Whether or not you believe extraterrestrials exist, the prospect of sentient life outside of the reaches of Earth is enough to send shivers down your spine. Alien movies have played on our fear of the unknown for decades with their nightmarish, what-if scenarios. We as a species are obsessed with the possibility of life on other planets, and that this life may not “come in peace.” As a result, we imagine alien abductions, experimentations, and body swapping—further feeding our paranoia of extraterrestrials and their ulterior motives.
A whole horror sub-genre has sprung up around alien encounters, which really took off in the 1980s after the success of Ridley Scott’s Alien film. As of this year, six stand-alone films have been released in addition to the crossover films with the Predator series. The most recent release (Alien: Covenant) premiered last month, and has earned its place as one of the scariest of the bunch. But besides the long-running Alien franchise, what are some of the most terrifying movies about the creatures from outside worlds? We’ve rounded up some of our favorites that are guaranteed to keep you up all night with the lights on.
15. War of the Worlds
One of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated films, War of the Worlds takes the intensity of H.G. Wells’ novel to another level. Part sci-fi epic, part disaster film, War of the Worlds shows a truly terrifying scenario of an alien invasion where no attempt at contact is made. Their only intention? To use the Earth (and humans) as a resource, destroying whatever and whoever gets in their way. The giant war machine “tripods” are massive and intimidating, capable of harvesting human life for their blood and tissue. Even just the sound they make stops you in their tracks—a deep mechanical, other-worldly sound that never signals anything friendly.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, the main character whose family becomes the focus of the story. Unlike the narrator in the book, Ferrier has children, which make the stakes even higher as he struggles to survive and protect his family from the invaders. This is one of those alien films that keeps you horrified throughout, as the tripods decimate the human race on such a large scale, it’s almost unfathomable. However, it also leaves you to contemplate the possibility of such an occurrence and just how small we all become when faced with a threat outside our control.
14. The Village of the Damned
Based on a British science fiction novel entitled The Midwich Cuckoos, Village of the Damned has seen two movie adaptations—one in 1960 and one in 1995. Both versions have their merits, but if you’re going to devote over an hour of your life to watching one, we recommend the 1960s version starring George Sanders. The sharp contrast of the children’s fair features and dark clothing are even more startling when shot in black and white. Plus, there’s just something about the mid-century setting that gives it a much creepier vibe despite the lack of gore seen in John Carpenter’s later version.
Village of the Damned presents a terrifying prospect of aliens propagating their species by integrating with humans without their consent. All of the women of child-bearing age suddenly wake up pregnant and give birth at the same time. You have to wonder what would have happened if one of the women tried to abort the alien fetus, considering all of the children end up with a telepathic bond. It probably wouldn’t have ended well for her, as it doesn’t end well for many people in the town who harm the children in any way.
13. Killer Clowns From Outer Space
Okay, so we’ll freely concede that Killer Clowns From Outer Space is actually pretty hilarious for a horror film, but not so much if you’re deathly afraid of both clowns and aliens. There’s no wondering what the aliens look like or only getting a glimpse here and there; this 1980s cult classic stars a bunch of aliens who just happen to look like really horrific clowns. Their gruesome faces feature a mouth full of sharp, slimy teeth, and they utilize all the typical objects associated with clowns (and the circus) to trap and kill a number of people in the town.
They store people in cotton candy pods aboard their ship, pie them to death, and even use the dead as hand puppets. Basically, they’ve come to Earth in order to terrorize and consume its population, drinking their liquidated bodies through giant swirly straws. You’ll never look at clowns the same way again, and if you weren’t scared of them before, you probably will be after watching this film.
While not explicitly an alien film in the traditional sense of the word, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs uses an alien invasion premise to talk about the nature of faith and family. Crop circles (long rumored to have a connection to extraterrestrials) begin showing up en masse across the globe, including on the farm of the Hess family. With their appearance also comes strange lights over major cities and a pretty low key invasion (the purpose of which is never revealed). Running from or chasing something in a corn field always feels decidedly creepy, and the scene behind the Hess’ house at night does not disappoint. Signs even utilizes a bit of found footage that has a profoundly dramatic effect when it shows up on screen.
Mostly, the film invokes terror and concern for the well-being of the two children in the film, who are frightened out of their wits at these “monsters.” When we finally see one of the aliens in all its glory, it’s threatening the life of one of the kids with a poisonous gas it emits. There may not be gore, disgusting alien creatures, or anything too disturbing, but M. Night Shyamalan gets under your skin with his unique brand of psychological horror.
11. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Like many of the other films on this list, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is so terrifying because the aliens infiltrate our species without us knowing. They work quickly while people sleep, creating duplicates and destroying the original human body. Anyone around you could be replaced with an emotionless alien pod person. It’s enough to drive someone crazy with fear and paranoia, wondering who’s still human and who will try and replace you with your alien doppelgänger.
What’s interesting about this film is that the aliens blend in and look like everyone else. There are a few bodies seen that are making the transition from gooey pod embryo to a fleshy person, but other than that, the only alien-like creature is that freaky human-headed dog. Let’s not forget one of the most spine-tingly moments, when it’s revealed that one of the main characters has finally been replaced, leaving one solitary human in a sea of assimilated aliens. If you really want to scare someone who grew up in the sixties or seventies, point at them with your mouth open and eyes wide—just be prepared to clean up after them as they’ll inevitably ruin their pants in the process.
10. Under the Skin
A unique type of alien film, Under the Skin tells the story from the alien’s perspective as she tries to survive in the human world. There are elements of both abduction and body swapping, although no space ships are ever seen. Instead, we get a glimpse of the alien’s world through a black, reflective abyss where she lures her victims after seducing them.
Scarlett Johansson plays the very convincing alien disguised as a woman, otherworldly even through her beauty. Scarlett’s character drives around Scotland in a van, picking up men to harvest their bodies, only most of the men are not actors. Under the Skin filmed in a sort of candid camera set up where Johansson would talk to real people, having unscripted conversations. It’s an unsettling film — especially when the alien’s real “skin” is revealed at the end — and one that won’t likely leave your mind long after it’s done.
Although somewhat clichéd in its execution, The Vicious Brothers third film, Extraterrestrial, takes a pretty good stab at the alien horror genre. A group of friends find themselves under attack by aliens who have crash landed nearby. After engaging with one who has entered their cabin, they’re dramatically picked off and abducted, one by one. Extraterrestrial, like both Fire in the Sky and Alien Abduction, shows both the abductions and the abductees once they’re inside the spaceship. Aside from the obvious probing and experimentation, there are some pretty terrifying moments inside the ship that are quite impressive for such a low budget film.
There’s also a whole subplot about the government’s knowledge of and involvement with the aliens, and the subsequent cover up that’s been in effect since Roswell, that doesn’t end well for the friends. It’s one of those films where no matter what the characters do, their situation is completely hopeless, since they have no idea what they’re messing with. We all fear the unknown, and aliens are one of the scariest expressions of that fear.
From The Blair Witch Project‘s co-director, Eduardo Sanchez, Altered tells the story of a group of abductees after they’re returned to Earth. Five friends were experimented on by aliens, leading to one of their deaths and the return of the others. Survivor’s guilt ultimately drives them to concoct a revenge plot where the abductees become the abductors, though their capture of one of the aliens has some disastrous results. Even though they spent a significant amount of time with the beings during their abduction, apparently, they weren’t fully aware of the powers they possessed.
Altered keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time, as the men become more and more paranoid—constantly at odds with each other and the effect the alien has on them all (including one of their wives). Besides the genuinely creepy alien itself, one of the most terrifying scenes has to be seeing the extraterrestrial virus take over Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington). Note to self: never hold an alien hostage unless you want to decay from the inside out and become a pus-filled mess. So gross.
7. Alien Abduction
Taking place near Brown Mountain in North Carolina, where real life disappearances have occurred, Alien Abduction is a found footage film that claims it’s the real thing. While on a camping trip in the area, the Morris family encounters a series of strange phenomena documented on a home video camera by eleven-year-old Riley. Like Signs, one of the most terrifying moments is seeing one of the aliens through the video camera, making you forget, if only temporarily, that it’s just a movie. There’s something about seeing the silhouette of a non-human on two legs that’s incredibly disturbing.
Things only go downhill from there, as the Morris are hunted down and picked off one by one by the aliens in a series of seat-gripping moments. There’s no happy ending here. No one is safe from the lights. The aliens are intent on abducting as many people as possible, although it seems that a select few are returned, albeit with quite a bit of trauma.
6. Fire in the Sky
While the film as a whole received mixed reviews upon its release, Fire in the Sky was generally praised for a thoroughly convincing abduction scene. Both the moment Travis Walton (played by D.B Sweeney) is beamed up by the spaceship and the experimentation he endures inside the ship contributed to the film’s cult status among sci-fi fans and UFO enthusiasts alike.
As Roger Ebert mentioned in his review, “The scenes inside the craft are really very good. They convincingly depict a reality I haven’t seen in the movies before, and for once I did believe that I was seeing something truly alien, and not just a set decorator’s daydreams.” Indeed, Fire in the Sky is worth watching just for these scenes alone, which are very much like The Matrix with its gooey cocoons, along with A Clockwork Orange style torture. Walton is poked and probed (in the eye) by the lumpy E.T.’s, who even cover him with a thin amniotic sac-like-membrane. It’s almost as traumatizing hearing him scream as it is watching him getting experimented on.
Based on the book of the same name, Communion documents author Whitley Strieber’s experience unraveling what happened to him while living in upstate New York. While the film doesn’t even come close to portraying the incredibly detailed and hair-raising descriptions of his abduction, the film manages to convey a feeling of going mad as Strieber (played by Christopher Walken) struggles to make sense of what’s real and what isn’t.
Despite Walken’s sometimes absurd reactions in the film, Communion actually has some pretty chilling moments. At times, the scenes play out like a bad acid trip, as Strieber begins having strange hallucinations due to his encounters with aliens. If the classic big-eyed, gangly gray aliens creep you out, you might have to sleep with the lights on after seeing one peek from behind a doorway in this film. Not only do they appear inside Strieber’s bedroom at night, but we even see him go inside their spaceship, where one of them removes part of their face to reveal something even more grotesque and slimy underneath.
4. UFO Abduction
One of the original found footage movies, UFO Abduction, or The McPherson Tape as it came to be called, passed as proof of alien abductions in many UFO circles throughout the 1990s. You see, the filmmaker’s master copy of the film was destroyed in a fire, but not before a few preview copies on VHS were sent out by the distributor. These were copied and shared multiple times, further perpetuating the rumor that the film was actually real.
Shot like a home movie, the film allegedly shows the Van Heese family’s real life encounter with a small group of extraterrestrials who landed near their home. When the power goes out and bright lights pass overhead, the men in the family go out in the woods to investigate. They manage to supposedly “kill” one, but like most horror films, the dead don’t exactly stay dead. While it’s not exactly terrifying by today’s standards, if you can imagine watching this on a bootleg VHS tape in the dark of someone’s basement back then, it gets a whole lot creepier. Ultimately, what’s most terrifying about this film is how convincing it actually is if you have no idea what you’re watching.
3. Dark Skies
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton star in this family-centered alien abduction story, which comes off like a mix between Paranormal Activity and The Amityville Horror. Despite its somewhat formulaic storyline, Dark Skies manages to provide some genuinely freaky moments. Suspense builds at a creeping pace, making you very aware that something’s always just around the corner. There are even some jump scares that do just that, as the “grays” are revealed in the darkness or on hidden camera footage taken while the family sleeps.
Ultimately, it’s Keri Russell’s excellent acting that makes your stomach drop in horror, making you feel her terror and panic as if it were a tangible thing. Plus, there’s just something incredibly disturbing about the children in these circumstances. They’re always the first to be affected by the unseen—their young, permeable minds making them susceptible to the paranormal, whether it’s by talking to something (or someone) that’s not there, drawing creepy pictures, or suddenly having black-eyes like that effed-up Creepypasta myth.
2. The Fourth Kind
As mockumentaries go, The Fourth Kind plays well upon an audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief and actually entertain the possibility of alien abductions as fact. Upon its release, there were consistent stories among big media outlets debating its validity (like this one) since the studio actually claimed it was real during the film’s marketing campaigns. A website with actual ‘fake news’ was even created to try and convince people that what they were about to see was based on a true story.
From the get go, actress Milla Jovovich appears on screen to tell us that yes, this is all real. The film pairs supposed “archival footage” of the spine-tingling hypnosis sessions by Dr. Abigail Tyler, with Jovovich playing her in reenactments. Sometimes, these two worlds are played out side by side so the viewer can decide whether or not they believe in the occurrences the film portrays. Whether you believed in the truth they were selling, The Fourth Kind was undoubtedly terrifying in the way Communion was—focusing on malevolent alien abductions that were hiding in the mind. And isn’t that where reality starts, anyway?
1. The Thing
Although John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic, The Thing, wasn’t exactly well received upon its release, revisitations in the past ten years have placed it among some of the scariest films ever made (and certainly one of the scariest films about aliens). A group of American and Norwegian scientists are terrorized by an ancient alien—previously buried under the ice of Antarctica—that can metamorphosize into any living creature, taking on its appearance. Part gross-out horror flick, part creepy sci-fi thriller, The Thing keeps you on edge throughout, inciting paranoia amongst its characters. As it begins taking out the men one by one, no one is safe from suspicion. Futurama did a hilarious spoof of this concept in the episode “Murder on the Planet Express” as part of a team building exercise.
The Thing has some of the most gruesome alien special effects in recent memory despite being thirty-five years old. Once the alien has taken over a being, it becomes a disgusting mess of hybrid parts that melt and drip goo, expanding and contracting while unleashing a slew of tentacles onto its prey (or devouring it whole). Just try watching any medical show right after seeing this film without wincing when someone uses the paddles of a defibrillator.
What other alien-centered films keep you up at night? Let us know in the comments.