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Michael Hall D'Addario in Sinister

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.

‘The Science of Scare’ study, now in its 4th year, has delved deep into the way audiences react physiologically to different horror movies, revealing which of our cult classics is the scariest horror movie of all time. The study tracks audiences’ resting heart rate, spikes when something startling happens, as well as taking into account average heart rate to ensure slower burns also get their moment in the sun (or the night, more fittingly).

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 hard data.

1. Sinister

Released in 2012, Sinister has taken the crown as the scariest movie with an overall score of 96 out of 100. The movie drew an average heart rate (AHR) of 86 bpm, but saw spikes as high as 131 bpm. 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. I don’t know why you’d do that, but that’s probably where things start going wrong.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 86
Difference: 22
Highest BPM Spike: 131
Total Score: 96
Release Date: 1 November 2022
Director: Scott Derrickson

2. Host

We’re all pretty scared of Zoom meetings at this point, but Host takes it to another level. Shot during the Covid-19 pandemic, the film sees a number of friends taking part in a virtual séance over Zoom, which, in horror movie fashion, goes horribly wrong when they accidentally churn up something malevolent. The whole thing was filmed on Zoom over 12 weeks, giving it a pretty unique, freeform vibe compared to other ‘found footage’ films – and the concept worked, obviously, because Host only lost out to Sinister by a single point.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 88
Difference: 24
Highest BPM Spike: 130
Total Score: 95
Release Date: 4 December 2020
Director: Rob Savage

3. Skinamarink

Who said experimental films can’t be scary? A lot of people have expressed some confusion about what exactly happens in Skinamarink, but suffice to say at the very least they left the movie feeling terrified of what they saw. The movie is largely seen from the point of view of two children, Kevin and Kaylee, who explore their family home after their father disappears and weird shit starts happening – like the doors, windows, and toilets disappearing. It’s a bold choice to use kids as the main characters, but maybe it just makes the whole thing creepier?

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 84
Difference: 22
Highest BPM Spike: 113
Total Score: 91
Release Date: 25 July 2022
Director: Kyle Edward Ball

4. Insidious

The first in the Insidious film series got knocked off the second-place podium by newer offerings this year, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold up. 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: 64
Movie BPM: 85
Difference: 21
Highest BPM Spike: 133
Total Score: 90
Release Date: 1 April 2011
Director: James Wan

5. 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 84, peaking at 132 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: 64
Movie BPM: 84
Difference: 20
Highest BPM Spike: 132
Total Score: 88
Release Date: 18 July 2013
Director: James Wan

6. 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: 64
Movie BPM: 82
Difference: 18
Highest BPM Spike: 104
Total Score: 81
Release Date: 7 June 2018
Director: Ari Aster

7. Smile

Another new addition to the list, Smile investigates what happens when someone’s grin is a bit more grisly than they anticipated. It’s another story about a curse that jumps from person to person (a concept we’ll see explored a few times on this list), but the unsettling visual of a tense smile is enough to give this one a difference. There’s a sequel coming out later this year, so keep your eyes peeled!

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 83
Difference: 19
Highest BPM Spike: 114
Total Score: 78
Release Date: 30 September 2022
Director: Parker Finn

8. The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Finally, a horror movie about an exorcism! Unlike the 1973 classic, The Exorcism of Emily Rose focuses instead on the aftermath of a failed exorcism. A priest is charged with negligent homicide after he attempted an exorcism on 19-year-old Emily, who had been suffering delusions and muscle spasms. The movie largely plays out in flashbacks, showing what happened in the lead up to the exorcism, as well as during the court case itself. If you find the idea of going to court terrifying, steer clear!

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 82
Difference: 18
Highest BPM Spike: 96
Total Score: 76
Release Date: 27 October 2005
Director: Scott Derrickson

9. Hell House LLC

This 2015 found-footage film follows a documentary crew in their quest to discover what happened on the opening night of a haunted house attraction: an event which ultimately killed 15 people. During their investigation the documentarians must interrogate the sole survivor, and enter the now abandoned site, to unravel the truth. The truth, as you might expect, leads quite a few people to die.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 81
Difference: 17
Highest BPM Spike: 107
Total Score: 75
Release Date: 16 October 2015
Director: Stephen Cognetti

10. Talk To Me

You’ve heard of a lucky rabbit’s foot? Well, imagine an unlucky human’s hand. A group of teens (it’s always teens) start communing with spirits by way of a severed and embalmed hand. Using the mysterious artefact, they can be possessed and allow the others to talk to a spirit for a short time before the connection must be broken. When something goes awry, and someone’s connection isn’t broken in time, the group unleashes the bad vibes. Also, it’s made in Australia!

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 18
Highest BPM Spike: 106
Total Score: 75
Release Date: 27 July 2023
Director: Danny and Michael Philippou

11. The Descent

Famous for its Salvador Dali-style cover, The Descent caught more than a few eyes in the local Blockbuster back in the day. From a plot perspective, the movie follows a group of friends who became trapped inside a cave whilst out exploring – a clastrophobe’s nightmare. 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: 64
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 15
Highest BPM Spike: 121
Total Score: 74
Release Date: 8 July 2005
Director: Neil Marshall

12. The Conjuring 2

The second Conjuring film didn’t quite crack the top 10 this time, but the sequel 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. It didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the first, but participants still reported some serious chills while watching this horror movie.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 15
Highest BPM Spike: 116
Total Score: 74
Release Date: 9 June 2016
Director: James Wan

13. It Follows

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: 64
Movie BPM: 81
Difference: 17
Highest BPM Spike: 97
Total Score: 74
Release Date: 27 March 2015
Director: David Robert Mitchell

14. The Dark and The Wicked

Launched in 2020, The Dark and The Wicked tells the story of Michael and Louise: two siblings that return to their family farm when their ill father seems to be at its final stages. Their mother, who has been caring for his father, isn’t too happy that they came, and it is slowly revealed that there might be some demonic activity to blame for their father’s condition. If you’re keen to check this one out, prepare for a lot of self mutilation and paranormal tomfoolery.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 80
Difference: 16
Highest BPM Spike: 88
Total Score: 74
Release Date: 6 November 2020
Director: Bryan Bertino

15. 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. 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: 64
Movie BPM: 80
Difference: 16
Highest BPM Spike: 115
Total Score: 73
Release Date: 3 December 2009
Director: Oren Peli

16. The Babadook

Another Australian-made film, 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 science 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: 64
Movie BPM: 79
Difference: 15
Highest BPM Spike: 119
Total Score: 72
Release Date: 22 May 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent

17. A Quiet Place Part II

John Krasinski’s follow-up to the well received original, A Quiet Place Part II continues the story of Evelyn and her family’s struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. After a series of meteors bring hostile alien creatures to Earth that hunt solely using sound, survivors must regroup and learn how to adapt to a new and more dangerous world. The sequel heightens the scares, delivering a more scientifically-sound horror film (we’re sorry for that one).

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 80
Difference: 16
Highest DMP Spike: 123
Total Score: 71
Release Date: 28 May 2021
Director: John Krasinski

18. The Autopsy of Jane Doe

One of the more interesting films on the list, The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows a family of coroners (yes, really) that are tasked with figuring out what killed an unknown woman whose body was found at the location of a multi-person homicide. Here’s the confusing part: the Jane Doe isn’t a fresh corpse, but all the other ones were, and evidence suggests they were trying to escape from something. As the father-son duo dig into the corpse, paranormal events start happening, cadavers go missing, and the truth of Jane Doe is revealed. It’s creative, and terrifying.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 78
Difference: 14
Highest BPM Spike: 122
Total Score: 70
Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director: André Øvredal

19. Insidious: Chapter 2

Though a commercial success, Insidious: Chapter 2 was critically panned when it released in 2013 for a lack of tension and scares. But now, with the magic of science, the movie is getting its just deserts. The film continues the story of Josh and Renai Lambert from the first movie, and further explores the history of a spectre from their past. If you’re in for some dumb fun (or frights), this one should be next on your watch queue.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 78
Difference: 14
Highest BPM Spike: 118
Total Score: 70
Release Date: 31 October 2023
Director: James Wan

20. The Ring

“You’re gonna die in seven days”, is such a classic line we’re honestly surprised this one is so low. A videotape 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 ever. 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 horror to the Western scene and scared the daylights out of us at the same time.

Resting BPM: 64
Movie BPM: 78
Difference: 14
Highest BPM Spike: 114
Total Score: 69
Release Date: 14 November 2002
Director: Gore Verbinski

The Science of Scare

Putting the function of fear to the test, comparison site MoneySuperMarket conducted the latest ‘The Science of Scare’ study. 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 movies were chosen based on best of lists, forum and subreddit suggestions, as well as personal and expert recommendations.

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.

The Best of the Rest

The Science of Scare study went on to reveal the rest of the top 50 in order, and while they failed to claim honours on the scariest horror movies list, there are some memorable names here.

  1. Terrifier 2
  2. A Quiet Place
  3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  4. Insidious: The Red Door
  5. A nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  6. Halloween (1978)
  7. Barbarian
  8. The Nun
  9. Hush
  10. IT (2017)
  11. The Visit
  12. The Exorcist
  13. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
  14. The Blair Witch Project
  15. Paranormal Activity 2
  16. Evil Dead RIse
  17. Lights Out
  18. Saw X
  19. The Grudge
  20. Oculus
  21. Ouija: Origins of Evil
  22. Scream
  23. Poltergeist
  24. The Invisible Man
  25. Get Out
  26. The Witch
  27. The Black Phone
  28. 28 Days Later
  29. Alien
  30. The Thing

Scariest Horror Movies 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 64, 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 MoneySuperMarket survey which took into account active heart rate to measure fear, the scariest movie franchises of all time is a bit of a tie between The Conjuring and Insidious, with both scoring two releases in the top 20 scariest list.