Do you like scary movies? What’s your favorite? At the risk of sounding like the killer from Scream, those are two worthwhile questions for any film buff. Odds are, you answered that second question with the title of a horror film. Such pictures are specifically designed to scare us, to tap into our most primal fears, and exploit them mercilessly. They are meant to make us squirm, scream, clutch our armrests, and lie awake at night, replaying their most horrific moments in our heads.
Sometimes, though, non-horror movies are just as scary, and maybe even scarier. We’ve assembled a list of some of the most frightening films from other genres. In doing so, we have decided to cover as many as possible, including comedy, documentary, drama, thriller, etc. There’s even a kids’ movie on here. In every case, the movie in question — for different reasons — leaves you with chills just as intense as you’d get from a good fright flick.
Here are 15 Non-Horror Movies Scarier Than Any Actual Horror Movie.
No movie has ever captured the horror of hardcore drug addiction as acutely as Danny Boyle’s 1996 Trainspotting, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. Ewan McGregor plays Renton, a young resident of Edinbergh who becomes addicted and sees his life start spiraling downward. The movie shows the full range of heroin use: how it seems fun at first, then gradually starts to strip away everything else in a user’s life until all they care about is getting their next fix.
The two most famous scenes are the ones that most eerily depict the deepest throes of being hooked on heroin. A sequence in which Renton loses some of his stuff to “the worst toilet in Scotland,” which he then crawls into in an effort to retrieve them, illustrates the way addicts sometimes debase themselves for their drugs. Another scene, in which he hallucinates a creepy baby during forced detoxification, gives viewers some idea of the hell that is heroin withdrawal. Trainspotting is incredibly effective in deglamourizing drug use. When it’s over, you’re rattled.
14. The Impossible
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami claimed the lives of 230,000 people. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. The 2012 movie The Impossible takes viewers inside of it. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Spider-Man) play a family vacationing in Thailand who get struck by the rushing waters and separated from each other.
Director J.A. Bayona and his special effects team recreate the tsunami in harrowing, authentic detail. The sequence of the massive waves first hitting land shows people being sucked under the water, getting pummeled by debris, and slamming into those structures that haven’t already been knocked down by the force. The Impossible is a true story, which makes the viewing experience even more shattering because you realize that people actually went through this. It’s scary to see. Just as scary, albeit in a different way, is how Naomi Watts’ badly battered character searches for her missing family in the aftermath. The movie makes you think about what you would do if some natural disaster sucked your loved ones away, leaving you to wonder whether they’re alive or dead.
13. The Big Short
The Oscar-nominated comedy The Big Short deals with a seemingly un-cinematic subject: the collapse of the housing bubble. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling play the financial experts who saw catastrophe coming and capitalized on it by shorting subprime mortgages. A big part of the film’s genius is that it takes a subject most of us don’t understand very well (if at all) and makes it both funny and easy to follow.
That, in turn, makes The Big Short frightening. Once you are able to wrap your head around the general facts regarding the housing crisis, it becomes very clear that Wall Street experts used the public’s lack of understanding about subprime mortgages and Collateralized Debt Organization to their own advantage. By approving shaky loans and/or betting against them, a lot of people got very, very rich off of other people’s financial devastation. And since none of them were severely prosecuted for their actions, there’s little reason to believe something like this couldn’t happen again. The Big Short may make you want to pull all your money out of the bank and stash it under your mattress.
Buried is the story of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a U.S. contractor working in Iraq. For reasons he initially doesn’t understand, Paul is kidnapped and buried alive inside a wooden box. He doesn’t have much that he can use to escape, except for a cell phone, on which he attempts to call for help. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know where he was buried, so there’s precious little information he can provide.
Director Rodrigo Cortes exploits the viewer’s fear of confined spaces to the fullest degree possible. Paul can barely move, he’s running out of air, a snake somehow makes its way into the pine box, and the lid eventually starts to cave in from the pressure of the dirt piled on top of it. If you’re already claustrophobic, Buried will make you nuts. If you’re not already claustrophobic, you will be after seeing this film. When it’s over, you just want to run outside to the most wide open space possible and do some serious deep breathing.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion tracks the spread of a virus that makes anyone who contracts it deathly ill. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including those of scientists and researchers, public health officials, journalists, and, of course, the poor individuals who catch it. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Kate Winslet are just some of the big names in the all-star cast
The prospect of a global pandemic is one of the biggest threats our world faces today. Contagion makes you feel the weight of that. The movie shows how casually viruses can be spread, suggests that medicinal treatments may not be able to be developed quickly enough in the event of a fast-spreading disease, and flat-out states that you unknowingly attract germs to your body all day long. (Stop touching your face!) That’s on top of scenes showing Paltrow and other inflicted becoming violently, unpleasantly sick. Contagion is so scary that there’s only one way we recommend watching it: from inside a bathtub filled with Purell.
The drama Prisoners deals with one of the most terrifying things imaginable: child abduction. The mere thought of that subject is enough to send chills down the spine of any parent. Two couples (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) have their young daughters go missing while playing outside. The culprit may be a creepy guy (played by Paul Dano) seen driving an RV through the neighborhood. Jackman’s character is driven frantic with worry, so he tracks the man down and essentially tortures him until he gives up the girls’ whereabouts.
Some people think Prisoners turns into melodrama during its second half, which raises questions about whether Jackman is going too far in his quest for answers. Regardless of how you feel on that count, it’s hard to deny that the first half is the kind of scary that makes you sick to your stomach. Watching the couples deal with the horror of realizing their kids have been abducted is curl-up-in-a-ball-in-the-corner disturbing.
9. Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp is one of the most unnerving documentaries ever made. It follows the campers and staff at the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, a North Dakota summer camp where children are taught how to preach an intense evangelical Christian message. The aim is not just converting others to the religion, it’s also to prepare for a “culture war” against secular society. The goal, as expressed by camp leaders, is for these children to grow up and take on positions of power within the government and other social entities in order to “take America back for Christ.”
We’ve all seen fire-and-brimstone preachers, but the sight of children engaging in such hardcore proselytizing is nothing less than shocking. Furthermore, Jesus Camp suggests that these kids aren’t getting to be kids. They are forced, at a very young age, to become warriors. They are being prepped for a fight somewhere down the road. Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence and wonder, not fear and moral warfare. Watching them get indoctrinated into a combat mentality at elementary school age makes for some pretty frightening viewing.
Deliverance, the John Boorman thriller from 1972, is best known for two things: the musical composition “Dueling Banjos” and the line “Squeal like a pig!” If that’s all you know of the film, you really owe it to yourself to see how those two elements fit into a larger, ridiculously scary story. Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox play buddies who take a canoe ride down a river in Georgia, only to cross paths with some of the nastiest, most mean-spirited backwoods hillbillies imaginable.
The thing that makes Deliverance so chilling is that the situation becomes exponentially more perilous for our heroes as the movie progresses. Every time you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Ned Beatty’s character getting sexually assaulted by those hillbillies is just one of the things the guys have to contend with as they attempt to flee the remote area in which they find themselves and get back to civilization. Beautifully acted and tautly directed by Boorman, Deliverance keeps you in a state of terror.
7. Observe and Report
On the surface, Observe and Report looks like Paul Blart: Mall Cop‘s R-rated brother. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a mall security officer trying to win the heart of a pretty perfume counter worker named Brandi (Anna Faris) while protecting shoppers from a flasher who keeps hanging around. In actuality, the movie is far darker than that description sounds. Ronnie doesn’t woo Brandi, he flat-out stalks her, and at one point, he even date-rapes her. He is a hostile, violent, drug-taking lunatic whose uniform gives him a small bit of power, which he happily abuses.
To say this is a dark comedy would be an understatement. Observe and Report doesn’t shy away from showing its lead character’s most troublesome impulses. And while the intention may be to elicit uncomfortable laughter, there’s no doubt that this is a fairly creepy portrait of a mentally unhinged individual — one that brings to mind the idea that authority figures are not always the benevolent, trustworthy folks we expect them to be. If that thought doesn’t freak you out at least a tiny bit, we don’t know what will.
6. 127 Hours
127 Hours is the kind of story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it wasn’t true. James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a hiker who falls down a crevasse and has his arm pinned by a boulder. He’s quite literally stuck there for five days, growing increasingly dehydrated and desperate. Finally, he accepts a rather unpleasant reality: the only way he’s going to survive is to cut off his own arm. That’s exactly what he does.
Inventively directed by Danny Boyle, 127 Hours forces you to be in Aron Ralston’s position for two highly uncomfortable (but undeniably riveting) hours. It makes you feel every ounce of his fear, his panic, and his isolation. And when the time comes for him to amputate himself, cutting through flesh and nerves, it practically gives you sympathy pains. Being made to contemplate having to make such a decision creates shivers that would cause Freddy Kruger to become jealous.
Everyone knows William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which is widely considered one of the scariest movies ever made. Four years after that classic, the director would make another film that, in its own way, would be every bit as scary. Sorcerer, a remake of Georges Arnaud’s The Wages of Fear, stars Roy Scheider as a guy hired to drive a truck full of nitroglycerin across the South American jungle. Perhaps needless to say, the ride is far from smooth. Jungles, after all, aren’t known for their beautifully paved roads.
Friedkin cranks up the tension to almost unbearable levels. There’s plenty of human drama in Sorcerer, but its real kick comes from repeatedly wondering whether or not the truck is going to go kaboom, killing Scheider and his cohorts. The movie’s signature scene finds them trying to get the vehicle across a rickety, swaying bridge that the truck is way too heavy for. It’s a long sequence that adds one complication on top of another until you physically can’t stand any more suspense. That it’s staged with complete authenticity adds to the impact. Sorcerer is the very definition of a nail-biter.
Brie Larson won a much-deserved Academy Award for her role in Room, the story of a young woman being held captive in a garden shed. Her only companion is her five-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay), who has never seen the outside world. Over time, we come to learn that the boy is the product of rape. Larson’s character, “Ma,” doesn’t want him to live his entire life in a confined space, so she hatches a risky scheme to help him escape.
That’s the first half of the movie, which ties your stomach into knots as you wait to see whether this sheltered child will be able to comprehend the escape instructions. Since he has little or no frame of reference for anything outside the shed, there’s real doubt as to whether he’ll be able to follow through. Worrying about whether the captor will figure out what’s afoot is also nerve-wracking. (Good luck not holding your breath for five straight minutes during the big escape.) The second half of Room is scary in a completely different way, as it shows the immense challenges of the boy trying to adapt to the real world and Ma trying to cope with the psychological trauma she has endured. Although it’s ultimately life-affirming, there’s no doubt that Room keeps you on edge just as much as any horror film ever could.
3. The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure
The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure gained notoriety for being one of the biggest box office bombs ever. As in, it literally played to empty theaters. In a way, that’s too bad, because this is one of the most disturbing non-horror horror movies you will ever see. Ostensibly, it’s aimed at preschool children. The heroes are a bunch of colorful, large-headed felt beings (imagine a cross between Barney the dinosaur and the Teletubbies) who go on a quest to retrieve some magical balloons in time for their friend’s birthday party.
Sounds innocent, right? Not! Consider that one of the Oogieloves has an inexplicable penchant for dropping his pants every time they obtain one of the balloons. Or the fact that one of their pals is a Hoover vacuum cleaner named J. Edgar — a reference to J. Edgar Hoover, the power-hungry, grudge-holding, civil rights-opposing former FBI director beloved by preschoolers everywhere. And then there’s the scene in which Cary Elwes, playing a character named Bobby Wobbly, utterly humiliates himself when joining the Oogieloves for a song about bubbles. Seriously, watch this scene and prepare to have nightmares for weeks. Bobby Wobbly would make Chucky the doll wet his pants in fear.
2. United 93
The events of 9/11 remain confusing and hard to wrap our collective heads around. United 93 helps, in some small way, to begin the process of understanding the scope and meaning of what happened. It’s a real-time recreation, based on all available information, of the things that occurred inside the plane that crashed to the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers fought back against the terrorists who hijacked it.
United 93 is absolutely terrifying because director Paul Greengrass went to great lengths to make it feel authentic. The cast is comprised of mostly unknown actors, rather than recognizable stars. Actual airline employees filled certain roles to capture a sense of realism. The director filmed in extremely long takes with improvised dialogue, in order to allow the actors a sense of immersion that he believed (correctly) would come through in their performances. The upshot is that United 93, as difficult and harrowing as it is to watch, helps us appreciate the immense heroism of those passengers, while also emphasizing the vital importance of fighting back when confronted with terrorism.
1. Schindler’s List
Cinematic evil can provide a few chills and thrills. Real-life evil, on the other hand, can frighten you to your very core. Steven Spielberg’s drama Schindler’s List is a depiction of the real-life evil that was the Holocaust. In unflinching fashion, he tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who attempts to save the lives of Polish Jews by giving them jobs in his factory. Ralph Fiennes portrays Schindler’s nemesis Amon Goth, a sadistic SS lieutenant who has no compunction about brutally murdering innocent people.
Schindler’s List shows a lot of the appalling and horrific things that took place during the Holocaust, emphasizing how the Jews were shamefully depersonalized and treated as though their lives had no worth. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from any of it. A frequent documentary-like feel, combined with a masterful recreation of the time and place, makes it feel as though you’re directly witnessing the darkest period in world history. A scene of frightened Jews realizing they’ve just been locked into a gas chamber, in particular, drives home the pervasive evil that was behind the Holocaust. Knowing that this event really happened and that so many people were killed is scarier than anything fictional that anyone could ever conjure up.
What other non-horror movies scare you? Are there any that we left out? We want to hear about them! Give us your thoughts in the comments.