News

The 10 Scariest Horror Movies Ever

We asked, you voted. From demonic possessions and cursed TVs to haunted hotels and killer clowns, here are movies that scared RT users the most.

by | October 29, 2020 | Comments

If you were poking around RT a week and a half or so ago, you might have come across a little poll we were taking on the site to try and determine the Scariest Movie Ever. Based on other lists and suggestions from the RT staff, we pulled together 40 of the scariest movies ever made and asked you to vote for the one that terrified you the most. As it happens, a British broadband service comparison website decided to conduct a science experiment to determine the same thing, and their results were… surprising, to say the least. Did Rotten Tomatoes readers agree with the findings? Read on to find out what our fans determined were the 10 Scariest Horror Movies Ever.


1. The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist

(Photo by ©Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

You may not agree that The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever, but it probably also isn’t much of a surprise to see it at the top of our list — with a whopping 19% of all the votes cast. William Friedkin’s adaptation of the eponymous novel about a demon-possessed child and the attempts to banish said demon became the highest-grossing R-rated horror film ever and the first to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (it earned nine other nominations and took home two trophies). But outside of its critical and commercial bona fides, the film is well-known for the mass hysteria it inspired across the country, from protests over its controversial subject matter to widespread reports of nausea and fainting in the audience. Its dramatic pacing and somewhat dated effects may seem quaint compared to some contemporary horror, but there’s no denying the power the film continues to have over those who see it for the first time.


2. Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary

(Photo by ©A24)

Writer-director Ari Aster made a huge splash with his feature directorial debut, a dark family drama about the nature of grief couched within a supernatural horror film. Toni Collette earned a spot in the pantheon of great Oscar snubs with her slowly-ratcheted-up-to-11 performance as bedeviled mother Annie, but the movie’s biggest shock came courtesy of… Well, we won’t spoil that here. Suffice it to say Hereditary struck such a nerve with moviegoers that it instantly turned Aster into a director to watch and shot up to second place on our list.


3. The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring

(Photo by Michael Tackett/©Warner Bros. Pictures)

James Wan has staked out a place among the modern masters of horror, directing films like SawDead SilenceInsidious, and this inspired-by-true-events chiller based on the experiences of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens, best known for their work on the strange case that inspired the Amityville Horror movies (which played a part in The Conjuring 2), were portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who grounded the effective jump scares and freak-out moments with a believable world-weariness. Together, Wan and his co-leads found fresh terror in familiar genre tropes, and the end result is a sprawling cinematic universe that only continues to grow.


4. The Shining (1980)

THE SHINING, Jack Nicholson, 1980.

(Photo by ©Warner Brothers)

Literally dozens of Stephen King’s novels and stories have been adapted for the big screen, and several of those films are considered classics today, like CarrieMisery, and Pet Sematary (and that doesn’t even account for non-horror stuff like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me). But the mother of them all is easily Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. A marvel of set and production design and a genuinely unnerving take on the traditional haunted house story, The Shining features a host of memorable images and an iconic Jack Nicholson performance. The film’s relatively few jumps scares are still absolutely chilling, but its true power lies in the way it crawls under your skin and makes you experience Jack Torrance’s slow descent into madness. It’s rightfully considered one of the greatest horror films ever made, and it ranked fourth in our poll.


5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

(Photo by Everett Collection)

While the top four movies on this list collectively garnered 42% of the total votes counted, they were followed by six films that all earned around 3% of the vote each. In other words, these last six films were separated by no more than 60 votes. The first of them is this low-budget slasher directed and co-written by Tobe Hooper, very loosely inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein. Texas Chainsaw’s grimy aesthetic helped lend it an air of authenticity, which made it all the more frightening (“This could actually happen, you guys!”), and the massive, menacing presence of Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface paved the way for other brutes like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Multiple attempts have been made to breathe new life into the franchise — and we have another one on the way — but none have equaled the original in sheer, over-the-top, power tool-inspired terror.


6. The Ring (2002)

The Ring

(Photo by ©DreamWorks courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s always a tricky proposition to take something that works well for one culture and try to translate that formula successfully for another, but Gore Verbinski managed that with The Ring. A remake of Japanese director Hideo Nakata’s acclaimed thriller about a cursed videotape, Verbinski’s take kept the original film’s striking visual imagery — the  ghost of a young girl in a white dress with long black hair covering her face — and found that it scared the hell out of audiences no matter where they were from. While the film wasn’t as well-regarded as its predecessor, it features a committed performance from a then up-and-coming Naomi Watts, and for many, it served as an introduction to East Asian horror cinema.


7. Halloween (1978)

Halloween

(Photo by ©Compass International Pictures)

Coming in at the seventh spot on our list is the film that introduced the world to all-time scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and put John Carpenter on the map. Halloween is frequently cited as one of the earliest examples of the slasher genre as we know it today, and while it may not feature the same kind of realistic gore we’ve come to expect of films in that category, it packs a lot of tension and some inventive thrills in a relatively small-scale package. The film’s legacy is also fairly untouchable: Michael Myers’ mask has become the stuff of legend, and the giant, unstoppable killer and the “final girl” have become ingrained in the horror lexicon. There’s a reason the franchise is still going after more than 40 years.


8. Sinister (2012)

Sinister

(Photo by ©Summit Entertainment)

For those who didn’t read the “scientific study” mentioned at the top, we’ve finally come to the film it crowned the scariest. Before he joined the MCU with 2016’s Doctor Strange, director Scott Derrickson had racked up a few horror films, a couple of which earned cult followings. One of them was this small-scale haunted house/possession story about a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) who moves his wife and kids into a house where a family was murdered, only to discover the new place might already have a rather evil tenant. Writer C. Robert Cargill was reportedly inspired to pen the script based on a nightmare he had after watching The Ring, and the story does share a minor similarity with that film, what with the creepy snuff film angle. But for many who saw it, the dramatic reveals and creepy set pieces far outweighed any recycled genre tropes that might have been present. Plus, there’s at least one report out there that says it’s the scariest movie ever made, so that must count for something.


9. Insidious (2010)

Insidious

(Photo by ©FilmDistrict courtesy Everett Collection)

James Wan has already shown up higher on the list, but before he and Patrick Wilson made The Conjuring, they worked together on this supernatural thriller about a young boy who falls into a coma and begins to channel a malevolent spirit. The bare bones of the story weren’t the most groundbreaking, but frequent Wan collaborator Leigh Whannell infused it with a compelling enough mythology that it spawned three more installments. Wan also stated that Insidious was meant to be something of a corrective to the outright violence of Saw, which compelled him to craft something on a more spiritual level, and the end result is an effective chiller featuring what is frequently regarded one of the best jump scares ever put on screen.


10. IT (2017)

Stephen King's IT

(Photo by Brooke Palmer/©Warner Bros.)

The fear of clowns is a very real thing, even if it’s become so commonplace to announce it that it feels disingenuous. If you needed any further evidence, we direct you to the box office haul of 2017’s IT, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which went on to beat The Exorcist’s 44-year record as the highest-grossing horror film ever. Oh, and of course, its 10th-place finish on this list. Andy Muschietti’s big-budget adaptation drew on nostalgia to tell its story of children scarred by trauma, while Bill Skarsgard’s take on Pennywise the evil, shapeshifting clown was bizarre and unsettling in all the right ways. Add a healthy dose of jump scares, a handful of impressive set pieces, and some top-notch CGI, and you’ve got a recipe for a horror film that’s both fun and full of scares.


Thumbnail image by ©FilmDistrict courtesy Everett Collection

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

Thanksgiving Box Office Broadway Character Guide zero dark thirty Red Carpet Apple Lifetime Christmas movies Apple TV Plus Election Disney Plus Warner Bros. Family Set visit HBO Nominations witnail blaxploitation teaser remakes Tumblr RT21 documentary Hulu Funimation X-Men Sneak Peek TV renewals Travel Channel 4/20 Paramount SundanceTV what to watch CBS YA Comedy Central marvel comics free movies HFPA emmy awards Walt Disney Pictures cancelled japanese football canceled TV shows 2018 revenge The Purge green book spinoff IFC Films comic book movies laika binge zombies kaiju Rocky YouTube singing competition archives nfl Arrowverse women video on demand doctor who Polls and Games a nightmare on elm street Action hidden camera Best and Worst Food Network fresh movies TV finale quibi Certified Fresh mockumentary Comedy high school cooking Avengers The Arrangement spain action-comedy award winner unscripted Pet Sematary comic books hollywood comics Anna Paquin 24 frames rom-coms Awards Wes Anderson Shondaland Mary poppins talk show thriller San Diego Comic-Con Mudbound satire slashers Mindy Kaling richard e. Grant miniseries tv talk Lionsgate GLAAD Cosplay Fantasy Valentine's Day Superheroe golden globes American Society of Cinematographers feel good superhero NBC Universal VOD BET Awards vs. Starz streaming Tomatazos Pop TV DC streaming service Pixar 2021 93rd Oscars ghosts docuseries marvel cinematic universe The CW boxing dramedy Video Games true crime versus Film A24 scary Grammys trailers Music cancelled television Britbox Freeform MTV Trivia dexter Television Academy Holidays Nickelodeon USA indie romance Crunchyroll posters medical drama Podcast sports toy story reboot new zealand Rock anime Horror police drama Netflix Christmas movies political drama Fargo toronto adaptation Amazon Mary Tyler Moore Musical reviews Elton John First Reviews Heroines SDCC cats criterion pirates of the caribbean cults politics Disney streaming service king kong TV Land stand-up comedy GIFs rt archives FX on Hulu Emmys VICE Marathons PBS Image Comics book 99% hist japan french festival aapi Winter TV Tubi Teen kids 73rd Emmy Awards 71st Emmy Awards CBS All Access El Rey TNT spider-man Syfy Holiday 2020 BBC One Marvel Television NBA ID Spike 90s venice Watching Series based on movie 20th Century Fox Paramount Plus Emmy Nominations IMDb TV MSNBC elevated horror all-time Turner Classic Movies superman WGN godzilla ABC Signature batman Adult Swim Logo Mystery sequels BAFTA Sci-Fi obituary Peacock 1990s jamie lee curtis Chilling Adventures of Sabrina TCA Winter 2020 cancelled TV shows Musicals Superheroes hispanic critic resources james bond DirecTV Martial Arts TV movies halloween tv comedies TCA Awards AMC Plus Song of Ice and Fire travel E! art house deadpool know your critic Year in Review Star Wars crime Photos psychological thriller Tags: Comedy Film Festival mission: impossible Amazon Prime south america Sundance TV legend YouTube Red name the review rotten Chernobyl international game show Interview ratings Schedule Biopics comiccon lord of the rings game of thrones Binge Guide Ghostbusters nbcuniversal screenings italian children's TV National Geographic wonder woman golden globe awards 2017 leaderboard TBS Comic Book dreamworks Comics on TV Opinion crime drama Trailer franchise SXSW Tokyo Olympics Universal Pictures Classic Film VH1 Pride Month cops mcc Awards Tour foreign 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards live event Amazon Studios saw black comedy sitcom Summer Paramount Network popular indiana jones blockbuster psycho dc Neflix 45 cars ITV adventure 007 christmas movies scary movies casting discovery theme song HBO Go Dark Horse Comics films twilight spider-verse Television Critics Association Rom-Com Sundance TCM blockbusters A&E 2015 sopranos ESPN Oscars crossover Marvel DGA worst movies GoT Hallmark Christmas movies serial killer Comic-Con@Home 2021 Pirates royal family Masterpiece biography canceled robots spanish language Winners OWN olympics Esquire PaleyFest parents Epix Disney razzies breaking bad Ellie Kemper facebook OneApp Reality Competition TCA 2017 jurassic park Crackle The Walt Disney Company First Look ABC Hollywood Foreign Press Association mutant social media Star Trek slasher Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comic period drama Shudder Academy Awards Pacific Islander RT History supernatural AMC cinemax Vudu Brie Larson Fall TV new york Animation FXX debate child's play Showtime Fox News Writers Guild of America halloween Toys scorecard heist movie basketball HBO Max Discovery Channel Lifetime Prime Video prank Sony Pictures stoner sequel Country book adaptation Drama CW Seed TV One dark Fox Searchlight Sundance Now The Academy BET series 2019 Nat Geo universal monsters Mary Poppins Returns genre Trophy Talk disaster BBC America Alien new star wars movies target Lucasfilm Cartoon Network Legendary FOX Quiz concert Extras Reality justice league classics harry potter cancelled TV series movie Premiere Dates Cannes The Witch Spring TV historical drama die hard 21st Century Fox Captain marvel LGBTQ 79th Golden Globes Awards Kids & Family Pop natural history science fiction technology Netflix IFC critics strong female leads Disney Channel 2016 asian-american Apple TV+ crime thriller Turner anthology nature video spy thriller MCU Columbia Pictures diversity NYCC CNN Western young adult gangster cartoon Black Mirror independent scene in color The Walking Dead comic book movie australia Endgame trophy Christmas animated CMT E3 boxoffice chucky Amazon Prime Video screen actors guild LGBT suspense Super Bowl Baby Yoda composers telelvision space biopic APB Women's History Month documentaries Countdown Bravo Ovation renewed TV shows 72 Emmy Awards docudrama hispanic heritage month WarnerMedia dceu kong dogs joker vampires live action black USA Network rt labs critics edition TCA monster movies festivals Black History Month streaming movies Calendar Exclusive Video DC Comics Hear Us Out news dragons ViacomCBS Rocketman TruTV zombie PlayStation romantic comedy YouTube Premium BBC sag awards adenture rotten movies we love Marvel Studios History Acorn TV Creative Arts Emmys best mob rt labs ABC Family Stephen King latino television worst President TIFF DC Universe TLC fast and furious werewolf directors See It Skip It Disney+ Disney Plus war spanish New York Comic Con Tarantino stop motion FX Infographic Instagram Live king arthur Spectrum Originals Hallmark transformers aliens