The best horror movies don't just terrify you while you watch them. The best scary movies are the ones that you're still thinking about on the dark drive home from the cinema; the ones that sit silently in the back of your car, follow you noiselessly up the stairs, and wait quietly for you to climb into bed. The credits might have rolled but it's only the beginning for the monsters who now live in your brain. The best horror movies - the ones lurking below - are masters of just this. Whether you've had a fear of open water even since you first heard John Williams' Jaws score, or just never gone down to the woods again after The Blair Witch Project, you know the ways that horror directors can happily ruin the every day.
Given the decades of perfect cinematic terror to choose from, it's worth noting that this list is a balance of old and new. You're equally likely to find the works of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster as Tobe Hooper, Stanley Kubrick, and William Friedkin. The glut of brilliant modern horror is bringing whole new audiences to the genre and hopefully you to this list. Plus, the even better news is that most of this collection can be found on your streaming service of choice so you''ll never need to leave your bed / sofa / plane / hotel room. Just stay away from room 237.... Enjoy?
30. The Mist (2007)
The movie: No one makes Stephen King adaptations like Frank Darabont. The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist are terrifyingly perfect realisations of King's dark worlds. Based on the master of horror's short novella, this is nothing like the ludicrous The Mist TV show and instead keeps the story trapped, exactly where it should be, in the supermarket of a small town as a fog of horrors envelops the area. And while beasts and Lovecraftian nasties lurk beyond the pane glass windows of the supermarket, real human monsters form inside as panic starts to set in.
Why it's scary: Where The Mist TV series diluted its horror by taking you all over town, Darabont keeps you trapped inside while David Drayton (Thomas Jane) tries to keep his son safe. With plenty of famous famous faces - including The Walking Dead's Carol and Andrea, Melissa McBride and Laurie Holden - The Mist's true terror lies in its performances. The true fear as a trip to the supermarket becomes a shopping experience from hell, tentacles and all. There's also an absolutely scene chewing performance from Marcia Gay Harden as religious zealot Mrs Carmody.
29. The Invitation (2015)
The movie: It might be a given but maybe don’t go to your ex-wife’s dinner party, especially if she might have joined a cult. It’s a good life rule that Will - Tom Hardy clone Logan Marshall-Green - should really have followed before he took his girlfriend to their old house. The Invitation is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse. While on the surface, this could be a normal dinner party, what lurks beneath are sinister undertones at work as Will begins to get more and more suspicious of the host's intentions for the guests. Or, hey, maybe you’re just being paranoid.
Why it’s scary: The terror here is the unknown in a familiar landscape. Everyone knows what dinner parties are like with strangers. The awkward small talk. The little moments of other people’s drama. Build a creepy cult into the mix and suddenly every move that everyone makes is suspicious. Every drop of wine and morsel of food becomes a risk. Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama is terrifyingly skilled at pulling tension from places you just don’t expect. As the narrative slowly unravels, you’ll feel like your mental state might be doing exactly the same thing.
28. Paranormal Activity (2007)
The movie: While The Blair Witch Project revved found footage horror back into action like a haunted motorbike back in 1999, Paranormal Activity is where things got, err, dead serious. The first movie from now horror staple Oren Peli, it introduces us to Katie and Micah who have been experiencing some odd goings on in their LA home. Ever the keen filmmaker, Micah sets up a camera at the foot of their bed to keep an eye on things while they sleep. Now, it just wouldn’t be one of the best horror movies of the noughties if things didn’t go bump in the night, would it?
Why it's scary: The reason why Paranormal Activity is so nerve-janglingly effective is simple. We all sleep. Regardless of your favourite snoozing position or habits, we all lie down in a dark room, switch off, and become perfect prey for whatever lurks in the gloom. The now infamous shot from the bottom of Katie and Micah’s bed is a masterclass in slow burn terror. Every simple extended shot as the clock ticks forward becomes an agonisingly tense eye test. What’s going to move? Was that a shadow? Lingering footage of nothing actually happening has never been this nail-biting as the days and nights roll on. The sequels have been relentless and a mixed bag in terms of scares but, like a slamming door in the middle of the night, the pure terror of the original Paranormal Activity just can’t be ignored.
27. Evil Dead (2013)
The movie: In this Fede Alvarez directed reboot of the age-old tale of woodland cabins and Books You Should Not Read - in truth as much sequel as remake - drug addicted Mia is taken to the worst intervention venue in the world by her well-meaning brother and friends, in an attempt to detox. Mia’s mind is tormented to start with, but things are about to get worse. Oh so much worse. You wouldn’t believe how much worse.
Why it’s scary: Because it’s the most rampant, relentless, gruelling, and obsessively dedicated cavalcade of nightmarish disgust you can possibly imagine. And it’s glorious. Eschewing CG entirely, in favour of sticky, stretchy, horrendously grubby practical effects and enough blood to drown on, Evil Dead 2013 is an absolute carnival of slaughter. After its disarmingly affecting, cold and downbeat opening, it erupts into a ripping, tearing, twisting, snapping tribute to the forcible malleability of the human form. Combining surprisingly touching character work with a giddy desire to push what’s possible in the most gleefully horrid, expertly crafted fashion it can, Evil Dead is one of the most focused and deftly executed splatter movies you’ll ever see. See, remakes can be a good thing. There's one on this list of the best horror movies!
26. The Ritual (2017)
The movie: If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Following four men as they go on a camping trip after the death of their friend, The Ritual is a holiday from hell like no other. While there are plenty of ‘humans go to woods, bad thing ensues’ horrors out there, The Ritual, loosely based on a horror book by Adam Neville, neatly dodges all of the predictable bullets. Yes, there is something not right about this collection of trees but the execution, so to speak, and the psychological aspects of the horror at work, is something new and exciting.
Why it’s scary: It’s too good to spoil what awaits in the woods but everything is especially horrific here thanks to an exceptional script. These four friends feel real and, like a male version of The Descent, you’ll feel like you’ve spent years with Rafe Spall and co, rather than a few short minutes. Try not to get too attached though. The ultra-creepy horror that waits in the trees is truly terrifying and wants to know your new friends, inside as well as out. This might also be the first time in recent memory that the reveal of the lurking evil is just as horrifying as the tension before it. Even better is the fact that you can find The Ritual waiting for you on Netflix in both the US and the UK.
25. Ringu (1998)
The movie: The purest of Japanese horror, Ringu is still a force to be reckoned with. While the Gore Verbinski American remake isn’t to be sniffed at, the pure horror of Reiko Asakawa’s investigation into a cursed videotape is sheer nightmare fuel. We all know the urban legend now of a video that, once watched, will result in your horrific death seven days later but watching it unfold is still truly terrifying. Especially when even more people - including Reiko’s ex husband and little boy - end up watching the tape, making you want to reach through the screen and desperately hit the stop button.
Why it’s scary: We’re meant to be safe when we watch horror movies. Sure there’s gore and bumps in the night on screen but while we’re wrapped in a blanket and sipping a nice cup of tea, nothing can get us. Ringu upends that idea spectacularly, not just with a now infamous scene but the very idea that what we watch can change our lives. That after merely watching a few frames of surrealist imagery, we are marked for doom. Ringu might be over and you might be wrapped up in bed but you’ll still wonder if you should show the movie to someone else to pass on the curse. Y’know. Just in case.
24. The Conjuring (2013)
The movie: Now expanded into a full Marvel-style universe, this nasty piece of work ticks all the right jump-scare filled boxes. Horror maestro James Wan’s techniques Marmite the horror community with his penchant for jump scares and odd camera angles but few can deny the effectiveness of the scares waiting inside the home of the Perron family. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they attempt to save the family from what hunts them. Cue many bumps in the night, a children’s game involving clapping, and one the creepiest scares in modern horror cinema.
Why it’s scary: James Wan is a master of fear. A magician of horror who knows exactly how to shoot the shapes lurking at the foot of your bed, the tall things that circle just out the corner of your eye, and the demons that are ready to pounce when you’re asleep. When the jump scares eventually come after nails in palms levels of tension here, they’re always worthwhile. Great central performances from the young girls in the family solidify a terrifying haunting at the core of the Conjuring, and Wilson and Farmiga add a distinct sense of gravitas to proceedings. It all means that you can’t help being yanked along for the ride on Wan’s ghost train. Maybe fasten your seatbelt.
23. The Descent (2005)
The movie: If there was a dip in caving and bouldering trip attendance back in the mid-noughties, it’s probably the fault of Neil Marshall’s truly terrifying claustrophobic creature feature. Sarah’s friends want to make her feel better after the tragic death of her family so, instead of y’know, buying her some gin, they take her on a caving trip. Unfortunately, the movie wouldn’t be on this list if the six women were there to have a heartwarming, gently comedic adventure where they all grow as people. From the moment this lot lower themselves into the darkness below the Appalachian mountains, it’s very clear that getting back out into the light again isn’t going to be likely.
Why it’s scary: The claustrophobia of The Descent is horribly real. Before you even discover what’s lurking down there - with a night vision reveal so spectacular that it goes down in jump scare history - this cave system is stone horror. The women are experienced explorers but every shot of squeezing through tiny spaces as rubble gently falls, every huge cavern only lit in one tiny corner by their flares, and every step they take further into the abyss is heart racing stuff. And this isn’t an unlikable crew of barely fleshed out American teens, pun intended, these characters and their complex relationships truly matter. This is beautifully gruelling, not to mention empowering, filmmaking. Witness the UK ending of this cult classic and you’ll need more than a cheeky G&T to cheer you up afterwards.
22. Scream (1996)
The movie: By the late '90s, horror was looking tired. The masked slasher trope was staggering along in a dire need of a cup of very strong espresso. What it got instead was Wes Craven’s Scream which, despite being parodied into Inception levels of postmodern irony since, reinvigorated the genre with its perfect blend of knowing comedy and scares. Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan, and Drew Barrymore as teenagers talking fluent horror movie while being picked off by a genre-obsessed serial killer? Oh go on… Add in Courtney Cox - at the giddy heights of Friends fame - as intrepid news reporter Gale Weathers and Scream is a modern horror classic.
Why it’s scary: Just because something is self-referential doesn’t mean it can’t be truly terrifying. The Scream mask, based on Munch’s painting, might have been twisted into stoned bliss by Scary Movie, but it still manages to unsettle and thrill. Scream’s scares remain unpredictable too. Victims fall to this slasher’s knife with disturbing regularity and as we grow attached to our genuinely likeable quipping heroes, the end game becomes all the more stressful as we wonder who will survive to the credits. Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street scare talents guarantee terror all the way to the end. Why don't you, liver alone, eh?
Read more: Watch Scream online - how to see all the movies, wherever you are in the world
21. Saw (2004)
The movie: It might have reignited the so-called torture porn genre with its (mostly) truly disgusting sequels but - and this is a huge ‘but’ - the original Saw is nowhere near as gross-gusting as you think it is and happens to be a horror masterpiece. Yes, the title is about an implement that a depraved killer suggests someone takes their leg off with rather than use a key to unlock a cuff, but Saw is actually remarkably restrained. The ideas at work here are significantly more grisly in your own mind than what you see on screen. Made on a budget by Leigh Whannell and James Wan, this tale of two men waking up in a bathroom, a corpse between them, is twisted but constantly intriguing.
Why it’s scary: Put simply, we all play Jigsaw’s game along with our heroes. What would we be willing to do to save our own miserable lives? Would we be Amanda, ready to go into a stomach to find a key, or would we sit and wait for an ultra gruey fate? Throw in the genuine terror of ‘Billy’ Jigsaw’s painted cycling doll and one of the most terrifying extended jump scare sequences potentially ever, and Saw still manages to pack a barbed wire covered punch.