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Ten scary movies that are worth the time

For a while, scary movies were a dime a dozen. Production companies like Lion’s Gate were pumping them out left and right, and let’s face it–most of them sucked. It is really difficult to produce a truly scary movie. Most movies simply show too much.

Guillermo del Toro’s movies are lovely, and full of atmosphere–but they’re not scary. Ditto the other end of the spectrum, the good ol’ fashioned gore fest. Gory movies aren’t scary–they’re gross. There’s a big difference.

I love a good scary story, and I’ve spent years searching out the best ones. I’ve read lots of lists like this, but I’ve always been disappointed. Without further ado, here are my ten picks for the best of the genre, along with some bonus mentions. These movies don’t rely on the gross-out factor in order to scare you–they’re scary, not gory.


1) The Sixth Sense: The Sixth Sense strikes the perfect balance between scary mood-setting and excellent story-telling. I can’t think of another movie in this genre where I care this much about the characters. If you’ve watched it a lot, you may not find it particularly scary anymore, but the first time you saw it, I bet you jumped out of your chair a few times. Arguably the best role Bruce Willis has ever had.

2) The Others: The classic haunted house movie with a twist. This came out shortly after The Sixth Sense, and it is brilliant. Once again, the focus is on building atmosphere and telling a great story.

3) The Changeling: You’ll see a lot of movies from this time period on many top ten lists–The Omen, The Exorcist, The Entity. Well, this one is actually scary. Another haunted house story where a well-meaning man tries to help a ghost, with disastrous results.

4) Burnt Offerings: If you can get past the ’70s cheese-factor, this movie is highly disturbing. A family decides to look after a rambling estate and an invalid woman for the summer.

5) Woman in Black: There are two versions of this classic angry ghost tale. One is a British mini-series from the ’80s, which is very hard to find, and the other is a recent remake starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. Both are great stories of a terrible tragedy that has long-lasting repercussions.

6) Pet Sematary: I love Stephen King, but this is the only movie adaptation of his books to make the list. The special effects are getting dated, but this is still a thoroughly chilling story of a man who will have his son back at any cost.

7) Cold Prey: This is the classic horror movie set-up. A group of goofy, sexed-up, irresponsible twenty-somethings spend the night at an isolated location where they have no business being. Of course a crazed killer is going to pick them off one by one. But because this is Norwegian, it kicks ass. Both of the sequels are sequels in the true meaning of the word (they continue the story) and are very good as well.

8) The Conjuring: I’ve been hearing about paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren since I was a little girl reading Grannie’s Enquirers. I was curious about this movie but didn’t have high hopes. It is much scarier than expected, and wins for spookiest horror movie doll EVER. Sorry, Chucky.

9) The Possession: Another modern pick. This one didn’t get good ratings, and I’m not sure why. It had me researching dybbuks for days. There is enough “based-on-a-true-story” background to make this movie truly creepy.

10) Based-on-a-true-story movies: A four-way tie between The Mothman Prophecies, The Haunting in Connecticut, Hostel, and Wolf Creek. Hostel and Wolf Creek slip too far into gory territory, and Hostel technically isn’t based on anything real, but both these movies are disturbingly believable. The website for the Mothman movie (now defunct), which related all the genuine Mothman sightings/events around the world, was much scarier than the movie. And to truly get the creeps after watching The Haunting, be sure to watch the interviews with the real family afterwards.

Do you have anything to add to my list? Any “scary” movies you’d warn people to stay away from?

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58 Comments

  1. Great list! I’ve been a horror fan forever (I worked at a video store in high school and my best friend and I spent far too much time watching everything we could). I’ve seen far more bad movies than good, but I defiantly agree that the scariest movies are the ones that leave more to the imagination. I can scare myself much more than a movie can scare me. The first time I watched The Changeling my roommate made me sit outside the bathroom door because she was so scared! I haven’t seen The Conjuring yet, but I was pleasantly surprised that Woman In Black was so good. As for the worst “horror” movie I’ve seen recently, that honour goes to Chernobyl Diaries. I didn’t expect much, but it had zero scares and the most annoying characters in a while. I haven’t ever actively hoped everyone would just die already. I have *very* low standards when it comes to horror and I can generally find at least some amusement in cheesy movies, but there was none in this one.

    Reply
  2. The Burning (1981) because it freaked the hell out of me as a kid and Rick Wakeman from Yes did the soundtrack.
    It was a summer-camp slasher rip-off, but was done much better than the Jason Vorhees empire.
    Salem’s Lot and Blair Witch both scared the bejesus out of me when they came out.
    Sixth Sense was simply excellent – agree with you on that.
    I hear World War Z is pretty scary. I don’t really watch a lot of horror any more as my imagination usually runs wild on me afterward.

    Reply
  3. I have WWZ and have been meaning to watch it, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Glad to hear it’s recommended!

    I think the list wouldn’t be complete without a werewolf movie. I’m going to go with The Howling, parts IV or V. Four is good if you’re into the creepy-woods setting; Five is a neat twist on the Agatha Christie story, with characters dying one by one in a dark secluded castle.

    Reply
  4. “Carrie” (directed by Brian DePalma). That’s my addition to this list. At first glance, the movie seemingly revels in 70’s cheese. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find some subtle, genuinely creepy moments lurking beneath its surface. If the soon-to-be-released remake of “Carrie” can creep me out as much as the original movie (and the book), I will be very impressed.

    Reply
  5. J.H. Moncrieff

    Thanks for your comments, ladies! I really appreciate it.

    @ Jenn W – Glad to see we have the same taste in horror. Wasn’t The Changeling scary? Its staying power is impressive. As for The Woman in Black, this proves a good movie is all about story–even a horror movie. Susan Hill’s novel is fantastic. I highly recommend it. I haven’t seen the Chernobyl Diaries and thanks to your warning, I will avoid it. One of the worst I’ve seen was highly recommended on one of these lists–it was called Session 9 and starred David Caruso. The setting was creepy as hell, but the main characters spent most of their time out in the sunshine, eating sandwiches on the grass. Bor-ring!

    @ Lisa – I haven’t seen The Burning. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out. Salem’s Lot gave me nightmares as a kid, but I was really disappointed when I watched it as an adult. I found Blair Witch REALLY disturbing. They did a good job with it.

    Haven’t seen World War Z. I’ve had the book for ages, and still haven’t opened it. Need to get on that….

    Reply
  6. J.H. Moncrieff

    Thanks for your recommendations, Chris! I have to say, I’ve yet to see a truly scary werewolf movie. The Howling V was entertaining, but I wouldn’t call it scary. Don’t think I’ve seen #4, though.

    It’s hard to make werewolves scary, because this is one aspect where film-makers definitely show too much. Usually the werewolves just look cheesy. An actor with fake fur all over his face and hands? Ooooh, scary….

    Reply
  7. Monkey Shines. That movie freaked my out so badly in my impressionable youth. It also gave me a solid reason for hating those little monkey toys that bang the cymbals. I don’t know if it would hold up now but it you are looking for creepy it would be worth a try.

    Reply
  8. J.H. Moncrieff

    Thanks for your addition to the list, Mark! Apparently Chris approves. 🙂 I remember not liking Carrie, but I was really young when I saw it. I should give it another chance. Sissy Spacek certainly was creepy, though. I was so grossed out when they poured the blood on her.

    Thanks for commenting! And thanks for the clip, Chris.

    Reply
  9. Kubrick’s The Shining us probably one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. The first Alien movie is akso gripping. Jaws may not be considered a horror movie by some, but quite scary never the less.

    Reply
  10. Also, Evil Dead – the original at least. I haven’t seen the remake.

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  11. J.H. Moncrieff

    Thanks for your comments!

    @ Elle – I seem to recall that movie–I definitely remember the cover. Was it based on the Stephen King story, I wonder? I’ll have to try that one again.

    @ Eric – Welcome! How could I have forgotten The Shining? It was brilliant–VERY creepy. Ditto the first Alien. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie. And I never have seen Jaws. Thanks so much for adding to the list!

    Reply
  12. @ JH – Stephen King wrote a story with that title? I had no idea.

    Okay, new #1 scary, nightmare-inducing movie….
    Barbie’s Three Musketeers.
    You will never look at pink the same way again.
    You’ve been warned.

    Reply
  13. J.H. Moncrieff

    Shamefully, I haven’t seen either. I’ve always heard Evil Dead was campy rather than scary. Not so?

    Reply
  14. J.H. Moncrieff

    @ Elle – he wrote a story about one of those creepy monkey toys. I forget what it was called.

    That other movie does sound terrifying…totally out of my league!

    Reply
  15. John Wakefield |HARPER’S ISLAND/ I UNDERSTAND THIS WAS A T.V. SERIES THOUGH VERY CREEPY THE WAY EVERYONE GOT KILLED, SCARY AND ERIE

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…haven’t heard of that one. Thanks for the recommendation, Pat!

      Reply
  16. The Ring would be high on my list. So would science fiction-horror crossovers Event Horizon, Alien, and Aliens.
    The Others was really effective.
    And when I was a kid, yes, Salem’s Lot scared the crap out of me.

    Reply
    • JH

      ‘Salem’s Lot gave me nightmares when I was a kid, but sadly, it hasn’t withstood the test of time. The Alien movies, though? Terrifying.

      Loved The Ring. That is one time I preferred the remake over the original.

      Reply
  17. So many that could be on here! I know it was polarizing but “The Blair Witch Project” did scare the crap out of me, particularly the ending. Good choices, though.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed. I wish it had been the first and last “found footage” movie. Although [REC] was great.

      Reply
  18. The Changeling! That film still gives me goosebumps. When you hear the child’s voice on the recording… so creepy.

    Reply
    • JH

      Such a great film! Glad it has other fans.

      Reply
  19. Wow! Lots of great movies on your list and in the comments! Salem’s Lot scared me, too, Alex!!
    Your list is quite comprehensive. I do like scary more than gore, but the older I get the less I can handle the scary. Weird? Maybe.
    One movie I do love, cause it’s Whedon, is The Cabin in the Woods. The most realistic horror movie…ever. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      I love that one. I found it to be more of a comedy, but so enjoyable. I’ve watched it several times.

      Reply
  20. Loving your list! Burnt Offerings still scares me just by the name because of that freaky chauffeur. The Others is brilliant and when those 3 keep walking towaa the kids, ughhh freak out! I would add The Haunting made in. 1963 I think…great film and The Innocents with Deborah Kerr…excellent and very freaky…there’s that word again.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good suggestions, Birgit. You do love your classics!

      And yeah, that chauffeur. Beyond creepy. That whole movie is so unnerving. Can’t wait to read the book one day.

      Reply
  21. I thought this list was good but I don’t know why ‘Salem’s Lot’ didn’t make the list. ‘IT’ was the scariest book for me because I have am terrified of clowns and always will be! Then they made a movie which was so scary that I could only watch for a short time before shutting it off, I did eventually watch the whole movie.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ah, another fan of the original IT. I loved the miniseries too.

      To me, ‘Salem’s Lot didn’t stand the test of time. It terrified me when I was a kid, but now it’s just cheesy. Have you gone back and watched it as an adult?

      Reply
  22. The Autobiography of Jane Doe is a modern classic in my opinion, as is The Girl With All the Gifts. Love the list, but if I may offer a suggestion: with soooo many good choices, maybe breaking it down into “classics” (pre-2000) and modern would be an interesting take. And if we go that route, the original Nightmare on Elm Street tops any list of movies in that time!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Dwight! It’s good to see you here.

      I actually watched Autopsy based on your suggestion, and enjoyed it. I’ll have to try The Girl–haven’t heard of that one.

      And I’d be happy to do a part II like you described!

      Reply
  23. Boy, do I agree with your No. 1. That is the only movie I woke up screaming in bed, not once but twice.

    Reply
    • JH

      It was so well done, wasn’t it? Beyond being frightening, the writing, acting, and cinematography were fantastic.

      Reply
  24. I love all of these (except Cold Prey which I haven’t seen). I remember watching Hostel and being so creeped out because although the gore factor is high, it is scarily believable that somewhere this is happening.
    My favourite King adaptation is The Green Mile – I know it’s not scary but I just had to mention it because it’s one of the few movie adaptations that stay completely true to the book.
    One of my favourite scary movies that didn’t make the list for actual scare factor rather than gore etc. is the first Paranormal Activities movie – that scene where she just stands over him half of the night staring at him creeped me out no end. I also love Japanese horror – The Ring, The Grudge etc.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      The Japanese make some great horror movies, agreed. Try the original Cold Prey before Hollywood ruins it with a remake (which is in the works) and let me know what you think. The sequel is good as well.

      The Green Mile is a wonderful film. My favourite King adaptation would be Shawshank, but The Green Mile is right up there. And Stand By Me.

      Reply
  25. I was wondering if you forgot The Shining! Also, the kids all freaked out about Amityville Horror when I young. I haven’t watched either one. I did see the 6th sense, and I totally jumped, but I guessed the ending. Seven was super scary to me, too.

    Reply
    • JH

      Bravo for guessing the ending! I never saw it coming. I was devastated.

      The Shining is too much of a classic, I thought. Pretty much everyone interested would have seen it. I did enjoy Amityville, and Se7en was hella disturbing. Good picks!

      Reply
  26. I have to admit there are quite a few on your list I haven’t seen. I enjoyed the Daniel Radcliffe “Woman in Black.” I recently watched “Chernobyl Diaries” and thought it scored remarkably on suck factor. “Conjuring” and “Possession” I rate quite highly. If you’re looking for a decent werewolf movie try “Dog Soldiers” starring Sean Pertwee. I thought that was really good. “Howl” is interesting as well. I’ve seen WWZ and loved it. Great post. I need to go searching for some of these titles to stop me watching Rob Zombie’s movies!

    Reply
    • JH

      Anything I can do to help, Dave. I have seen Dog Soldiers and really enjoyed it, even though I’m not a horror movie fan.

      Reply
  27. I have seen 5 1/4 of the movies on the list. Of those I haven’t seen, Cold Prey is the one at the top of my “want to see” list.
    Burnt Offerings is a family favorite. We watch it every October. I have a copy of the book, but haven’t read it. yet.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hey, thanks for commenting, Erik! Good to see you here.

      I’d really love to read that book. And Cold Prey is fantastic.

      Let me know what you think of the novel, when you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  28. Hi, J.H. I enjoyed hearing about your ten scary movies. I haven’t seen one of them, the reason being that I find scary movies too intense. Of the scary movies I’ve seen, the original “Alien” was the scariest. I haven’t been able to go to a scary movie since ~ LOL

    Reply
    • JH

      You definitely picked a doozie for one of your first scary movies, Louise. Alien is terrifying. Few can top it.

      Reply
  29. I haven’t seen any of these movies as I’m not a big fan of scary movies, but if I had to pick one to watch it would probably be the Sixth Sense as I’ve heard such good things about it.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s an amazing movie, Ellen, even if you’re not a horror fan. I highly recommend it.

      Reply
  30. I definitely prefer to read/write/watch creepy rather than gory.

    I am totally with you on The Woman in Black (with Radcliffe) and The Conjuring. I actually like all The Conjuring-related movies.

    I was going to see IT but Hurricane Irma got in the way so this weekend it is – can’t wait!

    Reply
    • JH

      Let me know what you think. I wasn’t impressed, but there are reasons for that.

      Reply
  31. This looks like a great list, based on the right criteria! 🙂 I have only seen The Sixth Sense out of your picks, which was a really good movie. Finding fantastic movies is hard and I’m sure finding fantastic scary movies is even harder. Thanks for doing all the work. Some them have potential, even for us (easily creeped out people), especially the ones based on true stories.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Liesbet! Glad you got something out of it.

      It is so challenging to find great scary movies. So many bad ones out there.

      Reply
  32. I actually haven’t seen any of those movies. Not even The 6th Sense. I remember seeing the very end and bits, but I never sat down to watch it. now, I feel it’s kind of pointless since i know the twist.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s still worth seeing, even knowing the twist. It’s a great story. Wonderfully done.

      Reply
  33. My addition would be The Exorcist of Emily Rose. I have watched that movie about 4 times now and it still gets me the same way. Not as scary as the first time, but I just truly love the acting and atmosphere of the movie. I agree a Werewolf movie should be on the list and who doesn’t love American Werewolf in London. One of my all time favorite movies.

    Reply
    • JH

      I don’t tend to find werewolf movies scary, which is why they got left off.

      Thanks for the recommendation of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I’ll give it a watch.

      Reply
  34. DOG SOLDIERS is my guilty pleasure horror movie. It is made by the same director as THE DESCENT but I like that the out-matched, doomed National Guard unit stays friends right up until the end.

    THE CAVE does better than THE DESCENT and has the saving grace of having Lena Headey in a fascinating role.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, I love Dog Soldiers, Roland. Good call! I prefer The Descent to The Cave, though. I loved the characters in The Descent.

      Reply
  35. I went in there expecting to love it, but left feeling kind of meh. I thought parts of it were good.

    One thing I would’ve liked is to have those obvious/graphic/jump scare moments be more subtle, creepier. I think there were a number of missed opportunities for that kind of thing.

    Reply
  36. My last comment was about you asking my opinion on the movie IT. Don’t know why it ended up down here and not near my initial comment. Sigh.

    Reply
  37. I remember reading ‘Burnt Offerings’ when the book came out but do not think I ever saw the movie. A friend dragged me to Blair Witch when it opened here. Might be the last scary movie I saw. I enjoyed the genre when I was younger, not so much now. I still remember a friend telling me about going to see Night of the Living Dead and being afraid to walk to her car in the dark as she left the theatre.

    Reply

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