When we were kids, one of the biggest thrills of the year came during the weeks leading up to Halloween when gather up a few friends, head to the movie theater and find ourselves munching on licorice sticks and shrinking down further and further in our seats with each horrifying twist and turn. Seeking to rustle up a little Halloween fun now that we’re all grown up, we thought to look back and revisit the best classic horror movies from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — and bring back some of those happy memories even as we’re hiding our eyes to ward off seeing what comes next.
And whether your taste runs to serial killers, animals of different kinds viciously attacking us from the air, sea or basement; organ-eating zombies or demonic possessions in a variety of shapes and sizes, they’re all guaranteed to trigger a few adrenaline spikes, gasps and thrills. Here our picks for the best horrors and chillers ranked in order of fright factor. See if you agree with our list — if you dare!
The 16 best classic horror movies from the 60s, 70s, 80s
16. The Stepford Wives (1975)
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), husband Walter (Peter Masterson) and their kids move to an idyllic Connecticut community called Stepford, the citizens of which seem to be living in some sort of idyllic life (at least as far as the men are concerned), where the women are completely subservient. The mystery of this starts to grow, raising the suspicion of Joanna and another recent transplant, Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss). What they discover is that the wives are systematically being replaced by “fembots” of themselves with their husbands’ approval.
Admittedly this might seem like an odd entry for a list of scariest movies, but it’s completely unnerving to watch Joanna get lost in this sea of women stripped of their true identities, with the mounting fear that the same thing will happen to her. Look for Gilligan’s Island star Tina Louise as one of the wives.
The Stepford Wives inspired the TV movies Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987) and the Stepford Husbands (1996) as well as a theatrical remake in 2004. Don’t Worry Darling (2022) was also clearly inspired by it.
Actress Katharine Ross, while discussing her career with New York Daily News columnist Rex Reed, stated that The Stepford Wives was filmed in Westport, Connecticut, and the house they used as an exterior was owned by a suburbanite who looked exactly like the robots in the film. “She was perfectly groomed at 7a.m. and all of her friends who came to the set were housewives who drove station wagons, had perfect lawns and wore the same kind of clothes.” Ross said. “I’ve never been a suburban housewife, so it was hard for me to Imagine that kind of life, but I think the film has a statement to make about women’s lib. I don’t see it as a women’s lib film, but it does prove you can make a film about women that is almost entirely populated by women and still have entertainment. I’m not a women’s libber myself. I’ve always had my own independent lifestyle. But I saw plenty of women around that suburban set who could use some liberation. And the men are just as sterotyped in their way as the women. They rarely get a chance to be human or gentle or recognized as anyone you’d want to know.”
Where to watch: You can watch The Stepford Wives on Tubi
15. Willard (1971)
Having a mouse in the house can be pretty unsettling, but how would you respond to hundreds of rats? Guaranteed not as well as Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison), a shy, lonely man held under the thumb of his mother and picked on by everyone around him in the Norman Bates vein. Told by his mother to drown a family of rats in the backyard, he decides instead to save them and moves them into the basement, where he starts teaching them tricks.
After the old lady dies, he and the two main rats — the brown Ben and white Socrates — get full run of the place, with the rapidly-multiplying rats remaining in the basement. After he brings the duo to work and hides them in the storage room, Socrates is discovered and killed by Willard’s boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine), and killed, which sets Willard off on a path of revenge, utilizing his rats and the command, “Tear him up!”
Strictly a low budget affair, this scariest film nonetheless left audiences shrieking and — unbelievably — feeling some sympathy for Socrates and Ben! It inspired the 1972 sequel Ben (title song — like it was a family film or something — by Michael Jackson), and a 2003 remake starring Crispin Glover in the title role.
Actor Bruce Davison, who portrayed Willard, had a very interesting audition for the film, his agent telling him to get over to the Paramount lot to audition for a movie “about rats,” and they handed him the script. “So,” he says, “I went over and auditioned with the ‘Tear him up’ scene and they said, ‘This is really good. Come with us.’ They took me out to Burbank and there’s this squirrely little guy there and they said, ‘Okay, take him into the garage.’ So I went into the garage and the guy had 600 rats in there. He took this big one, put it on my shoulder and said, ‘How do you think you could get along with your costar?’ And it started licking my ear and I just smiled and he said, ‘Okay, kid. You got the part. Your costar likes you.’ So, Ben had the final word.”
Where to watch: You can watch Willard on Peacock
14. Child’s Play (1988)
Introduced in 1985 was “My Buddy,” a toddler-sized doll for boys that were already kind of creepy in their own right, which no doubt played a part in writer Don Mancini coming up with the bizarrely unique killer doll Chucky in Child’s Play. (If you’re in your 50s or 60s, you surely still remember the unforgettable Chucky!)
Shot by police and dying, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) performs a voodoo chant that transfers his soul to “Good Guy” doll Chucky. Finding its way into the home of young Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), who the moving and talking doll begins to manipulate to seek out revenge against others. Andy’s mother, Karen (Catherine Hicks) thinks her son has lost his mind, but eventually finds herself in the position of having to fight for her and Andy’s lives against the maniacal, knife-wielding Chucky. This one’s a lot of twisted fun and you just may never look at your kid’s playthings the same way again.
Unbelievably, Chucky is still going strong to this day, having starred in the sequels Child’s Play 2 (1990), Child’s Play 3 (1991), Bride of Chucky (1998), Seed of Chucky (2004), Cult of Chucky (2017) a reboot of Child’s Play (2019) and three seasons (so far) of the Chucky television series.
Actor Brad Dourif, who has voiced Chucky from the beginning, explained to dailydead.com what goes into the voice: “It’s a difficult line that you’re walking when you’re doing Chucky’s part. Chucky has to be the monster, no matter what, so he should always be scary. The struggle is between the fact that Chucky loves his job, for lack of a better word, and Chucky can also turn a living human into a piece of meat. Those are the two things that make up this character. That’s the line you have to be walking, so you cannot just make Chucky all funny, all the time. It just doesn’t work. He needs that edge.” As his victims might attest to, an edge he’s got, making this a strong candidate for our scariest movies list.
Where to watch: You can watch Child’s Play on HBOMax
13. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
So low budget that it had to be shot in black and white (inadvertently adding to the chill factor), Night of the Living Dead is primarily set at a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, where seven people find themselves the target of shuffling (but somehow inescapable) reanimated corpses — aka zombies — that feed on the bodies of the living. As they discover from the radio, this is happening all along the East Coast of the United States and is spreading. Be warned: this is filmdom’s earliest gorefest, but scary as hell. It’s also spawned five sequels and innumerable imitators.
“The story was an allegory written to draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves,” director George Romero detailed to Filmmakers Newsletter Magazine in 1972. “But we didn’t really try to write that stuff in and we didn’t shoot it for the pat explanations or anything. We shot it just the way things would be if the dead returned to life.”
There was also an issue from critics regarding the film’s gore, which was quite different than people were used to in 1968. “We felt that films aren’t usually made this graphic, but why not?” Romero asked rhetorically. “You know what’s happening. Why cut away when you know exactly what’s going on. We got the intestines and we got the ghouls going at them, and we said, ‘Well, we’re just going to leave that stuff in.’”
Where to watch: You can watch Night of the Living Dead on HBOMax
12. Alien (1979)
When released in 1979, Alien was referred to as Jaws in Space, and for good reason. Its plot deals with the space-trucking crew of the Nostromo bringing aboard an extraterrestrial that incubates in one of them, bursts out of his chest (the poor guy dying as a result — understandable given the circumstances), begins growing and hunting the crew one by one.
It all comes down to it against Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who desperately tries to find a way to stay alive. Directed by Ridley Scott, this is a true exercise in terror and paranoia, potential death literally around every corner, making it a shoe-in as one of the scariest movies.
And why is this one so scary? Because Scott takes a cue from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and keeps the creature hidden as much as possible until the end. Less was definitely more! The audience certainly loved it, turning Alien into a box office hit that has spawned seven sequels and spin-offs, with an eighth on the way.
The film stars Tom Skeritt (Picket Fences), Yaphet Kotto (the James Bond film Live and Let Die, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary), Angela Cartwright (a child actress in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), Harry Dean Stanton (Dillinger) and Weaver. While today we’re all about butt-kicking ladies, at the time Weaver was singled out for being such a strong heroine in a role that would usually be played by a male. “I think it’s a timely idea,” she told The Tampa Tribune in 1979. “I’ve always had trouble with people dividing attributes and character traits into male and female anyway. I think there’s as much Hamlet in any of us, regardless of sex.”
Where to watch: You can watch Alien on Hulu
11. The Birds (1963)
As he did for showers with Psycho, director Alfred Hitchcock does for feeding pigeons in The Birds … okay, that may be an exaggeration, but he certainly made filmgoers fearful of our fine feathered friends, making us wonder what they’re really plotting. Tippi Hedren (making her film debut) is Melanie Daniels, a woman in the early stages of a relationship with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) who pays him a visit at Bodega Bay.
But instead of romance, what she gets is a sudden and unexpected attack on the populace by different types of birds. And the intensity of those attacks is completely unnerving (Hitchcock having earned his moniker as the Master of Suspense). What’s particularly unnerving is the lack of explanation as to why this has happened and the suggestion that the “movement” is spreading.
While the audience was scared seatless, Tippi Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith, didn’t make or leave The Birds unscathed either physically or emotionally. “I was so exhausted during the filming that I couldn’t work for a week,” the actress told The Toronto Star in 1979. “Everything stopped. I was pecked and I was scratched. Every day I went to first aid for something. Cary Grant once came on the set and said I was the bravest young woman in the world. For about three weeks after the filming, I had nightmares — birds coming at me. I’d wake up screaming.”
Where to watch: You can watch The Birds on Peacock
10. Halloween (1978)
This is the one that really ushered in the slasher film genre and if you saw it in its original release, you’ve probably never forgotten it. Michael Myers escapes from a sanitarium 15 years after being put in there for having murdered his teenage sister when he was a child. He returns to his hometown (the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois), where he targets teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. What follows is a battle for survival as Myers, who wears a white mask, proves himself to be pretty unstoppable. John Carpenter really made his name as director on this one, as did his memorable “Halloween Theme.”
The Halloween film franchise seems as unstoppable as Myers himself: between the 1978 original and 2022’s Halloween Ends, there have been a total of 13 films!
“I am very excited about Halloween,” the then 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis related to the Republican and Herald at the time. “The main plot reminds me of my mother’s famous scene in the shower of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, we don’t have any hardcore violence. It’s an independent film, an original story and was directed by that brilliant John Carpenter, who also did the music, which is very important to the story. I would say this is a classic horror film.” And there are a lot of people who would agree with her.
Where to watch: You can watch Halloween on Prime Video
9. Carrie (1976)
It’s no secret that kids can be cruel, and that’s especially true in high school. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than director Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie. Sissy Spacek is shy, withdrawn and sheltered Carrie White, who is mocked at every turn by the school’s Mean Girls and pretty much ignored by the guys.
What they don’t understand is that Carrie’s home life is a living hell thanks (ironically) to the religious fanaticism of her mother (Piper Laurie). What they’re also unaware of — as is Carrie at first — that her raw emotions begin to manifest themselves as telekinetic outbursts, where she starts to move objects with her mind. This is particularly convenient when one of her biggest bullies, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), pulls the strings to get Tommy Ross (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom, where she plans with boy toy Bill Nolan (John Travolta) the ultimate humiliation. What we get instead, is telekinetic retribution as all hell breaks loose.
To prepare for filming, Sissy Spacek exerted great effort to get into Carrie’s headspace. “I really had to alienate myself totally from the cast,” she admitted to The Tennessean at the time of the film’s release. “I filled myself up with everything that Carrie might have experienced. It becomes an art and a challenge to twist your insides up, to get yourself in that place where you feel that somebody’s eyes on you almost hurt, because you don’t want to be looked at.”
Where to watch: You can watch Carrie on Prime Video
8. Poltergeist (1982)
Set in a community of homes in Cuesta Verde, California, Poltergeist focuses on the Freeling family who have recently moved in and — especially the children — begun to experience strange happenings. Youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins communicating with spirits that seem to live in the family television set and is eventually abducted by them and taken to a netherworld. Her parents (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) desperately turn to spiritual medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) to help get her back. In the meantime, the hauntings intensify and the chilling reason for it all revealed.
While gore is kept to a minimum, director Tobe Hooper’s ability to play with shadows and generating suspense combines with the effects from ILM (George Lucas’ former company) and the expertise of producer Steven Spielberg to make one of the most effective ghost stories produced.
Hooper, something of a believer in the otherworldly, related to The Tampa Tribune in 1982, “I thought it would be appealing to place a poltergeist effect in a modern suburban situation, because modern America, the suburbs, shouldn’t be immune to those gothic effects. We’re all receivers — like radios. Matter moves and responds to the imagination, to the beat of the imagination, right? Steven Spielberg and I wanted to make a film that we could relate to now, a film set in the middle of a high-tech environment, full of the transmission and receiving of energy on many levels.”
Where to watch: You can watch Poltergeist on Prime Video
7. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Before the graphic horrors of The Exorcist or The Omen, the Devil took a more subtle approach in Rosemary’s Baby, in which Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a New York apartment building shortly before finding out that Rosemary is pregnant. But instead of being able to relish the experience, she starts to feel as though the child she’s carrying is otherworldly.
In the end, it turns out she’s right: the Devil is using her as a vessel to bring his son into the world and, shockingly, the people around her seem to be aware of it. Director Roman Polanski takes a thriller rather than horror approach to the story, and it’s tremendously effective — though you’d imagine it would make some pregnant mothers wonder what they’re brewing in their bellies.
Ira Levin, the author of the novel the film was based on, detailed to Criterion.com his inspiration for the story: “Having observed that the most suspenseful part of a horror story is before, not after, the horror appears, I was struck one day by the thought that a fetus could be an effective horror if the reader knew it was growing into something malignly different from the baby expected. Nine whole months of anticipation with the horror inside the heroine. Genuine medical horrors were out; hardly the stuff of popular fiction. I could imagine only two possibilities: my unfortunate heroine had to be impregnated either by an extraterrestrial or the devil. ETs had already fathered children in The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel by John Wyndham, and though that book had dealt with several children growing up rather than their mothers bearing them, I nonetheless felt I was stuck with Satan.”
Where to watch: You can watch Rosemary’s Baby on Prime Video
6. The Omen (1976)
When his son dies at the hospital shortly after birth, American Diplomat Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) arranges for the body to be switched with another, his wife, Katherine (Lee Remick), unaware of what’s happened. They bring “their” son, Damien (Harvey Stephens), home and begin what they believe will be a normal life. But as Damien grows, so does a darkness and a series of bizarre (albeit imaginatively staged, perhaps inspiring the subsequent slasher genre) deaths.
Robert is eventually convinced that Damien is the Antichrist, whose destiny is to lead the world to ruin. Between this and The Exorcist, released two years earlier, it seems people were starting to see the Devil around every corner, a psychological trope that makes this one of the scariest movies in history.
Directed by Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie, the Lethal Weapon films), it spawned two sequels that tracked Damien growing up and inching us closer to Armageddon — Damien: Omen II (1978) and Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981). There were also a couple of remakes, but none could match the power of the original.
Gregory Peck said at the time of the film’s release that he enjoyed the escapism it represented: “I think people like to be frightened and to walk out of the theater knowing those terrible things have not happened to them and are not likely to. I’ve always enjoyed a good, scary picture going back to my childhood when I was scared out of my wits by the original Phantom of the Opera. I don’t think I’ve gotten over it yet. Now, those who want to take seriously the angle of there being an antichrist sent by Satan for a frontal assault on everything that’s good and decent in the world … I myself am a little skeptical about the idea that Satan lurks behind every bush. I think good and evil is within ourselves, but I respect the beliefs of people who take the Bible literally … I think there’s something in The Omen for people who want a form of escapism in a traditional and very exciting and frightening suspense mystery tale.”
Where to watch: You can watch The Omen on Hulu
5. The Shining (1980)
Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), along with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has psychic abilities; move into the Overlook Hotel to serve as caretakers for the winter, where they will be alone — and isolated from most of the rest of the world.
During that time, Jack desperately tries to overcome writer’s block and fight his personal demons, complicated by the fact that ghosts from the hotel’s past begin to manifest themselves in strange and sometimes terrible ways. It’s an unsettling, surrealistic take on mounting paranoia and terror from director Stanley Kubrick and the novel by Stephen King. While not as strong as the source material, it’s highly effective in its own right — and watch out for those creepy twin girls!
One of the most terrifying scenes in the film is when Shelley Duvall as Wendy reads the manuscript being written by Jack Torrance, every sentence, paragraph and page just repeating the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” which leads to a sequence where Jack chases her around the hotel proclaiming he doesn’t want to hurt her, “I just want to bash your brains in!”
When the actress was recently interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, she was shown that scene, which she hadn’t watched since the film was originally released, and burst into tears. The reason? “Because we filmed that for about three weeks,” she said. “Every day. It was very hard. Jack was so good — so damn scary. I can only imagine how many women go through this kind of thing.”
Where to watch: You can watch The Shining on HBOMax
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Nightmares are already a problem — seriously, how often do you wake up delighted with having had one? — but they’re made even worse when you discover that somebody is invading and manipulating them to the point where their target dies horribly as a result.
Such is the premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street — giving it a solid position on our scariest movies list — with undead Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) a child killer who in turn was burned to death by the parents of his victims, seeking revenge against those parents by murdering their teenage offspring (a young Johnny Depp among them).
Now one could argue that the morality of a kid killer getting revenge on the bereaved parents that killed him is cloudy at best, but we digress. We’re not here to talk morality, but whether or not the deaths presented are horrific and imaginative enough to get us screaming in the theater. The answer to that is a decided yes, courtesy of famed horror director Wes Craven. In fact, A Nightmare on Elm Street is considered to be one of the best and scariest movies ever made.
It would be followed by no less than six sequels and the 2003 spin-off Freddy vs. Jason (a crossover between the Nightmare and Friday the 13th franchises). For his part, Freddy actor Robert Englund was thrilled discussing the films’ success in 1987 with The Post-Crescent. “Wes Craven,” he said, “is mining the potential of all those boogie men stories parents have used to keep their kids in line. Here’s Freddy, who never made it all the way to hell, living this satanic, purgatory, half-way existence and attacking these kids in their dreams. That’s an inherently scary, creepy idea. Everyone who has ever had a nightmare knows there is no control. It’s the ultimate in hopelessness.”
Where to watch: You can watch A Nightmare on Elm Street on Prime Video
3. Psycho (1960)
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from the real estate office she works in so that she can be with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Enroute to him, she stops at a motel for the evening where she encounters proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and falls victim to the blade of his “mother” while showering.
This leads to the unfolding of the mystery behind Marion’s disappearance, Norman, Mother and the Bates Motel. Perhaps the greatest film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, further discussion of which would diminish the impact if somehow you haven’t seen it (and you definitely should).
Highly recommended is the 1983 sequel Psycho II, which, despite the opinions of many that felt there never should have been a continuation to Hitchcock’s masterpiece, is a complementary follow-up — and one of the scariest movies in it’s own right — that continues the story 22 years later. Not as good is Psycho III (1985) or Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990).
In an exclusive interview, Janet Leigh detailed the impact that the film had had on her personally: “I stopped taking showers and I only take baths. And when I’m someplace where I can only take a shower, I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked. I also leave the bathroom door open and the shower with the curtain open. I’m always facing the door, no matter where the shower head is.”
Where to watch: You can watch Psycho on Peacock
2. The Exorcist (1973)
The plot of our runner-up in the list of scariest movies is pretty straight-forward: young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) begins exhibiting strange behavior, which grows more erratic, violent and darker. Frightened, and with no earthly explanation for what’s going on, her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), turns to priest Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) who believes that Regan is being possessed by a demonic force that, once his superior, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), arrives is determined to be the devil itself. What follows is an unnerving battle between good and evil taking place in Regan’s bedroom. Pea soup anyone?
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty and masterfully directed by the late William Friedkin, it’s spawned two sequels, a pair of prequels and the start of a proposed sequel trilogy with the recent The Exorcist: Believer, which is unlikely to get a sequel due to its box office failure.
One person affected by the film, though in a very different way than the audience, was actress Linda Blair, who, as a young teen, had no idea what she was really getting herself into or what she would have to deal with. She related to dreadcentral.com, “You have to remember that when we made The Exorcist, I was a child first and foremost. When I first read the novel before auditioning, I saw it more from the perspective of a kid — how were they going to do these things? How was the bed going to levitate? That kind of stuff. I didn’t really think about the religious aspects of the story, because it was beyond me at that time. And when the movie came out, the amount of pressure that came down on me wasn’t anything I was prepared for. Especially all the pressure the press put on me — they thought I had all the answers about faith and Catholicism. To me it was just a character made up from special effects and not a symbol of something more like Regan has become over the years.”
Where to watch: You can watch The Exorcist on HBOMax
1. Jaws (1975)
The primal fear generated by the great white shark, and how well this film has aged, puts it at the top of our scariest movies list. Of course, there’s hardly a need to summarize this one: shark chows down on swimmers from Amity Island, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and fisherman/shark hunter/World War II veteran Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to open sea to hunt the beast down, though it isn’t long before they realize that they’re actually the prey.
Incredible cast and magnificent direction from Spielberg, who had only directed one previous feature (1974’s The Sugarland Express), highlight this horror classic that deftly balances terrific characterizations with suspense and terror that resulted in people staying out of the water that summer (though that could have been because they were seeing the movie).
There were three sequels, only the first of which, Jaws 2 (1978), had any … bite, and would have made our scariest movies list, was accompanied by one of the greatest movie taglines ever: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …”
For Roy Scheider, there was a sequence in the making of Jaws that got a little too realistic for him, as he told the Dayton Daily News in 1975: “I did all of my own stunt work, not because I wanted to — hell, I’m no hero, it’s dangerous and there are experts paid to do that stuff; let them do it. But because we were working on a boat in tight spaces and really had to show the danger in the shark hunt, there was no way a stuntman could do it without being shown full-face in closeups. And there’s the time the shark literally leaps out of the water and crashes into the stern of the boat and splits the boat in half. There was no time to work out all the special effects stunts. You just pray a lot, and you don’t know what the hell is going to happen. Well, what happened was the damn [mechanical] shark did split the boat in half. I was up to my shoulders in water, and I got out of there like a torpedo. The fear just drove me right out of that cabin like I had been shot.”
Where to watch: You can watch Jaws on Netflix
Do you agree with our scariest movies list? Happy Halloween, horror film lovers!
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