The best scary movies stay with you. They follow you home from the movie theater. They are right behind you as you walk alone at night. They are with you no matter how deep under the covers you go. Like the videotape in The Ring, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
The best scary movies find a way to capture your attention. They transport you to that house. They trap you in that basement. They lose you in the woods with no way out. This vicarious experience is why we subject ourselves to scary movies. We want the thrill of seeing ghosts without any of the consequences. So, turn the lights on, lock the door, and gather your bravery. We’re about to face the best scary movies of all time.
Top 10 Scary Movies
10. The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan is one of the most reliable horror filmmakers today. His style is not radical. He's not reinventing the wheel. There's nothing new about a haunted house movie. We've been there, done that.
And, yet, Wan has taken what works about a haunted house and perfected it in The Conjuring.
What stands out in the film are the suspense sequences. Wan can craft these moments that are familiar and fresh at the same time. He directs the audiences' attention into one area so that he can pull off a jump scare from another.
The handheld camera has a natural flow to it, giving it that "realism" it is meant to achieve. The camera's movement is also highly coordinated to be at the right place at the right time.
Wan's approach to horror is much more classical than modern. The most obvious element is his use of practical visual effects. Consider the exorcism scene in the basement. When the chair carrying Carolyn rises off the floor, it is actually raising off the floor.
And the image of your mother, possessed by a demon, chasing you in the crawl space under your house is pure nightmare fuel.
Top 10 Scary Movies
9. The Witch (2015)
Part of what makes The Witch so effective is because it is a visual palette cleanser. For years, the found footage style dominated mainstream horror.
The chaotic camera, pixelated video imagery and rough, "live" sound had gone as far as it could go.
So, when Robert Eggers gives us The Witch, it was a relief. The camera movement is more purposeful and tasteful. The thoughtful shot composition and lighting reminds us that beauty can still be scary. Tension and panic can be wrought with subtle technique.
The Witch is one of the best scary movies because it lets us scare ourselves. It gives us the right amount of material to convince us that there is something to be afraid of. And it doesn't give us any more than that.
This is the same process that William and his family are going through. The seed of doubt is planted, and superstition takes over.
The forces working against the family are invisible and silent. Instead of a hammer to the head, this film invades the psyche slowly through the skin.
Top 10 Scary Movies
8. The Strangers (2008)
Home. If you're not safe there, you're not safe anywhere. This is a terrifying notion. The Strangers understands this, and it makes us understand it too.
The reason this one of the best scary movies is summed up in the dialogue. When Kristen (Liv Tyler) asks an intruder why they were doing this, the intruder replies...
..."Because you were home."
It's not a revenge plot. There's no money in the house. There's no reason at all for this nightmare. Any home is a target.
The pacing is a constant build. It starts with a knock on the door and doesn't let up for over an hour. It is a nail biter. It is a step-by-step disintegration of safety and security.
Beyond the masterful technical execution, the character work is also exceptional. Kristen and James (Scott Speedman) are in the middle of a separation. They have come to a crossroads, and this only adds to their vulnerability.
They are relatable. They are messy and human, just like us.
The intruders are human, too. They aren't unstoppable monsters like Jason or Michael Myers; they are regular people in masks. Consider the moment when Kristen watches Man in Mask (Kip Weeks) sit down for a minute at the table. He is not a monster. He is a guy who needs to rest his feet.
It's a small moment, but we see the intruder's humanity. He is real, and what's happening is real.
Top 10 Scary Movies
7. The Haunting (1963)
Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has been adapted a few times since it was published in 1959. Most recently, Netflix turned it into a single-season series.
In 1999, it was made into an underwhelming film starring Liam Neeson.
But in 1963, Robert Wise directed a version that is still terrifying today.
Like a few other films on this list of the best scary movies, Wise lets the audience make it more terrifying for themselves. The film was shot in black and white using experimental wide angle lenses. These lenses created distorted images that fit perfectly with the film's theme.
Wise's approach to the original novel was to put doubt into the audiences' mind. Is Hill House truly haunted or is it all in Eleanor's (Julie Harris) head? The wide, misshapen images work in either scenario.
But the real masterstroke in the film is the sound design. We hear much more than we see. Moaning or a child's laughter coming through the wall is all we get. This "is it or isn't it" question creates the same doubt in us as it is in Eleanor.
We are uncertain, and uncertainty breeds tension.
Top 10 Scary Movies
6. The Babadook (2014)
Sanity is a precious thing. We take it for granted, but we sure would miss it if it were gone. Jennifer Kent's breakout film is about that very subject.
The Babadook itself is terrifying. It is an iconic design that is extreme and evocative. It positively contributes a lot to the scare factor in the film. The sound design also adds a lot to the creature. Its seething and clicking are juxtaposed nicely with its almost cartoonish image.
The design of the creature is old-fashioned and exaggerated, just like the silent film sequence it appears in. It could have come from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and that timelessness is an inspired choice.
The design for the Babadook is very specific and became a collaboration between director Jennifer Kent and her designer, Alexander Juhasz.
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This is where you can collaborate simply. If you have anything to share about the scene with your team, do it in the "scene notes."
But the real horror is watching Amelia (Essie Davis) lose her grip. Trauma and mental illness are subjects we are now beginning to deal with in earnest. The brilliance of The Babadook is how it captures these problematic subjects in nuanced and heartbreaking ways.
It is a pitch black fairytale about loss and how we process it. It is a familial drama about a mother and son disguised as a horror film.
Top 10 Scary Movies
5. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Scary movies can be very complicated. Some spend weeks to create a musical score with the perfect amount of dread. Others use elaborate make-up that will give you nightmares.
And, sometimes, one camera on a tripod is all you need to make one of the best scary movies of all time.
Oren Peli used his own house, a budget of $15,000, a home video camera and shot for a week. Paramount bought the distribution rights for $350,000, and the film made almost $200 million at the U.S. box office. It is one of the most profitable independent movies in history.
You don't need to scare the audience. All you have to do is suggest something terrifying and let the audience do the rest.
The scenes shot while they sleep are almost experimental in their execution. The usual way a director crafts a suspense sequence is to lead the audience where they want them to go. Look at this, listen to that, etc.
In Peli's film, the bedroom scenes are entirely "hands off." They frame the image to capture the entire bedroom as well as the hallway. After that, the audience frantically scans the screen on their own, waiting for the inevitable.
Sound plays a subtle but powerful role in these scenes. Much like John Williams' iconic score for Jaws, we have a similar audio cue for the audience. There is an atonal swell on the soundtrack, almost like turning up the volume on a blank tape. It is a droning and menacing frequency representing the gathering supernatural force.
It's an unusual strategy to present these scenes so plainly and obviously. You might think that showing the same set-up almost 20 times in the same movie would become tiresome or flat.
But with each successive bedroom scene, the tension builds. We know something is going to happen, but we don't know what or when. It's like a jack-in-the-box--we know what to expect, but it's still shocking when it happens.
Top 10 Scary Movies
After The Blair Witch Project set the bar, found footage films rarely worked on the same level. There's no distinct formula to follow, but it seems straight forward enough. And, yet, it's proven to be a tough nut to crack.
But [REC] did.
For such a dynamic presentation, the execution of the found footage style is a subtle art. The camerawork should seem random and unplanned while being highly choreographed. It is using "imperfection" correctly.
The climax of [REC] is an extended sequence of pure dread. Once the night vision goes on, our vision is reduced to a portal of light in the center of the frame. A vast majority of the frame is blacked out, and we only get the tiniest bit of sensory input.
Not enough can be said about Manuela Velasco's performance as Angela. Her frantic hyperventilating helps keep the sequence tottering on the edge.
Top 10 Scary Movies
3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This movie is raw chaos. There are very few comforts in Tobe Hooper's rural nightmare. We are denied many elements that make the filmgoing experience pleasurable. It doesn't feel much like a movie at all, which makes it one of the best scary movies.
Instead, we are a fly on the wall in one of the darkest corners of human behavior. We are unsure where this evil came from, and we have no clue when it ends. The film is only 83 minutes long, but they are long, brutal minutes.
We've seen dozens of movies that copy Massacre's structure. A van full of vivacious young people take a wrong turn and end up in hell. But at least those films attempt to fill in the plot and give the characters passable backstories.
We don't get that here.
There's no real plot in this movie. It is only upon a second or third viewing do you catch why they're there in the first place. Then they pick up a hitchhiker who takes their picture, lights it on fire, then slices Franklin's arm. This is our first taste of the random brutality that will eventually be their demise.
Can you name any of the protagonists in the film? Sure, we know Leatherface, but what about his victims?
They could be anyone. They could be us.
One of the top 10 horror movies of all time
Nothing seems fake or designed in Leatherface's house. The bones, feathers, rusty butcher knives, etc. are real. The filmmakers found actual animal carcasses and used them as props. When fake blood didn't look right on camera, they used real blood.
This film is an excellent example of how a low budget works in your favor when making a horror film. When you can't afford to buy or make props, you have to find them. When you can't provide fake, you have to use real.
And real is scarier.
Top 10 Scary Movies
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The year is 1999, and a website on the internet covers a story about three missing filmmakers. They were working on a documentary about The Blair Witch and never returned.
Months later, their footage was found. And now we have the opportunity to watch that footage.
The "found footage" style of filmmaking may have run its course, but 20 years ago it was revolutionary. Many horror films after this tried to replicate the found footage style but few, if any, succeeded.
The marketing campaign included "missing" posters hung around Sundance when it premiered. The website was sparse and offered details but not answers. The real/hoax debate divided, but everyone went to see it for themselves.
But is there substance beyond the novelty of the found footage gimmick?
Yes, there is.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the best scary movies because it puts you in the woods with Heather, Josh, and Mike.
(Almost) the scariest movie ever
The formal techniques that most horror films use are stripped away. These include camera work, music, and editing. These elements can provide a buffer zone between the audience and the events on screen. Subconsciously, we know we're watching a movie, and there is a gap between them and us.
Between our world and theirs.
In theory: the narrower the gap, the higher the fear.
The actors handle all the camerawork in The Blair Witch Project.
In a regular movie, we trust that the camera will show us everything we need to see. With amateurs like these, we don't have that power or certainty, and that creates tension.
There is no music in the film other than what the characters might be listening to in the car. Music has always been a secret weapon of the best scary movies. It cues the audience when danger is near. When done correctly, it is a subliminal warning that is felt more than heard.
But music is an affectation. We take that for granted when watching a movie. That is until we realize it's not there and the gap shrinks even further.
In this film, our ears must be open just as much as our eyes. We don't have music to warn us, so we are forced to listen for the cues ourselves. This is when snapping twigs or rustling leaves become very important. We strain to hear and see everything because their (our) lives depend on that information.
Top 10 Scary Movies
1. The Exorcist (1973)
What can be said about The Exorcist that hasn't already been said? No one should be surprised that it tops this list of the best scary movies of all time.
Is it really the scariest movie ever made in the world? It tops 99% of any list on the greatest, best, scariest, most awesome horror films.
And for many good reasons.
Let's start with the performances. Ellen Burstyn is a mother who can do nothing as an ancient demon possesses her daughter. As implausible as the plot might be, Burstyn plays it completely straight. Her fear, her helplessness, and her exhaustion are heartbreaking to watch.
Linda Blair, only 13 at the time, gives a knockout performance as Regan. For Regan's early scenes, she is the epitome of innocence. As the possession takes hold, her transformation is aided by vocal dubbing. But the physical performance is still powerful.
Consider the moment when Father Karras discovers Father Merrin's lifeless body. We see Regan sitting against the bedpost; her expression and posture are chilling. It's almost a casual, bored body language and, somehow, also terrifying.
It's the demon's absolute indifference to Merrin's death--it is a vision of soullessness. We also need to mention Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the demon's voice. A huge part of why The Exorcist is so successful is her vocal performance.
Regan's possession takes time. We track the transition from sweet, innocent girl to the demonic Pazuzu with almost clinical detail. Her condition worsens steadily throughout the film, and the tension builds.
Once Regan is isolated to her room, each time we enter that space, we know it's going to be worse. We learn to dread every time a character climbs those stairs because we don't know what we're going to find. Because of this, we are more likely to believe in this tragedy.
We are guided through the process of a possession one step at a time. And that makes it real.
The musical theme for the film is memorable, but music is used sparingly during the movie. In particular, the scariest scenes are mostly devoid of music. What would music add when Regan's wheezing breath is unsettling enough?
We can also point to the use of practical visual effects. Everything we see is accomplished in the camera, from the frosted breath to Regan bouncing impossibly on the bed.
During the exorcism, Regan floats up off of the bed. It is a slow and deliberate movement and an outstanding effect. We see no wires or rigging, and it is a perfect example of what you can do without CGI.
Pre-production is absolutely necessary to pull off a scene like this. The special effects team, your production designer and cinematographer need to work together to pull off the effect.
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It's all REAL. The skill to pull off a scene like this without computers is amazing.
And this is what it all comes down to. The Exorcist is terrifying because it is played entirely straight. This was director William Friedkin's goal from the beginning.
It is the battle between GOOD and EVIL on a biblical level. But the war is fought over the soul of a 12-year-old girl. It takes the abstract concepts of God and the Devil and makes them real.
Another filmmaker might have chosen a cathedral or some other iconic setting. The themes are so significant that a similarly grand location would make sense.
Instead, a young girl's bedroom becomes the battlefield.
If the Devil were to possess an innocent girl, this is how it would happen. It shows us exactly what that impossible scenario would look like. It brings us as close to that reality as possible.
And that's why this the scariest movie ever.
Where are all the Werewolves?
Werewolves aren't quite as popular as scary movies. Why not? Maybe it's preference? Budget? Check out our next post on the best werewolf movies. Click ahead if you dare...
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