Hollywood has been feeding audiences’ desire for horror of all types for more than a century.
From supernatural spooks to scary slashers, the genre has continued to reinvent itself since its inception in the silent era, leaving a bloody trail of fear-filled classics in its wake.
With Halloween around the corner, here are the best horror films from every decade, from the 1920s to now.
1920s: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Jagged architecture, shadowy figures and a hypnotizing atmosphere define Robert Wiene’s tale of madness and murder. For more than a century, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has remained an icon of German expressionist cinema and thrilled anyone who stumbled across its dream-like, macabre world. The film’s ambiguous ending will leave your head spinning well after the credits roll.
1930s: Frankenstein (1931)
Mary Shelley’s novel — often cited as the first work of science fiction — is brought to life in one of Universal’s first classic monster pictures. Boris Karloff’s iconic turn as The Monster has permeated the cultural lexicon, influencing every iteration of the character since. While some of the nuance of the source material is lost in translation, the legacy of James Whale’s gothic yarn is immeasurable in the horror genre.
1940s: The Wolf Man (1941)
Compared to the decade prior, the 40s lack genre classics, but it isn’t without its highlights. George Waggner’s The Wolf Man brings supernatural scares to the Welsh countryside as Lon Chaney Jr. fully embodies the titular lycanthrope. Another installment in Universal’s monster pantheon, The Wolf Man remains a classic.
1950s: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel’s science fiction opus, a not-so-subtle McCarthyism critique, layers Cold War anxieties on top of cultural suspicions to create a timeless alien invasion picture. A perfect encapsulation of the B-movie craze of the decade, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great flick for those looking for some social commentary to pair with their scares.
1960s: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Brain-dead, flesh-eating and slow-moving zombies are nothing new today, but when Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968, audiences hadn’t seen anything like it. Legendary director George Romero helmed the film that popularized the zombie horror subgenre: an eerie, thought-provoking feature that cares as much about showing conflicts between the living as it does between the dead.
1970s: Alien (1979)
In space, no one can hear you scream — but that didn’t stop audiences from trying. Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley, a freight ship warrant officer who finds herself going head-to-head with an alien Xenomorph. Ridley Scott guides viewers through the claustrophobic USCSS Nostromo with delicate precision, amping up the tension for Ripley’s terrifying climatic showdown.
1980s: The Shining (1980)
Very little can be said about Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. Its behind-the-scenes dramatics are nearly as infamous as the film itself, and Kubrick’s near-perfect creation has seen countless imitators since its release. Forty years later, The Shining remains the pinnacle of the director’s impressive career, and will continue to scare audiences with its wintry tale of isolated familial horror for generations to come.
1990s: Scream (1996)
The first and only slasher on this list, Wes Craven’s Scream has well-earned its top spot. Kevin Williamson’s ingenious screenplay flipped the tired genre on its head, and Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott remains the genre’s premier final girl — apologies to Jamie Lee Curtis. Whenever I’m asked for my favorite scary movie, Scream is on the tip of my tongue.
2000s: Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
While the aughts are sometimes considered one of the genre’s weaker decades, Trick ‘r Treat bucked the trend to become a Halloween horror essential. Five stories of Hallow’s Eve hauntings collide in this seasonal anthology, which features Brian Cox and Anna Paquin. A 21st-century cult classic, Trick ‘r Treat is a perfect addition to any holiday watchlist.
2010s: Climax (2018)
A horror film in the least traditional sense, director Gaspar Noé’s avant-garde tour de force is a nightmarish descent into madness, fueled by assaulting visuals and nauseating camerawork. Filmed with a barebones script over incredibly long takes, Climax is a journey you will never forget — even if you wish you could.
2020s: Talk to Me (2023)
Say what you will about recency bias, no one can deny Talk to Me’s ability to terrify even the most seasoned horror fanatics. The debut film from brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, Talk to Me centers on a group of Australian teens who decide to make a game out of ghostly possessions. Although thrilling as a piece of horror filmmaking, the film’s explorations of loss, grief and guilt are what set it apart from like-minded competition.