My 10 Favorite Spooky Season Movies
Here I am, writing a list of recommended scary movies a mere two days before Halloween—though if you're anything like me, spooky transcends season. I suppose I initially failed to consider this theme for a blog post because these films are so ingrained in my experience around this time of year. The moment the first leaf shades autumnal, my fingers curl around the TV remote and navigate to this tried and true list of atmospheric titles like a psychic medium producing automatic writing.
It took me a while to warm up to scary movies. I'm a wuss in just about every way—I can't bear tension, jump scares, or gore. All the hallmarks of horror movies, basically. But once I started reading gothic horror (Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, the Brontës, represent!) I began to understand the themes behind movies that make us feel uneasy. Surprise, surprise: they're subjects that disturb—and unite—us. Death, grief, guilt, fear, heartbreak, anger, revenge.
So really, scary movies are a release. You watch characters navigate feelings that you, personally, are invested in because they're part of the human condition. Their journeys are a bit like therapy—you can confront withheld, even taboo, emotions from the safe distance of your couch (while peeking from behind a blanket, if you're anything like me). Really good scary movies are a kind of miracle—they manage to simultaneously be visually appealing, narratively intriguing, and psychologically fulfilling.
Here are some of my favorite examples of that magical on-screen alchemy.
This list isn't in order of preference, but I'll kick it off by saying this is one of my favorite scary movies of all time. I'm a shameless history nerd, and this film, set in 1630 New England, feels like it could be a documentary—which makes it all the more disturbing. It's got heaping doses of religious and supernatural horror (plus one really creepy goat), and it features Anya Taylor-Joy (of Emma and The Queen's Gambit fame) in her breakout role. I love that, at its core, it's an origin story theorizing that what radicalizes us frees us.
An on-screen translation of one of my favorite books that doesn't suck?! Pass me the smelling salts! Not only does the 1963 film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's incredible The Haunting of Hill House beautifully capture the novel's finer points (namely: that the house is the main character), but it's also creepy as hell (truly, it has one of the best final scenes ever). It's good enough to compensate for the awful 1999 version and the lukewarm 2018 Netflix series (avoid the former at all costs, consider the latter a very loose interpretation).
Director Ari Aster really knows how to get under my skin when it comes to unsettling stories about women struggling with grief (see also: Midsommar), and Toni Collette's incredible performance in this film twists the knife. I warn you that this movie is full-tilt terrifying, but it explores strained family relationships (especially those of mothers and daughters) in shockingly perceptive and deranged ways.
This would make a fitting double feature with Hereditary thanks to its similar overarching themes, though The Babadook takes psychological horror one step further with grief made manifest. Namely: as an oversized, gravelly-voiced, tophat-wearing monster. I love how the movie's visuals mirror those in the narrative's creepy book, rendering it a sort of story-within-a-story, and Essie Davis is nothing short of fierce as a tormented, emotionally wrought mother. The ending absolutely guts me and I cry every. single. time.
This movie really surprised me—I'd avoided it as a kid because it seemed hella violent and frightening. Yes, it's a traditional slasher and an updated take on the Bloody Mary legend, but it's also impressively ahead of its time in its confrontation of racism and classicism. Perhaps that's why Jordan Peele (of Get Out fame—another excellent pick) is creating a "spiritual sequel" to it. I love a villain who's justified in his rage, and I'm also a sucker for a story that follows a researcher uncovering clues, so the solid framework was there for me from the start.
This movie isn't exactly scary, per say, but it falls nicely under the spooky category and it's so dang extra in every way, I just adore it. The costumes! The sets! The score! The performances! Francis Ford Coppola outdid himself with this one, as far as I'm concerned (Godfather what?) and Gary Oldman is delightfully unhinged in the title role. This is basically an obnoxiously expensive, extravagantly opulent velvet robe in movie form. Wrap yourself up and luxuriate, babies.
Look up the phrase "hauntingly beautiful" and this movie is what you'll find. It's got the hazy, wistful quality of being in a dream, only the dream involves doomed lovers, possessed children, and a mentally questionable governess. I do love me an unreliable narrator, and this film—adapted very thoughtfully from Henry James' excellent The Turn of the Screw—toys with the line between interior and exterior realities. As with everything these days, there's an inferior update of the novella on Netflix (*cough*TheHauntingOfBlyManor*cough*). I'm becoming a curmudgeon, I know, but I like what I like and I said what I said!
Are you sensing a theme? Most of my favorite horror movies feature female protagonists. This film boasts more of a Sci-Fi bent, but I couldn't leave it out—plus, it's plenty scary. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley is straight-up iconique. Ripley is, to this day, considered a groundbreaking and progressive character who explores not only themes of survival, humanity, and morality, but also of parasitic invasion as it relates to motherhood (more on that in the also excellent Aliens, if you're so inclined). If you haven't seen this movie yet, start filming yourself when the crew gathers to eat together (you'll know when you can quit recording) and then enjoy watching and re-watching your insane reaction. You're welcome.
This is a fun slow-burn haunted house/whodunnit hybrid—it involves a big beautiful old mansion, a restless spirit, a medium, local lore, and an evil family secret. Catnip to ghost story fans! Its central theme wrestles with the idea of grief giving you the power to sympathize with (aka: avenge) others, which makes the film transcend beyond a gimmicky scare-fest. It also features a recurring sound effect reveal that gives me goosebumps whenever I think of it.
Please, I implore you, step away from the absolutely wretched new version of this on Netflix and find your way into the light. Namely: Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's astonishingly great literary classic. This movie is so wonderfully atmospheric, so rife with classic Hitchcockian tension, and so dang beautifully shot—I just love it! Joan Fontaine absolutely crushes in her role as the naive, emotionally tortured Mrs. de Winter—it takes a real one to upstage Sir Laurence Olivier, and she does it with unsettling aplomb.