In the world of cinema, horror films hold a unique and engaging position, captivating audiences with their unnerving narratives and suspenseful atmospheres, sometimes to deliver subtle (or more obvious) social critique. Just as I have done previously for post-apocalyptic films, I am presenting my current picks for the top ten horror films. As with the last list, I have opted for thematic diversity here, meaning there are many excellent films that didn’t make the cut. You will find one slasher film, one zombie movie, and so on. I have cheated a bit by leaving out Dawn of the Dead, which makes the other list (see best post-apocalyptic films) and would probably make my top five here as well. I’ve based my selections on three main criteria:
- The movie must predominantly belong to the horror genre.
- It must offer more than just scares – a compelling storyline, deeper themes, or unique cinematography.
- The film should be a full-length feature, not a short film or a television series.
The ranking is based on my personal evaluation of each film’s effectiveness, significance, and entertainment value. Each film poster image is linked to its IMDB page for your convenience. Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Electric Media Diaries Top Ten Horror Films:
10. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is, in my opinion, the film that not only revolutionized the horror genre but also defined the beginnings of postmodern horror. I was deeply impressed by the ingenious use of overhead camera angles, which contributed significantly to the creation of a claustrophobic, haunting atmosphere, immersing the audience directly into the deranged world of Norman Bates.
Hitchcock’s innovative editing techniques, like cross-cutting and point-of-view shots, gave the narrative a psychological depth that was, for its time, groundbreaking. To me, these elements helped create a disconcerting connection between viewers and the emotional turmoil unfolding on screen.
The film’s chilling soundtrack, punctuating each scene with a tangible sense of dread, is another aspect that I find incredibly effective. Its impact reverberates throughout the narrative, enhancing the suspense in a way only Hitchcock could.
The narrative’s unexpected twists and turns, especially the shocking revelation of Norman Bates’ dual personality and the iconic shower scene, are components that I believe have solidified “Psycho” in pop culture. From my perspective, its influence can still be seen in contemporary horror films, making it a timeless classic that continues to inspire.
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In my view, Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is an incredibly chilling exploration of paranoia and motherhood, with its slow-burning narrative that truly gets under your skin. What stands out for me is the atmospheric quality of the film, with its subtle yet creeping sense of dread that has a way of lingering. One scene that stands out to me is the dream sequence, which is presented with a surreal, disorienting blend of sound and visuals. Polanski’s use of in-scene sound effects blended with abstract choices and disturbing images, creates a nightmare that feels too real, enhancing the overall sense of dread and paranoia.
What truly impresses me about “Rosemary’s Baby” is Mia Farrow’s performance. The subtle transformation she undergoes, from an innocent and naive woman to one driven to the brink of madness, is a masterclass of acting IMHO. The scene where she finally realizes the horrific truth of her baby is especially haunting.
Polanski’s expert use of the apartment setting also adds to the film’s overall sense of claustrophobia. His wide-angle shots and deep focus allow the viewer to feel both Rosemary’s vulnerability and confinement, making her predicament even more palpable. In my opinion, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not just a horror movie—it’s a masterclass in how to create escalating tension and I have no doubt that Ari Aster carefully studied the film as an inspiration for both Hereditary and Midsommar.
8. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film that unquestionably catalyzed the popularity of the slasher sub-genre, is a masterclass in tension and suspense. The tale of Michael Myers, the seemingly unkillable force of terror stalking the streets of Haddonfield, Illinois, is a spine-chilling classic that has left an indelible mark on me (and my good friend Josh, official Halloween superfan).
The film’s minimalistic style — a hallmark of Carpenter’s direction — maximizes every shadow and sound to ratchet up the tension. In my opinion, the movie’s truly haunting score, also composed by Carpenter, is a character in its own right, setting the eerie tone and effectively making my heart pound with every chord.
Jamie Lee Curtis’ breakout performance as the resilient Laurie Strode is more nuanced than she often gets credit for, but what continues to haunt me is the faceless, nameless horror of Michael Myers. This anonymous, ever-present killer can be read as a chilling postmodern commentary on the dissociated nature of the twentieth-century self, an interpretation that adds an additional layer of fear to an already terrifying film. Despite the countless times I’ve seen it, Halloween always leaves me with an uneasy feeling, reminding me of the film’s enduring influence on the horror genre. Despite numerous sequels, none of the follow up films are quite able to capture the cold nihilistic terror of this film.
7. The Shining (1980)
Having grown up reading an abundance of Stephen King novels, my introduction to Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic interpretation of The Shining was a thrilling and unsettling experience that gains a layer of respect every time I re-watch the film. The horrifying descent of Jack Torrance (menacingly portrayed by Jack Nicholson) into madness within the confines of the isolated Overlook Hotel is a journey that is both disturbing and unforgettable. This narrative is accompanied by a host of iconic scenes that have become deeply ingrained in popular culture.
While the film is based on King’s novel, in my view, Kubrick’s adaptation rises above the source material in its capacity to haunt. His meticulous direction and symbolic usage of objects and settings such as the maze, the typewriter, and the river of elevator blood elevate the horror to a more psychological and existential level.
Take, for example, the Overlook Hotel’s hedge maze. On the one hand, it is an eerie, physical labyrinth where characters might lose their way. On the other hand, it serves as a metaphor for the maze-like, disorienting descent into madness that Jack goes through. Similarly, the constant flow of blood from the elevator doors is a chillingly stark symbol of the hotel’s violent past and the impending doom building around the Torrence family. For me, The Shining is not just a terrifying film; it’s an intricate exploration of isolation, insanity, and the lingering echoes of past atrocities.
6. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing holds a special, albeit haunting, place in my heart. I distinctly remember watching it as a child and being utterly terrified by the film’s unique blend of paranoia-driven horror and body horror. It left such a mark on me that it continues to send chills down my spine to this day. I think that this and H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” are the two most frightening tales about non-anthropomorphic alien beings.
The claustrophobic setting of the Antarctic research station, the memorable creature effects, and Kurt Russell’s intense performance make The Thing an incredibly engaging and rewatchable horror film. The story masterfully builds tension and a feeling of dread, as trust disintegrates among the crew members and the true nature of the creature slowly reveals itself.
Despite the terror it instilled in me, I often find myself wishing that I could teach The Thing to my science fiction students. Its exploration of fear, identity, and the other would provide fertile ground for discussion. However, the graphic and horrifying nature of the film is such that I hesitate to bring it into the classroom. It’s a testament to Carpenter’s skill as a filmmaker that his work can provoke such strong reactions.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s psychological horror-thriller, The Silence of the Lambs, holds a special place in my list of top horror films. Part of my fascination lies in the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, chillingly brought to life by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter is my favourite fictional villain, not merely because of his horrifying crimes, but because of his well-rounded character development and the sophisticated menace he exudes. I find his ironic insistence on good manners despite being an unrepentant cannibal killer morbidly fascinating.
Equally remarkable is Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling. The dynamic between Starling and Lecter, full of tense, electrifying encounters, is one of the many aspects of this film that I find admirable.
One of the best elements of this film is its consistent tone, achieved through its subdued blue/twilight colour palette. The grim, muted hues lend an eerie atmosphere to the film and enhance its sense of suspense and dread. As a benchmark of the horror genre, and until Get Out (also on my list), the only film ever to win Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs is an experience that has haunted and intrigued me in equal measure.
4. Se7en (1995)
Se7en, directed by David Fincher, is a horrifying exploration of the seven deadly sins in the form of gruesome murders. In my opinion, this film is as good as Alien 3 is bad. I am particularly struck by the originality of the story. The concept of each murder representing a different deadly sin was not only deeply horrifying but also ingeniously clever.
Noteworthy are top-notch performances from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and especially Kevin Spacey (who appears in the film for very little of the screentime but is horridly convincing as the meticulous serial killer). Each of them bring unique depth to their characters, and despite Kevin Spacey’s disgrace from acting due to allegations of abuse, his talent as an actor is hard to ignore leading to difficult questions about the aesthetics of art and its collision with a desire for social justice. What lingers long after the credits roll, and what I find most terrifying, is the grim depiction of the random nature of modern crime.
Fincher skillfully employs the horror of the unseen, particularly in the film’s shocking conclusion. The mystery of what’s in the box at the end becomes a symbol of fear and despair. It emphasizes the theme of inescapable evil that permeates this dark film. Each time I revisit Se7en, I’m left with a renewed sense of unease, a testament to its enduring horror.
3. Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary, is nothing short of a modern horror masterpiece. This chilling story revolves around the Graham family as they grapple with the disturbing legacy left behind by their secretive matriarch.
What terrifies me most in this film is how it cleverly examines themes of grief, familial relationships, and mental illness. The way it presents these themes is as unsettling as it is heartbreaking. There is a scene in particular, where the mother, played by Toni Collette, who I think is an incredibly talented actor, reveals her sleepwalking incidents to her son, that sends shivers down my spine every time. The chilling mix of terror and guilt she conveys is simply unforgettable.
The disturbing imagery, coupled with outstanding performances from the entire cast, instills a sense of creeping dread that sticks with you. One particular scene that struck me was the shocking car accident – it’s so sudden and brutally real that it’s absolutely haunting. This film isn’t just horror; it’s an exploration of the deep, dark corners of human psychology and family dynamics. It’s a testament to Aster’s mastery of horror that the fear doesn’t dissipate when the credits roll; instead, it lingers, echoing in your mind for days.
2. Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, is more than just a horror film—it’s a compelling examination of racism in modern society, cleverly disguised as an unsettling narrative about a young Black man, Chris Washington, visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
In my previous Weird Fiction classes, I frequently used this film as an invaluable tool to discuss not only racism and societal decline, but also the legacies of pain and hatred ingrained in US history. This film skillfully combines tense moments, an eerie atmosphere, and a narrative that keeps you guessing till the end, providing rich material for analysis.
Peele’s use of symbolism is ingenious. For example, the car and the act of driving symbolize control and autonomy, something that is systematically taken away from Chris, but that he fights to regain. The buck horns used as a weapon highlight the idea of hunted becoming the hunter, a narrative twist that gives the final act a sense of poetic justice. Both of these symbols however, could be problematically gendered, as Peele seems to feminize Chris in the film and have him “mature into” his masculinity. Chris’s camera serves as both a defense mechanism against an oppressive society, exposing the hidden horrors beneath the veneer of civility, but also as a symbol of his ability to see through the friendly exterior of the Armitage family. His naming too, is symbolic as “Washington” is a name shared with the first US president, hinting at the long, often ignored history of racism in America. Finally, I often teach my students about the concept of liminal space in horror stories through the use of the “Sunken Place” that Mrs. Armitage sends Chris and other victims to in the film.
One standout performance that deserves special mention is that of Lil Rel Howery, who plays Chris’s friend Rod. His comedic timing provides much-needed relief and a counterpoint to the film’s intense themes, but it is his undying loyalty and quick thinking that make him a truly memorable character.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Renowned as one of the most terrifying films ever made, The Exorcist portrays the demonic possession of a young girl and the desperate efforts of two priests to save her through an exorcism. This film, however, extends beyond its visceral horror and excellent performances (especially by Sydow, Burstyn, and Blair); its thought-provoking exploration of faith and doubt continues to resonate deeply with audiences, both religious and non-religious.
As a viewer, I was very haunted by the film’s patient storytelling and the eerie, unsettling cinematography. These elements allow the film to cultivate a creeping sense of dread that lingers. For example, long shots of the sun setting in the desert while dogs fight in the background and the priest looks anxiously into the distance are haunting even before the demon possesses Regan.
What truly terrifies me about The Exorcist is not merely the idea of demonic possession, but the way it reveals our deepest, often unspoken fears—the fears we keep to our “secret selves”. The film acts as a mirror, reflecting back the hidden anxieties that reside within us, ultimately reminding us that sometimes, our inner demons can be far more frightening than any external threat.
One particular image that’s etched in my mind is the repeated shots of the staircase where the priest eventually falls to his death. This image carries an unsettling symbolic weight, serving as a chilling reminder of human vulnerability in the face of life’s challenges. The Exorcist is the film most frequently listed at number one on lists such as mine for very good reason, and I see no reason to buck that tradition just to be contrary.