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The 13 scariest films of all time

BY Mandi Goodier

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

The 13 scariest films of all time

If you’re looking for a good scary movie, look no further. We know how difficult it is to tell terrifying scares from cheap so-called thrills so we’ve compiled this list to guarantee a spooky night in. Watch the trailers and read what makes each film so great. The 13 best horror films in existence… Readers beware…

13. The Woman in Black (2012)

When a widowed lawyer attempts to arrange the sale of an old, disturbed house, the children of the local village begin to die and he is accused of setting something evil free. The Woman in Black diverges from other modern horror films in that it is a proper ghost story. No gory special effects, no grotesque violence, no slasher monsters. It is traditional, calm and is carried by a great storyline. Truly chilling.

12. Don’t Look Now (1973)

Following the accidental death of their child a married couple, John and Laura Baxter, travel to Venice where John (Donald Sutherland) has been commissioned to restore a church. Laura (Julie Christie) partakes in a séance where she is visited by her dead child who warns her of danger in Venice. After dismissing her concerns Sutherland becomes haunted by series of mysterious sightings; a child in a red coat, carrying a dark secret. Don’t Look Now is an occult thriller which took time to become the well-respected film it is today. Now it is considered one of the most influential British films ever made, excelling in its use of incredible recurring motifs and cinematic style.

11. The Fly (1986)

Co-written and directed by the master of venereal horror—that is the marriage between the body and the psychological—David Cronenberg, The Fly follows the story of an impassioned, eccentric and handsome young scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). Brundle succeeds in making a teleportation device and over-eagerly conducts an uncontrolled experiment on himself which results in his DNA becoming intertwined with that of a fly. The Fly is a great example of the marriage of science fiction and horror; a modern sort of Frankenstein’s monster is created when science is pushed to its limits.

Dr Caligari keeps a somnambulist as an attraction at a local fair boasting its fortune telling skills. He is able to manipulate this sleeping figure in order to conduct his evil desires: a murdering spree. Dating from 1920, this is the oldest film on our list and some might say a masterpiece of the silent era. The Cabinet of Doctor Calligari is an exemplary piece of German expressionist cinema. Distorted, nightmarish sets; exaggerated shadows and gesture; great weighty socio-political human topic. Many have noted that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari introduced the concept of the twist ending into cinema and it is credited as the first true horror film.

9. 28 Days Later (2002)

Award-winning director Danny Boyle’s 2002 horror brought zombie movies into the 21st century. Once again horror meets science fiction—as despite bearing all the traits of zombies—the undead are in fact humans infected with “rage”. Heavily influenced by 1962 classic Day of the Triffids, our hero, Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in a hospital to find strange creatures have overrun humanity, and quickly has to adapt in order to survive. The true thrill of this film is when the threat of infection is matched by an ethical failure; where being rescued potentially offers more danger than fending for oneself.

8. The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage she grew up in with the ambition of using the space as a facility to help disabled children. Instead she enters into a nightmare where her own child is taken from her by Tómas, his imaginary friend. This Spanish horror lends itself to a sophisticated audience, and that isn’t because it comes with subtitles! The Orphanage was continually praised for its lack of cheap thrills associated with typical modern horror films, including the one thing that most critically lack; empathy for the main characters. As is to be expected from acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, this film is full of atmosphere, imagination and genuinely terrifying moments.


7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This movie gave birth to a wealth of films which toy with the idea of parental anxiety. What do you do when you can no longer trust your husband, your neighbours, or even your doctor? How far would you go to protect your unborn child? This 1968 film deals with the occult in a way that was never seen previously. Mia Farrow takes the lead as Rosemary Woodhouse who gives both a wonderful sense of physical illness, paranoia and isolation that even leaves the audience curious as to whether there is a conspiracy against her child or whether she is suffering from delusions.


Halloween is the bible for modern day slasher films. It follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her teenage friends as they are stalked by escaped lunatic Michael Myers. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween prays on teenage anxiety: peer pressure, responsibility, and sexual repression. Director Jon Carpenter assembled all the tropes that we are now all familiar with in modern day horror films; borrowing from past masters such as Hitchock to build atmosphere and suspense, as well as pioneering the use of first person filming from the POV of the killer. Halloween remains one of the highest grossing independent films of all time.

5. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is easily grouped with Rosemary’s Baby; it taps into the parents’ anxiety of their child becoming unwell beyond professional control, and further that their child may become something foreign to them, in this case a demon. Essentially this is a story of possession, the plot doesn’t thicken too much beyond this. But interestingly, the film does have a factual basis. The novel which inspired the film is based on an exorcism performed on a young boy in 1949 by the Jesuit priest, Fr. William S. Bowdern. A terrifying watch, particularly when this is taken into account!

4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

If 28 Days Later brought zombie movies into the 21st century then Shaun of The Dead brought it down to earth with relatable anti-hero characters who make us laugh and behave exactly how you might if a zombie apocalypse were to occur. While other zombie movies depict humans tapping into subconscious primal instinct—developing sudden shooting skills and super speed—Shaun of the Dead depicts apathy, panic, and a complete muddling up of priorities. Shaun is a 30-something who is dealing with the fact that his life hasn’t turned out as he might have imagined; in a dead end job, still living with his 30-something loser friend, breaking up with the love of his life, and on top of all that he has to deal with a zombie apocalypse. This 2004 film is the perfect combination or horror, comedy and romance.

Straight-laced, devout police Sergeant Howie (Edward Wooward) is led to a Scottish island owned by an eccentric millionaire Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) to investigate the disappearance of a small child. Upon his arrival he finds the villagers are unwilling to aid him and even deny that such a child ever existed. He becomes increasingly disturbed by their pagan practices and sexual teachings and appetite. He is placed in seductive situations that test both his faith and moral beliefs.  

The film also features one of the best movie soundtracks ever made, adding to the surreal and seductive atmosphere. The Wicker Man is unusual in comparison to typical horror films, it doesn’t rely on shock tactics or violence, instead it is the use of uncanny imagery, otherness and sexual desire that make this film unnerving. Christopher Lee claims it is the greatest film he has ever made.

2. Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock broke all the rules of filmmaking when he made this one. The murder scene which shocked its initial audience is now regularly referenced and parodied in modern day film and television. Thanks to its screeching soundtrack and exceptional cinematography it is now one of the most well known scenes of all time. Psycho was not only the first in a long line of slasher movies but has influenced filmmaking across all genres. Not content with bending the rules behind the camera, Hitchcock also shattered storyline expectations as our assumed heroine Marion Crane is murdered in the first quarter of the film. We are then left with an anxious replacement: Norman Bates, his absent but ever-present, mentally ill Mother, and the insanity that unravels.

1. The Shining (1980)

Jack Torrence and his family move into the Overlook Hotel in order to ensure everything is in order during the winter season. Once the family are alone Jack struggles with his sanity and becomes possessed by some kind of evil contained within the hotel’s walls. Meanwhile his son Danny is able to give us insight into the hotel’s history as he has “the shining”—the ability to see ghosts and thoughts. The Shining is a series of paradoxes and ambiguities; a labyrinth of a movie which twists and turns without ever straying too far. Commonly criticised for its open-endedness and discontinuity but all of this equates to the queasy disorientation of the viewer, who is trapped, as indeed the Torrence family. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film was initially dismissed as a silly scare story, as a blip in his career, with slow pacing and jumpy acting being at the centre of the criticism. However, scratch past the surface and there is something more at stake than just a silly scare story. Stunning, sophisticated cinematography and an atypical soundtrack add to the uncanny banality and almost mundane hypereality of The Shining. It is generally now accepted as one of the greatest horror films ever made.  In 2009, mathematical research commissioned by Sky Movies at Kings College London, found The Shining to be the most perfect horror film ever made as it contains the perfect mixture of elements to produce the perfect scare.

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