Why do we love being scared? It can’t be the way it makes our heart beat at rapid rates. Or how it keeps us up at night, leaving us to clutch our sheets as we stare at our half-open closets and listen for the faintest sounds down the hall. What the hell is it then? What gives us the oomph to spend 24 hours at vintage theaters for horror movie marathons? Why do we feel the need to sit down and watch John Carpenter’s Halloween for the 568th time every time October rolls around? It’s really odd.
For some, it’s an emotional release. Watching masked murderers hunt down hapless idiots or seeing nuclear families flee from the fractured promise of the American dream is a spiritually cynical escape from our own problems. It’s a cleansing of sorts that filters out our own personal anxieties that stem from real-world problems. So, in effect, these 90-minute B-fests serve as a therapeutic experience that a) costs less than your average therapist and b) traditionally involves candy and/or beer.
For others, it’s a nostalgic thing. Growing up throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and even throughout the ’00s to a certain extent, there was a mythology to the horror movie genre. What made you scared said so much about you as a person. Whether your skin crawled over the sight of gore or your spines tingled at the sound of a werewolf, it was your fear to cultivate, and you wore that fear as a badge of courage. It was something to talk about on the playgrounds and in the aisles of your local video shop.
Today, that connection seems different, if only because everything has been sterilized by being parsed out through various streaming services. We seek out horror in different ways now, not through physical scouring but through mindless scrolling. It’s kind of the same, but it’s also not really the same — overall, it feels like something’s been missing from the experience. But, here’s the thing: Fear will always find us, no matter what changes, and this list is definitive proof of that notion.
Because no matter the time nor the medium, these films will scare you.
100. Hostel (2005)
Yeah, it’s a torture movie, and the idea of being tortured or watching people be tortured is pretty terrifying no matter the context. But in Eli Roth’s second film, following the severely underrated Cabin Fever, severed Achilles tendons and mutilated faces are only part of the horrific collage. At its heart, Hostel is mostly there to scare you about traveling, particularly in a foreign country. When the film’s characters find themselves in Bratislava, subject to the whim and mercy of the places they stay and people they encounter, the vulnerability of the foreigner is magnified to a degree that we rarely feel when traveling ourselves. Yes, there’s also lots of gore — it’s flat-out hard to watch — but the long-term effects of the film don’t come from failed surgeons looking to operate on live people. No, it just makes you think twice about ever traveling to Eastern Europe. –Philip Cosores
99. Hour of the Wolf (1968)
It’s the hour in which fears, nightmares, and even death reign supreme. And what is this time but our collective ability to allow worries to run rampant? What a concept. A deliciously dark, big theme. Ingmar Bergman knew fear digs deep into that hour. Beatings, humiliation, fake eyes, silence, losing the ones you love – it’s all very primal. But that’s the dread perfected in The Hour of the Wolf, an attractive work of woe. (In Swedish, abstract black and white, of course.) More of a sketching ground for worry than a concrete tale, the film assembles sounds and images rooted in artistic madness, with an air of chilly and impersonal beauty. Jagged manic episodes. This isn’t just about some missing artist husband, weirdos on an island, or the brutal murder of a child. This is Bergman’s therapeutic scream, a film of pure agony in chilling fashion. –Blake Goble
98. It Follows (2015)
What we talk about when we talk about It Follows: the metaphor. Is the film’s antagonist — a sexually transmitted monster who can only be seen by its next victim — a stand-in for STDs? Unwanted pregnancy? Or is it a more innocent comment on the permanence of relationships, even after they’ve ended? All of these are valid theories, and whichever interpretation you settle on likely enriches a film that’s already one of the most unique horror movies of the last decade. But It Follows freaks me out for something not related to sex at all. I’m talking about the creature’s slowness. Taking what John Carpenter started with Michael Myers in Halloween to new, sluggish extremes, writer-director David Robert Mitchell usually frames his baddie from a distance with a static speed. It captures the moment we’ve all had when walking home and wondering if that person a half-block behind is actually stalking us. That’s a feeling just as ubiquitous as experiencing the dangers of sex. –Dan Caffrey
97. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Okay, An American Werewolf in London might scrimp on character development and lack any semblance of a satisfying ending, but John Landis’ 1981 cult favorite does deliver some legit scares along with its dark laughs. Much of the credit should be doled out to the makeup and effects crews. Before adequate technology existed, they dared to show 90% of a werewolf transformation onscreen. The mutilated bodies and living dead also still bring cringes decades later, as do David’s graphic dreams and the stalking camerawork used in the subway hunting. But not all the scares are visual. David’s dilemma on its own is outright grim. He can either kill himself to end a cursed bloodline or continue to risk the lives of others, which includes forever damning his best friend and any other victims to an eternity of roaming the world as corpses. Talk about being spoiled for choice. –Matt Melis
96. Amour (2012)
Amour is no horror movie, but it’s the sort of film that will unsettle you on a deep, existential level, long after so many jump scares have come and gone and faded from memory. That last bit isn’t meant as a cheeky bit of wordplay on the film’s plot, but it certainly fits; as Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) watches his beloved wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) slowly disappear into the endless void of dementia, Michael Haneke’s unsparing film follows them both all the way down. This is a film that bears witness to mortality at its most devastating and painful, and hits on the kind of thing that keeps many people awake in the dead hours of the night: this could happen to you, or somebody you love, and there is not a single thing you can do about it when it does. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
95. The Witch (2016)
Demons and the dark arts are ubiquitous in horror, but few movies feel as truly satanic as The Witch, Robert Eggers’ stunning debut film about a Puritan family in 17th century New England and the nefarious forces that live in the surrounding woods. Striking, horrifying images and eerie, unexplained confrontations abound, but it’s the film’s reveal that Satan himself is behind the horror that elevates this movie to the next level. Religion is often treated as an opiate or character motivator in horror, but here Eggers gives us confirmation that the biblical forces of good and evil are truly at work in this world, thus giving the weight of the film’s final act a sense horrific grandeur. Yet, oddly, it also finds beauty in the concept of choice, leaving viewers with a queasy sense of uneasiness as the credits begin to roll. –Randall Colburn
94. Phantasm (1979)
Phantasm, with its far-out storytelling and visuals, feels like a dream and, at times, a nightmare. It’s hard to tell what’s intentional and what’s a result of shooting the film over the course of three years (only writer-director Don Coscarelli knows for sure). Either way you slice it, Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man has the power to give audiences the willies. The film itself feels like a Southern California take on Italian horror with its cast of rock and roll dudes; vivid, saturated reds and blues; and blaring synth soundtrack. Phantasm also brought to life one of the most memorable onscreen killers: the flying silver sphere with a knack for drilling into its victim’s skulls. For all its weirdness, it’s actually the family drama that propels Phantasm, with young Michael Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) coming to terms with loss and the specter of death that surrounds his loved ones, tapping into very real fears through a surrealistic lens. –Mike Vanderbilt
93. The Strangers (2008)
The home invasion subgenre preys on a simple phobia: that even the one place in which you’re supposed to be the safest is only as “safe” as the will of the people around you. Yet, The Strangers ratchets up that fear by highlighting how fragile that social contract is and that if your home is suddenly violated by a roving band of thrill killers, there’s nothing to do but kill or be killed. And yet, against a trio of harlequin-masked murderers driven by no more valid a modus operandi than “because you were home,” what’s a nice young couple to do? Die, sooner or later. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
92. Kairo (2001)
Let’s make something clear: This isn’t the Kristen Bell-starring Pulse, a 2006 trash fire that was, in fact, a directionless remake of the film we’re here to discuss: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo. Released as Pulse outside of Japan, the film follows two separate narratives in a world where ghosts begin invading the world via the internet. The story is obtuse, but Kurosawa conjures a bone-deep sense of disorientation and dread in the way he merges themes of paranoia, loneliness, and emotional apocalypse with flashes of the uncanny. That Kurosawa is able to escalate such an insular story into one of global proportions is another achievement that satisfies on a narrative level while evoking the scope of the web’s influence, which, in 2001, was still in its infancy. Want to be really freaked out? Watch it on a computer. –Randall Colburn
91. Christine (1983)
Christine, she’s a beaut. And so is Christine, John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name (from a screenplay by Bill Phillips). It’s no surprise that Carpenter can take a premise that should by no means work — an evil car (with a female name, of course) starts to change the personality of the nebbish boy who owns her — and make it electric. And electric it is, even when it’s silly, even when the performances don’t quite work and the central battle feels deeply silly. But at the end of the day, this list is about good scares and good films, and this sucker is both. “Christine is, of course, utterly ridiculous,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. “But I enjoyed it anyway.” That pretty much says it all. –Allison Shoemaker