As multifaceted human beings with a good sense of what's real and what's fictional, it's actually very difficult to send chills hurtling down our spines, but the very best horror movies of all time make it seem easy. Suddenly not only are we afraid of sitting on our sofas or lying in our beds, but horror movies give us phobias of entirely new things. Were you always this resistant to camping holidays with friends or snorkeling on holiday? No, I didn't think so.
The chainsaw-wielding best horror movies lurking just below your line of sight are not for the faint of heart but it's not all guts and gore. Psychological nightmares, quiet hauntings, Lovecraftian nightmares, and plain old human monsters in masks are all waiting to haunt you long after the credits have rolled. And it's fair to say that we've made some big decisions to whittle this list down to a lean 30. This particular butcher's block is red with cinematic sacrifice in order to bring an essential modern balance to proceedings. Ari Aster and Jordan Peele are just as important to the ever-hungry horror genre as original masters like Hitchcock and Hooper. It's time to feed your nightmares. Take this torch. You'll probably need it.
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. 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 brilliant horror. 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 shoestring 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 gruesome 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.
28. The Birds (1963)
The movie: Sure, there’s all that talk about showers and murder - Editor’s note: we know it’s not just ‘talk’ and Hitchcock’s Psycho is a genuine horror masterpiece - but it’s time to talk about the feathery elephant in the room. The Birds, the Master of Suspense’s loose adaptation of a short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, is scare cinema at its finest. When Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels heads to Bodega Bay to deliver some love birds, she gets far more than she bargained for when the wild winged inhabitants of the town decide that human eyes might taste just as good as discarded chips.
Why it’s scary: Much like Jaws, The Birds preys on your simplest fears. Open water? Not for me, thanks. How about the very idea that the seemingly innocent feathery ones in your surroundings are actually using those tiny skulls to plot to murder you where you stand? Hard nope. If you haven’t seen it, to go further would be spoileriffic. Where The Birds excels is in its gradual, lurking fear; its patience and looming dread. Plus, the genuine panic in Hedren’s eyes as very real birds were thrown in her direction is a truly terrifying sight to behold. Just stay safe in the knowledge that no one makes films quite like this anymore.
27. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
The movie: Choosing only one undead Romero offering for a list of the best horror movies of all time is a bit like taking on the shuffling horde with a letter opener: gory and challenging, but not altogether impossible. After much deliberation then, it’s time to go shopping. Romero’s gory attack on the consumerist American dream follows four survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they arrive at a sprawling mall. While they manage to get inside without anything munching on their brains, it doesn’t take long before the beacon of the mall attracts other guests and the defences start to gorily break down.
Why it’s scary: We’ve had more hungry shuffling hordes than we can count since Romero’s initial offering but that doesn’t make the source material any less horrifying to watch. The gentle idea that the zombies are still heading to the mall after death is an insidious one, and the relentless violence of Night’s sequel is an experience that demands your attention. Tom Savini’s delicious practical effects too mean there’s still plenty of squirm for your buck as skin and muscle are ripped from their sticking places. Plus, if you feel like you just can’t watch anything in less than HD, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake is a surprisingly effective, not to mention creepy, replacement.
26. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The movie: If Scream reignited the joys of the teen slasher movie, the return of good zombies to our screens is all Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s fault. The first in Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy,’ Shaun of the Dead follows the titular Shaun as he plods his way through his dreary London existence, only to discover (beautifully late) that the majority of the population has been transformed into shambling cannibals while he was asleep. Suddenly realising he needs to be the hero everyone deserves, it’s time to rescue his mum, get his girlfriend back, and make sure everyone is fine in time for tea. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite go to perfectly edited plan.
Why it’s scary: While it slickly plays for laughs, Shaun of the Dead is very much a horror at its gory heart. It plays by Romero’s rules with a slow zombie horde which means that their staggering relentlessness is a constant fear, if one tempered by a brilliant comic script. And these aren’t just disposable characters made to be pulled to pieces in an explosion of O-negative. Everyone matters here, meaning that every zombie encounter does too. Throw in a brilliant soundtrack, excellent performances, and more red than you can throw a cricket bat at, and Shaun of the Dead is a comedy horror masterpiece.
25. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The movie: Just like a certain dungaree-clad possessed doll, Freddy Krueger fell firmly into killer clown territory as the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise evolved over the years. Sure, he’ll spray your organs all over the walls but you’ll die laughing, right? Look back at Wes Craven’s original movie, though, and Freddy isn’t to be trifled with. Our selective memories mean we often forget that this serial child killer’s burns come from him being incinerated by an angry mob of parents. Living eternally through their fear and guilt, Freddy becomes the ultimate boogeyman when he dons his favourite murder glove and goes after a whole new generation of Springwood spawn while they slumber.
Why it’s scary: Bed is meant to be safe. Secure. Free of razor sharp blades ready to plunge through your chest at any given moment... Robert Englund’s Freddy might be horrible to look at but it’s the very idea of falling asleep and never waking up again that’s the true terrifying kicker here. The desperation of Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy and her friends as they strive to stay awake to stay alive. No amount of caffeine or loud music can save you now, dreams are waiting and that’s where a maniac lurks menacingly in the dark to end your life. Yes, the whole movie is worth it alone for Johnny Depp’s spectacularly splattery death scene alone, but A Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t one to press the snooze button on.
24. Evil Dead 2
The movie: So many Evil Dead 2 questions, so little time. Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? Would it actually be physically possible to switch out your missing (presumed possessed) hand for a chainsaw with relative ease? Well, thankfully, Bruce Campbell himself has answered the first two and explained that Sam Raimi’s cabin-based comedy horror is, in fact, a ‘requel.’ Whereas the original Evil Dead followed a group of twenty somethings to a holiday house from hell, the sequel revolves exclusively around Campbell’s Ash and his girlfriend Linda as they attempt to survive after playing a reading of the Necronomicon aloud. I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you about someone being beheaded with a garden tool post reading.
Why it’s scary: Evil Dead 2 is perfect comedy horror. While it might not send you shrieking away from your screen, there’s a delightfully depraved viscerality to proceedings. Eyes in mouths, wall to wall gore, chainsaws feeling like the only option. It’s worth noting here, too, that if you do want something a little less punctuated with the word ‘groovy,’ then the Evil Dead remake from Fede Alvarez is truly something that can get under your skin. Where Evil Dead 2’s grim is played for much appreciated laughs and you’ll embrace the physical effects, Alvarez’s reboot errs distinctly on the unnerving side, making them a perfect double bill.
23. The Babadook (2014)
The movie: On release, Jennifer Kent’s haunted pop-up book became a whole generation’s boogeyman seemingly overnight. “Have you seen the Babadook? I didn’t sleep all night,” was hissed gleefully across offices and pubs. And for good reason. The Babadook is scary. The tale of a young grieving widow trying to look after her young son, this is a movie that sneaks under your skin and stays there. It also makes you ask yourself a lot of questions. What would you do with a pop up book about a creepy black clad figure in a top hat? Would you read it to your already traumatised young son? What if he begged? And how would you deal with the ‘haunting’ that follows…?
Why it’s scary: Like the best horror movies on this list, the Babadook isn’t just about scaring its audience. The parallels between grief and depression are no accident and it’s interesting to note that one of the most disturbing sequences in the movie has nothing to do with a monster, but everything to do with a young mother losing control of her son while she tries to drive. On the surface you might mistake The Babadook for something from The Conjuring universe but delve in and this is an intelligent, gruelling frightfest with a knowledge of exactly what you’re afraid of. Even if you didn’t know it when you sat down to watch.
22. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
The movie: By 2011, we were having a self-referential horror crisis. Scream 4 was out and had an intro multiple layers deep, smashing the fourth wall into pieces with horror-ception as character after character quipped about the masked slasher genre. But where could comedy horror go next? How many times could a leading actress say “I saw this in a movie once” without us wanting to remove our own eyes and never watch horror again? Well, it turns out that there was still some life in the reanimated corpse yet. The Cabin in the Woods manages to pin not just one horror trope but every single one, like someone armed with a laser sight and Final Destination 3’s nail gun. When this lot of attractive twenty-somethings head to the titular spot, they get significantly more than they bargained for. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth is one of them. Now you’re interested…
Why it’s scary: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s creation is no mere comedy escapade. I’m staying spoiler-free here because it’s too good, but just like the It movie and its monster’s multiple faces, The Cabin in the Woods will tackle plenty of your phobias. This is a creature feature like you’ve never seen before with gallons of gore and every monster you could ever imagine lurking in the dark. Like Buffy before it, this has the ability to make you laugh one minute and scream the next. Go in blind and this trip to the forest is a delightfully gory surprise.
21. A Quiet Place (2018)
The movie: Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of bringing up a young family in a world where brutal monstrosities with supernaturally good hearing hunt down the last of humanity? John Krasinski’s first horror - in which he also stars with IRL wife Emily Blunt - follows the Abbott family as they silently creep through a truly miserable existence where every single sound could be their last. Playing with movie audio in an entirely new way, A Quiet Place might have a simple premise but this is 90 minutes of sheer muscle-clenching tension.
Why it’s scary: It turns out that humans are loud. Footsteps boom. Food crunches. Doors creak painfully. Exquisite use of sound means that every noise that the family makes feels like an agonising step closer to death. Electric performances from the entire cast - especially young Millicent Simmonds - command you to watch every single frame, holding your breath if necessary. Rarely has a horror director commanded your attention for so long with such blatant disregard for the nails digging into your palms. Watch A Quiet Place. Oh, and turn it up.
Read more: "Please shut the f**k up" – These reactions to annoying A Quiet Place moviegoers say it all
20. 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. The bumps in the night that follow are enough to make you never want to see another bed again, let alone lie on one.
Why it's scary: The reason why Paranormal Activity is so nerve-janglingly effective is simple. 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.