The words “summer movie season” bring to mind certain visuals: long lines at the box office and big-budget adventures on the big screen. That’s because most of the time, studios save many of their most ambitious or more exciting offerings for this time of year. Usually, that means family-friendly comedies, sci-fi action and more superheroes than you can fit into a single franchise. They’re the movies that feel like summer – bright colors, big stories, and ultimately lots of fun. In other words, the exact opposite of most horror movies.
Scarier fare seems more suited for early fall, when the leaves are falling and Halloween is imminent. Most studios do wait until after Labor Day to unleash their most ghoulish stories. But sometimes, the summer movie season and the chilling thrills of horror meet head-to-head. In fact, some of the best — or at least the most famous — horror movies of all time have been released when the days are longer and the night doesn’t seem quite so insidious.
Here are the 14 Scariest Summer Movies Of All Time.
14. The Conjuring
Movies about haunted houses are nothing new in Hollywood – and sometimes it feels like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But with The Conjuring, the creep factor is so high, it almost feels like director James Wan reinvigorated the whole genre.
Based on a true story and set in the 1970s, it introduces us to real-life supernatural investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) by way of one of the most terrifying cases they ever pursued. Thanks to Wan’s reliance on old-school storytelling techniques and practical effects instead of guts, gore, and CGI, The Conjuring feels too real at times. By the end, one perfectly nice family has been nearly destroyed by the evil forces that overpower their Rhode Island farmhouse, and the Warrens’ amazing ability to tap into other realms is more or less stuff of legend.
The Conjuring was so successful when it was released in July 2013, it spawned the creepy-doll spinoff Annabelle and a sequel, The Conjuring 2, which is primed to become another summertime hit when it releases on June 10th.
13. 28 Days Later
These days, we get our zombie apocalypse fix from The Walking Dead. But back in 2003, stories about the undead roaming the streets were a little harder to come by. That’s part of what made 28 Days Later so exciting to fans of the genre. Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s desolate story of a government-created virus that turns humans into flesh-eating monsters revived a genre that hadn’t hit mainstream audiences in quite some time. Critics noted its clever departures from other movies of its ilk; it gives us an explanation for the outbreak; the creatures in question aren’t slow-moving and devoid of emotion, but sprinting, hissing and full of rage.
Despite its surprisingly reflective tone, 28 Days Later offers up a significant amount of the type of adrenaline-fueled fear that often catapults summer movies toward a successful run. That’s at least part of the reason it ended up being one of the surprise hits of the year after it hit theaters stateside on June 27. It’s sequel, 28 Weeks Later, was also a pleasant surprise, and rumors of a third entry were still circulating as of last year.
12. The Others
Creepy children. A stoic adult lead. A fascinating twist ending. So many ghosts. On paper, The Others sounds a lot like its fellow summer mega-hit The Sixth Sense – but aside from these key plot points and enormous box office success, the two films really couldn’t be more different.
Alejandro Amenabar’s gothic creepfest follows a World War II widow who keeps her children cooped up in a stuffy estate in the English countryside. She claims they’re allergic to sunlight. They claim to see ghosts and strange figures everywhere they turn. Bleak, tense and the very definition of haunting, The Others features a career-transforming performance by Nicole Kidman as the emotionally fragile matriarch Grace. After it was released on August 2, 2001, it went on to become a decisive sleeper hit, proving that with the right marketing and positive word of mouth, even the bleakest of films can fit into the summer movie season.
11. The Blair Witch Project
It was billed as one of the scariest movies ever made. When we actually got a chance to see it, a lot of us begged to differ. But whether you loved or hated The Blair Witch Project, there’s no denying that the found-footage thriller was a huge hit in the summer of 1999.
Released on July 16 and marketed as though it was a true story, the pseudo-documentary featured less outright horror than it did shaky camera work, screaming off camera, and snot. Yes, there are some creepy moments throughout the movie, particularly in its chaotic closing sequence. But Blair Witch ultimately suffered mightily from its own hype. Still, its viral marketing campaign helped propel the movie, which starred three unknown actors, to the top of the box office and make it one of the most talked about movies of the year.
10. The Sixth Sense
It’s a movie made famous almost entirely due to its tour-de-force twist ending. But The Sixth Sense is more than just its final moments – it’s also one of the better supernatural horror movies of the late 20th century.
M. Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster thriller became a late-summer word-of-mouth phenomenon when hit theaters on August 6, 1999. It’s been lauded for its throwback, ghost story vibe – one that relies on volatile and vomiting ghosts rather than slasher violence to propel its story. Thanks to a tight script, sly direction that draws an Oscar-nominated performance by Haley Joel Osment as an unlucky kid who sees dead people, and Shyamalan’s masterful ability to distract us from the now-obvious plot reveal in the third act, The Sixth Sense easily chilled us to the bone even in the dead of summer.It also became one of the most financially successful horror movies of all time.
9. The Fly
Despite his status as a cult horror legend, David Cronenberg’s films have been largely ignored by mainstream moviegoers. That wasn’t the case with his body horror extravaganza The Fly, though. In fact, his terrifyingly bizarre remake of the 1958 classic was one of the most popular films of 1986. Released on August 15, it both disgusted and delighted audiences across the country. Buoyed by stellar performances from Jeff Goldblum as the titular man-turned-insect and Geena Davis as his unsuspecting love interest, The Fly also features some of the most grotesque makeup effects ever displayed on screen.
As a result, Goldblum’s transformation from a charming and eccentric scientist to the Brundlefly, a horrifying hybrid creature, is disgusting, disturbing, and still impossible to look away from. The Fly remains a true horror classic and a reminder that summer blockbusters can come in all shapes and sizes.
8. The Thing
Possibly nothing screams “summer movie” less than a psychological horror about scientists that battle an alien parasite in subzero temperatures. As fatalistic as it is frightening, The Thing works on many levels – as a grotesque body horror, as science fiction, and as a troubling psychological study of our capacity for paranoia.
Despite the less-than-summery mood that John Carpenter’s sci-fi exploration sets, Universal Pictures decided to release it on June 25, 1982. While it wasn’t a flop by any means, it failed to generate the kind of excitement it deserves. As a result, Carpenter had to wait years before movie fans and critics really started to appreciate it for its chilling premise and masterful execution. Now, we consider it a classic. Just goes to show how much a release date can impact even the best movies’ success.
Sometimes horror movies are at their scariest when they seem like they could happen in your backyard. That’s certainly the case with the 1982 blockbuster Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper’s exploration of supernatural activity in a completely average suburb captivated summer movie-going audiences when it was released on June 4. With good reason, too – it’s a rare breed of a horror movie, a true blockbuster, one that’s every bit as fun as it is frightening. It’s worth the price of admission just to witness wispy child Carol Anne sitting in front of a static-filled TV set and announcing to her parents in a sing-song voice that “they’re he-ere.”
But the ensuing chaos – including her abduction into a supernatural realm, screaming demonic spirits, face-melting hallucinations and an encounter with Tangina, one of the coolest movie mediums of all time – is just as enthralling. Later installments of the Poltergeist franchise – including last year’s dud of a remake – failed to capture the magic of the original. But we’ll always have that pool full of reanimated skeletons to remember the 1982 version by.
6. The Shining
In many ways, it’s ironic that Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable take on Stephen King’s haunted hotel story came out over Memorial Day weekend in 1980. Set mostly in the dead of winter, the claustrophobic tale of a recovering alcoholic caretaker slowly going crazy as he’s snowed into a Colorado resort with his family doesn’t exactly gel with the BBQ and sunscreen-scented vibe that we feel as summer approaches.
Maybe that’s why it took a while for movie fans to warm up to it. Despite Stephen King’s name recognition, Jack Nicholson’s star power and Kubrick’s reputation as a brilliant director, The Shining wasn’t an immediate hit with audiences or critics, despite its later classification by many as a horror masterpiece. Nowadays, it’s admirable for its sinister, surreal aesthetic, slow-burn pacing and innovative camerawork. Also for the creepy chopped up twins and that whole elevator-full-of-blood thing.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” It’s a tagline that brought movie fans out in droves – and scared them out of their minds — over Memorial Day weekend 1979. It’s also a pretty accurate way to sum up Alien, a stunning sci-fi horror about a murderous extraterrestrial that terrorizes a space crew on their ship, Nostromo.
To this day, Scott’s breakthrough film holds up nicely, both as a brilliant thriller and a cultural marker. Alien gave us Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), one of the most iconic movie characters of all time – and one of the first great female heroes. Its masterful storytelling, as the Nostromo’s crew is massacred one by one, is a perfect example of building and maintaining suspense. The elaborate special effects make the titular villain feel real, even after more than 30 years of FX advancements. Alien was so revolutionary in its approach to science fiction horror that it remains a film against which all others in the genre should be judged. Not bad for a movie that was set up to be another summer popcorn flick.
4. The Amityville Horror
When The Amityville Horror hit theaters on July 27, 1979, the story it told was already infamous. But that didn’t stop moviegoers from flocking to the theaters in droves, not only to escape the late summer heat, but to witness a true supernatural saga. Based on Jay Anson’s book of the same name, it chronicles the terrors that befell the Lutz family after they moved into a new home in an idyllic New York town. The house’s previous tenants died in a mass murder committed by their son, and as we come to learn, something evil stayed behind. Over the next several weeks, the house more or less seems to go out of its way to make its new owners feel unwelcome, and eventually possesses patriarch George in an attempt to get him to do its evil bidding.
The Amityville Horror remains one of the most memorable horror films of the 1970s, thanks to macabre sequences involving flies, firewood, and less-than-friendly imaginary friends. It was also a huge hit, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1979.
3. The Omen
In the pantheon of the “children can be incredible evil” horror sub-genre, The Omen is most definitely a cut above the rest. It has an optimal blend of tension, suspense, and a daring amount of gore. Notable for the perfectly creepy performance of child actor Harvey Spencer Stephens and one of the first on-screen beheadings in Hollywood history, Richard Donner’s taut thriller also teaches us a few valuable lessons. First and foremost, it’s probably a bad idea to try and pass an orphan off as your own child without telling your wife. Because that orphan could be the Antichrist.
Unfortunately, Gregory Peck’s well-meaning diplomat didn’t know any better, and he paid for his naivety by bearing witness to all manner of death and destruction at the hands of his son, Damien. The Omen was a decisive summer hit when it was released on June 25, 1976, and it’s still considered by many to be a horror classic.
Jaws wasn’t just a summer movie — it was the summer movie. When a then-unknown Steven Spielberg released this thriller — about a killer shark on the loose in an idyllic beachfront community — no one could have predicted the way it would change cinema forever. But it certainly made waves after it was released on June 20, 1975. Jaws broke box office records, firmly established Spielberg as a major Hollywood player, and instilled a grave fear of salt-water swimming for generations to come. Without Jaws, we likely wouldn’t have the summer blockbuster season, or the studio-driven marketing campaigns we see whenever a new big movie is about to hit theaters.
But despite its cultural significance, Jaws still remains a pure Hollywood thriller in every sense of the word. It keeps us on the edge of our seats — and makes us jump right out of it on more than one occasion. More importantly, it taps into a primal fear of man-eating monsters and lets us imagine, just for a moment, that they might be more plausible than we’ll usually allow ourselves to believe.
1. Rosemary’s Baby
Terrifying nightmares. Debilitating pain. Rapid and extreme weight loss. Rosemary’s Baby has been the go-to resource for what not to expect when you’re expecting for nearly 40 years. Roman Polanski’s brilliant psychological horror film tells the story of a wide-eyed, hopeful young woman whose life descends into paranoia and chaos when she becomes impregnated with the Devil’s son, thanks to her husband’s pact with a creepy cult.
Rosemary’s Baby is set mostly in late summer in sweltering heat, so its June 12, 1968 release timed nicely with the increasingly suffocating mood that settles in as the story progresses. Despite its dark themes, Polanski’s film was a huge hit with audiences and critics and helped turn Mia Farrow into a bonafide movie star. To this day, it’s celebrated for its masterful take on the horror genre, still routinely listed on “best of” lists (not unlike this one) and preserved in the Library of Congress. The final haunting moments, where Rosemary first glimpses her demonic offspring in his cradle, are alone enough to warrant its place in horror movie history.
What’s your favorite summer horror movie? Let us know in the comments!