For as long as movies have existed, horror has been a popular genre. People simply love to be scared and experience stories of the strange and unknown. From ghost stories to slasher flicks, horror movies have always proven to be a hit with audiences.
However, horror movies aren’t the only films that provide scares. In this list, we want to highlight some movies that weren’t designed to be horror, but still turned out to be plenty terrifying in their own way. In some cases, it’s only a single scary scene in the middle of an otherwise standard story. In other cases, the underlying theme of the entire movie ends up being terrifying for reasons that don’t include killer bad guys or shocking jump scares.
Buried is a drama/thriller, but most of it takes place inside a small wooden coffin containing star Ryan Reynolds. His character, an American civilian working in Iraq, finds himself buried alive with nothing but a lighter and a cellphone. Then his kidnapper calls and demands a $5 million ransom or they will leave him in the coffin to die.
We don’t want to spoil the end, but the movie cranks up the tension as Reynolds takes a series of frantic phone calls from his kidnapper, the U.S. State Department, and even his wife. When a nearby bombing cracks his wooden box, and it starts to fill with sand (which will eventually suffocate him), even those people who don’t suffer from claustrophobia start to feel uneasy about what they are watching. You probably won’t realize that you’re holding your own breath as you watch.
15. The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s religious brainchild The Passion of the Christ was supposed to be a gritty, realistic re-telling of the final days/hours of the life of Jesus Christ. When it was eventually released in 2004, it divided audiences unlike any movie before it. For started, the entire thing was filmed in Latin and Aramaic instead of English. But the real scary part of film stemmed from its R-rating.
Critics of the movie derided it as nothing more than a glorified snuff film, as the bulk of it two-hour run time is spent watching Jesus (Jim Caviezel) be tortured, spat on, whipped, flogged, tortured some more, and eventually forced to carry his own cross to the site of his execution. Gibson dials the blood and violence up to 11 for this one, and it would be uneasy to watch even if the main character wasn’t the head of a major religion. Some religious types love this movie for its violent portrayal of Jesus’ sacrifice. Others just cringe at the thought of watching a man get brutally beat to death for two hours.
14. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
No, that awful Johnny Depp remake. We’re talking about the original Gene Wilder Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971. The movie starts innocently enough, as children around the world scramble to find those coveted Golden Tickets, which are good for a tour of a mysterious candy factory and free chocolate for life. That’s every kid’s dream, right?
Once the film shifts inside the factory, owned and managed by Wilder’s eccentric Willy Wonka character, things go very south. First of all, he clearly has an army of small orange slaves doing all his labor. No one seems to care about that though. Second, his ridiculously unsafe inventions are basically murdering children. We never do find out if any of them live to tell the tale of their visit. Lastly, there’s that bizarre scene in the boat where Wonka momentarily transforms from lovable candy man to the Earthly incarnation of Satan himself. What the hell is this movie?
13. Jesus Camp
Unlike the previous movies on this list, Jesus Camp isn’t a work of fiction. It’s a documentary about a summer camp called the Kids on Fire School of Ministry in North Dakota, which (as you’ve probably guessed) is highly religious. Now, we have nothing against religion and feel that everyone should be allowed to believe and worship however they see fit. But it’s hard to watch Jesus Camp and not feel like you’re seeing small children get brainwashed before your very eyes.
The adults in this film aren’t just teaching “love thy neighbor.” They are preparing these kids for a “culture war” and openly state that their goals are to have these kids take their religious views into future jobs in politics in order to “take America back for Christ.” If this were any other religion, people would be screaming that it’s classic cult behavior. But since it’s Christianity, most people turned a blind eye to just how terrifying Jesus Camp really is.
12. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The musical classic about a flying car makes this list for only one reason, as most of the movie is anything but scary, featuring whimsical adventures and musical numbers. But one of the film’s main antagonists is the Evil Child Catcher, and that guy scared the hell out of us when we first watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As if the entire concept of snatching children up off the streets wasn’t strange enough, the Child Catcher actually tries to lure them in with free candy and ice cream. He may as well have pulled up in this thing:
The Child Catcher doesn’t belong in a children’s movie. He belongs on episode of To Catch a Predator! We know this movie is a little dated, first being released in 1968, but the Child Catcher is legit scary AF.
11. Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg’s epic World War II drama about Oskar Schilnder is not typically scary. The whole thing is even shot in black and white, which generally reduces the creepiness factor of any flick. However, the movie is frightening for how it shows the audiences real-life evil, which existed less than 100 years ago still.
Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who felt that Hitler was wrong, and attempted to save as many Jews as he could. While he was undoubtedly a hero, the movie still painfully shows many of the most appalling aspects of the Holocaust. One scene, where a group of imprisoned Jews realize they have been herded into a gas chamber, makes us want to throw up. The movie, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1993, is a matter-of-fact reminder about how evil humans can be to other humans. Even scarier is the thought that the Nazis didn’t really die out after WWII, as many racists still identify with Hitler’s actions.
For a Disney movie, Holes is surprisingly grim. It still has the requisite happy ending, but before the audience gets there, there’s a lot of disturbing stuff. First of all, a teenager gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit and ends up being sent to a prison — except the prison is basically nothing more than a forced labor camp. As the story unfolds, elements of sexual scandal, racism, and even murder creep into the tale. Not the scariest movie on this list, but it’s definitely a little bit too dark for it’s intended audience of pre-teens.
9. Zero Day
In the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy, police discovered the so-called “basement tapes” — a video diary of sorts kept by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before they killed 13 of their classmates (and wounded dozens more) before turning the guns on themselves. Those tapes were never made public, so director Ben Coccio made a movie that theorized what they would like.
Zero Day is a found-footage style movie that feels more like a documentary than a dramatization, as it uses the same video diary format to tell the story of Andre Kriegman (based primarily on Harris) and Calvin Gabriel (based primarily on Klebold), who are planning a school shooting. Shot without any real Hollywood glitz, Zero Day is cold and calculated, bringing up some scary feelings about what makes someone decide to shoot up a school. With the proliferation of real-life school shootings continuing to be a problem in America, Zero Day feels more like a terrifying reality than a fictionalized story.
8. Requiem For a Dream
Ultimately, Requiem For a Dream is supposed to be a cautionary tale about addiction. And while it certainly succeeds in showing audiences some of the dangers associated with messing with drugs, director Darren Aronofsky goes way over the top. One character (Jared Leto) suffers a grotesque arm infection as a result of a dirty needle, eventually forcing it to be amputated. Another (Jennifer Connelly) spirals so deep into addiction that she resorts to degrading sex work in order to pay for her habits. There are no happy endings for anyone in this movie, as the whole thing just punches audiences in the face with horrific outcomes for every character. Don’t get us wrong, Requiem For a Dream is a great movie. But we’re not in any rush to watch it again.
This 1972 classic is supposed to be a thriller (which we admit, does allow for some scary parts), but Deliverance is downright terrifying. You’ve probably seen it, but the film is a story about four friends (Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox) who decide to take a canoe trip down a river is backwater Georgia. They eventually encounter that some very twisted hillbillies, leading to some horrifying moments.
The “squeal like a pig” scene is definitely hard to watch (or even think about). In fact, the entire second half the movie is filled with a nervous tension that makes the audience squirm, as these city slickers attempt to deal with both the forces of nature and the psychological terror brought on by the men who invade their outing. Plus the banjo kid is a huge creepshow.
6. American History X
Similar to Schlinder’s List, this movie doesn’t provide scares with paranormal monsters or jumpy editing. The truly scary part of American History X is the realistic telling of how quickly a human being can take discriminatory thoughts and turn them into murderous violence. Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard is a former neo-Nazi, reformed after a horrible stint in prison, which he received for killing a black home intruder. One of the hardest scenes to watch is when Norton curb stomps the second thief in front of their house.
The film tackles racism with a more modern outlook. Unfortunately, the message of American History X doesn’t seem to have gotten through to audiences, as more recent incidents of police brutality, Black Lives Matter marches, and even the hotly debated 2016 Presidential election, have again led to frightening nationwide question of: just how racist are we?
Who would have thought that a musical fantasy adventure film would provide scary moments? But honestly, this collaboration between George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas) and puppet legend Jim Henson had plenty of dark moments. For starters David Bowie playing Jareth, the Goblin King, is just plain creepy. And what exactly does he want to do with that baby, anyway?
The movie follows Sarah (played by a young Jennifer Connelly) as she struggled to solve the Goblin King’s Labyrinth in order to save her little brother. Once she finally makes it through the maze, with the help of multiple puppet friends, it turns out that Jareth want to make this 15-year-old girl his bride? WTF? Or was the whole thing a strange teenage hallucination? Labyrinth might not be the scariest movie on this list, but it’s still kind of disturbing, when you think about it.
4. The Terminator
Most people think of The Terminator (and it’s sequels) as a science fiction/action movie. And to be sure, it delivers on both those fronts. However, it was one of the first films or franchises that really showed the potential horrors awaiting mankind as we move further and further towards a world controlled by machines. It raises the ultimate question of what happens if machines eventually become smarter than humans?
In this fictional world, a super advanced artificial intelligence program called Skynet is put in charge of the world’s nuclear defense systems. Seeing humans as a threat, Skynet launches thousands of nukes and unleashes Judgement Day upon mankind. As society moves further into the “internet of things” (seriously, why does my microwave connect to Twitter?), the dangers of computers taking over become slightly more real every day.
We know that Pinocchio is a kid’s movie, and it’s not meant to be scary at all. But when you really break it all down, there’s a lot of really disturbing things going on this movie — and that’s ignoring the moral implications of bringing wooden puppets to life.
A portion of the film includes a sinister man kidnapping young boys and bringing them to — and we’re not kidding here — a place called “Pleasure Island.” Once there, they are turned into small donkeys. For what purpose? He shudder to even contemplate that. Even after all of that, there’s more terror on the way when Pinocchio is swallowed by a freaking whale! Are we sure this movie is for kids? It’s got some really dark moments.
2. The Wizard of Oz
Sure, the Munchkins are cute and all, but The Wizard of Oz doesn’t exactly have a wholesome story. First Dorthy uses a flying house to murder a witch (even if it was an accident), and is then tasked by some other witch to seek out a mysterious hermit to send her home. After almost being revenge murdered by the dead witch’s equally evil sister multiple times, Dorthy and her three strange sidekicks end up drugged in a field outside the Emerald City.
Oh, and spoiler alert, Dorthy had the power to go home anytime she wanted, thanks to the magic shoes she stole from that witch she dropped a house on. Too bad the “Good” Witch Glenda didn’t bother to mention that fact in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Instead she uses Dorthy to take out both Wicked Witches, giving Glenda free reign over witchdom in the Land of Oz. Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) are hardly the most sinister thing going on in this movie.
1. 127 Hours
Under normal circumstances, 127 Hours would be a disturbing movie about one man’s survival after he falls into a rock crevice. However, the horrifying elements of the movie all get cranked up a few notches when you learn that it’s a completely true story!
James Franco plays Aron Ralston, who was trapped under a boulder for more than five days before he makes the desperate decision to amputate his own trapped arm and climb to safety (in his already weakened state). Director Danny Boyle does an excellent job of portraying how hopeless the situation is, and audiences can truly feel Franco’s feelings of panic, fear, and isolation. We’ll never go hiking alone after watching this one!