It’s not clear why human beings enjoy being frightened. Indeed, in most circumstances we don’t. I find nothing particularly “thrilling,” for example, about the frightening threat posed by mass non-white migration into the lands of my ancestors. Nor do I enjoy how I feel when I’m the only white person on the J train at midnight. But I thoroughly enjoy the imaginary threats posed by ghosts, witches, and vampires. There’s a lot to be said here about the human fascination with the uncanny, and what it reveals about us. Is it, for example, cold water thrown in the face of modernity? If we are “built” to respond to the uncanny, then doesn’t that suggest that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your flat-souled, deflationary, modern materialism?
Perhaps someday I’ll write about this (I’ve already said something about it here ). The purpose of the present essay, however, is merely to offer you some possibilities for exploring the uncanny this Halloween, through the awesome power of cinema. My top ten list of horror films was not easy to compile. I had to eliminate quite a few films I like in order to get it down to ten. Those that did not make the list include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and The Sentinel (1977).
I should also mention that in order for something to count as a “horror film” in my book it must not just be “scary,” it must contain some element of the “supernatural” (either clearly present, or somehow implied). By the way, since Halloween is almost upon us I should mention that I believe all of these films are available for immediate viewing: they can be streamed on Amazon or YouTube. So here they are, in no particular order:
- The Innocents (1961; dir. Jack Clayton). This glorious black-and-white adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw may be the finest ghost movie ever made. It concerns a governess (played by Deborah Kerr) who assumes care of two children, a brother and sister, who may or may not be possessed by the spirits of two dead servants. The “may or may not” here is crucial, as James’s story never really establishes whether the possession is real or imagined by the governess. Nevertheless, the scenes of ghostly visitation – when the spirits of the dead servants appear – are genuinely artful and chilling . The great Peter Wyngarde is particularly effective as the male ghost. Screenplay by Truman Capote.
- Nosferatu (1922; dir. F. W. Murnau). The first film adaptation of Dracula is certainly one of the creepiest. It is also in all probability the most frightening film of the silent era. Famously, Murnau and company made the film without permission from the estate of Bram Stoker. When Stoker’s widow sued, all copies of Nosferatu were ordered destroyed. Thankfully, some survived. What makes this film so chilling is the presence of Max Schreck as “Count Orlock” (Dracula). Tall and gaunt with long, claw-like fingernails and rat ears , Schreck is the vampire I would least like to buy real estate in my neighborhood. (What was that thing about Dracula wanting to buy up old, broken-down properties in London? Was he planning to flip them or something?) The primitive, jerky quality of this film only adds to the horror, somehow. Avoid at all costs Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a lame, pretentious film about the making of this film. But do check out Werner Herzog’s remake – Nosferatu (1979)  – which is quite faithful to the original, and just as artful in its way.
- The Shining (1980; dir. Stanley Kubrick). According to legend, Kubrick was looking to make a commercial horror film, so his secretary went out and bought him a stack of recent horror novels he might adapt. Sitting outside his office she heard a “bang!” periodically as Kubrick got fed up with the trash he was reading and tossed it at the wall across from his desk. One day she noticed it had been a long time since Stanley had gone “bang!” He had found Stephen King’s The Shining. Whatever one thinks of this novel as source material, or of how faithful Kubrick’s adaptation is (who the hell cares?), this film is undeniably one of the scariest ever made. It has the dubious distinction of featuring the most frightening scene I personally have ever encountered in cinema , and one which literally causes me to pull the covers over my head on returning from midnight visits to the john. And don’t miss The Simpsons parody  (“That’s odd. Usually the blood gets off at the second floor”).
- Kuroneko (or Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, “A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove,” 1968; dir. Kaneto Shindo). This is the best Japanese film you have never seen. It begins when two women are raped and killed by samurai, who then set their little house on fire to conceal the evidence. A black cat is later seen scratching around the charred ruins, licking the blood from the bodies of the two women. Soon, word travels far and wide that two ghosts are plaguing the land, killing samurai after luring them to a magical house in a bamboo grove that appears only at night. Finally, a young man is hired to try and destroy the two ghosts. He allows himself to be lured to the mysterious house — only to discover that the ghosts are his wife and mother. Revealing even this much will not spoil this truly magical film. It is genuinely eerie, and often hauntingly beautiful. Superb black and white cinematography with some interesting trick photography, and other simple but effective tricks. Watch the trailer here .
- House of Dark Shadows (1970; dir. Dan Curtis). This is a big screen adaptation of the cult-classic Dark Shadows daytime serial, featuring the original cast and shot while the serial was still being broadcast on ABC. If you like the TV show you will love this movie — and if you think the show was creaky and campy and bad you will be pleasantly surprised by it. It is fast-paced, stylish, spooky, and violent. Curtis (in his directorial debut) makes the absolute most of a small budget, which (as so often happens in low-budget horror) adds to the film’s creepy realism. The plot is essentially a re-telling of the introduction of the Barnabas Collins character and his attempt to mold governess Maggie Evans into the reincarnation of his dead fiancée, Josette. This time Barnabas is much more of an outright villain than the brooding romantic he was in the series. With time for rehearsals, the cast shows what it was really capable of : nobody flubs a line, or knocks over a fake tree. And no boom mics are seen at all. Please hang some garlic and wear a cross to keep away the godawful Tim Burton remake (reviewed by me here ).
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992; dir. Francis Ford Coppola). People either love this one or hate it. I loved it and saw it in the theater five times. It is by far the most artistically interesting Dracula film since Nosferatu. Sure it’s self-indulgent and over-the-top. But it’s also rich with detail, and has style to spare. It’s genuinely frightening and, in places, genuinely moving. Plus, Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula is impressive (he affects an authentic Rumanian accent). Unfortunately, however, not all the casting was so successful. In an apparent nod to Brat Pack followers, Coppola casts Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker and Winona Ryder as Mina. Both are weak, and Reeves’s British accent is probably the worst in cinema history  (far more cringeworthy than Dick van Dyke’s much-maligned cockney accent in Mary Poppins). Incidentally, purists rightly point out that despite the title this film is often untrue to Stoker’s novel. For example, the love angle, wherein Dracula thinks Mina is the reincarnation of his dead wife, was actually licensed from producer Dan Curtis, who used it in — you guessed it — Dark Shadows (see above). Curtis later used the same plotline in his own stylish adaptation of Dracula  (1974), starring Jack Palance. Before that, the same gimmick had been ripped off in Blacula  (1972). Yes, there really was a film called Blacula. And it has one genuinely scary scene  (be patient).
- The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015; dir. Robert Eggers). This was recommended to me by a neo-pagan friend, who (I believe) thinks the witches in the film are kind of cool. They are anything but. This film depicts the Christian perception of witches with chilling faithfulness: the plot contains many details drawn directly from witch-trial testimony. And, let me tell you: ten minutes into this film I was feeling uncomfortable that I was watching it alone in my dark, empty apartment. Twenty minutes into it I had already formed the impression that it was one of the most disturbing films I had ever seen (the music, by Mark Korven, helps quite a lot to establish a genuinely oppressive mood). One single scene appears to be (mildly) inspired by that scene in The Shining I cannot bear to watch. Aside from that, it is remarkably original. And the performances, especially by the youngest actors, are excellent . Audiences were divided over The Witch (actually written as The VVitch), with some thrilled and creeped out by it (as I was), others complaining it was “too slow.” Don’t listen to this latter group, whose tastes have been corrupted by high-speed Hollywood trash. If you want to see a recent horror film that may one day be considered a great film, see The Witch — but don’t see it alone.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968; dir. Roman Polanski). Yes, you don’t need to remind me: Polanski is a colossal perv. But even colossal pervs can make great films, and Rosemary’s Baby is not just a great horror film, but a great film. As everyone knows by now, the plot concerns a young married woman (Mia Farrow) who is tricked into carrying the devil’s child. One of the remarkable things about this film is how Polanski manages to make it suspenseful and frightening even though everyone in the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen (the novel on which it was based was a bestseller at the time). This is one of those films that you will get something new out of every time you see it. Polanski manages to imbue scenes with a simple, detailed realism (the ticking of a clock, a Kleenex gently blown by an AC unit, etc.) which makes the disturbing events of the film all the more nightmarish. There is also subtle humor in Rosemary’s Baby , which one often doesn’t notice at first because the film is just so damned creepy. Polanski cleverly cast a number of character actors as the members of the coven — actors who were very familiar to American audiences from TV sitcoms, among other things. This somehow seems only to magnify the horror of the eventual revelation. Pervert or not, Polanski is here teaching a master class in filmmaking.
- The Hour of the Wolf (1968; dir. Ingmar Bergman). This one doesn’t make it into most lists of horror films. That’s probably because horror films are supposed to be titillating trash, and Bergman is an “auteur director.” But Bergman himself — who loved all manner of films — wasn’t anywhere near as pretentious as his fans and interpreters. Hour of the Wolf follows the story of an artist (Max von Sydow — naturally) and his wife (Liv Ullman — naturally) living on a remote island. It seems that the artist is gradually losing his mind: he keeps seeing strange and terrifying creatures, which Bergman clearly models on figures from Hieronymus Bosch paintings. It all seems like an obvious case of madness — until his wife starts seeing the creatures as well. And that’s just the beginning. Is Max mad? Are the creatures real? It’s up to you. Most of Bergman’s films qualify as “creepy,” but this is the only one that has scenes that are genuinely frightening . By the way, Bergman himself believed in the supernatural: he often spoke in interviews of his belief in “other realities.”
- The Birds (1963; dir. Alfred Hitchcock). This one also doesn’t often make it onto lists of horror. The plot concerns a series of inexplicable attacks by huge flocks of birds on a remote, Northern California town called Bodega Bay. At the center of these attacks is the beautiful Tippi Hedren (Hitchcock’s “discovery”). One cannot help but make the correlation: before Tippi arrived in town, there were no bird attacks. As one hysterical townsperson puts it, her eyes lit by a kookaloris , “They say this all started when you got here!” Is Tippi somehow causing the attacks? And if it’s not her, what is it? Hitchcock offers us no explanation — probably the most notorious thing about the film. In doing so — or not doing so — he seems to be holding up a giant middle finger to modernity: not everything is explicable; there are mysteries. And when we least expect it, nature — or whatever is behind nature — is going to squash us like the bugs that we are. The Birds is like the horror film Heidegger would have made. Admittedly, some of the special effects look very dated now — though they still work surprisingly well in some scenes. And Hitchcock did use a lot of real birds: in shooting one scene he spent a week hurling birds at Tippi  until the actress basically had a nervous breakdown. This is a brilliant and unforgettable film. I love it so much I made a pilgrimage, years ago, to the actual town of Bodega Bay to visit the locations where the film was shot.
So, there you have it, comrades. Have a happy, cinematic Halloween . . . but don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .