The Exorcist (1973)

Linda Blair projectile-vomiting pea soup has become something of a cultural joke by now, but actually viewing “The Exorcist,” you’ll find it surprisingly hard to maintain a detached, ironic air. Instead, watching trapped, transformed Regan MacNeil (Blair) spider-walk down the stairs or make highly-inappropriate use of a crucifix while her terrified mother (Ellen Burstyn) looks on, you won’t be laughing. You’ll be crossing yourself.

Jaws (1975)
The tagline for the sequel was the only brilliant thing about it: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” After seeing Steven Spielberg’s original, you’ll never feel comfortable dipping a toe in again. Spielberg, like Hitchcock, frightens more by showing less—the shark itself rarely appears, in part because the mechanical models so frequently malfunctioned. It works to the film’s advantage: your heart beats faster at just a hint of fin, at the racing pulse of John Williams’s famous score, at Robert Shaw’s measured voice as he details the terrible fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And when that gaping maw finally does appear, well…prepare to throw yourself toward the back of your seat and away from anything resembling water.
Alien (1979)
Though it spawned several action-packed sequels (those face-hugging aliens really can breed), what makes the original, Ridley Scott-directed film effective is the atmosphere of claustrophobic horror. It’s true that in space, no one can hear you scream; there’s also nowhere to run. Suffocating blackness outside, a huge, acidic-blooded monster inside…these are not good odds. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley best them, even as the rest of her crew is decimated, never ceases to thrill, terrify, and make one eye the starry sky just a little more warily.

Poltergeist (1982)
“Poltergeist” has a way of polarizing people: which moment of this seminal spook story (why, yes, that was a cemetery they built that development on top of!) is truly the most traumatizing? The coulrophobic will cite the clown doll that the angry spirits bring to life, while those who feared the monster in the closet when they were young will be huddling behind the couch at a mere glimpse of what this wardrobe holds. But in many ways, “Poltergeist” is really a horror movie for parents. Your children are not safe, not even in your own home. Bad things are coming. In fact: “They’re here.”

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Look at Hannibal Lecter. He’s so charming! So articulate! So dignified, even strapped down with a bite guard over his face. He’s just so…alluring, that you really would be tempted to accept his invitation to dinner. Which would be bad. ‘Cause he eats people. (And washes ‘em down with fine wine.) Sure—Buffalo Bill’s flashy, hide-tanning efforts form the bulk of “Silence of the Lambs’s” plot, but it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of “Hannibal the Cannibal” that really gets under your skin. Watching him, you’re both bewitched and repulsed, and the real fear becomes the worry that the repulsion will waver just long enough for him to get close

Before “28 Days Later...” came out in 2002, the mental picture of zombies was universally that of a slow, shuffling, rotting corpse with an unquenchable hunger for “braaaaaaiiins.” But the writer-director team of Alex Garland and Danny Boyle changed all that. These new rage-infected zombies terrorizing a quarantined England’s few survivors are real speed demons: charging down tunnels, smashing through glass, leaping at you out of the dark. Once scary only en masse, just a single specimen of this new breed of zombie is deadly. Twenty-eight days later, you’ll still be nervous walking down an empty street after dark.

The Ring (2002)

And suddenly you’re not so safe in your living room anymore. This American adaptation of the Japanese horror film “Ringu,” about a cursed video tape, left thousands of wide-eyed cinephiles terrified of their own televisions. And for good reason: the flickering black-and-white images that kick off the unlucky viewer’s last seven days alive are still holding court behind the real life viewer’s eyelids. The smooth black screen of a silent TV set suddenly seems threatening—a dark portal through which angry ghost girl Samara can slip to wreak her vengeance. And we let her in, just by watching.