiences to second guess their fears, Is what I’m terrified of even real, or is it all in my head? By the end, it really doesn’t matter; by the time the screen fades to black, the damage has already been done.
9 The Strangers Is Eerily Realistic
The home invasion slasher, The Strangers, was inspired by real-life events, so it makes sense that the movie would feel ultra-realistic, making it so terrifying to watch. The plot centers around a couple who takes a trip to an isolated vacation home when three brutal strangers infiltrate their home and terrorize them.
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There’s no motive, rhyme, or reason; it’s a random attack. The Strangers is the kind of horror movie that wants the audience to think that what’s being depicted on screen could very well happen to them. It’s a movie that understands there is nothing more terrifying than other humans.
8 Martyrs Is Not For The Squeamish
Very little can prepare audiences for the horrors that Martyrs has to offer. This is an extremely disturbing horror movie with some of the most vile and graphic content one could ever think of. The story follows a young woman out for revenge against those who tortured and abused her and a fellow victim.
But don’t let the blood and gore be deceiving; this movie is also incredibly devastating from an emotional standpoint as well. Underneath its excessive violence is a haunting view of the “afterlife” and the obsession people have over it.
7 The Orphanage Is A Beautifully Crafted Haunted House Horror Movie
From the minds of J.A. Bayona and Guillermo del Toro comes this Spanish gothic horror about a woman who revisits her childhood orphanage home only to find that the place is haunted by spirits. The Orphanage is an unsettling horror movie with a simple premise executed perfectly by two masters of the genre.
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The movie never goes for a cheap scare and instead builds suspense in a way that requires the undivided attention of its viewers. Like, The Babadook, The Orphanage plays with the idea of reality versus illusion, and by the end, the characters and audience aren’t sure what was and wasn’t real.
6 The Conjuring Took Paranormal Horror To New Heights
James Wan is one of horror’s greatest directors; he created both the Saw and Insidious franchises, and would somehow find a way to top them both with The Conjuring. This possession movie centers around paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they help the Perron family remove an evil spirit from their home.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this movie was an absolute game-changer. It spawned the most successful horror franchise of all time and would define the next decade of horror films. It works so well because Wan’s craftsmanship is present in every scene. Yes, it’s incredibly scary, but it’s also really well-made.
5 The Descent Is A Claustrophobic Nightmare
In this all-female-led British horror movie, six women enter a cave and discover a humanoid creature inside that starts picking them off one by one. The Descent is an intense, claustrophobic nightmare, even before the creature's night vision reveal, which is one of the greatest jump-scares of all time.
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Unlike most horror movies, The Descent actually takes the time to develop its characters and their complex relationships with one another. The audience becomes emotionally invested in them and the trauma they endure on this spelunking trip gone horribly wrong, which heightens the tension and makes those anxiety-inducing shots of the women squeezing through tiny spaces all the more terrifying.
4 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Is An Unsettling Slasher Masterpiece
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a pillar of the horror genre; it has influenced nearly every slasher film after it, including Halloween. The film follows a group of friends on a road trip across Texas, and along the way, they stop at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere and encounter a family of cannibalistic murderers.
The original is such a terrifying watch because it lets the audience do all the work themselves. Besides one horrific scene involving a hook, there’s relatively little blood or gore, especially compared to today’s standards. It’s the ultimate backwood terror that makes the audience feel as trapped and isolated as the characters do.
3 The Shining Has One Of The Most Iconic Endings Ever
Few films are really able to crawl under the audience’s skin like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Shining follows writer Jack Torrance, who moves his family to the secluded Overlook Hotel to oversee it for the winter. Shortly after, Jack becomes influenced by malevolent forces urging him to murder his family as his son Danny starts seeing disturbing premonitions.
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Simply put, there isn’t any other film like The Shining. From Kubrick’s distinct directing and Jack Nicholson’s terrifying performance to the film’s disturbing imagery and aesthetic, it truly exists in a class of its own. Not to mention its iconic ambiguous ending that has puzzled horror fans for decades.
2 Hereditary Introduced A New Age Of Horror
Hereditary may have been Ari Aster’s directorial debut, but within just a few minutes, audiences can tell they are in the hands of a master of the genre. Hereditary follows a family haunted by a demonic presence that arises after a tragedy and explores how trauma can be passed down through generations.
It is an incredibly made film that uses a mix of realism and surrealism to paint a haunting picture of how people deal with grief. The movie is so effective because it plays on the audience’s expectations. At no point does the audience ever feel as if they know what’s going on until the very end and are forced to hold their breath the entire time.
1 The Exorcist Is A Classic For A Reason
For as much praise as The Exorcist gets, it lives up to its reputation, and then some. This iconic horror film follows a pair of Catholic priests attempting to rescue a young girl possessed by a demon through an exorcism. It’s twisted and, at times, hard to watch, but it’s also a brilliant masterpiece of horror.
It's shocking that The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and became the highest-grossing film of 1973, given how extremely graphic it is, but that speaks to the quality of the film. There’s a reason why The Exorcist is widely regarded as the greatest horror movie ever made; it’s really that good.
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