11 scary horror movies that’ll give you nightmares

11 scary horror movies that’ll give you nightmares

A composite of images from horror movies.

It’s never a bad time to love horror, but there’s certainly never been a better time for the genre. Not only are they box office no-brainers, but the dizzying number of choices for what you can watch on streaming screens will make you scream. Luckily, we’re here to help, with an equally impressive number of guides on which spooky, gory, and/or goopy flicks to watch on your service of choice.

If Shudder’s your main gal, we’ve got a guide for her. Netflix is dripping with nasty goodies, as are Hulu and Prime Video. What if you want to watch something kinda scary but not, like, too scary? Understood! And what if you’re in the mood for a creep show but feeling like a cheapskate? Hey, here’s some free horror.

And what if you’re in the mood for just an incredibly terrifying time? Well, “scary” is subjective, but I myself am a lifelong horror fanatic. I’ve been watching genre movies since I was a little monster myself, from gnarly exploitation and grindhouse films to black-and-white ethereal classics. After a great deal of thought, these are the 11 movies that still scare the absolute bejeezus out of me. Most likely, they will also inspire you to sleep with the lights on tonight. At the very least, you’ll have fun finding out!

11. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

The title is a bit misleading; this one’s more of a slow burn than a roller coaster thrill ride, but its quiet and deliberate pace gets under your skin and stays there. The film follows Jessica and Duncan, a couple (played by Zohra Lampert and Barton Heyman) who have decided to move from New York City to an old house in the country after her release from a psychiatric institution. Accompanied by their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), they soon encounter unpleasant locals and a mysterious squatter (Mariclare Costello) who intends to seduce Jessica’s husband. (Woody’s right there!) Even worse, this flirtatious foe might be the vampiric spirit of a woman who drowned in the lake a century before. 

At the heart of this is Lampert’s brilliant performance as Jessica, who desperately wants to appear sane despite seeing and hearing some truly frightening things. Who could shake the image of a bedroom full of leering old men, or a woman at the bottom of a lake in a wedding dress? Are the dead coming for these outsiders? Is Jessica hallucinating? We’re never quite sure, thanks to ominous visuals and sound design, and the mystery lingers long after the credits. 

How to Watch: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Apple TV, Microsoft, and Google Play.

10. The Changeling (1980)

The Changeling is a favorite of Guillermo del Toro and Martin Scorsese, and it’s easy to see why. The film utilizes eerie atmosphere, top-notch performances, and stealthy, lo-fi shocks. After all the jump-scare-filled haunted house flicks of recent years, it’s refreshing to be scared senseless by something as simple as a rolling wheelchair in an empty house. 

After his wife and daughter are killed in a horrific accident, New York composer John Russell (George C. Scott) rents a long-vacant Seattle mansion — but soon finds the house is as haunted as he is. He begins hearing strange noises and having visions, and then he finds a hidden room filled with cobwebs and children’s toys. As Russell uncovers the mystery of this uncanny abode, he finds himself up against a powerful politician, as well as more supernatural forces.

Peter Medak’s film proves that the most subtle scares are often the most effective. When you hear a boy’s voice on a tape recording of an earlier seance — one in which he had not been heard before — the hairs will stand up on the back of your neck.

How to Watch: The Changeling is streaming on Screambox and Peacock, and available for rent or purchase on Alamo on Demand, Prime Video, and Kino Now.

9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea

Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea on a “Night of the Living Dead” poster.
Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

This is the film that launched a thousand shambling zombie movies. George Romero’s seminal work centers on a mysterious infection that brings the dead back to life to eat or infect the living, and a handful of strangers who are just trying to survive in an old farmhouse. At once a horror film, a meditation on societal breakdown, a chamber drama, and a tightly wrought thriller, this genre-defining film builds up an ever-present sense of dread that explodes in its last act, showing us things we never quite believed it would. More than a half-century later, it’s still shocking to see a little girl killing her mother with a trowel, or a vigilante mob indiscriminately shooting zombies and the living alike, or all those undead hands reaching through boarded-up windows. 

Romero changed the zombie game here, and not just because he featured a strong Black hero (Duane Jones’s brave Ben) in 1968. Later “infected” films often follow his template. A handful of them achieve the same level of shock; 2007’s Rec is pretty terrifying, to be fair. But there’s nothing quite like the growing feeling you get while watching Night of the Living Dead that, despite all filmic convention, these people might not get it together, rise to the occasion, or even survive the zombie apocalypse. And, let’s face it: Slow-moving zombies are the stuff of nightmares. 

How to watch: Night of the Living Dead is streaming now on Max, Starz, the Criterion Channel, and Peacock.

8. Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani holds a knife in "Possession."

Isabelle Adjani holds a knife in “Possession.”
Credit: Oliane/Marianne/Soma/Kobal/Shutterstock

Some of the scariest horror stems from the breakdown in relationships between people. Such stories rarely get as intimate (or as gooey) as they do in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Here, we witness a married couple (played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill) in West Berlin whose bond is crumbling because the wife is either having an affair, having a breakdown, or sleeping with a Lovecraftian terror from beyond that requires her to kill in order to sate its bloodlust. Or, most likely, all three. 

Increasing the weirdness quota, the story somehow also involves Cold War spies and mysterious doppelgängers. Possession is truly over the top from the start, reaching heights of hysteria that ultimately traumatized its stars. Adjani said in a 2002 interview (as quoted in Alison Taylor’s book Possession), “Possession was an unfeasible film, and what I did in that film was just as unfeasible… Despite all the awards, all the honors that have gone to me, never again a trauma like that, a nightmare!” For his part, Neill said (via IndieWire), “I call it the most extreme film I’ve ever made, in every possible respect, and he asked of us things I wouldn’t and couldn’t go to now. And I think I only just escaped that film with my sanity barely intact.”

Possession is also deeply upsetting for the viewer: an operatic and terrifying depiction of marital collapse and psychosis. In the end, no amount of couples counseling will help these people. The film leaves us feeling like we’ve been through a war and a breakup. So, it’s probably not a good pick for your next date night!

How to Watch: Possession is now streaming on Shudder and Metrograph at Home.

7. Ringu (1998)

Sadako (Rie Ino'o) comes to play in

Sadako (Rie Ino’o) comes to play in “Ringu.”
Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

You will be scared out of your wits by Ringu‘s infamous climax, if only because you’ll finally be seeing for yourself the deadly footage that serves as the film’s inciting event. But first, notice how ingeniously the film is constructed, building up to that terrifying ending. The first scene recounts an urban legend: Anyone who watches a mysterious videotape dies seven days later. A subsequent mysterious death sets journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) on an investigation, in which every new detail she learns makes the situation stranger and worse somehow. The creepy video leads her to the legend (told through haunting flashbacks) of a malevolent child named Sadako (Rie Ino’o), who could scare people to death with her mind. Might she be doing her killing direct-to-video? Why is Reiko seeing a haunting man with a towel over his head popping into the real world? And what will she do now that her young son (Rikiya Ôtaka) has been urged by a ghost to watch the damned video too?

Ringu draws on Japanese traditions about onryō, vengeful spirits, as well a lurking fear also explored in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor: What if there really was a video that could cause you serious harm by watching it? The low-budget aspects of the Japanese original (which was funded by director Hideo Nakato out of pocket) increase the sense of dread and the uncanny. And, finally, that climax, which involved reversing footage of Kabuki actress Rie Ino’o walking backward to show her crawling out of the screen, should keep you from turning on your screen for a week. 

How to Watch: Ringu is now streaming on Shudder and Screambox, and available for rent or purchase on Apple TV, and Alamo on Demand.

6. Session 9 (2011)

David Caruso looks nervous in "Session 9."

David Caruso looks nervous in “Session 9.”
Credit: Usa/Scout Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock

It helps a great deal that this film was shot in the abandoned Victorianera Danvers State Hospital, a location that apparently terrified the cast and crew and looks like a place where nothing good ever happened. 

Gordon (Ken Loach regular Peter Mullan) is a cash-strapped contractor who works in asbestos removal, and he’s committed himself and his crew (David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Brandon Sexton III, Josh Lucas) to clean up an abandoned institution in one impossible week. Not only are they under the gun, but they’ve all been pretty stressed out lately — both in general and with each other. Mike (co-writer Gevedon) discovers a box of therapy session recordings that he gets the other guys to listen to; the patient seems to have had dissociative identity disorder and at least one somewhat homicidal alter. And the more they listen to these eerie, scratchy tapes, the more they themselves unravel.

Each of these working-class men has deep issues and scars, and someone (living or dead) seems to have gotten hold of a lobotomy pick with which to work through their problems on the others. The final outcome of this pressure-cooker setup is unsettling, gruesome, and deeply chilling. 

Who would have expected a low-budget, largely overlooked movie starring CSI and meme star David Caruso, from the director (Brad Anderson) of Next Stop Wonderland, to be so scary? 

How to Watch: Session 9 is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Google Play, and Apple TV.

5. The Descent (2005)

Shauna Macdonald swims in a pond of blood in "The Descent."

Shauna Macdonald swims in a pond of blood in “The Descent.”
Credit: Celador/Pathe/Kobal/Shutterstock

Whether it’s called the “submarine disease” or “cabin fever,” you know or can imagine the feeling — the irascible, uncontrollable panic felt when forced to spend time in cramped and isolated places. At the least, Neil Marshall’s film The Descent is a solid argument against ever going spelunking with your friends. 

Six female friends decide to do just that, as a way of renewing their friendship after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and daughter in a car accident. Unfortunately, their guide Juno (Natalie Mendoza) leads them into an unexplored cave system. The entrance collapses, and things just go downhill from there. On top of their own mounting resentments, they come across ravenous, blind, cave-dwelling “crawlers.” Designed after the vampire Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in 1922’s Nosferatu, these crawlers have white, hairless bodies and very sharp teeth; they can crawl up walls, and they’re very, very hungry. 

Like all good horror films, The Descent sympathizes with its protagonists while being completely heartless in the punishment it puts them through. The original ending is even more brutal than the American-ized “happy” ending. But, whichever version you pick, if you’re not claustrophobic beforehand, you likely will be afterward. 

How to Watch: The Descent is now streaming on Max, and is available for rent or purchase on Redbox, Prime Video, and Apple TV.

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Regan (Linda Blair) writhes under the possession of a demon in "The Exorcist."

Regan (Linda Blair) writhes under the possession of a demon in “The Exorcist.”
Credit: Warner Bros/Hoya Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

You don’t have to have been raised Catholic to be absolutely terrified by The Exorcist. The film centers on a household plagued by the Babylonian demon Pazuzu, who has possessed a young girl named Regan (an iconic Linda Blair). When Regan begins acting odd, her mom — a successful film actress played by Ellen Burstyn — takes her to all kinds of doctors, where she’s subjected to a battery of harrowing medical tests. At her wit’s end, atheist Chris (Burstyn) enlists the help of Catholic priests in a last-ditch attempt to help her daughter.

While based in a specific rite, the film is light on theology and heavy on dread and indelible images that disturb us on a level below conscious thought. Why do those early scenes of the elderly priest Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archaeological dig in Iraq feel so much like a nightmare? Why is that dream image in which the priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) sees his elderly mother rising up from the subway so terrifying? 

By the time we’re shown an innocent girl turned demonic and bruised, via Dick Smith’s brilliant makeup effects, our nerves are so rattled by all the ways the film has manipulated us that we fully expect to be subjected to something relentless. Which the film delivers. William Friedkin was a highly intuitive filmmaker who understood that, deep down, we’re all terrified of some unnamed evil coming for us. 

How to Watch: The Exorcist is now available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Redbox, Apple TV, and Google Play.

3. Hereditary (2018)

Toni Collette looks terrified in "Hereditary."

Toni Collette looks terrified in “Hereditary.”
Credit: A24/Moviestore/Shutterstock

It might be best to go into Hereditary cold, like I did, in order not to know the most shocking twists awaiting in Ari Aster‘s brilliant debut. But even if you know what’s coming, it’s still deeply frightening. Because, if you follow the film’s logic, they never really had a chance. That’s what’s so scary: The family at its heart was cursed from the start by the grandmother whose funeral they attend in the opening scenes. 

The film draws on modern fears that certain mental illnesses could be inherited, as well as more classical tragedies in which characters struggle to escape their fates. In this case, even the innocent children (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro) cannot break free of the curse placed on the family by granny and the creepy cult to which she mortgaged their souls, through their mother Annie (Toni Collette). 

Hereditary‘s scares are both cerebral and visceral, including spontaneous combustion, self-mutilation, and people covered in insects. Few horror films make such optimal use of the entire frame, here a sort of Where’s Waldo? for spotting naked cultists and possessed parents. A scene in which a character can be spotted levitating menacingly in a very dark corner of the room brought audible gasps from the audience when I saw the film. But this terror is alway rooted in strong characters. Toni Collette’s performance, in particular, veering from agonized grief to terrifying rage, often in the same scene, should have gotten her an Oscar nod, at the very least.

How to Watch: Hereditary is now streaming on Max and Kanopy, and is available to rent or purchase on Apple TV and Prime Video.

2. Halloween (1978)

'Halloween' Film - 1978 - Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) looking over the top of a sofa with a knife in her right hand.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) looking over the top of a sofa with a knife in her right hand in “Halloween.”
Credit: ITV/Shutterstock

The genius of Halloween lies in its simplicity. It’s basically an extended chase scene in which a killer in a white rubber mask (famously, a spray-painted William Shatner mask) who has escaped from an institution slowly closes in on good-natured babysitter Laurie Strode (Academy Award-winner Jamie Lee Curtis in her screen debut).

Why does he do it? Because he’s evil. The film keeps it chillingly basic. But John Carpenter and Debra Hill get every detail right, from the fluid Panaglide camerawork to Hill’s pitch-perfect teen girl dialogue to the one direction — “Don’t act” — given to Nick Castle as The Shape, Michael Myers. And the final touch: Carpenter admitted he showed the film to a studio executive before music was added. She “wasn’t scared at all,” so he quickly wrote one of the most iconic scores in horror history. 

When I was in second grade, an older kid told me this was the movie that would scare the snot out of me, and decades later, I can admit he was not wrong. 

How to Watch: Halloween is now streaming on Shudder, and is available to rent or purchase on Prime Video and Apple TV.

1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Leatherface wields a chainsaw in "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

Leatherface wields a chainsaw in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
Credit: HA/THA/Shutterstock

Horror movies can be seen as fairy tales for adults. Viewed this way, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fable in which a group of children, lost in the Dark Forest, intrude upon the home of a beastly family that nearly gobbles them all up. 

Forget the witch’s house made of candy. Here, the furniture is made of bones, and characters are hung on meathooks, attacked with a chainsaw, and forced to feed their blood to a very elderly grandpa. Most terrifying of all is Leatherface, the hulking man-child who loves to get gussied up in human-skin masks and dance wildly in the sunlight with his running chainsaw. Live, laugh, massacre.

While macabre and darkly funny, this depiction of rural Texas cannibalism is absolutely nerve-shredding to watch on a big screen. Poor Sally (Marilyn Burns) is trapped in a farmhouse with a family of lunatic ex-slaughterhouse workers who want to have her for dinner. Director Tobe Hooper’s later horror stories were a bit overshadowed by his first, which is a shame because Poltergeist and Salem’s Lot are also scary as hell. But it’s hard to top a masterpiece that’s still terrifying nearly 50 years later. And no one has.

How to Watch: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is now streaming on Peacock and Shudder, and is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video and Alamo on Demand.

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