The Whalebone Guide to Scary Movies

Horror-comedy-camp-classics vs. Hannibal Lector


or a month or so of every year, we may bob for apples, dress up in costumes, eat too much candy, and carve pumpkins like we’re board-certified surgeons. It’s also the time when people really get into horror movies and Halloween pranks. We love a good silver-screen scare. And we also love to prank the accountant (she still wakes up screaming in the night when she thinks about that Hot Sauce Company thing). Anyway,  here’s a list of our top freaky films to watch before spooky season comes to an end—from horror movie primer to master class material.

Disclaimer: while this guide is safer than calling on supernatural spirits with a Ouija Board in house built on top of a Native American burial ground while looking in the mirror and saying “Candyman,” some titles may induce nightmares and scare children into crawling into your bed at night. That’s why we tend to watch comedy after the movies on this list.

For the people who don’t know anything about scary movies but are willing to learn

Jaws (1975)
Skinny-dipping. Fisherman with New England accents. One very big fish with a taste for floaties and a mayor who just wants the beaches open for the big Fourth of July weekend. The OG blockbuster that has made a couple generations question dipping their toes in the ocean. Hooper drives the boat, Chief.

Child’s Play/Chucky (1988)
Dolls were already creepy before this franchise put knives in their hands through six sequels, a dabble in campy comedy (Bride of Chucky), comic-books, and a 2019 reboot. Watch the original flick if you want a lesson or two on batteries.

The *insert literally any noun here* (timeless)
The classics all start with “The.” The Blob (1958). The Fog (1980). The Thing (1982) The Shining (1980). The Conjuring (2013). The Exorcist (1973). The Mist (2007). The Ring (2002).  The Grudge (2020).  I guess the directors felt that their one-word film titles needed a friend. Except for It (2017).

For people who kind of like scary movies

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This cult-classic will convince your soon-to-be-adult child to get a real job after college, and to not major in film. But it may also induce motion sickness and a quarter-life crisis nose job after watching two minutes of Heather’s flaring nostrils.

Carrie (1976)
Add another way to set kids expectations low for one of the most anticlimactic nights of their lives. Unless you’ve raised a pyromaniac. In that case, probably not.

The Purge: Election Year (2016)
And to think, just four short years ago, this film did not seem at all like a documentary.

For a sense of fun with the bumps in the night

Beetlejuice (1988)
Maybe not traditionally the most horrifying film, but it does contain the scariest words ever said to anyone in a waiting room: “You don’t have an appointment?”

The Goonies (1985)
Although technically about an epic treasure hunt, the real star of the show is the long-dead pirate one-eyed Willie. Grab a Baby Ruth bar before turning this one on.

For the people that would rather laugh than scream

Zombieland (2009)
Zombie apocalypse. Battles in amusement parks and supermarkets. Definitely watch if you want to get a little piece of Tallahassee, in the form of Woody Harrelson. And always remember to double tap.

Scary Movie (2000)
The parody of all parodies, even goes so far as to try to parody a parody by taking on Scream (1996) & Scream 2 (1997). Also throw I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Shining (1980) into the meat grinder mounted on the kitchen sink.

Sharknado (2013)
The first question you may have is who greenlit this? But then you’re glad they did, because this crazy idea produced one hell of a comedy franchise. Seriously, they just keep making them. At least Ian Ziering is still getting work.

For the people who enjoy film noir with the pinot kind

The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock may have been brilliant, but he got one thing wrong in this surprisingly savage movie. Sure, human-mauling masses of black crows are scary. But man, we know plenty of kids that would love to take a few cuts and claw marks for the chance to play hooky.

The Lighthouse (2019)
Inspired by a hodgepodge of seafaring fare including the perhaps-true story of a Welsh lighthouse and the tale of Prometheus, the period-piece starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as keepers of the titular lighthouse also rhymes with Colleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner’s Rime.”

Frankenstein (1931)
The novel Mary Shelley wrote during a rainy-day challenge with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron (which she surely won big time) has inspired film adaptations from a 1910 silent treatment well into the 21st Century through versions by everyone from Abbott and Costello to Mel Brooks to Kenneth Branagh.  The Universal classic directed by James Whale is the standard bearer though, and not just for its way with a melodramatic catch phrase.

For the people who want to watch movies that probably get watched in film school classes

Psycho (1960)
The one that really set in the mold of the modern psychological horror thriller with this tale of a slasher with mommy issues, shocked audiences when it was released and catapulted Janet Leigh to scream-queen status (mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, who achieved her own queen status with Halloween).

Get Out (2017) & Us (2019)
It’s now certain that lightning does strike twice. Just ask this guy and Jordon Peele. After Get Out, you’ll definitely never refer to New York’s Sunken Meadow State Park as ‘that Sunken place,’ if you forget the full name. And spot the Jaws T-shirt in Us. We like your taste in movies, kid.

SE7EN (1995)
Inspired by the seven deadly sins, this film is one of David Fincher’s darkest moments. Try not to watch it until after all of your online purchasing orders have been delivered, because you’ll never look at cardboard the same way again.

For everybody else

American Psycho (2000)
Credit director Mary Harron with taking Brett Easton Ellis’ misogynist and banal novel and turning it into incisive pulp trash with a side of social commentary sharp enough to skewer the Reagan-era ’80s with real bite. Credit Christian Bale with making Huey Lewis, VHS tapes and card-stock scary.

Rear Window (1954)
Do your best to forget that James Stewart is in fact, George Bailey. We do love It’s a Wonderful Life, but wrong holiday. Focus instead on Grace Kelly’s impeccable wardrobe. Her nightgowns were probably fancier than most wedding dresses.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The tale of a using a serial killer’s help to catch a serial killer might explain why there is a picture of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector taped above your local wine shop’s Italian varietals section. It’s apparently not first-date material: Our intern tells us that her father took her mother to the midnight premiere of this movie and that the future Mrs. walked out early, nearly dry-heaving. Way to set the mood, Mr. Smooth.