21 Horror Movies We Can Never Forget
The greatest horror films transport us into different worlds and never quite let us go, even after we’ve left the movie theater. Here are 21 horror films that keep us coming back for more
Few genres of film are quite as diverse as horror, running the gamut from comedy to action-adventure to psychological thriller, and reflecting our fears from the most primal to the most arcane. It’s no surprise then that there are horror films which have captured the public imagination and burned themselves into our memories.
Let’s take a look at some of the most unforgettable entries in the genre:
21) Drag Me To Hell
Desperate to prove herself a go-getter at work, loan officer Christine evicts an old woman from her home. But the woman places a curse on Christine - a curse that will slowly turn her life into a living nightmare and ultimately send her screaming into the depth of hell itself…
“Okay, okay, I’ll give you a tampon!”
Sam Raimi made his name in horror, and his return to the genre in 2009 is a triumph of campy, spectacular horror in a time increasingly dominated by dark, gritty realism. There’s nothing quite like watching a banker suffer an explosive nosebleed all over her manager in broad daylight, an experience so over-the-top it’s hard to know if you should laugh or cringe.
When their son Dalton falls into a coma after witnessing something in the family attic, married couple Josh and Renai begin to notice horrific supernatural phenomena. Believing the house is haunted, they move away in search of a fresh start. But the presence has followed them here, too. Soon, Josh and Renai discover that Dalton is the key to these occurrences - and that he is in no ordinary coma…
Modern art, am I right?
Insidious is something of a throwback, using tropes of demonology and spiritualism that are almost dated in today’s increasingly secular entertainment circles. But James Wan’s taut direction and a keen sense of atmosphere make this old-school haunted-house story feel fresh.
19) Eden Lake
Young couple Steve and Jenny travel to a remote forest lake for a romantic getaway. But their peace and quiet is disturbed by a gang of youths. As gang steals their belongings and delights in provoking them, Steve confronts them - but he has underestimated the depths of brutality to which the boys are willing to sink for a good time…
“All humans will tremble before mutantkind!…Oh, wait, too soon.”
The class commentary might make for uncomfortable viewing, but Eden Lake finds its groove in exploiting a particularly British fear of “hoodies”, and a more general fear of psychopathic leadership. Watching teens coerced into torturing a grown man seemingly for fun is an utterly soul-emptying experience in a way only a very few films can manage.
18) A Nightmare on Elm Street
The teenagers of Elm Street begin to suffer from violent nightmares that come true in real life. High school student Nancy Thompson is determined to discover the truth about the disfigured killer Freddy Krueger and find a way to survive the dreams - that is, if she doesn’t fall asleep first.
Basically everyone’s first time shaving “down there”.
Freddy Krueger was initially intended to be a child molester, and it shows: not just because he targets children, but because of the way society responds to it. The law fails to convict him, the neighborhood impulsively lashes out, and his story is eventually buried as a symbol of the community’s shame. The surreal torments Krueger inflicts on the teens of the story give way to deeper, more adult fears underlying his creation, and it is that layering that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street a rich, satisfying horror experience.
A gang of children in Derry, Maine realize that their terrifying experiences are the manifestations of a single being with a limitless capacity for evil. They fight IT, driving it into hiding. But years later, a series of phone calls reunites the gang on a journey to return to Derry as adults - this time, determined to destroy IT once and for all.
Of all the Stephen King adaptations, IT is perhaps the most Stephen King-ish, depending on a precise mixture of cheesy contrivances and gut-wrenching terror. If you find the spectacle of Tim Curry in a clown suit menacing little children to be funny rather than terrifying, I can’t help you. But to me and to thousands of other horror fans, this film is a gem. The town of Derry, Maine hides an entire history of madness and suffering behind its shuttered windows, just as Pennywise hides his true form behind a layer of make-up and a grotesque grin.
Fun fact: this is Tim Curry’s least creepy face in the film. It only gets worse from here.
The production team pulled out all the stops to bring the cosmic monstrosity of IT to gruesome, writhing life, and if you are at all a fan of Stephen King’s work - warts and all - you owe it to yourself to dip into this adaptation of his horror opus.
16) Paranormal Activity
Micah sets up a camera in his bedroom to record his wife, Katie, who claims she is being haunted by an evil entity. As strange and inexplicable occurrences manifest in their home, the young couple learns that they may be in the grip of a demon that feeds on negative energy. And with every mistake they make, the couple are making it stronger…
“IT’S RIGHT THERE!” “…that’s a shadow, honey.”
Paranormal Activity may have spawned a line of successors that failed to live up to the original, but it’s easy to forget just how much new life it breathed into the found-footage genre as a method of storytelling. (Much more than Cloverfield, whose attempt to blend low-budget methods with high-budget spectacle just left audiences complaining that they couldn’t see the effects properly.)
The film’s secret lies in understanding that the anticipation is just as important as the release: much of the film passes in near silence, helping to build dread to a point where event relatively tame occurrences like a sheet moving under its own power acquire an extra edge of fear.
Two men wake up in the same room, chained to the wall. They begin to realize that they are the latest victims of the legendary Jigsaw Killer, a man who places his victims in elaborate death traps - with a gruesome sacrifice the only key to their release. As they and the police try to figure out a way to outthink the Jigsaw Killer, it soon becomes clear that he has been playing a far deeper game than they could have anticipated.
Worst episode of Home Improvement ever.
Like its cousin Cube, Saw places a group of people in a series of puzzle boxes designed to test their minds in brutal fashion. But unlike the Cube, whose workings are mysterious to the point of seeming pointless, the Jigsaw Killer leaves his victims in no doubt that they are there for a purpose. Tobin Bell’s villainous protagonist is really an entire cult rolled into one person - an ideology made flesh, a moral framework adhered to beyond reason or fear of death.
The Jigsaw Killer aspires to become a minor god of judgment, and it is this larger-than-life ambition that enraptured audiences and kept them coming back for sequel after sequel.
14) House of Wax
A group of friends find themselves stranded in the small town of Ambrose, whose only point of interest is a museum called the House of Wax. Soon they realize the terrible truth behind why the wax figures in the museum look so real…and that they are destined to become the next exhibits.
The wax may have cost him his life, but it did wonders for his performance.
Sadly unloved by critics, House of Wax is a surprisingly fun horror romp, with some fairly neat plot twists to keep it from feeling too familiar. And though she isn’t a trained actor, Paris Hilton acquits herself pretty well in this cast!
Years ago, the Russell family suffered a horrific tragedy that resulted in two deaths and the institutionalization of their son, Tim. In the present day, Tim’s sister and fellow survivor Kaylie acquires the mirror that once adorned their old family home. Kaylie is convinced that the mirror is an artifact of supernatural evil responsible for destroying the Russell family - and with Tim’s help, she is determined to prove it.
Due to a technical error, the cameraman isn’t visible in this shot.
Oculus isn’t exactly found footage horror - “study horror” might be nearer the mark. Kaylie Russell’s efforts to understand and document the mirror she believes to hold supernatural powers drive the story, so that the horror grows organically along with our understanding of the artifact’s capabilities.
That Kaylie is accompanied by her brother who was recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital adds a neat touch of uncertainty as to what we are really witnessing: does the mirror genuinely possess a supernatural intelligence, or are we watching a disturbed family’s hereditary delusions play out to their grim conclusion?
12) The Strangers
Troubled young couple James and Kristen arrive at a summer home, planning to spend a vacation together. But their relationship problems are the least of their worries - mysterious strangers knock at their door and lurk outside the house at night, as though observing their behavior, as though waiting for the right moment to strike…
“Oh, this old thing? I just work at a costume store. These are my work clothes.”
Another entry that prizes the slow-build creep factor, The Strangers doesn’t have the strongest script, but Bryan Bertino shows his strength as a director and crafts a film in which a house is haunted from the outside rather than from within.
11) Let the Right One In
Meek schoolboy Oskar befriends Eli, a strange girl. His relationship with Eli gives him the courage to stand up to the bullies tormenting him - but Eli has a dark secret of her own.
Keep showing off those Rubik’s skills, kid. About three people on the Internet are REALLY impressed.
Let the Right One In synthesizes several different narrative elements to great effect: bloodthirst and romance, mutilation and childhood innocence, vampirism and a schoolboy coming-of-age narrative, all set in a town in the grip of gray winter. The result is a film that defies easy categorization, but which will leave you thinking about it rather than frustrated or unfulfilled.
A group of strangers wakes up in a cube-shaped room with no memory of how they got there. Soon they realize they are trapped inside a vast labyrinth made up of identical cube-shaped rooms - some of them deadlier than the others…
“When are we going to start repopulating humanity?” “What, humanity died out?” “Um…sure.”
Cube is an exemplar of disciplined storytelling. Using only a single cube set, writer-director Vincenzo Natali builds a horror adventure that throws a cast of ordinary people into the belly of a giant engine of Kafkaesque torment. The film is sometimes criticized for taking the easy way out in not offering any explanation for why something as ridiculous as the Cube could ever exist, but this misses the point. The Cube is almost intentionally pointless, its origin as vast a puzzle as its workings. “What kind of society would build this?” is the question we’re supposed to take away from it.
9) The Exorcist
When young girl Regan MacNeil begins to show signs of demonic possession, her mother enlists the aid of two priests to save her soul. But it’s going to take a lot more than mere ritual to exorcise this entity, which appears to be growing stronger by the day…
I think there’s a cream for that.
Some movie theaters famously issued “barf bags” for their audiences to vomit into. Nearly forty years on, the film retains its power to shock, not just because of its effects, but because of its sincerity. It is based on a book by a devout Catholic, adapted by an agnostic filmmaker who has remained coy as to whether he believes in the events that inspired the story.
The spectacle of a young girl spouting profane, necrotic curses at the camera was profoundly upsetting to audiences at the time, and it hasn’t lost that edge as horror movies gradually slip into safer areas like pastiche and gorn.
8) Jacob’s Ladder
Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer finds himself stuck in a low-paying job, estranged from his wife, and plagued with traumatic memories and hallucinations. As his world collapses into a sea of madness, Jacob struggles to discover the truth behind his torment.
Fun fact: this image was banned from my mind because my brain hurts when I look at it.
The abject brutality of the Vietnam War fueled some of America’s darkest and most emotional art. Jacob’s Ladder reads like a surrealist portrait of human trauma. Watching it is like watching a tongue probe the ragged hole where a tooth used to be. In building a whole world around the psychic suffering of its protagonist, Jacob’s Ladder went on to inspire countless other successful horror franchises - not least Silent Hill, which produced one of the greatest horror experiences ever to be delivered through an interactive medium.
7) The Descent
A group of female friends go on a caving expedition as part of a yearly tradition. But when they are trapped underground by a cave-in, their only chance of survival is to go deeper - and a nameless horror that lives in the caves is observing them from the shadows.
“Guys! Guys! I just thought of a great Shining reference!”
The Descent is another marvelous example of disciplined filmmaking. With creative editing and low-light filming on his side, director Neil Marshall crafts an essay in claustrophobic terror using a limited budget and only a few sets. The cast being composed entirely of women forces the script to avoid boxing them into traditional horror archetypes, which in turn yields a set of characters we care about as people once the killing begins.
6) Evil Dead (2013)
Five young friends decide to spend their vacation in a remote cabin in the woods. While there, one of them discovers an ancient tome of demonic knowledge and inadvertently awakes a malevolent force - a force that will stop at nothing to claim the lives and souls of these unwary trespassers.
I have nothing funny to say about this image. Just lots of screaming.
When news first surfaced that a remake of The Evil Dead was in the works, fans were worried. But the result is one of the best-ever remakes in film, a labor of love with the blessing and input of Sam Raimi himself. Fans of the original’s comedic flair will be disappointed, but Fede Alvarez wisely recognizes that recreating that perfect storm is a fool’s errand, and settles instead for filming a thoroughly spectacular cabin-in-the-woods horror story. Evil Dead is more than worth your time as a symphony of creepy, creative visuals.
5) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Sally and Frank Hardesty take three of their friends to visit their old family home, only to discover that it is already occupied. And the inhabitants are eager to put these interlopers to good use - especially the youngest among them, a hulk of a man who wears a mask made of human skin…
“Let’s put a smile on that face!”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the first horror films to be marketed as a “true story”, and unlike many later examples it never strays into the supernatural, instead relying on the low-effect spectacles of deformity, psychopathy, and cannibalism. It’s almost like watching a home video made by the villains rather than something with a script and director. As a result, violence that would have seemed cheap and gratuitous in a lesser film here has urgency and impact, even decades after the original release.
4) A Tale of Two Sisters
Upon being discharged from psychiatric care, two sisters return home to their father and stepmother. Soon they find themselves falling victim to their stepmother’s cruelty, as well as a ghostly presence that seems to inhabit the house.
“Oh, THAT’S where I left the ghost. Must’ve rolled under the refrigerator.”
For all its supernatural trappings that come with being an adaptation of an old folk tale, it is the intimate family narrative at the heart of the film that drives the horror. A Tale of Two Sisters is first and foremost a character drama, which makes the psychological thrills all the more affecting.
3) The Ring (2002)
Journalist Rachel investigates the legend of a videotape that supposedly kills its viewers seven days after watching it. When she accidentally falls prey to the curse along with her son, she must find a way to avert her fate before the seventh day arrives.
Pfft. With bandwidth this low it’d take at least three hours for the curse to upload.
As human culture becomes ever more video-fixated, The Ring’s modern twist on fairytale horror remains as fresh as ever. As long as fear and suffering are captured on video, there will be those of us morbidly curious enough to brave the experience of watching it - and that creeping fear will always remain of having watched something that taints us, that makes us less human for having chosen to witness it. It comes as no surprise, then, that the franchise is making a comeback with the release of Rings.
Decades after an alien parasite slaughtered the crew of the Nostromo, lone survivor Ellen Ripley is recovered from deep space and enlisted in a mission to destroy a colony of the creatures that has been discovered on a remote planet. But there is more to the expedition than Ripley knows, and the aliens will not go down without a fight…
“The skull makes me look scarier!”
James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien was beset by production problems from the outset, which makes it all the more impressive that the resulting film is a masterpiece. Aliens in many ways represents the birth of the action horror genre, marrying fast-paced, high-octane gunplay with creeping dread. This is another film that takes inspiration from the Vietnam War, telling a tale of technological hubris in the face of ruthless, unstoppable opposition from a superior predator.
The hunters become the hunted.
1) The Shining
Father and husband Jack Torrance accepts a position as winter caretaker of the Overlook, a majestic hotel nestled in the Colorado Rockies. As the winter grows colder and society more distant, Jack’s wife Wendy begins to notice a change for the worse in his personality. And his son Danny witnesses manifestations of a supernatural force inhabiting the Overlook - a force that has found the perfect channel in Jack.
Fun fact: the child actor had no idea he was acting in a horror film. Neither did Jack Nicholson - that's just his default state of being.
Like Kubrick’s earlier film 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining had a decidedly mixed reception when it first premiered. In fact, it earned Kubrick one of the first Razzie nominations for Worst Director. The disorientating pacing and visuals, coupled with numerous departures from the source material, earned it the contempt of many fans of Stephen King’s work, including King himself.
But if you can separate the film from the book, The Shining is a fabulous psychological portrait in its own right, less about the nagging doubts and veiled secrets at the heart of a family and more about one man’s surrender to violent madness.
Abuse. Deformity. Isolation. Madness. These are subjects that have obsessed us since our earliest ancestors looked into the eyes of their dead and saw portals to another reality. Some of these films make us laugh, some make us cry - but all of them transport us elsewhere, to a dark mirror domain that inspires and enlightens even as it terrifies us.
To horror films: may we ever watch them, and may we never live them!
If you liked this article, why not check these out:
Previous StoryThis is the oldest story.