Every October, I commit myself to watching as many horror movies as I can. I check out suspicious DVDs from the library and scour streaming platforms for hidden gems. I’ve even bought a VHS tape off of eBay to secure a particularly tricky find — anything to get into the Halloween spirit.
The past two years specifically, I have spent the month trying (and failing miserably) to watch 31 horror movies as part of the Hooptober Challenge on Letterboxd. This year I’m probably only going to get 17 or 18 under my belt (and that’s with me starting a week early), but it’s still, in my opinion, quite a feat. And I want you to join me!
High school me, who literally fainted at the mere description of blood, would be shocked with this development. Despite my appetite for the genre today, younger me had to be gently led into horror with her hands firmly over her eyes. I know what it’s like to hate horror. And because of that, I’ve got some recommendations, ranked from least to most scary, of horror movies for people who don’t like horror.
See, Mom! The challenge isn’t a “waste of time!” I got an article out of it.
1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Horror comedies are the least scary type of horror, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is the king of the subgenre. The movie’s tagline describes it as “A romantic comedy. With zombies,” and Wright delivers on that promise.
The story follows Shaun (Simon Pegg), an underwhelming, everyday man who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of the zombie apocalypse shortly after getting dumped. Determined to save his ex-girlfriend and mother, he and a group of pals make their way through the streets of London, cracking jokes and zombies’ skulls in equal measure.
If you get frightened easily, putting on a horror comedy is the perfect way to keep the mood light. In the case of Shaun of the Dead, the jokes vastly outweigh any scares, and the characters maintain enough optimism and levity to keep even the darkest moments from weighing too heavily.
If you want to skew even further into comedy, 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows and 1974’s Young Frankenstein are similarly spooky laugh riots, although neither really count as “horror.”
2. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body, directed by Karyn Kusama, is the perfect Halloween girls’ night movie. Scary movies about high school students are nothing new, but this film has more in common with early 2000s teen movies than anything in the horror genre.
The film follows Needy (Amanda Seyfried), a dorky high school girl whose popular best friend, the titular Jennifer (Megan Fox), has been possessed and is now eating their male classmates. Stuck between her love for Jennifer and her moral compass, Needy has to figure out what happened to her friend and if stopping her is even possible.
There are some blood and some deaths, but Jennifer’s Body never gets too scary. It just feels like a solid teen movie with a bunch of murders. And, like all the best teen movies, it is endlessly quotable.
The closest comparison I can draw is not to any other horror movie, but to 1988’s Heathers, with all the dead classmates and teenage melodrama played to absurdist extremes included. (And while I wouldn’t call Heathers horror, it might also scratch that dark-but-not-really-scary Halloween itch you’ve been reaching for.)
3. Tremors (1990)
When you put on a monster movie, it’s a toss-up of how scary it’s going to be. Some end up on a “Scariest Movies Ever Made” list, while others end up as children’s Halloween costumes.
Ron Underwood’s Tremors has its genuine scares, but it leans more into adventure and suspense than anything else. The movie follows the small town of Perfection, Nev. as its inhabitants start getting sucked underground by carnivorous worms. What ensues is one of the most genuinely fun horror experiences I’ve personally experienced.
Despite the sheer odds stacked against them, the residents of Perfection maintain a level of determination and camaraderie that keeps the film from feeling too dark or morbid. Plus, the entire movie is set during the daytime, so there’s no need to worry about scary monsters popping out from behind dark corners (just from under the sand).
4. Poltergeist (1982)
I’m not going to lie to you. Poltergeist is scary. Tobe Hooper is a horror icon, and he knows how to frighten an audience. However, I would argue that it is the perfect choice for “baby’s first actual scary horror movie.”
Poltergeist tells the story of the Freelings, a perfect white-collar American family that recently moved into a new suburban development in Southern California. However, once the weird supernatural occurrences in their home turn into truly malicious otherworldly attacks, they reach out to a group of parapsychologists as a last-ditch attempt to protect themselves.
I’ll fully admit my bias here: Poltergeist is one of my favorite horror films of all time, and I really just want everyone to watch it. But besides that, I honestly believe it is the perfect scary movie for beginners to the horror genre. It’s scary, but it’s light on the gore and jump scares and the tone never gets too dark. To avoid spoiling anything, I’ll shut up now.
I’ve seen the film three times, and it’s always a hit at scary movie nights. It’s got a vibe like Coraline (2009): a bone-chilling, PG-rated experience, tightroping the line between genuinely frightening and fun for the whole family.
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There’s a reason that Rosemary’s Baby is an almost universally acclaimed horror classic.
The story follows Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her husband (John Cassavetes) as they move into a new apartment and conceive a baby. However, as her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary starts to suspect that she and her baby are not as safe as she thought.
Rosemary’s Baby is a film almost entirely driven by suspense, and oh boy does it do it well. I spent the entire film on the edge of my seat, increasingly horrified, but despite that it isn’t too intense.
There’s only one scene with anything that even approaches frightening imagery, and the film refrains from the usual gore and jump scares to get an audience response. Instead, you’re just left with the ever-growing feeling that something is very, very wrong.
It’s the scariest and most serious film on this list (some of you may want to check the content warnings), but it's completely worth it. It trades violence for tension, creating a subtle horror that leaves you thinking.
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