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.