Put out the pumpkins, dead-bolt the doors, and face your fears. It’s October and the time for terror is upon us.
Whether you’re a year-round horror-lover or more of a fair-weather fiend, spooky season is all about letting us mere mortals examine the extreme, fathom the fantastic, and sneak a peek at ridiculous realms unknown.
Yet this hallowed season can also be forebodingly fleeting, forcing us to cram in as much creepy as we can before November comes to ruin the party. That crunch time can be vexing when it comes to sorting through decades of horror movies. Which witch should I watch? What’s a ghoul to do?
So, to help you out and honor the GGOAT (that’s the Greatest Genre Of All-Time), we’ve assembled a collection of 31 essential, history-making horror titles you can watch right now.
As you might imagine, that was an astoundingly tricky task. Ergo, some parameters: (1) Movies are listed chronologically, and spread out — as much as they reasonably can be — across decades; (2) Directors are allotted one entry and one entry only, though their other works may be referenced elsewhere; (3) In an effort to spotlight an array of horror trends, you won’t get a bunch of the same kind of recommendation (e.g. We won’t recommend multiple found-footage flicks); (4) But in light of the previous rule, we reserve the right to recommend double-, triple-, and even quadruple-features as we see fit.
Now, pick your poison. Happy haunting!
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
A scene from director Robert Wiene’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Horror movies arrived in the late 19th century as a flurry of short films. The rudimentary jump-cuts, hand-painted reels, and vaudevillian puppetry established the genre’s love of practical effects, which is still apparent today.
Though Le Manoir du Diable (1896) is widely considered the first narrative horror film, it’s tough to say which short from this era was the most impactful. Unquestionable, however, is the legacy of director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Considered a masterpiece of German expressionism, this silent story of a murderous hypnotist laid the groundwork for decades of shudder-inducing visuals, through unconventional framing and stark lighting contrast.
Want more? Check out director F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), a great example of German expressionism based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
How to watch: Nosferatu is streaming on Shudder.(opens in a new tab)
2. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney as the titular ‘Phantom of the Opera’.
Credit: FILMPUBLICITYARCHIVE/UNITED ARCHIVES VIA GETTY IMAGES
As the success of cinema swelled and Hollywood grew, artists began expanding their craft through unique skillsets. In horror, monster-maker Lon Chaney, who is sometimes referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” pioneered grisly creature performances through physically intense acting and gruesome special effects makeup.
Some of Chaney’s more notable roles have been lost. Tragically, this includes his well-remembered performance in London After Midnight (1927), the last full print of which was destroyed in the 1965 MGM fire. (It has since been partially reconstructed, though some scenes are unlikely to ever be recovered.) Thankfully, Chaney’s starring role in director Rupert Julian’s Phantom of the Opera has been well preserved and remains very, very cool to watch. Seriously, Chaney has his nose yanked back with a wire for most of the movie. It’s hardcore.
You might also consider queueing up an earlier Chaney performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), in which he sports some truly wild facial prosthetics.
3. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, opposite Boris Karloff as The Monster.
Credit: FilmPublicityArchive / United Archives via Getty Images
Monster movies really got rolling in the late ‘20s and early ’30s, establishing some of the most recognizable characters in pop culture. By the time The Bride of Frankenstein hit theaters in 1935, Universal Studios had cornered the market with titles like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933).
Along with the titular beasts of The Wolf Man (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), these frightful figures would become known as the Universal Classic Monster Movies. They are all worth watching — Dracula being the most overtly impactful solely because it came first. But if you’re going to pick just one, director James Whale’s sequel story of an undead monstress out for blood is the best of the bunch when it comes to pure entertainment value. Venerable horror star Boris Karloff headlines as The Monster opposite the equally iconic Elsa Lanchester as his Bride.
How to watch: Dracula is streaming on Peacock.(opens in a new tab)
4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Promotional material for ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’.
Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sputnik wouldn’t properly kick off the Space Age until its inaugural launch in 1957. But long before then, horror aficionados were wondering about hostile visitors from far away.
In 1898, author H.G. Wells’ seminal novel War of the Worlds offered vivid descriptions of chrome-coated flying saucers and malevolent Martians. Director Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) brought many of those classic sci-fi horror elements in for a landing on the big screen. Not only did this carve space for a film adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1953), but it also spurred countless new monster movies infused with sci-fi elements. See The Blob (1958) or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).
5. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart in ‘House on Haunted Hill’.
Credit: Allied Artists/Getty Images
What would a guide to horror essentials be without a little Vincent Price?
Though the actor reportedly disliked his work being defined as outright “horror,” this unforgettable face of fear appeared in more than 200 TV shows and films including many of the scariest releases of the mid-20th century. Price’s pointed features, slicked-back hair, and pencil mustache have been mimicked and referenced in countless horror homages.
Though Price properly assumed the throne of horror king with the surprise success of House of Wax (1953), his later starring role in House on Haunted Hill (1959) offers a more complete vision of his legacy. Plus, famed B-movie director William Castle’s flick makes early use of the haunted dinner party premise, a particularly goofy trope that would pop up for decades, from Clue (1985) and The Last Supper (1995) to You’re Next (2011) and Ready or Not (2019).
6. Black Sunday (1960)
Barbara Steele in ‘Black Sunday’.
Credit: LMPC via getty images
A too-often forgotten heroine of horror history, Barbara Steele was doing the Elvira act before the Mistress of the Dark was even out of grade school. (Though, it should go without saying, both are great talents of which we have never been worthy.) Steele first gained popularity with horror audiences in director Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, in which she got gothic as a resurrected witch seeking revenge against her traitorous brother.
Black Sunday is especially good for this list in a two-birds-one-stone sort of way. It both showcases Steele’s tremendous talent and offers a taste of the ‘60s Italian horror scene that paved the way for later directors like Dario Argento, who is known for Suspiria (1977), Deep Red (1975), and more. That said, it’s also a stunning work in its own right, with unforgettable imagery and a very compelling story.
7. Psycho (1960)
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’.
Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Regarded by many as the irreplaceable “Master of Suspense”, writer-director-producer Alfred Hitchcock strung a tense narrative better than anyone in the business. From Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954) to North by Northwest (1959) and Marnie (1964), Hitchcock delivered drama across genres through intensely high-stakes scenarios grounded in relatable yet intriguing characters.
However, Hitchcock’s foremost horror work Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins as the notorious Norman Bates, raised the bar for realistic terror. Hitchcock mashed up real stories of real killers to create a villain who would deeply disturb audiences. This marked one of the genre’s more high-profile pivots away from supernatural themes, as well as renewed enthusiasm for the evolving role of sound design in delivering scares. Everyone knows those violin stings.
How to watch: Psycho is streaming on Peacock.(opens in a new tab)
8. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
(Left to right) Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and Kyra Schon in ‘Night of the Living Dead’
Credit: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
Thanks to the transcendently timeless Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero is widely regarded as the illustrious mastermind behind the zombie apocalypse subgenre. In just 96 minutes, Romero establishes both an exceptional cast of characters and a hellish obstacle attempting to block their escape. It’s the blueprint that made every subsequent zombie story not only possible but better informed. Not to mention, it’s a hoot.
Duane Jones, appearing here as the first Black lead of a major horror film, remains an all-time admirable hero with a tragic story sure to keep you up at night. Ben has an authentically terrifying arc that stays scary even when things with the other survivors get goofy. Jones would go on to appear in other horror titles, including Ganja and Hess (1973).
How to watch: Night of the Living Dead is streaming on Peacock(opens in a new tab), Epix(opens in a new tab), HBO Max(opens in a new tab), Starz(opens in a new tab), Paramount+(opens in a new tab), and Shudder(opens in a new tab).
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) / The Exorcist (1973)
Mia Farrow in promotion for ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (right); Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’ (right).
Credit: Paramount/warner bros./Getty Images
A soul-rattling double feature, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist marked the beginning of an especially rocky period for religious representation in horror. Though the “Satanic Panic” of the ‘80s had not yet set suburban heads spinning, the anguish and anxiety of the Vietnam War resulted in reportedly widespread questioning of faith and concern over the changing state of the so-called nuclear family.
Directors Roman Polanski and William Friedkin approach evil and demonic forces from similar vantage points, relying heavily on iconography and body horror to bring on the nightmares. But the films’ respective endings have also come to represent an optimistic-pessimistic dichotomy that’s become a mainstay in horror analysis and creation. Since then, titles from The Omen (1976) to Saint Maud (2020) have approached the god-and-good-and-evil theme time and again, but always in the shadows of these late ’60s and early ’70s touchstones.
How to watch: The Exorcist is streaming on HBOMax.(opens in a new tab)
10. Blacula (1972)
William Marshall in promotional materials for ‘Blacula’.
Credit: LMPC via getty images
Named for its satirization of what was thought to be stereotypically Black culture at the time, Blaxploitation flicks played a unique role in ‘70s cinema. Though they reinforced racist assumptions about Black communities — namely, forwarding the backward belief that Black people share personality traits because of their race — Blaxploitation has come to be accepted as a critical means of bringing the work of Black artists to the movie-going masses.
In horror, director William Crain led the charge with the spectacularly named Blacula, which combines action, comedy, and vampire tropes for a truly one-of-a-kind watch. William Marshall stars a Nigerian prince who enlists the help of the legendary Count Dracula to end the African slave trade. But he finds himself on the other side of the coffin when the Count turns against him.
Blacula was the first in a long line of Blaxploitation horror flicks, including Exorcist parody Abby (1974) and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde parody Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976).
11. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’.
Credit: LMPC via Getty Images
For a slasher flick running only 83 minutes, director Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a remarkably long-lasting legacy. Though its initial reception was mixed to negative, with pearl-clutching critics mortified by its blood and brutality, Leatherface’s maiden voyage established important elements of the then still-emerging slasher genre.
Marilyn Burns as the film’s Final Girl gives us one of the most memorable last scenes in horror history, while Gunnar Hansen as the cannibalistic killer, Leatherface, shows us the pugnacious promise of masked murderers living in remote houses and weaponizing power tools. (Of course, the movie also taught generations of city slickers about head cheese, but that’s a lesser point.) Today, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It’s been revisited in a slew of sequels, but if you’re looking for truly timeless terror, the original always hits hard.
12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’.
Credit: 20th Century Fox/Disney
Don’t let the jeweled corsets and chorus lines fool you: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a scary flick at heart that made it possible for generations of LGBTQ horror fans to find community at the movies. Yes, it’s heavy on the laughs, dancing, and swimming pool orgies. But co-writer and director Jim Sharman’s raunchy romp is just as heavy on the nuanced themes of identity and ostracism, with a heavy helping of ice pick murders and cannibalism just to make it fun.
Tim Curry delivers a career-best as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, with co-stars Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Nell Campbell, Meat Loaf, Patricia Quinn, and co-screenwriter Richard O’Brien. To this day, Rocky Horror is the film with the longest history of cinematic showings and remains a blueprint for interactive screening experiences. You know, “Use a fucking fork, you Marine!” “Use a Marine, you fucking fork!” That kind of thing.
13. House (1977)
Kimiko Ikegami in a scene from ‘House’.
To fully appreciate what director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s horror-comedy House (also known as Hausu) meant to Japanese filmmakers and fans in 1977 would require a much longer, much more detailed explanation than we can provide here. That said, House is an exquisite example of cutting-edge surrealist techniques being applied to the spookier side of cinema that’s just too cool to not recommend.
Relying on his background in TV commercial direction, Obayashi weaves a sickeningly sleek nightmare of a young girl caught somewhere in a terrifying space between cartoon characters and psychedelic hallucinations. Though House wasn’t well-regarded by critics at the time, it has since gained a cult following and has been lauded by film historians.
Just months before House’s release, American surrealist David Lynch debuted the equally bonkers Eraserhead (1977) which, fun fact, Stanley Kubrick once called his favorite film.
How to watch: Eraserhead is streaming on HBO Max.(opens in a new tab)
14. Halloween (1978)
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in the original ‘Halloween’.
Credit: Compass International Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty ImageS
Following the successes of Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, slasher villains became staples in horror — with their constant threat of return justifying countless sequels and reboots across decades.
Among the more iconic slashers of the time were Friday the 13th (1980), which gave rise to the hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding Jason Voorhees; and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which introduced audiences to the foul-mouthed dream demon Freddy Krueger. Around the same time, smaller franchises, like director Amy Holden Jones’ exquisite The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), earned strong followings too, offering proof of concept for Chucky, Ghostface, Pinhead, Jigsaw, and all the others who followed in their bloody footsteps.
Having said all that, for our money director John Carpenter’s Halloween is still the best Golden Age slasher out there. That’s not only because it predates the ‘80s movies previously mentioned, but also because it builds out the mystery of Michael Myers with a precision that mirrors the suspense of Hitchcock while maintaining campy fun throughout. What’s more, Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode is an unimpeachable symbol of scream queen greatness. Hell, that casting still works.
How to watch: Halloween is streaming on Shudder.(opens in a new tab)
15. Alien (1979)
An extremely memorable scene from ‘Alien’.
Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Our earthly kingdom for Ripley, Jones, and the crew of the USCSS Nostromo.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien was among the first action-horror hybrids to fully realize sci-fi’s sinister potential in a chilling feature chock-full of scary surprises. As the antagonistic xenomorphs supercharged futuristic fears, Sigourney Weaver unleashed a smarter, faster, more badass lead hero than space-flick fans had ever seen before. Plus, she gave her co-stars a serious run for their money. (Of course, the feminist undertones of her casting were also extremely rad.)
Alien is an all-around great movie. Arguably, the early ‘80s trend of high-octane alien and robot nightmares could just as well be pegged to John Carpenter’s The Thing remake (1982) or John McTiernan’s Predator (1987). But we’ve got that one director/one item rule precluding Carpenter —thanks to Halloween. And obviously: Alien > Predator. Seriously, have you seen the crossovers?
How to watch: Alien is streaming on Starz(opens in a new tab) and is available to rent or buy on Prime Video(opens in a new tab), Google Play(opens in a new tab), iTunes(opens in a new tab), and YouTube.(opens in a new tab)
How to watch: The Thing is streaming on Peacock.(opens in a new tab)
How to watch: Predator is streaming on Peacock. (opens in a new tab)
16. The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson in a scene from ‘The Shining’.
Credit: Warner Bros.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this feature-length adaptation of a Stephen King novel is many a cinephile’s pick for best horror movie ever made. The cinematography is classic Kubrick, stunning yet stark. The story is immediately engaging, an ethereal blend of family drama and the supernatural. And the cast, boasting performances from Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers, is magnificent.
But The Shining doesn’t need any more praise from us. It’s on this list not just because it’s excellent, but also because it has kept horror fans talking for years. Rife with behind-the-scenes conflict and oozing with hidden meaning, The Shining has given us decades of analysis to wade through. If you’re ever going to have a big-picture horror genre conversation, The Shining will undoubtedly come up — so best come prepared to play with us.
How to watch: The Shining is streaming on HBO Max.(opens in a new tab)
17. The Evil Dead (1981) / Evil Dead II (1987)
Bruce Campbell is Ash Williams for ‘The Evil Dead’.
Credit: New Line Cinema
Please welcome to the screen a writer-director whose knack for undead debauchery truly knows no bounds. Sam Raimi, who may now be more closely associated with superhero films like Spider-Man (2002) and the forthcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022), began his career with a little film called The Evil Dead.
It’s a relatively straightforward movie, following a group of friends up against a demonic infestation of “deadites” at a remote cabin. Though ridiculously entertaining in its own right, this classic performs best when chased with Evil Dead II — a horror-comedy sendup of the original that allowed returning star Bruce Campbell to show off what a killer action hero Ash Williams could be. Yeah, he plays the same role twice — with the sort of sequel pretending the first movie never happened.
We’ll admit, this one-two punch is more novelty than substance. But the franchise pushed the boundaries of onscreen gore while delivering a solid story. That has inspired countless copycats. See Cabin Fever (2002), Cabin in the Woods (2011), and the 2013 reboot also called Evil Dead.
18. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
David Naughton in ‘An American Werewolf in London’.
Credit: Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
If the name Rick Baker doesn’t put a full-blown jack-o-lantern-style grin on your face, then you don’t know nearly enough about him. Baker remains one of the best-respected makeup artists in Hollywood history. He cut his teeth working on films like The Exorcist (1973) and King Kong (1976) but later graduated to leading the masterful work seen in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), and more.
Among Baker’s most high-profile accomplishments is An American Werewolf in London, the film for which Baker received the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup. He’d go on to hold the records for both most nominations (11) and most wins (7) in the category.
Directed by John Landis, this killer canine transformation story is a stupidly fun body-horror flick worth watching in its own right. But it’s knowing that it was just the start of Baker’s fascinating career that makes it worth revisiting in an essential horror context.
19. The Fly (1986)
Jeff Goldblum in ‘The Fly’.
Credit: 20th Century Fox
While we’re celebrating the art of special effects, let’s talk writer-director-producer David Cronenberg. More specifically, let’s talk about the hell he inflicted on Jeff Goldblum in his nauseatingly graphic remake of The Fly (1986) — one of the crustiest concepts ever put to film.
This harrowing journey of a scientist whose experiment accidentally turns him part-fly is the pinnacle of ’80s body horror as well as a fantastic intro to Cronenberg. With a background in visual arts and an intense love of sci-fi, the genre-pioneer made his career on weirdness, grossness, and general ickiness with fearless films like Shivers (1975) and The Dead Zone (1983).
The Fly is the most popular Cronenberg movie to date, and it’s easy to see why. Cronenberg takes what could be too goofy of a concept to pull off and avoids disaster by doubling down on character development. Even if you aren’t a fan of all the skin shedding and exoskeleton forming, you’ll appreciate a well-written and well-acted story that represents just a sliver of Cronenberg’s spectacularly strange career.
How to watch: The Fly is streaming on HBO Max.(opens in a new tab)
20. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.
Credit: Orion Pictures
Yes, it’s The Silence of the Lambs — the first horror movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Don’t get us wrong: Director Jonathan Demme’s chilling tale of a rookie FBI Agent hunting for a killer with the help of [checks notes] another killer is unmistakably deserving of the groundbreaking accolade. But 20 years later, its legacy is a thought-provoking chance to chew over what Hollywood awards bodies do and don’t deem worthy of major recognition, particularly in the horror space.
Bask in the ghastly glory of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and the steadfast stoicism of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. Then consider queueing up another of the only seven horror films nominated for the most sought-after Oscar: The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The Sixth Sense (1999), Black Swan (2010), Get Out (2017), and The Shape of Water (2017), that last of which finally scored that second win — and yes, counts as horror if you’re going Black Lagoon rules.
How to watch: The Silence of the Lambs is streaming on Prime Video(opens in a new tab) and available to rent/buy on Google Play(opens in a new tab), iTunes(opens in a new tab), and Youtube.(opens in a new tab)
21. Candyman (1992)
Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen in ‘Candyman’ (1992).
Credit: TriStar Pictures
Written and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman takes a short story by Hellraiser director Clive Barker and spins it into a gripping legend examining racism and inequality in northern Chicago.
How effectively the original film (not the Nia DaCosta-directed sequel) explores themes of disenfranchisement has become a matter of some controversy in recent years. (Rose is, after all, a white director, and the script makes some especially bold assertions about the Black experience in that context.) Nevertheless, pro-Candyman academics and critics have rallied for the work’s value and even imbued it with new meaning through debate.
Tony Todd stars as the titular “Candyman” — a mysterious hook-handed, bee-infested figure, who local legend claims can be summoned by saying his name five times in the mirror. Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, a graduate school candidate studying what she assumes is just a spooky story.
How to watch: Candyman is available to stream on Peacock(opens in a new tab) and AMC+(opens in a new tab) and to rent/buy on Google Play(opens in a new tab), iTunes(opens in a new tab), and YouTube(opens in a new tab).
22. Scream (1996)
A bunch of moments from the epic ‘Scream’ franchise.
Credit: Mashable composite; Dimension Films
Despite what the recent horror-comedy resurgence might have you think, it didn’t take long for horror and humor to find each other on the big screen. In fact, famed comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello crossed over with Universal’s Classic Monster Movies as early as the late ’40s, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
What director Wes Craven brought to the genre in ’90s with the heavily comedic Scream was more than a renewed sense of levity. This teen-led movie exhibited a keen understanding of the slasher subgenre, turning self-referential humor into a cheeky framework from which Craven delivered some of the smartest scares ever. Sure, scream queen Neve Campbell rules, and Ghostface is a decent villain. But more than anything, it’s Scream‘s script that kills.
Following the film’s massive box office, which some credit with re-popularizing the genre writ large, many tried to mimic its cutting comedic tone — but with limited success.
How to watch: Scream is streaming on Paramount+.(opens in a new tab)
23. Ringu (1998)
Hiroyuki Sanada in ‘Ringu’.
Between The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), and Pulse (2006), American remakes of Japanese horror movies dominated much of the 2000s — rolling out in a steady clip and seeing big box office success.
That’s all well and good. But if you want to appreciate these nightmares as they were initially imagined, then you should double back and check out the originals. With a dozen or so to wade through, you should prioritize Ringu (The Ring) above all others, since it’s just so freakin’ good.
Director Hideo Nakata tells the same tale of a cursed videotape that dooms anyone who watches it to die in seven days. But his approach leans more into the supernatural and spiritual elements of what is at its core a ghost story. Yes, you’ll still see the ring, the well, and a creepy little girl (here named Sadako). But shrewd editing replaces the more PG-13 thriller-type moments — that offered a reprieve in the American version — with pure, unabated dread. Staring at the ashen face of lead Nanako Matsushima as she reels from the film’s heaviest beats, you’ll be left with a stark sense of panic — and nowhere to hide.
How to watch: Ringu is streaming on Shudder.(opens in a new tab)
24. Ginger Snaps (2001)
Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle in ‘Ginger Snaps’.
Credit: Motion International
If The Lost Boys (1987) is to be considered a vampiric coming-of-age for male-presenting horror fans, then Ginger Snaps is its feminist little sister — who just so happens to be a werewolf.
Directed by John Fawcett, who co-wrote the script with Karen Walton, this cult classic follows sisters Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald, played by Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle, as they struggle through adolescent restlessness. Using lycanthropy as a metaphor for menstruation, Ginger Snaps presents a phenomenal teen fright-fest decently representative of Evanescence-era girlhood.
It’s a perfect blend of emotion, terror, and humor that always makes for a good watch. If you love this one, also check out The Craft (1996).
How to watch: Ginger Snaps is on Shudder.(opens in a new tab)
25. 28 Days Later (2002)
Naomie Harris and Cillian Murphy in ’28 Days Later.’
Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later isn’t technically speaking a zombie apocalypse film. Yet, it’s regularly credited with revitalizing the undead subgenre for much of the early 21st century.
Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris lead a group of survivors in an unforgiving, pandemic-ridden world ravaged by a virus called “Rage.” What follows is a bloody, relentless ride through post-catastrophe London that will keep your heart in your throat and your stomach on the floor. Instead of opting for the slow-walking corpses that defined the subgenre from Romero until zombies fell out of vogue in the ‘80s, 28 Days Later pits fast-moving monsters crawling the city against desperate victims. Seriously, this is one of the scarier films on this list and in the apocalypse genre as a whole because of its totally new approach to a trope audiences thought they knew.
Provocative, even in the face of a subject matter riddled with cliches, 28 Days Later directly inspired the creation of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004), and is regarded as a major inspiration behind titles like Word War Z (2013), Zombieland (2009), and AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010).
26. Saw (2004)
Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon in ‘Saw’.
Credit: Lionsgate films
It’s hard to believe James Wan started his career of blockbusters hits like The Conjuring (2013) and Aquaman (2018) with a quaint indie about two dudes stuck in a bathroom. But he did, and the horror genre has never been the same.
A fittingly pessimistic response to the events of 9/11, the notorious Saw franchise created by Wan and longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell combined extreme gore with slasher tropes for a sickening scare-fest that upped the ante on body horror. The original film is easily the best constructed, but the so-called “torture porn” within helped established the franchise as a lucrative opportunity for Halloween releases for the next decade.
How to watch: Saw is streaming on Peacock.(opens in a new tab)
27. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Katie Featherston in a scene from ‘Paranormal Activity’.
Credit: Paramount Pictures/Blumhouse Productions
Paranormal Activity is far from the first found-footage film to hit the market — what with Blair Witch (1999) popularizing the subgenre just a few years before. Plus, voyeuristic elements appear in exploitation films like Cannibal Holocast (1980) way earlier than that.
What makes writer-director Oren Peli’s demonic flick worthy of this list is the unique approach it took to pulling off practical effects in a modern found-footage context. Where later films like Unfriended (2014) and Host (2020) greeted audiences with digital interfaces and chat rooms, Paranormal Activity presents as something akin to crime scene footage. Peli made a habit of prioritizing authenticity over all else and the fear followed. Seriously, a lot of people reportedly walked out of theaters.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), which took Peli’s original concept and set it against ’80s suburbia, is arguably the best in the franchise. It’s just all-around more fun, with the best jump scare possibly…ever. Still, the original was truly history-making — the sort of movie that truly haunts you.
28. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Megan Fox in ‘Jennifer’s Body’.
Credit: 20th Century Fox
You can thank the internet for facilitating pop culture’s reevaluation of numerous cult classics. But few were as overdue and as important as the critical reassessment of Jennifer’s Body.
Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody, this snarky story of a teen girl sacrificed to the devil by a rock band was largely maligned upon its release in 2009. Critics complained about its balance of comedy and horror, with many admitting they just didn’t get it.
But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, female horror fans and filmmakers took to social media to reconsider the film’s strongest elements — namely, its nuanced approach to addressing sexual trauma and playful presentation of queer characters in a horror context. You’ll want to queue this one up just for Megan Fox’s wickedly fun delivery of, “No, I’m killing boys.“
29. The Babadook (2014)
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in ‘The Babadook’.
Credit: Entertainment One
Analyze a horror movie long enough and you can tie pretty much any scary element back to some underlying trauma or grief. That’s just how this genre tends to work.
Still, writer-director Jennifer Kent takes character psychology to new, heartbreaking heights in The Babadook — a family drama that considers widowhood through the lens of a cursed children’s book. Actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are perfectly paired as mother and son, and their characters’ subsequent unravelings play like a claustrophobic home invasion with no chance of escape. We named it one of the best films of 2010s. You’ll see why.
30. It Follows (2015)
Maika Monroe in ‘It Follows’.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell achieves a modern triumph of spooky styling in It Follows, an ethereal stalker story with mood for days. Maika Monroe stars as a young woman, who is being pursued by a relentlessly lethal force. So, she must band with her friends to try and survive.
The concept is interesting enough, but it’s the stunning execution of It Follows that makes this film a serious contender for modern classic status. Between its rapid, glowing visuals and a disorienting soundscape — not to mention the ever-changing seasons, and bizarre shell phone technology — It Follows carves out a new world and a freaky feeling in horror previously unexplored.
How to watch: It Follows is streaming on Peacock(opens in a new tab).
31. Get Out (2017)
A scene from ‘Get Out’.
Credit: Universal Pictures
Writer-director-actor Jordan Peele claimed his horror auteur status with Get Out (2017). This ruthless satire on white privilege and Black disenfranchisement shook audiences to their cores, sometimes from screaming, sometimes from laughing. It’s a wild ride, that earned four Oscar nominations and a win for Peele’s original screenplay.
Academy Award-nominee Daniel Kaluuya stars as a young Black man invited to go to his white girlfriend’s parents’ isolated house for the weekend. All seems well — at least in the typical “Well, these people are awful but sufferable” kind of way. But that soon bows to a hellish descent into self-congratulatory white elitism. Good luck.