18 movies that genuinely scared us

18 Den Of Geek writers confess to the film that gave them the chills. Ideas for your Halloween viewing start right here...

Den Of Geek is proud to have a team of such fearless writers. From across the planet, they write their words, wearing a cloak of invincibility to the forces that surround them. That is, though, until a scary movie comes along. And not necessarily a horror movie either – a film that genuinely, for whatever reason, gets under their skin.

We asked our writers to confess to the film that gave them the chills. And here’s what they came up with…

SuspiriaDoralba Picerno

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I was a wee teenager when I first watched Suspiria. I had been too young to see it when it first came out, and as part of a generation too young to watch Dario Argento’s 70s movies on the big screen, I rediscovered his opus when it was broadcast on TV. By that point, Argento’s movies where the object of cult adoration. There was no Internet or DVDs, and not all of his titles were out on VHS either, hence, the sense of anticipation was great. I watched it alone, sitting by the desk where I used to do all my homework, while my parents were watching a jolly good comedy in the room next door. Suspiria was amazing: atmospheric, creepy, scary and mysterious.

An American girl joins a dance academy in Germany, and from her arrival in the pouring rain, every scene is infused with a delightful sense of impending dread, made even better by the fact you never see the ‘monster’, you just hear its creepy raspy breathing from behind curtains. Suspiria deals with supernatural forces, and you are forced to identify with its heroine as you feel helpless and alone against something you cannot quite identify or locate (but you can certainly hear!). The final scene, with an almost endless curtained curved dark corridor, unable to see what’s ahead, left me petrified to my chair for a good 10 minutes after the movie ended. I still get shivers when I hear Claudio Simonetti’s soundtrack, which incorporated the creature’s scary breathing… A classy horror, indeed.

The ChildrenStuart Turton

Movies have long had a preoccupation with children turning against adults, but dig into these efforts and what you’ll normally find beating at their core is an excuse – some alien, often malign influence that fundamentally changes the nature of the child, explaining and excusing their subsequent violence.

The reason The Children haunts me is because its protagonists’ violence is an expression of their nature, not a warping of it. This is most succinctly summed up when one of the adults peers into her daughter’s tent to find a dead body and a doll sticking out of a hole in his chest. It’s grotesque, but the real horror arrives from the realisation that the child was playing. At their worst, the children are violent, manipulative, immoral, impulsive, spiteful and acquisitive – just like most eight-year olds, in fact.

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Wisely, the film never offers a motivation for the children’s actions, beyond a sense that they’re responding to the spite simmering beneath the veneer of family harmony. They never take pleasure in their actions, or show remorse. They just do, as children just do. They want the adults dead and this is motivation enough. 

Salem’s LotJaney Goulding

I was just a kid when Salem’s Lot first aired as a mini-series on television, and too young to be getting my shits and giggles dished up by some of the most iconic depictions of ex-sanguination ever committed to celluloid. Little did I know, huddled in my Wonder Woman pyjamas, that I’d be warped forever by Tobe Hooper’s malevolent adaptation of the Stephen King classic about a sleepy New England town taken over by vampires.

Pretty boy David Soul works the perturbed (and frequently constipated) angle as writer Ben Mears. His fascination with the house that looms over ‘The Lot’ leads to conflict with its new occupants: James Mason’s jovial antique dealer Richard Straker, and Reggie Nalder’s Kurt Barlow with his troubling aversion to sunlight. There follows a spate of deaths by ‘pernicious anaemia’ as the townsfolk, most notably scraggy nippers Ralphie and Danny Glick, are picked off. It’s up to Mears and horror fan Mark Petrie to save the day, as friends and family turn to the dark side. But the body count is such that the notion of good triumphing over evil is severely compromised, and the fate of this prosaic community remains uncertain.

This bleak world view is reinforced by moments of genuinely malignant force, such as Geoffrey Lewis’s undead deadbeat snarling in a rocking chair. But it’s the young Glicks, grinning as they loom from the emissions of an overactive dry-ice machine, that would gnaw at my tender psyche most profoundly, setting back my relationships with boys several lifetimes. Too many bedtimes would be spent paralysed in fear as fingers of doom (otherwise known as ‘trees’) scratched on my window. Some movies – experienced when the nascent murmurings of the macabre have yet to be tempered by a more cynical perspective – damage a person on a cellular level. For me, this would be the definitive trip to Creepsville.

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Marathon ManGlen Chapman

I’m generally quite a jumpy person. This year moments in Drag Me To Hell and Pandorum have almost seen me jump out of my seat. However, it’s not necessarily the films that make me jump that I find the most frightening or disturbing; it’s the films that have their roots in, reasonably, realistic situations and find people completely helpless in a horrific scenario.

One example that springs to mind, perhaps an obvious one, is the dental torture scene in Marathon Man. It finds Dustin Hoffman’s Babe tied to a dental chair and completely at the mercy of Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist Szell, who is looking to ascertain whether it’s safe to recover his stash of diamonds. The way Szell calmly repeats the question, “Is it safe?” whilst using a number of dental instruments to inflict pain to a baffled and terrified Babe is incredibly scary. The scene is masterfully shot, using point of view shots accompanied by the loud sound of the dental drill to amp up the tension.

It’s reported that originally the scene was longer and was shortened following preview audiences feeling sick. The film, and particularly the scene, has stuck with me since I first watched the movie when I was in my early teens and, rather stupidly, I think of the scene whenever I go to the dentist. I appreciate that being at the mercy of a Nazi dentist isn’t a situation the vast majority of people will be able to relate to. But the situation’s certainly more realistic than being chased by a Lamia or some savage beasts on a space ship, which makes it all the more affecting – well, for me anyway.

The ExorcistNick Smith

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Every family should have a dodgy uncle who corrupts his nieces and nephews. Ours was Uncle Robin, a gent who tucks his jumper in his trousers and still lives with his mum well into middle age.

I can blame my addiction to horror movies on Robin, who hooked me in the late 80s by giving me a bootleg VHS copy of The Exorcist. Although it was readily viewable elsewhere in the world, the film had been withdrawn from home distribution in Britain (it finally got a re-release in 1999). So the only way to watch it in the comfort of my own living room was via pirate videotape.

I knew the movie’s rep: demonic possession inspired by a true story, earnest priests, shocks and scares. But the devil was in the details: near-subliminal flash cuts to creepy images, Regan, an innocent young girl, transformed into a potty-mouthed monster, sincere performances that made you fear for the characters’ lives and sanity.

Another factor made my viewing experience far more unnerving. It was the tape itself. Third generation at least, it was a grainy, crackling ghost of the original. I had to strain to see what was going on in the darkest scenes. I barely heard the whispered or grunted voices of Regan speaking in tongues. The acting and direction sought a veracious, gritty tone that suggested this horror could happen in the real world. My grungy tape added to this documentary feel.

When I finally saw The Exorcist on the big screen ten years later, I was surprised to see slick, high budget camerawork (the opening sequence is particularly beautiful). The audience was scared shitless, their disquiet palpable. But it wasn’t the same for me. Some selfish part of me wishes that bootleg ghost was still around, haunting car boot sales and corner newsagents, waiting for another poor victim to take it home and watch it with the lights out.

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PoltergeistRobert McLaughlin

This might seem an obvious choice and a film that has been mentioned on the site on more than one occasion, but the Steven Spielberg-produced suburban horror movie is still a movie that unsettles me. It’s not the straightforward scares like the sinister clown or the guy ripping his face off – the entire movie is just creepy.

From the slow distorted string score and the fact that the movie slowly builds up from strange occurrences that at first seem fun and unusual to all out horror of falling in a swimming pool filled with skeletons, the entire feel of the film is aimed just right for a good scare. From the primal fears of children’s night terrors (the lightening, the clown…again, and the tree) and things living under the bed and in the closet to the sheer terror of losing a child, the film taps into every single emotion of the scary spectrum and uses subtle scares, tears and tempers to show that emotional horror is far more successful than piles of effects. With just plastic, strobes and lighting effects a world of the supernatural and the unknown can be far more sinister than a bad guy from a generic slasher flick with his weapon of choice. 

Event HorizonSimon Brew

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I don’t come out of the next 200 words very well at all.

The film that put the chills into me, that surprisingly nobody else on this list had bagged in advance, was Paul W S Anderson’s Event Horizon. I write these words knowing that it’s not a great movie, that it’s hugely derivative, and that on repeated viewers, it’s barely left me batting an eyelid. But just once, Event Horizon really got under my skin.

I’m a great believer in mood and circumstance affecting your thoughts on a given film. With Event Horizon, I knew nothing of the film, saw it opening night, was stone-cold sober, and sat slap bang in the middle of a brand new state-of-the-art (at least it was then) cinema. The latter was crucial, as what struck me about Event Horizon was the surround sound mix was just outstanding. And I found that it wasn’t the visuals on screen that were making my skin crawl. It was the outstanding, and surprisingly subtle, use of sound. Nothing more, and nothing less, than that.

Maybe Event Horizon got lucky. It was the right sound mix, in the right screen, in the right atmosphere, at the right time. What I distinctly remember though is being relieved when the credits rolled, and not for the reason you might expect.

A Nightmare On Elm StreetKarl Hodge

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In my youth I loved the trashy films of Stuart Gordon: From Beyond, Re-Animator and Dolls. I lapped up the first Hellraiser and idolised the scary fantastic House. None of them scared me in the slightest. Friday The 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the rest of that first wave of slashers left me wondering where civilisation was heading (the answer, of course, is Hostel). Not a single goosebump, though.

Still, there’s not just one film that scares me – but a whole series. And when I tell you why, you’ll probably laugh. Other monsters stay up on screen. Dracula, the Wolf Man, Jason, Pinhead… they’re trapped in stories and celluloid. That’s why I am shit scared of A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Dreams are powerful voodoo and in the Nightmare series there’s a central character with the capacity to cross over from narrative to nightmare. If you don’t buy that, let me ask you something. Have you ever dreamt about Freddy? It’s an odd experience both psychologically and philosophically. Even if you’re dreaming lucidly – aware that you’re asleep – a psychedelically engaged cerebellum can have a hard time separating fiction from fact.

Sure, he’s a not real. You know that logically and rationally. But in the throes of REM can you be ever be certain? I mean, entering people’s dreams and messing with their heads is what Freddy does. Could those finger blades tear more than a metaphysical hole in you? Is your bed getting ready to swallow you whole, trapping you in the dreamworld forever? Of course not. But the same small percentage of suspended disbelief required to enjoy watching any movie can also be your undoing at 3 o’clock in the morning, when you wake from an encounter with Freddy in your nightmares, blood sugar low and sweat drenched.

Still scoffing? Then you haven’t dreamt about Freddy Krueger yet, have you? It’s only a matter of time. As the rhyme says: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”.

Willy Wonka And The Chocolate FactoryMark Oakley

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While it remains one of my all-time favourite films, the original (and by far the best) version of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic has a sequence in it that seriously disturbed me when I first watched it as a kid and still gives me the creeps even now. The psychedelic and far-too-adult boat ride sequence that arrives around halfway through the film is the stuff nightmares are made of. Scaring children is one thing, but brief clips of chickens having their heads cut off and snakes crawling over a man’s face surely has no place in any U- or PG-certificate film. 

To make matters worse, Gene Wilder’s wild eyes, plastered on smile and fevered ramblings (“Yes danger must be growing for the rowers keep on rowing. And they’re certainly not showing any signs that they are slooowing. AAARRGHHH!”), all spluttered out to the backdrop of some drug-addled 60s kaleidoscope, make this sequence genuinely disturbing. 

There are lighter moments to the ride – Roy Kinnear’s mimicking of Wilder makes me chuckle every time – but, in truth, they’re all lost in Wonka’s fear factory.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With MeMatt Barber

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In many ways the terror I feel about this film is inseparable from the terror I feel about David Lynch’s seminal television series. Packed with uncanny imagery, shock moments, scenes of brutality and an ever-pervasive feeling of doom, Fire Walk With Me is perhaps the only film that still consistently scares me.

To make this film was a characteristically brave move. By the end of the series, regular viewers wanted more of the charm that Twin Peaks offered, but most of all they wanted answers. The film gives neither. Lynch’s movie is constructed from the abstract, dark weirdness, the uncomfortable dream imagery of the series. What’s more, it’s a prequel – the film answers no questions, it retreads in forensic detail the last days of Laura Palmer.

Ultimately, I think this is why I still find the film so disturbing. It’s a prequel that doesn’t act like a prequel. All the characters, including Laura Palmer, become aware of their future. Lynch’s characteristic dream sequences connect the events of the prequel with the downbeat ending of the series, tying the characters into an inescapable destiny. The film depicts the incestuous corruption of Laura Palmer as she consciously walks towards her fate.  

Jacob’s LadderGaye Birch

I was almost immune to horror films by the time I could read. I had a mom who hauled me, far too young, into movie theaters I had no business being in. So, by my preteens, when other people were retching over an axe to the skull, I was trying to figure out how the filmmakers pulled off that particular effect and critiquing whether they’d done a good job of it or not.

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Yes, I jumped when others jumped and gasped when adults around me gasped, but blood and gore were boring at too young an age and no movie really frightened me longer than a scene lasted. Until Jacob’s Ladder. I saw it when it came out in 1990 and then never again – until this year, when I forced myself in an attempt to get over a deeply embedded fear it had instilled nearly 20 years ago.

It wasn’t the characters that turned demonic without warning or the horrors of war that got me. It was this: shaky people. There’s a scene with someone in the back of a car vibrating ferociously and the sight of that made my skin crawl long after the film was over. There were more scenes like it but I couldn’t tell you what or where as I tend to block and bolt them away.

Lots of films have copied the phenomenon since, so it must scare many more than me. It’s when humans move inhumanly – either too fast, too slow, at freakish angles or in that jerky stop-start fashion that you can’t accomplish without film trickery. It gets to me every time.

I’ve been recommending Jacob’s Ladder since the day I first saw it as a very good film with a great premise, but it took nearly two decades to summon the courage to watch it again myself. And it still scared me.

The Dark CrystalJoe Martin

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The Dark Crystal itself isn’t very scary. It’s a Jim Henson production with Muppets about the triumph of good over evil and about how important it is to stay balanced in all things. Standard family-friendly stuff on the face of it, but The Dark Crystal still manages to be utterly pant-filling because of one single element of the plot: the Skeksis, the bad guys of the film who look like giant, skeletal crows who’ve been dressed in rotting flesh and who totter around imprisoned in their own clothes.

Locked in their huge tower with mind-controlled servants and a dying ruler, everything scary about the Skeksis can be summed up in one single sound. It’s the questioning whine of the Chamberlain Skeksis, who is brutally cast out from the tower when he fails to usurp the dying ruler and who is savagely stripped, beaten and abandoned by his brethren. It’s a truly horrifying scene of unrestrained brutality. It’s also a scene made even more terrible by the fact that it’s been realised by the same team who bought us The Muppet Christmas Carol.

People can laugh at me if they want, but I don’t care. The Skeksis are the single most awful and potently terrible creation to have ever been conjured and, while there’s a lot of unsettling stuff on this list, the Skeksis are the only one which truly capture the sense of unforgivable brutality and ugliness that lies at the heart of true evil.

Stephen King’s ItCarley Tauchert

There are few things that totally unnerve me, but the adaptation of Stephen King’s It has to be right up there on the list. Although the second half does let it down a bit, there is nothing more terrifying than a clown, let alone an evil clown that could drag you down a plug hole, rip your skin to shreds with his claw and eat you with horrible fangs. I remember for weeks after watching It on TV I would check the toilet and drains each time I was about to step in. Tim Curry as Pennywise really is brilliant in a role that still gives me the creeps now.

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A Tale of Two SistersMatt Haigh

For me, a sense of unease or creeping fear does not arise from an in-your-face monster (unless it’s a werewolf) but a slow-burning tension set within the confines of our reality. Realism is key, albeit realism peppered with the macabre. In short, films set in ordinary places, such as family homes, that show you little but suggest a great deal.

A Tale Of Two Sisters is arguably darker than most of the Asian horrors we’re all familiar with, including, as it does, scenes of child abuse and a pervading sense of dread, most powerfully evoked by the thick shadows that clutter the corners of the house in which the story unfolds. There are two haunting, disturbing scenes in particular guaranteed to stay with you. The first is when a woman glimpses a charred, burned husk of a child still alive and lurking beneath the kitchen cupboards. The second is when a woman pulls something amorphous, black and globular out of a mattress with a vile hurling sound that’s never really described or explained.

In the same way that the Silent Hill games present us with abstract monstrosities we can’t quite get a handle on, so to does ATOTS succeed in leaving a slightly head-fucked chill down the spine.

AuditionJulian Whitley

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In terms of sheer visceral thrills, cinema doesn’t come much more shocking than Takashi Miike’s Audition. For the first half of the film, you wouldn’t necessarily realise you were watching a horror. The film begins in a lighthearted vein, almost like a rom-com, as we are introduced to middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama.

At the behest of his son, Aoyama holds a number of surreptitious ‘auditions’ for a new partner. After innumerable disappointments, Aoyama becomes instantly entranced by the sweet-yet-shy Asamai Yamazaki – played to chilling perfection by Eihi Shiina – and the pair soon start dating. However, it soon becomes clear that Yamazaki isn’t as delightful as she may seem, and it’s here that the film takes a sudden jolt into its much more disturbing final act.

The more we learn about Yamazaki’s mental instability, the more the tension is ratcheted up to unbearable levels, culminating in one of the most unnerving, relentless, and genuinely horrific climaxes in recent history. Unlike most modern horrors, Audition doesn’t generate shock from unyielding gore and viscera, but from a foreboding sense of dread that builds incrementally as the film progresses. One thing’s for sure: one viewing, and you will long to be single!

Throne Of BloodJames Clayton

Macbeth is a very scary Shakespeare play that’s served as the source for several disturbing movies (Orson Welles did it with unnerving Scottish accents. Roman Polanski did it with naked witches). Probably the most upsetting screen version of ‘the Scottish play’, though, is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, which takes Elizabethan theatre and dresses it up in samurai battle gear, all whilst emphasising the dread in a true masterpiece of anxiety.

The Macbeth and Lady Macbeth figures – Washizu and Lady Asaji played by the electrifyingly intense Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada respectively – are chilling enough, but add in the fact that instead of the Three Witches you’ve got a creepy ghost Yoda at a spinning wheel and the frightening atmosphere takes a turn to the petrifying. Few things have upset me as much as the sinister forest sprite that offers ominous prophecies through the fog.

Shakespeare, it turns out, is much more frightening when filmed in austere black-and-white and set in feudal Japan. I challenge anyone to watch Samurai Macbeth after 10pm and not feel overwhelmed by a dark sense of terror or want to hide when eerie phantom Yoda pops up.

RinguAaron Birch

When it comes to horror flicks, monsters and gore rarely have much of an effect on my personal scare-o-meter. This isn’t a macho “I ain’t afraid o’ nuthin” boast or anything, and there have been plenty of movies that have given me a fright and made me want to watch a light hearted comedy before I retire to bed. I’ve grown up watching all kinds of sci-fi and horror, and so I’ve simply become a little desensitised to seeing creepy creatures and gruesome zombies.

Personally, the kind of horror film that really sticks with me is the psychological breed. The kind of film that leaves more to your imagination than anything else. There are few more unnerving themes than those that leave you to imaging just what kind of horrors are behind the scenes or in the darkness… watching you.

For this reason, my own pant-wetting gallery of chills has to include classic horrors like the original Haunting (just don’t get me going on the pathetic remake) and The Shining, as well as the wave of fantastically creepy Japanese chillers (or J-Horror) like the Ju-on series and, of course, The Ring (Ringu), which is probably number one on my list, and one film that I’ll never forget, no matter how hard I try.

CloverfieldPete Dillon-Trenchard

I’ve never been a big fan of horror films, so 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, with its faux-camcorder style, slipped under my radar. It wasn’t until nine years later, when JJ Abrams decided to go down this ‘found footage’ route for monster movie Cloverfield, that I was finally exposed to its unsettling charms.

Cloverfield is a skewed take on the Godzilla-style disaster movie, looking at how having a big lizard attack a city affects the man (or woman) on the street; the answer, as it turns out, is ‘quite badly’. A group of rather unlikeable characters face one crisis after another in their attempt to leave the city, but not before inexplicably rushing off to save the lead character’s girlfriend (whom most reasonable people would have left for dead).

It’s fair to say that Cloverfield is not without its faults. And yet, thanks to the shaky handheld camerawork and lack of incidental music, you can’t help but be sucked into the world of these characters, and feel almost like you’re experiencing the shocking events for yourself. As the film drew to a relentlessly grim climax in which all of the leads are killed, and as the credits rolled in silence, I was left wondering if I’d ever feel warm and fuzzy inside again…

Add your own suggestions in the comments below!