The Top Five Scariest Movies

Our month-long countdown concludes with the five most frightening flicks of all time

Well, it’s finally here. After four weeks, 26 scary movies, a handful of severed hands, and many, many vitamin-D-deficient children, we get to my picks for the FIVE scariest movies of all time. Many of you may contend against my choices — particularly my selection for #1. (But of course you should, these are my choices.) But, hopefully, no one can question the psychological ramification that these have had on viewers. And by viewers, I mean me.

So here they are. Not only are they my top choices, they are also some of the foremost examples of their respective scare sub-genres: the supernatural, the god-help-us-this-could-really-happen, the stalker/slasher, the demonic possession, and the creature feature. Not surprisingly, each was helmed by a visionary director. And the top four have some of the most recognizable and influential film scores of all time. First, get yourself caught up — check out my picks for 31-25, 24-18, 17-11, and 10-6. [SIGNUP]

Ready? Let’s go!

5. The Ring (2002)
One of the more recent films on this list was also one of the first American remakes of a J-horror film (in this case Ringu). After the box office success of The Ring, film studios began green-lighting remake after remake of J-horror flicks — to variable success (The Grudge, great; Dark Waters, eh). But The Ring stands above the rest because director Gore Verbinski maintained many of the creepy visuals from the Japanese original when creating this visual nightmare. One particular image that has been seared into my mind is the dark-haired girl clawing and climbing out of the television. Deborah L. said: “I had to get up and leave the room when I saw her crawl through the television. I didn’t resume watching until I knew that section was over. I was in my late 30s at the time — LOL. That was the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen and had trouble erasing that image from my mind for a very long time!” Katie A. agreed: “I still have dreams where that little evil biatch is trying to kill me. I was traumatized by that one. And I was 20 years old when I saw it.”

The bogeyman may not just be something waiting for you in a closet. Sometimes it can be a pale, dark-haired girl waiting for you in your flat screen.

4. Halloween (1978)
As Michael Callahan (former Philly Mag staffer) said, it’s “the first — and best — of the slasher movies. Truly, truly terrifying.” The conventional wisdom is the bigger the budget the better the movie. But from the gritty look, the plain clothing, the use of a painted Captain Kirk mask for Mike Meyers, the stingy three-note musical theme, and the vocal prowess of Jamie Lee Curtis, John Carpenter proved that less is sometimes more.

3. Psycho (1960)
Even today, Hitchcock’s movies are indelibly frightening. From the becalmed birds covering the driveway to Grace Kelly breaking into the neighbor’s apartment, Hitchcock proved that “scary” could be accomplished without gore. Yet with Bernard Herrmann’s horrifying score and the quick edits, you would swear that you could see the knife stabbing Janet Leigh.

Not to mention Hitchcock’s blatant disregard of typical storytelling, e.g., not killing off your protagonist in the first hour. Or that final scene where they slowly turn Mrs. Bates around.

For one reader, W., the movie was particularly traumatic: “My buddy Don and I were about 10 years old and went to the movies together. All was okay until Janet Leigh got into the shower and then that music and that ice pick. Well … let’s not go there. When the scene ended there we were, my buddy and I — red-blooded, all America boys — locked in each others’ arms. That’s the last time we hugged or would go to the movies without someone seeing it in advance.”

2. The Exorcist (1973)
What else can be said about this over-the-top, did-that-girl-really-just-say-that horror? I always found comfort in knowing I could escape Regan — seriously, just don’t go into the room! But others were not that lucky. From Michael I: “When it was re-released a few years ago with deleted scenes [and] Regan came spider-walking down the stairwell backwards I couldn’t stop myself from yelling “oh HELL no!” in the theater. Didn’t sleep for three nights after that.” While demonic possession movies are still quite popular, none can equal or surpass the genuine terror of Friedkin’s masterpiece.

1. Jaws (1975)
I wasn’t safe anywhere. Not in the community swimming pool. Not at the beach. Not even in the bathtub. I was convinced, as a child, that Jaws was there. Waiting for my little feet to dangle in the water. No matter that the YMCA pool was chlorinated or that a great white simply couldn’t fit in the tub, I was steadfast in my belief that it was possible. No, not possible — extremely likely. (This was similar to my sincere belief that a snake would climb up through the toilet’s plumbing and bite me.)

I can’t even remember the first time I saw Steven Spielberg’s tour de force. It may have been an edited version on TV. But no matter, I still knew that there was a shark waiting to gnaw on my tasty leg. I knew that the moment I heard bum-bum… bum-bum… bum-bum, a dorsal fin and razor sharp teeth were close behind.

And I wasn’t alone. Friends talk about being terrorized as children when parents meanly screamed “SHARK!” at them in the pool. Another friend simply won’t go into the ocean unless the water is crystal clear — and even then there is still constant surveillance. Reader Gloria H. said that “Jaws kept me out of the ocean then and to be honest…. I still look around…;-)” So do I, Gloria. So do I.

Many may not consider this to be a true horror movie. But this scary creature flick (which was the original summer blockbuster) led to our national obsession with shark terror. And Shark Week. And my own hatred of that damn Universal Studios ride.

That’s it! I hope the countdown inspires you and some friends, this Halloween weekend, to get together, watch something on (or off) the list and scream yourselves silly. I also — sincerely — hope that when you get home there are no people in masks. Or a clown-doll waiting for you under your bed.

Happy Halloween!

And here are a few final suggestions of movies not on the list.
From Vicki Glembocki: I saw the De Niro Cape Fear in the movie theater and had to keep running out of the theater, literally, because I was so scared I couldn’t bear to even hear it. The scene when he bites off the girl’s cheek haunts me still.

Tim Mettey: Arachnophobia. This one makes you feel like you have things crawling all over you for weeks after you see it. Great family scary movie!

Jill Rothmeeler: Growing up, the movie that scared me was The Wizard of Oz. I would hide my eyes each time the Wicked Witch or the Flying Monkeys were on the screen. My dad could not understand why I was scared because I had watched it so many times and knew how it ended. Didn’t matter — still scared me!!