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Explainer: What's the scariest movie of all time?

  • Warner Brothers

    What's the scariest movie of all time? It's a debate that will never end. For some, scary movies died with Alfred Hitchcock and his subtle eerie touch, for others, if it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead.

    No one can win this argument. The movie that scared you the most depends not only on the movie's content, but your own age, life experience, and state of mind when you saw it. Glimpses of the hokey frozen-Nazi drama "The Frozen Dead" might have terrified you as a kid more than "The Exorcist" ever could, or maybe you'll never forget jumpily checking under your car in the theater parking lot after "Fatal Attraction" ended. Your scares are as personal as what makes you laugh.

    But that stops exactly no one from endlessly debating which movie is the scariest of all time, bar none. We let three writers and our movies editor make the case for seven different films. Four are horror classics, two sci-fi scares, and one a modern horror flick that turned closet bumps in the night into pure terror just last year. Join the discussion at the bottom of the story and tell us what your own personal scariest film ever is — and be prepared to defend it.

  • 'The Exorcist'

    Warner Brothers

    Why it’s one of the scariest movies ever: In the early 1970s the rules had changed. Gone were the restrictions on what could be shown on screen, which meant that an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel about a young girl’s demonic possession could be brought to the big screen without sacrificing its most shocking details. That extremely graphic content turned it into a pop culture phenomenon, but its tight, knowing screenplay, one that appealed to religious believers as well as agnostics, efficiently played both sides of the credibility fence.

    Meanwhile, William Friedkin’s direction and emphasis on a relentless pace placed audiences in the most helpless seat in the house and Owen Roizman’s stark, brooding, black-shadow-filled cinematography meant that every time the camera climbed the stairs to Linda Blair’s hell-frozen-over room, those audiences cowered in fear of the unknown horror lurking behind the door. “Paranormal Activity” elicited fear by returning to the same shot of an open door leading into pitch-black nothing, and that’s because “The Exorcist” went there first.

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    The case against: Popularity bred copycats, so virtually every scary film that followed “The Exorcist”  stole liberally from its arsenal of horror tricks. Today, audiences jaded by overuse of modern horror conventions borrowed from “The Exorcist” might find themselves saying, “Cool barfing scene.”   —Dave White

  • 'The Shining'

    Image: "The Shining"

    Why it's one of the scariest movies ever: On a pure filmmaking level, it's tough to argue with the nightmare hotelscapes Stanley Kubrick put on screen in 1980's "The Shining." Everything that scares you in this tale of a hotel caretaker driven to family-murdering madness — whether it's the creepy twin girls or the chase through the hedge maze — comes from a primal place within you, because Kubrick is a master at manipulating that which scares us at a most basic level. The ceilings at the Overlook Hotel are too high, the spaces too big. The sound of little Danny Torrance racing his trike down the impossibly winding corridors — loud on the hardwood floors, quieter as he crosses the carpeting, and so on into infinity — isn't scary on the surface, but it delivers everything about the Overlook that is frightening: its creeping emptiness and the very real thought that hearing your rambunctious child echo through that emptiness for days on end might well drive you mad.

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    These deep, feral, barely conscious feelings of dread just accumulate and accumulate until, by the time Jack Nicholson finally does snap the tether and embark on his axe rampage, our nerves can't possibly take it. We're as jittery and frayed as Shelley Duvall waiting for that "Here's Johnny!" moment.

    The case against: As indelible as Kubrick's vision has been, it was a significant departure from Stephen King's novel. So much so that King participated in a 1997 ABC miniseries remake that suffered from budget and network-TV constraints but — sacrilege ahead — was more satisfying on a storytelling level.    —Joe Reid

  • 'Halloween'


    Why it’s one of the scariest movies ever: “Halloween” revolutionized the horror genre, spawning countless rip-offs and knock-offs that weren’t nearly as suspenseful. Jamie Lee Curtis stakes her claim as one of the great scream queens as the virginal babysitter who must face homicidal maniac Michael Myers head on.

    Employing white-knuckle suspense that would make Hitchcock proud, director John Carpenter scares the bejeesus out of us as this masked killer stalks his prey and dispatches them with stomach-churning efficiency. The fact that Myers seemingly can’t be killed makes him all the more frightening. Taut and terrifying — and not without a sense of humor – “Halloween” managed to make the spookiest day of the year even scarier.

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    The case against: Through no fault of its own, the impact of “Halloween” has been somewhat diminished over the years by all the movies — including its own sequels and remakes — that ripped off its unique style.   —Alonso Duralde

  • 'Alien' and 'Aliens'

    20th Century Fox

    Why they're two of the scariest movies ever: "Alien" and "Aliens" are those rare two films where fans argue about which is better, the original or the sequel. The original sets up the chilling premise — humans battling acid-blooded aliens that want nothing more than to set up shop inside our bodies and then burst out of our chests. It's a sci-fi horror nightmare worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.

    But the sequel stands fully on its own terrifying feet. The horror develops slowly — the heavily armed Colonial Marines have their own personalities, and who doesn't love Jenette Goldstein's Vasquez as the toughest female Marine in space? That's why it's all the more devastating as we watch over Ripley's shoulder as the Marines run into the Aliens, and one by one their helmet cams start to flicker into blackness.

    The case against: Some purists will claim the "Alien" films are science-fiction, not horror. But the space setting makes them even more chilling, a fact exemplified by the original film's famed slogan "In space, no one can hear you scream."    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

  • 'Paranormal Activity'

    Image: "Paranormal Activity"
    Paramount Pictures

    Why it's one of the scariest movies ever: Because it's so close to home. Viewers may not be able to relate to acid-blooded aliens in space, or a masked serial killer, or an elevator full of blood. But who hasn't been alone in a dark bedroom and heard an unidentifiable thump downstairs? Or seen a door standing open that you could swear was firmly closed a minute ago? Katie and Micah's monster is never really seen (until the last scene, kind of), and it's always the dark things we cannot see that scare us more than those we can.

    The case against: Some say it's too recent to take a place among the classics, some say the homemade footage feel is annoying, some say bumps and doors slamming just aren't as scary as the chills of "The Shining" and its ilk.    —G.F.C.

  • 'Psycho'

    IMAGE: Psycho
    Paramount Pictures

    Why it's one of the scariest movies ever: No one could set up a scary tale like Hitchcock. It's hard to come to the film today without knowing that Marion dies early on, in the Bates Motel shower, but in 1960, viewers believed she was a main character and would be on screen until the end. Killing off the heroine? Hitchcock builds her up so thoroughly it's hard to believe she's suddenly gone.

    The shower scene has been dissected by every major critic, and many praise it for what is not seen. The new DVD "Psycho Legacy" reveals that one short bit of the scene does, in fact, show the knife entering flesh, but it's shown so quickly it's barely noticed. The scene is much more effective for its lack of gore as many other scenes that bathe in it. So to speak.

    The case against: Some modern moviegoers don't find it as pulse-pounding as the films we're used to in recent years, and Roger Ebert notes in his review that a final blathering scene takes away from the film's power. Nevermind that. If you've ever shuddered at a shower, this is why.  —G.F.C.

Photos: 10 horror-movie icons

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  1. Braaaaains!

    George A. Romero resurrected the zombie character with 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" and kept them alive for numerous sequels, including the film seen here, 2004's "Dawn of the Dead." Nicknamed "Grandfather of the Zombie," Romero created or popularized many of the characteristics moviegoers regularly associate with the undead, including brain-eating, shambling walks, and deteriorating flesh. The zombie in front seems to only be zombified to his navel. Whoops.

    Trivia: Blood in the original "Night of the Living Dead" was Bosco chocolate syrup. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Don't mess with 'Texas'

    Human skin-mask wearing Leatherface of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is the boss of a cannibal family in Tobe Hooper's 1974 film. His chainsaw would later be picked up as the weapon of choice in numerous slasher flicks to come.

    Trivia: Leatherface was partially based on real Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein, who also wore the skin of his victims. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. We're gonna need a bigger boat

    Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster film, "Jaws," scared many Americans out of ocean waters for quite some time. It sparked the trend of releasing big-budget blockbusters during the summer season, and "The Omen" and "Star Wars" both followed suit.

    Trivia: The mechanical shark was named Bruce, supposedly after Spielberg's lawyer. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Trick or treat

    In 1978's "Halloween," Michael Myers murdered his sister and was committed to an insane asylum. Years later, a now-grown Michael broke out and started a new killing spree, and launched a new genre of slasher film.

    Trivia: Michael's mask is the face of William Shatner, as the costume department found a Captain Kirk mask, decided it had the blank look they wanted, and painted it white. (Dimension Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ch-ch-ch ...

    Jason Voorhees and his famed hockey mask played off the success of "Halloween" to help start the slasher genre with 1980's "Friday the 13th." In the first film, Jason was the young son of the camp cook, and when counselors let him drown because they're having sex, his mother takes revenge. Sequel after sequel follows, and Jason, who was not supposed to be the series' main villain, gained weird supernatural and mystical powers to become the unstoppable killing machine of the movies.

    Trivia: The character was originally called "Josh," but writer Victor Miller thought that name sounded too nice. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. One, two, Freddy's coming for you

    Freddy Krueger of 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street" and its many sequels, was a child murderer who was burned alive by angry parents. He now haunts teenagers in their dreams.

    Trivia: Creator Wes Craven reportedly was inspired to create Freddy's famed bladed glove in part by watching his cat scratch his furniture. (New Line Cinema) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Needles and pins

    Creepy Pinhead was introduced in 1987's "Hellraiser." He's a Cenobite, an extradimensional being created by author Clive Barker.

    Trivia: "Pinhead" wasn't really his name, it was just how he was described -- the other Cenobites have various other piercings and markings, not pins. (Dimension Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. My name's Chucky, wanna play?

    No doubt, some dolls are creepy. But the creepiest of all is Chucky, shown here in 2004's "Seed of Chucky." In the original film, released in 1988, a murderer dies in a toy store and sends his evil soul into the nearest doll.

    Trivia: Chucky's full name, Charles Lee Ray, comes from murderers Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray. (Rogue Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. I ain't got time to bleed

    An elite army team on a mission in Central America stumbles across the "Predator," an alien who lives in the jungles and skins humans. The film spawned two sequels plus two crossovers with the equally popular "Alien" franchise.

    Trivia: Two future governors, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura, starred in the 1987 original film. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. See 'Saw'?

    The creepy Jigsaw Killer was introduced in 2004's "Saw," in which he kidnaps people and forces them to perform cruel tests to try and save their own lives. (Usually, they don't survive.) The "Saw" franchise took off, and now a new movie comes out right around Halloween every year.

    Trivia: In the first film, all the victims who die are men -- unusual in horror flicks. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
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