The way horror as a genre has evolved over the last century has been so interesting to observe. It’s a never-ending rollercoaster ride of good years and bad years and good movies and bad movies and everything that could fit in between. The beautiful thing about the genre is that it’s so diverse and so accessible that anyone could make a horror movie (which could be a bad thing or an incredibly good thing).
Horror junkies like the feeling of adrenaline coursing through their veins, of suspended dread, of the knowledge that a monster could just pop onto the screen and scare the living daylights out of them. Other people hate that, absolutely detest being scared and refuse to sit through a single horror film. Then, there are the people in between. Torn between wanting to watch something exciting and being too scared to even try. Well, ladies and gentlemen in the in-between, this list is for you.
Loosely ranked from least to most scary, these films have been handpicked to ease you into a genre you’re going to love or hate, or both.
Disclaimer: The author would like to say that everyone experiences things differently. What might be scary for her might not be scary for the reader and vice versa. This list considered personal experience and a general, average consensus. This is also a toss-up of the many sub-genres of horror.
P.S. It’s impossible to have watched every single horror movie ever, and we only have so much space on the site for one list.
P.P.S. Happy Halloween!
- Scream (1996) dir. Wes Craven
A killer known as Ghostface begins killing off teenagers, and as the body count begins rising, one girl and her friends find themselves contemplating the ‘rules’ of horror films as they find themselves living in a real-life one.
One of the pillars of iconic horror, Scream has resonated through the genre throughout the years. Sure, it’s campy but it’s the perfect movie to ease you into horror without shocking your system.
- Halloween (1978) dir. John Carpenter
Fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween Night 1963, Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois to kill again.
Another horror classic, Halloween is a step up from Scream in the way that it doesn’t have the safety cushion of humor wrapped around it. Personally, this is one of the author’s favorite slasher films.
- Carrie (1976) dir. Brian de Palma
Carrie White, a shy and troubled teenage girl who is tormented by her high school peers and her fanatically religious mother, begins to use her powers of telekinesis to exact revenge upon them.
Stephen King’s first ever on-screen adaptation is also our first movie on the list to delve into the supernatural side of things. This film plays beautifully with aesthetics and an atmosphere that isn’t jarring but definitely disturbing.
- It Follows (2014) dir. David Robert Mitchell
For 19-year-old Jay, fall should be about school, boys and weekends out at the lake. But a seemingly innocent physical encounter turns sour and gives her the inescapable sense that someone, or something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her teenage friends must find a way to escape the horror that seems to be only a few steps behind.
It Follows ups the atmosphere and also brings us into 21st century horror, which started bringing in more abstract themes onto the screen.
- The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.
The mother of found footage horror. The Blair Witch Project shines in its ability to weave a concrete story with creative storytelling and almost no budget. While not the first of its kind, the film made found footage a popular medium in horror cinema. It’s the perfect introduction into the world of found footage.
- Pet Sematary (1989) dir. Mary Lambert
Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, move from Boston to Ludlow, in rural Maine, with their two young children. Hidden in the woods near the new family home, Ellie, their eldest daughter, discovers a mysterious cemetery where the pets of community members are buried.
Confusing children with spelling for decades, Pet Sematary is part kooky and part horrifying. Another classic, the film is the right amount of scary for beginners but interesting enough to keep audiences hooked.
- Get Out (2017) dir. Jordan Peele
Chris and his girlfriend Rose go upstate to visit her parents for the weekend. At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth that he never could have imagined.
Jordan Peele’s first foray into feature length filmmaking did not disappoint. While it’s definitely a horror movie, it’s not so heavy on the scares that it becomes unbearable to watch. Instead, it takes you on a journey. It’s a fun ride–terrifying at points, but fun.
- The Witch (2015) dir. Robert Eggers
In 1630s New England, William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassable wilderness, exiled from their settlement when William defies the local church. When their newborn son vanishes and crops mysteriously fail, the family turns on one another.
Personally, I believe that atmosphere makes up for good horror and atmosphere is what makes The Witch a masterpiece. It’s paced so well and shot so beautifully that you wouldn’t want to take your eyes off it. (And you wouldn’t want to, because you might miss things you wouldn’t want to miss.)
- It (2017) dir. Andres Muschietti
In a small town in Maine, seven children known as The Losers Club come face to face with life problems, bullies and a monster that takes the shape of a clown called Pennywise.
Demon child-eating clowns. What else could I say? Andy Muschietti’s 2017 adaptation of the Stephen King classic is scary, period. But much like Scream, it has the safety cushion of nostalgia and humor around it.
- Sinister (2012) dir. Scott Derickson
Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.
Spooky atmosphere? Check. Spooky children? Check. Spooky demon? Check. Sinister is an often overlooked horror film that doesn’t really come up on a lot of lists, but it delivers good scares and an interesting lore.
- The Conjuring (2016) dir. James Wan
Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.
If I could recommend only a single horror movie for beginners, it would be The Conjuring. It’s tense without being too suffocating, it has jumpscares but isn’t entirely built on it, and it’s just good storytelling overall.
- The Shining (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Jack Torrance accepts a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel, where he, along with his wife Wendy and their son Danny, must live isolated from the rest of the world for the winter. But they aren’t prepared for the madness that lurks within.
A lot of kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s probably have some fear related to Jack Nicholson and it’s because of this movie. You’d think something so simple like working at a hotel during the off season would be boring, but this movie is far from it. It’s a classic for a reason, and that reason is that it’s good.
- The Exorcist (1973) dir. William Friedkin
12-year-old Regan MacNeil begins to adapt an explicit new personality as strange events befall the local area of Georgetown. Her mother becomes torn between science and superstition in a desperate bid to save her daughter, and ultimately turns to her last hope: Father Damien Karras, a troubled priest who is struggling with his own faith.
When I was growing up, I thought this was the scariest film to ever exist. So much so that it took me almost twenty years to watch it again and when I did, I got to appreciate the elements of it outside of Linda Blair’s iconic make-up and the green puke. Still pretty scary though.
- Insidious (2010) dir. James Wan
A family discovers that dark spirits have invaded their home after their son inexplicably falls into an endless sleep. When they reach out to a professional for help, they learn things are a lot more personal than they thought.
While The Conjuring is more polished and put-together, the Insidious films’ rough-around-the-edges feel makes it at least ten times scarier than its successor. Introducing a cast of ghostly and demonic characters that imprint themselves on your brain as you watch the film, this is definitely a step up in the scare factor for any horror beginner.
- Hereditary (2018) dir. Ari Aster
When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry.
Hereditary isn’t widely acclaimed by both critics and audiences for nothing. When you write well-rounded and relatable characters and shove them into a world that’s so similar yet so different from everyone else’s, the horror that comes out of it is gold. Drenched in grief and pain, Hereditary is a movie that’s subtle yet so impactful. A modern classic with imagery that you will remember for the rest of your life.
[Synopses from Letterboxd]