A horror film is frightening and gives spectators a spine-chilling encounter when it contains blood-curdling screams, nauseating graphics, and an exciting plot. Horror has been a well-liked genre in films for as early as there has been cinema. People just simply enjoy experiencing fear and hearing tales of the unusual and mysterious.
But what if you could be scared by something other than scary movies? Sometimes, even though they may not be considered horror films, certain films employ unusual techniques to baffle and frighten the audience. Sometimes there is just one frightful scene in the midst of a typical story. In other instances, the movie’s overarching concept ends up being disturbing on grounds other than its gruesome villains or startling jumpy scares.
Since many of these movies aren’t even considered horror, they have a stronger impact on audiences who aren’t anticipating the moods and visuals frequently connected to the genre. These are the creepiest non-horror movies, and they range from provocative kids’ movies to horrifically realistic thrillers. Viewers will undoubtedly find something on this list that matches the level of fear they are seeking. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Updated on August 5th, 2023 by Federico Furzan: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
17 Bones and All (2022)
Luca Guadagnino alumni Timothée Chalamet stars alongside Taylor Russell in this unconventional romantic tale of cannibals-turned-lovers. Gorging on human flesh and attempting to suppress their cannibalistic urges, the pair find themselves on the fringes of a society that doesn’t cater to, nor understand their sub-natural desires.
The horror of Bones and All comes especially in the form of Mark Rylance’s antagonist Sully, a creepy and perverse loner (and fellow cannibal) who, unlike his counterparts, allows his compulsions to remain unrestrained.
16 Ex Machina (2014)
This futuristic sci-fi thriller, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in a career-defining performance, is a terrifically absorbing distillation of the power of artificial intelligence, and what can happen when it falls into the wrong hands.
In Ex Machina, a 20-something programmer wins a competition that entitles him to observe and scrutinize the human attributes of Ava, an AI robot at the enigmatic, Nathan’s (Isaac) secluded abode. Nathan’s seemingly unwavering intensity and sociopathic tendencies not only make him a force to be reckoned with but a downright terrifying one at that.
15 Climax (2018)
Climax is a case study that President Nixon would have undoubtedly employed in his famous War on Drugs speech, with the film being a veritable advertisement on why not to do them, especially taking LSD.
The French-language feature follows dance students who get their sangria inadvertently laced with LSD causing their party to become one horrific, bloody mess. It’s directed by the unique Gaspar Noé.
14 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
A kids’ film about a flying car? Surely not. Explaining the premise of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to anyone who hasn’t watched is a surefire way to make yourself sound daft. However, the ’60s classic contains one of the scariest villains in cinema history.
The child-catcher probably gave you some nightmares back then. The story is simple: the antagonist in the movie is enlisted by royalty to capture and imprison children found on the streets of Bulgaria. This musical fantasy is pure nightmare fuel.
13 Nightcrawler (2014)
The gripping thriller Nightcrawler centers on an eccentric loner who will do anything to achieve the attention and respect he believes he deserves. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Bloom, a novice yet incredibly motivated journalist prepared to do anything to get the most exclusive news, in what some critics believe to be a career-best gig.
Gyllenhaal’s character is a wide-eyed psychopath whose beaming face is sure to make stomachs turn more successfully than most scary antagonists, although the movie is marketed and fashioned as a neo-noir criminal drama.
12 Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Among the most effective movies about addictive behavior, we will surely find Requiem for a Dream. Its horrific climax is actually potent, unlike many PSAs. A great cast including Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Connelly, performs in this heartbreaking story of drugs, romance, and destruction.
People are drawn into the troubled lives of four individuals, each having their own unique hopes and ambitions but whose rapidly deteriorating mental health changes any future outlook. Drug abuse, poverty, the need for acceptance, and the loss of self-identity are the four key themes of this contemporary tragedy, and it’s horrifying to see each one develop. Not many would know, but it’s actually a book-to-film adaptation, though director Darren Aronofsky brings the misery out of the book and amplifies it greatly.
11 Schindler’s List (1993)
A somber historical thrilling drama, Schindler’s List shows the cruelty of humankind during the Holocaust. Even though the account of Oskar Schindler saving about 1,200 Jewish prisoners from the Brünnlitz labor camp generates a lot of hope, some people will find it difficult to sleep because of the harsh and evil deeds of SS Commander Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes).
Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński agreed on using black-and-white photography to create a documentary-like perception of reality and timeless feeling. It is one of the best World War II movies ever made, and certainly Spielberg’s scariest film.
10 Enemy (2013)
A film that offers a perplexing but intensely compelling experience. Enemy by Denis Villeneuve borrows on classic Gothic horror tropes along with deeply allegorical surrealism. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two characters simultaneously, and as the two men intrude on each other’s worlds, the messier and more ominous things become.
The visuals and symbols in this film may be very enigmatic and subject to several interpretations, but it doesn’t prevent them from creating an enduring effect. Also, if viewers have arachnophobia, they’re in for a treat. There are numerous spiders in this movie, some of which are absurdly large and realistic. And that ending? We’re still wrapping our heads around it.
9 We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is unquestionably a difficult movie to interpret because it uses mental health to frame the story of a young man who’s hard to describe as nothing but pure evil. It is one of the best movies about troubled youth. Tilda Swinton delivers a stunning performance as a mom who detects a problem in Kevin, her son.
As the movie reveals the warning symptoms that inevitably result in a startling violent act, director Lynne Ramsay creates a palpable sense of malaise through sadness and despair. The movie, as upsetting as it can be, has established Ramsay as one of the most interesting directors of our time.
8 Come and See (1985)
Come and See by Elem Klimov illustrates the uncharted Holocaust atrocities that took place in Belarus when it was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Come and See, which has a horror film aesthetic, uses ominous and visceral photography and an eerie soundtrack to develop a sensory hellscape that is not for the fainthearted.
This horrifying film shows the perils of fascist ideology and the sickening, deranged behavior that mass hysteria can produce. The film’s concluding moments provide a very moving examination of the essence of evil, regardless of whether it is innate or created. You won’t forget this film.
7 The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The NeverEnding Story is widely regarded as an inventive ’80s fantasy movie that has attained a reputation as a children’s treasure. The villain, or more accurately, the absence of one, is among the more disturbing aspects of this story. A ghostly mist of oblivion that is rapidly engulfing the entire planet.
There is no grand design, no evil plots, but just complete, abstract extermination. People will cry watching this movie, especially when a horse drowns in a swamp while the hero pleads for it to survive. Oh yeah, and the bullies are extremely evil as well.
6 Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The whimsical modern masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth captivated viewers all over the world when it was released. Del Toro’s fantasies occasionally turn out to be downright horrifying. Pan’s Labyrinth presents itself as a coming-of-age tale set against a wartime backdrop; thus, there is constantly a danger lurking around every corner.
But nothing can completely prep a first-time watcher for the famous Pale Man scene. The eyeless face of Pale Man and his hands have since evolved into a cliché of body horror, and his outfit concept has been compared to the Cenobites from Hellraiser.
5 Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
If you don’t think Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a terrifying film, then chances are you don’t have a heart, or you didn’t see it as a kid. The children’s film is the stuff of nightmares as it tells the story of a candy maker who invites people over to his exclusive factory.
However, one by one, his invited guests start getting “lost” in his increasingly Saw-like factory. It’s actually hard to say where they go, but it’s not a nice place. It’s one where most likely you will drown in chocolate or syrup.
4 Testament (1983)
In 1983’s Testament, a small-town community suffers the fallout of a nuclear attack. Slowly, a family begins literally deteriorating literally, and its members start passing away from the effects of the deadly bomb.
Alongside the very similar Threads, the film depicts the horror of a nuclear attack, only this time from the perspective of an innocent family that’s forced to face the unspeakable. One of the saddest films ever made.
3 Irreversible (2002)
Gaspar Noe showing up again on the list. The guy must have something, right? The ultra-violent shock fest Irreversible is a revenge film that shifts genres backward and turns something horrific into a beautiful story.
At its heart, the film explores a love triangle so strong it can bring out the monsters hidden deep inside the human soul. Also, there’s a quick visit to hell itself in the middle. Two very notorious scenes are enough to make this an unforgettable non-horror film capable of scaring you out of your mind.
2 American History X (1998)
American History X is a notable pick because it’s a drama that never fully reveals itself as a character study about the roots of the violent trait that we all seemingly carry inside. However, it’s quite clear that what drives Derek (Edward Norton) is pure, evil hatred, one that’s so strong it becomes a contagious idea.
Luckily, the film is also about him trying to prevent spreading the disease to his younger brother. The scene with the fight in the street is notoriously horrific, as is the surprising ending that highlights the ongoing battle taking place among the youth of the country.
1 Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, a young woman suffers the effects of an abusive cult after she comes back home, and through the revealing of the ordeal, we relive the horrible acts she went through when she was there.
Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is undeniably the best of her entire career. This was the film that put her in the spotlight, which was very well-deserved. John Hawkes also shined while terrifying the audience as the cult leader and main abuser, Patrick.