On September 11, 2001, we were all witnesses to what will go down in our lifetime as the most horrific event caught on video, film and audio.
Of course, I’m talking 19 terrorists, who hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennyslvania.
Throughout the last 21 years, we have also seen other terrible things happen to people including Hurricane Katrina, the killing of innocent Black people by police, school shootings, the Haiti earthquake, and the birth of Facebook.
So, with all of these terrifying events around us, why on earth do we turn to the horror genre for entertainment? Why do we invite more gore, scares, screams and jumps into our brains every Friday night? Why do we delight in flirting with Satan, ghosts and witches every Halloween season?
“It seems an unaccountable pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from sorrow, terror, anxiety and other passions, that are in themselves disagreeable and uneasy,” says D. Hume in Essays: Moral, political, and literary. Vol. 1 published in 1907.
In other words, we like being scared. It gives us a rush when it’s in a relatively safe environment.
“You may get a rush of adrenaline from screening a horror movie, but you’re not actually in any danger when you’re watching, say, The Purge—which is another huge part of the genre’s appeal. You’re seeing scary things in a controlled environment, and I think that that’s something that we all crave,” Margot Levin, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City, told Health Magazine.
A study published in the Journal of Media Psychology found that people watch scary movies for three main reasons: tension, relevance, and unrealism. For horror lovers, watching scary movies can be a visceral experience heightening all of the senses.
A good horror film also is a way to offer social commentary on current events. In George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, we get a statement on racism and the lynching of Black people as one Black Man is left in the house with white zombies ready to pounce. William Friedken’s The Exorcist isn’t just about a possessed little girl. At its heart, the horror tale is about what happens if you are a selfish parent and not paying attention to your child and their activities… like inviting a demon into your home.
So, pushing aside all of the horrible things that happen in life, what are the best horror films to escape with?
We have put together our list of 21 (21st century) of the most macabre, gory, scary films we can binge during Halloween and beyond:
21. Orphan (2009)
Devastated by the loss of their unborn baby, Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt a child. At the orphanage, both feel drawn to a little girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) named Esther, and soon the couple take their new daughter home. But when a dangerous series of events unfolds, Kate begins to suspect that there is something evil lurking behind the child’s angelic exterior.
While the film received mixed reviews, under director Jaume Collett-Serra, we have a genuinely creepy film and the best twist to come along since The Sixth Sense.
20. [REC] (2007)
A reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman (Ferran Terraza) are doing a fluff story on night-shift firefighters for a reality-TV series. A late-night distress call takes them to an apartment building, where the police are investigating a report of horrific screams. The TV team and emergency workers find an old woman, who suddenly attacks with teeth bared. What’s more, Angela and company find that the building has been sealed by CDC workers. Then the attacks come fast and furious.
Handheld and rabid zombies make for terrifying two hours and lasting memories in this Spanish nightmare. Co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza unfold their scares in cramped and claustrophobic quarters. Skip the shot-for-shot remake Quarantine and watch this.
19. Let The Right One In (2008)
When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a sensitive, bullied 12-year-old boy living with his mother in suburban Sweden, meets his new neighbor, the mysterious and moody Eli (Lina Leandersson), they strike up a friendship. Initially reserved with each other, Oskar and Eli slowly form a close bond, but it soon becomes apparent that she is no ordinary young girl. Eventually, Eli shares her dark, macabre secret with Oskar, revealing her connection to a string of bloody local murders.
The Swedish film is beautifully made and invites us to genuinely care about Oskar’s and, his bloodsucking bestie, Eli’s friendship.
18. The Orphanage (2007)
Laura (Belén Rueda) has happy memories of her childhood in an orphanage. She convinces her husband to buy the place and help her convert it into a home for sick children. One day, her own adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), disappears. Simon is critically ill, and when he is still missing several months later, he is presumed dead. Grief-stricken Laura believes she hears spirits, who may or may not be trying to help her find the boy.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona created a masterpiece that is genuinely frightening and heartbreaking at the same time.
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Auteur Guillermo del Toro tells a lovely and frightening story set In 1944 Spain. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her ailing mother (Ariadna Gil) arrive at the post of her mother’s new husband (Sergi López), a sadistic army officer who is trying to quell a guerrilla uprising. While exploring an ancient maze, Ofelia encounters the faun Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks in order to claim immortality.
Rotten Tomatoes says, “Pan’s Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland for grown-ups, with the horrors of both reality and fantasy blended together into an extraordinary, spellbinding fable.”
16. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (13 Reasons Why’s Dylan Minnette) and Money (David Zovatto) are three Detroit thieves who get their kicks by breaking into the houses of wealthy people. Money gets word about a blind veteran (Stephen Lang) who won a major cash settlement following the death of his only child. Figuring he’s an easy target, the trio invades the man’s secluded home in an abandoned neighborhood. Finding themselves trapped inside, the young intruders must fight for their lives after making a shocking discovery about their supposedly helpless victim.
Director Fede Alvarez built a taut thriller with twists and turns as good as any classic John Carpenter movie.
15. The Ring (2014)
Let’s all go back to a simpler time when we watched videotapes! A remake of the Japanese film Ringu, a videotape filled with nightmarish images leads to a phone call foretelling the viewer’s death in exactly seven days. Newspaper reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is skeptical of the story until four teenagers all die mysteriously exactly one week after watching just such a tape. Allowing her investigative curiosity to get the better of her, Rachel tracks down the video and watches it. Now she has just seven days to unravel the mystery.
Director Gore Verbinski would go on to make the enormous hit Pirates of the Caribbean, but here he got to showcase frights in a stylish affair. Not for the squeamish.
14. IT Chapter One (2017)
Watching a Stephen King adaptation is always rolling the dice like going to an M. Night Shyamalan film. For every Shining and Misery, there is Cell and Dark Tower. Thanks to Argentinian director Andy Muschietti, IT is the former.
Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare — an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town’s children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.
Muschietti has created a modern-day Stand by Me with clowns. Can you think of anything more horrifying?
13. It Follows (2014)
Another IT! After carefree teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), for the first time, she learns that she is the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from victim to victim via sexual intercourse. Death, Jay learns, will creep inexorably toward her as either a friend or a stranger. Jay’s friends don’t believe her seemingly paranoid ravings, until they too begin to see the phantom assassins and band together to help her flee or defend herself.
Smart, original, and above all terrifying, It Follows is the rare modern horror film that works on multiple levels — and leaves a lingering sting. And kids, don’t have sex.
12. The Babadook (2014)
A troubled widow (Essie Davis) discovers that her son is telling the truth about a monster that entered their home through the pages of a children’s book. This Australian film relies on real horror rather than cheap jump scares — and boasted a heartfelt, genuinely moving story to boot. We get a look at how trying and stressful it is to be a single parent.
11. Cloverfield (2008)
As a group of New Yorker friends (Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman) enjoy a going-away party, little do they know that they will soon face the most terrifying night of their lives. A creature the size of a skyscraper descends upon the city, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Using a handheld video camera, the friends record their struggle to survive as New York crumbles around them.
Before director Matt Reeves would move onto the terrifying remake of Let the Right One in in 2010 and the amazing Planet of the Apes films, Reeves would score a huge hit with this J.J. Abrams-produced found footage film.
Bring on The Batman.
10. Split (2017)
Though Kevin (James McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all of the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him — as well as everyone around him — as the walls between his compartments shatter.
As talented as M. Night Shyamalan is, the sobering truth his films are hit or miss. They’re either classics or classic duds. Looking at you, Old. Split was a huge surprise. It was an actor’s masterclass for McAvoy and introduced us to Anya Taylor-Joy. It also gave us the biggest cinematic twist since Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
9. 1408 (2007)
Another Stephen King adaptation makes it to our list. Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a successful author who enjoys worldwide acclaim debunking supernatural phenomena — before he checks into the Dolphin Hotel, that is. Ignoring the warnings of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), he learns the meaning of real terror when he spends the night in a reputedly haunted room.
Rotten Tomatoes says, “Relying on psychological tension rather than overt violence and gore, 1408 is a genuinely creepy thriller with a strong lead performance by John Cusack.” We agree.
8. A Quiet Place II (2021)
Following the deadly events at home, the Abbott family, led by matriarch Emily Blunt, must now face the terrors of the outside world as they continue their fight for survival in silence. Forced to venture into the unknown, they quickly realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.
This follow-up to the intense A Quiet Place, is not only one of the best horror films of the year, but it’s also one of the best films.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
While not a direct sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, this film distributed the scares from a more realistic type of monster – man.
After surviving a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up to find herself in an underground bunker with two men. Howard (John Goodman) tells her that a massive chemical attack has rendered the air unbreathable, and their only hope of survival is to remain inside. Despite the comforts of home, Howard’s controlling and menacing nature makes Michelle want to escape. After taking matters into her own hands, the young woman finally discovers the truth about the outside world.
Director Dan Trachtenberg took an outstanding cast, confined them and delivered a smart, solidly crafted, and tense film.
6. The Conjuring (2013)
Director James Wan took us back to 1970 to give us one of the scariest films to come along in a while. Paranormal investigators and demonologists Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren are summoned to the home of Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a secluded farmhouse, where a supernatural presence has made itself known. Though the manifestations are relatively benign at first, events soon escalate in horrifying fashion, especially after the Warrens discover the house’s macabre history.
Using OG scare tactics, Wan brought a feeling of dread to the film that would launch an entire universe for Warner Bros.
5. The Invisible Man (2020)
After staging his own suicide, a crazed scientist (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) uses his power to become invisible to stalk and terrorize his ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss). When the police refuse to believe her story, she decides to take matters into her own hands and fight back. Ain’t that the worse kind of stalker?
4. The Mist (2007)
After a powerful storm damages their Maine home, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head into town to gather food and supplies. Soon afterward, a thick fog rolls in and engulfs the town, trapping the Draytons and others in the grocery store. Terror mounts as deadly creatures reveal themselves outside, but that may be nothing compared to the threat within, where a zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) calls for a sacrifice.
Frank Darabont returns to make another Stephen King adaptation well after the unforgettable The Green Mile and the classic, The Shawshank Redemption. Here, he has crafted a taut thriller confined in a grocery store where the creatures are as grotesque as some of the humans inside. It’s like being trapped with QAnon followers.
3. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has a loving boyfriend (Jeepers Creepers’ Justin Long) and a great job at a Los Angeles bank. But her heavenly life becomes hellish when, in an effort to impress her boss, she denies an old woman’s request for an extension on her home loan. In retaliation, the crone places a curse on Christine, threatening her soul with eternal damnation. Christine seeks a psychic’s help to break the curse, but the price to save her soul may be more than she can pay.
After spending almost 10 years on the original Spider-man trilogy, Sam Raimi returned to his horror roots. We are lucky he did. While the film is rated PG-13, the scares are real and simply bonkers.
2. Get Out (2020)
A near-perfect film. Chris (Academy Award-winner Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Girls Allison Williams), have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, she invites him for a weekend getaway with Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Handmaid’s Tale‘s Bradley Whitford).
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 leads him to a truth that he never could have imagined.
Coming off of the comedy sketch series Key & Peele, Jordan Peele stunned audiences with his Hitchcockian flare mixing mystery with humor and scares.
1. Hereditary (2018)
When the matriarch of the Graham family passes away, her daughter and grandchildren begin to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry, trying to outrun the sinister fate they have inherited.
Director Ari Aster uses a classic setup as the framework for a harrowing and disturbing horror yarn. You’ll be still shaking hours after watching it.
Honorable Mentions: Jeepers Creepers, Saw, Paranormal Activity, The Purge, A Quiet Place, Midsommar, House that Jack Built, The Lighthouse, Final Destination, Thir13en Ghosts, Cabin Fever, Cabin in the Woods, Antichrist, The Host, The Purge, Crimson Peak, Insidious, Sinister, The Others.
Yes, there are real scares out there. And none of these films will ever match the terror they create. But at least we can build our courage and philosophize about what motivates man to create horror by sitting safely through these films. Happy Halloween!