EDITOR'S NOTE: I chose not to include horror-comedies (Zombieland), thrillers (Silence of the Lambs), or true sci-fi films that happen to come with some scares (Alien) as I don't consider them to be truly "scary." Rest assured that all of these films would find a home on this list if I had expanded it to include them.
I've never felt that The Shining is quite the classic that it is often made out to be. Perhaps it's because I didn't see it in a theater or watched it at midnight during a slumber party but it never really frightened me all that much. That said, the iconic scenes and their accompanying lines ("Here's Johnny!", "Red Rum", etc.) within this film are magnificent.
9. The Ring (2002)
This is one of only two films on this list that I saw in a theater so perhaps that has something to do with the sheer terror this film caused me. In my adult life, I don't think I've ever been closer to soiling myself than I was near the end of The Ring. That little girl still haunts me from time to time and I'll never, NEVER, be able to remain calm if a TV suddenly goes to the fuzzy screen. Also, if you think my roommate and I didn't go back to our dorm and immediately call the girls we went to see this movie with to creepily say, "SEVEN DAYS!" then you've got another thing coming.
Much like The Shining, I think Psycho suffers in my book from having never seen it in a theater. It's always creeped me out a bit but I wouldn't say it necessarily scared me. On the other hand, from a strictly film standpoint, this could be the best entry on the list. So incredibly well-made. It does lose some points, though, for that horrible Gus Van Sant remake. I just can't shake the memory of Anne Heche sucking the life out of the film.
7. Scream (1996)
I just watched Scream 4, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, so I'm already doubting where I placed the original film on this list. It's been a long time since I've seen it so maybe it's just as cheesy and horrible as the newest installment was. But regardless, Scream messed with my head in a major way. Up until this point, I had always operated under the assumption that, should I come face to face with a knife-wielding nutcase, I could at least run away. Then Scream came along and introduced me to the concept of serial killing teammates. My world has never been the same.
I struggled with whether or not to include this film because part of me thinks it belongs more in the "thriller" category than "scary." But then I thought about the wave of terror that went through my body the first (and second...and third) times I saw Sixth Sense in the theater when Mischa Barton rips the sheet tent that poor little Haley Joel Osment set up for himself. It's easy to forget how stellar this film is given how M. Night Shyamalan had a mental breakdown and made two of the worst movies ever (The Happening and The Last Airbender) but it completely changed the genre (for better or worse).
5. 28 Days Later (2002)
In my mind, anyone who has profited from this whole Zombie Craze that has swept the world over the last half-decade should have to see a percentage of the proceeds to Danny Boyle. I can't remember anyone in my circle of nerds caring about anything zombie related (and certainly nothing current) until this film. The open of 28 Days Later is outstanding, the type of scene that immediately sucks you into the film's atmosphere and it doesn't let you go until the very end. And the zombies are horrifying.
4. The Thing (1982)
I saw The Thing for the first time only a couple of years ago but I really, really liked it more than I ever thought I would. It's probably due in part to its sci-fi leaning which I dig. I wouldn't say the story within The Thing is all that much better from your standard horror film but it tells it well. Solid special effects (for the time) help it, too, and when the creature starts shape shifting, I find it to be quite scary.
This film is the reason for my personal "no demons in movies" rule. The quintessential possession film, nothing could ever top The Exorcist in that realm and honestly, if it could, I'd probably never be able to sleep ever, ever again. I just can't handle this subject matter. I'd like to punch whoever it is that forced me to watch this film but I've blocked out all details of that fateful evening save for the film itself which I can't get out of my head. The second the opening credits begin to roll, you're on the edge of your seat and nothing about The Exorcist disappoints in the scare department. At the same time, it's one of the few films on this list that sees its scariness equaled by the quality of its acting. It truly is an exquisite film though I'll never see it again.
2. 30 Days of Night (2007)
This is admittedly a bit of an odd choice. You won't even find 30 Days of Night on Rotten Tomatoes' Top 75 List and I think that's a real shame. I've never been a fan of vampire movies (even before Twilight made it very easy and trendy to hate vampires) but this one is so appealing and tension-filled. The concept is brilliant and the setting is so incredibly creepy. Even more impressive is the performance of Danny Huston who brings more freakish, terrifying personality (as it were) to the animalistic-type of vampire than I would have ever imagined. When I saw this film, I really thought I might have just seen the best straight horror movie ever. I can't be alone in that, right?