The best horror movies are the ones that stay with you. Not just days or weeks but years after you see them, they are there in your mind, just waiting to stop you going into the water or spelunking with friends. Well, the good news is that a brilliant psychological paradox means you actively want to be afraid and that’s why you’re here looking for the very best horror movies of all time. For the scares that will linger with you long after the credits have rolled. And my, do we have a list for you.
I won’t spoil it for you but the below selection box of nasty is quite the collection of darkness and scares. From legendary slashers and meta horror comedies, to creature features and walks in the woods that don’t end up with a happily ever after selfie, the best horror movies are right here. The even better thing is that Netflix et al mean that your access to the best horror movies in the world is even easier. All you need to do is check the list below and start typing into that search box on your favourite streaming service. Good luck. And take this flashlight. You’ll 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 world. 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. Oh, and the ending is nothing short of devastating. Don't say I didn't warn you.
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 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.
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. A Netflix movie in the US, The Ritual is waiting in the UK on Amazon Prime.
25. Ringu (1998)
The movie: Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) is investigating a story about a cursed videotape and in the process, manages not only to watch it herself but to let her ex-husband and young child watch it, too. The idea of a haunted VHS tape is a brilliant one, and the climactic scene where the vengeful ghost finally makes her entrance is pure nightmare fuel.
Why it's scary: The cursed video concept suggests that not only are the characters in the film in danger but that you, the audience at home, are also in line to meet a sticky end. Yikes. And on top of the explicit scares, the scenes which show the surreal, creeping, indefinably nightmarish imagery on the tape itself make for some of the most instinctively unsettling, slow-burn horror ever committed to film. Two decades on, Ringu is one of the most incisively atmospheric ghost stories around.
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 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 and 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. Just, mind your head.
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 wine, 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 some wine to cheer you up afterwards.
22. Scream (1996)
The movie: Wes Craven resurrected the slasher genre with this cheekily post-modern effort in the mid-90s. It ticks all the usual boxes, as a teenage girl and her friends are stalked by a masked killer, but these teens grew up watching movies and their ability to remember the rules will make the difference between living and dying.
Why it's scary: Directed by the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream works as a perfectly great, straightforward slasher in its own right, so even if you're not enough of a genre nut to spot all the references and homages, it's still terrifying. Someone calling you from outside the house? Yeah, that never stops being creepy. And if you do know the tropes, the crushing inevitability of what's to come adds a whole extra, fatalistic weight to the stabbings and maimings. And ye gods, some of them are bloody.
21. Evil Dead 2 (1987)
The movie: Inversely to the 2013 reboot, Evil Dead 2 is more of a remake than a sequel. Reworking the 1981 original’s set-up – innocents go to a woodland cabin, find the book of the dead, accidentally bring the dead pouring down upon their own heads – but presenting it in a far slicker, more professional format than the first movie’s film-school scrappiness allowed, it’s also one of the finest showcases around for Bruce Campbell’s terribly underrated, kinetic character acting.
Why it’s scary: While it deliberately steers into the 1981 Evil Dead’s inadvertent comedy - allowing room for a great deal more slapstick and lashings of mapcap carnage - the thick, dread-laden claustrophobia Evil Dead 2 maintains as its foundation ensures a hellish, dream-like mania permeates the entire movie like old, dirty stain. The otheworldly, creepily graceful, stop-motion resurrection of Ash’s recently-killed girlfriend is a particularly striking image, but the real kicker is the sequence in which Ash, alone in the cabin, steadily loses his mind. Building from creeping, uncanny fear to screaming mad excess, it’s a slow-motion explosion of unhinged, fevered delight the like of which Campbell alone can invoke.