Essential Movies to Watch This Halloween Season

IT halloween season

With Halloween nearly here, though, the time has come to start buckling down and getting more serious about horror movie viewing.

Given the sheer number of horror movies, check out this list of the absolute must-watch horror movies everyone should see this Halloween season.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

One of the most successful horror movies to come out of the '80s slasher craze, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows a group of high school students plagued by nightmares featuring a severely burned, knife-handed maniac (Robert Englund). As they begin dying off one by one under strange circumstances, the teens realize that what happens to them in their dreams might in fact cause them physical harm in the real world.

2. Psycho

Psycho Anthony Perkins
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The prototypical slasher movie, Psycho broke so many rules of filmmaking for its time, touching upon then-controversial topics few directors had the courage to handle, such as voyeurism, sexuality, gender nonconformity, and violence.

After stealing a large sum of money from her boss to pay off her lovers' debts, unhappy secretary Marion (Janet Leigh) goes on the run, stopping at a roadside motel managed by the shy, eccentric Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). As Marion's stay continues, she soon shares a fateful encounter with Norman’s mysterious mother.

Psycho remains the definitive Hitchcock movie, full of tight pacing, innovative style, amazing plot twists, and the now-iconic, oft-parodied shower scene, punctuated by the infamous string-heavy Bernard Hermann score that plays in the background.

3. Halloween

Halloween Nancy Kyes
Image Credit: Compass International Pictures.

Before Scream, before A Nightmare on Elm Street, before Friday the 13th, Halloween scared the bejesus out of audiences. Made on a shoestring budget and with a mostly inexperienced cast and crew, the indie movie proved a huge financial and critical success.

The movie focuses on the infamous butcher knife-wielding maniac Michael Myers (Nick Castle), who, as a child, murdered his own sister on Halloween, condemning to a mental institute for the rest of his life. When Michael manages to escape on Halloween night 15 years later, he returns to his hometown, targeting a high school babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends while Michael's psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) tries to stop him.

To this day, Halloween remains one of the most popular slasher movies, continuing to stay relevant with newer movies like Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends. If there's one slasher everyone needs to see in preparation for Halloween season, it has to be … well, Halloween.

4. The Exorcist

The Exorcist Linda Blair, Max von Sydow
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Like most movies on this list, The Exorcist often lands on lists as one of the best horror movies ever. Among the most uncomfortable horror movies ever put to the screen, The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl (Linda Blair) possessed by a demon that slowly transforms her into a disfigured, foul-mouthed version of her former self, and the subsequent attempt to exorcise the creature by two Catholic priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow).

Even now, The Exorcist remains one of the most shocking movies audiences will ever see. Initial viewer reactions to the film apparently included violent physical responses, such as vomiting, fainting, and even heart attacks and miscarriages, leading to several cities trying to ban the film altogether.

5. The Shining

The Shining Lisa Burns, Louise Burns
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

The Shining has cultivated a reputation as the ultimate Stephen King movie. A very loose adaptation of King's original novel (something that remains a point of contention for the author to this day), The Shining follows the Torrance family—made up of the recovering alcoholic Jack (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). After getting hired as the caretaker to the Overlook Hotel deep in the Colorado mountains, Jack moves into the hotel with his wife and son for the off-season. As winter sets in, the Torrances suspect a malevolent presence in the Hotel, preying on Danny's psychic abilities, known as “the shining.”

One of the legendary Stanley Kubrick's most well-known movies, at just under two and a half hours, The Shining relies on a taut, claustrophobic atmosphere, growing more and more disorienting as the movie unfolds.

A combination of remarkable direction by Kubrick,  chilling soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, and fantastic performances from the three lead actors involved, The Shining requires more than a few viewings to understand—over 40 years since its release, it remains the subject of debate and conjecture among dedicated fans.

6. Rosemary's Baby

Rosemarys Baby
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Perhaps the most well-known example of psychological horror done right, Rosemary's Baby also ranks among the creepiest movies ever, relying on gradual suspense and budding unease rather than on gory special effects or jump scares.

When Rosemary and Guy (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) move into a prestigious New York hotel together, they meet their neighbors, a quirky old couple (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). After Rosemary learns that she is pregnant, she begins to suspect that the older couple may have ties to a coven of witches trying to steal her unborn baby for some sinister purpose.

Commonly regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time, historians regard Rosemary's Baby as the quintessential psychological horror movie, using tense music, mystery, and Rosemary's increasing anxiety to leave audiences with the same disoriented mindset as Rosemary herself.

7. Carrie

Carrie Sissy Spacek
Image Credited: United Artists.

Another remarkable Stephen King adaptation, audiences remember Carrie today as a significant highlight among horror director Brian De Palma's extensive filmography, including such hits as Blow Out, Scarface, and The Untouchables. While Carrie has gotten the remake treatment a few times over the years, De Palma's original still remains a must-watch for horror fans everywhere. It's a horrifying, spine-chilling, and beloved Stephen King story with a main character viewers can't help but feel complete sympathy towards.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a depressed high school loner bullied by her peers and abused by her fanatical mother (Piper Laurie). Discovering that she possesses psychic abilities, Carrie uses her these newfound powers to exact revenge against those who wronged her.

De Palma's first mainstream hit, the success of Carrie launched the director's career, establishing rising star Sissy Spacek in Hollywood and relaunching the stagnant career of Piper Laurie.

8. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

By far the best zombie movie to be released in the past 20 years, Shaun of the Dead does a great job balancing humor with horror, telling the story of two slackers (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) who find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse in the otherwise quiet London suburbs.

Seeing a good British horror movie is always a treat, but Wright goes above and beyond here, creating tons of sentimental homages and nods to the previous zombie movies that inspired him, all the while using plenty of slapstick and verbal comedy to keep you laughing and legitimately scared the entire time.

9. Suspiria

Suspiria Jessica Harper
Image Credit: Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

One can't have Halloween without witches. While there are all kinds of movies featuring witches that rightfully could've earned a spot on this list—from family-friendly ones like Hocus Pocus and The Witches to chilling tales like The Blair Witch Project and Hereditary—nobody can beat the fan-favorite horror movie, Suspiria.

A favorite of notable directors like Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, Suspiria revolves around an American girl named Suzy (Jessica Harper) arriving at a prestigious German dance academy. Following a series of strange events—including an infestation of maggots and brutal murders—Suzy suspects that the school may house a coven of witches.

One of director Dario Argento's most famous (and also goriest) movies, Suspiria has earned praise not only for its creepy main storyline, but also for its tone and visuals, thanks in large part to Argento's bright color palette and the eerie soundtrack by Argento and prog-rock band Goblin.

10. Get Out

Get Out Daniel Kaluuya
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

A spiritual successor to Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, Get Out tells the story of a young Black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), as they travel for a weekend visit to Rose's parents' house, where Chris uncovers an insidious plot involving Rose's family.

Dark, smart, and creative, Get Out blended social aspects of everyday life in modern America (especially marginalized persons of color) with psychological horror, creating a more nuanced horror story grounded in the real world that blew audiences away. Get Out also sparked a renewed phase in Jordan Peele's career as a horror movie director, the success of this movie earning him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and paving the way for later films like Us and Nope.

11. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, Patricia Quinn
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

What’s Halloween without the most infamous scientist of them all – Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)? The star of one of the most engrossing horror comedy musicals ever stitched together, Curry hands in a performance that continues to stand out among horror and musical fans everywhere, delighting with every scene he’s featured in courtesy of 1975’s indie cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Winding up lost in the woodland backroads, a preppy young couple (Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) stumble onto the home of the eccentric scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Curry). Invited into Frank-N-Furter’s mansion, they witness his attempts to build the ultimate creation: a muscled-up man named Rocky (Peter Hinwood).

Chock full of addicting song-and-dance numbers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show makes for a dazzling affair, complete with mad scientists, scheming butlers, scandalous maids, and suave criminologists. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy The Rocky Horror Picture Show do so with great enthusiasm.

12. It

Bill Skarsgård in It (2017), Clown, Pennywise
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

For most people, Stephen King is synonymous with Halloween itself, the author having written tons of decade-defining novels rooted in readers’ collective fears and anxieties. With how extensive King’s bibliography is, numerous adaptations of his novels have found their way onto film over the years, with one of the most standout adaptations coming in 2017 with the chilling creature feature, It.

In the small town of Derry, Maine, a group of 1980s pre-teen outcasts known as the Losers discover a centuries-old creature residing in the heart of their town. Preying on children and exploiting their greatest fears, the Losers set out to destroy this demonic creature (Bill Skarsgård), ending his horrifying grip over Derry.

The modern-day equivalent to Jaws, It takes a variety of forms throughout its two-hour long runtime, terrifying audiences (and the main protagonists) with his appearance as a clown, a sentient avant-garde painting, or a disembodied talking sink. 

13. Scream

Scream Drew Barrymore
Image Credit: Dimension Films.

Against all odds, Wes Craven caught lightning in a bottle not once but twice. Repeating the success of his earlier classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven proved able to lampoon the very genre he helped put on the map, redefining the slasher for a new generation of filmgoers everywhere with his 1996 film, Scream.

In the small California town of Woodsboro, a masked murderer with an affinity for horror films begins targeting local townspeople in the area. Discovering a link between the killer and her own deceased mother, the mild-mannered teen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) tries to solve the murders, believing the killer may be one of her closest friends.

A clever cross between a slasher and a whodunit, Scream mocked the conventions of age-old slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street in an original way. Though loaded with humor, the film still retained the sense of horror and suspense one associates with the slasher genre, paving the way for one of the most successful horror films of all time, perfect for Halloween season.