The Scariest Movie That Came Out the Year You Graduated
Check out our picks for the most terrifying horror films released every year since 1960.
Fear is subjective: A movie that scared the pants off of you may have made one of your friends fall asleep. But we can at least form a general consensus around which movies are the scariest—whether for the time they were made, or for all time. These are the movies that have made us keep the lights on, that we maybe kind of regret watching, that we're still thinking about even years later. We went through the past several decades to come up with our list of the scariest movie that came out every year, from 1960 to 2020. Keep reading to see if your personal pick made the cut.
While some black-and-white horror classics have lost their punch over the years, Psycho remains as terrifying now as it was 60 years ago—even when you know the big twist.
1961: The Innocents
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw has been adapted again and again, most recently as the Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, but the most effective version will always be the deeply unsettling The Innocents.
1962: Carnival of Souls
The influential horror of Carnival of Souls likely inspired David Lynch and George A. Romero, as Roger Ebert once noted.
1963: The Haunting
Forget the deeply disappointing 1999 remake—or the much scarier The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix—because nothing can compete with the chills of the first adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel.
1964: The Masque of the Red Death
The combination of director Roger Corman, star Vincent Price, and source material by Edgar Allan Poe was scary enough in 1964, although a plot centered around a deadly plague feels especially frightening in 2021.
RELATED: For more movie recs delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Psychological horror may not have you leaping from your seat like jump scares in more contemporary films, but the nightmarish vision depicted in Repulsion is terrifying in a way that lingers.
1966: Dracula: Prince of Darkness
By the time Hammer Films made Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the studio had learned how to make a truly scary Dracula movie, and Christopher Lee had learned how to master the title role.
1967: Quartermass and the Pit
Another Hammer Films Production—which you may have first encountered as Five Million Years to Earth—Quartermass and the Pit is a freaky time capsule of '60s sci-fi scares.
1968: Night of the Living Dead
There's no telling where modern zombie movies and TV series would be without George A. Romero's 1968 classic, which remains as harrowing and subversive as ever.
1969: The Haunted House of Horror
Swinging late '60s England mostly looked like a fun time, but not when there's a murderer on the loose, as in The Haunted House of Horror.
1970: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage helped establish the Italian giallo genre in the U.S., and introduced Dario Argento as an exciting horror filmmaker, thanks in large part to the splashy, highly stylized violence.
1971: Let's Scare Jessica to Death
Let's Scare Jessica to Death has been compared to The Haunting and The Innocents—it may also have been inspired by The Turn of the Screw—and it's just as frightening as either.
1972: The Last House on the Left
Though certainly not for everyone, Wes Craven's shocking The Last House on the Left is considered a horror classic for a reason, and its scares are so disturbing that it was promoted with the tagline, "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a movie.'"
1973: The Exorcist
When The Exorcist was released in 1973, it made some audience members faint and cry—and while it might not provoke the same reaction in modern viewers, it's likely to induce some nightmares.
1974: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
There's a raw, unrestrained quality to Tobe Hooper's classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that makes it feel like anything can happen, but that doesn't adequately prepare you for what's to come.
At this point, Jaws is such a mainstream cinematic classic that it might be hard to conceive of it as the scariest movie of its time. Keep in mind, though, that the film is a big reason so many of us are still afraid of sharks.
1976: The Omen
There's just something unnerving about a bad kid, and they don't get much badder than young Damien in The Omen.
1977: The Hills Have Eyes
Another early Wes Craven classic, The Hills Have Eyes is just as gritty, brutal, and relentless as the director's other films from the era.
Though not the first slasher film, Halloween popularized so many of the rules of the genre that it's sometimes easy to forget how genuinely frightening it is in its own right.
While the sequel, Aliens, offers standout sci-fi action, the original Alien is fully a horror film, a haunted house movie set in space where the villain isn't a ghost but one of film history's most terrifying creature creations.
1980: The Shining
Whether or not Stephen King is a fan of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his novel, The Shining delivers an anxiety-inducing performance from Jack Nicholson and some visuals we wish we could forget.
1981: Friday the 13th Part 2
No offense to Mrs. Voorhees, but the Friday the 13th franchise really picked up when Jason took up the mantle as the killer in Friday the 13th Part 2, which also happens to be the scariest film of the bunch.
1982: The Thing
Sure, the body horror effects of John Carpenter's The Thing will creep you out, but the feeling of paranoia the film instills in you is what really makes it so scary.
Even dog lovers can agree that few movie monsters are as terrifying as Cujo, a rabid St. Bernard with his eye on a mother and son trapped in a hot car.
1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street
The '80s gave us plenty of slasher villains to remember, each with their own hit-or-miss franchises, but none can compete with Freddy Krueger, introduced in the iconic A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Dario Argento produced but did not direct this Lamberto Bava-helmed screamer. And while it might be more of a cult favorite, it did earn a spot on Bravo's list of The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
1986: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
If the '80s slasher was all about creating new larger-than-life movie monsters, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer terrified audiences by portraying a killer grounded firmly in reality.
Another gorgeously gory Argento film, Opera is a movie that forces you not to look away, with methods less violent than that of the killer who forces the heroine's eyes open.
1988: Dead Ringers
David Cronenberg's dark tale of twin gynecologists, very loosely based on a true story, continues to make Entertainment Weekly's updated list of the scariest movies of all time.
1989: Pet Sematary
It's hard to say what's scariest about Pet Sematary: the ghost of Victor Pascow, the memory of Rachel's sister Zelda, or—of course—the resurrected Gage Creed taking a scalpel to Jud. They'll all leave you screaming.
1990: Jacob's Ladder
Lots of horror movies have memorable nightmare sequences, but Jacob's Ladder is a nightmare that won't end—and that's why it's almost certain to keep you up at night.
1991: The Silence of the Lambs
You can debate whether or not Silence of the Lambs is truly a horror film or merely a very tense thriller, or you can just accept that it's unbearably frightening.
Tony Todd earned horror icon status when he took on the role of Candyman, and the film itself gave us something new to be scared of in the bathroom mirror.
The first feature film from Guillermo del Toro has come to be appreciated as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It still packs in ample scares amid the drama and fantasy that would become trademarks for the director.
1994: Wes Craven's New Nightmare
After a series of sequels that turned Freddy Krueger into something of a comedian, Wes Craven's New Nightmare made the character scary again by slashing right through the fourth wall and making him seem realer than ever.
1995: Lord of Illusions
Like Candyman, Lord of Illusions is based on a Clive Barker story, and perhaps that's why it has also left such a chilling impression on viewers.
After three sequels—and a new Scream on the horizon—the original Scream might not seem that scary. But think back to how you felt when you first watched Ghostface terrorize Drew Barrymore. Shudder.
1997: Event Horizon
Alien taught us that in space, no one can hear you scream, and Event Horizon gave us some horrifying visuals that tested that theory.
1998: The Faculty
You might have thought your teachers were evil in high school, but The Faculty took that concept and ran with it, resulting in a genuinely tense and unsettling sci-fi slasher.
1999: The Blair Witch Project
The found-footage horror genre got a major boost with The Blair Witch Project, which seemed so real it didn't feel like a movie, and so scary that you were desperate to confirm it was.
2000: What Lies Beneath
Even if critics didn't take kindly to What Lies Beneath, the image of Michelle Pfeiffer slowly drowning in a bathtub has been terrifying viewers for the last 20 years.
2001: Jeepers Creepers
Though it does veer into some goofy territory, Jeepers Creepers got under people's skin in 2001: Even the Los Angeles Times praised it for "the scariest opening sequence of any horror picture in recent memory" in an otherwise mediocre review.
2002: The Ring
The Ring is the rare American remake of a Japanese horror film that manages to be just as scary as the original. Seeing it might not kill you in seven days, but it'll take you far longer to shake it.
2003: A Tale of Two Sisters
South Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters also got an American remake, but you should stick to the original, which is bold, ambitiously complex, and—oh, yes—really frightening.
As the Saw sequels got increasingly convoluted, the gore went up and the scares went down. The first movie, however, is still a shocker, and the psychological horror of its protagonists' predicament is downright freaky.
2005: The Descent
The Descent is a great reminder that caves are terrifying, with or without monsters terrorizing you. Try to watch it without any involuntary screaming.
2006: The Hills Have Eyes
Alexandre Aja's take on Wes Craven's classic is the only remake of another movie on this list to also make the cut. That's because it pays loving homage to the original while being brutal and seriously distressing in its own right.
Alexandre Aja's fellow French filmmakers Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo gave us this twisted home invasion thriller that reiterated how extreme the new wave of French horror could be.
2008: The Strangers
Home invasion movies are always pretty scary, but rarely is the fear as visceral as it is in The Strangers, in which the killers' notable lack of motivation is the true nightmare fodder.
2009: The House of the Devil
A little bit haunted house movie, a little bit slasher flick, The House of the Devil is a stylish homage to '80s horror, and it can scare you just as much as the films that inspired it.
Director James Wan has become one of the leading horror filmmakers in recent years, but it doesn't get any scarier than the original Insidious, which could earn a spot on this list for that one shot of the demon standing behind Patrick Wilson alone.
Another contemporary horror filmmaker with an impressive resume, Mike Flanagan got his start with Absentia, a spooky indie that creeped people out and heralded the arrival of an exciting new talent.
How scary is Sinister? Well, based on what it is scientifically proven to do to your heart rate, some people consider it the scariest movie of all time.
Horror in the 21st century has had several memorable entries into the found footage and anthology film genres, and they blended exceptionally well in V/H/S/2, a movie that gives you a front row seat to some real terror.
2014: It Follows
The relatively simple story of It Follows might not feel like reinventing the wheel, but the idea of a supernatural killer slowly approaching has never been more pulse-heightening than it is here.
2015: We Are Still Here
Another film that feels very much like a throwback, We Are Still Here earned a lot of great reviews for its traditional horror feel, and a lot of screams for its well-executed jump scares.
2016: Don't Breathe
After his effective remake of Evil Dead, Fede Álvarez returned with a more original film, and some of the most stressful set pieces in any horror film in recent years.
For kids who grew up in the '90s, there may have been nothing scarier than Tim Curry's Pennywise. Nevertheless, Bill Skarsgård's shape-shifting clown in this more adult take on the source material has caused his fare share of terror.
One of the most jarring films of the past decade, Hereditary refuses to play by the rules, which makes it a viscerally terrifying experience to endure—in the best way possible!
While Jordan Peele's follow-up to Get Out might not be scary all the way through, the moment when the doppelgängers descend on the Wilson family is truly frightening, thanks in no small part to Lupita Nyong'o's dual performance.
There was plenty to be scared about in 2020, but Zoom meetings were more of a frustration than a source of fear. Nevertheless, Rob Savage managed to turn a séance over video chat into one of the most frightening found-footage films ever.