It’s October! Dang, I love this month. Where I live, the leaves are changing, the weather’s cooler, and horror is in the spotlight. Even the tiny cheese wheels I buy for snacks have Dracula printed on their individual wrappers. It’s amazing! Commercial and ridiculous, sure, but I love it.
It’s also the perfect time for scary movies. But what makes something scary, really? Does it have to be all slashing and bloodletting? See, I don’t think it does. True horror, for me, is psychological. It leaves me afraid to look in the bathroom mirror at night (what will I see behind me?). I want the stuff that instills in me so much dread I can actually feel it weighing me down. That's entertainment.
So, here are some of the movies that make my grade. They’re low on jump scares and graphic splatter, but high on discomfort and that gonna-need-to-let-the-dogs-sleep-on-the-bed-tonight feeling.
Ready? Here we go!
1. The Changeling (1980)
A classic haunted house story about a man (George C. Scott) living alone in a mansion inhabited by a turbulent spirit. This one scared the living daylights out of me as a child. I watched it again about twenty years later, convinced that it had only been scary back then because I’d been so young. I was wrong. Even my unflappable boyfriend asked if I’d mind leaving the hall light on. This one’s special, though, because it’s as much about coping with soul-crushing grief as it is about a vengeful ghost. George C. Scott’s performance is understated but effective. He remains calm, practical. It’s the only way he can deal. So when he does lose his s#$%, you know it’s serious.
2. The Haunting (1963)
Several strangers are hand-selected by a paranormal expert to spend a few days in a notoriously haunted mansion (for science!). But the house has a cold, dark heart and is intent on keeping at least one of its guests forever. If you watched the remake from 1999, try your best to scrub your brain before you watch the original, though, 'kay? It’s a masterpiece that accomplishes what few movie makers seem capable of now: spine-chilling horror with almost no special effects. But the heart of this frightening tale isn’t even the dark history of the house or the terrifying ways it tries to gnaw at group staying there. It’s the film’s main character, Eleanor (Julie Harris), and her struggle with a past trauma and resulting mental illness. I can’t say it has a happy ending, but I can’t exactly say it doesn’t for certain characters. It’s warped, folks.
3. Kwaidan (1964)
An anthology of four unrelated ghost stories, Kwaidan’s chills are quiet and beautiful. From the sparse opening credits to the silent screams of its most terrified characters, it truly is a work of art. Each detail is carefully chosen to raise goosebumps while somehow leaving you deeply saddened. You’ll have a tough time sleeping afterwards, but not necessarily out of fear. It’s more that this movie will trouble you. All while your jaw hangs open at the sheer beauty of each set. Also? A snow vampire. What?
4. Onibaba (1964)
A dark tale of two impoverished women–a young, possibly war-widowed wife (Taiji Tonoyama) and her mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa)–who make a grisly living by selling the belongings of samurai they murder. But then the elder of the two meets a mysterious traveler in a strange mask, and… well, bad things happen. What’s most horrifying about this story is the desperation driving these two to commit their crimes. War is hell, and Onibaba illustrates this in gut-wrenching detail. Watch this and you'll fear your own potential for evil.
5. The Others (2001)
When this came out, everyone compared it to a certain other ghost movie, a comparison I feel is unjust. Because this spooky post-WWII story of a woman (Nicole Kidman) living alone in a dark house with her two fragile children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) will haunt you for far longer and for more upsetting reasons. There are things that go bump in the night, sinister visitors, and disturbing apparitions. All the pieces a good ghost story needs. But, like others on this list, this story is also about grief, depression, and mental illness. The final reveal is devastating, and the two child actors are amazing in their performances. That said, you’ll want to go outside and enjoy the sunshine after a viewing. Take a few deep gulps of fresh air. Whew.
6. Carnival of Souls (1962)
A young woman (Candace Hilligoss) survives an accident that kills everyone else in the car, but she’s forever changed. She’s angry. Cold. Bitter. And relentlessly followed by the apparition of a mysterious man whose face leers at her from windows, mirrors, and even public places. An abandoned beach carnival calls to her, but why is she drawn to it? The answer won’t necessarily shock you, but the journey there is downright disturbing. Souls is usually lumped into the camp category, and it definitely feels a little corny at times, but try and look past that for a psychologically unsettling gem that also makes for a fairly damning allegory about finding your own identity as a woman in an era that didn’t permit much feminine independence. Warning: if you’re prone to anxiety attacks or dissociative episodes, this one could be triggering.
7. Vampyr (1932)
I always forget this this German-French horror classic isn’t actually a silent film because there’s so very little dialogue or sound to be found in it. But this hushed, grainy fever dream is all the eerier for it. The eponymous vampire is no sexy succubus, and her effect on the living is something you won’t likely forget soon.
8. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
What is it about 1964? So much creepy gold that year! Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) is an old woman living in a decrepit plantation house with only a cantankerous housekeeper (Agnes Moorehead) to look after her. The neighborhood children sing mean songs about her, recalling a murder from her past for which she was acquitted though her innocence was never quite believed. And now the state of Louisiana wants to demolish her house to build a highway. Charlotte isn’t having it, so she calls upon her lovely and sweet cousin (Olivia DeHavilland) for aid. But all is not what it seems in the Hollis mansion. Twist after twist after twist make for a gripping head trip (ahem) that’s equal parts ghost story and murder mystery.
9. Diabolique (1955)
I’ve never seen the remake with Sharon Stone, so I can’t compare the two, but the French original is some sinister stuff. The kindhearted but cowed wife (Véra Clouzot) of an abusive boarding school headmaster (Paul Meurisse) conspires with her husband’s mistress (Simone Signoret) to kill the jerkface and make everyone’s lives a helluva lot easier. Then the body disappears. The suspense in this French flick could almost choke you. I mean, the murder that sets the whole story rolling is one of the most awful things I’ve seen in any movie, let alone one from 1955, but the rest of the story… gyah!
Bonus! Santo y Blue Demon vs Drácula y el Hombre Lobo (1973)
I couldn’t help myself. I had to include this because I LOVE EL SANTO. Unironically. Yes, the effects in these 1960s-1970s Mexican luchador monster movies are always cheeseball, and they’re never, ever scary. But are they fun? Heck yes! Santo and Blue Demon are wrestlers by day and crime fighters by night, but these two use brains just as much as brawn to save the day. They play chess! They’re well-read! They wear ascots! But they can also throw down with Satan-worshipping evildoers any day. I guess this isn’t even technically the best Santo film (that award goes to 1972’s refreshingly kinda-sorta-feminist Santo vs. la hija de Frankenstein), but it’s certainly the one I enjoy the most. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so just… go watch it. And then join me in my efforts to bring the joy of Santo to the global masses.
Seriously, you guys. Someone needs to make new Santo movies. Santo and Blue Demon’s sons both continue the wrestling tradition in their fathers’ names, and I understand that at least El Hijo del Santo has made some of his own movies. But some Hollywood so-and-so with a budget and connections or whatever needs to address the lack of 1960s-quality Santo goodness. But it has to be smart. Nobody wants expensive special effects to take over for good storytelling. Santo can’t just fire off some shiny guns and call it a day. He’s gotta invent time machines, dispatch scantily-clad vampire ladies, and impart important life lessons to orphans in a brightly colored world full of polyester suits and never-removed wrestling masks. The world needs El Santo now more than ever.