Satan, Scarecrows, and Skin

Thirty Horror Films That Are Actually Scary

Satan, Scarecrows, and Skin


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.


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!


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?


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).


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. recommended

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!


Comments (46) RSS

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gicinema 1
TCM, Poltergeist, The Omen and Hellraiser are all screening in Seattle this week. Maybe you should add that info to this article?
Posted by gicinema on October 23, 2013 at 10:11 AM · Report this
Good choices!

I'd also add:

The Pact
The Descent
House of the Devil
Trick R Treat
Posted by peteywheatstraw on October 23, 2013 at 10:55 AM · Report this
@1 - YES! I will compile a list of the weeks' spookers, absolutely
Posted by Kelly O on October 23, 2013 at 11:49 AM · Report this
@2 - There's definitely some categories that are sorely missing!

Like, perhaps "So you're afraid of CAVES, AND/OR CLAUSTROPHOBIA" -
"The Descent," "Primal" (from Australia), and "Poltergiest II" when creepiest old man, ever, Henry Kane, buries all the settlers inside the cave, while singing "God is in his holy temmmm'ple!"…

Posted by Kelly O on October 23, 2013 at 11:55 AM · Report this
Audition is the scariest horror movie I've ever seen. It's maybe the only one I ever watched mostly through my fingers.

I'd also add:
Wicker Man (the original - I like movies where the entire town is in on something)
Borderland (Satanic New Mexican drug cult torture film based on a true story)
REC just for the last ten minutes featuring that horrible thing.
Posted by virginia mason on October 23, 2013 at 12:36 PM · Report this
In Hellraiser, it was Frank, the creepy S&M brother of Andrew Robinson's idyllic milquetoast dad, who ends up wearing his bro's skin. Julia begins the process anew in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2.
Posted by j.lee on October 23, 2013 at 12:42 PM · Report this
@5 - agreed on Audition! Director Takashi Miike = Not a Wuss

re: Wickerman: Another "the entire town is secretly in on it" was "Halloween III, Season of the Witch." This song gets stuck in my head for weeks, every year whenever I see trick or treaters:…
Posted by Kelly O on October 23, 2013 at 12:50 PM · Report this
#7, I don't remember seeing that one, but that song is creepy. It reminds me of the soundtrack to Funhouse.

I picked up a book by Ryu Murakami this weekend and when I saw that he wrote Audition (which I didn't know was based on a book), I decided I was too afraid to read it.
Posted by virginia mason on October 23, 2013 at 1:42 PM · Report this
Per @1 - here are some links to films and more, in Seattle in the next week or so...

Cinerama is hosting "Horror Week" with a killer lineup of films, plus a Q&A with Bruce Campbell before the screening of "Army of Darkness"

The Grand Illusion has an A++ incredible lineup!
"Birth of the Living Dead," (George Romero!) "Hellraiser," a Horror Anthology Triple Feature Pizza Party, "Deep Red (Profondo Rosso)" (Dario Argento!!!) "The Visitor," and also, "Scarecrow Video presents The VCR That Dripped Blood 2: Undead Media"

Video-magic-makers Collide-O-Scope have a special Halloween film presentation:…

The EMP has a "Creature Feature Screening," and an "Are You Afraid of the Dark" marathon, among lots of other neat things:…

There's Hitchcock's "Psycho" at the Seattle Symphony:…

And official Movie Time listings, of other screenings here:…

Ooh, and check out additional Halloween funtime events right here:…
Posted by Kelly O on October 23, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Report this
Amalink 10
Jeff Goldblum as the devil in 'Mr. Frost' was spectacularly spooky.

But jeez not even a mention for the 'Chucky' movies? those scared the pants off me 20 years ago.

Also slightly weird and freaky is an Australian movie called 'Paperhouse'. Oh my gosh when the Dad shows up in the dream world with the xed out eyes I jumped a mile!
Posted by Amalink on October 23, 2013 at 3:19 PM · Report this
DOUG. 11
"The Car" scared the hell out of me when I was 10. In fact there could be a AUTOMOBILE category here, with "Christine" and "Duel" also included.
Posted by DOUG. on October 23, 2013 at 3:27 PM · Report this
ArtBasketSara 12
The only movie I genuinely got freaked out by as a kid was Pet Semetary.

Lived in the country, knew there were cats and dogs would had died on a nearby acreage and were buried there. Dark autumn night with a shed underneath my window for easy access to my bedroom...with tree branches to scratch against the window. Yup. No sleep for me!

I was quite aware how irrational I was being but still couldn't shake the fear.

As for my adult self, I thought Paranormal Activity was a pretty effective spooker...
Posted by ArtBasketSara on October 23, 2013 at 3:50 PM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 13
Van Helsing was awesome vampires! Best-vampires-ever!
Posted by Pope Peabrain on October 23, 2013 at 3:51 PM · Report this
For Ghosty movies, Guillermo Del Toro's The Orphanage (El Orfonato) freaked me the F out.

Seemed like Conjuring borrowed from it.
Posted by fergus_mixolydian on October 23, 2013 at 4:00 PM · Report this
Dougsf 15
@7 - ALWAYS. I can't believe how many people don't know it when I try to hum out my grief. The all Moog soundtrack, besides that particular song, kinda kicks ass though.
Posted by Dougsf on October 23, 2013 at 4:13 PM · Report this
Robert DeNiro was fantastic and a natural as Lucifer in the movie Angel Heart.
Posted by Arturo Bandini on October 23, 2013 at 4:14 PM · Report this
yelahneb 17
Seems like the only horror films that still have the possibility of scaring me anymore are ones that avoid any supernatural explanations, since ghosts, zombies, vampires and the like aren't real, and never were. I just can't get worked up about what amounts spooky fairy tales when the actual world contains so much actual awfulness.

Possible exception: films with an unreliable narrator, who rather than being possessed/haunted/chased by horrors might just be crazy instead.
Posted by yelahneb on October 23, 2013 at 4:18 PM · Report this
Bub 18
A thousand yeses on The Changeling! The seance scene and its aftermath make the movie worth checking out, and the extraordinary events are grounded by George C. Scott's gravitas. Love it.
Posted by Bub on October 23, 2013 at 4:35 PM · Report this
@9 - Ya bonehead. You forget to include "Cabin in the Woods" "Lost Boys" and the Creepy Killer Clowns Fest at Central Cinema!
Posted by Kelly O on October 23, 2013 at 4:43 PM · Report this
NOP_Spinster 20
The Night of the Scarecrow was one of the movies that scarred my sister and me.
Another TV movie that did me in as a child was This House Possessed. It's not so scary now, in fact the plot holes and the stupid are pretty glaring, but it was pretty horrifying to an impressionable little kid
Posted by NOP_Spinster on October 23, 2013 at 4:58 PM · Report this
The Max 21
The Serpent and the Rainbow. Both for the buried alive parts and the nail through the scrotum.
Posted by The Max on October 23, 2013 at 7:01 PM · Report this
Prince of Darkness
Jacob's Ladder
Posted by Chas Redmond on October 23, 2013 at 7:31 PM · Report this
Great list, with huge kudos to two of the more obscure titles--THE CHANGELING and THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. Weird coincidence is that I watched DARK NIGHT--alone--literally last night. Left me scurrying for the light switch. Some other, obscure worthy views: THE INNKEEPERS, THE INNOCENTS, SESSION 9, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE (original, not remake).
Posted by win200 on October 23, 2013 at 8:21 PM · Report this
@The Changeling - Empty wheelchair that seemed to be watching us. Empty wheelchair that rolled on its own. Empty wheelchair with a hidden agenda. Never been able to turn my back on an empty wheelchair since then.
Posted by the shirtcocker on October 23, 2013 at 10:17 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 25
yeahhhh, the changeling scared the bejesus out of me. i was just a lil kid when i saw it. i've thought of it with frequency throughout my life but have never gotten up the nerve to watch it again.

ghost children, dolls and masks are probably my top three freakout-inducers, generally speaking.

i'm such a chicken, i LOVE scary movies but i'm such an easy target. even stuff for kids can get me :)

that one with jodie foster - little girl who lived down the lane? that one freaked me out a LOT as a kid. just one of hundreds. i used to watch anything and everything scary but not that much anymore. i really want to see the conjuring.

the exorcist, the omen, the shining - the originals are all amazing.
Posted by mr. herriman on October 23, 2013 at 11:37 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 26
there was a movie i started to watch, not sure the year, but my friend and i rented it probably 1985 or 86 - there was a little boy, he rolled his tennis ball into a dark closet or basement, i think he'd been hearing things in there - then the ball came rolling back all bloody a few moments later? i never finished that movie because my friend and i got too psyched out and shut it off at that point. any ideas what it was? i kinda want to revisit it, just to see why it sent me over the edge the way it did at the time.

i know that's probably happened in a zillion movies, but i'm optimistic that one of you will magically know which one i mean!
Posted by mr. herriman on October 23, 2013 at 11:44 PM · Report this
@26 - Was it "A Blade in the Dark"?…

Ugh. Why do people always have to go in the frickin' basement?!?

That should also be a category: so you're afraid of BASEMENTS, ATTICS, and CELLARS
Posted by Kelly O on October 24, 2013 at 10:15 AM · Report this
mr. herriman 28
Posted by mr. herriman on October 24, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Report this
Steve French 29

Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer
Posted by Steve French on October 24, 2013 at 11:11 AM · Report this
@12 - I have to second that nod to Pet Semetary. So many things in that movie terrified me when I was a kid. The deranged sister, the achilles tendon, AWWWWW!!!!

Posted by longball on October 24, 2013 at 12:07 PM · Report this
Also gotta give a nod to Raising Cain.
Posted by longball on October 24, 2013 at 12:08 PM · Report this
@27 - The basement in the mental hospital in SESSION 9 is the more terrifying I've ever seen in a movie.
Posted by win200 on October 24, 2013 at 12:19 PM · Report this
The two that stick out for me, probably because I was far too young to have been watching them, was the first Phantasm and Happy Birthday to Me (with the girl who played Mary on Little House on the Prairie.)

I remember my folks bringing me to Student Bodies at the drive-in once, around the time when Porky's came out.
Posted by diggum on October 24, 2013 at 1:51 PM · Report this
Drive-in's are the SCARIEST BEST!!!

2003's French horror film "Haute Tension" should've be on this list somewhere (and it has a bonus sexy [creepy] masturbation scene)

I saw it at the Auburn Drive-In, when it was part of a SIFF/Seattle International Film Fest's 3-Movie Drive-In event, one year. "Haute Tension" was the last film, and I couldn't get out of the car to pee, until it it's credits were running. SO SCARY.…
Posted by Kelly O on October 24, 2013 at 3:58 PM · Report this
For me, The Blair Witch Project is a triple threat: rednecks, the woods at night, and abandoned houses. Thanks to the shakycam it didn't really faze me while I was in the theater, but after I left? And started thinking about that last scene? Oh hell no. I had the same Z-Rest camping mat as Josh's in the movie, and I couldn't even LOOK at that thing, not even in the daytime.
Posted by Prettybetsy on October 24, 2013 at 4:56 PM · Report this
freesandbags 36
"Jaws" at the Kenmore drive-in. "Bug" featured fire starting cockroaches. OMG! One got in that lady's hair and set her head on fire! "Race with the Devil" made me uncomfortable with motorhomes and West Texas. Nice job Kelly OOO!
Posted by freesandbags on October 24, 2013 at 7:06 PM · Report this
37 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Awesome list, Kelly O! Is "Aliens" not included because it's more of an action film? Because I remember pretty much screaming my head off, along with the rest of the audience, when that film came out. Also, I didn't sleep a wink the night I saw the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The final shot freaked me the hell out.
Posted by Dingle Berries on October 28, 2013 at 10:55 PM · Report this
'In the mouth of madness', 'The Thing' (original and remake),
Evil Dead (remake)
Posted by Jenlaine on October 29, 2013 at 10:54 AM · Report this
Dead Calm is a 1989 Australian thriller film starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane. It was based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Williams.
Posted by ac6752 on October 30, 2013 at 1:51 AM · Report this
41 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Seriously!? No mention of Roman Polanski's "The Tenant," one of the creepiest horror movies ever. Seriously!
Posted by elhotrod on October 30, 2013 at 7:24 AM · Report this
So you're afraid of CHAFFEURS: Burnt Offerings (with the late great Karen Black) scared the crap out of me.
Posted by mirepoix on October 30, 2013 at 7:25 AM · Report this
evolume 44
Martyrs. Not only depraved, horrific and cruel but also genuinely sad. Nothing quite like it.
Posted by evolume on October 30, 2013 at 11:05 AM · Report this
Not in the same league as many of those listed, but the 1970s made-for-TV version of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot' freaked me the fuck out when the boy was floating outside the bedroom window tapping on the glass....
Posted by Flashheart on October 30, 2013 at 7:42 PM · Report this
Need to add the far right religious fanatics, Republican and Tea Parties. They scare the hell out of me
Posted by hellinafiresuit on November 1, 2013 at 10:43 AM · Report this

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