- With the recent release of movies like Smile and Barbarian, it’s clear that there are still some scary movies being made that are hard to watch twice. Whether it’s the incredibly disturbing imagery, sinister themes, or overbearing sense of dread, these heart-stopping tales of terror are only for the bravest of fans and earn a place of respect in the pulse-pounding pantheon of horror.
The best scary movies are revered for a variety of reasons besides their chilling and unsettling premises. Not only do they provide viewers a chance to give their anxieties and fears free rein while in the safety of their own home, they often explore twisted themes that test the tenacity of the human spirit. They don’t need to be overwhelmingly gory or full of jump scares to do the job, but in order to be considered great, there’s a particular benchmark they need to hit for horror fans.
There’s no better testament of achievement — nor higher compliment — for a scary movie than viewers foregoing a second viewing. Any movie that’s truly terrifying will successfully frighten its audience so much that they’ll be unable to relive the emotional impact of the experience. These are the movies that people have trouble convincing themselves to watch again because they’re just too intense.
Updated by Kayleena Pierce-Bohen on October 15th, 2022:
With the recent release of movies like Smile and Barbarian, it’s clear that there are still some scary movies being made that are hard to watch twice. Whether it’s the incredibly disturbing imagery, sinister themes, or overbearing sense of dread, these heart-stopping tales of terror are only for the bravest of fans and earn a place of respect in the pulse-pounding pantheon of horror.
Available On HBO Max
There’s nothing worse than getting a rental home and realizing it’s been double booked, except perhaps deciding to stay overnight with the stranger who made the same reservation. It’s just possible that there could be more to the arrangement than an unexpected house guest.
Barbarian is a horror movie that takes a banal trope (like an Air BNB) and makes it something truly terrifying, subverting expectations until the last bone-chilling moment. Even knowing the many plot twists that help keep fans guessing, the imagery and sense of claustrophobia make it difficult to sit through a second time.
Available On Shudder
Fans might expect the title Host to reflect a focus on famous TV horror hosts or be similar to Unfriended, but there’s nothing kitschy about it. Made for the Zoom era, it’s predicated on viewers’ fears of isolation and detachment that can come with technological advancement and a global pandemic. As a group of friends signs on for a video call, they’re unaware that a malevolent presence has also entered the chat.
The modest budget (and zippy run time) of the movie actually helps it, as anyone who’s ever been on a video call will find it true to life and therefore scarier when odd occurrences start happening in the background of each of the characters’ screens.
Available On Peacock
There have been several movies about writers staying in places they shouldn’t in order to finish their novels, but Sinister is among the best. It focuses on a crime writer who moves into the home of a snuff film victim, unaware of the aggressive presence that still resides there long after the blood has dried.
Watching the old footage along with him, fans will find themselves enveloped by his desperation to write a bestseller and become increasingly uneasy at what he puts his family through to attain it.
Available In Theaters & Paramount+
What could be more innocent than a smile? Or more alarming? A doctor starts experiencing bizarre occurrences after a patient experiences a traumatic event, causing her to relive some of her own painful past. Every new strange incident comes with a seemingly innocuous smile from strangers; rooted in the terror of the “every day”, Smile includes some of the scariest faces in horror movies.
A smile, a gesture ordinarily meant to invoke joy and comfort, suddenly becomes something fans won’t be able to stand the sight of on screen, and when combined with a truly relentless soundscape, will become the stuff of nightmares everywhere.
The Sadness (2021)
While some fans might say South Korea has a monopoly on sanguinary cinema, Taiwan has come for the crown with The Sadness, a horror story about a viral outbreak that threatens to pull apart two young lovers on opposite sides of its blight. As they struggle to reunite, they are pursued by ordinary citizens who, once infected, become homicidal maniacs that laugh while they inflict the pain necessary to keep their basic motor functions.
Outbreak movies often serve as commentaries about the society in which they’re made, with viral outbreaks standing in for consumerism, capitalism, and other ideologies that manipulate hordes of people. This film focuses on the selfish ways a society handles a pandemic, and is as unremittingly grim in its evaluation of its moral fiber as it is with its incredibly depraved imagery.
Available For Rent On Prime Video
A slow-burn movie that sucks in its viewers, Hereditary focuses primarily on a family entrenched in toxic behavior after the death of its matriarch. As strange situations start to manifest around the house, it becomes clear that the unspoken mental trauma that has taken hold is part of dark secrets from the past that will doom them to a horrible fate.
While it may start out at a lethargic pace, by the end of the movie, most audiences aren’t prepared for what shocking revelations are in store. This is one movie that’s too scary to finish because the mental horrors are as terrifying as the physical ones, and will linger long after the closing credits.
Available For Rent On Prime Video & Stream On Peacock
With a creative concept, a smart cast, and masterful use of suspense from director James Wan and composer Joseph Bishara, Insidious is a movie that will make the hairs stand up on the back of viewers’ necks any time of the day or night. Focusing on a malevolent spirit desperately trying to inhabit the body of a boy, it’s also an exceptional horror movie about fatherhood and the incredible lengths family will go to protect their loved ones.
One of the pillars of the jump-scare horror genre, Insidious earns its title very well because of the subtle way in which it infects viewers’ consciousness just enough to then really deliver the terror when it introduces some truly horrific imagery. That it specifically deals with what happens when people sleep makes it particularly difficult, especially if one plans to use sleep as an escape from its content.
Lights Out (2016)
Available On Hulu
The concept that the absence of light creates a breeding ground for evil is a primordial fear, left over from the earliest humans gathering around a campfire. Keeping it burning through the night was essential because if its flames died, the threats at the boundaries of the light would suddenly be given agency to attack from the shadows.
Some of the best, most enduring horror movies are based on a simple premise that everyone can relate to. Lights Out relates to the fear of the dark, and what lurks in it (in this case a demonic spirit named Diana). It’s so effective that viewers won’t be able to sleep without lights on for weeks.
Silent Hill (2006)
Available For Rent On Prime Video & Stream On AMC
Based on the popular video game series of the same name, Silent Hill brought the disgusting creatures of the franchise to horrifying life. With more reality given to the fictional foes, audiences suddenly had to start thinking about pixilated characters as plausible.
The environment of Silent Hill aside, it’s some visuals at the end of the movie, when characters are trying to escape, which make it hard for some viewers to get through. After all, who would willingly return to that town, knowing what evils lurk in its innards?
Available For Rent On Prime Video & Stream On Tubi
Employing a clever use of found footage and traditional film, this movie about a camera crew cut off from the outside world while documenting supernatural occurrences in a tenement building is the sort of horror fare that will stick with people long after they’ve gotten through it.
Filled with creepy imagery seen through the night vision on various cameras, [REC] feels like a documentary, which is to say it feels as real as possible, and makes great use of all sorts of scares inherent to the found-footage medium. The final scenes, though many viewers may have seen coming, nevertheless contain imagery that burns into the consciousness.
The Grudge (2004)
Available For Rent On Vudu & Stream On AMC
When a family tries to make a new life for themselves in Tokyo, it seems like the chance for a fresh start, but there’s something very old and very angry lurking on the premises. Soon they’re each haunted by something that seems to want to take out its suffering on the living.
Whether watching the original or the remake, this movie is unsettling, disturbing, and full of cringe-inducing situations designed to make viewers’ skin crawl. The discomfort factor in The Grudge is at an all-time high, especially concerning a demonic presence that is omnipresent and could appear at any time (even in the shower).
The Ring (2002)
Available For Rent On Prime Video & Stream On Paramount+
VHS tapes may not seem so frightening anymore but one, in particular, caused a lot of chaos, especially when it summoned what would eventually become a new horror icon for the genre. It focuses on a newspaper reporter who investigates a tape that kills anyone who views it within a week, struggling to make a breaking story around something she doesn’t dare watch.
Like the best horror movies, it makes viewers care about its main characters, to the point where their suffering is part of what drives the thrills and chills as the seven days tick by. And for an iconic horror villain with barely any screen time, the girl in the well Samara is instantly unforgettable.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Available For Rent On Prime Video & Apple TV
Strange occurrences around their new house keep a young couple up at night, but no matter what they do they can’t explain what’s going on (or get a good night’s sleep). With their tempers rising from fatigue and stress, they decide to record what goes on in their house while they sleep, to terrifying results. The fact that most of the movie looks like real footage makes the fear very authentic.
After watching Paranormal Activity, viewers will not only sleep with the light on, but may not sleep at all. The gnawing thought that things could be happening to them when they’re unaware is enough to put them off having anything to do with the Paranormal Activity franchise.
The Strangers (2008)
Available For Rent On Apple TV & Prime Video
When a young couple embarks on a relaxing weekend alone in the country, they don’t expect to come in contact with another soul, but three mysterious strangers have other plans. They begin to insert themselves into the couples’ lives slowly and deliberately, terrifying them over the course of several days until they’re driven to desperate measures.
Technically a slasher movie, it doesn’t rely on jump scares and tense, suspenseful music. The Strangers is alarmingly, suspiciously, and unnervingly quiet. There’s something sinister about these people who invade a couple’s most private space, without motivation, for no other reason than because they can, and cause nothing but chaos.
The Descent (2006)
Available For Rent On Apple TV & Stream On Prime Video
The Descent is about six women’s descent into a complex cave system and one woman’s descent into madness. In order to help the latter process the grief of losing her family in a car accident, the women try some recreational spelunking, but what they encounter in the darkness will test not only each other’s friendships, but their ability to survive to see daylight again.
The movie is frightening not just because it’s incredibly claustrophobic, but because like all good contributions to the survival horror genre, it reveals the erosion of societal pretense and human decency when the worst outcomes imaginable become probable.