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The Playlist Team Picks Their 13 Scariest Movies

The Playlist Team Picks Their 13 Scariest Movies

On the off chance you haven’t literally tripped over a pumpkin in the last five minutes, we’re here to remind you that tonight we celebrate the single greatest excuse ever invented to get trashed and wear skimpy clothing: Halloween. But of course, in addition to its status for some as a nationwide night of consequence-free hedonistic abandon, for others, Halloween has a deeper, more rarefied spiritual function: as a time to discover the limits of rationality; to test the boundaries of your relationship with the unknown and unknowable; in short, to scare yourself shitless.

Horror movies have long held a, well, hallowed position when it comes to the weird but primal desire to peep into the abyss, and if you’re searching for ideas for this week, you can certainly check out our rundown of 10 New Horror BluRays To Haunt Your Halloween, or look into the 5 Best and 5 Worst Horror Remakes, or learn how to shriek in Japanese with 10 Foreign Language Horrors or even take a look through Martin Scorsese’s 11 Scariest Films. But rather than do another list this year, we thought instead we’d gather around the Playlist campfire and tell each other stories of our own personal scariest films. If you’ve peeled enough grapes for the eyeball bucket and staunched the bloodflow from your carving injury, why not pull up a stick and a marshmallow and join us.

The Descent” (2005) — Kimber Myers
I am a city girl at heart; the closest I’ll get to a cave is a basement apartment, and the nearest thing I’ve done to camping involved drafty cabin with a hot plate and dusty fridge. So if “The Descent” were only about six adventurous women trying to find their way out of an undiscovered cave system, I’d be terrified enough. But in fact the moment early on in Neil Marshall’s film where Sarah (Shauna McDonald) is stuck in a particularly tight tunnel is just where I begin to unravel, and it only gets worse from there. Once the women begin to be hunted by the cave’s freaky and freakish denizens, it’s all over for me. The sounds of their primal clicking and skittering across the cave floor has me moaning, which at least provides a nice break from screaming-devolving-into-nervous-laughter. What makes it worse for me is watching the bonds of friendship between the women quickly dissolve while the ever-dwindling number of survivors discover how far they’ll go to stay alive. On my most recent viewing, I was finally smart enough to watch with the lights on, which is probably a disservice to the dark palette director Marshall and DP Sam McCurdy created. That said, I still full-on screamed a half-dozen times. And then I stopped counting. Unlike the American edit, the original ending doesn’t give any release and so I spent the rest of the night jumping at shadows and the sounds of the kids next door scurrying across the floor.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) — Katie Walsh
At age 21, I was cultivating myself as a horror buff and had a lot of catching up to do on the classics. That summer I was living with my grandparents and interning one day a week, so I had a lot of time on my hands, which I thought could be put to the good use of my education. By “education,” I mean walking to the local video rental store to rent horror DVDs. One night I decided to finally go for the notorious “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which I had long planned to watch but had never gotten around to seeing… perhaps by design, even just the title terrified me. They only had it on VHS, so I rented it and took it home to watch on the VCR in the guest room. So there I watched it, alone, sitting cross-legged about a foot away from the TV (I didn’t want to turn the volume up, lest my grandparents worry about the sound of screaming/chainsaws buzzing). “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” didn’t scare me in the jump/scream way that slashers do. No, the jump/scream is far too easy an experience, allowing the flood of relief that comes from the reveal of fake scare, or of rooting for a final girl as she scrambles just out of reach of the killer. Nope, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” wasn’t that push and pull of suspense and catharsis, it upset me on a deeply existential level, permeating my body and brain with a sick sense of dread that lasted for days (years?). Most truly scary horror films will be successful because they tap into some kind of spiritual, existential, or physical anxiety that troubles a core belief we hold about life or humanity. For me, with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the scene that is still seared on my consciousness is when wayward Pam finds herself in a room where the furnishings and decorations are made of human bones and body parts. The idea of the human body being used for some purpose other than what it is intended to do is one of the most disturbing, unsettling, and just plain philosophically wrong things I can conceive of. For other people, it might be different, perhaps amputation or the emptiness of space or claustrophobia or cannibalism. For me, it’s human bone lamps. That it’s such a mundane item exacerbates the sheer wrongness of it all. And that director Tobe Hooper was inspired by real events, included the serial killer Ed Gein, makes it even worse. The grungy, dusty, worn-down, pseudo-realistic aesthetic, and the warning that “the film you are about to see is real,” (I knew it wasn’t real, guys) added to the simple but shockingly effective execution of this classic. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” proves all you need is a compelling idea (and to stick to it) in order to truly scare audiences. And no, I haven’t revisited it.

The Beyond” (1981) — Gabe Toro
A movie like “The Beyond” isn’t remembered like a movie, it gets remembered as a dream. For a short while, I was convinced I hadn’t actually seen the film as I sat down and watched the Lucio Fulci classic, but that I had shut my eyes and allowed it to play in the deepest portions of my subconscious. The picture’s story, involving a gateway opening into Hell, feels like borderline free association, with gauzy sequences melting into each other as they are guided by the spooky-inconsistent dubbing. But those images are unforgettable, as it always is with Fulci’s films; “The Beyond” is the sort of film that makes you scoff at the cheap gimmick of 3D, with the trademark Fulci eye violence here the product of an itchy tarantula, taking you inside a hellish world where man and animal are no different in their savage goals. It’s the first death that lets you know that “The Beyond” isn’t child’s play, and it starts an avalanche of nightmarish ideas that proves no one quite knew zombies as well as Fulci. As they shuffle back to life, Fulci’s zombies decay and lunge towards the screen, and there’s something existentially troubling about that never-ending horde, escaping from a transient mist as if rejected from Hell. The ending to “The Beyond” is the rare final scene that seems ambiguous at first, and more maddeningly vague each further time you see it. It is a move from the real into the unreal, a shift from what you know as a movie to a bent reality where you can’t truly move from your seat until you acknowledge that Fulci has done the impossible and shattered the boundaries between the viewer and the horror. It’s the only movie I can’t watch with the lights off.

The Blair Witch Project” (1999) — Jessica Kiang
With so many undeniably brilliant films here, it’s humbling to have to admit that when I think about fear in the cinema, I don’t go to Kubrick or Friedkin or Roeg or even to slasher or to giallo, instead I see that pre-millennial version of myself squirming away from the screen in abject, unprecedented terror at the image of Mike standing in the corner at the end of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez‘s “The Blair Witch Project.” But just as you can’t pick who you love, you can’t pick what scares your face numb, and so braving the derision of the consensus that seems to have retrospectively agreed that it’s like, totally lame, I state for the record that this was the film that broke me. It may not be the best scary movie ever, but it was the movie that was best at scaring me. Bear in mind, while contemplating the purchase of a pair of jelly shoes and worrying about Y2K, or whatever I was doing in 1999, I had really never been genuinely scared by a film—I mean, I’d jumped and been momentarily creeped out by stuff , but nothing had ever wormed its way into my brain and lain across my torso like a cold dead thing. And after two horror courses as part of my film degree, I was pretty sure I was invincible. Hearing about it first via its innovative (for the time) viral campaign, I had duly snickered over the reports of people “thinking it was real” and at the stories of faintings and I dunno, hearts exploding during screenings—God, people could be such pussies! Ha. Joke was on me. Palms sweating, blood rushing in my ears, I remember pulling out all sorts of tricks to try and calm myself: for a while I only looked at the top right hand of the screen; I started reciting high school poetry under my breath; I went to the bathroom (which I never do mid-movie); the last 10 minutes I watched through my fingers with my thumbs in my ears; none of it worked. It was inside my head. And worse, somehow, was my isolation: at one particularly unbearable crescendo moment (handprints), I glanced, choking on my own pounding heart, at my friend Ado. He was yawning. Now, I had earlier peeled a banana for this guy because he has some sort of phobia about banana skins, so, yeah, he’s afraid of fruit, and he was yawning through the film. I felt so alone. Yes, a good portion of my reaction was probably that it was one of my first encounters with shaky cam (some poor chap a row ahead actually vomited). But that doesn’t take away from the film’s uncanny achievement: while for many it’s little more than a punchline about snotty crying, and genre aficionados roll their eyes and delete my number from their phones when I tell them, in “The Blair Witch Project,” for reasons I can’t explain, I absolutely met my horror Waterloo.

The Shining” (1980) — Rodrigo Perez
So, I’m not a huge proponent of articles that essentially shame yourself—“10 classic movies I’ve never seen,” “10 amazing movies that I secretly hate,” etc.—you’re not doing anyone any favors here other than an audience that’s probably laughing at you. Most confessions like these usually only serve to underline your ignorance so it’s best to leave them in your unpublished wake. But contradicting this notion somewhat, I’ve chosen “The Shining” as notable to me personally, because it was a movie I hated the first time I saw it as a kid (believe it was early high school). I thought it was grossly over the top, totally un-subtle, just a torrent of shrill horribleness. Being a Stanley Kubrick fan already, I mostly thought to myself, “Gee, what happened to him here?” (in my ignorant-at-the-time meager defense, it also opened to mixed/negative reviews; here’s Variety’s original negative review). Which is ironic now because since then “The Shining” has become easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen (close runners-up are “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). It just creeps me out to unholy levels. It’s also got a wicked sense of humor, and, perhaps more powerful to me than outright scary, an uncanny power to unnerve; it’s so disquieting it almost undoes your equilibrium. This is what “The Shining” does to me, it makes me deeply anxious—there’s certainly been an occasion or three when it’s come on late at night and in its more frightening scenes I’ve screamed bloody murder for the remote and changed the channel. In truth, not all of “The Shining” is even that scary. The first half’s devilish Jack Nicholson conversations with ghosts are wickedly and deliciously evil, yes, but it’s later, as the movie rises to its crescendo, and that freakishly discordant Penderecki music comes on, that the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up and I become progressively more unhinged. And those scenes alone—plus those super fucking creepy flash shots of the twins and the bear suggestively kneeling at the butler’s feet, oh Christ, that will give me nightmares for weeks. And props to Shelley Duvall who just gives sheer sheet-white terror an unforgettably alarming face. Not remotely the most original pick, but clearly that’s not the point here.

Jaws” (1975) — Erik McClanahan
Steven Spielberg’s best film can’t be fully described as a horror movie, but it’s nonetheless terrifying. So much so that, upon seeing it on TV repeatedly at a young, impressionable age, it made me afraid to swim in the deep end of swimming pools. Soon as my feet couldn’t touch the bottom, I was sure a giant Great White (“that’s a 20-footer”… “twenty-five”) was going to pull me down and make me its lunch. Silly as it is to think about that being a legitimate fear for a young boy, the film still retains its power to scare, continuing to flood my psyche as an adult. Just the idea that in the ocean you are helpless… at the bottom of the food chain, and you can’t possibly know what’s beneath you. Spielberg exploits this very basic fear, playing the audience like a harp from hell. The fact that the mechanical shark didn’t work, of course, turned out to be a blessing for the production, forcing a very young Spielberg to obscure the terror and hide the shark for most the film. Though when it does rear its head, the nightmarish images are burned in your memory for life. After seeing this film, it’s hard not to think about John Williams iconic score, or again, just how helpless you are, every time you go swimming in the deep. Or at least it has been for me. “Jaws” is also a wonderful adventure tale, brilliantly structured, shot, acted and made up of characters and indelible moments that get you to care about the people and heighten the tension, for fear one of them could be picked off at any moment. Some may find it quaint by today’s standards, or maybe you’ve forgotten just how great this film is. I recommend you revisit it, but not right before you go swimming.

Poltergeist” (1982) — Diana Drumm
As a child goth wannabe who didn’t know it, I was obsessed with death and darkness, which, compounded with a precocious appreciation for classic films, made for an over-the-top appreciation of Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Around the Brownie campfire or just waiting for the school bus, I was the go-to-gal for the macabre, taking inspiration from “Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and receiving a few complaints from parents. Suffice it to say, I relished the feeling of spine-chilling creepiness. So when my mother turned on “Poltergeist” and said, “It’s a pretty scary movie,” I was pumped. Roughly 8 or 9 years old, this was my first modern (post-1960s), real (not “Scooby Doo“) horror movie. I had no clue. To this day, I still get creeped out by trees too close to windows and little tow-headed children staring into static-ridden televisions. But don’t we all? Even so, the most scarring moment for me was when the flesh peeled off of one of the paranormal investigator’s faces. I had not yet seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (not-so-coincidentally, “Poltergeist” was co-written and co-produced by Steven Spielberg) and most other flesh melting/pulling I had seen was in the context of a very distant costume horror, not someone’s bathroom in the suburbs. The flying furniture and dinnerware seemed old hat. Demons talking to children? Been there, done that. Oh, a skeleton in a pool. Scary. Yeah, that lady from “Teen Witch” was creepy, but hey, that was her job… But a man staring at speedily decomposing, maggoty meat and then going to the mirror to witness not only his flesh rotting but his own hands pulling it off (spooky production note, the hands were Spielberg’s) was the most disturbing thing I had ever witnessed, and possibly seen since, excluding “The Human Centipede” and its graphic ilk. “Poltergeist” was on TV a bit ago (considering the season, it’s probably on right this very second, too) and that scene has stood the test of time in giving me (and many, many others) the creeps. Even just thinking about it… Oh, there’s that chill up the spine and grimace on the face (and that’s not even going into “The Poltergeist Curse”). Happy Halloween, everybody!

Don’t Look Now” (1973) — Drew Taylor
Being a lifelong horror fanatic, at a young age there were movies that you were simply able to read about but never see (either because the movies were obscure and out of print or your parents just wouldn’t let you). “Don’t Look Now,” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, was one of those movies. It was written about endlessly as one of the scariest movies ever, and when I finally got my hands on a copy (a weathered, secondhand VHS number), I was pretty excited, not just because it was a holy grail of horror that my eager little eyes had never gotten to feast upon, but because there was also just as high a probability that I wouldn’t like it. That it would be too slow or old-fashioned or that the lore that had surrounded and built up on it would far outweigh the actual content. Boy, was I wrong. The movie had a palpable sense of atmosphere and dread (later I would learn that it was based on a piece of material that was written by Daphne du Maurier, the same woman who came up with “Rebecca” and “The Birds“) that disquieted me and the sex scene, graphic and expertly put together, far outweighed the flashes of nudity that I had seen in other movies (like “Die Hard“). But the ending of “Don’t Look Now” is what really destroyed me, and probably everyone else. It led to sleepless nights and endless anxiety. If by some wild twist of fate, you haven’t seen it, I am not going to give it away here, but it is something that will stick with you, whether you want it to or not. As forbidden cinematic fruit, “Don’t Look Now” was, and is, deliciously terrifying.

Kill List” (2011) — Cory Everett
As someone who grew up in a house filled with Universal Monsters memorabilia, one of the more disappointing aspects of growing up is that scary movies just aren’t scary for me anymore. As a kid, I was absolutely terrified of vampires and just walking past the horror aisle at the video store could prompt a panic attack and nightmares for weeks. As an adult, I still love horror movies and can appreciate them for a variety of reasons, but they rarely work on me. Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen countless horror films and though I often rile myself up into a state of apprehension when the lights go down, the films invariably find a way to deflate that tension (usually sooner rather than later). The only exception in recent years that never broke the spell for me was a film that defies simple genre classification, Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List.” I’d heard the SXSW buzz and knew it was supposed to be “intense” and “disturbing” and that it had literally made one of our writers feel sick afterwards and that was enough to put it on my Must See list without reading or watching anything else about it. When it finally came around about 6 months later, I knew almost nothing about it other than to brace myself for the worst. The film centers on a former soldier pressured by his wife and their grim financial situation to take the occasional job as a contract killer. I tensed up from the opening frames expecting a shocking outburst of violence or moment when all hell breaks loose to match the wave of pre-release hype, but Wheatley smartly keeps building the tension with an off-kilter tone and an accumulation of small unsettling moments without letting his true designs unravel until the final scenes. Violent but not gratuitous, the easy rapport between leads keeps the film alarmingly watchable even as the rug starts to get pulled out from under you and you’re not even quite sure what kind of film you’re watching anymore. By the time you realize what’s going on, it’s already too late. To further describe what makes this film great would be to rob you of the pleasure of seeing it for yourself.

Zodiac” (2007) — Charlie Schmidlin
One of my constant anxieties in life, likely similar to many others, is not following through with any one project or commitment, and throughout the entirety of David Fincher’s masterful 2007 film “Zodiac,” you get the sense that he’s charting out his own vision of a taskmaster’s ultimate hell. Recounting the decades-long investigation surrounding the San Francisco Bay Zodiac murders in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, Fincher fills every frame with information—dates, names, faces and sounds, and leaves his impeccable cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.) to sort them out for any shred of relevance. However, it’s in the moments of space across his 162-minute film that Fincher uses to evoke an unforgiving fatalism against optimism that lingers long afterwards. The terse stabbing of the couple by the lake, Gyllenhaal’s crawling descent into a suspect’s dimly-lit basement—both are heart-stoppingly built up and shuttered in their own right, but the film’s most searing scene for me is one that combines technical brilliance and a chilling isolation. The nighttime taxicab murder, in which the Zodiac killer shoots a cabbie from the backseat and escapes the scene, is framed from just outside the vehicle; Fincher’s camera slowly pulls back as Vanilla Fudge’s schoolyard-rhyming tune “Bang Bang” rings above panicked phone calls to the police. It’s one of the few more overtly horrific notes in Fincher’s film, but the director’ incessant documentation of the case elsewhere (added on in his superior Director’s Cut) only drives home the larger, terrifying fact that the real killer was never found.

Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) — Kevin Jagernauth
In general, I’m not much of a horror fan and I don’t tend to gravitate toward the genre. The most remarkable thing to me about the original “Friday The 13th” for example, is how boring and poorly made it is; that it ever spawned a single sequel, let alone a still ongoing franchise is beyond me. So, needless to say, otherworldly phenomenon or ruthless, savage killers don’t send a chill up my spine, cinematically speaking. Rather, the most frightening thing to me is when the seemingly ordinary is exposed to be something truly nefarious and dreadful, which is why Roman Polanski’s truly nervy “Rosemary’s Baby” gets me every time. While the movie has its fair share of “scares” (for lack of a better word) late in the picture when all the demonic plot threads start closing in, it only works because the build up to Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) revelation is so shattering (and heartbreaking). Polanski sets the tone right from the start, seeming to shoot scenes just slightly tighter than they should be, boxing Rosemary into a claustrophobic world, one she shares with her husband Guy (John Cassavetes), who seems to be hiding something right from the start. And that sense of being unable to escape, even if the threat isn’t immediately apparent, combined with a growing sense of paranoia is truly scary stuff. Now mix that concoction with the emotions of a newlywed and mother-to-be, it’s potent, compelling, riveting and edge-of-your-set material, one that’ll make you question your own grip on reality.

An American Werewolf in London” (1981) — Ben Brock
It isn’t the most frightening film ever made, or even the most frightening film on this list… but John Landis‘ constantly wrong-footing horror-comedy is still a pretty interesting experience, especially when you’re 13 and your teacher decides to show it to you and your class. It was an eye-opening couple of hours: extraordinary (and award-winning) werewolf transformations, shower sex and Nazi-zombie nightmares, with naïve me, after each moment of unexpected terror, asking my neighbor (who’d seen it before) if the worst was over, only for him to reply “oh no, there’s still the scene in the Underground to come…”. (Actually, the single scariest moment for me is when the body in the woods opens its eyes.) How our teacher got away with it I’m not sure, but we were as grateful as only a group of 13-year olds who’ve just discovered 1980s Jenny Agutter can be—and I, at least, was slightly scarred. “An American Werewolf in London” keeps up the fear in part because it mixes preposterous but still powerful shocks—see, for instance, the bit where the monster-SS burst through the windows of a house—with scintillating gruesome effects, real humor, an outstanding soundtrack (every song has the word “moon” in its title), Muppets references and genuine poignancy (and a depiction of England endlessly amusing to actual English people). It’s a reminder, too, that horror runs on the same few cues, and the right music, the right sound effect, the right shadow can chill you, even in the middle of a scene that seemed like it was going to be comic. So remember: Stay on the road. Keep off the moors…

The Thing” (1982) — Oli Lyttelton
I don’t entirely remember when I first saw John Carpenter‘s “The Thing.” I’m pretty sure that, due to having my head almost continuously in film-related magazines and books from the age of about eight onwards, I’d had some of the film’s more horrific images revealed for me long before I ever saw them in context. But whenever it was that I finally saw John Carpenter’s masterpiece—probably my single favorite horror film, and one of my favorite films period—the previous illicit glimpses didn’t stop me from being entirely freaked out by the whole. The rare worth-a-damn remake (of Howard Hawks‘ worthwhile, but somewhat dated 1951 film “The Thing From Another World,” based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell), it’s scary on the level of the original, “Body Snatchers“-derived film—the idea that anyone could be one of Them, and about to turn on you at any minute. But then it piles on a remote, desolate Antarctic setting, which of all the places in the world, is the one I’d least like to die in. And then, it layers in Rob Bottin‘s still-astonishing visual effects, in which human (and animal) bodies are melded, distorted and shown to contain horrifying secrets. With Kurt Russell leading a cast of grizzled character actor favorites, and John Carpenter at the very peak of his game, it’s something I return to annually, despite it putting the willies up me every single time.

So, no judgments here, it’s your turn. What’s been your scariest movie experience (aside from the “Bratz” movie which I think we can all agree is a touchstone of terror that may never be equaled)? Blow the cobwebs out of our comments section below, and a very scary Halloween to you all. And here’s a treat: 163 horror movies in 2 1/2 minutes.

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