Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary terrified audiences in cinemas across the world earlier this year and was even hailed as the scariest film of all time.
But being frightened is a highly subjective business. Some horror fans savour the splatter of gore, others spine-tingling tension or the rush of a sudden jump scare.
Here’s our selection of 10 other candidates to rival Hereditary for the title of scariest-ever in time for Halloween.
10. The Others (2001)
One of the most atmospheric films ever made in any genre, Alejandro Amenabar’s costume drama stars Nicole Kidman as a governess caring for two children in a remote mansion on the Channel Islands. Both suffer from a severe form of photosensitivity, a condition requiring them to live in perpetual darkness. But the family soon realise they’re not alone...
Belonging in the same category of child-centric haunted house pieces as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and the Spanish language ghost story tradition exemplified by Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and The Orphanage (2007) by J A Bayona, Amenabar’s nerve-rattling film is actually most obviously inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is not recommended for the faint of heart.
9. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Although Oren Peli’s poltergeist feature was hardly the first found footage horror film, its building of suspense is masterly and has seldom been surpassed.
Concerning a young couple who set up cameras in their home to try to determine precisely what is going bump in the night, Paranormal Activity is a low-tech marvel that delivers genuine shocks through little more than the casting of an unexpected shadow or the creak of a bedroom door.
A genuinely stressful experience, the film was a box office sensation and spawned several sequels and spin-offs.
8. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece - the tale of a janitor driven mad while attending to the empty Overlook hotel in the Colorado mountains during the off-season - conjures an ominous, slow-burning sense of dread.
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The threat the violently unhinged Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) represents to his young family becomes ever-more apparent as his grip on sanity loosens and Kubrick’s visions of elevators gushing blood, spectral guests and the hauntingly echoed refrains of the dance bands who entertained in the ballroom decades earlier linger long in the mind.
Famously hated by Stephen King, The Shining reminds us that an author is not always the best judge of their own work. Rodney Ascher’s superb documentary Room 237 (2012) recounts the myriad conspiracy theories and interconnected web of meanings the film’s many fans have found weaved within it.
7. Halloween (1978)
Director John Carpenter’s simple, trembling piano theme is arguably the key to the success of Halloween, the film that set the template for the modern slasher genre that gave us Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees and many other knife-wielding ghouls.
Although it was predated by the masked murderers of Italy’s giallo genre and even American horrors like Psycho (1960) and Black Christmas (1974), Michael Myer’s assault on the suburbs is a superb roller-coaster ride and Jamie Lee Curtis rightly became a star as the Final Girl par excellence.
She will return as Laurie Strode once more in the latest iteration of the franchise later this year.
6. The Exorcist (1973)
For many, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains the scariest movie of all time.
Recounting the demonic possession of 12-year-old Washington girl Reagan (Linda Blair) and the efforts of Catholic priest Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to free her from the beast’s malevolent grasp, Friedkin’s film brilliantly balances creeping dread with grotesque, sacrilegious spectacle.
5. Ring (1998)
Hideo Nakata’s original film adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s haunted video tape novels, themselves inspired by M.R. James’ Casting The Runes (1911), gave the world Sadako and introduced the West to J-Horror in earnest.
Other Asian ghost stories like Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Nakata’s own Dark Water (2002) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) would follow, opening the door for further foreign language hits like Let The Right One In (2008), the Mexican cannibal nightmare We Are What We Are (2013), Under the Shadow and Train to Busan (both 2016).
Gore Verbinkski’s 2002 remake of The Ring starring Naomi Watts was also a monster hit but arguably failed to capture the otherworldly unease of its predecessor.
4. Hellraiser (1987)
Directed by British novelist Clive Barker from his own book The Hellbound Heart (1986), Hellraiser gave the horror pantheon one of its most iconic and alarming villains in the shape of Pinhead, one of the sadomasochistic Cenobites sent from the infernal depths to torment pleasure-seeker Frank Cotton after he toys ill-advisedly with a cursed puzzle box in pursuit of the ultimate sensual experience.
A gruesome, visceral translation of the author’s prose stylings to the screen, Hellraiser blurs the uncomfortable line between sex and death like few others and remains influential. The 2015 Turkish horror Baskin owed a clear debt, for one.
3. Candyman (1992)
One of the most outrageously underrated of all American films – even beyond the horror genre – Bernard Rose’s Candyman is also taken from a Barker story and tells of the hooked-handed ghost of a slave terrorising a rundown Chicago tenement slum, the vengeful spectre summoned whenever an unbeliever dares utter his name five times before a mirror.
A terrifying slasher film in its own right, the film has a profound social conscience and critiques everything from racist urban planning to white academic poverty tourism.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
One of the grainiest, sleaziest and grottiest efforts in the canon, Tobe Hooper’s ode to the simple pleasure of butchering hippie teenagers has rarely been bettered.
From William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) to Jack Hill’s Spider-Baby (1967), redneck horror was not new but the antics of Leatherface and his inbred family crystallised a very American fear of the rural unknown and created a subgenre in their own right, with Hooper’s own Eaten Alive (1976) and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) following in their manic wake.
The final sequence of Leatherface spinning his buzzing chainsaw in the air in frustration as Sally (Marilyn Burns) escapes into the sunrise is simply stunning.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s fake documentary is as influential as they come, completely reshaping the horror landscape and earning $250m in ticket sales on a budget of just $60,000.
The ultimate proof of the maxim “less is more”, Myrick and Sanchez capitalised on an inspired publicity campaign that suggested that the footage their film contained had really been recovered from the video cameras of backpackers lost in the woods, even encouraging the rumour that the actors featured were “missing”. The filmmakers, operating in the naive early days of the internet, also set up a website chronicling the myth of the witch said to be living in the forests outside Burkittsville, Maryland, all of which heightened audience expectations going in.
Absolutely terrifying because it dared to leave so much to the viewers’ imagination, The Blair Witch Project also contains one of the most devastating climaxes in cinema history.
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