When you think of the scariest movies of all time, what comes to mind? The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, Halloween? These films are all terrifying classics watched by millions. They’ve earned a place of respect in the pantheon of horror. But you’ll notice they aren’t on this list.
This is a list of the scariest movies ever, after all. Just because something is scary and popular doesn’t mean much. Besides, it’s 2017: A good chunk of the films here are from recent years. As society changes, tastes and fears change along with it. But these skin-crawling flicks are guaranteed to keep you up at night.
The scariest movies of all time
1) The Babadook (2014)
The debut film from Australia’s Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is just as powerful a drama as it is a horror film, and it’s a hell of a horror film. Following the death of her husband, Amelia must deal with crippling grief and suddenly being a single parent. It’s a miserable enough scenario, but when her son brings home a horrifying children’s book things take a dark turn as she wonders if something evil is out to get her child—or if she’s losing her mind. Digging deep into mental illness, loss, the struggles of motherhood, and parenting, you wouldn’t think there’d be time for chilling terror. You’d be wrong. In a world where horror is taken seriously, Essie Davis would have been nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Amelia. Instead, she’ll just be scaring people for years to come.
2) The Descent (2005)
Most people are instinctively scared of the dark. As an adult watching The Descent you’ll learn to fear it again. The plot follows a group of six women on a spelunking adventure who end up lost in an uncharted cave system. Without the aid of monsters or extreme gore, the film’s opening is a harrowing tale of survival; made all the more powerful by the time it spends developing the relationships between the characters. By the time monsters and gore show up in the second act, you’ll be too emotionally invested to turn away. Sadly the U.S. version features a silly shock ending, so if you have the opportunity make sure to watch the director’s cut.
Is it streaming? The Descent is available for streaming via Shudder. You can rent it digitally on Vudu, iTunes, or Amazon.
3) The Ring (2002)
In the digital era, The Ring could have easily lost its power. But thanks to brilliant pacing and a slow reveal of its main villain, this ghost story has held up long past when most households had a VCR. The premise is simple: There’s a tape that kills everyone who watches it within seven days. Equal parts murder mystery and ghost story, this slow-burning horror classic throws twists at you until its final minutes. As creepypasta begins to cultivate the campfire stories of a new generation, it’s nice to look back at The Ring as a precursor to the horrific urban legends to come.
Is it streaming? The Ring can be rented digitally from Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon.
4) Martyrs (2008)
Of all the films on this list, Martyrs is the hardest to recommend. This French classic of extreme horror features some of the most brutal violence you’ll ever witness on-screen, with an ending as nihilistic as the hour and a half the proceeds it. A young woman attacks a family one morning during breakfast, dead set on proving they kidnapped and tortured her as a child. What begins as a story about revenge slowly unfolds into an unspeakable darkness that can’t be described without intense spoilers. With stunning direction by Pascal Laugier, there isn’t a more visceral film on this list. It’s more than just gore, and if you’re willing to look past the streams of red there is a deeply soulful tale of suffering to be found here. Just be careful not to accidentally watch the awful American remake.
Is it streaming? No, but it is available to rent digitally on iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.
5) Candyman (1992)
The ’90s were an odd decade for horror. While classics like Scream have held a place in our hearts for their delicious revivalism, for much of the decade horror lived in an odd ghetto. The genre was unloved and underfunded by studios, leaving a plenty of unrealized good ideas on the table. Candyman is an exception to that idea—a smart, brutal tale of terror that tickles all your horror needs whether you’re a gore fan or simply need a ghost to spook you. Following a grad student, as she tries to uncover the true story behind an urban legend, Candyman lays down the same connective tissue to today’s creepypasta myths as The Ring does. The difference is the way Candyman draws attention to urban blight along the path to its blood-spattered conclusion. Add in a brilliant score by avant-garde composer Philip Glass, and you have one of the underrated artistic gorefests in horror history.
Is it streaming? No, but it is available digitally on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon.
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6) Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Calling Silence of the Lambs a horror film may be tough, but how many suspense films feature crucifixion, cannibalism, and skin suits. The misconception that this isn’t a horror film is part of what helps make it so terrifying—viewers come in with basic expectations and end up surrounded by unspeakable evils. While much has been written about Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, the real joy of the film is Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill. Whether driving home the importance of lotion or dancing to new wave, each of his scene helps build a sense of dread that will stick with you long after you’ve run out of Chianti.
Is it streaming? You can stream Silence of the Lambs on HBO. It is also available for rental digitally on Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.
7) Frontier(s) (2007)
Frontier(s) is the film you’ve spent your life being told Texas Chainsaw Massacre is. That film is historically important, but it’s lost some edge over the years. Frontier(s) follows a gang of young thieves fleeing Paris, following a series of political riots. They take refuge in a quaint country inn, only to discover it’s home to a family of hidden Nazis. Frontier(s) almost got a U.S. theatrical release in 2008 as part of the “8 Films to Die For” series, but after it got slapped with an NC-17 rating it was sent direct to video. While it certainly spared us a nasty surprise, the move denied plenty of horror fans the chance to see a classic of gore and tension.
Is it streaming? Frontier(s) is now streaming on horror site Shudder, and it’s available to rent on Vudu, Amazon, and Google Play.
8) I Saw The Devil (2010)
When the fiancèe of special agent Soo-Hyun falls victim to a brutal serial killer, the distraught officer begins stalking the killer himself. What begins as a simple game of cat and mouse quickly dissolves into an increasingly violent feud as the two seek revenge against each other. Turning the police procedural genre on its head, this beautifully shot nightmare follows a good man’s descent into evil as he tries to match a monster he can’t understand. Sadistic, gorgeous, and haunting, I Saw the Devil is one of the scariest films to ever come out of Korea.
Is it streaming? I Saw the Devil is streaming on Hulu and Shudder and for rent digitally on Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon.
9) Poltergeist (1982)
Finally, a film the whole family can watch. Tobe Hooper’s classic haunted house tale was co-written by Steven Spielberg and features the scariest clown in cinema history. There are plenty of films about families that move into homes only to discover something evil already lives there. Where Poltergeist shines is its execution. At first the ghosts almost seem playful—stacking chairs and sliding children across floors. It’s all good fun, at least until the tree tries to eat your son and a portal sucks your daughter into another dimension. Utilizing brilliant practical special effects, Poltergeist delivers a funhouse of horrific PG set pieces from the era where PG meant someone’s face could melt off. Horror films rarely feature a family this believable or tightly knit. Their problems are easy to relate to, so when hell breaks loose you’re invested far beyond the standard group of hot teens. All-ages horror exists, but none of it comes close to Poltergeist.
Is it streaming? No, but you can rent it digitally from Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon.
10) House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Our final entry is another all-ages classic and the only black-and-white film on the list. Director William Castle was known more for gimmicks, like putting flying skeletons in the theaters showing his movies, than he was for scary pictures. House on Haunted Hill is the exception to the rule—and a darkly comedic exception at that. Here a group of strangers agrees to be locked in a house overnight for a $10,000 apiece with an eccentric millionaire and his wife. Opening with Vincent Price’s terrifying voiceover, this tale of murder, backstabbing, and sudden pop-up witches may seem quaint by modern standards. At least until you find yourself screaming in surprise by a sneaky stranger or an unexpected moment of gore. A perfect blend of humor and horror, House on Haunted Hill is a reminder that films don’t need to wallow in guts and despair to scare you to your core.
Is it streaming? You can stream House on Haunted Hill on Amazon Prime and YouTube or rent it digitally from Vudu and iTunes.
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11) The Exorcist (1973)
No film encapsulates the hopelessness and terror within a parent when an unknown ailment plagues their child quite like William Friedkin’s demonic classic. Looking back, it’s easy to forget how long The Exorcist takes before it becomes evident the devil is involved. When all hell finally breaks lose, the profane monstrosity within young Regan is brought to life by a terrifying, once-in-a lifetime performance by Linda Blair. You’ll never look at your child’s imaginary friend the same way again.
Is it streaming? No, but you can rent The Exorcist from Amazon and Google Play.
12) Let The Right One In (2008)
Childhood is lonely, and when you’re poor and live in a small town, it can be even harder to find a good friend. It can lead to crazy things, like ignoring the fact that your new best friend is a vampire. Evil’s seductive tendrils are well-worn territory in horror, but Let The Right One In tackles why friendship can blind even the most innocent with cold-blooded finesse. The American remake is fine, but the Swedish original is a masterpiece. Few films can trick you into rooting for a child to be in danger. Let The Right One In makes you hope he never leaves his dark new companion.
Is it streaming? Let the Right One In is streaming on Hulu and Shudder, and you can rent Let The Right One In from Amazon and Google Play.
13) Se7en (1995)
It would be unkind to tell you what’s in the box, the answer sure as hell isn’t a good night’s sleep. Anchored by harrowing performances from Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey, this serial killer tale manages to fill your head with horrific images without ever actually showing its worst moments of violence. The implied horrors are always worse than what they reveal. A film about a murderer who kills people based on the Seven Deadly Sins could quickly turn into a schlocky slasher in the wrong hands. Instead, David Fincher crafts a deeply disturbing tale of suffering that’s as stylish as it is haunting.
Is it streaming? You can stream Se7en for free on Netflix or rent Se7en from Amazon and Google Play.
14) The Conjuring (2013)
Who would have expected James Wan, creator of Saw, to birth one of the most well-constructed ghost stories ever to grace cinemas. Based on a supposedly real haunting experienced by famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring became a worldwide phenomenon, grossing over $319 million on a $20 million budget. Dealing with witchcraft and cruel spirits, The Conjuring is the only R-rated film on this list to have earned its rating purely for being terrifying. Setting the film in 1971 makes it feel like a piece of lost history and removes all of the comforts we’ve become accustomed to in modern life from our protagonist’s options. Sometimes you forgot how terrifying life must have been before you could carry a flashlight everywhere you go. While it’s subsequent sequels and spin-offs haven’t had the same quality, the original is a rare modern classic in the haunted house genre.
Is it streaming? Yes, The Conjuring is streaming on Netflix and is available for rent on Amazon or Google Play.
15) The Birds (1963)
While most film historians would credit Psycho as Alfred Hitchcock’s scariest film, it really doesn’t come close to matching The Birds. Of all the films on this list, The Birds offers up the fewest answers. One day the residents of a small Northern California town suddenly come under attack by every bird in the area. Then, suddenly as it began, the chaos stops, and the credits roll. This PG horror film packs in horrific imagery, from terrorized children to bloody sockets where eyes once sat, and the lack of resolution ensures it lingers.
Is it streaming? No, but you can rent The Birds from Amazon and Google Play.
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16) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was so controversial that, although originally released in 1986, it didn’t see a wide release until 1990 due to the MPAA giving it an X rating. That’s right: This film has been labeled pornographic by the MPAA simply for its soul-crushing violence. Henry is a drifter, moving from place to place and committing murders as he goes. Women, men, children—all fall at Henry’s evil hands. Until that is, he meets up with his old friend Otis and Otis’ sister Becky. As the old friends start a wave of violence together, Henry builds a relationship with Becky that has consequences for everyone involved. While shocking, the violence is relatively tame by today’s standards, but Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has lost none of its terrifying impacts. Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) gives evil a face as Henry, and it’s one you won’t quickly forget.
Is it streaming? Yes, Henry is streaming on Shudder and available for rent on iTunes and Vudu.
17) Alien (1979)
The Alien series has been able to sustain full-on action (Aliens), French art film influences (Alien Resurrection), pro wrestling (Aliens vs. Predator), and isolationist survival horror (Alien 3). However, of all the films in the series, the original stands the tallest, as a perfect blending of Lovecraftian science and gothic horror. Anchored by an all-star cast—Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and more—Alien makes you care about each character before they’re systematically ripped apart. Barely showing the monster builds a sense of the unknown flashier films sometimes miss out on, and Alien is a stronger film for it. Director Ridley Scott has returned to the series recently with two prequels, Prometheus and this year’s Alien: Covenant.
Is it streaming? Yes, Alien is streaming on HBO, and it’s available for rent on iTunes and Vudu.
18) Green Room (2015)
Included on over 20 end-of-the-year top 10 lists, Green Room is a rare critically acclaimed gore-fest. With its strong roots in suspense, it’s little wonder why it caught on. Playing in a small touring band is a struggle, but when a tour date falls through, the loss of money can be devastating. Punk band The Ain’t Rights take a surprise gig when a concert falls through, only to discover their audience is a group of neo-Nazis. After witnessing a crime, the band barricades themselves in the venue’s green room while the Nazis, led by Patrick Stewart, try to find a solution to their new problem. Featuring stunning performances, including the last role from Anton Yelchin, who passed away in 2016, Green Room’s incredible violence can be hard to stomach, but each puncture and slice serve the greater narrative. Just don’t watch this one on a first date. Or third.
Is it streaming? Green Room is streaming on Amazon, and it’s available for rent on iTunes and Vudu.
19) The Loved Ones (2009)
Lola is a little boy crazy, but she can’t catch the eye of her dream crush, Brent. When Lola asks Brent to prom and gets turned down, she and her dad hatch plot to make sure Lola has the best prom of her life. In the hands of John Hughes, this would have been a great screwball comedy, but director Sean Byrne has darker places to explore. This perfect blend of teen comedy and pitch-black horror could easily devolve into gory parody but manages instead to slowly build to a stunning conclusion. The film has a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Is it streaming? The Loved Ones is available to rent from iTunes or Vudu.
20) REC (2007)
This Spanish found-footage/survival horror/zombie film was remade for American audiences in 2008 as Quarantine—but accept no substitutions. Even with subtitles, REC is one of the scariest films ever made. Unlike most found footage films, REC has a reason to exist, since it’s the last broadcast of a TV news crew doing a puff piece on local fire-fighters. When they are called to a locked-down apartment building, things seem normal enough at first—until they hear the sounds of the people trapped inside. Floating in an odd intersection between religious horror and medical outbreak, REC builds tension with a grace that’s rarely seen in the found-footage genre. Make sure you remember to breathe during the final 10 minutes.
Is it streaming? REC is streaming on Shudder, and it’s available for rent on iTunes and Amazon.
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21) The Witches (1990)
Based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book of the same name, The Witches is easily the scariest movie ever made that you can show your kids. Imagine all your worst nightmares have come true and witches not only exist, but they meet up every year to plot the destruction of all the children on Earth. That’s the reality young Luke Eveshim must come to terms with during a trip to England with his grandmother. Naturally, none of the adults believe him, until the dreadful reality they face is too great to ignore. This PG film featured terrifying special effects and brilliant acting (including an underrated turn from Rowan Atkinson), but it went undiscovered at the box office. Fix that mistake now, and scare the hell out of the children in your life in the process.
Is it streaming? The Witches is available to rent on Amazon.
22) Hell House LLC (2015)
This will be a controversial choice, largely given that almost no one has heard of this movie, but mark our words, it will be known in the future. Hell House LLC is a brilliant found-footage film centered on a Halloween haunted house that’s built inside an actual haunted house. It’s the sort of movie that makes you go “hot damn why has no one thought of this before,” executed with a cruel and expertly timed sense of suspense. Playing the supernatural off the already-existing horrors of a haunted house allows for a wide range of misdirections, removing the plodding pacing many found-footage films find themselves stuck with. Take a chance and enjoy this new classic.
Is it streaming? Hell House LLC is available via Amazon Prime.
23) Wait Until Dark (1967)
Looking for suspense without all the gore? 1967’s Wait Until Dark is the nightmare fuel you’ve been looking for. Audrey Hepburn stars as a recently blinded woman learning to live on her own. When she accidentally comes into possession of a doll full of heroin, the criminals who own it come knocking, only to discover perhaps they’ve underestimated their prey. The final act of the film remains one of the most expertly paced sequences of tension in cinema.
Is it streaming? No, but Wait Until Dark is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, or Vudu.
24) Black Christmas (1974)
You might only know Black Christmas from its cheesy ‘00s remake, but the original is where it’s at. Whether you’re watching at the holidays or during Halloween, Black Christmas is one of the scariest slasher films around, which is even more impressive when considering it predates the slasher boom by several years. Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark of A Christmas Story fame, but don’t think that means it pulls its punches. From its lurid phone calls to a terrifying suffocation scene, Black Christmas is a gift fright for fans of all stripes.
Is it streaming? Black Christmas is streaming on Showtime and Shudder and available for rent on Amazon, Google Play, or Vudu.
25) Hush (2016)
Horror gets a bad rep sometimes for being predictable, but any genre done poorly is predictable. To stand out, you need a great idea and flawless execution. Hush has both. It’s a slasher movie about a deaf writer in an isolated house in the woods who’s being hunted by a masked killer. In the hands of a lesser director, the premise could get old fast, but low-budget master Mike Flanagan takes his time to let the action unfold. Almost unbearably tense, Hush is the perfect antidote to generic modern slashers.
Is it streaming? Hush is a Netflix exclusive.