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Essentials of Terror: The Top 25 Scary Movies You Need To See

Updated on June 24, 2015
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Skeptic, cinephile, bookworm, gamer, writer, history buff, armchair scientist, and occasional YouTuber.

They're coming for you, Barbra...

The Halloween season wouldn't be complete without the annual scary movie marathons. But what movies really are the scariest of the bunch? With the assistance of my crack team of mad-scientist researchers and a very precise set of formulaic equations and measurements which you couldn't be expected to understand, I've compiled a list of the scariest, must-see, essential horror films of all time.

From the 20's to the 2000s, it's all (for the most part) covered. We've got the subtlest of scares, to the most bloody and exaggerated; the primitive roots of horror (whose archaic atmospheres only add to the terror) and the more modern, groundbreaking classics of today. For good or worse — but mostly for good — these films aren't only terrifying; they're the influential masterpieces that have forever changed the face of horror... each in their own unique, heart-pounding ways.

25.) The Thing (1982) - Directed by John Carpenter

When John Carpenter made this sci-fi horror about a group of 12 men stranded in a sub-zero temperature at an Antarctic research facility with a bloodthirsty alien capable of assuming the bodies of any of its victims, he elegantly meshed together the must-have ingredients of scariness: suspicion, paranoia, claustrophobia, a whole mess of gore, and Snake Plissken with one out-of-control beard.

While The Thing may have not done too well at the box office, it has since gone on to become a cult-classic among horror-buffs everywhere.

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24.) Scream (1996) - Directed by: Wes Craven

Scream may seem like your typical modern day teen bubblegum slasher movie now, but one must remember that, upon its release, the slasher genre was a nearly extinct species. Yet, with a perfect self-awareness, a smart script and engaging, multidimensional characters, Scream managed to single handedly rejuvenated horror for a new generation. And before anyone gives me flak about adding it to this list, you must remember that it really did make getting scared cool again.

Immediately after its release, the film garnered a whole plethora of followers and copycats, including (but not limited to) I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, and the Final Destination films. But Scream stands alone in its own right. And while it has fallen into that old trap of jumping the shark with a line of sub par sequels, the original still remains to be a self-aware, witty, and fun homage to those great campy horror classics of yesterday. And it retains the ability to make you jump.

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23.) Alien (1979) - Directed by Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)
Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott's 1979 film, Alien, is by far the scariest movie to ever be set on a spaceship. In fact, it may be one of the only scary movies ever to be set on a spaceship (one of the only watchable ones, at least); which is pretty odd, considering that space is the darkest, most mysteriously unknown place in our universe - it really is the one place where no one can hear you scream.

Space is only the setting for this film though; it's the tool that effectively builds up the necessary atmospheres of isolation, claustrophobia, and the terrifying concept of there being nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. And while it may be classified (partly, at least) as science fiction, this tale of a group of people locked in a ship with a gruesome, bad-tempered, murderous extra-terrestrial, is pure horror at its core.

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22.) An American Werewolf in London (1981) - Directed by John Landis

Never have I ever simultaneously laughed out loud and jumped in horror as many times as I did while watching this hilarious, charming, and terrifying 1981 Academy Award winning werewolf movie, by director John Landis.

An American Werewolf in London not only remains to be the best werewolf movie ever made, but, to this day (even with the all the modern newfangled CGI that's come along since), it still holds the number 1 spot for the best werewolf transformation ever put on film.

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21.) House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Directed by William Castle

In this campy-yet-creepy William Castle haunted house picture, we have floating skeletons, severed heads, eerie voiceovers, an ensemble cast of quirky characters, a sweet ass Twilight Zone-esque atmosphere, and a Vincent Price at his most Vincent Pricey-ish ever. Seriously, what more could one ask for?

With a low budget and an overflow of gimmickry, House on Haunted Hill is just as charming as it is frightening. Its mastery was so well made, in fact, that it went on to inspire many other directors of the time to go on to make low-budget horror films of their own; e.g., Hitchcock and his classic Psycho.

This is, and forever will be, a superb horror film that's good for the whole family (assuming we overlook the matricide) and is not to be missed.

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20.) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - Directed by James Whale

James Whale's original adaptation of the Mary Shelly classic (1931's Frankenstein, which made Karloff a household name) may be a classic, but it's his 1935 sequel that's the real masterpiece.

Unlike the original, the characters are really "fleshed out" in this one. That poor, flat-headed, green monster of Frankenstein's ends up being the most tragic and sympathetic horror villain to hit the screen since Lon Chaney's portrayal of the Wolf Man in 1941. And it's that very conflict of emotion we feel toward him, and toward Frankenstein himself, that makes this picture so affective.

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19.) The Blair Witch Project (1999) - Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez

Not since Orson Wells' infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, in 1938, has so much hubbub been made by an unsuspecting public that's been duped into believing a piece of story telling.

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, no one really did know quite what to make out of it. Was it a hoax? Was it for real? What really did happen to those poor kids? Did anything happen to them? These were the questions being asked by audiences all over the world. And with the internet (still in its infancy) fueling the fire, goading the myth on (with fake Missing Persons posters and news stories) the line between art and reality was a hazy one at best.

It isn't just the artful trickery that makes this film a classic, though. With only three actors, a few cheap handheld cameras, a shoestring budget, and zero monsters, ghosts, special effects or bloodshed, The Blair Witch Project single handedly gave birth to a brand new genre of horror (Paranormal Activity, anyone?), teaching the movie going public a unique new way to get scared.

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18.) Freaks (1932) - Directed by Tod Browning

One year after director Tod Browning gave us the quintessential vampire picture, Dracula, he brought us this highly controversial Pre-code horror story about a group of traveling circus freaks who are out for revenge.

The basic plot may appear fairly simple, but with the use of actual sideshow freaks and a whole plethora of unsettling visuals (and a surprising amount of touching moments) Freaks managed to shock and horrify enough of its audience to essentially ruin Browning's career.

But, hey, it's like I've always said: If a movie is disturbing enough to give a woman a miscarriage, get banned in the United Kingdom for 30 years, and cause F. Scott Fitzgerald to blow chunks, then, well, that's my kinda flick.

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17.) The Haunting (1963) - Directed by Robert Wise

The House on Haunted Hill (#19 on this list) may thrill and excite its viewers with gimmicks and surprises, but it's The Haunting that will truly scare the pants off them.

Without showing any creepy crawlies, monsters, ghosts, demons, ghouls, or even one drop of blood, this classic haunted house picture manages to scare its audience using nothing more than the bare necessities of horror: an ominous atmosphere and an intriguing cast of characters. It is and forever will be the haunted house movie.

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16.) Dracula (1931) - Directed by Tod Browning

Unlike Bram Stroker's classic tale (of which the film is based) and the other vampire films which followed it, Browning's Dracula was no repulsive monster of the night. Instead, our bloodsucking antagonist was a suave, debonair, charismatic, handsome nobleman who drove the ladies crazy; before having them for dinner, of course. Thus in turn making Bela Lugosi the father of all "sexy vampires" to come.

Other than cementing into our minds the now-classic image of the sexually alluring vampire, Dracula also happened to be intensely frightening. The use of shadows, the complete and utter lack of any comic-relief (which was rare in horror films of the day), and Lugosi's deliberately slow pacing and delivery of lines ("I don't drink ... wine") all came together to make this one of the most haunting pictures of its time. And, along with Frankenstein (which came out in the same year), it also became one of the most influential of horror films of its day, inspiring a long line of followers including The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein.

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15.) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) - Directed by Wes Craven

Before Freddy became such a wise-crack making homicidal comedian in this movies many sequels, he was one hell of a scary crispy critter.

This is one slasher movie that stood out above all the rest. Our villain here wore no mask, had a personality, and, since he did his haunting in the dream world, had none of those pesky boundaries of reality that keep most ghouls from murdering, taunting, scaring, and horrifying their victims in whatever imaginative ways they chose. As long as you were sleeping, you were on Freddy's territory - and everyone has to sleep sooner or later. It's a frighteningly effective concept that struck the nerves of of audiences everywhere.

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14.) Let the Right One In (2008) - Directed by Matt Reeves

Both the Swedish film and its American remake, Let Me In, did something fantastically original with the vampire genre: they gave it a heart and they gave it a realism, without ever taking away from the scares.

The aforementioned heart may actually be what adds to the terror in this critically acclaimed film; because it's the emotional connection we feel for the two lonely children it's about (one girl vampire, one a picked on young human boy) that makes us feel like we have something and stake. There haven't been many modern horror films made within the last 10 years that have been worth a whole lot of spit, but, boy, this (and its equally well-made American remake) is one that will stick with you. This is an instant classic.

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13.) The Omen (1976) - Directed by Richard Donner

The Omen Damien
The Omen Damien

This time when Gregory Peck went to Rome, he got a lot more out of it than a holiday; a hell of a lot more (get it?). His curse is our benefit, though, because what resulted was what is probably the most adorable little murderous, mark-of-the-beast sporting villain that's ever terrified the film-going public - the son of the Satan himself, ladies and gentlemen: Damien.

While I'm not really the biggest fan of the The Omen movies that followed, this dark and unnerving original 1976 film never fails to give me chills.

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12.) Poltergeist (1982) - Directed by Tobe Hooper

Tobe Hooper may have gotten the directing credit on this film, but this powerhouse of horror has Steven Spielberg's fingerprints all over it. In fact, if you took Spielberg's Close Encounters, bred it with The Exorcist, injected the offspring with that episode of The Twilight Zone where the little girl falls through her bedroom wall and gets stranded in a different dimension (you know the one), then threw in a MILF, a tiny woman and the guy from Coach, you'd have the precise formulaic equation which equals this fantastically frightening movie.

Perhaps the most eerie thing about Poltergeist is that its terror didn't just end after the credits. During production the filmmakers opted to use real skeletons while filming particular scenes because they were cheaper and more convincing than conventional props. This "tampering of the dead" (which, coincidentally, was the cause of the poltergeists in the movie) supposedly led to an unfortunate bit of life imitating art, in what is now known as The Curse of Poltergeist; which, among other things, is said to have led to the brutal murder of Dominique Dunne, the mysterious illness that took little Heather O'Rourke's life, and the untimely demise of Craig T. Nelson's career. Pretty spooky, huh?

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11.) Rosemary's Baby (1968) - Directed by Roman Polanski

Do you ever get the feeling that everyone's out to get you? That something just isn't that right? That, maybe - just maybe - the Prince of Darkness has been ravaging your naked body as you sleep? Well, Rosemary sure does.

Mia Farrow is probably the sweetest, most timid and innocent victim of a satanic cult that you'll ever see. And as she slowly begins to suspect that everyone she knows and loves may be conspiring against her, you're with her at every heart-pounding, paranoid step on the way.

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10.) Halloween (1978) - Directed by John Carpenter

Who would have though that an old Captain Kirk mask and a simple piano tune could have such an impact? While Halloween may not have been the first slasher film, it was inarguably the most influential one, and to this day remains to be the most popular of its kind. After the films release it spawned countless (and I mean countless) copycats, remakes, and sequels, all trying (but only a few succeeding) to cash in on Halloween's success.

In the end, though, you have to admit that the film had a pretty simplistic plot. But who cares? With John Carpenters stylish direction, effective use of music, and his creation of what is now one of the most iconic characters in horror (right up there with Dracula and Frankenstein's monster) he managed to make a film that not only changed the face of horror, but also gave a beloved holiday a refreshingly new tradition. After all, what would Halloween be without Halloween?

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9.) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - Directed by Tobe Hooper

Prefaced as being a true story and shot like a dark and grainy snuff film, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not only horrifying, it's viscerally harrowing; and about as disturbing as it gets. And, god help me, I savor every gory and mutilating moment of it.

With buckets of blood, gore, entrails, shrieks and cannibalism, this is one of the few scary movies in which you can guarantee a whole heaping pile of nightmares, cold sweats, and therapy visits will inevitably follow.

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8.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Directed by Don Siegel

Tensions rise and paranoia grows when residents of a small town slowly begin to realize that something isn't quite right with their family, friends, and neighbors. While they all look the same, sound the same, and appear to remember who they are, something about them is definitely not on the up and up; they have no emotions, no personality, they show no signs of individualism. They're, essentially, generic people.

Whether or not the old myth is true that this film is an allegory of the communist paranoia of the McCarthy era, where anyone you knew could be "one of them," the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains to be the finest showcase of how truly horrifying paranoia can be.

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7.) Black Christmas (1974) - Directed by Bob Clark

While Halloween may have been the movie that made slasher films a hit, it was 1974's Black Christmas (not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night) that really started it all.

Some may say that it was actually Hitchcock's Psycho that got this prolific genre on its feet (and they wouldn't be too wrong) but it was without a doubt Black Christmas that got the classic formula we all know and love started: the house full of not-so-innocent, unsupervised young adults located in an isolated area; a mysterious murderer who stalks his victims and makes weird, ominous phone calls before he strikes; first-person camera angles from the killers perspective; female heroines; and a complete and utter bloodiness that hitherto had not been present on movie screens.

It's not just the novelty of being a pioneer of a sub-genre of horror that makes Black Christmas so great though. It also happens to be an extremely well made, suspenseful film that doesn't come off as cheap or hokey. It's class A, all the way.

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6.) Nosferatu (1922) - Directed by F. W. Murnau

Nosferatu Shadow Scene
Nosferatu Shadow Scene

This great granddaddy of vampire movies is a loosely based adaptation of Bram Stroker's classic story, Dracula. And while the characters names have been changed (the filmmakers couldn't obtain the rights to the novel), the scares remain.

With the eerie grainy black-and-white film of the time, a visually amazing use of shadows, and what's probably the scariest, most realistic looking vampire you'll ever see, the atmosphere of this 1922 silent picture transcends the need for spoken dialogue and moves to a level of frightening that has to be seen to believe.

I'm sincerely astounded whenever I read a Top [insert number] list of horror movies and find that this gem has been omitted. This is a classic, pure and simple; deserving of a top 10 spot on everyone's list.

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5.) The Exorcist (1973) - Directed by William Friedkin

The Exorcist is unanimously agreed upon by both film fans and critics alike as being one of the scariest of the scary movies ever to be made (and believed by many as being the scariest film of all time). And this acclaim is not without reason, for when cute little demonically possessed Linda Blair's face turns green, head starts spinning, guts start spewing, and potty mouth starts running, there's nothing in or out of this world to prepare you for the shock and horror that follows.

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4.) Carrie (1976) - Directed by Brian De Palma

Carrie (1976)
Carrie (1976)

As the first film ever to be based on a book by the now master-of-horror, Stephen King, and directed by the legendary filmmaker, Brian De Palma, 1976's Carrie garnered acclaim from both horror-buffs and critics alike. There's just something so shockingly alluring about seeing the poor, picked on, and persecuted Carrie using her crazy mind powers to mercilessly destroy all of those horrible jocks, cheerleaders, and popular kids that have been torturing her day in and day out throughout the entire film. And then when she confronted that psychotic, bible-thumping mother of hers! Whew! It was good stuff; so, so, sooo good.

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3.) Psycho (1960) - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

"We all go a little mad sometimes.... Haven't you?"

Who would have ever thought that a socially-awkward drag queen could be so creepy? Well, everyone I guess. But Norman Bates was by far the creepiest.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1968 film, Psycho, is quite possibly the crowning achievement of the prolific directors career (coming from the man who brought us such unforgettable classics as Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds, and Rebecca, that's saying something) and, with a little help from Bernard Herrmann's shrieking violin score and what's probably the most memorable death scene of all time, it remains to be horror movie royalty to this day.

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2.) The Shining (1980) - Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was always renown for being a perfectionist in whatever project he'd set his sights on; and, just as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he set out to make the seminal science fiction movie, with The Shining he set out to make the perfect horror. Well, Mr. Kubrick, mission accomplished.

Every aspect of this film is honed to frighten and it succeeds on every front. From the unsettlingly long Steadicam shots, to the ghostly apparitions, the haunting score and the claustrophobic, snowbound setting, The Shining never fails to terrify. It's not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made, it's one of the greatest and most artistically made films you will ever see.

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1.) Night of the Living Dead (1968) - Directed by George A. Romero

"They're coming to get you, Barbra.... Look! There comes one of them now!"

That's right, kiddies, this is it; the granddaddy of all zombie pictures. With a shoestring budget, a grainy black-and-white camera, and a gritty, documentary style of gorilla filmmaking, the scariest thing about George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead is that it feels almost too real for comfort.

Unlike most horror films which came before it, Dead voids itself of all hope, heroism, optimism and humor, and focuses strictly on the unrestrained, unadulterated nihilistic horror that only a disillusioning zombie apocalypse can provide. It not only gave birth to a new genre in horror, it changed the way the whole game would forever be played.

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