October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the scariest horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
At one point or another, every horror movie buff has been asked to recommend a movie that’s “actually” scary.
It’s a trickier question than you’d think. For one thing, “scary” is incredibly subjective. You run into even further hair-splitting when you realize that “scary” is not the same thing as “shocking,” “provocative,” or “gross.” We all know what being afraid feels like. You experience it with your whole body: your heart races, your limbs freeze, and your whirring mind begins to saturate you with life-saving adrenaline for whatever perceived peril awaits. Not all horror fans are attracted to the genre because they crave the feeling of being scared. But I do think that every horror fan has one film (or maybe two) that they think is genuinely terrifying.
This list is a little different from the others in the 31 Days of Horror Lists. Instead of ten films selected through a rigorous democratic process, each member of the Boo Crew was asked to share their personal pick of a horror film they believe is genuinely scary. (We’ve also included three group picks because not including ten entries did scare us). All that said, sit tight, buckle up, and enjoy this list of ten horror films that are genuinely scary, as assembled by Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, Valerie Ettenhofer, and yours truly.
10. Group Pick: The Vanishing (1988)
Rex (Gene Bervoets) and his wife, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), are driving from Amsterdam to France for a biking trip. The couple pulls into a rest stop to stretch their legs and to kiss and make up after going stir-crazy on the road. Saskia leaves Rex to grab some drinks at the convenience store. And she doesn’t come back. Diabolically, director/emotional war criminal George Sluzier splits the film’s perspective with another man: intermittently, we find ourselves at the side of Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man responsible for Saskia’s disappearance.
The Vanishing may not have any shambling grotesques or even a drop of blood, but frankly, it doesn’t need it. The film is as much about the price of obsession as it is about the horrifying banality of evil, the lengths we’d go to scratch an itch, and the everyday monsters lurking in plain sight looking to exploit our curiosity. The Vanishing has got our number: it knows how desperately we crave answers… and the opportunity to explain ourselves to a captive audience. Horrifically calm, methodical, and self-destructive, The Vanishing is a stomach-churning watch, one of the scariest horror movies ever made, and a good reminder that no one with a goatee can be trusted. (Meg Shields)
9. Group Pick: Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Many of the pretenders to the “scariest horror movies of all time” throne have tried (and failed) to cash in on the inherent creep factor of found footage. And while piss-poor Blair Witch knock-offs are a dime a dozen, as this list testifies, when it’s done correctly, the format can be genuinely one of the most effective ways to unsettle even the most unflappable horror fan. Noroi: The Curse takes the shape of an assembly cut: an unfinished and unreleased documentary called “The Curse” made by a paranormal journalist, Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who has since disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Initially, it’s not clear how the scenes Kobayashi has compiled are connected: a gameshow highlighting the talents of a psychic child; two ghost hunters taking a celebrity to a supposedly haunted shrine; a concerned mother convinced she hears the cries of disembodied infants coming from her shut-in neighbor’s house. It’s only as the film progresses that the knotted rope of Kobayashi’s investigation begins to take its horrifying shape.
While framed as a found footage film, Noroi‘s stronger allegiance to the documentary tradition makes it much more immersive and plausible than its “raw footage that just so happens to be edited together for your viewing pleasure” peers. Noroi builds its mood on hearsay, on second-hand news, historical accounts, and gestalt implication. It proves that telling, rather than showing, can sometimes be a lot more powerful and, yes, scary if the circumstances are right. (Meg Shields)
8. Group Pick: Pulse (2001)
So, while I will claim further down this list that real-world scares are the most effective, can you believe I’m now about to hype up a decidedly supernatural film? The nerve of this guy… but that being said, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brilliantly crafted Pulse remains a terrifying watch. It’s not necessarily scary in the traditional sense, although there are some truly haunting scenes and nightmarish imagery. But it’s the themes and ideas that work their way into your brain and terrify you.
It’s a film about isolation and loneliness, feelings exacerbated by technology and electronic “connections” that are ultimately empty. The fears explored here are about lack of worth or value, the idea that all you’ll leave behind is a dark smudge signifying your entire existence. It’s a harrowing journey, bleak but never dull, that finds true horror in our own emotions. Settle in, turn out the lights, and have fun! (Rob Hunter)
7. Jacob’s Pick: The Shining (1980)
There’s a moment in Stephen King‘s original novel where Jack Torrance reflects on a blacked-out memory that scared him sober. Did he actually run over someone riding a bicycle while he was driving drunk, or was it his guilt-ridden alcoholism that made him see a phantom? That’s the big question in both King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. But the ghosts haunting the Overlook Hotel aren’t why this film is so unbelievably scary to me.
The very essence of The Shining is about the destructive nature of alcohol, which is something I know all too well. You see, I almost drank myself to death. And then I almost died trying to stop drinking myself to death because that’s just how alcohol works. I’m as confident as anyone in my sobriety, but the idea that the voice in my head I was certain I exorcized will suddenly reappear is terrifying. And quite frankly, that’s the stuff horror films are made of.
Where King is more overt in his exploration of the horrors of addiction, as he was a struggling alcoholic himself, Kubrick doesn’t let his film wallow in the alcoholism throughline of the novel. But even then, as doors to an elevator open and blood comes flowing out like an ocean wave, the horrors of being all-consumed by a liquid are vibrantly realized. I talk about alcoholism as a struggle for life against death, which may sound overly dramatic to those of you who don’t have this disorder. But that mortal struggle is what separates folks like Jack Torrance, Stephen King, and myself from the “sober-curious” lifestyle trend. We choose to be sober because there is no other choice but death. And unlike Jack, I chose life. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Brad’s Pick: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those movies where you question the sanity of the filmmakers as much as the sanity of the characters. Only an unhinged brain could put this on screen. Only unhinged brains could perform these scenes. The family can’t be actors. The family must be escaped cannibal convicts trapped on a movie shoot.
There are numerous sequences within The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that refuse to leave my dreamscape. The first encounter with the hitchhiker. Pam’s final moment on the meathook. Grandpa’s inability to bring the hammer down. The dinner table as a whole. God damn. It’s those last seconds, though, that truly stain the viewer: Sally in the back of the pickup truck; her escape from Leatherface is secured physically, but as she screams, covered in blood, we know her life is over. That gore ain’t never coming off. (Brad Gullickson)
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