We sorted through the scariest movies out there and picked the most ghoulish and jaw-dropping horror films, plus threw in creepy video clips for maximum fright. Sleep tight.
Ranked by Reader’s Digest
The Exorcist (1973)
One of the scariest movies because: Terrible, terrible things come out of a little girl’s mouth (which happens to be attached to a spinning head, thanks to a demonic possession). Audiences were so affected by this fearsome film that some theaters even provided “Exorcist barf bags.”
What the critics say: “The climactic sequences assault the senses and the intellect with pure cinematic terror. “—Variety
The Shining (1980)
One of the scariest movies because: Jack Nicholson is seriously freaky as crazed novelist Jack Torrance, who [spoiler alert] tries to chop his family to little bits after a particularly stressful winter.
What the critics say: “Scaring the viewer is easy… What is harder is to accentuate the horrifying aspects of things that are familiar… Kubrick isn’t out for screams, but he manages to make his movie thoroughly unnerving by keeping the horror so close to home.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
One of the scariest movies because: This John Carpenter original is a cold, bloody slasher flick that cuts to the bone; and it’s not afraid to take itself seriously.
What the critics say: “A visceral experience—we aren’t seeing the movie, we’re having it happen to us. It’s frightening.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
One of the scariest movies because: Things aren’t what they seem in Poltergeist: A static TV screen releases evil spirits, invisible beings rearrange furniture, and houses move through dimensions, which might make shadows seem a bit menacing as you settle into bed after watching.
What the critics say: “…a marvelously spooky ghost story that may possibly scare the wits out of very small children and offend those parents who believe that kids should be protected from their own, sometimes savage imaginations.”—Vincent Canby, The New York Times
The Evil Dead (1981)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s so packed with evil that even the trees rip hapless teenagers apart in this pre-Spider-Man flick from director Sam Raimi, which has enough murder and supernatural mayhem to warrant an NC-17 rating.
What the critics say: “Sam Raimi directed this 1983 horror feature fresh out of film school, and his anything-for-an-effect enthusiasm pays off … The film is ferociously kinetic and full of visual surprises.”—Pat Graham, Chicago Reader
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
One of the scariest movies because: This recent movie lampoons horror conventions while packing in some thrills of its own—a hulking family of zombies is mostly meant to be funny, but they’re sort of disturbing.
What the critics say: “It is by turns moderately horrifying and wickedly funny, offering more nods and winks than a narcoleptic on jury duty.”—Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
One of the scariest movies because: Adolescence is tough enough without worrying about razor-armed Freddy Krueger killing hormonal teens in their sleep.
What the critics say: “Tailor made for those who like their gore leavened with thought-provoking ideas—something that is a rarity in this genre.”—James Berardinelli, ReelViews
The Birds (1963)
One of the scariest movies because: You’ll never quite look at ravens the same way after seeing them descend upon a group of schoolchildren as if they were mealworms. What the critics say: “Genuinely disturbing thriller classic from the master of suspense.”—Kim Newman, Empire
One of the scariest movies because: The suspense mounts until it’s nearly unbearable, and then, finally [spoiler alert!], a bizarre creature rips through a man’s chest. After that, the real horror begins.
What the critics say: “Even with its horrifying villain and scenes of bloody excess, Alien endures as a superior piece of filmmaking, with a pace that’s like watching an art film.”—Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
One of the scariest movies because: It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a disarmingly creepy tale about lost children and an evil witch, whom viewers may find more familiar than the cackling hags of old-fashioned fairy tales.
What the critics say: “There are many scenes and images in Coraline that are likely to scare children. This is not a warning but rather a recommendation… Coraline lingers in an atmosphere that is creepy, wonderfully strange and full of feeling.”—A.O. Scott, The New York Times
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
One of the scariest movies because: Who wants to imagine being eaten by Anthony Hopkins?
What the critics say: “For all the unbridled savagery on display, what is shrewd, significant and finally hopeful about Silence of the Lambs is the way it proves that a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
One of the scariest movies because: Worse than Anthony Hopkins, who wants to imagine being eaten by hordes of undead strangers? What the critics say: “George Romero’s remarkably assured debut, made on a shoestring, about a group of people barricaded inside a farmhouse while an army of flesh-eating zombies roams the countryside, deflates all genre clichés.”—Elliott Stein, Village Voice
The Host (2007)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s genuinely surprising: Movie monsters are often slow and stupid, but the beast in this Korean film is fast, even calculating. Creepy.
What the critics say: “A gross, scary, funny, and dramatically satisfying ride… it’s enough to make you think twice about that river-rafting trip you were planning for next summer.”—Dana Stevens, Slate
Ring / “Ringu” (1998)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s about a killer videotape—which doesn’t bode well for the viewer of this unsettling Japanese original. More atmospheric than the American remake, Ring is worth a late-night viewing.
What the critics say: “Ring forces fear into every cut as a psychic telejournalist counts down the hours till a fatal visitation, while making a gung ho attempt to save her brood.”—Edward Crouse, Village Voice
One of the scariest movies because: Even though the death traps are beyond gruesome—though, clever in this first Saw film, tortuous in its sequels—what’s scariest is that you just might understand the villain’s twisted motives by the end of the film.
What the critics say: “A messy, gristle-cut B psycho thriller that makes you squirm a few times, but mostly makes you giggle.”—Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
The Orphanage (2007)
One of the scariest movies because: It covers the full horror spectrum with ghost children and a disturbing, possibly murderous old woman.
What the critics say: “A doom-laden Spanish thriller… the atmosphere oozes with anxiety and grief.”—Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
The Fly (1986)
One of the scariest movies because: Hideous, mutant body horror abounds in this remake of the ’50s sci-fi film.
What the critics say: “Makes the monster in Aliens look like Grandma in a Norman Rockwell painting.”—Caryn James, The New York Times
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (1922)
One of the scariest movies because: The silent film doesn’t have today’s blood ‘n’ guts special effects, but director F. W. Murnau still creates a creepy, nightmarish setting with shadows and tension. Brilliant.
What the critics say: “Remains one of the most poetic of all horror films”—Time Out Watch the whole movie, below:
One of the scariest movies because: The deaths are grisly, the setting is surreal, and the labyrinthine details of the plot might just have you questioning reality by the end.
What the critics say: “Highly ambitious and cerebral… a veritable nightmare of a movie.”—Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
Black Swan (2010)
One of the scariest movies because: Determined women dance ballet, vigorously, and Winona Ryder gouges her face with a nail file. Black Swan is an award-winning blend of highbrow suspense and horror schlock.
What the critics say: “It’s outlandish and melodramatic and spectacular… a magnificent blend of pop and art cinema.”—Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s straight-up exploitation done right: The body count is high, and the evil guys are fearsome both in appearance and demeanor.
What the critics say: “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
One of the scariest movies because: This murderfest is filled with unsavory characters—humans with dark personalities and darker motives, plus an assortment of bizarre and terrifying beasts. Not for the faint of heart.
What the critics say: “It’s the voluptuous residues of Hellraiser, not a low-voiced dude with a porcupine head, that spark the fear of mortality.”—Eric Henderson, Slant
The Thing (1982)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s impossible to know whom to trust in this film about an alien parasite that imitates humans. What the critics say: “The Thing is a peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror.”—Adam Smith, Empire
28 Days Later (2002)
One of the scariest movies because: These zombies are faster than you, plus their brain-eating disease is transmitted via blood. Which flows in excess here, naturally.
What the critics say: “28 Days Later is loaded with terrific images and extraordinary little moments… even as it inexorably deteriorates into Scooby-Doo terrain.”—Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
One of the scariest movies because: Thanks to inspired directing from Brian De Palma, every moment in this film is filled with dread as the story inches toward its big, bloody finish.
What the critics say: “Brian De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
One of the scariest movies because: It might not seem horrifying on the surface, but director Steven Spielberg revels in layering on pulpy gross-out moments: a feast of monkey brains! bugs crawling everywhere! a shamanic ritual removing a man’s still-beating heart! While not traditional gore or suspense, the yucky bits stay with you after the lights are on.
What the critics say: “There’s no doubt about it—the movie, in addition to being endearingly disgusting, is violent in ways that may scare the wits out of some small patrons.”—Vincent Canby, The New York Times
The Sixth Sense (1999)
One of the scariest movies because: Haley Joel Osment’s Academy Award-nominated performance is chilling. “I see dead people” is one of recent cinema’s most famous lines for a reason.
What the critics say: “The movie is a maximum creep-out. It’s invasive. It’s like an enema to the soul as it probes the ways of death—some especially grotesque in a family setting.”—Stephen Hunter, Washington Post
The Omen (1976)
One of the scariest movies because: It presents a horrific situation that’s impossible to grapple with: How do you deal with your murderous child, even if he is the antichrist?
What the critics say: “…fun in a portentous sort of way.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
One of the scariest movies because: It’s styled like a documentary, making the terror startlingly plausible.
What the critics say: “The Blair Witch Project leaves its horror to the audience’s imagination, and in doing so creates a truly scary horror film, something akin to a lost art these days.”—Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club
The Haunting (1963)
One of the scariest movies because: The atmosphere is stifling, even if the special effects don’t quite hold up nearly 50 years later.
What the critics say: “[Director Robert] Wise makes the house itself the central character, a beautifully designed and highly atmospheric entity which, despite the often annoyingly angled camerawork, becomes genuinely frightening.”—Time Out London
One of the scariest movies because: It plays on the ol’ “Bloody Mary” game: After seeing what the murderous spirit in this movie has in store, you simply won’t be able to repeat “Candyman” in front of a mirror. Promise.
What the critics say: “A startlingly effective shocker that gains power upon further, sleepless-night reflection.”—Eric Henderson, Slant