This Was the Scariest Movie the Year You Were Born

Janet Leigh Screaming in Psycho Shower Scene

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Janet Leigh Screaming in Psycho Shower Scene
Bettmann/Getty Images CC

A Creepy Chronology

Horror movies rarely get the big budgets, A-list casts, or nominations in any of the big categories for the major awards. Despite all that, and despite the fact that years often go by without a single truly great scary movie coming out, the genre's die-hard fans will take bad horror over no horror any day. Using rankings from the Rotten Tomatoes, Cheapism identified the scariest movie that came out every year from 1940-2002.

Related: 21 Horror Movie Locations You Need to Visit

'Dr. Cyclops' Movie Poster

1940: 'Dr. Cyclops'

This tale about an evil scientist who shrinks down a pair of his colleagues into microscopic beings does not star Rick Moranis. "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" was a comedy that came out in 1989. "Dr. Cyclops" embodied both the willingness to experiment and the pure silliness that would come to epitomize 1940s monster movies.

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'The Wolf Man' Movie Poster

1941: 'The Wolf Man'

"The Wolf Man" will forever remain a Universal horror classic and the movie that signaled the start of the werewolf craze that would sweep Hollywood in the coming decades. Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance was so perfect that Warren Zevon gave him a shout-out in history's greatest werewolf song, "Werewolves of London." 

Related: The Best Drive-In Movie Theaters in America

'Cat People' Movie Poster

1942: 'Cat People'

Jacques Tourneau's trademark noir style is all over "Cat People." The steamy thriller delivers scares while exploring the boundaries of a 1940s taboo — the danger of awakening a woman's inner feline.

'I Walked With a Zombie' Movie Poster

1943: 'I Walked With a Zombie'

A lot of people think the modern zombie craze can be traced back to George A. Romero. Jacques Tourneur might have a thing or two to say about that. He directed "I Walked With a Zombie" a quarter-century before "Night of the Living Dead" came out in 1968.  

Related: The Top Summer Movies of the Past 25 Years

'Bluebeard' Movie Poster

1944: 'Bluebeard'

Landing a perfect 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, "Bluebeard" — like so many horror movies of the era — alludes to the carnal desires of its characters. It chronicles the drama of a puppet master who has to eliminate a romantic rival in his own creepy, puppet-ey way.

'Dead of Night' Movie Poster

1945: 'Dead of Night'

One of the great horror anthologies of all time, "Dead of Night" is still standard subject matter in film school to this day. Four heavyweight directors contributed to the project: Charles Crichton, Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, and Basil Dearden.  

'The Beast With Five Fingers' Movie Poster

1946: 'The Beast With Five Fingers'

"The Beast With Five Fingers" was a refreshing stab at psychological horror in an era defined by rubber-mask monster movies. It tells the tale of a mutilated pianist whose ghoulish and deformed hand terrorizes his caretaker and unfortunate visitors.

'Scared to Death' Movie Poster

1947: 'Scared to Death'

Although "Scared to Death" is just okay by most standards, 1947 was a particularly underwhelming year for horror fans so it earns top billing. Just 1 hour and 5 minutes long, Bela Legosi serves as the film's saving grace.  

'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' Movie Poster

1948: 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein'

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's first horror spoof, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a hidden gem to hardcore fans of the storied comedic duo. To all others, it's mercifully short drudgery defined by stock gags and cheap scares. 

'The Queen of Spades' Movie Poster

1949: 'The Queen of Spades'

Based on an Alexander Pushkin short story, "The Queen of Spades" is celebrated for its atmosphere as much as its story. Holding a score of 95 on Rotten Tomatoes, it has been widely praised for its score, lighting, and sound.  

house by the river
Wikimedia Commons

1950: 'House by the River'

"House by the River," the tale of a man who kills his maid and encounters all kinds of trouble while trying to cover up his crime, has not gone down as a game-changing horror movie. Its back-bench cast and done-before themes earn it a meh rating of only 62 on Rotten Tomatoes.

'The Thing From Another World' Movie Poster

1951: 'The Thing From Another World'

Commonly referred to simply as "The Thing," this lukewarm sci-fi thriller is par for the course for 1950s horror. An alien with unpleasant intentions visits Earth and encounters humans who are doomed by their own nature. A classic 1950s big-screen reaction to the nuclear age and impending space race.

'Valkoinen Peura' Poster

1952: 'Valkoinen Peura' ('The White Reindeer')

Blessed with the rare 100 percent perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes, "The White Reindeer" represents the very best of the Finnish gothic mythology vampire reindeer genre, presuming such a genre exists.  

'House of Wax' Movie Poster

1953: 'House of Wax'

Not to be confused with the 2005 Paris Hilton reboot that earned a well-deserved 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the 1953 version is actually based on a similarly titled 1933 film. Vincent Price shines and the movie remains one of the great early examples of slow-burn atmospheric horror.

'Them!' Movie Poster

1954: 'Them!'

One of the great creature features of the nuclear age, "Them!" tells the tale of marauding giant ants mutated by atomic radiation. Before he was Brooks in "The Shawshank Redemption," a young James Whitmore led the cast on a search-and-destroy mission to kill the queen. 

'The Night of the Hunter' Movie Poster

1955: 'The Night of the Hunter'

Robert Mitchum's performance as a serial killer/preacher continues to haunt audiences nearly 70 years on. "The Night of the Hunter" is praised nearly universally by critics and viewers alike, and Mitchum's Rev. Harry Powell has gone down as one of history's creepiest villains.

'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' Movie Poster

1956: 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'

It can certainly be argued that atomic-age sci-fi peaked in 1956 with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The idea of aliens commandeering the bodies of their human hosts remains a common horror/sci-fi theme, but none have ever matched the pace, tension, and suspense of the classic original. 

'The Incredible Shrinking Man' Movie Poster

1957: 'The Incredible Shrinking Man'

Shrinking humans and radiation are the themes once again, but this time they come together to menace a man who watches helplessly as his stature becomes ever more diminutive. With the chief protagonist relentlessly hounded by the media as he suffers, the movie doubles as an indictment of modern culture.

'The Fly' Movie Poster

1958: 'The Fly'

Arguably the defining monster movie of the 1950s and perhaps of all time, "The Fly" chronicles the disturbing tale of a scientist who tests a teleportation device on himself, only to fuse his genetic material with that of a stowaway housefly. The 1986 reboot with Jeff Goldblum is one of the rare sequels that give a beloved original classic a real run for its money.  

'House on Haunted Hill' Movie Poster

1959: 'House on Haunted Hill'

"House on Haunted Hill" is both loved and loathed, depending on who you ask and depending on their feelings about director William Castle. Vincent Price gets props for his performance pretty much no matter who you ask in this thriller about an eccentric millionaire who bribes a group of people to try to survive a night in a haunted house.

'Psycho' Movie Poster

1960: 'Psycho'

The game changed forever in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" debuted audiences who left the theater shell-shocked. For the horror genre, the film's debut signaled the start of the modern era. Its most memorable elements — the Bates Motel, the shower scene, and the shrill and jarring score — make this tale of an innkeeper with mommy issues one of the most significant in horror movie history.  

'The Innocents' Movie Poster

1961: 'The Innocents'

Based on "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, "The Innocents" is a good, old-fashioned British ghost story — and one that holds up well even after 60 years. The spooky old Victorian mansion where the drama unfolds might just be the best character in the entire movie.

'Eyes Without a Face' Movie Poster

1962: 'Eyes Without a Face'

A doctor is wracked with guilt after disfiguring his daughter during surgery. From there, things go really downhill in "Eyes Without a Face," a disturbing thriller that retains an impressive score of 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 

'The Birds' Movie Poster

1963: 'The Birds'

Three years after "Psycho," Hitchcock put on a master class in the art of building suspense slowly but relentlessly over the course of a movie. "The Birds" pits humans against terror from the air as the world's birds become afflicted with an impulse to attack in multi-species coalitions.  

'Kwaidan' Movie Poster

1964: 'Kwaidan'

If you're into big, grandiose horror anthologies based on Japanese folklore, "Kwaidan" is the logical choice. Just make sure you have 2 hours and 45 minutes to commit to the cult classic's marathon runtime. 

'Repulsion' Movie Poster

1965: 'Repulsion'

"Repulsion" was Roman Polanski's first English-language movie. It's a torturous hour and 45 minutes of watching a woman stumble from anxiety to neurosis before finally descending into madness.

'Dracula, Prince of Darkness' Movie Poster

1966: 'Dracula, Prince of Darkness'

While it's a product of Hammer's golden age, "Dracula, Prince of Darkness" isn't the best in the franchise and it's not the best of history's many "Dracula" iterations. It is, however, good and violent, and Christopher Lee shines.

'The Sorcerers' Movie Poster

1967: 'The Sorcerers'

"The Sorcerers" is a tale of a mind-control experiment that gets increasingly more diabolical the longer it goes on. It's one of those movies that thrilled the critics but repulsed the regular popcorn eaters in the theater. It boasts a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but its audience score is a lousy 59.

'Rosemary's Baby' Movie Poster

1968: 'Rosemary's Baby'

A Roman Polanski classic that people still remember being traumatized by in 1968, "Rosemary's Baby" tells the tale of an isolated pregnant woman whose odd neighbors have bad intentions for her unborn child. 1968 was also the first year that the MPAA introduced the rating system, which makes "Rosemary's Baby" one of the first R-rated movies in history.  

'Spirits of the Dead' Movie Poster
'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders' Movie Poster

1970: 'Valerie and Her Week of Wonders'

A Czechoslovakian teenager named Valerie is terrorized by creepy carnies, a ghoulish priest, and a vampire in this tale about a magic pair of earrings and a girl's sexual awakening. This foreign film is at least as much fantasy as it is horror.

'The Abominable Dr. Phibes' Movie Poster

1971: 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes'

When a horribly disfigured man in a grotesque mask blames his wife's surgeons for her death, he hunts them down and kills them one by one. "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is yet another example of Vincent Price breathing life into an otherwise campy throwaway flick.

'Last House on the Left' Movie Poster

1972: 'Last House on the Left'

In 1972, a bold and creative director named Wes Craven made the leap from adult films to his first mainstream feature, "Last House on the Left." In the next decade, he would release the genre-defining slasher franchise of the 1980s, "A Nightmare on Elm Street." A decade later in the 1990s, his "Scream" franchise would define the pop horror that dominated that era.   

'Don't Look Now' Movie Poster

1973: 'Don't Look Now'

"Don't Look Now" helped make the career of director Nicolas Roeg, as star Donald Sutherland was already a leading man and had starred in "M*A*S*H" and "Klute." A tense and tightly wound thriller, the movie watches Sutherland's character succumb to his own grief — and forever changed how viewers thought about red raincoats.

'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' Movie Poster

1974: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'

Arguably the most infamous name in horror, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" defined low-budget '70s exploitation horror. The filmmakers used documentary-style camerawork and clever marketing to sell the movie as a true story, an early but influential decision. This year, Netflix released a reboot of the classic, and while reviewers say it breaks absolutely zero new ground, it has all the blood and gore a slasher fan could ever want.  

1975 'Jaws' Movie Poster

1975: 'Jaws'

In 1975, Steven Spielberg gave the world "Jaws," which is still one of the most memorable greatest monster movies ever made. The score remains an instantly recognizable harbinger of aquatic doom and the movie birthed the concept of the horror blockbuster franchise. Roy Scheider's Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper, and Robert Shaw's Mr. Quint perform magic on the screen with a mechanical shark that made a generation afraid to go back in the water. 

'Carrie' Movie Poster

1976: 'Carrie'

Stephen King's first novel was also his first movie, but it was Sissy Spacek who brought the namesake character to life in "Carrie." In the book as well as the movie, prom night starts well enough, but ends with pig's blood, human blood, multiple supernatural homicides, a car explosion, and a gasoline fire with two teenagers trapped inside.  

'Susperia' Movie Poster

1977: 'Susperia'

"Susperia" is Italian giallo horror at its finest — or most unbearable, depending on your take. For those in favor of the genre's three Gs (gory, glossy, and grandiose), it's a hall of famer.

'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' Movie Poster

1978: 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'

A little more than 20 years after the original raised the bar for sci-fi horror, a reboot of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" starring Donald Sutherland hit theaters. Like "The Fly" remake, this reboot not only lived up to the original, but expanded on the premise.

Related: The Best (and Worst) Movie Remakes of All Time

'Alien' Movie Poster

1979: 'Alien'

In 1979, both sci-fi and horror changed forever when "Alien" made unprecedented leaps forward in special effects, creating creatures that still look amazing today. Although it was director Ridley Scott's first movie, "Alien" also made Sigourney Weaver a star for her role as Ripley, one of the great leading ladies in any movie of any genre.  

'The Shining' Movie Poster

1980: 'The Shining'

In one of the great crimes in Rotten Tomatoes history, "The Shining" holds a tepid score of 83 percent. That puts it in the B-minus basement staring enviously up at, among other gems, a Finnish vampire reindeer movie. For sane horror fans, there's nothing B-minus about the intersection of Stephen King's writing, Stanley Kubrick's directing, and Jack Nicholson's acting. The audience score of 93 percent is much closer to accurate.

'The Evil Dead' Movie Poster

1981: 'The Evil Dead'

"The Evil Dead" spawned a franchise, but the original will always be known as one of the most celebrated low-budget horror cult classics of all time. Outrageous, daring, and undeniably fun, it remains a successful blend of horror and humor.  

'Poltergeist' Movie Poster

1982: 'Poltergeist'

The clown, the tree, the light, the TV. Of all the great ghost stories ever told on screen, 1982's "Poltergeist" out-haunts them all. Despite a supernatural menace's best efforts, Carol Ann and her family somehow survive the most haunted house of all time.

'The Dead Zone' Movie Poster

1983: 'The Dead Zone'

Stephen King's third score on this list is "The Dead Zone," an already good story that got a big lift from a grade-A performance turned in by Christopher Walken. He plays a man who awakens from a coma with years missing from his life and dangerous psychic powers.  

'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Movie Poster

1984: 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'

By 1984, Wes Craven had come into his own as a filmmaker — and thanks to his masterpiece, fans were not sleeping well that year. Although classics like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" had come before, and many, many others would follow, the slasher movie genre peaked with "A Nightmare on Elm Street." Robert Englund's Freddy Krueger is up there with Dracula as one the greatest horror villains of all time.

'The Re-Animator' Movie Poster

1985: 'The Re-Animator'

Like "The Evil Dead," "The Re-Animator" found success in a place where success is hard to find — at the intersection of horror and comedy. The tale of an obsessed medical student who discovers a serum for resurrection.  

'Aliens' Movie Poster

1986: 'Aliens'

In 1986, James Cameron attempted something that's almost guaranteed to fail — he followed up a beloved, genre-defining classic with a sequel. What emerged is up there with "The Godfather Part II" as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Not only did "Aliens" not detract from the glory of the original, but it added to its prestige. 

'Evil Dead 2' Movie Poster

1987: 'Evil Dead 2'

Just as it seemed reckless to risk tarnishing the reputation of "Alien" with a follow-up, so, too, was it a roll of the dice to run back "Evil Dead." But Bruce Campbell's return was gold and just like "Aliens," "Evil Dead 2" did justice to the original and then some.  

'The Vanishing' Movie Poster

1988: 'The Vanishing'

If you're looking to climb into the mind of a serial killer, "The Vanishing" is a good place to start. Its 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes tells the tale, but be warned — the ending is not for the weak.

'Santa Sangre' ('Holy Blood') Movie Poster

1989: 'Santa Sangre' ('Holy Blood')

Art-house theatrics are the name of the game in "Holy Blood," which features heaping helpings of director Alejandro Jodorowsky's trademark gore and weirdness. In this bizarre tale, an armless mother forms a super-creepy relationship with her son, the child of a trapeze artist and knife thrower.   

Misery Movie Poster

1990: 'Misery'

Stephen King finds himself at the top of the heap once again, this time to start off the 1990s. The decade began with "Misery," a tense, tightly wound, and often painful-to-watch tale of an injured writer trapped in a remote cabin with an obsessed fan who saved him from a car wreck. James Caan is in tip-top shape, but it's Kathy Bates who turns in a career performance as Annie Wilkes, who will go down with Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West as one of the greatest female villains in movie history.

'The Silence of the Lambs' Movie Poster

1991: 'The Silence of the Lambs'

By the early 1990s, the great run of slasher flicks from the '80s had evolved into dark, intense, and realistic psychological thrillers. "Misery" was certainly one of them, but "The Silence of the Lambs" — which introduced people who hadn't read the book of the same name by Thomas Harris to Hannibal Lecter, Buffalo Bill, and Clarice Starling — might be remembered as the scariest and most disturbing Oscar winner for best picture.  

'Bram Stoker's Dracula' Movie Poster

1992: 'Bram Stoker's Dracula'

Francis Ford Coppola gave history's most famous vampire his most dramatic makeover in a generation with "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Highly stylized and often cluttered, it earns a C average of 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is about right for the bold but wandering chiller.

'Dead Alive' Movie Poster

1993: 'Dead Alive'

Peter Jackson's magic touch is unmistakable in "Dead Alive," an outrageous and outrageously gory festival of fright and fun. It's not for everyone, but those who can stomach the blood and the madness will join the legions of converts who love this cult classic about a man who loves his undead mother.  

'Cronos' Movie Poster

1994: 'Cronos'

"Cronos" introduced the world to Guillermo del Toro, whose debut movie can't help but make viewers flash back to the days of Hammer horror. "Cronos" tells the tale of a magic beetle that can grant immortality — but at a hideous cost.

'Mute Witness' Movie Poster

1995: 'Mute Witness'

"Mute Witness" is another shining example of typically awesome 1990s psych-horror. The disturbing tale follows a makeup artist who witnesses a snuff film being made, but when she alerts the authority, she unknowingly alerts the film's makers — who then turn their attention to her.  

'Scream' Movie Poster

1996: 'Scream'

In the second half of the decade, Wes Craven reinvented his trademark style to deliver "Scream," which delivers authentic scares and a great twist ending. What made the movie historic, however, was the fact that Craven used the script as an opportunity to satirize, deconstruct, and lampoon the tropes of the horror genre — including some of his own most famous slasher films.

'Scream 2' Movie Poster

1997: 'Scream 2'

"Scream 2" rediscovered the magic of the original the very next year, turning a movie into a 1990s dynasty. Just like the first installment, the sequel takes shots at the cliches that define the horror genre while managing to rise above those cliches itself. 

'Ringu' ('Ring') Movie Poster

1998: 'Ringu' ('Ring')

This Japanese thriller unnerved terrified horror fans across cultures and across the world. The story of a group of friends who seal their own fate when they watch a videotape, "Ringu" would introduce many Americans to Japanese horror for the first time. It also served as the basis for one great American horror movie: "The Ring."

'The Blair Witch Project' Movie Poster

1999: 'The Blair Witch Project'

The modern mock-doc and found-footage genre owe their popularity to the one movie that started it all — at least in the digital age — "The Blair Witch Project." The low-budget underdog indie film used the power of the internet to spread a wild marketing pitch that convinced masses of moviegoers — and several media outlets — that law enforcement had found the lost footage of missing documentary makers who went into the woods looking for a local legend and never came back. The result was the first successful viral marketing campaign in movie history.  

'Shadow of the Vampire' Movie Poster

2000: 'Shadow of the Vampire'

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a frightening and funny reimagining of an age-old tale. Willem Dafoe shines as a real-life vampire hired to breathe some life — or at least some authenticity — into the filming of a classic vampire movie.

The Devil's Backbone

2001: 'The Devil's Backbone'

Hailed for its "ambition and intelligence" by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, "The Devil's Backbone," directed by horror master Guillermo del Toro, centers around a boy whose father has been killed in the Spanish Civil War and who is sent to a remote orphanage where he is given the bed of a boy whose ghost now roams the school. The film earns a solid 93% on the Tomatometer. 

28 Days Later

2002: '28 Days Later'

Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting", "Slumdog Millionaire") took a stab at the zombie genre with this film featuring a young Cillian Murphy ("Peaky Blinders", "Oppenheimer") and Brendan Gleeson ("The Guard", "The Banshees of Inisherin"). Animal activists inadvertently release a "rage virus" that turns people into super-strong crazed killers, and what follows is a small group of survivors' struggle to stay alive.