20 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time According to Science

What’s the scariest horror movie of all time? Is it the vomit-inducing scenes from The Exorcist that curdled your blood? Or maybe Freddy’s first appearance in The Nightmare on Elm Street had you ducking your head under the covers? Whatever the case, fright flicks have served us well over the years, making for a pretty solid date night idea or weekend romp, but not all scare-cinema is created equal.

The best horror movies have the propensity to drain the blood from our faces and the breath from our lungs, and for the first time, we know why. A new study has delved deep into the Science of Scare, revealing which of our cult classics is the scariest horror movie of all time, and trust us, it might shock you.

You’ll also like:
Top 20 Movies With A Mind-Bending Twist
24 Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
50 Best Action Movies Of All Time, Ranked

Scariest Horror Movies According to Science

The Science of Scare

Putting the function of fear to the test, mobile, TV and internet business Broadband Choices conducted a study entitled The Science of Scare. Designed to determine which of cinema’s most iconic films was the scariest movie of all time, the study saw 50 respondents subjugated to 120 hours and blood-curdling horror. Throughout the ordeal, each participant was hooked up to a heart rate monitor and here lies the answer.

The study monitored the resting and average heart rates of participants, taking note of spikes in the data. As we all know, when the tension builds, your blood starts pumping, indicating a primal response that activates your fight or flight mode. Where the heart rate peaked was identified as the highest BPM strike, with the percentage change determining the level of fear each participant felt. Each of the 50 films reviewed in the study was curated based on critics’ reviews and presented in 5.1 surround sound for the most fear-inducing experience.

Scariest Horror Movies of All Time

With science now on our side, it appears we can finally identify the scariest movie ever. Here is a list of the 20 scariest horror movies of all time, according to science.

1. Sinister

Science has crowned a winner. With a difference in resting heart rate to BPM strike of 32 per cent, 2012’s Sinister has topped all-comers in the spooky stakes. Starring Ethan Hawke as ailing true-crime writer Ellison Oswald, the film is a harrowing depiction of lies, deceit and supernatural endeavours. When Oswald discovers the existence of a snuff film showing the deaths of a family, he vows to solve the mystery. Moving his own family into the victims’ home proves to be a lot more than he bargained for, however, as he encounters more than a few things that go bump in the night. Movie respondents reported a watching BPM of 86, making this one a sustained scare.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 86
Difference: 32%
Highest BPM strike: 131
Release date: 1 November 2012 (Australia)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Featured song: Gyroscope
Film series: Sinister Series
Box office: 87.7 million USD

2. Insidious

The first in the Insidious film series came in as the second scariest movie ever and it’s fairly unsurprising. The mixture of classic film tension, mystery and paranormal activity makes Insidious a perfect example of modern horror. The film follows couple Josh and Renai, whose son Dalton mysteriously falls into a coma after the family moves to a new house. When paranormal events start occurring, the true frights begin. With horror expert James Wan helming the ship for the Insidious franchise, it’s little wonder participants had their hearts racing.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 86
Difference: 21%
Highest BPM strike: 133
Release date: 12 May 2011 (Australia)
Director: James Wan
Budget: 1.5 million USD (2011)
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider

3. The Conjuring

Probably the best modern horror franchise going around at the moment, The Conjuring apparently peaked at the first film. The study showed respondents watching the first film in the series had a heart rate of 85, peaking at 129 during the scariest point. Once again, it’s James Wan delivering the chills in this story that follows consult demonologists, Ed and Lorraine Warren as they help to rid the Perron family of a mysterious entity.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 85
Difference: 20%
Highest BPM strike: 129
Release date: 18 July 2013 (Australia)
Director: James Wan
Box office: 319.5 million USD
Producers: Peter Safran, Tony DeRosa-Grund, Rob Cowan
Screenplay: Carey W. Hayes, Chad Hayes

4. Hereditary

This one flew under the radar when it was first released back in 2019, but we can safely say, those who saw it, remember it. Hereditary tells the story of the Graham family, who slowly unearth cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. As the thread begins to unravel, the family must outrun the sinister fate they have inherited.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 83
Difference: 18%
Highest BPM strike: 109
Release date: 7 June 2018 (Australia)
Director: Ari Aster
Producers: Lars Knudsen, Kevin Scott Frakes, Buddy Patrick

5. Paranormal Activity

A series that decreased in quality as it went on, Paranormal Activity has copped a rather unfair amount of criticism in our eyes, and now science can back us up. According to the study, viewers who watched the first film reported a 17 per cent difference in BPM, with a highest strike point of 129 BPM. A low-cost masterclass filmed on a budget of just USD$15,000, Paranormal Activity went on to gross a whopping USD$193 million. It tells the story of a young couple terrorised by evil occurrences in the night through a series of found-footage style shots. An innovative approach to the genre, Paranormal Activity is definitely one of the scariest horror movies of all time.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 82
Difference: 17%
Highest BPM strike: 127
Release date: 3 December 2009 (Australia)
Director: Oren Peli
Budget: 15,000 USD
Box office: 193.4 million USD
Film series: Paranormal Activity

6. It Follows

One of the newer films to make the cut, It Follows tells the story of teenager Jay who sleeps with her new boyfriend Hugh, only to suffer dire consequences. Terrifyingly, Jay learns that she is the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from victim to victim via sexual intercourse. Chased by death, Jay must find the answer to the curse before it’s too late. With a peak BPM of just 93, It Follows definitely isn’t one for jump-scares but it’s still one the scariest horror movies of all time.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 81
Difference: 16%
Highest BPM strike: 93
Initial release: 4 February 2015 (France)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Budget: 2 million USD
Screenplay: David Robert Mitchell
Box office: 23.3 million USD

7. The Conjuring 2

The second Conjuring film to make the top 10, The Conjuring 2 sees occult investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren back in action. This time, the husband and wife team are helping Peggy, a single mother and her four children rid their house of an evil spirit. This sequel didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the first, but participants still reported some serious chills while watching this horror movie.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 80
Difference: 15%
Highest BPM strike: 120
Release date: 9 June 2016 (Australia)
Director: James Wan
Featured song: Can’t Help Falling in Love
Box office: 320.4 million USD
Budget: 40 million USD

8. The Babadook

A runaway hit, The Babadook is one of those scary movies that stays with you. Despite having a measly budget of just USD$2 million, the film slowly built a reputation for being one of the scariest horror movies of all time and sciences has backed that up. The plot centres around a single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband. Battling with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, the woman slowly discovers there is a sinister presence all around her.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 80
Difference: 15%
Highest BPM strike: 116
Release date: 2014 (Australia)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Budget: 2 million USD
Box office: 10.3 million USD

9. The Descent

Famous for its Salvador Dali-style cover, The Descent caught more than few eyes in the local Blockbuster back in the day. According to The Science of Scare study, the film secured a 14 per cent difference between resting BPM and movie BPM, good enough for ninth spot on the scariest horror movies of all time list. From a plot perspective, The Descent follows a group of friends who became trapped inside a cave whilst out exploring. Things become worse when it is revealed they aren’t alone. Definitely a heart-racer, The Descent is one scary movie worth watching this Halloween.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 14%
Highest BPM strike: 122
Initial release: 15 March 2006 (Belgium)
Director: Neil Marshall
Film series: The Descent
Budget: 3.5 million GBP
Box office: 57.1 million USD

10. The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan’s triumphant return to pop-culture kicked off with The Visit, an utterly terrifying film that saw the filmmaker back to his best. The story follows Becca and Tyler, who plan a week-long stay at their grandparents’ place. As time wears on, the pair begin to question whether the trip away was a horrifying mistake. While this one is sure to elicit some scares, don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing at points; there’s a fair amount of comedy in here as well.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 14%
Highest BPM strike: 100
Release date: 24 September 2015 (Australia)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Box office: 98.5 million USD
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan, M Night Shyamalan
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, M Night Shyamalan

11. The Ring

A video tape that kills you? Sounded like a silly premise at the time, but in the years that have passed, The Ring has gone on to become one of the best-loved horror films of all time. After the horrifying death of her niece, young journalist Rachel begins to investigate a mysterious urban legend that may be to blame. Based on the 1998 Japanese horror film Ring, this 2002 movie brought the unique style of Eastern eye horror to the Western scene and scared the daylights out of us at the same time.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 14%
Highest BPM strike: 107
Release date: 14 November 2002 (Australia)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Film series: The Ring
Box office: 249.4 million USD
Screenplay: Scott Frank, Ehren Kruger

12. A Quiet Place

One of the more interesting films to make the list, A Quiet Place takes the horror genre in a completely new direction. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the John Krasinski-directed flick follows one family’s struggle for survival. With most humans killed by blind but noise-sensitive creatures, the family is forced to communicate in sign language to keep the creatures at bay. While it might not be the scariest movie ever, A Quiet Place is definitely one of the most unique.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 78
Difference: 13%
Highest BPM strike: 122
Release date: April 2018 (Australia)
Director: John Krasinski
Film series: A Quiet Place
Box office: 340.9 million USD

13. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Now we’re getting into the classics. The 1985 Wes Craven hit that introduced the world to Freddy Kruger is still one of the scariest horror movies of all time according to heart rate statistics. As the scorned killer who attacks teenagers in their dreams, Robert Englund’s chilling performance as Freddy set the tone for modern gore films and massively stalled the sale of green and red sweaters. The study reported a movie BPM of 78, meaning this one is a little tame by today’s standards, but nevertheless, A Nightmare on Elm Streets is still one of the best horror movies ever made.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 78
Difference: 12%
Highest BPM strike: 104
Release date: 1 August 1985 (Australia)
Director: Wes Craven
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Created by: Wes Craven

14. Halloween

The first appearance of Michael Myers way back in 1979 was met with some serious contention. Audiences were terrified, parents were angered and cinemas were full. More than 40 years later, the film holds up. The Science of Scare study found that the difference between resting BPM and movie BPM was 12 per cent, meaning the emotionless, slow-walking killers was still something movie-goers were afraid of. For a classic night of cinema scares, you can’t really knock Halloween.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 77
Difference: 12%
Highest BPM strike: 101
Release date: 1 June 1979 (Australia)
Director: John Carpenter
Film series: Halloween
Featured song: Halloween Theme / Main Title
Budget: 325,000 USD

15. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

While many have revamped the iconic film, the study found that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the most terrifying. With almost no budget, very little dialogue and a lot of gore, it makes perfect sense. As one of the original slasher films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helped pave the way for modern interpretations such as Saw and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 77
Difference: 12%
Highest BPM strike: 98
Release date: 9 February 1974 (Australia)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Budget: 140,000 USD
Film series: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Box office: 30.9 million USD

16. 28 Days Later

One of the most innovative films in the genre, 28 Days Later set a new precedence for smart horror; one that made zombies more than just shuffling buffoons. The plot sees a mysterious virus wreak havoc in the United Kingdom turning locals into vicious, speedy killers. Worth watching for the opening scene alone, 28 Days Later is one scary movie you need to add to your list.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 77
Difference: 12%
Highest BPM strike: 95
Release date: 4 September 2003 (Australia)
Director: Danny Boyle
Film series: 28 Days Later
Featured song: In the House – In a Heartbeat
Budget: 5 million GBP

17. The Exorcist

Perhaps the most famous horror film ever made, The Exorcist had movie-goers racing out of cinemas in droves. Nearly 50 years on, the supernatural remains one of the most important landmarks in film history. Often replicated, spoofed and referenced, The Exorcist follows Regan, a young girl who begins to display bizarre behaviour after playing with an Ouija board. Fearing she may be possessed by a demonic entity, her mother Chris consults two priests who attempt to save the child. Expect blood, gore, vomit and a few curse words.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 77
Difference: 12%
Highest BPM strike: 92
Release date: 22 March 2001 (Australia)
Director: William Friedkin
Story by: William Peter Blatty
Box office: 441.3 million USD

18. Hush

Better known as that movie you scroll past on Netflix, Hush is worth paying attention to. Broadband Choices study found that the 2016 flick was a major hidden gem, with audience heart rates rising steadily throughout. Another low-budget flick, Hush tells the story of a deaf writer who has retreated into the woods to live a solitary life. Things go awry when a masked killer appears in her window. Secluded, silent and without hope, how will she survive?

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 76
Difference: 11%
Highest BPM strike: 86
Initial release: 12 March 2016
Director: Mike Flanagan
Budget: 1 million USD
Screenplay: Kate Siegel, Mike Flanagan
Producers: Jason Blum, Trevor Macy

19. It

A rare example where the remake turned out scarier than the original, 2017’s It is one for the ages. The Stephen King classic was revamped for a modern audience, taking some more contemporary design, artistic and effect options along with it. It follows seven helpless and bullied children as they attempt to outrun Pennywise, a shape-shifting clown who torments children before feeding on them. If you’re even remotely afraid of clowns, we recommend sitting this one out.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 75
Difference: 10%
Highest BPM strike: 89
Release date: 7 September 2017 (Australia)
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Film series: It
Box office: 701.8 million USD
Producers: Barbara Muschietti, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg

20. Scream

Billed as a major motion picture starring Drew Barrymore, Scream is a masterstroke of marketing. Watch the first 10 minutes and you’ll know why. The 1996 film brought horror back into the mainstream, reviving the genre and birthing a number of great follow-up hits. It might not be the scariest movie ever, but something about the mask just irks us.

Resting BPM: 65
Movie BPM: 73
Difference: 8%
Highest BPM strike: 81
Release date: 13 February 1997 (Australia)
Director: Wes Craven
Screenplay: Kevin Williamson
Box office: 173 million USD
Producers: Stuart M. Besser, Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad

You’ll also like:
Top 20 Movies With A Mind-Bending Twist
24 Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
50 Best Action Movies Of All Time, Ranked

The Best of the Rest

The Science of Scare study went on to reveal the rest of the top 35 in order, and while they failed to claim honours on the scariest horror movies list, there are some memorable names here.

21. The Grudge
22. The Witch
23. The Blair Witch Project
24. Alien
25. The Thing
26. Poltergeist
27. Annabelle
28. Friday the 13th
29. The Orphanage
30. Dark Skies
31. Wolf Creek
32. The Omen
33. The Shining
34. Get Out
35. Audition

General FAQs

What is the scariest movie of all time?

A recent survey put together by Broadband Choices found that Sinister is the scariest movie of all time, according to science. The film had a typical resting BPM of 65, with the movie BPM up to 86 and a highest spike of 131 BPM.

What is the best horror movie of all time?

There is a wealth of fantastic horror movies out there, however, the top-rated horror film of all time is Psycho. The 1960 Hitchcock classic has scored rave reviews from critics and fans, and is one of the most influential release in film history.

What is the scariest horror movie franchise?

According to the Broadband Choices survey which took into account active heart rate to measure fear, the scariest movie franchise of all time is The Conjuring, with two releases in the top 10 scariest list.