Halloween movie marathons roll around every October, we have to wonder: When did gratuitous gore become the norm for scary movies? How did carnage get conflated with creepy? And what exactly is it about blood and guts that’s supposed to be so terrifying, anyway?
We decided to dig up the most frightening gore-free films we could find. And you know what we discovered? When you strip away shock-value violence from the genre, an impressive trove of genuinely well-made fright-fests remain. These scary movies range from seminal
classics like to more modern fare like Rosemary’s Baby Paranormal Activity. (That’s right, folks, there’s more to modern horror than Saw!) Packed with psychological thrills and masterful suspense sequences, these 16 films are bloodcurdling, not blood-filled. (We can’t promise they won’t make you queasy, though. A truly terrifying film will do that to you, anyway.)
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(2002) The Ring
The Ring is inarguably one of the scariest movies of all time — but it’s miraculously not gory. Instead, the fear is derived from the music, jump scares, and of course the terrifying premise: Anyone who watches a cursed VHS tape is doomed to die. Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock
(2007) The Orphanage
The Orphanage is thrilling entry into the horror genre which will appeal to all movie buffs — not just horr fanatics. At the start of the movie, Laura (Belén Rueda), her husband (Fernando Cayo), and adoptive son (Roger Princep) return to the orphanage where she was raised. She hopes to convert the orphanage into a home for disabled children. Instead, she stumbles upon the orphanage’s dark history, which manifests in apparitions.
Psycho might be the scariest movie ever, and there’s not an ounce of blood. After stealing money from her employer, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) runs away. But stealing isn’t the decision that derails her life. It’s her far more innocuous choice to stop at the Bates Motel, where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is waiting.
(2007) Paranormal Activity The first installment in the prolific series is far and away the best — bare-bones, blood-free, and downright terrifying. A young couple’s found-footage face-off with demonic supernatural forces is every new homeowner’s nightmare. It’s actually widely considered to be the most profitable film of all time (based on ROI — the movie cost just $15,000 to make and grossed nearly $200 million worldwide).
(2001) The Others This Spanish-American horror movie set in a mansion on the coast of post-WWII England stars Nicole Kidman as a strict, religious mom. Her two kids’ extreme light-sensitivity confines them to the indoors while she waits for their father to return from battle. The movie is a master lesson in the art of making viewers sweat bullets with anxiety, using tension and spooky atmospherics instead of graphic gore and murderous maniacs. Photo: Courtesy of Cruise/Wagner Productions.
(1954) Rear Window Shot from the perspective of the Greenwich Village apartment where an injured photographer (James Stewart) is holed up during a terrible summer heat wave, this Hitchcock classic is the forerunner of creepy-neighbor flicks like 2007’s Disturbia. The photog passes the time by watching his neighbors through his courtyard-facing rear window — until one evening, he witnesses what he believes to be a brutal murder. Grace Kelly co-stars as the skeptical girlfriend. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
(1999) The Blair Witch Project The Blair Witch phenomenon changed the horror genre forever, kicking off a decade-and-a-half-long trend of found-footage flicks. Three film school students investigate a local legend in the forest country of Maryland — the movie, pulsing with sickening dread, is what’s left behind after they vanish into the woods. Though the no-longer-novel concept isn’t as convincing or confounding as it was back in 1999, it still feels real enough to put you off camping for a good few months.
(2000) What Lies Beneath Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) suffers memory damage from a car accident. So, when she starts seeing ghosts around her lakeside home in Vermont, her husband (Harrison Ford) starts to worry his wife is losing her mind. The only thing more surprising than the film’s director (Robert Zemeckis, of Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future trilogy) is its oh, shit third-act twist.
(1968) Rosemary’s Baby If you can suspend your knowledge of Roman Polanski’s sex-crime rap sheet for a couple of hours, this iconic classic of the psychological horror genre is worth every second of your willful ignorance. However, like sushi and water-skiing, this gothic fright-fest is highly inadvisable for moms-to-be. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
(2007) Funny Games Michael Haneke remade his own 1997 Austrian film — about a family terrorized by a seemingly polite couple of young men — shot for shot with a new cast, including a superb Naomi Watts. Even though nearly all the torture happens off-camera, this one is hard to watch. How do you know you’ve made a truly disturbing movie? When one of your actors won’t even watch it: Star Tim Roth, who plays the husband, found the whole filming experience so distressing that he’s refused to ever watch the finished product. Photo: Courtesy of Halcyon Pictures.
(2008) Signs While not technically a horror film, M. Night Shymalan’s nuanced sci-fi thriller starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix is one of the eeriest takes on extraterrestrial visitation in recent memory. So little “scary stuff” actually appears onscreen that the rare moments when it does — like in this home video of a little girl’s birthday party with an uninvited guest — catch you off guard and send shivers down your spine.
(2010) Insidious Writer-director duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell typically land themselves on lists of the most gory films of all time. The team behind the original Saw stunned critics and moviegoers alike, though, with their gloriously guts-free, low-budget Insidious. It’s like a haunted-house movie — except in this one, it’s the child’s unconscious that’s haunted. With its unique story, well-imagined demons, and a good stock of jump-out-of-your-seat scares, this one is a modern horror classic. Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Films.
(1973) The Wicker Man A police investigator (Edward Woodward) arrives on the tiny Scottish island of Summerisle in the wake of a little girl’s disappearance to find out what happened — but none of the residents seem too worried. In fact, they deny the entire incident. Things get increasingly freaky as the pagan and sexual rituals of the people come to light. So smart and so strange. (But for the love of god, do not confuse this with the 2006 Nic Cage remake, which is just scary bad.)
(2002) The Mothman Prophecies The people of Point Pleasant, WV, have been reporting sightings of the demonic “Mothman” for decades — the Science Channel even filed it under “unexplained” in a TV doc. That local lore inspired this creep-fest starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, who ask if the creature is legend, delusion, or something truly sinister. Unsettling throughout, with several pulse-pounding points of tension. Photo: Courtesy of Lakeshore Ent.
(1999) The Nameless Okay, fair warning here: A waterlogged (but blood-free) corpse appears in the first five minutes of this Spanish horror movie, originally titled Los Sin Nombre. Several years after her daughter’s body is found, a woman gets a mysterious phone call that spurs her to reopen the case. This super-slow-burner marries supernatural horror with classic psychological thriller anxiety, shrouding you in a foreboding sense of dread for nearly two hours — but the payoff is well, well worth it. Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
(2002) Dark Water Skip the lackluster 2005 Jennifer Connelly remake — the original is everything great about Japanese horror: artful restraint, perfectly manipulated suspense, an uncanny sense of doom, and, of course, demonic poltergeists in the form of young children. Not recommended for renters with a habitually leaky ceiling. Photo: Courtesy of Kadokawa Shoten.
(2013) Under the Skin Scarlett Johansson redefined her lady-killer reputation in this cult favorite, a mind-fuck of a film best described as art-house horror meets metaphysical sci-fi. There are few words and no named characters, but that lack of familiar conventions — combined with an ethereal score and truly freaky visual sequences — creates a strangely mesmerizing sense of foreboding. The WTF final scene will leave you speechless.
(1955) Les Diaboliques Another one butchered in a starry remake (in 1996 with Sharon Stone), this may be the best Hitchcockian horror film that Hitchcock didn’t actually make. A superfan of the film, Hitchcock professed to borrowing heavily from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French masterpiece — set in a boarding school run by a ruthless headmaster — to make Psycho, which this rivals in suspense (and likelihood to make you scared of bathrooms). Photo: Courtesy of Criterion Collection.
(1980) The Changeling A classical music composer (George C. Scott) moves to an old mansion outside Seattle after losing his family in a car crash. And it doesn’t take long for shit to get weird. The haunted house with a history may be a cliché by now, but this early gem still outdoes the best of them 35 years later: The IFC suggests it may be the scariest movie of all time. What’s for sure, though, is that you’ll never look at an empty wheelchair the same way again. Photo: Courtesy of Chessman Park.
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