The 10 Scariest Halloween Films of All Time

By Michelle Donnelly · October 31, 2014

It’s Halloween, 1981. Some friends and I eagerly wait in a long line at the theater for our tickets to see Halloween II. We are much too young to see the R-rated flick, but thankfully that doesn’t seem to matter to the uninterested teenager working at the box office. The theater has gone full out, and a makeshift coffin sits in the lobby with a headstone that reads “Michael Myers.” We sit second row in the overly packed theater and as the movie plays, the audience is literally letting out screams and pleading for Jamie Lee Curtis to look behind her. While it’s almost exhausting being so frightened, it’s also exhilarating. The fear is real even if there’s no danger and unlike all the characters in the film, we survived. Scary movies play on our most basic fears. Setting characters in situations either beyond their control or of their own making because of ill-advised decisions, filmmakers love to step into worlds that none of us hope truly exists. Horror, blood and gore at its best, here are my Top 10 Scariest Halloween Films of All Time…


10. The Omen (1976)

Kids are cute, right? Well, not always. Five-year-old Damien, played by Harvey Stephens, helps this movie rank high for the creep factor. Also helpful is the foreboding seminary music for which the film won an Oscar for Best Original Score. The premise is that U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Robert Thorn and his wife, Katherine, are unwittingly raising Satan’s child. Director Richard Donner loads on the terror during scenes that include a hanging, a beheading and an attack by a pack of dogs. If that weren’t enough, you have to love a movie that is chock full of fright, yet also makes a statement about the evils of politics in society.


9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Attributed as the first horror film, this silent movie is still able to strike fear into most any audience. Set against a background of tilted, jagged scenery, its whirling music and actors’ expressive faces are unnerving. Robert Weine directs this German Expressionist film about an evil doctor and his carnival sleepwalker. Shadowy scenes depict a murder and a kidnapping; its twist and turns plus a shocking reveal are as good as any modern story told. The film stands as a great beginning to a long revered genre.


8. Evil Dead 2 (1987)

In 1978, Sam Raimi cast childhood friend, Bruce Campbell, in his first low budget film Within the Woods. After receiving more funding for its remake, Raimi began filming the Evil Dead series, which would also star Campbell. Thanks to Campbell, Evil Dead II is campier than its predecessor, but it isn’t without its moments of demented weirdness and insanity that Raimi capitalizes on. A bridge that disappears leaves the audience feeling abandoned and desolate with nowhere to turn. In addition to perfecting scary fog, Raimi’s full throttle camera work is unnerving as it evokes imagery of being pushed like a freight train with no control and by an unknown force. There is little doubt that Evil Dead II well earned its cult status with horror buffs.


7. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven, already well known for his films Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, wrote and directed this warped and terrifying film. In it, Craven manages to produce one of the scariest figures in modern horror films, Freddy Krueger. With knives for fingers, Freddy terrorizes a group of teenagers when he appears in their dreams, bent on killing them in real life. Craven is a master at gore and takes delight in producing obscene amounts of blood in his films as he creates some fantastically cringe worthy, hide-behind-the-eyes scenes. Nightmare on Elm Street, the first and best Nightmare film would go on to spawn a small franchise that includes nine more films, as well as multiple novels and comic books.


6. Frankenstein (1931)

Based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel of the same name, Director James Whale takes us on the journey of egomaniacal scientist Henry Frankenstein, as he plays God to create a man from his own hands. Whale’s use of light to create high wall shadows effectively produces a sense of doom. And Boris Karloff as the monster is one of the most memorable villains of all time. His sunken cheeks, gangly features and his uneasy, lumbering shuffle all work to create bleak suspense. To add to the film’s legend, its iconic line, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” ranks #49 on American Film Institute’s top movie quotes.


5. Carrie (1976)

Mix a young woman with a disturbing home life, who is bullied at school and who possesses telekinetic powers and it will end in disastrous results. Brian De Palma, who would go on to make Scarface, directed this adaption of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. As Carrie, Sissy Spacek adds enough depth to the character that we feel sympathetic even as she seeks revenge on her classmates, by which time she is truly possessed and no longer has any sense of moral capacity. The prom scene in Carrie continues to be one of the most riveting any horror movie has produced.


4. Halloween (1978)

Fifteen years to the day after murdering his older sister, Michael Myers escapes a mental hospital, intent on murdering his other biological sister, Laurie Strode. Myers seems to easily outwit the party hungry teenagers of Haddonfield, with a the famous Captain Kirk mask and a walk that resembles Boris Karloff’s walk in Frankenstein. In addition to a soundtrack that would rattle any audience, John Carpenter creates a foreboding evening that never seems to end. Carpenter conjures up new and inventive ways to kill the unsuspecting teens; with sex and drugs a sure way to death, being a virgin appears to be the only way to save oneself. As eloquently defined by screenwriter Kevin Williamson in Scream, Carpenter’s formula for how to survive a horror movie would set the precedent for modern horror films.


3. Psycho (1960)

After a long successful career, Psycho stands up as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Hitchcock redefined suspense and effectively ushered in new era in horror films. The infamous shower scene introduced a yet unused element to the genre and his introduction of a different kind of villain in Norman Bates was a shock to audiences who were previously used to easily decipherable villains such as Frankenstein or Nosferatu. Much credit goes to Anthony Perkins who expertly depicts a character that could be an all-American jock or boy next door, if only he were not a psychotic serial killer. While much of the violence is not actually shown but rather inferred, the film nonetheless would cause many to begin locking the bathroom door when they showered.


2. The Exorcist (1973)

Inspired by real life events, The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards and was the first horror movie to receive a nomination for Best Picture. Director William Friedkin, who would win one of the two Oscars the movie received, crafted a unique experience, not yet seen on screen, including a head that turns without reason, projectile vomiting and the levitation of a possessed young girl. As supernatural forces possess Regan McNeil, the film becomes terrifying because of her complete loss of control over her body and her actions. Key to the success of the movie was Linda Blair’s look. There is little trace of Blair and her evil eyes, straw like hair and face boils are ultimately convincing that her soul is actually demonically possessed.


1. The Shining (1980)

Few would dispute that Stephen King is the master of horror and even fewer would dispute Stanley Kubrick’s ability to craft a psychological thriller. Combine these two and you get my pick for the scariest movie of all time. Both Kubrick and King play on our fears with precision and skill. The fear of being abandoned, far away with barely a link to society and the fear of a huge, empty hotel with more than enough nooks and crannies for any sort of nefarious situation to unfold. At the same time though, Kubrick makes small places like a bathroom, a kitchen cabinet or a small window to climb through seem minute and vulnerable. In one of his best roles, Jack Nicholson perfectly portrays Jack Torrance, Average Joe writer who descends into madness. Although King is said to have been disappointed with Kubrick’s adaption, both the book and the movie stand as great additions to the horror genre.


Honorable mentions

Rosemary’s Baby, Scream, Texas Chainsaw Massacre