There are numerous films in the horror film genre that claims to be frightening. From those that get the heart rate up and the blood pounding to those that will have you hiding under a cover and sleeping with the light on, the list of films ranges from epic blockbusters to low-budget independent films. But which picture holds the ultimate crown as the King of Fright Night? The film may be a subjective medium, but according to one study, these films provided a terrifying trip for their audiences.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever, but it probably isn’t much of a surprise to see it at the top of our list — with a staggering 19 percent of all the votes cast. William Friedkin’s adaptation of the eponymous novel about a demon-possessed infant and the attempts to banish said demon became the highest-grossing R-rated horror picture ever and the first to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (it got nine additional nominations and brought home two trophies) (it earned nine other nominations and took home two trophies).
But aside from its critical and financial bona fides, the film is well-known for the enormous panic it provoked across the country, from protests over its contentious subject matter to numerous reports of nausea and fainting in the audience. Its dramatic pacing and slightly dated effects may appear quaint compared to some contemporary horror. Still, there’s no disputing the power the picture continues to hold over those who encounter it for the first time.
Ari Aster's feature directorial debut, a dark family drama on the nature of loss set within a supernatural horror film, had a tremendous impact. Toni Collette's performance as beleaguered mother Annie earned her a place in the annals of epic Oscar snubs, but the film's biggest shock came courtesy of… We will not provide the answer here. Hereditary struck such a chord with audiences that Aster immediately became a director to watch and moved up to second place on our list.
The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan has established himself as one of the current masters of horror with films like Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious. This chiller is based on the real-life experiences of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The Warrens, most known for their work on the bizarre case that spawned the Amityville Horror films (which had a role in The Conjuring 2), were represented by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, whose believable world-weariness grounded the effective jump scares and freakout moments. Together, Wan and his co-stars breathed new life into tired genre cliches, resulting in an expansive cinematic universe that continues to expand.
The Shining (1980)
Numerous adaptations of Stephen King‘s books and short tales are regarded as masterpieces, including Carrie, Misery, and Pet Sematary (not to mention non-horror adaptations such as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me). Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining is by far the most influential. The Shining offers a plethora of memorable imagery and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson.
It is a wonder of set and production design and a very unsettling spin on the typical haunted house theme. The comparatively few jump scares are nonetheless unsettling, but the film's genuine strength resides in its ability to crawl under your skin and let you live Jack Torrance's steady spiral into lunacy. It was placed fourth in our survey and is regarded as one of the best horror films ever made.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
While the top four films on this list received a combined 42 percent of the total votes cast, the next six films all received approximately 3 percent of the vote. In other words, these last six films were separated by less than sixty votes. This low-budget slasher film, directed and co-written by Tobe Hooper and largely inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, is the first.
Texas Chainsaw's gritty atmosphere lent it a sense of realism, which made it all the more terrifying (“This could happen, you guys! “), while Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface paved the way for future intimidating villains such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Multiple attempts to breathe new life into the franchise have been made, and another is forthcoming, but none have matched the original in terms of raw, over-the-top, power tool-inspired horror.
The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski was able to successfully convert The Ring's formula from one culture to another, despite the inherent difficulty of doing so. Verbinski's adaptation of Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata's popular horror film about a cursed VHS retained the original film's arresting visual imagery — the ghost of a young girl in a white dress with long black hair hiding her face — and discovered that it terrified audiences worldwide.
Although the picture was not as well-received as its predecessor, it boasts a committed performance by a then-emerging Naomi Watts and served as an introduction to East Asian horror films for many.
The seventh picture on our list is the one that introduced the world to all-time scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and launched the career of director John Carpenter. Halloween is generally considered one of the early examples of the slasher genre as we know it today, and while it may not have the same level of realistic gore we've come to expect from films in this category, it packs a lot of tension and imaginative thrills into a relatively short package.
Michael Myers' mask has become the stuff of folklore, and the “final girl” and the “giant, unstoppable killer” are now part of the horror language. There is a reason why the franchise has lasted for over four decades.
For those who didn't read the “scientific study” referenced in the introduction, we've finally arrived at the film it deemed the scariest. Before joining the MCU with 2016's Doctor Strange, director Scott Derrickson amassed a handful of horror flicks, two of which had cult followings.
One of them was this small-scale haunted house/possession tale about a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) who moves his wife and children into a house where a family was killed, only to learn that the residence may already be occupied by a particularly malevolent entity. According to reports, writer C. Robert Cargill was inspired to write the screenplay by a nightmare he had after viewing The Ring, and the plot does bear a passing resemblance to that picture, given the eerie snuff film viewpoint.
For many viewers, however, the film's dramatic reveals and terrifying set pieces far surpassed any rehashed genre tropes. Additionally, at least one study claims that it is the scariest film ever produced, so that must count for something.
Before James Wan and Patrick Wilson collaborated on The Conjuring, they collaborated on this spooky thriller about a young child who goes into a coma and begins to channel an evil spirit. The story's fundamental bones were not innovative, but frequent Wan collaborator Leigh Whannell imbued it with a captivating enough mythos that it generated three sequels.
Wan also mentioned that Insidious was intended to be an antidote to the blatant violence of Saw, which forced him to create something on a more spiritual level. The resulting film is an incredible chiller with one of the best jumps scares ever filmed.
Clown phobia is a very real phenomenon, even though it has become so popular to declare it that doing so feels insincere. IT surpassed The Exorcist's 44-year record as the highest-grossing horror picture ever. Oh, and it's a position in tenth place on this list.
Andy Muschietti‘s high-budget remake of It leaned on nostalgia to tell its story of traumatized youngsters, while Bill Skarsgard's portrayal of Pennywise the evil clown was weird and scary in all the right ways. Add a good dose of jump scares, several outstanding set pieces, and some top-notch CGI, and you have a recipe for a horror picture that is both entertaining and terrifying.
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