Horror movies have changed dramatically over the decades to keep up with ever-evolving audiences. Some of the old classics, while still artful and entertaining, no longer have the power to shock. Others, however, have stood the test of time.
What makes a movie scary? Some would say it’s the jump-scare — the “boo!” moment that jolts you out of your seat. Others might point to a particularly ghastly monster or a preponderance of gore.
The best horror movies find a sweet spot: A primal, universal terror made vivid by skillful filmmaking. That formula will surely never age. Here, just in time for Halloween, are 20 of the scariest movies of all time:
20. “Paranormal Activity” (2009): This no-budget indie about a possessed McMansion helped kick off the current horror craze. Slamming doors and flickering lights — and not much else — make this a yelp-out-loud treat.
19. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984): The movie that gave us the blade-fingered Freddy Krueger (and the film debut of Johnny Depp) looks a little dated now, but director Wes Craven’s blend of dreams and reality still has the power to unsettle.
18. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968): The zombie genre starts with George Romero’s ghoulish, gory classic. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” may have more splatter, but this one really stares into the existential abyss.
17. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968): Roman Polanski’s film about a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) who gets snookered into Satanism is a slow-building chiller, but the climactic payoff is one of the best you will ever see.
16. “Get Out” (2017): Jordan Peele’s story of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend’s parents is essentially a race-based version of “The Stepford Wives.” It works best as satirical commentary, but it has enough wig-out moments to earn a place on this list.
15. “The Evil Dead” (1981): Five college kids find an audiotape that releases demons in this sophomore feature from Sam Raimi. It’s freaky great fun thanks to clever camerawork, a sly sense of humor and a star turn from Bruce Campbell.
14. “The Omen” (1976): This knockoff of “The Exorcist” met with mixed reviews but is now considered an iconic horror film in its own right. Harvey Stevens is unforgettable as Damien, a literal demon child, while several top-shelf actors (Gregory Peck, Lee Remick) play the unfortunate adults around him.
13. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999): Three filmmakers enter a Maryland forest to investigate a local myth. Assembled from their “found” footage, “The Blair Witch Project” uses virtually nothing but weird noises and shaky camerawork — by the actors themselves — to create an atmosphere of deep-reaching terror.
12. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974): Tobe Hooper’s low-budget shocker about cannibals preying on hippies was the perfect mid-’70s horror film, a grisly stew of Manson mythology and redneckphobia. Not for the faint of heart.
11. “Poltergeist” (1982): One of the two Hooper films on this list, “Poltergeist” has been almost as widely imitated as “Psycho” or “Halloween.” This is the movie that made an entire generation afraid to watch television.
10. “Jaws” (1975): Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece about an outsize shark may not pack the scares-per-minute of other films on this list. It’s part horror movie, part adventure epic. But for white-knuckle suspense — plus several nasty surprises — “Jaws” is tough to beat.
9. “The Thing” (1982): John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 classic about a creature discovered in Antarctica is a screamingly great horror flick, full of gore, goo and flamethrowers. The ace cast includes Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David.
8. “Audition” (1999): This sneak attack of a movie begins straightforwardly enough with a Japanese widower looking for a younger lover. The harrowing second half — no spoilers — must be seen to be believed. Directed by Takashi Miike.
7. “Hereditary” (2018): Ari Aster’s story of an artist (Toni Collette) ensnared by a cult may be too intense for some. Critics raved, but freaked-out audiences gave it a rare D+ CinemaScore. You’ve been warned.
6. “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991): Jonathan Demme’s modern classic is still the only horror film to win the Oscar for best picture. Anthony Hopkins’ sinister and highly quotable Hannibal Lecter is the cinematic serial killer by which all others are now judged.
5. “Psycho” (1960): Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film may not jolt audiences the way it once did. But it’s still a terrific shocker, from Anthony Perkins’ unnerving performance as the ultimate mama’s boy to the lightbulb-swinging climax.
4. “Halloween” (1978): John Carpenter terrorized middle America with this simple but effective tale about a serial killer stalking suburban teenagers. Even today, “Halloween” feels like your worst nightmare: a home invasion perpetrated by a semi-supernatural being. Jamie Lee Curtis makes her big-screen debut as terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode.
3. “Alien” (1979): Director Ridley Scott admitted that “Alien” was basically “Jaws in space.” Nevertheless, thanks to a groundbreakingly hideous space creature and a tough-as-nails Sigourney Weaver as the last survivor on a doomed craft, Scott’s movie remains the first word in modern sci-fi horror.
2. “The Exorcist” (1973): Audiences reportedly fainted and vomited during screenings of William Friedkin’s film about a little girl possessed by a demon (Linda Blair, in a head-spinning, Oscar-nominated turn). This is still an absolute hair-raiser, especially the later editions that restored the eye-popping “spider-walk” scene.
1. “The Shining” (1980): Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel, stands alone. Nobody has ever re-created a hotel quite like the Overlook, nor has anyone equaled Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance as a father gone mad. It’s a monolith of terror, undiminished even after nearly 40 years.