Horror movies have the power to make our hearts race, our breathing shallow, and can sometimes even make us cry out in fear— even though the action is always contained safely on screen. Few other films can provoke that kind of physical reaction, and not just because of the jump scares or the buckets of fake blood. For years, the genre has provided an outlet for filmmakers to explore not just a variety of stylistic techniques, but to also offer up a new spin on an array of real world issues that encourages viewers to really think about what they’re watching.
Unfortunately, the curious but ultimately faint of heart can miss out on these rich stories. So instead of peeking at the action between your fingers, check out this list of horror movie spoilers that lay out exactly what goes down in some of the most well-known films of the genre released in the last decade or so. Just be sure to read it with the lights on.
15. The Descent
We meet The Descent’s protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). It’s a year after the death of her husband and daughter and she’s going on a spelunking trip with her friends. Trapped in the cave by a collapsing passage, it’s revealed that Sarah’s friend Juno led them into an uncharted area, eliminating any hope of rescue. Left to find their own exit, it isn’t long before things start to get really scary.
After uncovering a chamber of what looks like animal bones, the group is attacked by a pale, demonic creature. Sarah is knocked unconscious and Juno stabs their friend Beth through the neck, leaving her for dead as they venture on. Sarah wakes in the creatures’ feeding pit and makes a narrow escape, coming across the dying Beth, who tells her that Juno attacked and also that Juno had been sleeping with Sarah’s husband before he died.
The creatures close in and the girls are picked off, leaving Sarah and Juno as the final survivors. Sarah confronts Juno, stabbing her in the leg and leaving her to be devoured. Spotting a sliver of light at the top of a cavern, Sarah claws her way out of the cave and hops in her car. All seems well—until she sees a bloodied Juno riding shotgun. Screaming herself back to reality, Sarah finds she’s still trapped in the cave with the creatures closing in fast, left with the memory of her late daughter as the only comfort in her final moments.
14. The Orphanage
The Orphanage boasts a twist that really packs a punch. Laura (Belén Rueda) moves her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) into the now-deserted orphanage where she spent her childhood. Simón starts seeing a young boy named Tomás, who wears a sack mask over his face. Laura searches for Simón after the two have an argument but only encounters the terrifying child in the sack mask, who locks her in the bathroom. That night, she hears strange noises in the orphanage.
Simón’s whereabouts remain unknown and Laura discovers that, years ago, there was a deformed orphan named Tomás, who perished at the hands of the other orphans, whose spirits still linger in the old orphanage. Laura begs the ghostly children for help. They lead her to a secret room in the basement only accessible from a closet upstairs, where Simón’s body lies, long dead.
Although Laura thought she met the eerie Tomás that night, it was actually Simón wearing the mask. Playing a game, Simón left a trail of clues to the closet door, thinking his mother would find him. While looking for him, Laura accidentally blocked the entrance to the closet and Simón banged at the door for help (which caused the noises Laura heard in the house that night). Eventually, he fell into the basement and died. Stricken with grief, Laura overdoses on sleeping pills to reunite with Simón. The film closes with Carlos returning to the orphanage to visit their graves. On the floor, he finds Laura’s necklace as the doors to the orphanage open, causing him to smile.
13. Paranormal Activity
In a found-footage film landscape largely consisting of inferior Paranormal Activity sequels, it’s hard to remember just how groundbreaking and truly frightening the original Paranormal Activity was in 2007. Paranormal Activity is all about the terror in the unseen. Young couple Micah and Katie are terrorized by slamming doors and flickering lights, all captured on a handheld digital camera Micah carries around with him and places in the bedroom every night.
Katie starts acting stranger and stranger, standing in a trance over a sleeping Micah and wandering into the backyard in the middle of the night with no memory of doing so. Things escalate when they track monstrous footprints to the attic, where they discover a photograph of young Katie that was thought to have been destroyed in a house fire. After a demonic force throws Katie from her bed in the middle of the night, Micah insists they head to a motel—only to be convinced by a spaced-out Katie that they’ll be fine if they stay.
That night, Katie wakes and goes downstairs, where she starts screaming for Micah’s help. He rushes to her and silence rings out, broken by heavy footsteps coming back upstairs. Micah’s dead body is thrown at the camera as a smiling Katie looks on. She lunges at the camera with a demonic face and an epilogue reveals that Micah’s body was discovered by police and Katie’s whereabouts remain unknown. If only they’d thought to look for her in the next Paranormal Activity movie…
12. The Strangers
Of the myriad of home invasion movies flooding the horror genre, The Strangers stands out for the killers’ complete lack of motive for their murder and mayhem. Tensions are already high for James (Scott Speedman), who has just proposed to and subsequently been rejected by Kristen (Liv Tyler). The two are spending an awkward weekend in a vacation home in the woods together. In the early morning hours, a blonde woman (Gemma Ward) knocks on the door asking for “Tamara”. When she is told she has the wrong house, she simply tells the couple she’ll see them again later.
This launches a string of startling encounters with a man in a sack mask (Kip Weeks), a girl in a pin-up mask (Laura Margolis), and the blonde, who has now been outfitted with a doll mask. The intruders do everything in their power to torture their hostages, including disabling their cell phones, destroying their radio transmitter, and totaling their car. After a wild cat-and-mouse chase, both Kristen and James end up bound to chairs. Kristen asks their captors why they’re doing this. “Because you were home” is the response, and they stab Kristen and James before making their getaway. The couple is discovered by two young boys as Kristen, who has survived the attack, wakes and lets out a scream.
11. Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi proved he was a master of horror early on with 1983’s The Evil Dead, and 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, which he directed and co-wrote, bears his signature blend of terror and camp. The movie opens with Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) refusing a mortgage extension to elderly gypsy Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) with the hope that it will prove she’s fit for a promotion. In retaliation, Sylvia attacks Christine in her car and steals a button from her coat, using it to place a curse on her.
After experiencing a spectacularly gory nosebleed and suffering nightmares, Christine tries to contact Sylvia only to find that she has died. She instead turns to fortune teller Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), who tells her she has three days before a demon known as Lamia takes her to Hell for all eternity. After a botched seance, Rham Jas tells a desperate Christine that her only hope to be rid of the curse is to pass it to someone else before time runs out. She unearths Sylvia’s dead body and buries her with the cursed button, thinking she’s finally found peace. She meets her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) at the train station, where he presents her with an envelope containing the button. Realizing she accidentally mixed up her envelopes, a horrified Christine falls onto the train tracks and is snatched by a pair of fiery hands moments before a train is about to hit her.
If you’ve ever worried that a child was actually a crazed, 30-year-old woman with a taste for murder, Orphan is not the movie for you. Struggling married couple Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) believe their troubles over when they adopt the 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) from a Russian orphanage. But Kate’s suspicions are stoked by Esther’s violent behavior and lack of background, even before the head of the orphanage, Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), warns her that Esther seems to cause bad things to happen. Determined to keep her identity a secret, Esther orchestrates a plan to kill Sister Abigail, making John and Kate’s daughter Max (Aryana Engineer) her accomplice.
Meanwhile, Kate finds Esther’s Bible and learns that it came from the Saarne Institute, an Estonian mental hospital. After contacting them for more information, she discovers that Esther is in fact Leena Klammer, a 33-year-old with a hormone disorder who poses as a child to seduce the patriarch of the families that adopt her. After her attempted seduction of John goes south, Leena murders him and pursues Kate and Max to a frozen lake, where Leena tries to dissuade Kate from hurting her by slipping back into the Esther persona. But Kate won’t be fooled again and kicks Leena in the face, breaking her neck as the police arrive.
9. The House of the Devil
Mimicking the look and feel of a classic ‘80s horror flick, Ti West’s The House of Devil sets up a creepy premise with the promise of many unexpected twists, then delivers in spades. Desperate for cash, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepts a shady offer to babysit for Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) while they go to a party celebrating the lunar eclipse.
When Mr. Ulman reveals that Samantha will actually be watching his elderly mother-in-law, she tries to back out but is enticed to stay with the promise of more money. Alone in the house, she orders a pizza and proceeds to check out the house. Tucked away in a closet she discovers photographs that suggest the Ulmans may have murdered the family that actually lived in the house.
During an attempt to investigate strange sounds in the attic, she passes out and wakes to find herself bound and gagged in the middle of a Pentagram composed of the slaughtered family in the photographs. Around her are Mr. and Mrs. Ulman and the pizza delivery man, who is actually the couple’s adult son Victor, all intent on summoning Satan. Samantha makes her escape, killing Mrs. Ulman and Victor before ultimately turning the gun on herself, realizing it’s the only way to stop the ritual. The kicker is when we then see an unconscious Samantha in a hospital bed, where a nurse assures her that she’ll be just fine—and her unborn child will be just fine, too.
Master of modern horror James Wan may have launched his career with the first installment of the torture porn Saw series, but 2010’s Insidious was his critical breakthrough. When Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into a new home and a creepy late-night encounter with a dark figure causes their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) to fall into a coma, it looks like Insidious will be just another haunted house movie. But it becomes much more than that with the appearance of a horrific red-faced demon. The family calls in a group of demonologists to determine that Dalton is not, in fact, in a coma but actually engaging in a mental time travel of sorts.
Caught in a strange purgatory known as “The Further” (Think The Upside Down of Stranger Things, for a recent comparison), Dalton is unable to return to reality and Josh, who has similar mental abilities and was possessed as a child with the spirit of an elderly woman, must go into The Further to retrieve him. After an emotional father-son reunion and a battle with several monsters, the two reemerge into reality to much celebration—that is, until Josh strangles one of the demonologists for taking his photo. Renai discovers the dead body and the camera, which displays a photo of the terrifying old woman that haunted Josh as a child. She turns around at a hand on her shoulder and gazes with horror into her husband’s face, who has been possessed once again.
In what is perhaps a horror movie first, Sinister‘s washed-up crime fiction writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) purposefully moves his wife, Tracy, and two children, Ashley and Trevor, into a house that was recently the site of a grisly murder with the hope that it will breathe new life into his stalled career. Ellison finds more than enough inspiration in the attic, with a series of home movies depicting various families being murdered, each being presided over by a mysterious demonic figure. He discovers that the figure is Bughuul, a pagan god who murders families and steals their children in order to eat their souls. After Bughuul tries to attack Ellison, he moves the family back to their old house.
This is exactly what Bughuul wanted, however, as the families in the films were all murdered as soon as they moved from the site of the previous slaughter. When the projector and film reappear in Ellison’s home, despite having been burned to ash, he watches them again to find an additional ending to each: A child who went missing after each slaying is revealed to be the perpetrator of the murders before inexplicably disappearing. Ellison passes out and then wakes bound and gagged with his wife and his son. Ashley then hacks them to pieces with an axe, painting pictures on the wall with her family’s blood and capturing it all on camera. Bughuul appears, taking young Ashley into the film and implying that because the viewer has witnessed the latest murder, they’ll be next.
6. You’re Next
You’re Next is kind of like a reimagining of Home Alone, if The Wet Bandits had a fondness for creepy animal masks and an insatiable bloodlust. When Erin (Sharni Vinson) attends a family gathering with her boyfriend Crispian’s family at a secluded vacation home, things take a deadly turn when a group of animal-masked thugs start picking them off. Raised in a survivalist compound as a child, Erin has the skills to fend off the attackers and manages to remain alive as more and more family members are murdered. But it turns out there’s a method to their madness.
Crispian’s brother Felix and his girlfriend, Zee, have hired the killers to take out their entire family in order to collect their inheritance. Zee attempts to slay Erin, who soon realizes that she and Felix are in cahoots with the intruders and takes off into the woods. She manages to kill both of the hired assassins, Zee, and Felix as she returns to the house to set a deadly trap at the front door. But the real twist comes when Erin answers a call from Crispian on the now-dead Felix’s phone, revealing that Crispian had been involved in the scheme from the beginning. In a rage, Erin kills him just as the police arrive to witness the scene and shoot her in the shoulder. The film closes with one of the police officers being taken out by Erin’s trap.
5. Cabin in the Woods
At first glance, this Joss Whedon-penned tale of inebriated and horny teenagers being slaughtered for sport in the woods seems like any number of similar slasher tales. But that’s exactly what Cabin in the Woods wants you to think. From the moment that college students Dana (Kristen Connolly), Holden (Jesse Williams), Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchison) and Curt (Chris Hemsworth) arrive at the eponymous cabin, their every move is being tracked by two bored middle aged technicians, Gary (Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford), in an underground control facility. Gary and Steve have the power to drug their captors, to force them to perform certain tasks and, most importantly, to unleash all types of deadly monsters on them. Why? Well, to appease the “Ancient Ones,” of course!
Sole survivors Dana and Marty discover a hidden elevator in the cabin that leads to the underground facility, where they find a whole stable of horrible beasts ready to be released on unsuspecting victims. The two then encounter the facility’s director (Sigourney Weaver), who informs them that they are part of many annual worldwide sacrifices to satiate the Ancient Ones and keep them from destroying humanity. But rather than shoot Marty and save the world, Dana instead decides that humanity isn’t worth saving and the entire facility is smashed by the giant hand of an Ancient One.
4. The Conjuring
The Conjuring takes place in an old house in Rhode Island during the 1970s. Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters experience all manner of clocks stopping without reason, doors slamming unexpectedly and horrifying ghostly appearances within weeks of moving into their new house. With nowhere else to turn, the Perrons enlist the service of the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to rid the house of the spirits.
The Warrens learn that the house once belonged to a woman named Bathsheba, who was accused of witchcraft after sacrificing herself and her child to the devil in the mid-1800s, and has been the site of mysterious deaths for years. The murderous Bathsheba takes possession of Carolyn and forces her to try and kill one of her daughters. She’s spared by the arrival of the Warrens, who decide that they must perform an exorcism even before the Catholic Church has sent a priest to do it.
Bathsheba puts up a nasty fight, attacking Ed and almost forcing Carolyn to kill one of her other daughters, but the exorcism is successful and the curse on the house is lifted. The film ends with Ed placing a music box from the house in his room of possessed artifacts, where it inexplicably opens and plays before eerily cutting out—effectively hinting at more creepiness to come with The Conjuring 2 in 2016 and spin-off Annabelle in 2014.
3. The Babadook
The Babadook caused a stir in the horror scene in 2014 when it emerged as a thoroughly scary yet emotional thriller with a female director. Things are already troubled from the start for widowed Amelia, whose husband died years ago, on the way to the hospital for their son Sam’s birth. Young Sam struggles with behavioral problems that force him out of school. It only gets worse when Sam asks Amelia to read him a bedtime story– a mysterious book titled Mister Babadook, about a top-hatted monster that haunts its victims as soon as they become aware of its presence. The book upsets Sam so much that Amelia rips it to shreds and throws it in the trash.
But the book then reappears on the doorstep completely unharmed, complete with a new chapter detailing a cartoon character that looks alarmingly like Amelia killing a little cartoon Sam and then herself. Then start the creepy phone calls and ghostly appearances in the middle of the night. Before long, the Babadook possesses Amelia and forces her totry to strangle Sam. Her love for her son prevails and Amelia rids herself of the Babadook—but not for good.
Sam’s birthday party, which wasn’t celebrated before as it’s the same day as the death of Amelia’s husband, is interrupted when Amelia descends to the basement with a plate of worms and maggots for the monster to eat. It’s a strong metaphor for the power that grief has over our lives.
2. It Follows
Every stranger staring from across the street will seem extra malevolent after watching It Follows. Jay (Maika Monroe) goes on what seems to be an average date with Hugh (Jake Weary). It ends in sex—and a dose of chloroform. Jay wakes tied to a chair and Hugh explaining that he’s cursed her with something by having sex with her. In the distance, she spots a naked woman walking toward her, slow but sinister. It can take the form of anyone, Hugh explains. It can only be seen by those who’ve been cursed, and it rarely moves faster than a steady walking pace. He drives the terrified Jay home and disappears.
After a series of frightening encounters with creepy strangers, Jay enlists the help of friends Yara, Paul, and Greg. Greg offers to sleep with Jay in order to pass on the curse, and she accepts. Not long after, Jay sees the entity enter Greg’s home and kill him. Refusing Paul’s offer to take on the curse, Jay instead decides to lure the thing to a pool and electrocute it.
It takes the form of Jay’s father, hurling electrical devices at her until Paul shoots it and it falls into the pool, clouding the water with blood. But things are left ambiguous when, after having sex, Paul and Jay walk down the street, followed by a slow-moving stranger. Could it be the entity? Or just a neighbor out for a casual stroll? As with some of the greatest horror films of all time, the audience can only speculate.
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A sort of spiritual successor to 2008’s found-footage alien flick Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane blends the extraterrestrial element of the first film with the psychological torment of a hostage movie to create monsters both real and imagined. After a car accident in rural Louisiana, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes chained up in a bunker belonging to Howard (John Goodman), who explains that some terrible attack has taken place and he brought her to his bunker to protect her. Unconvinced by this story even after meeting fellow bunker-mate Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), Michelle attempts to escape, but then sees a woman plagued with skin sores at the bunker’s door.
As the three get to know each other, Emmett and Michelle grow suspicious of Howard’s tales about his daughter Megan, who Emmett recognizes in photographs as his younger sister’s classmate who went missing years ago. The two plan to build a biohazard suit and escape Howard’s bunker, but are interrupted when Howard catches on and kills Emmett. Michelle finishes the suit and makes her getaway, dousing Howard in acid. She makes it outside to find that the air is not, in fact, toxic—but it is swarming with alien spacecrafts. After duking it out with an alien spaceship, Michelle hops in a car and listens to a radio broadcasts instructing survivors to seek refuge in Baton Rouge or aid the fight in Houston. Pausing at a fork in the road, Michelle heads to Houston, where a huge spacecraft hovers in the distance.