Are you a fan of things that go bump in the night? While there are plenty of new horror films made every year, how many have the staying power to keep chilling our bones for years to come? Those special spine-tinglers that have become staples of Halloween movie marathons are few and far between, and today, we’re here to name the best of the best.
We’re talking about the most iconic horror films of all time.
You may be familiar with current big name horror directors like James Wan of the Insidious franchise or Sam Raimi for his work on the critically acclaimed Evil Dead remake, but there are only a select few horror movies that have changed pop culture and withstood the test of time. From acid-spitting aliens to killer clowns, this list will take you through the top 10 pop culture horror movies. Be warned, things are about to get spooky, so strap in, grab some popcorn, and read on… if you dare.
#1. Halloween (1978)
With horror movies popularity starting to fall after 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any movie critic was sure to avoid giving them any attention. However, there was one movie that revived the genre and set the tone for generations to come. John Carpenter made 1978’s Halloween on a shoestring budget, but you’d never know from watching the film. Distributed by Universal Pictures, its unforgettable score (composed and performed by Carpenter himself) and revolutionary first-person camerawork make Halloween a masterpiece of craft and ingenuity. Oh, and it’s downright scary.
This scary movie follows Laurie, a high schooler stuck with babysitting duty this Halloween, as she and her friends are stalked by The Shape AKA Michael Myers. Since its debut, the phenomenon of Halloween has spurred countless conversations and is best known today for:
- Minting a star – Jamie Lee Curtis was just 19 during the filming of Halloween, but the movie skyrocketed her to success. In fact, Curtis has starred in hit movies for more than 4 decades.
- Starting a legacy – In case you weren’t aware, the story of Halloween didn’t end in 1978. There have been nearly a dozen sequels that have continued the story of Michael Myers and his murderous obsession with the Strode family with the latest installment, Halloween Kills being released in 2021. . Talk about a long-term problem.
#2. The Thing (1982)
If you're looking for a monster movie that has eye-popping effects, nerve-wracking tension, and a heavily-bearded Kurt Russell, there’s only one option—The Thing. The story of Antarctic researchers who come in contact with shape-shifting aliens, The Thing builds a hair-raising atmosphere and features amazing performances across the board.
As a film that got off to a rocky start, The Thing has gone from box office flop to unquestionable classic in the 40 years since its release. Just think about what it has going for it:
- Hyper-realistic practical effects
- An amazing icy location
- A chilling and ambiguous ending
Basically, The Thing is horror royalty. After all, what other film can offer viewers a dynamite vest, a horror-tinged blood test, and a head-spider? Yes, a head-spider.
#3. Alien (1979)
With the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a frightening treat when you sit down to watch Alien. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror extravaganza is beloved for breathing new life into the genre.
Alien’s most iconic contributions to pop culture include:
- The slow reveal – Things are scarier when you can only imagine them. For much of the movie, the viewer has to contend with small, dark, and deadly spaces, without seeing the titular alien in action. All this works to ramp up the tension and fear to another level.
- The Xenomorph – Of course, when you do see the alien (AKA the Xenomorph), it’s just about the scariest thing ever put on film. The black, slimy, eyeless beast has razor-sharp teeth, a deadly tail, and spits acid. (So it’s not your typical E.T.)
Alien continues to inspire sequels, spin-offs, and very complex Halloween costumes for those with an unabashed fondness for this terrifying film.
#4. Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Ready to take a trip to Camp Crystal Lake? It might seem surprising to pick out a sequel as a prime candidate for pop culture, but just consider what Part II has to offer:
- Jason Voorhees – The series’ primary villain doesn’t begin his murderous rampage until the second film. That’s because his sweet (and very deranged) mother is the killer in the first Friday the 13th.
- Set up for the kill – The Friday the 13th series is beloved for its crazy, gruesome, and sometimes comical kills, and Part II is no disappointment in that category. You can look forward to plenty of grisly takedowns.
Friday the 13th has inspired a legion of ravenous fans, as well as some next-level merchandise like the Friday the 13th box, that will make anyone feel like taking a swim in Crystal Lake.
#5. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Freddy Krueger is one bad dude. Why, you ask? Well, consider the following:
- He has a glove with blades on the fingers
- He murders people in their dreams
- He uses foul language in front of impressionable teenagers
Created by the legendary master of horror Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels, remakes, and spin-offs have gone on to create a pop-culture juggernaut and a truly unforgettable antagonist. If there’s one movie that makes it hard to go to sleep after watching, this is it.
#6. Saw (2004)
Games, traps, and little puppets on tricycles. It may not necessarily sound like a film that revolutionized the horror genre, but it most certainly is. Love it or hate it, Saw inspired a slew of sequels, rip-offs, and parodies that kept asking, “Do you want to play again?”
The original film remains an important contributor to pop culture. Just think of its most iconic scenes:
- The razor wire maze
- The reverse bear trap
- The amputation
Yeah, it’s a little gruesome, but that’s what you’re signing up for when you strap in for Saw.
#7. The Shining (1980)
All work and no play make horror movie list writers dull…wait a minute. The Shining is the kind of horror movie that gets in your head and stays there rent-free. The story of The Shining is fairly simple: a family looks after the haunted Overlook Hotel for winter and the slightly creepy patriarch—played by a captivating Jack Nicholson—starts to go full-on psycho.
But what makes this movie an undisputed classic? A few key points:
- Psychological terror – It’s less about what happens than how it happens. The Shining plays with your mind as you watch it, creating a level of psychological horror unseen in any film that came before it.
- 1,000,000 interpretations – What does it mean? There are so many different interpretations of this movie that entire films have been made about the subject. No one can quite agree on the underlying message of The Shining, so if you’d like to get involved in a scary-long conversation about symbolism, this movie won’t disappoint.
The Shining is an undisputed classic that fans love to rave about and display through memorabilia and The Shining centered clothing to make them feel like they too have survived being guests of the Overlook Hotel.
#8. It (2017)
Afraid of clowns? It is the ultimate fear-fest for those suffering from coulrophobia (yes, that’s the word for it). The 2017 version of this Stephen King masterpiece left audiences tense, nervous, and eager to avoid any storm drains.
What had most viewers’ hearts pumping while watching this frightening summer blockbuster? Great casting, a strong script, and perhaps:
- The shapeshifting demon clown
- Childhood fear and trauma
- Top-notch special effects
Plus, a compelling story puts you alongside some of the best young actors of a generation, and a sequel completes this epic tale of horror. People just can’t get Pennywise out of their heads—as much as they might like to.
#9. The Exorcist (1973)
Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist shocked audiences upon its release in 1973. It was so shocking, in fact, that some theaters passed out barf-bags along with the movie tickets. While the majority of audiences were more spooked than nauseous, it’s clear that this is one twisted flick.
Some of the best-remembered aspects of this movie are still very much alive in pop culture today, including:
- Tubular Bells – While the title may be unfamiliar to you, you’ll certainly recognize the tune. “Tubular Bells” is the name of the song by English musician Mike Oldfield that became the theme for the film. Today, the song is a staple over every Halloween playlist. It’s pretty catchy, too.
- Nightmare imagery – Demonic faces, subliminal images, and head-spinning terror, The Exorcist goes all out when it comes to crafting haunting images. There’s lingering horror in nearly every scene, so if you’re unfamiliar, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Fortunately, there are cuter options for remembering the most horrific aspects of this movie.
#10. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
They’re coming to get you, Barbara. Well, they certainly were when George Romero made his first zombie movie masterpiece. Night of the Living Dead basically invented the modern zombie flick, setting up the tropes that have served as the backbone of the genre for decades.
What do people love and remember most about this classic horror film? There’s too much to name here, but some of our favorite aspects include:
- Duane Jone’s iconic performance
- Super-creepy zombie design
- Horror-redefining atmosphere
From 28 Days Later to The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead has influenced all things zombie. Any fans of the undead horror genre know that all due respect goes to the first big-nasty that started it all.
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Has all this horror got your heart racing? Whether you’re ready to plan your next horror movie marathon or push play right now, this list is sure to turn heads—perhaps all the way around.
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Michigan Daily. Frights, Camera, Action: ‘The Exorcist’. https://www.michigandaily.com/arts/frights-camera-action-the-exorcist/
Bustle. ‘It’ Just Might Be The Year’s Scariest Film. https://www.bustle.com/p/how-scary-is-it-get-ready-for-2017s-most-terrifying-movie-79821
Digital Spy. Halloween: The complete timeline and how to watch the horror series in order. https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a866082/halloween-movie-order-timeline-franchise/
IMBD. The Thing. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084787/?ref_=nm_knf_i2