Satan, Scarecrows, and Skin
Thirty Horror Films That Are Actually Scary
When I was in fifth grade, my family had both a Betamax and a VHS player. I'll never forget how much I loved Fridays. My mom would pick me up from school, and we'd head straight to the video store, where I could rent any movies I wanted. At only 11 or 12 years old, I was magically deemed "mature enough" to watch R-rated tapes, though I didn't care to rent much else besides horror films—or, as my mom called them, "SPOOKERS." After the video place, we'd stop at Little Caesars, and then my mom and dad would pull on their bowling jerseys and leave my brother and me home alone for the night with a large pizza and a big pile of movies.
Often they'd come home and we'd be hiding together in a closet. Once, after renting three editions of the Friday the 13th series, our mom found us huddled under blankets in the bathtub (the bathroom door had a lock, unlike most other rooms in our farmhouse that sat on 22 acres of woods in the middle of nowhere).
It was like that for a long time—every Friday, we'd turn off the lights in the house and watch spookers until we were high as kites on fear. The cat would knock something over, and we'd scream like banshees for five minutes straight. One time, some black bears that lived in our woods came right up to the house and rattled our big metal trash cans. I think my brother, forever tougher than me, peed his pajama pants with that one. No matter how scared we ever got, though, the following Friday, we wanted to do it again.
That initial high is what I'm still addicted to. Only the best scary movies, the REALLY scary ones, stick with you after the credits roll and the lights are back on. They're the ones that linger in the corners of your mind during a weekday trip to the post office, when some little old man shoots you a mildly strange look, and you spin on your heels and RUN for the car and fumble for your keys with sweaty hands.
Depending on what strikes your rawest nerve, there's a horror movie out there for every single human—a film with power so great, it can scare a little bit of the pee out of your bladder and into your pants, and make you pleased to have done so. Here are 30 of them, assigned to their ideal victims.
So you're afraid of DEMONIC POSSESSION
There's probably no more terrifying concept than some sort of angry, ugly pal of Satan shoving you out of your body and claiming it as his/her own. The Exorcist, the Academy Award–winning granddaddy of all possession films—directed by William Friedkin, and starring a young actress named Linda Blair and a real-life Catholic priest named Reverend William O'Malley—blew people's minds on its release in 1973. (After a filmgoer broke his jaw on the seat in front of him during an Exorcist screening, he sued the film's producers, claiming the use of subliminal imagery caused him to pass out in the theater.) Forty years later, The Exorcist still makes people react violently. The Exorcist III (1990) was a rare case of a sequel being almost as good as the original. Starring George C. Scott, the film scared the bejesus out of people, especially during its "nurse decapitation" scene, where a woman loses her head to a large pair of surgical shears.
Directed by James "Saw" Wan, 2013's Exorcist-inspired The Conjuring had a similar effect—during its exorcism scene (starring Lili Taylor), the girls behind me couldn't stop screaming, all the while kicking the back of my seat (a horror-movie standing O!). And no one can avoid squirming when the possessed girl in 1981's The Evil Dead chews her own (spoiler alert!) hand off.
So you're afraid of DEMONIC LITTLE KIDS
No one, after seeing Children of the Corn (based on a Stephen King novel and made into a film in 1984), will ever walk through a field of corn again without thinking about that murderous redheaded adolescent superfreak Malachai. The Omen (1976) still makes babysitters a little afraid of child care. And 2013's Mama has one the best depictions of feral children walking on all fours (second maybe only to the way the girl moved in the terrifying 1998 Japanese classic Ringu, and also Linda Blair's infamous "spider walk" down a staircase in the Exorcist director's cut).
So you're afraid of SATAN, THE ACTUAL DUDE
You'll love/hate watching Viggo Mortensen play the devil (alongside Christopher Walken) in 1995's The Prophecy, and you'll freak the fuck out when Mia Farrow gets dream-raped by the guy in 1968's psychological horror classic Rosemary's Baby.
So you're afraid of HILLBILLIES AND REDNECKS
Director Wes Craven's 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes stars one of the scariest hillbilly-cannibals ever to hit the big screen, thanks to an actor named Michael Berryman, who was born with a real-life genetic condition that prevents him from having any hair (no eyebrows!) or fingernails. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), a made-for-TV movie set in the Deep South and featuring a mentally challenged man named Bubba, will make you forever nervous around scarecrows, and 1980's Motel Hell features an incredibly creepy farmer whose special smoked meat products are actually humans that he plants in the ground up to their necks after he cuts their vocal cords to prevent his "garden" from screaming. GAAAAAHHHH!
So you're afraid of PEOPLE WHO WEAR OTHER PEOPLE'S SKIN
Who can ever forget the scene where Frank gets busted wearing his dead brother's face in Clive Barker's 1987 masterpiece Hellraiser? Or most famous of all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface running around in his floppy dead-skin mask?
So you're afraid of HANGING AROUND SLUTTY, HORNY TEENAGERS
You should steer completely clear of these people, because they're the number-one prey of A-list mega-horror superstars Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), and my personal fave, Michael Myers (Halloween).
So you're afraid of THOSE YUCKY UNDEAD PEOPLE
Sweet Mary Mother of God, there are a lot of zombie movies, but the ultimate zombie blast remains a triple feature of the slow, bumbling zombies in George A. Romero's original black-and-white Night of the Living Dead (1968), followed by the lightning-fast postapocalyptic zombies in 2002's 28 Days Later, and the original Haitian voodoo undead in 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow.
So you're afraid of YOU KNOW, ANIMALS (AND BUGS)
Every single person in America was afraid to go swimming after seeing 1975's shark thriller Jaws. I'm still slightly afraid of more than two avian specimens hanging around together after Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). And both Cujo (1983) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) gave me real-deal nightmares.
So you're afraid of FRICKIN' GHOSTS
This is my thing to be afraid of. There are spectacular-looking ones in The Shining (1980), some seriously pissed-off ones in Poltergeist (1982) and the original The Amityville Horror (1979), and extra creepy little kid ones in The Devil's Backbone (2001). I think my heart will always belong to a sickly and sad ghost named Joseph in one of the best haunted-house films of all time, The Changeling. Set in 1980s Seattle, The Changeling gets everything right, and it will haunt you for years.
This article has been updated since its original publication. It wasn't Julia wearing the face in that scene Hellraiser, it was Frank. D'oh!