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Horror movies are a principal staple of the Halloween season, and gathering with friends to watch dumb teenagers get murdered is an age-old tradition. Since first gaining popularity in the 1970s, the genre of horror movies has exploded over the past few decades—with unprecedented success. Halloween blockbusters have been able to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, with a few select horror movies living on in our nightmares and culture long after their initial debut.
The following list details in no particular order the most iconic horror movies to come onto the big screen that still garner massive amounts of attention every year. While these movies might not necessarily be the “scariest,” (especially with 2020 shaping up to be a horror movie in itself) their notable cult followings, references, relevance, and watch-ability supersede that. Basically, it just wouldn’t truly be Halloween without these movies, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Exorcist (1973)
(Image via The Guardian)
Starting off our list is the horror movie that started it all: The Exorcist. The cultural impact of The Exorcist cannot be understated, with the William Friedkin movie being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and grossing a record-breaking $232.9 million at the box office—more than any other horror movie in that entire decade. The movie follows the exorcism of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil as a young priest tries his best to save her from her demonic possession. The Exorcist still holds up as a terrifying movie, full of iconic horror scenes from Regan’s exorcism, like her famous head-twist, spasms, and unusual usage of a crucifix. Linda Blair, who played Regan MacNeil, was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at just 14 years old based on her demonic performance. Truly a horror flick to watch.
The Shining (1980)
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Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining remains one of cinema’s most suspenseful and haunting movies yet. The film follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer suffering from intense writer’s block, who decides to temporarily reside with his wife and son at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado to start writing again. When his writing is unsuccessful and isolation becomes unbearable, Jack begins to experience psychic premonitions and subsequently terrorizes his family. The movie features iconic scenes that are still relevant in popular culture today, such as the “Come play with us” hallway twins, and Jack Nicholson’s famous ax-wielding scene “Here’s Johnny!” The Shining has spawned a film-cult following because of the movie’s stylistic depiction of insanity, isolation, fear, and survival, making Halloween the best time of year to relive the intense horrors of the Torrance family.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
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The ultra-low-budget horror classic that is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project follows three film students in 1994 searching the woods for the supposed “Blair Witch.” Filmed in an improvisational documentary style with unknown actors, The Blair Witch Project has unnerved audiences since its debut, even going so far as to convince audience members that the film was real recovered footage. The Blair Witch Project has been credited with changing horror forever by pioneering “ultra-realism horror,” a type of horror movie that scares audiences by its ability to occur in the real world, which has most famously influenced the creation of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Making over $248 million at the box office from a $60,000 budget, The Blair Witch Project is one of the most commercially successful and culturally relevant horror movies of all time.
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Based on Stephen King's first novel of the same name, Carrie is the story of the least popular girl in school getting asked to prom by the most handsome, popular boy. The innocent premise of the movie takes a dark turn when we see Carrie being tortured and bullied by her entire class, as she grapples with her possible supernatural powers in the process. Carrie undoubtedly has one of the most recognizable scenes in horror history with the dumping of pig’s blood on Carrie as she’s crowned prom queen. The iconic red-hue of the film combined with its experimental, stylistic choices makes Carrie a cinematic classic worthy of its position in Halloween’s most coveted horror films. Carrie’s influence goes on well past the film’s release in 1976, with the blood-soaked woman trope being immortalized in popular movies, TV, and even music, most recently in SZA’s new song “Hit Different” where SZA is covered head-to-toe in blood.
(Image via Grave Reviews)
A quintessential 90's meta-horror flick, Scream revolves around a town being terrorized by a brutal masked murder who calls and chases his victims before killing them. With a star-studded cast including Drew Barrymore and Courtney Cox, Scream is the most mainstream, digestible horror movie on the list by far. What Scream lacks in actual, real horror, it makes up for in pure entertainment and easily quotable scenes. Scream as a movie knows what it is, and spends a decent amount of time pointing out the many flaws in slasher movies in general, such as dumb, big-breasted teenagers running upstairs rather than out the door to escape the killer. To make the Scream franchise even more meta, it was famously parodied in the 2000 film Scary Movie. The many iconic moments of Scream have been immortalized by Halloween traditions, such as trick-or-treating, costume parties, and horror movie watch parties.