Halloween can be a tough time if you’re a scaredy-cat. All throughout October, your friends will invite you to see a new horror movie like the Airbnb-gone-bad tale Barbarian or Bodies, Bodies, Bodies or Halloween Ends, and because you are terrified, you’ll come up with an excuse to get out of these plans. You’ll say you have work to do for some reason on a weekend, you’ll come up with a health scare to get out of being frightened in public, or you’ll just come clean and say that you can’t bear to watch anything spooky in a crowded theater. It’s too stressful and too likely to result in public embarrassment.
In my case, I can handle terrifying films, but I can’t quite stomach a jump scare. Those moments in movies where a monster or demon lurks around the corner, the music becomes unbearable tense, and spooky, and then when you can’t take it anymore, whatever evil is lurking and waiting to pounce finally does. It’s horrible. Sometimes I audibly scream, sometimes, I plug my ears and close my eyes like a toddler, and sometimes I have to look up the film’s plot on Wikipedia to prep myself for what’s to come. It’s humiliating. I’m sure I’m not alone: most people choose not to deal with horror movies’ gore, supernatural, and terrors. But that doesn’t mean the genre doesn’t have genuinely scary offerings that even scaredy-cats can enjoy.
This list takes some of the finest horror films that mercifully don’t have any jump scares. Here, you won’t find any monsters lurking around the corner, popping out at unexpected places, and haunting your dreams for weeks to come. Instead, these horrors are a little more psychological. These movies are still very scary, but at least it’s not the visceral kind of horror that comes with jump scares. While we can’t guarantee these films listed won’t give you nightmares, you won’t have to worry about losing your mind and embarrassing yourself if you watch these with your friends and family.
28 Days Later (HBO Max)
This is the most beautiful horror film of all time. No zombie flick is going to catch you saying, “wow, that’s a nice shot,” quite like Danny Boyle’s masterful 28 Days Later. In this film, a British man (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma weeks after a deadly virus has turned Great Britain into a zombie hellhole (these are fast zombies, by the way). The film follows his improbable escape from London, his bonding with fellow survivors, and how people can turn to their demons and better angels when faced with a horrible scenario. It’s a zombie film for people who hate zombie films.
Reading the Southern Reach Trilogy, a series of sci-fi novels by Jeff Vandemeer is an unsettling and mesmerizing experience. The books document a mysterious zone called Area X where reality seems to warp, and people who explore it end up dead or worse. Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation is an excellent adaptation of the first installation in that novel series. It takes liberties where it needs to and manages to capture the ambient thrum of despair that oozes throughout the novels. Starring Natalie Portman, Garland (who wrote the script for 28 Days Later) paints a touching onscreen portrait of grief, a disorientingly lush Area X, and a horrifying sequence featuring a skull-donning monster that screams like a person. Not a jump scare in sight, though!
The Fly (HBO Max)
Body horror is different than jump scares, and to some, it’s obviously worse. Director David Cronenberg is the master of body horror in all its iterations. In this 1986 film (which is a remake of the 1958 film The Fly, an adaptation of George Langelaan’s short story of the same name), Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist who uses his own body as a test subject for an exciting new invention but finds his body deteriorating. Goldblum’s character slowly and gruesomely becomes a monster throughout this film. It’s gross, and it’s terrifying, especially as his transformation affects those he cares about most.
Get Out (Rent or Buy on iTunes, Prime Video)
Seeing Get Out in the theaters is one of my all-time favorite “going to the movies” experiences. The Jordan Peele-directed film is part psychological terror and part satire, and it excels at both. Poole will occasionally flirt with the jump scare tropes—setting up the tension for what seems like something popping up out of frame—but they’re always fakeouts done for comedic effect. While the final third of the film is full of action and danger, most of the movie is a slow burn that would be palatable for the most horror-film-averse moviegoer.
It Comes At Night (Showtime Anytime)
A highly contagious disease has spread worldwide, leaving people at home and rightfully suspicious of other people outside their homes who could infect them. Where have we heard this story before? Jokes aside, this A24 film is excellent at intimate horror. Set almost entirely in one family’s remote cabin and neighboring woods, the movie thrives in claustrophobia and paranoia. The cast is excellent in Joel Edgerton, Riley Keough, and Christopher Abbott, who all take the plot’s stakes tangibly seriously in their performances’ urgency. Sometimes the monster around the corner might be your neighbor.
Midsommar (Showtime Anytime)
While the on-set stills from Midsommar look like a Lana Del Rey Coachella set gone awry, Midsommar is one of the past few years’ most terrifying and unsettling films. This is a cult movie. There aren’t any supernatural forces or beings terrorizing things: just some bizarre and murderous Swedish people. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, and William Poulter as American students who are invited to a Midsommar festival in rural Sweden that only takes place every 90 years. It turns out it’s a pretty weird and gruesome event with human sacrifices, murder, and a lot of other gross things.
The Purge (HBO Max)
When The Purge became the breakout indie success story of 2018 thanks to its massive box office profits over its meager budget, I took one look at the trailer and thought, “not for me.” That said, in 2020, I finally had enough time to give this franchise a shot, and I realized that I had been missing out on incredible thrillers. These movies are unafraid to lay it on thick, especially with the social commentary, which only adds to the campy action sequences. The first film stars Ethan Hawke as the patriarch of an upper-middle-class family whose purge protection home security system fails during the yearly “purge” where crime is legal.
The Shining (HBO Max)
Look, we said “horror movies for people who hate jump scares,” not “horror movies for people who hate being scared.” Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall, this film is a classic adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best books. Under Stanley Kubrick’s direction, the film dives into the Overlook Hotel and unfolds horrors upon horrors in this creepy hotel. While horrifying images from this movie have stuck with me to this day, there aren’t any traditional jump scares. If you’re easily startled, look away if you see nudity on screen because the beautiful figure will (slight spoilers) become a grotesque monster.
Under the Skin (HBO Max)
The pitch for Under the Skin is compelling: Scarlett Johansson is an alien who prowls the streets in search of men to kill. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the film has a dark palate and is a slow burn. There’s an ambient sense of foreboding throughout, but never anything that jumps out of your seat terrifying. It’s more visually stunning and unsettling than anything. While Under the Skin got great reviews among critics (this one included!), some audience members wanted more traditional horror and less esoteric filmmaking.
The Witch (HBO Max)
Before The Queen’s Gambit and Split, Anya Taylor-Joy stole scenes in The Witch, the breakout movie from The Lighthouse and The Northman director Robert Eggers. Set in 1600s New England, the film follows a settler family who is banned from their Puritan colony. The youngest son in the family gets allegedly abducted by a witch, and it gets more and more bizarre from there. This is an especially terrifying movie if farms, goats, and living in Massachusetts scare you.
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