This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

There’s just something special about dimming the lights and putting on a scary movie. You curl up with a blanket, or in the theater, and you know you’re about to ride a roller coaster of emotions. The best horror movies of all time thrill and chill us, and stay with us for a long time.

That’s why today, I wanted to go over the best of the horror genre and look at some titles across history and seas that could be considered the best of all time.

Let’s dive in, or else.


What is the Horror Genre?

What is the Horror Genre?

At its core, horror aims to evoke feelings of fright, dread, disgust, and unease. It explores our vulnerability to the monstrous and the unknown, preying upon anxieties that may be personal, societal, or deeply existential.

Horror films often feature elements of the supernatural, the grotesque, or the psychologically unsettling. They play with tension, anticipation, and the thrill of the unexpected to keep audiences on edge.

Horror Subgenres

Horror Subgenres

Horror also has a mixture of subgenres that have overlap there are so many unique ways to craft these stories.

Let’s explore a few below.

Classic Monsters

  • Vampire: Focuses on blood-drinking immortals, often with themes of seduction and power (Examples: Dracula, Interview with the Vampire).
  • Werewolf: Centers on humans transforming into monstrous wolves, exploring themes of duality and savagery (Examples: The Wolf Man, An American Werewolf in London).
  • Zombie: Features reanimated corpses, often with a focus on apocalypse and social breakdown (Examples: Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later).
  • Ghost: Revolves around spectral beings and haunted locations (Examples: The Shining, The Haunting of Hill House).
  • Mummy: Undead creatures preserved from Ancient Egypt seeking revenge (Examples: The Mummy franchise)

Psychological Horror

  • Gothic Horror: Atmospheric stories with decaying mansions, dark secrets, and a focus on the macabre (Examples: The Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein, The Haunting of Hill House).
  • Cosmic Horror: Emphasizes the insignificance of humanity against vast, unknowable cosmic forces (Examples: Works of H.P. Lovecraft, The Thing, Annihilation).
  • Psychological Thriller: Tension derived from mental instability, twisted games, and unreliable narrators (Examples: Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs).

Body Horror

  • Transformation: The body horrifically mutates or breaks down (Examples: The Fly, Videodrome ).
  • Splatter/Gore: Emphasizes graphic, visceral violence and mutilation (Examples: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, the Saw franchise).

Supernatural

  • Demonic Possession: Malevolent spirits taking control of victims (Examples: The Exorcist, The Conjuring films).
  • Occult/Witchcraft: Rituals, dark magic, and devil worship (Examples: Rosemary’s Baby, Hereditary, The Witch).

Found Footage

  • Movies presented as ‘discovered’ recordings, often aiming for a sense of realism (Examples: The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, REC).

Slasher

  • Masked killers stalk and murder victims, often teens, with a focus on suspense and kills (Examples: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream).

Survival Horror

  • Characters fight for their lives in hostile environments against monstrous threats or dire situations (Examples: Alien, You’re Next, The Hills Have Eyes).

Other Notable Subgenres

  • Home Invasion: Victims terrorized within their own homes (Examples: The Strangers, Hush)
  • Folk Horror: Utilizes rural settings and pagan rituals for unsettling dread (Examples: The Wicker Man, Midsommar)
  • Giallo: Stylish Italian murder-mysteries with masked killers and black-gloved hands (Examples: Suspiria, Deep Red)
  • Creature Features: Monsters of various kinds terrorize victims (Examples: Jaws, Tremors)
  • Comedy Horror: Blends humor with horrific elements (Example: Shaun of the Dead, What We Do in the Shadows)

Horror Movie Tropes

Horror Movie Tropes

Horror films often rely on recurring tropes to build suspense and deliver the thrills audiences crave.

  • The Final Girl: Frequently found in slashers, this refers to the lone female survivor who outwits or ultimately defeats the killer.
  • Jump Scares: Sudden, startling moments designed to evoke a jolt of fear. These can be cheap if overused, but highly effective when well-timed.
  • The Isolated Setting: Trapping characters in remote locations (haunted houses, cabins in the woods) heightens the sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
  • The Unreliable Narrator: When the protagonist’s perception of reality is distorted, it keeps the audience guessing what’s real and what’s a product of madness.

The History of Horror Movies

'Psycho' Shower Scene

The first horror movie of all time was created by George Méliès. It was called Le Manoir du Diable (known in English as The Haunted Castle or The House of the Devil) and debuted in 1896.

The roots of horror extend back to early folklore and Gothic literature. However, horror cinema as we know it came to life in the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s.

Films like Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) set the stage with their haunting imagery and twisted narratives.

Universal Studios’ iconic monster movies of the 1930s and 40s (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) cemented the archetypes of horror in popular culture.

However, the ‘Golden Age’ of horror is often considered the 1960s through the 1980s. This era saw an explosion of creativity and boundary-pushing within the genre:

  • Hitchcock’s influence: Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful suspense films Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) redefined psychological horror and set new standards for cinematic tension.
  • Social Commentary: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) revolutionized zombie horror, weaving in critiques of racism and social unrest.
  • Supernatural Terrors: Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) brought demonic possession and religious horror to the forefront with shocking intensity.
  • The rise of the Slasher: Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) codified the slasher sub-genre, characterized by masked killers, unsuspecting teen victims, and suspenseful stalk-and-kill sequences.

Why Is Horror Such a Popular Genre?

Why Is Horror Such a Popular Genre?

Week in and week out, it feels like horror dominated the domestic box office. Famous killers and monsters enter the cultural lexicon, and these spec screenplays often sell.

But what makes these movies so popular?

Here’s a few ideas as to why:

  • Exploration of Fear: Exceptional horror dissects fear itself. It taps into universal anxieties – loss, the unknown, the fragility of sanity– forcing us to confront the unsettling parts of ourselves.
  • Social Commentary: The best horror can be a subversive reflection of real-world issues. From zombie hordes reflecting consumerist culture to haunted houses mirroring societal trauma, the genre acts as a distorted lens.
  • Technical Artistry: Memorable horror employs cinematography, sound design, and editing to create a uniquely chilling atmosphere. Think of the haunting long takes in The Shining (1980) or the discordant score of Psycho.
  • Iconic Moments: The greatest horror films burn indelible images and scenes into our minds – the shower scene in Psycho, the chestburster in Alien (1979), the terrifying reveal in The Blair Witch Project (1999).
  • Complex Characters (or Lack Thereof): Whether it’s exploring the survivor’s resilience or the monstrous depths of the villain, memorable characters give the horror stakes and emotional power. Sometimes the most chilling aspect is the blank, unknowable evil behind the monster’s mask.

Horror Around the World

Horror Around the World

While American horror cinema often dominates the conversation, other countries boast rich traditions and unique contributions to the genre. Here’s a quick world tour:

  • Japan (J-Horror): Known for atmospheric ghost stories, psychological horror, and vengeful spirits (see The Ring (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)).
  • South Korea: A hub for modern horror gems delivering social commentary, brutal violence, and unexpected twists (Train to Busan (2016), The Wailing (2016)).
  • France: Home to the New French Extremity movement, known for its graphic and disturbing depictions of violence and taboo subject matter. (Martyrs (2008)).
  • Italy: Italian horror (especially the ‘Giallo‘ subgenre) offers stylish thrillers, often with masked killers, black-gloved hands, and heightened gore. (Suspiria (1977)).

The Best Horror Movies of All Time

The Best Horror Movies of All Time

Horror cinema possesses the uncanny ability to tap into our deepest fears, to hold a dark mirror up to society, and to thrill us with the adrenaline rush of the unknown.

The best horror films transcend mere scares; they haunt our minds long after the credits roll, unearthing primal anxieties and lingering in our subconscious.

Let’s dig into them.

  1. Häxan (1922): A Swedish silent film that blends historical documentary style with shocking visual depictions of witchcraft and demonic possession.
  2. Nosferatu (1922): A landmark of German Expressionism, this silent film still holds power with its iconic vampire and nightmarish visuals.
  3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): A cornerstone of German Expressionism, its distorted sets and visuals create a nightmarish and influential world.
  4. Freaks (1932): A controversial yet fascinating Pre-Code film about sideshow performers that turns the tables on societal notions of beauty and monstrosity.
  5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): This classic sci-fi horror plays on Cold War paranoia with its tale of emotionless alien duplicates taking over a town.
  6. Eyes Without a Face (1960): This hauntingly beautiful French horror explores obsession and madness in a tale of a doctor determined to restore his daughter’s disfigured face.
  7. Psycho (1960): Hitchcock’s chilling masterpiece redefined suspense and the slasher genre, boasting the iconic shower scene and a shocking twist.
  8. Carnival of Souls (1962): An atmospheric, dreamlike gem following a woman haunted by strange figures after a traumatic accident. Its low-budget eeriness is influential.
  9. The Birds (1963): Hitchcock delivers another masterpiece, as a seemingly ordinary town is besieged by unexplained and increasingly violent bird attacks.
  10. Night of the Living Dead (1968): Romero’s zombie classic birthed the modern zombie and injected biting social commentary into the horror genre.
  11. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): A masterpiece of slow-burn dread, its focus on a woman’s paranoia and gaslighting surrounding her pregnancy is truly unsettling.
  12. The Wicker Man (1973): British folk horror at its best, weaving a chilling tale of a policeman investigating mysterious pagan rituals on a remote island.
  13. Don’t Look Now (1973): This atmospheric and grief-stricken thriller set in Venice delivers haunting imagery and one of the most disturbing climaxes in horror.
  14. The Exorcist (1973): This disturbing exploration of demonic possession pushed boundaries with its graphic imagery and exploration of faith.
  15. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974): This gritty and raw horror film delivers relentless terror, leaving a lasting impact with its low-budget aesthetic and iconic killer, Leatherface.
  16. The Omen (1976): A chilling and effective exploration of the Antichrist myth, filled with memorable deaths and an unsettling atmosphere.
  17. Suspiria (1977): Dario Argento’s Italian classic is a stylistic fever dream of vibrant colors, a haunting score, and a shocking exploration of a sinister ballet academy.
  18. Halloween (1978): John Carpenter’s slasher classic codified many genre tropes, delivering suspenseful kills and a haunting masked murderer, Michael Myers.
  19. Alien (1979): Sci-fi horror brilliance from Ridley Scott, blending cosmic terror with claustrophobic suspense and groundbreaking creature design.
  20. The Changeling (1980): One of the finest classic ghost stories, with George C. Scott delivering a powerhouse performance as a grieving man confronting the supernatural.
  21. The Shining (1980): Kubrick’s visually arresting and deeply unsettling descent into madness within the Overlook Hotel is unforgettable.
  22. An American Werewolf in London (1981): This film masterfully blends horror and dark comedy, boasting groundbreaking werewolf transformation effects.
  23. The Evil Dead (1981): Sam Raimi’s low-budget debut delivered extreme gore and over-the-top humor, becoming a cult classic and starting a beloved franchise.
  24. The Thing (1982): Masterful paranoia and incredible practical effects highlight this sci-fi/horror about an isolated team battling a shapeshifting alien.
  25. Videodrome (1983): David Cronenberg’s body horror classic dives into the dangers of technology and the blurred lines between reality and disturbing hallucinations.
  26. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Wes Craven’s slasher classic introduced Freddy Krueger, a dream-stalking killer whose unique weaponization of nightmares is terrifying.
  27. Re-Animator (1985): This dark horror-comedy is a gleefully gruesome and surprisingly funny take on the mad scientist trope, overflowing with body horror.
  28. The Fly (1986): A stomach-churning body horror from Cronenberg, offering a tragic tale of a scientist whose teleportation experiment goes horrifyingly wrong.
  29. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A chilling psychological thriller where the monster is all too human. Brilliant performances and haunting imagery make it a standout.
  30. Candyman (1992): A chilling blend of urban legend and horrifying reality, fueled by racial injustice and anchored by Tony Todd’s powerful performance.
  31. Scream (1996): Revitalized the slasher subgenre with meta-humor and self-awareness, offering a cleverly constructed whodunit within a horror framework.
  32. The Blair Witch Project (1999): This found footage pioneer revitalized the subgenre, offering a horrifyingly realistic experience that blurs the lines of fiction and reality.
  33. Ringu (The Ring) (1998): The original Japanese version delivers atmospheric chills and a terrifying cursed videotape, birthing an iconic ghost in Sadako.
  34. Audition (1999): This Japanese psychological thriller offers a slow-burn of unease before descending into shocking and unforgettable acts of torture.
  35. Pulse (Kairo) (2001): Japanese horror delving into technology-based terror, where ghosts invade via the internet, creating a haunting feeling of loneliness and isolation.
  36. The Others (2001): Gothic chills and a brilliant twist make this haunted house story stand out, with Nicole Kidman delivering a powerful performance.
  37. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002): Japanese horror at its finest, the film creates a haunting atmosphere and introduces the unforgettable, vengeful spirit Kayako.
  38. 28 Days Later (2002): This British post-apocalyptic film revitalized zombies, giving them terrifying speed and ferocity, while exploring themes of survival and humanity.
  39. [REC] (2007): This Spanish found footage film reinvigorates the zombie subgenre with its relentless pace and claustrophobic setting within a quarantined building.
  40. The Orphanage (2007): This Spanish ghost story offers a heartbreaking and chilling tale of a mother searching for her missing son in a haunted orphanage.
  41. Let the Right One In (2008): A Swedish masterpiece, this vampire tale is also a tender coming-of-age story, blending the horrific with the melancholic.
  42. The Descent (2005): A terrifying exploration of claustrophobia and monstrous creatures lurking in the depths of an uncharted cave system.
  43. The Babadook (2014): A chilling exploration of grief and motherhood, the titular monster transcends a mere creature feature to become a haunting psychological force.
  44. The Witch (2015): A meticulously crafted period piece steeped in folk horror, this film explores the darkness within a Puritan family with a suffocating atmosphere.
  45. Train to Busan (2016): This South Korean zombie thriller brings relentless action and social commentary aboard a speeding train amidst an undead outbreak.
  46. Get Out (2017): Jordan Peele’s brilliant debut weaves sharp social commentary with unsettling suburban horror, creating a terrifying and thoughtful masterpiece.
  47. Hereditary (2018): A masterful debut from Ari Aster, this modern horror explores familial grief, disturbing rituals, and shocking twists with an emphasis on dread.
  48. A Quiet Place (2018): This post-apocalyptic horror forces its characters (and the audience) into tense silence as deadly creatures hunt by sound.
  49. Midsommar (2019): Ari Aster’s follow-up is disturbing folk horror in broad daylight, focusing on a crumbling relationship amidst unsettling pagan rituals.
  50. Us (2019): Jordan Peele’s second outing delivers doppelganger horrors and sharp social commentary, featuring a fantastic performance from Lupita Nyong’o.

The horror genre is one of the most complex and popular in all of cinema. It can take you anywhere and scare you with anything. Hopefully, this list of movies inspires you to write or direct your own original horror story.

What movies did we forget? And what else do you want to know about horror?

Let us know in the comments. Or else!