Halloween is here. It’s chilly, it’s cozy, it’s scary — setting the perfect mood for a good horror movie, right? Well, unless you absolutely hate horror movies, like I do.
I just don’t get horror.
It’s not the scary parts, or the gross parts, or the jumpscares. It’s all of it. It’s watching people suffer and die and getting the awful feeling that it just might happen to you or someone you love (because people do suffer and die, that part isn’t always fictional).
I come by this opinion through copious bitter experiences. For someone who hates horror, I sure have watched a lot of it; The Ring, Scream, Final Destination, Chucky, The Thing, every single Halloween movie, etc. I’ve even tried ‘comedic’ horror films like Scary Movie and, for the record, that b***h scarred me more than most of the other ones.
Horror movies do not scare me as much as they disgust me. I’ve given the genre a fair shake, and I’m self-aware enough to admit to myself that I hate it. I hate how horror movies make me feel. I hate how they celebrate human misery and force us to endure other people’s suffering by proxy, and consider the fact maybe we’ll cross paths with a psycho one day and this will happen to us. I hate that people keep pressuring me to watch these films because I’m a ‘wimp’ if I don’t (and I keep falling for it!).
So how do I get through horror movie season, you ask? With a painstakingly crafted list of horror movies that I actually don’t mind watching, mostly because they aren’t positing blood and pain and human misery like it’s an art form.
And no, this isn’t a cheat list with suggestions like Zombieland and Coraline. I might hate horror films, but I’m not adverse to anything scary or bloody. Between Stranger Things, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, most of us have probably become fairly numb to the conventions of the genre. So it’s just about weeding out the horror films that haven’t actually psychologically traumatized me.
What you’ll find on this list are nine actual categorized, bonafide horror and/or horror-adjacent movies that I, an official horror movie despiser, actually enjoy. Sometimes because they have happy-ish endings; sometimes because they craft a story that doesn’t feel like torture porn; sometimes because they’re written or directed by people I admire.
Hopefully it’ll give you some ideas for movies to watch if you feel the holiday pressure to indulge in some horror, but you don’t want to actually compromise your own mental health in the process.
Is it scary? Yes. Is it gory? Yes. Do people die? Yes.
And yet Ridley Scott’s Alien is probably my #1 go-to ‘horror’ movie, as well as my go-to women-kicking-ass-while-saving-cats movie, if I’m ever in the position of having to pick one.
Like another movie on this list, it helps that Alien has a female lead, and that this female lead ultimately perseveres against the monsters. (Spoiler alert?)
I know a lot of people prefer the sequel, Aliens, and that one’s great too. But I’ve always been partial to the original — ironically because it’s just that little bit scarier, without ever becoming unwatchable or perversely fixated on its own brutality.
There is so much scrappy problem-solving in this movie, it’s kind of like Home Alone after dark. Sigourney Weaver is effortlessly watchable, and somehow, you never quite feel helpless as long as she’s on screen, standing between you and the aliens.
‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012)
This is as close to a horror movie parody as you get without it actually being a parody. It skirts the line mostly through the earnest performances of leads Fran Kranz and Kristen Connolly, who navigate quite ridiculous scenes with emotion and sincerity.
Cabin in the Woods feels like the product of putting all known horror tropes in a bag, shaking it, and upending it into a video camera. It blends traditional horror with supernatural and magic elements which (in my opinion) makes it a little less believable, and therefore a little more tolerable.
Being a Buffy fan, I was always going to love this slightly scarier, slightly bloodier extension of the Whedonverse (the movie is written and directed by Drew Goddard, and Joss Whedon is a producer), and maybe it’s the familiarity of the material that makes me more immune to the more gruesome parts of the story.
It actually took me until my mid-20s before I dared watch Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, mainly because of my mother’s ‘horror’ story of screaming her way through it in the cinema.
But maybe people back then were just more easily awed by movie magic (or maybe my mother is as much of a horrorphobe as myself), because when I finally watched it, I was a little underwhelmed. Yes, there is one particular fake-out-turned-jumpscare that definitely got me, but that’s about it.
Like most good horror movies, Jaws is really about the people, and the community, and the collaboration. Of course it’s scary and bloody, but mostly, the horror is wrung out of the anticipation of waiting for something — anything — to happen. Almost to the point of you being relieved when that damn shark finally turns up.
‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)
For someone who hates horror movies, I really love Silence of the Lambs (directed by Jonathan Demme), to the point where it’s probably in my top 10 movies of all time.
It’s weird, really, considering that it’s three of my least favorite horror movie tropes: the killer is human, the movie shows dismemberment, and it’s based on a true story. EURGH.
There is something that makes this movie bearable for me though, and which leaves my panic-stricken brain clear enough to appreciate the actual movie itself: the fact that Clarice (Jodie Foster) is never truly alone, and that both she and the killer’s victim make it out of the movie alive.
This might just be me, but I always find it easier to stomach scary things when it doesn’t feel like an isolated experience for the protaconist. (I also prefer playing video games where NPCs run around talking to me while I battle scary monsters.)
In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice isn’t the main victim, which gives her a fair bit of autonomy, and most of the meat of the film (pun intended) comes from actually physically unthreatening scenes between her and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
‘The Shining’ (1980)
Along with Silence of the Lambs, The Shining probably lands somewhere on my top 10 films of all time. I love this movie, for all its silence and weirdness and macabre beauty.
Stanley Kubrick is, on the whole, a love-him-or-hate-him kind of director, and a lot of his most iconic works like A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita don’t appeal to me.
But in The Shining, Kubrick has crafted the perfect adaptation of an already sublime story, fully realizing Jack Nicholson’s character’s breakdown in disturbing and invigorating detail.
It’s horror, yes, but it’s less about the gore and more about the psychology of its protagonist. There is one death in the movie I could’ve done without, but it does allow Kubrick to go off-script for the ending, which helps me avoid nightmares.
(Weirdly, it also helps that most of The Shining takes place in the daylight and really bright snowy landscapes?)
‘Get Out’ (2017)
One of the best horror movies (and movies in general) of all time, Get Out, is incredibly watchable regardless of whether or not you’re a genre fan. It’s not about horror, it’s about racism, and it’s about privilege, and it’s about one very compelling lead character played by the very compelling Daniel Kaluuya.
Jordan Peele made an instant classic that manages to be both painfully socially relevant and an incredibly good movie experience; in Get Out, the horror elements enhance the story rather than detract or distract from it.
As far as the horror elements go, they are certainly horrific, but as with Silence of the Lambs, it’s a lot more bearable because the protagonist isn’t completely without friends and allies. Throughout the film, main character Chris is in communication with Lil Rel Howery’s Rod, a TSA agent, who is racing against time to save his friend.
‘A Quiet Place’ (2018)
Like myself, John Krasinski is not a horror fan. And this is probably why A Quiet Place is such a watchable ‘horror’ movie, regardless of its intensely terrifying and heartbreaking moments.
Krasinski, who stars in the film alongside his wife Emily Blunt, has crafted what is fundamentally a story about family. It is a story about a father protecting his children, and a story about a young, deaf woman coming into her own and finding self-empowerment. It is kind of like the Titanic of horror films.
A Quiet Place is also utterly heart-wrenching and terrifying, and almost didn’t make it on this list because it is a horror film, and I don’t love it. But I did survive suffering through it, and am ultimately glad I did.
(Beware: this movie does feature several horrific deaths, including a child, so watch at your own risk.)
I watched the Matt Reeves-directed Cloverfield in the cinema, for some reason, and I don’t recommend letting this particular documentary-style shaky bloody vomity mess consume your senses like that. Small screens and lights on FTW!
I do, however, recommend it as a great relationship-driven story; like The Cabin in the Woods, this movie is written by Buffy alum Drew Goddard, whose credits also include The Good Place, Lost, Alias and Daredevil. Basically all of my favorite things.
Goddard is a master of infusing action and adrenaline into any genre, whether it be comedy, drama or horror. His stories are always chock-full of personality, and the monster is always a metaphor: Cloverfield famously obscures the monster, because it’s not about the monster, it’s about what fear of the unknown does to people.
‘Attack the Block’ (2011)
Before he was Finn in Star Wars, John Boyega was a teen delinquent in Joe Cornish’s indie horror flick Attack the Block.
Also starring Jodie Whittaker, this is basically District 9’s younger brother, except more human-driven and significantly less vomit-inducing.
In Attack the Block, we’re introduced to a scary, dark and divided London, with gang wars and violence, to the point where it’s almost a relief when the aliens invade, because the external threat forces a previously divided neighborhood to band together to defend themselves and their home.
The movie tackles class and race tensions with finesse and forces you to care about the lead characters and their relationship, and the monsters feel like a vehicle to explore the human stories as opposed to the other way around.