Dracula (1931): Among the first batch of black-and-white monster movies from Uni­versal Pic­tures, this is the best of the bunch, though others prefer Franken­stein (1931) and The Bride of Franken­stein (1935). It’s based on a the­atrical pro­duction rather than Bram Stoker’s excellent novel and parts may feel campy today, but Bela Lugosi set the standard for blood-sucking Tran­syl­va­nians. He also inspired the finest song by the quin­tes­sential Goth band: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” by Bauhaus

The Inno­cents (1961): This film asks one of horror’s staple ques­tions: Is the main char­acter troubled by evil spirits or is she just nuts? The evi­dence is ambiguous, but the sight of Miss Jessel in her black dress by the lake will make you shudder. Also, the source text is The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James — who wrote way more ghost stories than your English pro­fessors have told you about. 

The Birds (1963): It’s hard to pick this one over Psycho (1960) — director Alfred Hitchcock’s other horror classic — but it gets the nod because its terror comes from the incom­pre­hen­sible forces of the natural (or super­natural) world rather than the inner turmoil of dis­or­dered char­acters. Also, it totally creeped out my mom. These are the original angry birds

The Exorcist (1973): This may be the scariest movie of all time, though it has spawned a legion of imi­tators and deriv­a­tives, making it impos­sible to recapture the expe­rience of the first audi­ences. The head-spinning, pro­jectile-vom­iting parts are sen­sa­tional and the blas­phemous bits are dis­turbing. Yet the movie is also the product of the late William Peter Blatty’s sincere Catholic faith. It isn’t for everybody, but those who see past its provo­ca­tions will appre­ciate its richness. Also, its cli­mactic scene pro­vides an excellent and quirky tourist des­ti­nation in Wash­ington, D.C.: the Exorcist Steps. Climb them if you dare. 

The Omen (1976): This may be a decent horror movie rather than a great horror movie, but it scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. Life lesson: Good doesn’t always beat evil. The Omen II (1978) gets a thumbs-up as well. A few years ago, I asked the college’s librarians if they would con­sider buying The Omen Col­lection on DVD, half thinking that they’d rec­ommend a remedial lesson in the good, the true, and the beau­tiful. But you know what? We have awesome librarians.

Hal­loween (1978): I don’t care for slasher flicks, but this one is more inter­ested in sus­pense than in gore, which is sadly untrue of so many others in the sub­genre. The influence of Hitchcock is every­where, from the movie’s look and feel to the things-that-make-you-go-hmmm fact that star actress Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh of Psycho. The sound­track demon­strates that there is such a thing as fright­ening piano music. If you don’t believe me, then listen to it for ten hours

The Van­ishing (1988): The best missing-person movie ever made, this film will make you think twice about taking your next road trip. Or it may give you a topic to talk about on the drive: the banality of evil. The ending is like some­thing out of Poe, and never has the stage direction “fade to black” felt more ter­ri­fying. Filmed in France and the Nether­lands, it has English sub­titles. Its Dutch name is Spoorloos, which sounds vaguely scat­o­logical. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999): This movie is a flawed mas­ter­piece: The char­acters are irri­tating and they make bad choices, but they’re up against one of the spookiest vil­lains in horror. More haunting than scary, The Blair Witch Project gave birth to a spate of found-footage films — and also has a ter­rific ending. Bonus spine-tingler: those sticks.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Part tribute and part sendup, this movie both cel­e­brates and cri­tiques the horror-movie genre — similar to the very good Scream (1996), but with more depth. It has aliens, clowns, demons, zombies, mummies, giant snakes, pump­kin­heads, and a weirdo gas-station attendant. But it’s really about free will. 

It Follows (2014): A lot of horror movies show how social trans­gression leads to ruin, and in this sense the genre can be deeply con­ser­v­ative. With its implicit warnings about casual sex, It Follows fits this mold. Yet it’s also more com­pli­cated without being des­perate to make a point. The story is com­pelling, the cin­e­matog­raphy is striking, and the sound­track reminds us of how well music can set moods — and invoke terror. Filmed in Detroit, it’s Pure Michigan horror.

  • Eric E. Frisch

    Great list. Mine would probably swap out Dracula for Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen for the Kaufman remake of Body Snatchers. I love Carpenter’s The Thing too, but it’s not for everyone. Of more modern horror movies, I love Pon­typool and The Ruins, but a lot of my fellow horror lovers dislike The Ruins because it seems cliche and cookie-cutter. Frozen (2010) was great too, but not as intense on a second viewing.

    • Hand­someM­rToad

      The problem with The Thing is: no women.

    • Jocon307

      “Rosemary’s Baby” was a great movie, and I remember liking the book too. But the movie is a perfect 60s icon, and the scenes on the super hot and sunny streets of NY as the icy chill of terror runs under­neath are among the best things I’ve seen in a movie.

  • I have not seen The Inno­cents, The Van­ishing, or It Follows, but I would agree with most of the other choices. I did think Psycho was much scarier and better than The Birds. Poltergiest also deserves a mention. Of course, when I was very young, The Wizard of OZ was the scariest movie ever. I saw green witches and flying monkies under my bed for years.

    • Bailey

      The wizard of Oz was a yearly ritual for us as kids. I remember diving behind the couch when the wicked witch appears in the crystal ball. Night­mares? You bet!

      • Hand­someM­rToad

        The Wizard of Oz, sur­pris­ingly, was NOT L. Frank Baum’s favorite of his books. The book he con­sidered his best was called Sky Island, and it fea­tures a villain who makes the Wicked Witch of the West look like a sweet old lady by com­parison. Here it is with original illus­tra­tions. Try it:

        • Bailey

          Thanks! That looks really inter­esting. I have a fondness for the old style fairy tales like Anderson and the Grimms created with unvar­nished harshness suited to scaring the wits out of little ones. Just for the record I was taught in college many years ago that The Wizard of Oz was actually a political satire aimed at the current political race at the time. I don’t know if that was true or not.

          One other off topic point. If you haven’t seen “The Rose Seller” it was a haunting movie about street kids in Colombia hus­tling to survive and was based on Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” It won all sorts of rewards and as the film­maker used actual street kids to make it. The kids were momen­tarily lifted out of their dire cir­cum­stances to be feted by the inter­na­tional press then basi­cally dumped back into obscurity to take up their old lives. A tragic story and a great movie as well.

          • Hand­someM­rToad

            RE: ” I was taught in college many years ago that The Wizard of Oz was
            actually a political satire aimed at the current political race at the
            time. I don’t know if that was true or not.” No one knows, but probably not. Baum wrote many books – more than twenty under his own name, plus some under pseu­donyms – and none of the others could even be IMAGINED to be political satire. And he was never polit­i­cally active in any way.

          • Hand­someM­rToad

            A few high­lights from Sky Island:

            But the angry inhab­itant of this blue place would not permit them to look around them in peace, for as soon as Cap’n Bill rolled off his toes he began dancing around in an excited way and saying very dis­re­spectful things of his vis­itors.

            “You brutes! you apes! you mis­erable white-skinned crea­tures! How dare you come into my garden and knock me on the head with that awful basket and then fall on my toes and cause me pain and suf­fering? How dare you, I say? Don’t you know you will be pun­ished for your impu­dence? Don’t you know the Boolooroo of the Blues will have revenge? I can have you patched for this insult, and I will — just as sure as I’m the Royal Boolooroo of Sky Island!”

            “Oh, is this Sky Island, then?” asked Trot.

            “Of course it’s Sky Island. What else could it be? And I’m its
            Ruler — its King — its sole Royal Potentate and Dic­tator. Behold in the
            Per­sonage you have injured the Mighty Quitey Righty Boolooroo of the Blues!” Here he strutted around in a very pompous manner and wagged his little head con­temp­tu­ously at them.

            “Glad to meet you, sir,” said Cap’n Bill. “I allus had a likin’ for
            kings, bein’ as they’re summat unusual. Please ‘scuse me for a-sittin’
            on your royal toes, not knowin’ as your toes were there.”

            “I won’t excuse you!” roared the Boolooroo. “But I’ll punish you. You
            may depend upon that.”

            “What is being patched?” asked the boy.

            “They cut two of us in halves and mis­match the halves — half of one to half of the other, you know — and then the other two halves are patched together. It destroys our indi­vid­u­ality and makes us complex creatures,so it’s the worst pun­ishment than can be inflicted in Sky Island.”

            “Oh,” said Button-Bright, alarmed at such dreadful butchery; “doesn’t it hurt?”

            “No; it doesn’t hurt,” replied Jimfred, “but it makes one fright­fully
            nervous. They stand you under a big knife, which drops and slices you neatly in two — exactly in the middle. Then they match half of you to another person who has likewise been sliced — and there you are, patched to someone you don’t care about and haven’t much interest in. If your half wants to do some­thing, the other half is likely to want to do some­thing dif­ferent, and the funny part of it is you don’t quite know which is your half and which is the other half. It’s a ter­rible pun­ishment, and in a country where one can’t die or be killed until he
            has lived his six hundred years, to be patched is a great mis­fortune.”

            The King looked at him with a sneer.

            “Has anyone ever come out of that Arch alive?” he asked.

            “No,” said Ghip-Ghi­sizzle. “But no one has ever gone into the Blue
            Grotto until his allotted time was up.”

            “Well, I’m going to try the exper­iment,” declared the Boolooroo. “I
            shall march these three strangers through the Arch, and if by any chance they come out alive I’ll do a new sort of patching — I’ll chop off their heads and mix ‘em up, putting the wrong head on each of ‘em. Ha, ha! Won’t it be funny to see the old Moonface’s head on the little girl? Ho, Ho! I really hope they’ll come out of the Great Blue Grotto alive!”

            “I also hope they will,” replied Ghip-Ghi­sizzle.

            “Then I’ll bet you four button-holes they don’t. I’ve a sus­picion that
            once they enter the Great Blue Grotto that’s the last of them.”

            Ghip-Ghi­sizzle went away quite sad and unhappy. He did not approve the way the strangers were being treated and thought it was wicked and cruel to try to destroy them.

          • Bailey

            Thanks for not putting in the spoiler. I am hoping no one gets patched. I plan to put this on my to read list.

          • Jocon307

            There is (or was) a long doc­u­mentary style film on youtube (maybe it is else­where also but the is where I saw it) that puts for the theory that THe Wizard of Oz is about the “free silver” movement that was so important in American History. In the book Dorothy’s slippers are silver (and she trods on the yellow brick road (gold-get it?). Sadly the movie version loses this message. It was very fas­ci­nating and was actually mostly about the history of cur­rency, was over my head. Maybe you can find it, but I’m sorry I can’t give more iden­ti­fying info.

          • Bailey

            I didn’t see that film but essen­tially what I was told was the same thing. There were many par­allels to the political issues of the day. Unfor­tu­nately just because my college pro­fessor told me so doesn’t have much total cred­i­bility. What Mr. Toad said could also be likely. There are plenty of ways to read mes­sages into classic lit­er­ature. I think I am going to check out more of Baum’s writings and see what he was all about. I also see Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” was written in the years between WWI and WWII. The par­allels are all there and WWI was a big influence on Tolkien but was that a con­scious choice he made or simply a writer drawing on his expe­rience of the day to write fiction.

  • Fashynista

    The Inno­cents is extremely dis­turbing! And did you know that the screenplay was written by Truman Capote?

  • Mod­Squad

    While I like Dracula, I would have listed Whale’s Franken­stein, Invisible Man or Bride of Franken­stein instead. In fact, I’m admit­tedly partial to some of the silly 40s Uni­versal “monster mash” entries, such as Franken­stein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Franken­stein or House of Dracula. Also, I whole­heartedly agree with the 3 sug­ges­tions below (Rosemary’s Baby, The Thing and Kaufman’s fan­tastic version of Invasion). The original Night of the Living Dead still makes me feel very uncom­fortable while watching it. Very, very dis­turbing stuff to watch a living dead daughter eating her dad’s arm in a basement. Yeesh! Also, it wouldn’t hurt to have a big bug entry from the 50s, of which I’d nom­inate Them! with Whitmore, Arness and a certain someone the below user will probably rec­ognize. 🙂 – 720-576.jpg

    • Jim Sweet

      James Arness was also the Thing in the 1951 version.

  • eloris

    Before you die, you see the Ring.

    • See the original Japanese version.

      • eloris

        I would, but I’m still trying to get my pants clean from the English version.

  • dcalfine

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)

  • dcalfine

    Bela Lugosi was mag­nif­icent, but Max Schreck set the standard for Dracula before Lugosi did.

  • Hand­someM­rToad

    Day of the Dead (1985) The third chapter in the trilogy which began with Night of the Living Dead. Fas­ci­nating look at the rela­tionship between science and society in the age of AIDS.

    The Mummy with Boris Karloff. MUCH scarier than Franken­stein.

    Re-Ani­mator. Shows the right way to deal with a sci­en­tific pla­giarist or a demanding research advisor in grad-school: decap­itate him with a shovel, then bring the head and body back to life!

    • Jocon307

      That is fas­ci­nating about “The Wicker Man”. It’s kind of amazing that I’m reading this piece as I am NOT a horror film fan. The Wicker Man is one I’ve always been sure is way, way too scary for me.

      • Hand­someM­rToad

        The Wicker Man is ter­ri­fying, BUT, no blood, no gore, no really scary events until the very end. And, lots of great music and intriguing phi­losophy, and atmos­phere at once tense and exhil­a­rating. I bet you will be sur­prised by how much you will like it if you give it a chance.

  • SJM

    One can quibble with addi­tions and order but the fact remains that the list shows a thoughtful engagement with the genre. My biggest com­plaint is that it did not lead me to any­thing I haven’t already seen — maybe a top 100 list?

  • J B Young

    For sheer terror/horror one would have to include the “Night of the Living Dead” as it has influ­enced so many, but in general think it’s a very good, com­pre­hensive list. One that I also might add would be ’73’s Nicolas Roeg directed “Don’t Look Now” psychological/horror thriller adap­tation of a Daphne du Maurier story that stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. And no vampire com­pares with Max Schreck’s “Nos­feratu”, who still creeps me out!

  • Sylby80

    Maybe because I’m old — but how about “The Beast With Five Fingers” with Peter Lorre? (1946) Corpse of dead pianist gets his hand cut off in the crypt. Hand goes on to play the piano and strangle people! No blood and gore, but that one really creeped me out!

  • Laura

    The Grudge with Bill Pullman(briefly) & Sarah Michelle Gellar had me peeping through my fingers for a good bit of it. That was so ter­ri­fying that I’ve not watched a horror movie since. As for The Blair Witch project, I felt totally ripped-off at the end. Thought we would get to see some­thing very scary, but all that hap­pened the whole time was fol­lowing a bunch but of scared (for no good reason) kids through the woods, mostly in day­light, no less! But I knew a lot of people who did find it ter­ri­fying. The Exorcist came out while I was in high school, and I’ve never had the guts to watch it after hearing the Satan voice in the radio ads for the movie.

  • RWA

    Island of Lost Souls, Night of the Demon, any of the Val Lewton films. The Lugosi Dracula really needs to be seen on a big screen to be fully appre­ciated.

  • S.M. MacLean

    May I also suggest “The Changeling” (1980), with George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere? Low key, but all the more haunting for it.