To be a horror fan is to be constantly chasing thrills and chills. It might seem odd to some, but
for me, a good horror film is one of the best cures for my near-constant anxiety. Watching horror
movies allows me not only an entry into a fantasy world but a safe release for that
aforementioned anxiety. The danger is artificial, and I am in the safety of my own home most of
the time. The stress is released through a ritual of fear, and I am able to go about my life.
But the rub of it is, the more horror movies you watch, the harder it is for you to get scared. I’m
not stating this to sound jaded or tough. I LOVE it when a movie gives me the heebie-jeebies.
It’s just a simple fact, hardcore horror junkies can get a little desensitized.
With that in mind, it pays to have a few go-to movies that always hit that horror sweet spot. A
playlist of fright flicks that will get you spooked no matter what. Below is a collection of films that
always manage to frighten me.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Family traditions can be a little strange. Case in point, there was nearly a five-year streak
during my childhood in which my family would annually rent Tobe Hooper’s epic adaptation of
Stephen King’s seminal vampire novel Salem’s Lot and watch it the day after Thanksgiving
while eating leftovers. I’m not really sure how this began or why it continued, but I do know that
I was enthralled by the film, even though it scared the stuffing out of me.
Modern horror fans will often claim that vampire movies are not scary. I will gladly hold up this
movie as a strong rebuke of that idea. The movie (originally a TV mini-series) expertly sets up
its small-town characters while also giving a real sense of doom and gloom over the
proceedings. The townspeople of Salem’s Lot are damned, and you feel it from frame one.
Then there’s Kurt Barlow, the master vampire. A departure from the smooth amalgamation of
Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee featured in the novel, Hooper’s Barlow is a hissing update of
Nosferatu, with the blue-tinted skin of a corpse and the yellow eyes of a crocodile. This version
of Barlow has become iconic and it’s easy to see why, as the make-up design is so arresting to
look at. And yet, he’s not the scariest thing in the movie.
The most unsettling image in Salem’s Lot, a movie filled with unsettling imagery, is the surreal
figure of the undead Ralphie Glick clawing at a second-story window, trying to get in and feed
on his older brother Danny. Glick is a unique-looking movie vampire. He’s a child for one,
decked out in pajamas. His blueish pallor and milky eyes, reminding us that he is the freshly
buried dead. This is also a scene in which not having modern special effects actually benefits it
greatly. Glick is surrounded by fog as he floats around the window like a demonic Peter Pan. It
doesn’t quite look real, but it does look ghostly.
The infamous “window scene” is well remembered for being nightmarish. It encapsulates the
themes of Salem’s Lot nicely, making horror feel both domestic and otherworldly at the same
time. Both King and Hooper are of course well known for bringing terror to America’s backyards
and back roads. But our next film wasn’t content to stay on dry land…
The small Texas town I grew up in was worlds away from Amity Island. Still, it was surrounded
by lakes, swamps, and creeks, so I had a healthy notion that water could hide unseen terrors.
That notion became ironclad when, one fateful weekend, when my parents brought home
Steven Spielberg’s JAWS from the video store.
The movie caused unbridled fear in me. While nearby Possum Kingdom Lake doesn’t have any
giant sharks swimming in its waters, as a kid it was difficult to convince me otherwise. Even as
an adult, JAWS continues to have a singular ability to make me feel powerless. It’s a movie that
grabs hold of you from its first scene and clamps down like the fangs of a great sea monster.
While Spielberg isn’t known to be a master of cinematic horror the same way directors like John
Carpenter are, he has often dabbled in the genre. From his breakout TV movie Duel to the
more gruesome aspects of the Jurassic Park films, Spielberg shows a great understanding of
how to make an audience deeply ill-at-ease. And JAWS is probably his purest exercise in
flexing those muscles.
While the movie has many terrific scares, for my money the most frightening moment is purely
character-driven. Towards the end of the movie, our three heroes get drunk and grizzled shark
hunter Quint explains the origins of his hatred of sharks. Based on a true story, the entire movie
stops so Quint (embodied by Robert Shaw) can tell the tale of the doomed USS Indianapolis.
After delivering the atomic bomb, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese sub while trying to
return to Allied waters. Amazingly, not all of the sailors died from the ship sinking.
Unfortunately for them, they began to get picked off by hungry sharks– a detail that Quint
delivers with a suitably macabre tone.
It’s the best scene in an amazing film and one that should chill even the bravest of moviegoers.
Reminding us all how vulnerable we are in the water. Our next movie, however, brings horror
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house novel is often cited as one
of the all-time best horror films. It is easy to see why; the movie is dripping with atmosphere and
manages to spook you silly with barely any special effects. Instead, the movie uses sound
effects to represent its ghosts. Coupling that with an amazing central performance by Julie
Harris as the tormented Eleanor, The Haunting is an experience viewers will never forget.
A perfect example of how the movie mines so much from so little plays out when Eleanor is
sharing a bed with fellow ghost hunter Theo (Claire Bloom). At this stage in the film, the duo is
now afraid to sleep alone– and with good reason, as it turns out.
The scene begins with Eleanor rising from her sleep. The spectral voice of a man rises in the
darkness, seemingly coming from nowhere. Joining in shortly after is malevolent laughter,
becoming a chorus of terrible sounds. Eleanor cries out to Theo, saying she is crushing her
hand in their embrace. A ghostly child joins the chorus, its shrill cries sounding like it is in pain.
This is too much for Eleanor who screams into the night. The spirits silence themselves as
Theo turns on the lights. Yet, the light brings no comfort, as it revealed Eleanor wasn’t in bed
with Theo at all. The scene concludes with one last chill up your spine as Eleanor ponders
“whose hand was I holding?” Other films have to rely on gore for their shocks, but The Haunting does just as much by showing you nothing but the fear on its characters’ faces. And like all great ghost stories, it leaves you something to ponder when you turn out the lights at
I want you to imagine the film Ghostbusters, take out the sci-fi technology and dial the humour
back from a 10 to a 4. That’s Terrified at its core. A group of occult investigators enters a
seemingly haunted Buenos Aires neighbourhood and are systematically destroyed by the evil
that dwells there.
Terrified doesn’t care for explanations, it only wants to make your skin crawl. It never bothers to
pin down what is the root of the haunting. Demons? Ghosts? Lovecraftian monsters? It could
be all of the above or something else entirely. The lack of concrete lore to attach to its
apparitions allows the film to bombard the viewer with weird imagery that shocks and unnerves.
The movie’s creepiest moment is its simplest. Two of our protagonists encounter the corpse of
a child that has been displayed at the dinner table in a macabre parody of a family breakfast.
While the investigators discuss how the boy ended up there, the corpse seems to move subtly
every time they turn away from it. The effect is nothing short of chilling.
For those who don’t normally care for foreign films, I urge you to ignore your biases and give
this Argentinian shocker a chance. It’s one of the most effective contemporary horror flicks I’ve
seen in a good while.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Sometimes it’s the little things that stay with you the most. John Landis’ An American Werewolf
in London is considered by many to be the definitive ’80s monster movie, The film has many
standout moments of horror. Well-crafted jump scares, shape-shifting body horror and
character-based existential crisis. But what haunts me about American Werewolf is its final
I’ve often made the case that despite its witty, comedic, dialogue, that An American Werewolf
in London is a deeply cynical movie populated by doomed, tragic characters. I back this up
by citing its ending. The film’s hero David has transformed into his hellhound alter-ego one final
time, resulting in a rampage across Piccadilly Circus. David’s love interest, the compassionate
nurse Alex, pushes her way past the heavily armed police. As the werewolf readies to pounce
on her, Alex steadies herself and says firmly “I love you, David,” hoping to reach the man within
the monster. The beast advances on her and is shot down by the cops. As Alex breaks down
while looking down at David’s now-human corpse, The Marcel’s doo-wop take on “Blue Moon”
begins to play abruptly cutting to the ending credits.
The scene encapsulates the tragedy of the Wolf Man mythos. You want these two likeable young
people to have a future together. But they live in an unkind universe that sneers at the idea of
hope. The perfect use of an upbeat song from the early years of rock feels like a slap in the
face. One last cruel joke played on the audience, as the film seemingly dances on the grave of
its hero. An American Werewolf in London is proof a movie need not rely purely on visceral thrills
to frighten you. Sometimes you only have to rip at the viewer’s heartstrings.
So, there you have it. Five movies that never fall to give me the shivers. Fear is, of course,
relative. You might find the above-mentioned fright flicks about as scary as a glass of warm milk.
Still, as the spooky season continues, I urge you to dig deep, reflect on what frightens you, and
seek it out in its cinematic form. After all, it’s the best way to honour Halloween!
Drew Edwards is the writer/creator of the long-running underground comic Halloween Man and its related spin-off Lucy Chaplin: Science Starlet. He is a Ringo nominee and a member of the Pen America Fellowship, and can be heard regularly on the Castle of Horror Podcast. His work is currently published by Comixology: https://www.comixology.com/Sugar-Skull-Media/comics-publisher/5811-0