What's the Scariest Horror Movie?
In which I scare the heck out of myself to answer a crucial question
I avoided horror movies for years growing up. As a kid I’d nervously avert my eyes during theatrical trailers for hauntings and exorcisms, convinced the events of the full-length features were depraved beyond my wildest imaginings. And yet some part of me would mentally bookmark these films for later all the same, a quiet hope that I might one day be a bit braver. Or, you know, more confident that Samara was not gonna crawl out of my TV screen.
Today I’m still far from fearless, but for whatever it’s worth I’ve since watched a whole bunch of scary movies. Ever the completionist, I often pick a franchise and then work my way through chronologically. (Part VII: The New Blood is my favorite installment of Friday the 13th and I will defend Tina Shepard to the death, but that’s an essay for another day.)
This October I decided I wanted to think about the horror genre as a whole. What makes a movie scary? What was it exactly that had me so freaked out as a child watching trailers in those theater seats? Is it possible to conclusively determine the “scariest” horror movie?
What Makes a Movie Scary?
Okay y’all, so bear with me, but I looked up the actual definition of fear: “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”
That’s interesting to think about in the context of film, isn’t it? Because there’s some part of our brain that should know, when we watch a scary movie, that the events unfolding on the screen aren’t actually a danger to us. (Well, when we’re adults at least. Thinking back to my childhood self with her developing brain staring up at that ginormous screen, maybe there was a bit of confusion on that front.) But the average adult viewer should logically know that watching some slasher attack an innocent group of campers has no statistical bearing on their immediate chances of the same fate.
So fear when watching a horror movie usually stems from a vicarious sensation of danger. Effective horror bridges the distance created by the screen by drawing its viewer into the scene as events unfold, a great example being the iconic POV opening of Halloween — although interestingly enough, that inserts us via the killer’s eyes rather than the victim’s!
This leads me to think that the scariest movies must do at least one of two things:
totally engage us on a sensory level by means of cinematography, editing, sound (the atmosphere factor)
subvert or reinvent traditional genre expectations in a way that creates suspense (the story factor)
Note the distinction I’m making between “scariest” and “best.” When you google around looking for the scariest horror movies, you might find these superlatives used interchangeably. But in this case I’m specifically looking to be terrified, not necessarily seeking out the highest quality. And another qualifying note — I think “scary” is separate from “gross” or “gory.” Eek versus ick!
How Do You Measure Fear?
From a scientific standpoint, it’s pretty hard to argue with simple biological reactions to fright. So I was really excited when I came across this study from The Science of Scare Project. For each of the last four years running, researchers have hooked 250 test subjects up to monitors and tracked their heart rates across forty horror screenings in an attempt to ascertain a conclusive audience ranking. The scoring methodology got even more complex for 2023:
The new score system combines both heart rate (measured in beats per minute BPM), and heart rate variance (measured in milliseconds, or m/s).
With heart rate (BPM), the higher the number, the faster the movie got our audiences’ blood pumping, an indicator of excitement and fear as part of your fight or flight instinct.
On the other hand, heart rate variance (HRV), measures the time in between each beat of your heart. The lower the heart rate variance the more stressed our audience members became, a good indicator of slow burn fear and dread.
After collecting the average heart rate increase and HRV decrease, we then combine both score to create a Science of Scare score out of 100. For comparison, Shrek holds a ‘Scare Score’ of 3 out of 100.
Okay, so Shrek’s out (lol). Turns out two films are tied for the scariest pick across the four years they’ve been doing the study: Host, a low-budget 2020 release which turns Zoom into a horror playground, and Sinister, a 2012 flick starring Ethan Hawke as a cardigan-clad true crime writer who moves into a deeply creepy house. I’d seen the latter (Ethan Hawke? writer? cardigan? all over it) but not the former, so I was curious to find out how Host measured up to my other picks.
The “Scariest” Marketing Tactic
Labeling a film “the scariest movie ever” is an excellent marketing ploy. A challenge is baked right into the phrasing — as if you watch it and don’t find it to be “the scariest,” you might be stronger than the average person. There’s an element of victory to coming out on the other side of a horror film that other genres don’t quite have.
As a result, the “scariest” superlative is likely overused in effort to pique audience curiosity, sell tickets, or garner clicks. (I’m always interested to see who’s being quoted when a horror film is deemed especially spooky, especially in light of the Rotten Tomatoes reviewing controversy or the fact that trailers sometimes pull quotes from social media.)
All that being said, I was nevertheless intrigued when I saw a special issue of LIFE on display at the drugstore this month that claimed to have done all of my research for me. The Scariest Movie Ever. I bought it, obviously. Who was saying this? How did they know? What made them the experts? What did LIFE have to teach me about fear?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. There are some great pieces in here, but I especially enjoyed Gina McIntyre’s “Not for the Faint of Heart,” which contextualizes The Exorcist’s 1973 release. Rosemary’s Baby had captivated audiences five years prior but was “relatively restrained in the depiction of the horrors unfolding Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse. The Exorcist, by contrast, held nothing back.” Once The Exorcist premiered, word of mouth spread quickly. Prospective viewers were willing to wait in line for several hours to get their turn at terror.
“Horror had been around for a while,” notes Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “but it had mostly been the domain of the [B-movies].” This was the film that William Friedkin decided to make after winning five Academy Awards for The French Connection, and The Exorcist itself would be nominated for ten more. Whatever you might think of it today, The Exorcist absolutely shifted the trajectory of the genre fifty years ago. And as it celebrated such a big anniversary this year, I figured it was a good time to finally work up the nerve to watch!
Media research pick: The Exorcist (1973)
Too Scary for Stephen King?
Affectionately nicknamed the King of Horror, Stephen King has penned the source material for numerous creepy classics, from Carrie to The Shining. But there’s one film King himself couldn’t finish the first time he tried to watch it: The Blair Witch Project. He wrote about the experience in his 2010 reissue of Danse Macabre, excerpted here:
The first time I saw Blair Witch was in a hospital room about twelve days after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road. I was, in a manner of speaking, the perfect viewer: roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers, and looking at a poorly copied bootleg videotape on a portable TV. (How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it.) Around the time the three would-be filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, who, coincidentally, happen to be played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) start discovering strange Lovecraftian symbols hanging from the trees, I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on. Some of it was the jerky quality of the footage (shot with a Hi-8 hand-held and 16-millimeter shoulder-mounted camcorders), some of it was the dope, but basically I was just freaked out of my mind. Those didn’t look like Hollywood-location woods; they looked like an actual forest in which actual people could actually get lost.
The Blair Witch Project is one of my all-time favorite movies (and I wrote about my fascination with its marketing methods earlier this year). King hits the nail on the head when he identifies what the film does so well: “The damn thing looks real… the damn thing feels real.” The found-footage premise blurs the divide between audience and story, daring us to believe what we see: “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.”
Upon his first screening, King resorted to the viewer’s last defense when watching a horror film — the ability to press pause.
Expert research pick: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Testing the Research
Granted, I don’t claim to be an expert — I’m just someone who watches a lot of movies. But as I considered the quartet, it was interesting to notice the threads they had in common. Three out of the four play with our relationships to technology. (Host uses Zoom while Sinister and The Blair Witch Project hinge on found footage.) And honestly? All four do kinda feel like they could happen in real life.
Host. I can see why this one ranked so high on The Science of Scare Project’s list. The filmmakers cleverly capitalized on our isolated state during the pandemic by transforming Zoom — our central means of communication — into a supernatural battleground. (Highly recommend watching it on your computer for maximum fright!) If I’d seen it back in 2020, I definitely would’ve felt unnerved the next few times I hopped on a video call. It’ll be interesting to see how Host ages, as it does feel pretty closely tied to the anxieties of early quarantine.
Sinister. I love that there’s a movie about a writer on this list. There’s actually a lot about Hawke’s character I can relate to, like his creative ambitions and the tendency toward obsession. There’s a certain viewer who will watch Sinister and empathize with that compulsive feeling of going down a rabbit hole (especially consumers of true crime), and that’s likely who this movie will scare the most. Just as so many of us used Zoom during the pandemic, nearly all of us have moved into a new house at some point in our lives — wouldn’t you at least want to peek in the box you found in the attic before you disposed of it? And if you happened to find an old reel of film… wouldn’t you be a little curious?
The Exorcist. Even as an adult I stayed away from possession horror because, well… it actually feels kind of possible. It seems unlikely to me that a horde of zombies might burst through my front door hoping to eat my brain like spaghetti or what have you, but possession at its core is simply marked by a severe and sudden personality change — someone you love becomes someone you fear. There’s a reason parallels are often drawn between possession horror and addiction… or puberty. (In the McIntyre article, University of Southern Carolina Professor Julia Elliott notes that The Exorcist plays into “deeply rooted anxieties about female adolescence,” which says something about its target audience.) I imagine those who were raised Catholic (like William Peter Blatty, the novelist who penned the source material) might be most susceptible to the scares here. Although interestingly, Blatty would later recall:
I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense, with theological overtones. To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone.
The Blair Witch Project. The thing I come back to with Blair Witch is its real-world impact. Countless audience members left theaters the summer of 1999 believing what they’d just seen was real. They witnessed that opening preface — a year later their footage was found — and chose to believe. The lead actress has shared stories of being accosted on the street as viewers demanded refunds, disappointed to discover that she was still alive.
It’s often an artist’s dream to create work that leaves a lasting impression — to affect public perspective, to alter the way people see the world. The Blair Witch Project fundamentally changed what many viewers believed a movie to be capable of, expanding the boundaries of what they thought art could do. It did this to such a degree that it irrevocably shaped the lives of its cast, and not necessarily for the better. Ultimately, there’s just no way to replicate how the film’s marketing captured the naïveté of the nascent internet, leading so many to believe that what they saw onscreen was incontrovertibly real. For better or worse, I’m not sure another film will ever do that again.
As adults, our brains have finished developing. We might become cynical, rolling our eyes at jump scares and leaving the theater shaking our heads. Remember how I wrote about watching trailers as a kid, that weakened ability to discern between fact and fiction? The Blair Witch Project returns us to that childlike state of horror by softening the edges of a reality we previously thought we understood. And another thing? We never see the witch. There’s no easy moment to point up at the screen in relief and say, “That’s an actor in a costume.” In some ways, the witch herself is almost incidental — the true monster is getting lost and not being able to find your way back. And that could happen to any one of us.
“Blair Witch, it seems to me, is about madness,” writes King. “Because what is that, really, except getting lost in the woods that exist even inside the sanest heads?”
My final pick for the scariest horror movie: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Now, tell me yours!
Would you erase your memory of the worst thing you ever did? In publication news, I have a new piece out on one of my favorite movies and the dark side of nostalgia, thanks to dream pub Bright Wall/Dark Room: “Can’t Remember to Forget You: Memento in Twenty Fragments.” And one more thing to share this month — my short story “A Note to Say Hello, I’m Here” follows two strangers and a fax machine that may or may not be able to communicate with the dead. Check it out in The Rumpus!
Fun to hear from those of you who got some new reading material out of last month’s issue! Subscriber Diane Gottlieb shared one more book to put on your radar: Awakenings, an anthology of the body, which just came out a few days ago.
Happy Halloween, y’all! See you again in November.