Autumn is finally here and with it comes everyone’s favorite season for scares! As October commences every fan of the haunted holidays is counting down to Halloween by watching their favorite horror films, myself no exception. Since I often get a lot of questions about which films are worth watching or skipping I thought it’d be fun to compile an exhaustive list of my favorite scary movies. Below you’ll find an exhaustive collection of recommendations sorted according to six categories: Slow-Burn Stress, Creepy Confrontations, Scientific Spooks, Phantasmal Forays, Humorous Horror, and Severe Suffering.
Beside each category title I’ve included a brief description of the qualities I think are particular to those films, and beside each film I’ve included a one-sentence explanation (**Starred Titles** are those I believe essential viewing). And while by their nature horror movies are often violent and disgusting, I’ve added some warnings regarding their content where I felt especially necessary (psychological trauma, nudity, sexual trauma, extreme violence, etc.). Some of these are likely well-known to many of my readers, but I hope even the most seasoned among you can find the courage to venture into unknown territory. Enjoy!
A. Slow-Burn Stress
These films aren’t packed with jump scares, but instead rely on atmosphere, pacing, and a killer core concept to create an overwhelming, inescapable sense of dread.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) - The tension is ratcheted up from minute to minute in this film in which two young refugees from an unexplained apocalyptic event hide in John Goodman’s basement bunker, uncertain if the true threat lurks within the concrete walls or without.
**Carrie (1976)** - One of the most renowned horror films of all time, Carrie features a landmark performance from Sissy Spacek as the titular, beleaguered character in this paranormal coming-of-age story based on a Stephen King novel.
Friday the 13th (1980) - As one of the first true “slasher” films—in which unsuspecting teens are methodically killed off by an unrelenting force of evil—this movie is low budget, but creates the mold for many bloody murder fests to follow.
**Get Out (2017)** - First-time director Jordan Peele knocked it out of the park with this politically-charged, extremely clever tale of a young black man’s introduction to his white girlfriend’s family that doesn’t go at all how you’d expect and despite its disturbing twists, manages to temper the experience with a handful of laughs.
**Halloween (1978)** - One of the founding fathers of modern horror, John Carpenter, is mentioned several times on this list and for good reason: he understands that the most terrifying things are often the most simple, even if that thing is a relentless stalker sporting a William Shatner mask and a very large knife.
Hannibal (Seasons 1-3, 2013-2015) - One of only a handful of bingable television shows mentioned on the list, Hannibal reimagines the Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter mythos made famous by Anthony Hopkins in meticulous, gruesome detail (surprising for a primetime production from NBC), deploying a small ensemble of pitch-perfect performers to weave a bloody, yet strangely romantic, tale.
Hereditary (2018) - In this twisted tale of inherited trauma anchored by a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette, Hereditary keeps audiences guessing with plot twists that continue to surprise until the final minute.
**It Follows (2014)** - Similar to Halloween, It Follows is built on a simple-but-effective premise to creep out the audience: what if, after having sex with the wrong person, you were pursued at every moment by a shape-changing specter?
Jacob’s Ladder (1990) - Extremely influential on properties like Silent Hill, this film follows the suffering of Tim Robbins’s protagonist veteran, who after returning from the Vietnam War is plagued by visions of gruesome specters who do not seem to be of this world.
**Let the Right One In (2008)** - This unique Swedish film depicts a budding friendship between two young protagonists—one of whom is not what they seem—and asks audiences how far they’d go to protect the one they love, even if it threatened themselves.
Pontypool (2008) - It’s difficult to reimagine the zombie film, but somehow Pontypool pulled it off, with a clever spin on the idea of the “infectious virus” that turns every day humans into slobbering maniacs.
Psycho (1960) - With his propensity for misdirection and willingness to upend expectations at every turn, Alfred Hitchock’s notorious tale of a lonely hotel keeper’s encounters with an array of guests will keep you guessing to the final minute.
**Rosemary’s Baby (1968)** - The tale of one woman’s struggle to escape the conspiratorial powers slowly ensnaring her and her unborn child, this film’s social commentary is as arresting as its horrifying premise. (Warning: Psychological Trauma)
Signs (2002) - I’m not a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan or Mel Gibson, but I believe this film to be among their best work, telling the story of a rural minister who’s struggling to find his faith as his family is brought to the brink of disaster by extraterrestrial visitors beyond their ability to combat.
**Silence of the Lambs (1991)** - Revered as not just a great horror movie, but one of the greatest films of all time (winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture), Silence of the Lambs depicts a cat-and-mouse tale of one young FBI investigator (Best Actress, Jodie Foster) searching for the perpetrator of a series of high-profile murders, and whose only ally is a hyper-intelligent, convicted sociopath, Hannibal Lecter (Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins).
The Babadook (2014) - As much an examination of what it’s like to feel isolated as a parent as it is a creepy horror film, The Babadook focuses on one mother’s struggle to confront a terrifying presence in her home.
The Craft (1996) - An eminently entertaining 90s horror film, The Craft depicts the increasingly disturbing vengeance a group of high school girls wreak on one another after they summon a demon to gain magical abilities.
**The Exorcist (1973)** - A pop culture standby and regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Exorcist depicts an epic confrontation between a demon-possessed girl and a pair of tormented priests who may not be up to the exorcism they need to perform.
The Invitation (2015) - As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Hell is other people,” and in this personal favorite of mine, our protagonist is invited to a dinner party with friends at which there may be something horribly wrong with his hosts, or himself.
The Omen (1976) - This film asks a simple question: “What would you do if your child was born the Antichrist, replete with abilities and followers beyond your ability to control?”
**The Ring (2002)** - The Ring follows the trials and tribulations of a plucky reporter as she becomes entangled in a decades-old supernatural mystery that threatens to kill anyone who gets too close.
**The Witch (2015)** - By dispensing with all modern trappings, filming in a naturalistic style, and using old English dialogue, this fable creates an overwhelming sense of isolation and dread as one small farming family struggles to survive amid the creeping shadows of the forest.
B. Creepy Confrontations
These films straddle the line between action and horror films, with the mysterious threats to our protagonists lurking around each dark corner.
**28 Days Later (2002)** - By setting it within London and the English countryside and allowing its genre-defying zombies run at break-neck speeds, 28 Days Later reinvents the zombie movie to deliver a harrowing, high energy horror experience.
28 Weeks Later (2007) - The sequel to 28 Days Later, this film features what I consider to be one of the most stressful zombie encounters depicted in any film as its opening and doesn’t let up from there, depicting a world trying to cope with a viral outbreak while still maintaining a fragile and fleeting sense of normalcy.
A Quiet Place (2018) - A lonely family fights to live a silent life amid a post-apocalyptic invasion of creatures that are so sensitive to sound that they hunt down and kill anything louder than a whisper.
**An American Werewolf in London (1981)** - After hiking across the English countryside a pair of American tourists are set upon by a mysterious creature that sets our protagonist down a dark and spiraling path of blood and gore.
As Above, So Below (2014) - A “found footage” guilty pleasure, this film isn’t particularly inventive, but by setting its scares among the spooky-and-real, bone-filled catacombs beneath Paris, it manages to instill a disturbing sense of claustrophobia that’s difficult to shake.
**Dawn of the Dead (2004)** - A remake of the 1978 zombie classic from George Romero (also worth watching), this modern take also deploys fast zombies to increase the tension and put our ragtag group of survivors in more danger as they try to eek out an existence amid a besieged shopping mall.
**Descent (2005)** - Another film that uses claustrophobia to ratchet up its scares, Descent focuses on a group of cave explorers who happen upon a colony of flesh-eating monsters, and must fight the darkness and their own fear to survive. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
Drag Me to Hell (2009) - At times both humorous and disturbing, a young banker fights for her life after denying a loan to a vengeful woman with the ability to put a demonic curse on those who have wronged her.
**High Tension (2003)** - In this French, twist-filled bloodbath a young woman and her best friend are visiting family in an isolated rural home when they’re besieged by a faceless stalker who’s relentlessly hunting for victims. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
In the Mouth of Madness (1994) - Another John Carpenter special built on a foundation of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, this bizarre film follows an insurance agent as he searches for a massively popular horror writer after his mysterious disappearance to a rural town.
Kingdom (Season 1, 2019) - Another of the binge-worthy series I have on this list, Kingdom is a gorgeously shot, meticulously produced Korean horror drama set in the 14th century that depicts a mysterious viral outbreak and one exiled prince’s quest to collect allies and stop the disaster before it spreads.
**Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)** - Featuring one of the most notorious villains in all of cinema—sarcastic Freddie Krueger and his iconic knives, hat, and sweater—this film pits a group of sleepless teens against a violent, wise-cracking maniac who transforms their dreams into nightmares. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
**Paranormal Activity (2007)** - Following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project (which unfortunately does not make my list of recommendations), Paranormal Activity uses the “found footage” format and limited resources to tell a simple-but-harrowing horror tale to extremely alarming effect.
The Crazies (2010) - A small town sheriff and his physician wife work to survive a deadly outbreak of a zombie-like plague that turns their neighbors into violent maniacs who despite their bloodthirst retain their intelligence.
**The Mist (2007)** - Featuring one of the most notorious endings in horror film history, The Mist is a well-made, oft-depressing adaptation of a Stephen King story that depicts a group of survivors’ efforts to escape a mysterious mist in which violent, otherworldly creatures lurk unseen.
**The Ritual (2017)** - This simple-but-effective survival horror film follows a group of friends venturing on a hike to honor a deceased loved one, only to stumble into the middle of an ancient forest that’s home to deadly secrets and one of my favorite monster designs in recent memory.
The Void (2016) - Following a series of violent events, a sheriff is drawn into bizarre circumstances and battle against Lovecraftian extra-dimensional creatures as cult members encircle the hospital in which he and his companions have taken refuge.
Triangle (2009) - A twisting maze of death and mystery, Triangle strands a group of friends on a sinking boat who, after being rescued by a passing ship, are pushed to question their safety and sanity.
You're Next (2011) - This home-invasion horror drama subverts expectations at every turn, breathing new life into the confrontation between invader and victim.
C. Scientific Spooks
These films are predominantly “science fiction” in genre, but use horrific themes and imagery to delve into some fascinating ideas.
**Alien (1979)** - In one of the most renowned science fiction films of all time, featuring one of the most renowned heroines in all of pop culture played by a superb Sigourney Weaver, a crew of deep space miners do bloody battle with a violent alien creature hell-bent on their destruction.
**Annihilation (2018)** - Months after her soldier husband’s disappearance an expert biologist ventures into a bizarre ecological disaster called “The Shimmer” to determine his fate, but is confronted by an array of deranged and beautiful sights that threaten her life, her sanity, and life beyond the Shimmer’s edge.
Event Horizon (1997) - Years after its disappearance into a black hole the starship “Event Horizon” reappears, and a group of emergency space responders are tasked with uncovering the dark, violent mysteries that await within.
**Ex Machina (2014)** - On the cusp of creating true artificial intelligence, a recluse scientist invites one lucky fan to help test a robot’s capabilities, but little do they know that they will soon be put to the test themselves by the seductive automaton.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - This classic of science fiction horror imagines a world in which a plant-like creature slowly replaces humans with emotionless replicas, eradicating individuality and imagination in the process.
Stranger Things (Season 1, 2016) - In the first (and best) season of this critically acclaimed series, the children of Hawkins, Indiana, battle alongside their new super powered ally, Eleven, against otherworldly forces and government conspiracy to protect the town from certain destruction.
**The Fly (1986)** - Featuring a star turn from Jeff Goldblum, The Fly tells the story of an obsessed scientist who works to unlock the secrets of teleportation and genetic manipulation through experiments that ultimately threaten his humanity. (Warning: Especially Disturbing Imagery)
**The Terminator (1984)** - Featuring pop culture touchstones and another simple-but-effective premise, a young woman and her lone human guardian are relentlessly hunted by a time-traveling robot that will stop at nothing to see her dead.
**The Thing (1982)** - Another absolute classic of horror, John Carpenter’s The Thing sees a group of miners and scientists stationed at a remote Antarctica station who must overcome violence and paranoia as they’re besieged by an extra-terrestrial threat capable of assuming the identity of any living creature it touches.
Under the Skin (2013) - An extremely slow-paced science fiction drama, this film doesn’t reveal all of its secrets until the final scene, but in the meantime it’s a distressing meditation on sexual politics, sexual predation, and exploitation that happens to feature some unforgettably horrifying scenes. (Warning: Sexual Encounters, Especially Disturbing Imagery)
D. Phantasmal Forays
These films, set in a wide range of time periods, focus primarily on relentless spirits of the deceased taking vengeance upon the living.
American Horror Story (Season 1, 2011) - In the first season of this scary anthology series, a small family with skeletons in its closets moves into a peculiar house with closets packed to bursting with skeletons, only to be subject to an increasingly disturbing sequence of hauntings and mysteries.
**Poltergeist (1982)** - In this horror classic a young family looking for a fresh start moves into an idyllic community, only to realize that there may already be invisible guests living in their new home.
Session 9 (2001) - A group of sanitation workers are subjected to alarming and violent experiences as they work to prepare a condemned mental institution for demolition and uncover dark secrets about the location’s history.
Sleepy Hollow (1999) - Sometimes campy, sometimes thrilling, this guilty pleasure period drama sees a late-18th century investigator confront the fabled “Headless Horsemen” that’s been terrorizing and killing the people of the titular town of Sleepy Hollow.
The Amityville Horror (1979) - After moving into an ancient house a young family begins to experience a series of unsettling threats that may turn one of their own against the others in this classic of the “haunted house” genre that was supposedly inspired by true events.
The Awakening (2011) - Set in Post-World War I England and wrought with sexual tension, The Awakening depicts one woman’s attempts to uncover the truth of supposed hauntings at a boys’ boarding school.
**The Conjuring (2013)** - Invoking the style and setup of The Amityville Horror and similarly “inspired by true events,” The Conjuring depicts the struggles of a young family as they do battle with disgruntled spirits, this time aided by a pair of “real” ghost hunters.
The Fog (1980) - Following a series of mysterious deaths a group of unlikely allies must uncover the truth of their waterside town’s history as a strange fog descends upon a waterside town and threatens to kill everyone in its path.
The Haunting of Hill House (Season 1, 2018) - Years after their mother’s death and they moved out of a decrepit gothic manor a group of dysfunctional, estranged siblings is brought together to confront their demons when their sister dies in mysterious circumstances.
The Others (2001) - Objects are moving without explanation, voices are heard in empty rooms, and people seem to appear where they should not in this arresting ghost story that keeps you guessing until the last moment.
**The Shining (1980)** - When the Torrance family was hired to care for the Overlook Hotel throughout a harsh and relentless Winter, little did they suspect that they would be caught up in a dramatic, unnerving confrontation with the supernatural in this critically acclaimed and personal favorite classic horror film based on a Stephen King story.
The Woman in Black (2012) - A classic ghost story that harkens back to the early days of gothic literature, The Woman in Black follows a young, recently-widowed lawyer as he attempts to unravel the mystery of a long-abandoned mansion and the secretive town that surrounds it.
E. Humorous Horror
These films feature plenty of scares, but cut the tension with intermittent humor, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Army of Darkness (1992) - The third in Sam Raimi’s trilogy featuring horror icon Ash Williams, Army of Darkness sees our hero transported across time and space to a terrifying medieval world where he must battle demons, witches, and himself, all while maintaining his typical deranged amusement.
**Cabin in the Woods (2011)** - A modern classic, Cabin in the Woods managed to perfectly blend horror and mirth by using the clichés of the genre to subvert expectations and tell an especially compelling story that despite the laughter leading to its end is anything but a comedy.
Child’s Play (1998) - Regardless of the terrors he inflicts there’s just something hilarious about watching Chucky, the notoriously stabby doll enchanted by a murderer’s disgruntled spirit, run around and somehow overcome grown adults five to six times his size.
**Chopping Mall (1986)** - The quintessential “stupid teens get killed by stupid monster” movie, this guilty pleasure finds a group of irresponsible teens partying after hours at a state-of-the-art shopping mall (Get it?), only to discover that they’re trapped inside with a deranged, out-of-control robotic security system.
**Death Becomes Her (1992)** - Mega movie stars Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep battle across time and the bounds of mortal existence as they try to one-up each other through every petty means imaginable to win the affection of Bruce Willis (in an especially pathetic turn) and prove once and for all that one is superior to the other.
**Evil Dead 2 (1987)** - The second of Sam Raimi’s horror trilogy and considered by many to be the best, comedy and terror ensue as protagonist Ash Williams returns to confront the monsters and mayhem that lurk within an abandoned house possessed by an ancient curse.
**Happy Death Day (2017)** - The Groundhog Day approach to storytelling—in which a character is trapped in a seemingly neverending loop of one day repeating itself—is a bit of a cliché, but Happy Death Day uses the premise to great effect by trapping its heroine in a loop she cannot escape unless she stops a persistent murderer from killing her every day.
Jeepers Creepers (2001) - In this humorous-but-harrowing tale a brother and sister are trapped in conflict with an ancient, skin-stealing demon that, no matter what they do, refuses to leave them alone.
Re-Animator (1985) - Rife with dark comedy and humorously bad special effects and based on an HP Lovecraft short story, this low-budget creep-fest follows the twisted adventures of a young scientist who refuses to believe there’s a way to undo death.
Return of the Living Dead (1985) - Another spook-filled tale that’s sprinkled throughout with slapstick, things go awry in this film when two bumbling medical supply caretakers accidentally release a toxic chemical that infects everything nearby and has the unfortunate side effect of bringing the dead back to life.
**Scream (1996)** - The quintessential 90s horror movie, Scream launched a franchise and set the bar high for every slasher film to follow by introducing a clever premise, a compelling protagonist, and keeping the mystery twisting until its bloody end.
**Shaun of the Dead (2004)** - One of the most beloved horror comedies ever made, Shaun of the Dead pits dead-end lazy retail clerk Shaun and his friends against a zombie horde, presenting him the perfect opportunity to prove his worth to his estranged girlfriend and make us laugh along the way.
The Babysitter (2017) - More than most movies on this list, this movie surprised me when I first watched it, presenting a fairly banal premise, but then completely, bloodily upending it to launch a death spiral of horror and humor.
The Blob (1988) - A remake of the campy classic, The Blob thrives on a simple premise—an otherworldly gelatin devours townsfolk to continue to grow—but suffuses it with dark comedy throughout, playing bizarre and gruesome deaths for laughs and slap-stick ineptitude for face palms.
**The Guest (2014)** - A charming young man, played by Dan Stevens—who until this film’s release was known only as the charming Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey—arrives in a small town to pay his respects to the family of their deceased soldier son, but as violence escalates questions about the man’s true identity and intentions abound.
The Night of the Comet (1984) - In this campy classic a comet passes so close to Earth that nearly all of the Earth’s population is incinerated and most of those left are turned into blood thirsty monsters, so obviously a pair of surviving teenage girls team up, find some guns, and head to the mall to kill zombies while looking good doing it.
**The Wicker Man (2006)** - The quintessential “so bad it’s good” horror movie, this remake finds Nicholas Cage on a remote island attempting to uncover the mystery of his missing wife and daughter’s disappearance, all while delivering a truly hilarious and extremely quotable performance.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007) - This anthology film features a handful of creepy short stories, all interconnected and occurring on one street during All Hallow’s Eve, with some of them more disturbing than others, but all of them amusing.
F. Severe Suffering
These films go, in my opinion, beyond the bloody highs and desperate lows of those described above to deliver especially bleak—for the most part realistic—horror that isn’t for the faint of heart.
**Evil Dead (2013)** - As a remake of Sam Raimi’s campy, low-budget horror film this movie fails by completely ditching the hokey tone of the original in favor of a much more hardcore, ruthless sensibility, but it succeeds by creating horrifying, squeamish scenes that test any horror fan’s capacity for gore. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
Funny Games (2007) - One of two high intensity home invasion films on this particular list, Funny Games depicts a depressingly realistic scenario in which a pair of young men invade a family’s lake house for no other reason than amusement. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Sexual Trauma, Nudity)
**Hellraiser 1 (1987)** & 2 (1988) - Hellraiser’s first (and best) two entries follow (bear with me) the struggles of a young woman as she tries to survive a world in which her uncle and step-mother use arcane puzzle boxes to access a demented dimension of sexual pain and suffering, over which a collection of leather-clad “cenobites” oversee the suffering of those seeking uncharted territory of experience. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Sexual Trauma, Nudity)
I Saw the Devil (2010) - This Korean revenge drama delves deep into humans’ capacity for depravity and suffering, as it depicts a relentless competition between a unrepentant murderer and the unhinged detective determined to seek vengeance upon him for the death of his wife. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence Throughout)
**Saw (2004)** - The notorious debut of “Jigsaw” as a horror movie antagonist sees the demented villain pitting unsuspecting victims against one another in terrifying “games” to prove their willingness to survive. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
**Seven (1995)** - With standout performances from an incredible cast, and directed by renowned creep David Fincher, Seven follows two beleaguered detectives as they investigate a series of horrifying and enigmatic murders, delving at each turn into the dark depths of humanity. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Sexual Trauma)
**Suspiria (2019)** - At first glance the film, anchored by three different performances from Tilda Swinton, is a simple exploration of one talented woman’s quest to find her place among an extremely competitive ballet company, but each new scene reveals layer after layer of mystery and tension that are accompanied by no small amount of blood and horror. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Nudity)
The Hills Have Eyes 1 (2006) - A violent encounter between a vacationing family and a group of deformed murderers leads to ever escalating scenes of gore and brutality, until the film culminates in one of the most viscerally satisfying confrontation sequences I’ve ever seen. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Sexual Trauma)
**The Strangers (2008)** - This film isn’t scary because it’s exceptionally violent or gruesome; it’s scary because its premise—a group of sadistic masked strangers devoid of true motivation or empathy invade a couple’s home—is so real as to be unnerving, and its scenes of depressing powerlessness will stick with you long after the credits roll. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Nudity)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - The grand daddy of so many slasher horror films to follow, this film depicts a violent, hopeless encounter between a group of young friends and a deranged family of murdering psychopaths, the “leader” of which has an unhealthy obsession with collecting skin. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence)
**Videodrome (1983)** - In this media critical film from visceral horror master David Cronenberg, a sleezy television producer happens upon a series of bootleg video tapes depicting scenes of sexual violence, but only after airing them does he realize they may be more real and deranged than he imagined. (Warning: Moments of Extreme Violence, Sexual Trauma, Nudity)