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The Muse: The Halloween Horror Handshake – The 5 Most Influential Horror Movies in History

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia via Creative Commons License

The Muse is a creative publication that aims to share the interests, talents, and research of students on campus. The following represents the opinion of the student writer and does not represent the views of Loyola University Maryland, the Greyhound, or Loyola University’s Department of Communication.

Just in time for the very best holiday of the year, I’m bringing you my five most influential, spooky, creepy, crawly, heeby-jeeby-inducing flicks in the history of horror in the US of A.  But before I get into the list, we’ve got to break down the basics.

What is a horror movie?  It’s such a vague concept, and I feel like everyone has their own opinion, but this is my list, so here’s Owen’s definition.  A horror movie is any movie created to scare the audience at the time it was made, whether that audience is five or fifty-five.  You might be saying to yourself, “But Owen, by that definition even “Toy Story 3″ is a horror movie.”  To you I would say, I think “Toy Story 3″ is absolutely a horror movie. Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear is undoubtedly the most evil character that will be mentioned in this article, and he still scares me.  It’s my definition and my list, but you are more than entitled to making your own, and if you are so inclined, please tell me all about it, I just can’t get enough of this stuff.

One quick aside before I get into the list, these five movies are not necessarily my five favorite horror flicks, but they’re the five films I think have had the greatest impact on the modern horror landscape.  I’ve also made a point to choose each one based on the subgenre of horror films they influenced.  So, without further ado, and in order of release date, Owen’s History of Horror Handshake.


“Psycho” (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins

Starting off the list is Alfred Hitchcock’s subversive, shocking proto-slasher.  This might be the most parodied and referenced film in the history of Hollywood. However, what I feel is often lost when discussing the immense cultural impact this film has had is the reasons why it has risen to such fame, and why that fame is absolutely deserving. 

“Psycho” is sixty-three years old, making it old enough to be a grandparent, and definitely the oldest film on this list.  That age is important, as in many ways “Psycho’s” release and the following attention it garnered from the movie-going public was instrumental in ushering in a new age in horror. “Psycho” broke the mold in many ways – before “Psycho”, horror was found in strange creatures from mysterious, faraway lands (“Dracula”, “The Mummy”) or in old haunted manors perched on top of steep cliffs (basically any Vincent Price movie).  “Psycho” was the first film to bring that horror setting home, right off the old highway in Fairvale, CA.  The horror no longer stemmed from some supernatural ghost or ghoul but from a seemingly ordinary, everyday man who just so happened to be an unhinged slasher. 

Make no mistake; when this movie came out, it terrified people, and while it may seem pretty tame compared to the slasher films we’re used to these days, “Psycho” changed the game, with strong performances and a killer score by Bernard Herrmann. “Psycho” is definitely worth a watch!


“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Directed by George Romero, starring Judith O’Dea and Duane Jones

Coming up next on the list is the movie that almost single-handedly created the zombie movie. “Night of the Living Dead” established the many common tropes that define the zombie flick – a slow-moving mob of flesh-eating ghouls with one mission: to feed. You can slow them down, but there’s no winning against the zombies; the only thing to do is try to survive. 

“Night of the Living Dead” thrusts us into rural PA in the midst of a Zombie outbreak. Our characters are holed up inside a house as the mob of zombies outside grows stronger and stronger, surrounding the house, and cutting off any chance of escape.  However, what really earns “Night of the Living Dead” a spot on this list isn’t the zombie horror outside the house, but rather the tension between our human characters as they fight over what they should do in this life-or-death scenario. 

Aside from its compelling premise, Romero’s classic has stood the test of time as an allegory for the social unrest in the US at the time.  Romero’s decision to cast Duane Jones, an African American lead, as a smart, resourceful protagonist was not something common at the time and is all the more sad when you see how the story unfolds.  This film is a grim reminder that we humans are more of a danger to each other than any monster will ever be.


“The Exorcist” (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and Max von Sydow

My personal favorite film on this list, Friedkin’s supernatural horror classic tackles faith, reason, family, divorce, female adolescence, and more, while staying grounded and truly terrifying. “The Exorcist” follows a mother-daughter family, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan (Linda Blair) living in Georgetown, whose lives are changed forever when Regan begins to undergo changes to her personality.  The once sweet and kind Regan slowly becomes something or someone else.  Along with the family, we also follow Father Karras, a priest with a complicated relationship with his own faith.  The three eventually meet under less-than-ideal circumstances in order to try and save Regan.

William Friedkin’s decision to direct the film in a documentary-like style also greatly adds to the fear and tension created.  Don’t get me wrong, the exorcism itself is scary, but to me, “The Exorcist” is at its most scary during the scenes at the hospital.  Seeing what was taken as top-of-the-line medicine in the ‘70s is scary enough, but the fact that it’s this little girl being experimented on to no avail is heartbreaking.  While watching, you feel like you’re watching a true story.  In fact, to this day, William Friedkin doesn’t believe that he made a horror movie because the events portrayed on screen are based on a supposed real-life exorcism case from 1949.  He’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s still a horror movie to me.

I could keep going on and on about this amazing film, but I’m going to keep it brief.  Make sure to watch the original cut, it’s better, and if you like “The Exorcist”, I would recommend another Friedkin film, 1977’s “The Sorcerer”. It’s not a horror movie, more of a thriller, but it’s right up there with “The Exorcist” for me, and I promise “The Sorcerer” will floor you.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Directed by Tobe Hooper, starring Marilyn Burns

Returning to another low-budget horror classic, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is folk horror personified.  Filmed on a super low budget with no-name actors, like Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, this film is greatly strengthened by its documentary-like approach. The film even claims to be a true story in the opening credits, a complete lie, but audiences in the ‘70s were unaware of that fact, and who can blame them? If you haven’t seen “Texas Chainsaw”, it does feel shockingly real. 

From the opening shots, the heat almost seems to radiate through the screen. The setting of the Texas countryside is a character just as much as any of the humans on screen. Speaking of characters, we follow a small group of Texas teens during the oil embargo who find themselves far away from the city and out of gas and then make the fateful decision to visit an old family farmhouse nearby. Helping to establish some classic folk horror tropes, the outsiders’ curiosity and arrogance despite several warnings lead them to trespass where they don’t belong, only to be met with the horror lurking on the outskirts of civilization. 

Despite the film’s reputation for extreme violence, it’s actually almost completely bloodless.  Due to the film’s censors, it has been edited down, with nearly all of the gore removed – which, in my opinion, works to the film’s advantage, allowing your mind to fill in the rest. Hilariously, Tobe Hooper was trying to film a PG movie and was shocked when his movie was given an X rating.  This is a fact that everyone should be laughing about all of the time.  Don’t let that give you the idea that TCM isn’t scary, quite the opposite in fact, and if you’ve never seen it, I promise you’ll swear it’s a complete gorefest. 


Alien (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, and Harry Dean Stanton

Last but certainly not least, we’ve got Ridley Scott’s Sci-fi Horror classic “Alien”, the film that redefined the alien horror subgenre forever.  This film is absolutely iconic, and its spot on this list is well-deserved.  We follow the crew of the commercial spaceship “Nostromo” on a return journey to Earth, when all of a sudden, they receive a distress signal from a faraway planet and decide to investigate, only to discover a new form of life, unwittingly unleashing it upon themselves. 

What elevates “Alien” from similar films is the creature effects and set design. Created by the immortal Stan Winston of “Jurassic Park”, “Terminator”, and “The Thing” fame, the world and creatures he creates are unlike anything else previously seen on film.  Simply put, they are stunning.  Give it a watch, and you’ll agree with me. The film is also an early example of the found footage horror craze that would take off during the turn of the millennium with films like 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project.” 

The film isn’t just special effects and makeup but has a really strong cast of characters along with an equally strong script that creates a very believable environment. These aren’t scientists or trained soldiers; they’re just regular people placed in a very dangerous situation – each of them reacting differently but reasonably given the circumstances. The relationships between the characters really endear you to the film. Nothing takes me out of a movie faster than dumb characters who are written poorly.  The film has a lot in common with Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in that respect.  Additionally, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a fresh take on the “final girl” trope of horror at the time. Unlike most final girls, she is highly capable and intelligent, she doesn’t survive just because the script says she will, she makes do on her own skill and she’s pretty awesome. “Alien” is a tense and incredibly well-made movie that’ll have you on the edge of your seat.


There we have it; those are my five most influential American horror films, each helping to create or establish the subgenre they represent in horror, and each of them is well worth a watch if you haven’t seen them already.  Before I get out of here, I’d like to throw in a few honorable mentions; cutting this list down to five was a lot harder than I thought it would be and I left a bunch of amazing films on the cutting room floor.  

First up is Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws ” (1975), the very best of the creature features. Probably the most famous film I’ve mentioned so far, “Jaws” needs no selling from me. I’d also like to mention two John Carpenter films, which despite my undying love for Carpenter’s films did not make the list – 1978’s OG slasher “Halloween” and 1982’s alien thriller “The Thing”. Both films are amazing and certainly worth a watch, but I just couldn’t fit them on the list over their more influential genre counterparts, although “The Thing” is my favorite horror movie and probably the least well-known film that I’ve mentioned. It is absolutely worth a watch if you love great practical effects and slow-burn plots. 

Now then, I hope this article has helped you begin to track the evolution of my favorite film genre.  I hope you learned something, but at the very least, I hope I’ve given you some good recommendations for this Halloween season. Now get out there and watch some spooky movies!

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