Eighteen Film Buffs Talk About The Scariest Movies They’ve Ever Seen

Even film critics watch these movies with the lights on.

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Eighteen Film Buffs Talk About The Scariest Movies They’ve Ever Seen

One night a couple of years ago, I was bored in my hotel room in Abu Dhabi after a long and brutal day at work, and my wife was in bed. Paranormal Activity came on TV and I thought, why not? I’d never seen it – completely missed out on the initial hype and seemingly hundreds of sequels. But I’d always heard the first one comes with the goods as far as real thrills and chills.

Turns out that’s true – so bloody true so I had to turn it off after twenty minutes. I’m not kidding. I couldn’t do it. It’s not easy for me to admit this as a writer, veteran film-festival hand and supposed grown-up. But there I was, too scared to watch a movie on TV by myself. It made me feel exactly like I did as an eight-year-old cowering from Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.

How do you judge an experience like that intellectually? Should knowing a thing or two about cinema make you more immune to things that go bump on film? Or maybe it makes you even more sensitive to them? I thought I’d ask some other critics and film folk what movies really scared the bejeezus out of them when they had their industry hats off and their guard down. I got a great response – instead of being too cool for school, these cinephiles seemed to revel in revealing what terrors lurk in the back of their moviegoing memories.

There were a number of classics mentioned – for good reason as far as I’m concerned. Aside from their considerable cinematic qualities, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project and The Exorcist are freaking terrifying, in case you haven’t seen them for a while or you’ve judged them based on legions of inferior knockoffs.

Note that many of those mentioned are more or less minimalist in their approach (aside from a swivelling head or two). These days horror as a commercial genre is dominated by torture porn and zombie apocalypses on the one hand and cutesy vampire flicks on the other. Why is it so hard for filmmakers to remember that now as much as 80 years ago, all you need to scare an audience is a darkened stairwell, a few shadows and some suspension of disbelief?

But the poll’s results weren’t limited to such well-known frightfests – it’s a goldmine of cult classics, schlock and foreign shockers to add to your list and dare yourself to watch. And it’s not limited by genre. Horror is a fluid thing that seeps into many kinds of films, and the poll turned up a lot of off-the-wall choices, from the supremely messed-up work of David Lynch (the director who gets the most mentions here) to warped oddities like Return to Oz.

Not surprisingly many of those polled focused on primal experiences from childhood, when cheesy camp or even a bad guy in a superhero film can inspire sleepless nights. For many of us that feeling doesn’t go away when we grow up – it just waits to creep up behind us again when we least expect it, as I found out and as this poll shows in spades.

Enjoy – I’m off to try to get through PA1 again, nice knowing you.

Words by Jim Poe.

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