For as hard as it may be to create a scary film or book, it’s even harder to make an actually scary game. Unlike other forms of media, no one player’s experience with a game will ever be the same, making it difficult to craft a truly terrifying experience. It's like a haunted house that's living inside a Stephen King novel, and if one thing breaks, then it all falls apart.
But true interactive horror can be done, as the games on this list prove. Each entry on our ranked list isn't just a great game, but they also expertly crafted a horrifying experience that took gamers to the edge of their seat and beyond. If you think you can take it, our list begins with…
25. Clock Tower
Where film has The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, gaming has Clock Tower, a point-and-click adventure series in which you're constantly getting chased around by a weirdo (dubbed Scissorman) wielding giant hedge trimmers. Okay, maybe that description doesn't sound overly terrifying, but trust us: knowing that a stalker could pop out and try to kill you at any moment is a tense, uncomfortable experience.
You'll never know when you'll run into Scissorman, and he tends to show up right when you're about to solve a puzzle. And, because you can't fight him, all you can do is run and hide. If he gets too close, your character will start to panic, meaning you'll have to mash a button to survive the encounter. The whole experience is entirely disconcerting, which is exactly why the series has gained a cult following.
Deformed children. That's close to the first thing you see in Sanitarium, an early, incredible example of psychological horror in games. It simulates the sensation of losing your mind, making you question if you're actually a prisoner in an insane asylum or just the victim of your own deranged mind. You see through the eyes of Max, an amnesiac who's struggling to remember who he is after a nasty car crash. The only thing you're certain of is that your face is covered in bandages, and you're surrounded by truly insane individuals. Oh, and you sound vaguely like Hank from King of the Hill.
Here's a taste of Sanitarium's first world: a small town where all the parents have mysteriously disappeared, and gruesomely mutated kids roam the streets. They'll all afraid of talking to you, on account of Mother, who threatens to turn them into meat. Only after playing hide-and-seek with a dead body and getting chased through a pumpkin patch will you find out what's going on. And that's just the beginning of this cerebral chiller.
23. The Evil Within
Game director Shinji Mikami left survival horror behind years ago after finishing Resident Evil 4, so you know he'd have something terrifying planned for us when he finally returned to the genre. Evil Within dumps players face first into an ocean of gore in the opening minutes, and doesn't let up as it pulls players through a carnival of mind-manipulating horrors. The atmosphere continually shifts from level to level, finding new ways to frighten players at each turn.
Evil Within has a few clever winks to Mikami's past with RE, and the scarce weapons foster a similar feeling of vulnerability, but the horror is more cerebral this time around. Not only are you hiding from unstoppable monsters, but you also see the protagonist's sense of reality slowly fall apart one chapter at a time. Reality in Evil Within is hard to pin down, but no matter where you turn, you can bet you’ll be scared shitless.
22. Doom 3
Fish, or cut bait? Fish, or cut bait? That age-old adage was adopted for the third iteration of id’s legendary shooter franchise, which took a hard left turn into survival horror territory. Only here, you had to consistently decide between two unsavory choices: Hold your flashlight up, just to see the gruesome zombie demons running full sprint at you, or brandish a gun to shoot wildly at murderous shadows.
Not every gamer gelled with this kind of painstaking pacing (thought duct-tape mods helped). But for those who surrender themselves to the monster closets hidden in the dark corners of this Martian-space-station-turned-portal-to-Hell-itself, Doom 3 offers some of the greatest jump scares of all time. Eventually, you’ll start to dread every idle med-kit and ammo pack you see, terrified that you’ll spawn scads of demons just for picking it up. Also, Doom 3 totally did grotesque, killer toddlers before Dead Space. Just sayin’.
21. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
A reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a horror FPS that's as true to its source material as it is outrageously difficult. As detective Jack Walters, you have to explore the cultist town of Innsmouth in the early 1920s to investigate a missing person case. Sure, you'll have your trusty gun, but ammo is scarce--a shame considering you'll have plenty of run-ins with the locals. Many of whom, by the way, are creepy sea monster/human hybrids that want you dead.
What makes Dark Corners of the Earth so terrifying (outside of its bizarre atmosphere and monsters) is that you really have to pay attention to Walters' health. Various types of injuries must be treated with different items, and if you stare too long at inhuman enemies, he'll start to go insane. Balancing all of these things is extremely tough when you've only got a few bullets left and nowhere to hide.
20. Rule of Rose
Look, kids can be downright terrifying. You know it, we know it, Japanese filmmakers know it, and some of the creepiest games out there--such as the woefully underrated Rule of Rose--transform children into fright factories. In this PS2 cult classic, you play as Jennifer, a young girl who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish world ruled by seemingly evil youngsters.
Don't let the Lord of the Flies-esque plot trick you into thinking you know what's going on. Monsters are abound in this unsettling setting, appearing in the form of child-like dolls and other unmentionable grotesques, and the only other living thing Jennifer can rely on to help her unravel the mysteries around her is her canine pal, Brown. Still, a cute doggie is little solace when surrounded by demonic kids and a stifling atmosphere.
19. The Last of Us
Fictional zombies are often the result of genetic experiments or man-made miracle drugs. Zombies in The Last of Us, though--they're created by a real-life fungus called Cordyceps, which actually does turn insects and the like into infectious zombie things. Gotta love Mother Nature.
Of course, while Clickers are deeply unsettling to behold, its The Last of Us' focus on tense survival that will shake you to the core. Tiptoeing around a cluster of infected is nail-bitingly unnerving , as one wrong move means a horde will come rushing, eager to sink their rotting teeth into your jugular vein. And that's to say nothing of your encounters with other surviving humans, who are often more barbaric than the mindless creatures they seek to escape.
Slender is horror concentrate, the sheer essence of fear boiled down to its purest form. It strips away the illusions of narrative and choice, instead presenting the bare-minimum needed to elicit the most frightening experience possible. It doesn't bother with backstory or… any story at all, really. It just focuses, 100%, on scaring you to death. And by god--it does it.
You're in the woods, it's dark, and you need to collect eerie notes scattered throughout the forest. That's it. What's more, with every step you take towards the goal, Slender comes closer to catching you. Each note plucked increases the odds of finding him around a corner, or waiting inside a room. When he finds you it's all over--the game resets, and you begin anew.
17. Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
You’re in Ancient Rome or Modern New York or Colonial Rhode Island and you’re... pretty sure the eyes on that statue were moving the last time you walked through this hallway. But now they aren’t, which is even weirder than if they were just moving all along. You don’t have time to worry about that, because halfway through your brawl with undead monsters torn out of an H. P. Lovecraft fever dream your... controller became unplugged?
Oh shit oh shit oh shit what the hell it looks like it’s still plugged in and--oh. It’s just an Insanity Effect. Eternal Darkness relied on the unknown to terrorize you, with an incredibly well-realized insanity system that would keep you guessing as things went wrong for no real reason and messing with you in any way possible, just because it could. Weird, right?
16. Lone Survivor
The thought of being the last human alive on Earth is frightening enough, but add some flesh-eating monsters into the mix and you've got a classic case of NOOOOOOPE. As the only surviving human--as far as you're aware, anyway--you'll have to scavenge for supplies and hide from the Things That Go Bump in the Night if you hope to keep on keepin' on.
OH, and you also have to maintain your sanity. See, you'll periodically have to return to your apartment--your base of operations--to eat some food and get some rest. If you don't, you'll start hallucinating. The longer you're deprived of life's basic necessities, the harder it'll be to tell what's real and what's not.
15. System Shock 2
Turns out, there are people who can hear you scream in the emptiness of space. But here's the thing: The creatures that hear your cries of anguish aren't going to come and rescue you, or beam you onto their med bay. No, your only audience is composed of a sadistic supercomputer and a horde of mutated crewmates who are all eager to smash your brains in with a lead pipe. That's the scene you wake up to on the Von Braun starship, with no memory of what's happened and little more than your wits and a wrench to help you survive.
System Shock 2 shows clear signs of Ken Levine's auteur genius, with a claustrophobic, paralyzingly foreboding atmosphere to your surroundings. Exploration is both rewarding and terrifying, as you're never sure what awaits beyond the next automated door: maybe an upgrade to your armory, maybe an angry Cyborg Midwife who resembles a female Terminator with her face ripped off. System Shock 2 laid the foundation for the masterpiece that is BioShock, and even to this day, tip-toeing through the blood-spattered halls of the Von Braun is still terrifying.
14. Resident Evil 2
Few survival horror games are as memorable as those born from "the good old days," an era in which we all just kind of dealt with god-awful tank controls and camera angles in exchange for scares. And while the original Resident Evil introduced us to a few of the horrifying creations of the Umbrella Corporation, Resident Evil 2 was the masterpiece that kept us up at night with the fear that our quiet little towns might someday be home to a zombie outbreak.
The Raccoon City setting was far more unsettling than the creepy mansion in the original, and you were forced to explore some areas--like the zombie-infested police department (omfg that Licker that crawled across the window…) and a goddamn underground lab facility full of hulking B.O.W.s--that were capable of moving bowels in ways you'd never known to be possible. And if you survived the zombies and other creatures, the haunting score and distant moans of the undead were sure to make you reconsider leaving the safety of a save room.
13. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Some horror games don’t need fantastical enemies or mythical demons to scare players. Titles like Condemned demonstrate that flesh and blood humans can easily be as scary as demons and ghosts; here, the ethereal threat of the paranormal pale in comparison to the very real hazard of having your head bashed in with a pipe. The rusty, broken down world of Condemned is all the more terrifying because you know that places like those actually exist.
Condemned’s shadowy environments are made all the more harrowing by how limited protagonist Ethan Thomas is in fighting the many crazy people that attack him during his criminal investigations. Guns are hard to find, and he’s more likely to stun enemies with a taser and snap their necks in brutal fashion than he is to shoot them. Aside from a late addition of occult weirdness, Condemned makes for one of the most brutally real horror experiences on consoles; it’s worth it for the mannequin level alone.
A freelance journalist's survival is entirely dependent on the stories s/he breaks, so when writer Miles Upshur gets wind of an old insane asylum that had been reopened under bizarre circumstances, he can't resist the opportunity to nab a hot story. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever watched a B-grade horror film might've guessed, said asylum is full of creepy, blood-thirsty cultists; all Upshur really nabs is an excuse to buy new pants.
Outlast offers a first-person trek through a setting literally no one in real life would willingly check out. As you explore the dilapidated asylum, its inhabitants (whose mouths are often sewn shut because holy Christ that's scary) will pop out when you least expect it and give chase until you can parkour away to safety. Kudos to Upshur--if we were getting chased by a mutated human wearing the skin of another just for the hell of it, our hearts would explode into approximately 1.2 million pieces.
11. Penumbra: Overture
Before there was Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there was Penumbra: Overture, Frictional Games' first attempt at making a horror title. And while it certainly had a few hiccups, namely clunky melee combat and occasionally shoddy story elements, it absolutely succeeded in scaring the bejeezus out of those who played it.
You play as Philip, a 30-year-old dude who's recently received a letter from his father--odd, considering dad's been dead for a number of years. In an attempt to figure out just what the hell is going on, Philip eventually finds himself trapped in a creepy abandoned mine full of grotesque monsters and mutated creatures. Like in Amnesia, you'll have to explore to find items and solve puzzles in first-person. Only by traveling deeper into the mine will you solve the mysteries that originate from within--just know that the process will keep you awake at night.
10. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Picking up on the tropes of Japanese horror and folklore that were made famous in The Ring and Ju-on, the Fatal Frame series has always been unsettling. Characters are frozen in place with fear, their only weapon against soul-stealing ghosts is an ancient camera. This means the only way to fight your enemies is to face them head-on, an increasingly terrifying proposition as the game wears on. The franchise has several great entries, but we choose to single out the second game as the best fit for this list.
Crimson Butterfly updates the graphics a bit from the first game, and it’s the most inviting in its difficulty, making sure there’s an ever-present threat without getting too frustrating. It also has the best story, a personal journey between two sisters dealing with loss and guilt. It’s always nice when the intense experience is backed up by a plot that’s deeper than “survive.”
You will know fear once you’re curled up in the fetal position in front of your monitor, dreading the thought of bumping into the ghastly little girl Alma when you least expect it. If creepy, phase-in-directly-in-your-face dead girls aren’t freaky enough, Paxton Fettel seals the deal as a telepathic cannibal who leaves behind remnants of his feasts for you to find.
This first-person shooter was heavier on the shootout action than most horror games--but the remarkable AI kept things tense, and perfect pacing meant that you’d have all your killing capacity stripped away during key moments, leaving you utterly powerless in the face of supernatural horror. F.E.A.R.’s best scares came about when you were riding the high after clearing out a room full of tough enemies. That’s exactly the moment when you’d notice a strange figure staring at you from the end of a hallway. Then objects would start to move on their own. Then all the lights would turn out one by one. What happens next, well…guess you’ll have to play it to find out.
8. SCP Containment Breach
Forget your name--in this free indie horror game, you're called only by your title: D-9341. You're a test subject captured by a secret organization known as SCP Foundation, which, for reasons unknown, has captured various supernatural creatures and anomalies for study, the likes of which shouldn't exist in the real world. Of course, the facility in which all these deadly things are housed suffers a (surprise!) containment breach, and it's up to you to escape with your life. Easier said than done.
The research facility is randomly generated for each playthrough, and you'll be relentlessly hunted by various SCPs--the aforementioned creatures/anomalies--as you try to escape and uncover what went down. Central to the game's fright factor is its blink mechanic. Every few seconds, you'll be forced to blink, which is problematic when staring at a horrific creature that can only harm you while your eyes are closed. Interested in never sleeping again? SCP Containment Breach is exactly what the sadistic doctor ordered.
7. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
STALKER breaks a lot of rules about horror games with its sandbox approach to gameplay. Many horror games try to keep players on a tight path toward the scares, but STALKER gives players a chance to find them on their own. Fortunately--or unfortunately for the nerves of players--the bleak landscape of the game is littered with plenty of horrors to discover at your own pace.
The frights were built upon the ruined landscape of the real world disaster area Chernobyl, and supported by impactful gunplay that made every firefight worthwhile. Even if the story didn’t always make sense, the haunting experiences are what players remember, not minor details like plot and endings.
6. Dead Space
The Resident Evil games were scary for their time, but in the current generation of games, they’ve been replaced as the king of action horror by Dead Space. Borrowing from Alien and other Sci-Fi classics, the 2008 release put players in the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer trapped on a derelict spacecraft. Soon Isaac finds out the ship isn’t as empty as it seems, as a strange alien artifact has transformed everyone on board into hideous, flesh-eating creatures, each more horrific than the last.
Dead Space crafts such a horrifying experience by limiting the player. Isaac is short on ammo, he rarely knows what’s going on in the continually shifting story, and he’s most in danger of what he can’t see. So much of the disturbing atmosphere is built on what you hear, and the amazing sound design uses audio to fashion an entire deadly world around Isaac. Though the sequel pulled back on the scares somewhat in favor of cinematic action, the original remains trapped in our nightmares.
5. Alien: Isolation
Countless games have been inspired by elements of the Alien franchise, be it James Cameron’s space marines, Ellen Ripley’s fortitude, or the chilling power of silence in a soundtrack. Despite all that, Alien: Isolation may be the series’ greatest gaming triumph. It takes the gut wrenching fear fostered by the lone Xenomorph in the original film, and extends it into a lengthy game. Isolation's tense survival gameplay keeps the pulse pounding for hours and hours
You take on the role of Ripley’s daughter, searching a derelict space station for her mother, only to find the same beast she fought. You’re constantly on guard from the cinematic AI of your Alien hunter. This means holding your breath as you narrowly avoid detection, or screaming in terror after failing to reach safety. The atmosphere the game sustains is impressive enough, and it deserves even more credit for taking the Xenomorph, a movie monster bordering on cliche due to overexposure, and making it terrifying once again.
4. Siren: Blood Curse
After some of the people behind the original Silent Hill games left Konami, they set up shop at Sony’s internal studio to begin work on a new approach to survival horror. That became the episodic franchise Siren, and it was at its best in the PS3 reimagining of the original game. Subtitled Blood Curse, it was originally a PSN title, but eventually the entire harrowing experience was collected on one Blu-ray.
Taking place in multiple timelines, you control different people trying to get to the bottom of an ancient conspiracy involving human sacrifice. Often players are directed to hide and sneak around rather than face an enemy with your limited arsenal of attacks. Filled with disgusting monsters and chilling twists, this one is worth a look if you ignored it when it first hit PSN.
3. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
You may have heard of a little game called Amnesia: The Dark Descent--you may have even seen reaction videos of the poor souls who deemed themselves brave enough to step foot into its dark, creepy castle. Attempt it if you dare, but know this: To play Amnesia is to stare your greatest fears straight in the face.
As if being trapped in a monster-infested fortress without knowing who you are or why you're there isn't scary enough, you'll have to guide protagonist Daniel to salvation while maintaining his sanity. That means staying out of the darkness (in a huge building where light is scarce) and running from monsters, which have a habit of popping up unexpectedly. You have no weapons; you cannot fight them, and each daunting new room is usually host to some unexplainable, spooky event that drains Daniel's sanity further. Of course, the best way to lose your own sanity is to don a pair of headphones and play Amnesia in the dark--and if you manage to get through the infamous "water part" without soiling yourself, know that you've succeeded where countless others have not.
When I first played P.T., I decided to record the playthrough on my phone, expecting to lay down some snarky commentary for posting later. What I actually got was two minutes of clever banter, quickly followed by fearful comments like, "What was that?" and "No no no no NO", all crowned with me screaming in terror and shoving my chair back against the wall. That's P.T. in a nutshell: a genuinely terrifying horror experience, brilliantly realized. Its use of atmosphere is masterful, plying you with creaking doors, ghostly messages, and unpredictable happenings.
There are moments where you face peril, but they're few and far between. The real terror comes from the unknown. What could be around the next bend? A fresh nightmare or nothing at all? Your imagination fills in the blanks, creating more terror than any simple jump scare or creepy noise could. Add in an underlying tale of domestic terror that would make any Silent Hill fan nostalgic, and you’ve got the world's shortest masterpiece of horror on your shaking hands.
1. Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill, as a franchise, is home to some of the most frightening enemies and situations in gaming history, but the developers’ greatest accomplishment in creating horrors that stay with you forever was Silent Hill 2. Though he'll encounter creatures like the iconic nurses and Pyramid Head, protagonist James Sunderland is far more threatened by his personal demons. And the empty town of Silent Hill brings them all to the surface.
James has returned to Silent Hill answering a letter that seems to come from his dead wife, but all he finds are reminders of his own anguish and guilt over her death. Every corner of the town is inhabited by some new horror, but James has to push past his fears if he ever wants to know what’s going on. But he may not like what he finds.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Did we miss any other great games that scared you to death? Share your thoughts on the greatest horror games in the comments!
GamesRadar is the premiere source for everything that matters in the world of video games. Casual or core, console or handheld - whatever systems you own or whatever genres you love, GamesRadar is there to filter out what's worth your time and to help you get even more from your games. We deliver the best advice, the most in-depth features, expert reviews, and the essential guides for all the top games.