I’ve made no secret about the fact that I don’t really enjoy horror movies, and this is why I simply haven’t seen very many. I’m a stranger to zombies and body horror and slashers, and I don’t have much desire to change that. I suppose my aversion to the genre has three main reasons behind it.
First of all, though horror is among the most prolific of film categories, much of it is of low quality. I’ve read many more reviews of horror films than I’ve actually seen, and so many are described as stupid, boring, ridiculous, exploitative, and other less-than-appealing descriptors. I try to avoid bad films as a rule, so these kinds of reviews haven’t made me eager to broaden my horror palate. Secondly, the majority of horror focuses on evil and violence, often existing for no other reason than to dream up new ways of killing people (Saw, Final Destination, etc.). I believe that demons and dark forces are real, and I want to give depictions of them as little of my time as possible, particularly since the latest trend seems to be allowing evil to prevail in the end.
The third and final reason is the simple fact that I am a wuss. I can’t stand gore in regular movies, let alone scary ones, and I tend to have an active and easily troubled imagination. I mean, I remember being almost traumatized by an episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog, which had this creepy mummy just standing there in the distance.
I just don’t think I can handle most of the disturbing content out there.
I can’t say that I don’t like all horror movies, since I have enough to make a list like this, but all this is to say that I’m very picky about my scary movies. I don’t mind being scared as long as it doesn’t cross my personal threshold and as long as there is some redeeming factor, such as artistry, great acting, or overall entertainment. For this list, I’m also avoiding any genre debates about what constitutes “horror” by making this a list of scary films, films that scared me but that I still found to be worthwhile. One good thing I can say for horror is that it can be educational, often showing viewers what not to do in a dangerous situation, so I’ll include lessons I learned along the way. If anyone knows of films like the ones below that I may enjoy, feel free to recommend others!
- Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
One of the most obviously chilling aspects of this movie is that three people died during its production, actor Vic Morrow and two children, who were killed in an accident during the “Time Out” segment of this anthology. Oddly, this one and “Kick the Can” are the least scary, but there are plenty of unsettling moments, from the hitchhiker prologue (“You wanna see something really scary?”) to the remake of the classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where John Lithgow really comes unhinged. It was the third segment, though, that frightened me the first time, in which Kathleen Quinlan witnesses the cartoonish yet hellish imagination of a reality-warping child. Cartoons aren’t supposed to be scary, right?
Worst scares: The TV demon, and Lithgow opening the plane window
Lesson learned: Don’t pick up hitchhikers that look like Dan Aykroyd.
- I Am Legend (2007)
This may not seem like an obvious choice, but the abandoned New York in this Will Smith zombie-ish thriller is certainly unnerving, empty yet full of anticipation that something is out there. When Robert Neville is forced to follow his dog Sam into a dark building full of “Darkseeker” mutants, his first-person-shooter exploration is among the most intense scenes I’ve encountered. The final cut would have benefited from the happier alternate ending, but I Am Legend manages to be unexpectedly emotional in addition to tense. I might also include the only zombie film I’ve seen, World War Z, which is more action-oriented (and not gory) yet still manages some taut moments.
Worst scare: Exploring the pitch-black building
Lesson learned: If someone creates a cure for cancer, test it first! (Also, don’t yell at mannequins.)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
This is the main reason I went with “scary” movies instead of “horror” movies. I’m fully aware that this isn’t horror, but who wasn’t scared by those raptors? My VC has mentioned how she was practically kicking the seat in front of her when Lex almost falls out of the air vent. Sometimes a thriller like Jurassic Park can keep you more on the edge of your seat than genuine horror and keep it a lot more fun. This also happens to be one of only two films at which I’ve caught myself nearly hyperventilating (the other was Oliver! Weird, I know, but I was a kid.)
Worst scare: Raptors in the kitchen
Lesson learned: Don’t spend millions to bring ancient predators back from the dead and then put ultimate power in an unreliable slob that looks like Wayne Knight!
- Stephen King’s It (1990)
Based on the book by horror-meister Stephen King, the miniseries It features one of the most frightening characters around. Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown has a vicious zeal that contrasts with his jolly appearance as he toys with and preys on the children of Derry, Maine. It isn’t as scary as a lot of other movies (and the ending may leave something to be desired), but after seeing It, it’s hard to look at clowns and storm drains the same way.
Worst scare: Holding hands in the sewer
Lesson learned: If you’re lucky enough to survive a child-eating monster and move away from it, don’t move back!
- The Amityville Horror (1979)
One of the original famed haunted house movies, The Amityville Horror became popular largely due to its status as a “true story.” With so many uncomfortable events coinciding, it’s a convincingly eerie tale, with Josh Brolin and Margot Kidder playing a happily married couple threatened by a malicious house. The instances of horror are almost like a checklist of warning signs to watch out for when dealing with a haunted property, and the sinister finale goes all out, though I don’t typically like films where evil seems stronger than religion.
Worst scares: Babysitter in the closet, and “Get out!”
Lesson learned: If your new house attracts swarms of flies and if you discover a secret evil room and if your daughter befriends a pig demon, maybe you ought to MOVE before the walls start bleeding!
- Signs (2002)
Despite M. Night Shyamalan’s declining reputation, I still consider his first three films outstanding. Signs is his take on the alien invasion but stays on a much more intimate level, focusing only on Mel Gibson’s rural family rather than the world at large. Despite light touches of humor, Signs has its fair share of frightening moments, both before and after Gibson’s Graham Hess tries to rationalize the strange events afoot. It’s an instance of what you don’t see being scarier than what you do, which happens to be what I prefer.
Worst scares: The corn field, and the TV reflection
Lesson learned: I don’t care if you are convinced it’s vandals; don’t go out in a corn field at night!
- Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was one of the first horror films I saw, and I still consider it somewhat of the gold standard of classic scares. It might have been higher on the list if I had fonder memories of it. I think I saw it too young, and that clown scene especially scared the you-know-what out of me. At the time, I was already nervous about what may be under the bed, and that jump scare was too much for me. Oh, and the rest, of course, was terrifying too: closets that suck you in, trees that suck you in, corpse-filled swimming pools that suck you in, ceilings that do the opposite. Not to mention, there’s the whole curse of actors dying afterward because the filmmakers used real skeletons. *Shiver* I’m so glad they did away with that snowy TV screen after midnight.
Worst scare: That clown!
Lesson learned: Don’t sleep with the TV on!
- The Others (2001)
Everything seems creepier when it’s dark, and this Nicole Kidman ghost story has plenty of darkness. Kidman plays a mid-19th century mother with two photosensitive children (the light can kill them), whom she shuts away in her large mansion for their own safety. The arrival of new servants brings much to light, so to speak, and the ultimate twist seems like something Shyamalan would have come up with. I often keep my doors shut to keep the cat out of certain rooms, and I’d be lying if I said those closed doors didn’t make me a tad nervous after seeing The Others.
Worst scare: The room of covered furniture
Lesson learned: Don’t get too isolated; the dead may be your only visitors. (Also, keep a shotgun handy. It’s comforting, if not effective.)
- The Conjuring (2013)
One of the few modern horror films I’ve seen, The Conjuring lured me in thanks to positive reviews that mentioned potent scares and little gore. That’s exactly what it delivered, but I was also impressed at the level of director James Wan’s technical finesse and the Christian strength in the battle against a malevolent spirit infesting a Connecticut family’s house. There are many callbacks to films like Amityville and Poltergeist, but the chilling atmosphere surpasses them, making this possibly the scariest film I’ve seen. (I just like others more.) Nevertheless, the film ended with the right balance of dread and satisfaction and proved the profitability of well-done horror.
Worst scares: Anytime someone falls into the basement
Lesson learned: Never ever teach your children hide-and-clap!
- The Shining (1980)
Not being a fan of Dr. Strangelove or 2001, I wasn’t convinced of Stanley Kubrick’s status as a master filmmaker until I saw his stab at horror. The Shining may have displeased Stephen King with all the changes to his book, but never has a hotel been scarier. Emptiness seems to be inherently frightening, especially when it drives Jack Nicholson psychotic as he works on his novel with only his wife and psychic son as company. Intriguingly ambiguous about whether there are ghosts or time travel at work, The Shining is technically and terrifyingly superb.
Worst scare: “Heeere’s Johnny!”
Lesson learned: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
- Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
I realize there is a debate over whether science fiction can truly constitute horror, but Alien seems like the perfect affirmation that yes, it can. Described as a “haunted house in space,” Ridley Scott’s first film in the variable franchise has more frights than many straight-up horrors, from the approaching beeps when tracking the creature to its unforgettable first appearance. Aliens is arguably even better, shifting to a more shoot-‘em-up style that amps up the action without sacrificing the shocks. Both films also cemented Sigourney Weaver’s standing as a leading heroine, and even if they’re probably the most violent films on this list, I find both watchably suspenseful in the best way.
Worst scares: Dallas in the tunnels, and Newt in the sewer
Lesson learned: Never trust the Company!
- The Sixth Sense (1999)
Is The Sixth Sense the scariest film ever? No, but it’s a prime example of horror surpassing its own genre to become something thought-provoking, bittersweet, and still nail-biting. As M. Night Shyamalan’s first mainstream film, it also made him a household name. While it may be easy to dismiss it as a one-time twist film, the twist alone begs additional viewings, which then reveal the layers of emotion under the surface. The paranormal aspect impedes the human connections, between Bruce Willis and his wife and Cole and his mother, yet as both are resolved, a supernatural thriller becomes unusually satisfying. I hope Willis’s next collaboration with Shyamalan will be a return to this kind of film for both of them.
Worst scare: The tent ripping open
Lesson learned: Touch someone every now and then, just to be sure. (Also, keep your thermostat up.)
The Birds (1963) – Alfred Hitchcock’s avian revolution is a little too dated to be scary overall, but there is the jungle gym scene and the house siege that anticipated other home invasion movies.
Gremlins (1984) – This unconventional Christmas movie trades cute for scary with some dark comedy thrown in for good measure.
The Lost Boys (1987) – More violent than the other films here, yet I still enjoy it, mainly because this vampire flick doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Monster House (2006) – One of the few animated horrors, this somewhat intense film about a haunted house come to life becomes scarier when not even the grown-ups can stop it.
The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) – I love these films, but the action has always superseded the horror aspect in my eyes, though the first especially has its alarming moments.
Prometheus (2012) – It may have disappointed a lot of people, but Prometheus served as a sufficiently taut prequel to the Alien franchise.
Psycho (1960) – The original and only slasher film I’ve seen, Psycho is buoyed by Hitchcock’s disorienting camerawork and Anthony Perkins’ sincere fiendishness.
Wait until Dark (1967) – Though most of this movie is more boring than thrilling, the ending really picks up, with one scare that even made my VC scream.
War of the Worlds (2005) – Another sci-fi film, Spielberg-style, with both action and some horrific sequences of mass murder.
Like I said, these films may seem pretty tame to the hard-core horror fans out there, but they take me to the edge of my comfort zone while allowing me to still enjoy the genre, which is exactly what scary films are supposed to do.