We're gonna need a bigger boat | Universal Pictures

First, Happy Halloween! I do love this time of year. Second, what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? People ask me that now and then, and it’s a tough question, because I haven’t seen a lot of scary movies in my life. I still haven’t seen The Exorcist, a movie people talked about in hushed tones when I was a kid. I know Linda Blair starred in it, and I know her head spun around. That’s the extent of my knowledge of The Exorcist.

I did see Jaws at the downtown State Theatre in Traverse City when it came out in 1975. I saw it with my older brother and remember my butt actually leaving my seat when that Great White Shark burst through the water and made mincemeat out of unsuspecting swimmers. And I still can’t swim in Lake Michigan — I know … Great Whites don’t swim in the Great Lakes … do they…?) without worrying about my legs being severed from my body.

I’ve gotten braver in recent years, partly because I think it’s important to experience film genres I don’t ordinarily review for my syndication partners. Also, after you’ve lived four or five decades, you realize that whatever you see on the screen isn’t nearly as frightening as the stuff you deal with in real life.

So, what’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen? For me, Jaws would be right up there. There was also a tiny movie called Paper Man that was ridiculously scary to me when it came out in 1971. It starred Stefanie Powers and Dean Stockwell, and I still remember that scene where the lady was running through the halls and the lights were shutting off behind her (nearly identical to what was later used in The Grudge – so I’m told).

Then there’s The Silence of the Lambs, which for some bizarre reason I watched while pregnant with my first child, now 17. As I recall, I was sick with a cold and big as a house, so I laid in bed for several days watching The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I stumbled across The Silence of the Lambs and couldn’t avert my eyes. The scene where Jodie Foster is looking for Buffalo Bill in that pitch-black basement is probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. I’m quite certain I was as panicked as she was.

On the other hand, the more recent Paranormal Activity didn’t seem the least bit scary to me. I watched it with my now 17-year-old, and we both laughed all the way through it. I saw Paranormal Activity 3 last week in a theater packed with teenagers. There were definitely some scary moments (notably, when the demon dressed as a ghost is standing RIGHT BEHIND the babysitter – Run! Run for your life!). But the teens laughed through most of it, so it wasn’t as bad as if I’d been alone in the theater (as is often the case during the cheaper afternoon matinees).

So, yeah. Jaws, Silence of the Lambs and Paper Man are my top three scary movies. I polled a few friends, and here’s what they had to say:

Stephanie Auteri, “I love scary movies (both the truly scary and the b-horror ridiculous), but the movie that scares me the most is The Descent. Not because of the murderous creatures they encounter in a maze-like series of caves. Nope. The true horror comes from the setting. The entire movie is so claustrophobic — relentlessly so — that I was tense the entire time. Psychological horror is the scariest horror.”

Alisa Bowman, Project Happily Ever After, co-author of the upcoming book Dangerous Instincts: “For me, it’s a close race between Jaws (still scared of the ocean and, to some degree, even the deep end of the swimming pool), Piranha (ditto) and Halloween. What I found so scary with Halloween was that Michael always seemed to pop up where you least expected. There was no hiding from him. Someone would lock a door and he’d get through it. They’d jump out a window and he’d jump, too. They’d kill him and he’d come back to life. There was no escaping him!”

Kristen Gough, My Kids Eat Squid: “I hate scary movies, but one that I still have nightmares about is PoltergeistPsycho still freaks me out, too.”

Brette Sember, “I don’t watch any, ever!”

Meredith Resnick, The Writer’s Inner Journey: “I went to see Silence of the Lambs when it first came out. It was the late-ish show. I had no idea it was scary (and missed any symbolism in the title). The psycho-suspense was incredibly frightening to me, not to mention the subject matter. And of course, the acting was incredible, so it seemed hyper real. At the time, I was living alone in a studio, and had to make the walk from my car to my apartment in the dark after leaving my friends. I honestly think that was the last scary movie I have seen … its effect remains! Another one that really creeped me out was Born Innocent with Linda Blair. I was 13 when it came out and Oh. My. G-d. It scared the crap out of me!”

Kristin Ohlson, The Shining, because empty places always scare the crap out of me, and that movie made all my creepiest fantasies come to life.”

Roxanne Hawn, Champion of My Heart: “I hate ‘horror’ movies with a passion. Honestly, I have enough anxiety in my life without being scared on purpose, so the last truly horror movie I saw was the original Freddy Krueger movie in high school. I watched Silence of the Lambs while on a university work retreat in the Colorado mountains, and I seriously had to have the vice-president for communications walk me back to my hotel room because I was so skeeved. Very embarrassing. I like psychological thrillers, but not actual horror movies.”

Christine Gross-Loh Origami Mommy: “I spent some time procrastinating today, reading the synopsis of The Descent (which I hadn’t heard of). It sounds sooo creepy!! I think I saw part of The Ring, a Japanese horror movie where a ghost comes out of the TV. I’m not good with scary movies, though I’m fascinated by them. The only ones I’ve ever really seen were Poltergeist, Pet Semetary, and part of The Shining.”

Don't push me | Sissy Spacek in Carrie, United Artists

Kerry Dexter, Music Road: “I’ve probably watched about five horror/scary movies in my life. Wait Until Dark, Carrie, Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden  — all mixed horror and fear with everyday life in all too believable ways. That’s also true of one I remember as especially scary — The Fog. One of the reasons is that Adrienne Barbeau’s character worked overnight shifts at a radio station by herself, something I used to do — and often came and went from shifts alone on foggy, silent nights. I did not find that scary at the time, although being on radio overnights has its own atmosphere. The point is that as with most really effective horror movies, the fear comes out of the aspects of day to day life.”

Barbara Benham, Travel Sweeps: Play Misty for Me, because it was within the realm of possibility. Maybe not the precise details, but the circumstances.”

Friday the 13thKerri Fivecoat-Campbell, Living Large in Our Little House: “I used to watch many a horror flick. The original Friday the 13th was one, and Carrie. Friday is scary to me even now because we’re out in the woods. Also The Shining, with Jack Nicholson. We still pull out the DVD and watch it during the first snow — it’s a tradition! Those two little girls in the hallway and “Here’s Johnny” will be with me the rest of my life. In high school, I slept for weeks with the light on after I read the book, and was just getting over that when I saw the movie. As for scary movies based on true crime, the original Helter Skelter. This was the first “big” book I read as a child (Mom was into true crime), and the movie and that man’s depiction of Charles Manson was really scary.”

Vera Maria Baderscher, A Traveler’s Library: “I seem to have blanked out any scary movies I’ve seen, although I have avoided most of them in the past 30 years or so. For instance, never saw any of the Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal Lector movies, even though Anthony Hopkins is one of my favorite actors. I’ve watched movies late at night on TV when my husband was away, and hated to turn out the lights and go to bed. Not slasher, but psychological thrillers, which are much more terrifying because I can believe they could happen. I’ll never forget The Shining. Jack Nicholson is such an ideal mad man. I think the measure of a good thriller is when your heart is pounding so hard you can hear it above the dialogue.”

Your turn: what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?


  1. In my family, we do not do well with scary movies. My daughter hid under her sweater through most of ET, that is as soon as ET appeared on the screen. I think Carrie was the last scary movie I attended. But, the genre does fascinate me, so thanks for this round-up.

  2. We’re going to be spending the evening watching two of our scary collection, “Friday” and “Halloween” tonight. Saw “The Shining” on Saturday on one of the satellite stations!

  3. I’ve never seen The Exorcist all the way through — and for good reason. It’s terrifying! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to like some scary movies, but I really prefer the funny scary movies — like Zombieland, Drag Me to Hell, Shaun of the Dead and From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Watched Drag Me to Hell and Shaun of the Dead on Saturday, in fact. Thursday was Rosemary’s Baby (great, but not particularly scary to me).

  4. I’d say it was either Manufactured Landscapes or The World According to Monsanto. However, it was Fast Food Nation that originally got me to eating better meat, and then better food all around came after.

  5. The scariest movie I’ve ever seen is probably Pet Cemetery. It’s definitely the reason why I don’t watch horror movies anymore!

  6. I’m with Jeanine– the Exorcist is the most frightening movie ever. I had nightmares for months after seeing it … and I refuse to ever watch it again. There is no other movie that comes close.

  7. I have never made it through The Exorcist. I remember watching part of Amityville Horror as a pre-teen, and that scared the you-know-what outta me. I had nightmares from the television trailers of The Ring. (I kid you not.) But I love Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby. My favorite scary movies are also funny, like Zombieland, From Dusk Till Dawn and Teeth.


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