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. 🙂

    • 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.