Halloween time is upon us, so it’s a perfect time to take a look at horror movies. Owing to their nature, horror movies tend to be among the most controversial films ever made. Whether it is portraying children as demons, gratuitous violence in the form of blood and gore, or just plain freaking people out, horror movies tend to get audiences, critics and, religious groups worked up into quite a lather. Yet, often times, it is the controversial elements that make a horror movie special and stand the test of time. So, rightly or wrongly, here is a list of the most controversial horror movies of all-time. Many of these movies remain controversial to this day, and continue to be banned in some jurisdictions.
10. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
You don’t normally associate Christmas with carnage and mayhem, or Santa Claus with a serial killer. But that didn’t stop the producers of the 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night from going way out on a limb with this movie about a deranged and tormented teenager who goes on a murderous rampage dressed as Santa Claus over the holidays after he is abused by a Mother Superior at the orphanage where he was raised. Surprisingly, this movie out-grossed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street at the box office during its first week in theaters. However, the celebrations were short lived, as there was so much parental outrage over a killer Santa Claus that the movie’s distributor, TriStar Pictures, was forced to pull this movie from theaters a week after it opened.
9. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Ah, The Blair Witch Project. The controversy around this movie still seems fresh, nearly 20 years after the film was released. The Blair Witch Project was not controversial because of the gore or subject matter, but because of the premise of the movie and the marketing behind it. Marketed as a true story, and under the falsehood that this was genuine found video footage, many people assumed that The Blair Witch Project was a real event and that the stars of the movie were dead in real life. Even the movie website IMDb originally reported, wrongly, that the actors in the movie were “deceased.” Artisan, the now-defunct movie studio that bought the rights to the film, was more than happy to perpetuate this myth at the time of the film’s release. Rumors that the principals in the movie really died got so bad that some of the actors’ parents received sympathy cards from friends and family. Of course, the whole thing turned out not to be true and was revealed as a brilliant marketing stunt, causing a brouhaha at the time.
8. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Speaking of “found footage” films, how about the gore fest that is Cannibal Holocaust? This low budget Italian horror movie directed by Ruggero Deodato caused quite a stir when released in 1980. Portrayed as a “found footage” horror story about lost tribes in the Amazon rainforest who eat people, it caused riots in Italy. Eventually it lead to the director being arrested for obscenity and the film’s negative being seized by government officials. Church groups stateside weren’t too fond of the whole cannibalism angle either and protested the movie, which was never actually shown in U.S. theaters (though subtitled VHS tapes of this gruesome movie were circulated and proved to be quite popular among diehard horror fans). Somehow, it’s now considered a minor cult classic.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead is considered a classic of both the horror movie genre and zombie subgenre. With all things zombies widely popular now (thank you Walking Dead!), this movie is more highly regarded than ever before. Yet the original George A. Romero zombie nightmare flick was very controversial when first released. Arriving in movie theaters a month before the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was firmly established, many youngsters who should never have gone to see this film were granted access, causing panic among many children and their parents, and leading to a media firestorm of criticism. Hollywood trade publication Variety went so far as to condemn Night of the Living Dead for its “pornography of violence.” Cool.
6. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Don’t Look Now is a horror movie and a pretty creepy one at that. In fact, many people consider this movie to be one of the best horror films of all time, and a classic of the 1970s. However, this 1973 movie was highly controversial when it was released, and not for reasons you would expect. The controversy came from an extremely graphic sex scene in the movie between actors Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, with media reports that the two lead performers had actually done the deed on camera. About a married couple who are living in Venice and grieving over the death of their daughter, Don’t Look Now contains some genuinely creepy and unsettling scenes. It is also not told in chronological order, which makes it difficult for some people to follow the story. However, the sex scene in the movie (which is graphic even by today’s standards) shocked audiences back in 1973. Censors had a field day, and the sex scene was removed entirely from the film in the United Kingdom. The situation got so bad, that actor Donald Sutherland had to issue a press release saying the sex scene had been completely simulated and was not real. Yikes!
5. Nosferatu (1922)
This is a weird one. Made in 1922, Nosferatu is one of the oldest horror movies ever made, and one of the first about vampires. Basically an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu was a German silent movie that starred Max Schreck as the lead vampire known as Count Orlok. Widely regarded as a horror classic, Nosferatu currently has the second highest rating of any horror movie on Rotten Tomatoes. So what’s the controversy about? Well, Max Schreck, it is claimed, was a real life vampire. During filming of the movie, Schreck stayed in character the whole time and would not be seen without his vampire make-up on. This led many people in the cast to assume he was not just an actor, but a real life vampire. There were even reports that Schreck was seen drinking blood. The whole controversy was detailed in the 2000 movie Shadow of the Vampire, starring actors Willem Dafoe as Schreck and John Malkovich as the film’s exasperated director. Though the controversy has since been disproved, rumors that Schreck was a real vampire persist.
4. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Few horror films have been as disturbing or controversial as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The fact that this movie was based on supposedly real events made it all the more disturbing and upsetting to audiences back in 1974. It turns out that chainsaw wielding cannibals terrorizing teenagers in the Texas badlands was controversial enough to get this horror movie slapped with an “X” rating when first released. Weirdly, the movie’s director Tobe Hooper said during media interviews to promote the film that he expected The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be rated PG. Really?! The title alone is worth an R rating. Nevertheless, the controversy and rating didn’t stop people from seeing this movie, which today is considered a classic of the genre.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
There’s something about kids and horror movies. If you want to kick up a hornet’s nest, involve angelic little kids in a horror movie, or, even worse, make them the demons or possessed people. This was largely the reason that the 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby proved to be so controversial. About a newlywed woman, played by actress Mia Farrow, who is impregnated with the child of Satan, Rosemary’s Baby contains a final shot of the baby that is pretty darn creepy. And the combination of the subject matter and that infamous closing image made this movie highly controversial in its day. Although it was hailed by critics as a masterpiece and is today considered a horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby was also greeted with protests from church groups and religious leaders. The protests were so bad that some movie theaters refused to show the movie. Time seems to have softened the controversy though, and in 2014 this film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
2. Psycho (1960)
The 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is not just considered a classic horror film, but a classic movie period. The American Film Institute has this flick ranked number 14 on its list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. Yet few movies have been as controversial as Psycho. It didn’t help that Hitchcock himself fanned the flames of the controversy in an effort to promote the movie and get more people to see it. Not only was the now infamous “shower scene” unlike anything audiences had seen before, but Psycho was also considered racy for its time because actress Janet Leigh is shown wearing only a bra in the film’s opening scene. However, as mentioned, Hitchcock delighted in stirring up controversy with this movie. He placed Janet Leigh in her bra on the movie poster, had the declaration “Do not reveal the surprises!” plastered on advertisements, and implemented a “no late admission” policy for the film at movie theaters, meaning nobody who arrived after the movie had started could see it. All this seemed to pay off, as Psycho was a massive box office hit and has become a legendary movie.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
From rumors of a cursed film set to whispers that actress Linda Blair actually died during the making of the movie, no other horror film has proved more controversial than 1973’s The Exorcist. In fact, this film was so controversial that movie studio Warner Bros. was forced to hire bodyguards to protect Blair. One scene involving a crucifix sent church groups and religious zealots running for their protest placards. This movie was denounced as blasphemous, amoral, and anti-Christian upon its initial release – and it all helped propel The Exorcist to box office gold. Back in 1973 when the movie was first released, audiences had never seen a young child possessed before, or play the villain for that matter. So to see a then 12-year-old Linda Blair literally possessed by Satan was a lot for moviegoers at the time to handle. Plus, the gory make-up and special effects that had Linda Blair’s head spin around while she spewed vomit was more than most people could handle. Many small towns in America refused to screen the film. However, it spawned a whole genre of horror movies that featured children – from The Omen and The Shining to Poltergeist, Village of the Damned and Children of the Corn. Today, the controversial elements of The Exorcist are what make it a classic in many people’s estimations.