Although the horror genre relies so frequently on ghosts and monsters (and the occasional zombiefied backwoodsperson) to draw shrieks out of its masochistic audience, the scariest elements in film are often in no way rooted in the supernatural, nor in the obstinately gruesome. The scariest movies, in fact, rely not on creatures and killings, but on pure tension. This list celebrates petrifying films that maintain an aura of terror that stirs entirely within.
Sure, these movies might not pass muster with Ray Harryhausen, but they’re the sort of horrors that stick with you long after first viewing… that chill you to your bones right when you’re on the edge of sleep, and that render even the most safe and cozy of suburban avenues a haunting march.
Some of them call upon practical fears, like disease or addiction, to rattle any who dare to watch. Others probe deep into the troubled psyche, shining light on the personal emotional fissures that viewers may have been denying for years. More still chime in with good old-fashioned weirdness. The kind of weirdness that is unsettling to acknowledge as born from human imagination. And finally, some simply seem to know that the scariest things of all are the sort that happen to us everyday. So peruse the list for a good shudder… although I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to sit this one out.
Image: Sandrew Film & Teater/Gaumont
'REQUIEM FOR A DREAM'
The Source of Fear: Addiction. Darren Aronofsky’s merciless look at the decay of life under the pressures of meth, heroin, or pills is a health class staple exactly because of how terrifying it is.
Image: Artisan Entertainment
The Source of Fear: Uncertainty. The deliberate lack of comfort in not knowing the truth, in wondering if Nicole Kidman’s eerie visitor might very well be her deceased husband reincarnated (or perhaps an impostor up to no good) will reverberate with you well past the closing credits.
Image: New Line Cinema
The Source of Fear: Sadness. I can be more specific and say “death,” but it’s the impenetrable sadness inherent in the loss that is far more ominous and destructive in this troubling animated film than the death alone.
Image: Avco Embassy Pictures
The Source of Fear: Obsession (different from addiction in that it exists entirely within you, as opposed to through you via chemical dependency, which makes it all the more terrifying). You don’t only fear for Natalie Portman in this diabolically tense thriller, you fear her just the same. You fear what the corrosive call of the perfection for which she lusts is doing to her, inside and out. You fear the depths to which it will drag her.
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The Source of Fear: War (this was an easy one). It’s all accurately summed up in the film’s iconic final line of dialogue: warfare, and what it does to men (on the fields and in their minds) is true horror.
Image: United Artists
'FANNY AND ALEXANDER'
The Source of Fear: Aloneness. Feeling isolated as a child, especially when among the family members who are meant to provide you comfort and love, is no small quibble. It’s rather horrifying.
Image: Sandrew Film & Teater/Gaumont
The Source of Fear: It’s right in the title. Even the slobs among us have the occasional apprehension about catching a nasty virus that’s going around. There are few things more terrifying than knowing the very thing that can take hold of your body is floating around in the air in broad daylight.
Image: Warner Bros.
'THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN'
The Source of Fear: The concept of evil itself. The “horror” of this entry is somewhat limited to a specific segment in the film that takes its eager-eyed children into Mark Twain’s creepiest story (which was, even more creepily, never finished), The Mysterious Stranger. The title of the novel refers to Lucifer, represented in the film as a hauntingly calm, manipulative masquerade mask.
Image: Clubhouse Pictures
'2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY'
The Source of Fear: Mankind (and really, you could call that the source of fear in just about every Kubrick movie). When apes evolve to a plateau of desire and ambition, they become monstrous. When the supercomputer HAL develops an instinct for self-preservation, he becomes dangerous. The scariest monster in the universe, 2001 seems to understand, is man himself.
The Source of Fear: The distinct lack of any identifiable comprehension of what exactly, at any point in this maniacally bizarre nightmare, is going on.
Image: Libra Films International