Best horror films: the 33 scariest movies of all time

Posted by for Film

These horror movies are guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. 

It must be the season of the witch, because all we want to do at the moment is curl up on the sofa in front of a terrifying horror film.

With so many scary movies out there, though, how can you be sure that the film you’ve selected is going to send shivers down your spine?

Well, by applying science to the situation, of course.

That’s right: Keith Bound from the University of Nottingham has done some hefty research into the kinds of films that scare us the most.

Back in 2015, he attached receptors to volunteers’ sweat glands to measure the electrical activity in their skin as they watched 32 short film clips assembled from eight feature-length horror films. Bound was looking for the kinds of electrodermal responses that occur when we’re nervous, stressed or scared, which are created by the release of sweat from our eccrine glands (for example, when we get sweaty palms).

He then combined these electrodermal measurements and other kinds of physiological responses –such as volunteers closing their eyes or turning away from the screen – with viewer feedback, and the results indicated that differing levels of ‘psychophysiological’ fright are experienced from the following four suspense situations:

  • Direct: We see the film in the first person, as if we are the character in the film.
  • Shared: When we empathise with a fictional character’s situation.
  • Vicarious: The viewer knows a fictional character’s life is threatened, but they are not aware of the danger.
  • Composite: Direct, shared, and vicarious suspense synchronised together.
Hush on Netflix
A scene from Hush on Netflix.

Of these four kinds of horror scenes, audiences experience the most dread and tension when the relationship with the protagonist is vicarious, with the viewer knowing what’s about to happen but the fictional character being completely unaware.

In other words, there’s a very good reason people feel like yelling, “He’s behind you!” even when they’re in a crowded cinema.

Intrigued by this, we’ve applied Bound’s theory to our hunt for the most terrifying horror movies around – and we’ve also dug deep into our own personal experiences with the scariest film genre around.

Just don’t blame us if you find yourself unable to sleep afterwards.

Hush

Every writer dreams of an idyllic woodland retreat, don’t they? Or, at least, they do until they watch this Netflix film, all about a deaf woman forced to fight for her life in silence when a masked killer appears at her window.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Everyone’s heard of Leatherface, but have you actually sat down and watched this horror about a group of friends who fall victim to a family of (gulp) cannibals? There’s a reason it was banned in several countries after its 1974 release, y’know. And, as Stylist’s Hanna Ibraheem reminds me, it was inspired by true events, too – which only serves to amp up the fear factor.

Audition

Audition feels a bit like a romcom, at first, as a widower joins forces with his film producer friend to hold fake movie auditions. Why? Well, to find a new wife. Obviously. The object of his affections, though, isn’t quite the perfect candidate she appears to be. Especially when you factor in the moving, groaning sack she has stashed in her empty apartment…

The Babadook

This nerve-frying psychological horror doesn’t rely on classic jump scares: instead, it uses the power of suggestion – to excellent effect. Trust us: this story of a single mother and her young son’s experience with a pop-up storybook called Mister Babadook will have you climbing the walls long before the credits roll.

It

It 2: Pennywise the clown
Pennywise the clown in It.

According to SATC’s Carrie Bradshaw, there’s nothing scarier than a clown. Except, perhaps, a shape-shifting clown named Pennywise that dwells in the sewers and feeds on helpless children…

Final Destination 2

Oh yes, we know: it’s unusual to recommend a horror sequel over the original, but Final Destination 2 packs the franchise’s biggest punch, in this writer’s opinion. Set exactly one year after the events of the first film, this one sees a young woman’s premonition of a deadly pileup prevent the deaths of several motorists. Cue Death swooping in to collect the lives he’s been cheated of, in a series of increasingly gory “accidents.”

28 Days Later

Both a zombie movie and a terrifying political allegory, the nightmarish world of 28 Days Later may hit a little too close to home for some (we are mid-pandemic, after all). If you can bring yourself to dive in headfirst, though, just be sure to remember that there are some things far more terrifying than the rage-fuelled cannibal masses of the undead…

Us

Lupita Nyong'o, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele's Us. Image: Universal Pictures
Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Jordan Peele’s Us.

Adelaide Wilson just wants to enjoy a beach holiday with her family. But, as fans of Jordan Peele’s identity horror Us know all too well, this becomes impossible when four masked strangers descend upon the Wilsons’ holiday home, forcing them into a desperate fight for survival. And, when the masks eventually come off, things get even more frightening…

The Shining

This classic Stephen King horror – all about a man slowly succumbing to cabin fever as he tends to a haunted hotel – is pretty much guaranteed to make your lockdown experiences look like a blooming picnic in the park in comparison. All together now? “All work and no play…”

Hereditary

It’s the horror movie that left this hardened film fan sobbing in the cinema, and for good reason. As traumatic as it is terrifying, Hereditary sees a family do their best to unravel a series of cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry when their matriarch dies, only to learn that they’ve inherited a truly sinister fate.

The Blair Witch Project

The original found-footage horror, this 90s classic sees three students head into the Maryland backwoods to cover the mystery behind the Blair Witch incidents. The trio speak with locals, sift through facts and legends, and then decide to spice their footage up by heading into the woods to see what they can find out there. But then, just like that, they lose their map… and things take an unexpectedly frightening turn.

The Descent

Brutal, terrifying, and heart-achingly tense, The Descent sees a group of friends head off on a caving expedition. So far, so fun. Too bad, then, that they soon find themselves trapped inside the pitch-black cave and pursued by blood-thirsty predators, eh?

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby – all about a young woman’s suspicion that her creepy-as-fuck neighbours have something sinister planned for her unborn baby – draws on the complicated feelings that come from having another being in your body during pregnancy.

Ring

Everyone knows this one: you watch a video tape packed to the brim with disturbing images, you die in mysterious circumstances just seven days later. Whether you watch the Japanese original or the American remake, though, you’re guaranteed to be left terrified of TV static forever more…

A Quiet Place

Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place

Imagine a world where making the slightest sound – even something as involuntary as a cough, a sneeze, or a cry of pain – would result in your death. Now, imagine how terrifying it would be to navigate that world as a heavily-pregnant woman, knowing that the baby inside you is a ticking time-bomb. That’s A Quiet Place. And, fair warning, you’ll want to look away when that upturned nail makes an appearance…

Alien

In deep space, the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo decide to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel. This is no ordinary sci-fi film, though, as their decision brings them into contact with a terrifying parasitic alien. One which attaches itself to one of the crew, causing him to fall into a coma, and… well, spoilers. Let’s just say that in space, no one can hear you scream.

Get Out

The less you know about Get Out going in, the better. All you need to know is the briefest of synopses: Chris, a young Black man, accepts an invite to meet his white girlfriend’s family. He’s worried they won’t be accepting of him, but he couldn’t be more wrong: Rose’s parents like him. They really, really like him. And then, just like that, things start to get weird…

The Strangers

There’s nothing more unsettling than a sharp knock at the door in the middle of the night. Nothing, of course, except a sharp knock at the door from a masked stranger in the middle of the night. Thus begins The Strangers, a brutal home invasion tale which is bound to amp up your paranoia levels. Because, yeah, when the scary stuff starts, it’s really bloody scary.

It Follows

A fatal curse passed on by sexual intercourse, and a slow-moving villain that pursues you wherever you go? This horror film is unlike any other: slow-paced, quietly terrifying and difficult to pin down exactly what it’s about. 

Insidious

If you like your horror films to come with a healthy dose of demon possession, check out Insidious. All about a family convinced their new home is haunted, and that their comatose son is possessed by a demon in an alternative universe, it’s packed with enough jump-scares to give you a proper workout.

Train To Busan

Forget snakes on a plane: try zombies on a train. In this biting horror, Seok-woo and his daughter board a train to Busan (hence the title) for a special birthday trip. It’s not long, though, before their journey hits a snag far worse than a rail-replacement bus service. Because, yeah, there’s a zombie outbreak in South Korea, and the undead have boarded the train…

Signs

A remote farmhouse? Strange crop circles in the swaying cornfields outside? And a sharp kernel of grief, far too terrible to confront? It can only be 2002’s sci-fi horror, Signs. And, yeah, it’s every bit as unsettling as you remember, trust us.

The Invitation

The Invitation
A scene from The Invitation. .

Nobody likes spending time with their ex. Not really. But, while attending a dinner party at his own ex-wife’s house, Will soon realises that she and her new husband have seriously sinister plans for their guests.

Evil Dead

A genuinely good remake? Absolutely. This is a horror film with a capital H, and trust us when we say it’s genuinely scary. You’ll want to keep the lights on for this one…

Candyman

“Candyman. Candyman. Candym…”

When Helen takes it upon herself to investigate the myths and superstitions surrounding the one-armed Candyman, her world is rocked when a series of murders start taking place. Could it be that the legends are true? And could it be that this film has made bee stings even scarier than they seemed in My Girl?

Be sure to keep an eye out for the remake when it hits cinemas in the not-so-distant future, too.

Halloween

Michael Myers was committed to a sanitarium as a child for the murder of his sister, Judith Myers, but now, some 15 years later, he’s managed to escape his shackles. Cue him taking it upon himself to stalk and murder the teen babysitters of Haddonfield, Illinois – but could he have met his match in Laurie Strode?

Paranormal Activity

When a young couple find themselves feeling unsettled by their new house, they decide to install a series of cameras. Cue a Blair Witch-esque movie, as each CCTV device captures every single noise and occurrence in the house… and quickly confirms that there’s far more malevolent forces at play than mice.

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
Now TV: The Invisible Man.

After escaping her abusive boyfriend at long last, The Invisible Man’s Cecelia only begins to feel safe when the police confirm that her ex has died by suicide. Or has he? As events spiral out of control, and with everyone around her convinced she’s losing her mind, it’s not long before Cee is forced to take matters into her own hands…

The Conjuring

When demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren are begged to visit a family’s “haunted” farmhouse, they decide to take the call. Cue them being confronted by an evil the likes of which they could never have imagined…

Under The Shadow

After Shideh’s building is hit by a missile during the Iran-Iraq War, a superstitious neighbor suggests that the missile was cursed and might be carrying malevolent Middle-Eastern spirits. It’s not long before Shideh becomes convinced a supernatural force within the building is attempting to possess her daughter Dorsa, and she has no choice but to confront these forces if she is to save her daughter and herself.

House Of Wax

While some hardened horror fans might turn their noses up at this one, Stylist’s Felicity Thistlethwaite has declared that it changed her life, and not for the better. Come for Paris Hilton, stay for the retina-burning image of someone taking a pair of scissors to someone’s Achilles tendon…

Scream

Yes, this satirical horror is guaranteed to make you smirk, but if the sight of Scream’s masked killer wielding a machete doesn’t make your skin explode into goosebumps, we don’t know what will, quite frankly.

The Sixth Sense

To round things off, we have the horror-with-a-twist. And, yeah, you probably know what M. Night Shyamalan has in store for you by this point, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel your blood run cold throughout this tale of a troubled young boy who acts as a medium of communication between the former and a slew of unhappy spirits.

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Images: New Line Cinema/Monkeypaw Productions Perfect/Universal/Paramount/Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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