Don’t Go In There … Five of Hollywood’s Most Frightening Flicks

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Read on … if you dare!

If your Halloween night isn’t taken up with trick or treaters or costume bashes, you’re likely planning to curl up on the couch and get into the ghoulish spirit by watching some horror fare.

While many horror films have left audiences trembling in their theatre seats, the truly great ones are those whose villains embody our deepest fears and resonate long after the movie ends.

From supernatural monsters to your everyday psychopath, here’s a spooky peek at five of Hollywood’s greatest fright flicks.

The Universal Monsters (1931)

Who: Dracula and Frankenstein

Scare Fare: Back before vampires boasted coiffed hair and adolescent angst – thanks Twilight­ – moviegoers actually feared them. In 1931, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula reportedly had audience members fainting in the aisles. That may or may not be a slight exaggeration, but either way the film set a new bar for Hollywood horror fare.

Likewise, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, which also debuted in 1931, established a similarly important precedent when it proved horror flicks could also be taken as series cinema. The film is lauded not only as one of the best horror films of all time, but one of the best movies period. Not bad for a dude made of sewn together body parts.

Not only that, but these films ushered in the era of the classic Universal Monsters franchise, which included the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and so on. Plus, they kept actors Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. flush with steady fright work for years.

Fright-ometer rating: These films, particularly Dracula, reach the “Pass out in your popcorn” level of fright. Literally.

Psycho (1960)

Who: Norman Bates

Scare Fare: To this day, almost every creepy hotel or derelict hostel depicted on screen owes a debt of frightful gratitude to the Bates Motel. It’s not just the ominous look of the place or its resident murderer with mommy issues or the “screaming violins” that play through the climactic shower scene. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic is also singlehandedly responsible for conjuring images of poor Janet Leigh screaming in terror whenever you’re taking a shower and you see a shadow pass on the other side of the curtain. Sure it could just be your spouse. Or it could be the dog. But what if…

Fright-ometer rating: Well, this film is a “blood bath” – pun definitely intended – but it’s also the simplicity of the story that terrifies. Norman Bates isn’t a supernatural being like Dracula, or some undead ghoul like a zombie or the Mummy. Norman Bates is a normal man (I know, that’s a stretch) who happens to be a psycho, which makes the film that much scarier. It plays off our everyday fears, when we meet someone and think, “There’s something a little off about them.” Sometimes the most “normal” (again, using that term loosely) monsters are the scariest of all, because they don’t growl or lumber after you or fly into your room in the form of a bat. The scariest part about them is they look like everyone else and you don’t see or hear them coming.

The Exorcist (1973)

Who: That freaky little girl whose head spins around and shoots pea soup.

Scare Fare: Almost everyone of a certain age who went to see the original Exorcist film in theatres has a similar story – curled up under the arm of the person they’re with, hiding their eyes and screeching when Linda Blair’s “Regan” spun her head all the way around.

According to sources, William Friedkin even used slight (yet still visible, so not technically subliminal) imagery in the film because “I saw subliminal cuts in a number of films before I ever put them in The Exorcist and I thought it was a very effective storytelling device … The subliminal editing in The Exorcist was done for dramatic effect—to create, achieve, and sustain a kind of dreamlike state.” This editing included skeletal faces that appear in people’s breath when they breathe in the cold and using pig squeals for effect.

Fright-ometer rating: This film is regarded as one of the most legitimately scary horror flicks of all time. Think about it – it technically has a happy ending and yet no one ever thinks of it that way.

Also, there’s something about a possessed kid doing a spider walk down the stairs of your house that makes you reconsider ever having children. Ever.

The Shining (1980)

Who: A wannabe novelist whose chronic writer’s block and a haunted hotel literally drive him mad.

Scare Fare: As a writer I can tell you that a bad case of writer’s block can stir the urge to swing an axe – but only ever at the blank screen or page on the table in front of you. When you start chasing your family around an empty hotel with it, you have deeper emotional issues you need to deal with.

That’s what happens to Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel, where he hunts down his wife in a fit of madness and famously hacks in the door to the bathroom where she’s hiding, peeking through the splintered wood to proclaim, “Heeere’s Johnny!”

While his delivery isn’t quite as jolly as Ed McMahon’s, the memory of the scene continues to resonate. Like with Norman Bates, Jack Torrance isn’t a horror film ghoul but a regular person gone nuts. It’s terrifying because that axe-swinging psycho could be you. It could be me. Heck, it’s not that far off from something you’d see on an episode of the Real Housewives TV series.

Fright-ometer rating: Gross. Terrifying. Unwatchable. Possessed of otherworldly demons. Sorry, I’m still talking about the Real Housewives. But yeah, The Shining is terrifying too.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Who: Hannibal Lecter – a skilled psychiatrist, a refined academic, a soft-spoken lover of the arts and fine food. Oh, and he’s also a cannibal. Even the ones who seem nice always have a hang-up, don’t they?

Scare Fare: You’d like to think that, if push came to shove, you’d be able to at least outwit the monsters on this list. But Hannibal Lecter is a completely different, ahem, beast. Not only is he smarter than you, intellectually and on a psychological level, but at the same time he’s a cannibalistic serial killer. And the worst part? In this film, Jodi Foster’s character Clarice actually needs his help to capture another serial killer. So she’s stuck with him.

The image of Lecter strapped onto a trolley with a villainous mask across his mouth is scary enough, but the scene where he delivers the line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” in reference to one of his victims, while glaring at Clarice with his cold, vacant eyes, is truly the most horrifying.

Fright-ometer rating: Aside from being the definition of a psychological horror, the film landed Anthony Hopkins a Best Actor Oscar and also won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay – one of only three films to ever achieve this honour.

On the negative side, no one has ever looked at fava beans the same way again. They’re the real victims of Hannibal Lecter’s wicked ways.