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The search for the scariest horror movie in cinematic history

The more horror we consume, the harder it becomes to find a good scare. These genuinely unsettling movies should get you in the mood for Halloween.
Dracula Movie Poster
Poster for the 1931 film "Dracula" (Credit: Universal Pictures / Wikipedia)
Key Takeaways
  • Every Halloween, people search for horror movies that can send genuine shivers down their spine.
  • Fortunately, there is no shortage of filmmakers who managed to put their darkest, most twisted thoughts on the big screen.
  • From films with iconic monsters to those that exploit our five senses, these are some of the most frightening horror movies you can find.

Few movie genres have proved to be as enduring, lucrative, or beloved as horror — and there are multiple reasons for that. As the art of and technology behind cinema continues to develop, directors discover new and innovative ways to keep audiences on their toes. It is why Netflix’s Bird Box managed to feel just as groundbreaking today as did Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds back in 1963.

Lodged deep in the reptilian part of our brains, fear is among the most primal emotions we can experience. Would this not, by extension, also make horror one of the most potent movie genres? Certainly, the feeling that washes over us when the lights turn off inside our local cinemas is rarely as tantalizing as when we ready ourselves for a good scare.

Diving deeper into the science and psychology of terror, one can even discover a number of health benefits associated with the consumption of horror. For instance, a study from 2020 found that people who frequently watched horror movies felt that they were better equipped to process fear and anxiety during the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

But while horror may desensitize us to reality, they also desensitize us to other horror films. Every Halloween, it seems people are searching ever more frantically for a movie that manages to send some genuine shivers down their spine. If you are one of those people, then you are in luck. In the following list, we introduce you to some of the scariest horror movies ever made and what makes them so effective.

The scariest movie monsters

Similar to myths and legends, many famous horror movies revolve around some kind of monster. However, which of these monsters ought to be considered the scariest is difficult to say. Where Godzilla might have made a terrifying entrance back in 1954, today, audiences simply cannot help but see him for what he is: a man in a rubber suit.

That’s not to say there aren’t any iconic contenders in this category. The xenomorph from Alien was well-designed to the point of spawning an entire media franchise of films, shows, and video games. The shark from Jaws also deserves an honorable mention. Not showing the fish until the very end because of budget constraints, Steven Spielberg singlehandedly revitalized our fear of the deep sea.

The Weeping Angels from Doctor Who are some of the most iconic monsters ever created.

Nowadays, though, the scariest monsters seem to be those that defy categorization. Think, for instance, of the titular entity from the Steven King story It. Though frequently taking on the form of a clown called Pennywise (played hauntingly by Tim Curry in 1990), “It” is actually a Lovecraftian evil that can shift into any shape “It” wants. The same principle applies to “The Thing” from 1982’s The Thing.  

Other monsters strike us as terrifying not because of their intangibility but the sheer originality of their concept. The Weeping Angels, a particularly memorable monster of the week from the long-running British drama series Doctor Who, serve as a case-in-point. These “quantum locked” aliens turn to stone whenever they are looked at, but move closer every time you look away or blink.

The greatest horror “movies”

Film is an inherently audiovisual medium, which means that every filmmaker who takes full advantage of this can produce a truly great movie. In recent years, we have seen the emergence of what is sometimes described as “horror of the senses,” or films whose premises revolve around our ability to see and hear.

One of the films that went on to define this ongoing trend was John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. Originally released in March 2018, it is set during a day when the human world is abruptly and inexplicably invaded by a species of bloodthirsty aliens. These aliens are blind as a bat but have excellent hearing. This means that, in order to survive, the human characters must make as little noise as possible.

A Quiet Place (2018) plays on one of the five senses.

What makes A Quiet Place special is the way in which Krasinski continues to build upon this already captivating premise. In a stroke of filmmaking genius, the director decided to make one of his main characters deaf. As if the odds hadn’t been stacked against them to begin with, this character has to avoid the aliens by relying on a sense that she does not possess.

The dramatic irony created by this situation — that is, a human character being completely unaware of the noise she is making and the aliens that she is attracting as a result — make both A Quiet Place and its 2021 sequel some of the best sense-based horror movies of all time, putting them right up there with Bird Box (sight) and It Follows (touch).

Definitions of fear

When scouring the corners of the internet in search of the scariest horror movies, one point you will encounter is that “fear is subjective.” What might strike one person as horrifying will cause another to chuckle. One form of fear that is rarely touched upon in Hollywood blockbusters but elaborately explored by indie filmmakers is disgust.

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Disgust isn’t the same as fear, but the two emotions have much in common. A Serbian Film came out in 2010 and follows an actor who is forced to commit unspeakable acts during the recording of an “experimental” film, including the raping and killing of a newborn baby.

Few characters inspire disgust like the aristocrats from Salò. (Credit: Pier Paolo Pasolini / Wikipedia)

One step up from A Serbian Film is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. Based on the sickeningly sadomasochistic writings of the Marquis de Sade, this movie tells the story of a group of aristocrats who kidnap, humiliate, and torture a group of innocent teenagers for their own amusement. Among many other things, the victims are raped, forced to swallow human feces, and burned alive.

These films are not scary in the traditional sense, but they channel and amplify emotions conveyed in mainstream horror, including an unwavering disbelief in basic human decency and the infuriating absence of divine justice. Regardless of what kind of horror you prefer, there is no shortage of filmmakers who have managed to put their darkest, most twisted thoughts on the big screen. Oh, and Happy Halloween.


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