Horror movies have changed dramatically over the decades to keep up with ever-evolving audiences. Some of the old classics, while still artful and entertaining, no longer have the power to shock. Others, however, have stood the test of time.
What makes a movie scary? Some would say its the jump-scare the boo! moment that jolts you out of your seat. Others might point to a particularly ghastly monster or a preponderance of gore. And whos to say whats more terrifying a ghost, a creature or a plain old murderer? Much of what jangles your nerves depends on the fears you bring into the theater.
The best horror movies find a sweet spot: A primal, universal terror made vivid by skillful filmmaking. That formula will surely never age. Here, just in time for Halloween, are 20 of the scariest movies of all time:
20. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
This no-budget indie about a possessed McMansion helped kick off the current horror craze. Slamming doors and flickering lights and not much else make this a yelp-out-loud treat.
19. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
The movie that gave us the blade-fingered Freddy Krueger (and the film debut of Johnny Depp) looks a little dated now, but director Wes Cravens blend of dreams and reality still has the power to unsettle.
18. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The zombie genre starts with George Romeros ghoulish, gory classic. AMCs The Walking Dead may have more splatter, but this one really stares into the existential abyss.
17. ROSEMARYS BABY (1968)
Roman Polanskis film about a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) who gets snookered into Satanism is a slow-building chiller, but the climactic payoff is one of the best youll ever see.
Jordan Peeles story of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriends parents is essentially a race-based version of The Stepford Wives. It works best as satirical commentary but has enough wig-out moments to earn a place on this list.
Five college kids find an audiotape that releases demons in this sophomore feature from Sam Raimi. Its freaky great fun thanks to clever camerawork, a sly sense of humor and a star turn from Bruce Campbell.
This knockoff of The Exorcist met with mixed reviews but is now considered an iconic horror film in its own right. Harvey Stevens is unforgettable as Damien, a literal demon child, while several top-shelf actors (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick) play the unfortunate adults around him.
13. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Three filmmakers enter a Maryland forest to investigate a local myth. Assembled from their found footage, The Blair Witch Project uses virtually nothing but weird noises and shaky camerawork by the actors themselves to create an atmosphere of deep-reaching terror.
12. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Hoopers low-budget shocker about cannibals preying on hippies was the perfect mid-70s horror film, a grisly stew of Manson mythology and redneckphobia. Not for the faint of heart.
One of two Tobe Hooper films on this list, Poltergeist has been almost as widely imitated as Psycho or Halloween. (Theres some controversy about whether producer Steven Spielberg really directed it.) This is the movie that made an entire generation afraid to watch television.
Steven Spielbergs masterpiece about an outsize shark may not pack the scares-per-minute of other films on this list. Its part horror movie, part adventure epic. But for white-knuckle suspense plus several nasty surprises Jaws is tough to beat.
John Carpenters remake of the 1951 classic about a creature discovered in Antarctica is a screamingly great horror flick, full of gore, goo and flamethrowers. The ace cast includes Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David.
This sneak attack of a movie begins straightforwardly enough with a Japanese widower looking for a younger lover. The harrowing second half no spoilers must be seen to believed. Directed by Takashi Miike.
Ari Asters story of an artist (Toni Collette) ensnared by a cult may be too intense for some. Critics raved, but freaked-out audiences gave it a rare D+ CinemaScore. Youve been warned.
6. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Jonathan Demmes modern classic is still the only horror film to win the Oscar for best picture. Anthony Hopkins sinister and highly quotable Hannibal Lecter is the cinematic serial killer by which all others are now judged.
Alfred Hitchcocks most famous film may not jolt audiences the way it once did. But its still a terrific shocker, from Anthony Perkins unnerving performance as the ultimate mamas boy to the lightbulb-swinging climax.
John Carpenter terrorized middle America with this simple but effective tale about a serial killer stalking suburban teenagers. Even today, Halloween feels like your worst nightmare: a home invasion perpetrated by a semi-supernatural being. Jamie Lee Curtis makes her big-screen debut as terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode.
Director Ridley Scott admitted that Alien was basically Jaws in space. Nevertheless, thanks to a groundbreakingly hideous space creature (designed by illustrator H.R. Geiger) and a tough-as-nails Sigourney Weaver as the last survivor on a doomed craft, Scotts movie remains the first word in modern sci-fi horror.
Audiences reportedly fainted and vomited during screenings of William Friedkins film about a little girl possessed by a demon (Linda Blair, in a head-spinning, Oscar-nominated turn). Hype aside, this is still an absolute hair-raiser, especially the later editions that restored the eye-popping spider-walk scene.
When it comes to imitators, Stanley Kubricks The Shining, based on Stephen Kings 1977 novel, stands alone. Nobody has ever re-created a hotel quite like the Overlook, nor has anyone equaled Jack Nicholsons unhinged performance as a father gone mad. Its a monolith of terror, undiminished even after nearly 40 years.
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