You lay paralyzed in an ink-black bedroom, eyes glued to the ceiling. All the insignificant sounds of your world amplify around you—the tick, tick, tick of the kitchen clock, the thumping of the basement washing machine, the slight creaks of the wooden floors. Your house is breathing around you. Leaves crunch outside your window. Is it an animal? Is it human? You won’t know unless you peek.
This scene showcases the power of scary movies, how they linger with you long after the lights come up. Their sounds and images leak their ways under your skin, crawling up your limbs, puncturing your mind when you least expect them.
But listing the best sleep-depriving movies is a frivolous task. Like our preferences between Halloween candies, different horror subtypes will scare different people. While there are thousands of horror films out there, you want to find the ones that truly scare you.
Whether it’s the classics, the new hits, or the gems hidden in between, at least one of these movies is sure to feed your horror appetite. So, grab a handful of Halloween candy and bundle up under the covers, because it’s about to get spooky.
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Dread is the feeling of tension and paranoia you get when you know something sinister awaits. It’s the wait that keeps you on edge, like the rumbling thunder before the piercing lightning strikes.
Classic – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Strange things happen when Rosemary (Mia Farrow) moves into a New York City apartment with her husband. The previous tenant died mysteriously, a neighbour jumps to her death, and then there are the Castevets—a nosey couple who smile a bit too much and serve chalky-tasting desserts.
Eventually, Rosemary becomes pregnant, and that’s when the apartment walls close in on her—and us—as the tension tightens like a spider wrapping its prey. Something wicked is coming, and it’s only a matter of time until it pops up to bite.
Modern – It Comes at Night (2017)
There’s an invisible killer lurking in the woods, and it’s creeping into our homes. Set in a dystopian world that’s strangely familiar, the story follows Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family in their seclusive cabin. The outside world is bare and food is scarce. But these are the least of their fears.
Soon, another family stumbles upon the cabin, offering to trade food for shelter. Mounting paranoia rips through the characters, pitting them against each other. Something lies beyond the cabin’s red door, which stays locked all the time. Until one night, it isn’t.
Hidden Gem – Lake Mungo (2008)
This Australian mockumentary tracks the Palmers, a family grieving after their 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, drowned. Alice Palmer, the mother, thinks she sees ghosts around the house, and so her son sets up cameras to capture them on film. And what the family finds in the recordings, and in Sarah’s recovered cellphone, is sure turn your skin inside out.
Directed by Joel Anderson, Lake Mungo depicts some of the bleakest horror ever put to film. You’ll be arms folded, elbows squeezed into your ribs, for most of the movie.
If dread is the thunder, then terror is the lightning, where our fears come into clear focus. It’s the wide-eyed man running toward you with a knife or, in the case of our first film, a chainsaw.
Classic – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Directed by horror icon Tobe Hooper, this movie follows a pack of twentysomethings as they trek across the scorching Texas countryside to investigate a recent grave robbing. Sweat seeps through their clothes and pools on their necks, so the group stops to cool off and find gas. What they find, or what finds them, is anything but cool.
From the first scene to the deranged hitchhiker to the not-so-abandoned house, this movie gives you little room to breathe. Everything feels real, as if the most horrific things could happen. And the scariest part of all, most of them do happen—mercilessly.
Modern – Kill List (2011)
In Ben Wheatley’s heart-imploding movie, Jay (Neil Maskell), a soldier discharged with PTSD, quarrels with his wife as their finances dwindle. Desperate for money, Jay and his friend become hitmen and descend into its gruesome lifestyle. Somehow, murder isn’t the scariest thing going on.
For most of its runtime, Kill List is unsettling but not terrifying. Then, the infamous third act hits and more than makes up for it. You’ll be digging your fingers deep into your pillow.
Hidden Gem – Audition (1999)
Like Kill List, Audition starts off slow. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower who sets up a fake movie audition to find his next love. Here, he meets Asami (Eihi Shiina), a soft-spoken young woman who averts her eyes and bows with grace. The two get closer and soon spend the night together. But by morning, Asami has vanished. Or did she?
Shigeharu tries tracking down anyone who knows about Asami’s shady past, but only gets more questions in return. From the twisted mind of Takashi Miike, this film is at times a psychosexual drama, and other times, an excruciating piece of torture, sure to roil your stomach.
This is a unique kind of tension. Coined by Sigmund Freud, the uncanny—from the German term for “unhomely”—is the eeriness we feel when the familiar becomes unfamiliar, or when repressed secrets come out into the open. Doppelgängers, humanoid figures, and reoccurring objects are all uncanny and chip away at our subconscious.
Classic – The Shining (1980)
During the frigid Colorado winter, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) becomes the caretaker for the ominous Overlook Hotel, a place where people appear and disappear within its walls. It doesn’t take long before Jack becomes unhinged, threatening the lives of his wife and young son.
By now, everyone has seen, or at least knows, The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror film has seared our minds with uncanny images, music, and dialogue. Everyday objects—tennis balls, baseball bats, typewriters, and elevators—become symbols of violence and intrinsic fears. It’s the creepiest kind of scary, the kind that makes you shiver in warm weather and feel trapped in open spaces.
Modern – The Lighthouse (2019)
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) are “wickies” tasked to oversee a lighthouse on a tiny island. There’s a one-eyed seagull terrorizing our protagonist, and a recurring mermaid who may or may not be real.
Director Robert Eggers clearly took notes in Kubrick class, as The Lighthouse is equal parts hallucinatory and horrifying, and blurring the lines between the natural and supernatural. Sure, things are dark and murky, but it’s when Winslow “spills his beans” that the true darkness emerges. And we can’t escape it.
Hidden Gem – Mulholland Drive (2001)
Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is bubbly, ambitious, and ready to start her acting career in Los Angeles. But that all changes when she comes home and finds a woman (Laura Harring) who can’t remember who she is or how she got there. Trying to uncover the woman’s identity, Betty mines the city’s sprawling underbelly, soon unearthing her own repressed secrets.
David Lynch’s dreamlike film isn’t conventionally scary. There aren’t any murders or monsters. There are, however, characters who speak with eerie cadence; a cryptic cowboy; a seedy nightclub, and a bifurcating narrative that questions everything we see. Mulholland Drive is a puzzle with broken and duplicate pieces, and we’re left to jam it all together.
Best of the Rest:
Here’s some extra film fodder to replace your midterm stress with jump-scare stress.
Cosmic Horror – Alien (1979)
Cosmic, Lovecraftian, existential—whichever term you use, Alien explores the darkest subject of all: our fleeting existence. All while featuring cinema’s most badass female hero. As the film’s tagline reads: in space, no one can hear you scream.
Gothic Horror – The Innocents (1961)
A new governess (Deborah Kerr) moves into Bly Manor to care for Miles and Flora, two children who play strange games and hide wicked secrets. Every shadow, creak, and candleflame is fine-tuned in this film, and will leave fingernail rake marks in your palms.
Psychological Horror – Les Diaboliques (1955)
We’re wrapped within the psyche of Madame Delassalle (Véra Clouzot), a schoolteacher who drowns her abusive husband. There’s only one problem: his body has disappeared.
Slasher – The Strangers (2008)
Everyone and their mothers know that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the crown jewel of slashers. So, let’s be different and try this cult-favourite in which two lovers, in their secluded home, get a strange knock in the still of the night.
Supernatural – Carrie (1976)
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a 16-year-old girl shamed by her classmates and her oppressive mother. Adapted from Stephen King’s first-ever novel, Carrie takes you through a prom prank gone horribly wrong. Let’s just say things become very, very, very bloody.