Why is it so satisfying to watch a horror movie and have the wits scared out of us? If the best movies are lovely escapist fantasies, then the best horror movies are the fantasies we absolutely never want to happen in a million years. They’re the opposite of an action flick or a romantic comedy. We’re not living vicariously through these characters—we’re just relieved nothing on screen resembles the real world. At least we hope it doesn’t. And yet, there are few things as enjoyable as sitting in a dark room or movie theater and watching our nightmares played out for us.
There are lots of theories about what might be happening in our heads. Famed psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung once claimed that horror films “tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious.” Other researchers believe that many of us just enjoy being unhappy, especially when it’s in manageable ways like horror movies. (The unhappiness ends when you leave the theater.) Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that some of us just can’t get enough of movies that make us white-knuckled with fear.
Here are 40 movies, both classics you probably remember and newer films you may not have checked out yet, that are guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of you and leave you sleeping with the lights on for the next month.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
There will never be a film more terrifying than this. Sorry, every other movie. It’s not even worth trying. This timeless tale of a little girl possessed by a demon, and the priest who tries to set her free (and gets covered in green goo for his effort), is still so convincing that even trying to write about it is enough to induce nightmares tonight.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
What makes Roman Polanski’s story of a woman who’s pretty sure she’s having Satan’s baby so creepy is that Mia Farrow’s character (and the audience) is never entirely sure of the truth. Polanski, an agnostic who was never comfortable with the spiritual connotations, wanted to make sure there was always a question about whether “Rosemary’s supernatural experiences were figments of her imagination. The entire story, as seen through her eyes, could have been a chain of only superficially sinister coincidences, a product of her feverish fancies.” It’s one of the most classic best horror movies of all time.
3. It Follows (2015)
Never has a horror movie so perfectly embodied paranoia. The “it” that’s chasing the 19-year-old heroine is always ambiguous. Is it a person or a monster? Whatever it is, it isn’t in any hurry. The growing dread that whatever’s trying to kill you isn’t in any particular hurry, and you’re never entirely sure what “it” is, makes this film an instant classic in the “Guess I’ll be staring at the ceiling all night and jumping at every creak I hear downstairs” genre.
4. Halloween (1978)
For a film that inspired so many maniac-with-a-cleaver ripoffs, the original Halloween has very little blood. It’s not so much the carnage that’s terrifying, but the anticipation of carnage. Just a fleeting glimpse of Michael Myers disappearing behind some hedges is more frightening than every Halloween sequel that followed.
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The original zombie survival movie isn’t really about zombies; it’s about the social dynamics of five people barricaded in a farmhouse, trying to coexist. This film holds up because it understands that what really scares us is waiting for something terrible to happen, the dreadful anticipation of what’s behind that door.
6. Get Out (2017)
Director and writer Jordan Peele does the seemingly impossible: he creates a movie that’s both a brilliant analogy for race in America and one of the best horror movies of the modern age. The premise is simple: A white woman brings her black boyfriend to meet her parents, who appear to be progressive and accepting. Oh, but if you’ve seen any horror movie ever, you know that first impressions are almost always incorrect.
7. The Evil Dead (1981) and The Evil Dead II (1987)
Both the original and sequel by director Sam Raimi—yeah, the guy who went on to helm the mid-2000s Spider-Man franchise iteration—are required viewing for anyone who loves the horror genre. Bruce Campbell plays his most iconic role, as the reluctant hero Ash, who battles ancient spirits while trapped in a cabin in Tennessee. It’s equal parts funny and horrifying, with enough fake blood to fill a few dozen dumpsters.
8. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Three thieves break into the Detroit home of a blind Iraq War veteran, intent on robbing him blind. Unfortunately for the thieves, the blind guy has other plans. Imagine a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse that happens almost entirely in the dark, and the person hunting you doesn’t need the light.
9. Peeping Tom (1960)
It came out the same year as Psycho, but even almost sixty years later, it’s still one of the most disturbing and psychologically terrifying films you’ll ever see. (It’s also one of the best horror movies ever.) It’s about a cameraman working on a “documentary,” in which he interviews various women. They don’t find out until it’s much too late that his camera tripod contains a hidden spike, and the sadist filmmaker is trying to capture on celluloid the horrified grimaces when somebody realizes they’re about to die.
10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It seems like the last movie that should still be scary to modern audiences. An indie horror flick, vaguely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein, about a creepy family who butchers and sometimes eat anybody they can lure into their blood-soaked compound, and the main guy is a mute beast with a mask made of human skin who chases people with a chainsaw. It sounds like laughable camp, but every time we watch it, it has us hiding under the covers and wishing we’d watched The Great British Baking Show instead.
11. House Of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie—yes, the lead singer of White Zombie—makes his directorial debut with this insane story of traveling group of teens who stumble upon a roadside attraction called Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters & Madmen and everybody gets murdered. Yes, that sounds like a spoiler, but as with the best horror movies, the devil is in the details. In this case, literally. (Also, maybe you don’t trust a clown at a gas station rest stop. Ever.)
12. Let the Right One In (2008)
It’s just another story of preteen angst in which one of the protagonists is a vampire. A 12-year-old boy named Oskar, regularly bullied at his school, befriends a pale girl named Eli who’s much kinder and wiser than most of his peers. “I’ve been 12 for a very long time,” she tells him. There are plenty of scares and more than a few victims, but this might be the first vampire film that really nails the anxiety of being young and feeling like an outsider.
13. Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas, a film about a group of sorority sisters who stay on campus during the holiday break and start getting a series of creepy and threatening phone calls from a guy who calls himself “Billy,” is one of the earliest (if not the original) slasher flicks, and easily one of the best horror movies of all time. The girls start getting murdered, and it all leads to a surprise ending that’s spawned many an imitation—yet none have ever been this full-body petrifying.
14. Cube (1997)
Imagine if the movie Saw had been an episode of The Twilight Zone, and there were 17,576 rooms of potential torture, and it was less about the grisly deaths and more about the psychological ordeal of trying to survive and figuring out what in the world is going on. That’s Cube.
15. The Shining (1980)
Every fan of horror (and, honestly, movies in general) has seen Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece at least once. But it’s worth revisiting—especially as a double-feature alongside the documentary Room 237, which presents some pretty crazy theories about hidden themes in Kubrick’s film. This is one of those classic horror movies where you’ll find something new in every viewing that will scare the pants off of you.
16. The Haunting (1963)
A ghost story where you never actually see any ghosts? Horror movie heresy! But this perfectly crafted film about a paranormal investigation creates a terrifying universe based almost on facial reactions and the sound of things going bump in the night.
17. The Strangers (2008)
“Why are you doing this to us?” Liv Tyler’s character asks one of the masked strangers who breaks in and starts doing unspeakable things to her and her husband. “Because you were home,” comes the emotionless response from a character known only as Dollhouse. If you’ve ever had nightmares of home invaders who broke in just because, this is definitely the film to ruin your sense of security.
18. Carrie (1976)
Even if you’ve never been a teen who felt like an outcast because of your telekinetic abilities and abusive religious mother, the final scene where the titular character gets humiliated by her peers at prom will give you anxiety pangs not just because it leads to horrific carnage but the despair of a teenager grappling with total rejection.
19. Audition (1999)
This haunting Japanese movie starts out innocently enough, with a middle-aged widower trying to find a new partner by holding auditions. It almost seems like a goofball, romantic comedy premise. But then he meets what appears to be the perfect woman for him, and all horror film fans know what that means, right? Yeah, it’s about to get terrifying. Let’s just say she owns some acupuncture needles and she knows how to use them in very bad ways.
20. Wolf Creek (2005)
If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from this sleeper Sundance Festival hit, it’s that you should never, ever take a road trip through remote regions of Australia without first checking to make sure your car’s battery is in tip-top shape. Because if your car breaks down, well, that’s how you end up a prisoner on some sadistic cannibal farmer’s mining camp.
21. Sinister (2012)
A father (played by Ethan Hawke) is trying to write a book about a brutal family murder, so he moves his own family into the house where the kids were killed. You see where this is going, right? The bad guy is called Mr. Boogie, which sounds more like a guitar player in Funkadelic, but trust us: it’s gets very, very scary.
22. Don’t Look Now (1973)
This horror masterpiece, by director Nicolas Roeg, about a husband and wife (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are pretty sure the ghost of their dead daughter is haunting them, is scary more for what isn’t shown than what is. Who knew just the glimpse of a red raincoat could be so terrifying.
23. The Descent (2005)
If being trapped in a cave isn’t claustrophobic enough, imagine being stuck down there will cannibalistic “crawlers” who think of you as dinner. Yeah, at least the victims in other horror movies have somewhere to run. The six women in this harrowing film have nowhere to go.
24. Phantasm (1979)
If just hearing the name “The Tall Man” doesn’t instantly fill you with dread, and make you decide to drink twelve cups of coffee because there is no way you’re going to sleep tonight, you need to stop everything and see this movie immediately. Freddy Krueger will feel like just a pale imitation.
25. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
If you’ve seen the “meh” Hollywood remake, The Uninvited, you owe it to yourself to watch the South Korean original. Filmmaker Jee-woon Kim paints a haunting portrait of a dysfunctional family with dark secrets, filled with grief and growing insanity.
26. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Some critics complained that the shaky camcorder footage made them nauseous, but that’s because this creepy pseudo-doc wasn’t meant to be seen on the big screen. It’s much more effective on video, where it’s easier to convince yourself that you’re watching a recording left in the forest by three kids who disappeared and were possibly killed by supernatural forces.
27. The Wicker Man (1973)
Christopher Lee may be better remembered for playing Dracula, but we loved him best in this creepy cult classic. Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the overly-polite ringleader of a Scottish island community who enjoys strange pagan rituals involving animal masks (and may or may not be responsible for a 12-year-old girl’s disappearance).
28. Ring (1998)
With all due respect to the 2002 Hollywood remake, which does not grace this list of best horror movies, we still prefer the Japanese original, in which a reporter investigates mysterious deaths supposedly linked to a haunted videotape. Based on the 18th-century Japanese ghost story “Bancho Sarayashiki” (a woman gets thrown down a well and comes back to haunt the living), the movie works because it’s not afraid to take its sweet time, revealing the full scope of what’s happening only in bits and pieces.
29. Psycho (1960)
Even if you’ve never seen it, you probably know about the shower scene. Well, that’s just one of the menacing moments in this Alfred Hitchcock classic. And even if you know the ending (we won’t spoil it for you), the slow burn way we learn about the dark secrets of motel proprietor Norman Bates (played to perfection by Anthony Perkins) is just masterful.
30. Alien (1979)
The movie’s original tagline says it all: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” That’s really the genius of this Jaws-in-space premise. It’s not the slimy alien that pops out of ceilings (and occasionally people’s chests), ready to feast on human flesh. It’s the waiting for something horrible to happen, the adrenaline-pumping anticipation. You know it’s coming—you can tell by the panic on Ripley’s face (played by Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role)—but you just don’t know when.
31. 28 Days Later (2002)
It’s not the running zombies that spooked us, but the way this post-apocalyptic world is revealed, through the eyes of a bike courier (played by Cillian Murphy) who wakes up in a hospital and has to figure out why the world looks so much different. As dystopian zombie thrillers go, this one feels frighteningly realistic. And when the film takes a twist at the end—and the tables appear to be turned—this film elevates into something even more profound than one of the best horror movies. It becomes just a really good movie.
32. Night of the Demon (1957)
Martin Scorsese listed this thriller, about a professor investigating a devil-worshipping cult, as one of his favorite and one of the best horror movies of all time. “Forget the demon itself,” the director wrote. “It’s what you don’t see that’s so powerful.”
33. Candyman (1992)
If you’ve ever scared yourself or your friends repeating urban legends like Bloody Mary, this horror movie was made for you. The Candyman was supposed to be one of those silly urban legends, about a boogeyman who comes to life whenever somebody says his name five times while looking into a mirror. Turns out, he’s very much real, and very, very deadly.
34. Jaws (1975)
It may surprise you to see this popcorn blockbuster on a list of the best horror movies. But look at the facts: It’s utterly terrifying. We don’t actually see the shark until well over halfway into the movie, but director Steven Spielberg proves that it isn’t what we see that’s terrifying but what might be lurking under the surface. Just the scenes from the shark’s point of view, of swimmer’s feet dangling in the water, like French fries waiting to be devoured, is enough to make us tremble with anxiety.
35. Vampyr (1932)
The Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer once said that he “wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious.” Well, mission accomplished. The film that some critics have called “the Best Vampire Movie You’ve Never Seen” impresses not with its plot—it has something to do with female vampires—but haunting, almost existential imagery that will chill you to the bone.
36. Repulsion (1965)
Catherine Deneuve plays a psychologically damaged beautician who distrusts men and is left alone in her sister’s London flat with nothing but a rotting rabbit corpse (it was supposed to be dinner) to keep her company. It just gets worse from there, as strange sounds and hallucinations in the confined apartment push her already damaged psyche toward madness.
37. Babadook (2014)
The movie debut by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent sounds like a horror movie cliche—a kid and his mom are pretty sure that the hobgoblin in a children’s book has come to life—but it manages to be one of the most original and thrilling modern horror films of this century. If you’re the kind of person who thinks they don’t make good psychological horror like they used to, be sure to check this one out.
38. The Omen (1976)
This super creepy choral soundtrack alone—everything about it practically screams “We gotta get out of here!”—makes this one of the best horror movies of all time, but it’s the eerie kid named Damien who may or may not be the spawn of Satan (okay, he definitely is) that steals the show. It works especially well when it combines what should be the innocence of childhood with some really dark imagery. A kid’s birthday party is supposed to be about cake and fun. But if the birthday boy is pure evil, there’s a good chance the nanny is going to jump out a window.
39. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
What makes this such an unsettling film isn’t that it’s based (loosely) on a real life serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, but how remorseless the main character is about murdering other human beings. There’s a certain nihilism to this indie hit, the way it makes evil seem so ordinary, that just might have you looking twice at every stranger you pass on the street, wondering, “Does he have a secret life as a serial killer?”
40. The Sentinel (1977)
A movie that finally proves that, when the Gates of Hell open up, and demons descend on our world, ready to destroy us all, it’ll probably happen in Brooklyn. The director cast actual disfigured people to play the demons, which may explain why, in addition to being one of the best horror movies, it’s one of those horror movies that’ll stay in your head, haunting you with imagery, long after you’ve stopped watching.