The 11 scariest movies streaming for free


As noted philosopher Danny Elfman once wrote, “Tender lumplings everywhere / Life’s no good without a good scare.” But why stop at just one good scare? We want scares spilling on us like blood rain, especially here in the abundant days of home-streaming services. We live in a world where with the push of a single button we can switch from sightless cave-dudes swinging off stalactites to Broadway veteran Tammy Blanchard wielding a butcher knife like nobody’s business. 

Indeed whether your preference is for slasher-killers or devil-girls or something uncannily in between, there’s too much blood-curdling content to choose from nowadays. So we’ve gone and sliced and diced the crowd down for you. Narrowing the entirety of what’s available to one unforgettable collection of spine-tinglers, this list here has got something ghoulish for every soul — as long as you’re ready to not sleep tonight… or ever again!

1. The Descent

Experiencing Neil Marshall’s spelunking nightmare The Descent in the cinema was truly a singular experience, especially if you had no idea you were in for a nasty little thriller about six female friends who reunite one year after a tragedy to explore a underground cave system together — as you do — only for it all to go terribly horribly wrong — as it does! The theater walls themselves seemed to close in on you as the film grew tighter, more constricted and claustrophobic, and that was even before any of those creepy crawlers showed up. 

However, even at home, the film still plays like gangbusters. Just wrap a blanket over your head and turn off all the lights, and you will feel like you’re right there in the Bava-esque underground alongside former besties Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza), third-wheel Beth (Alex Reid), sisters Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and Sam (MyAnna Buring), and who could forget the smidge too enthusiastic Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), as the walls close in and the blackness starts blinking, then biting, back.   

How to watch: The Descent is now streaming on Amazon Prime(opens in a new tab) and Shudder(opens in a new tab).

2. The Queen of Black Magic 

A scene from

Credit: Shudder

Some of the best horror happening in the world right now is coming out of Indonesia. While I don’t want to say it’s all due to one man, you would be remiss not knowing the name Joko Anwar. Two of his recent directorial efforts, Satan’s Slaves(opens in a new tab) from 2017 and Impetigore(opens in a new tab) from 2019, are streaming on Shudder, and they’re both highly recommended — the latter has one of the greatest, freakiest opening sequences to a horror film I’ve seen in some time. But for sheer scare factor, I’m recommending instead a movie that Anwar only wrote the script for, with Kimo Stamboel directing. 

The Queen of Black Magic is a rollicking rollercoaster of a horror flick about a group of relatives and friends who’ve gone home to the rural orphanage where they were raised to say their goodbyes to their sickly caretaker, only to find that things at the orphanage have gone a little haywire. It’s the sort of bonkers throw-out-all-the-stops ride that brings to mind Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films or Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Hausu(opens in a new tab). It throws everything at you, and I do mean everything. By the time a character starts stuffing fistfuls of furry caterpillars into their mouth, you’ll be the one crawling up the walls to escape. 

How to watch: The Queen of Black Magic is streaming on Shudder(opens in a new tab).

3. Threads 

There are loads of legitimately terrifying TV movies from back in the heyday of the format. (Ghostwatch and Salem’s Lot both pop straight to mind!) But none will leave you shuddering in the corner in shock quite like 1984’s BBC-produced nuclear war horror Threads

Directed by Mick Jackson, the man who also somehow gave the world the scarf-light pleasures of The Bodyguard and L.A. Story (human beings sure contain multitudes, huh?), Threads dropped on the unsuspecting populace of Great Britain on September 23, 1984,  like, well, several megaton bombs. And it’s been melting our faces off ever since. Aiming for as much realism as they could achieve at the time, what the film lacks in modern whizz-bang special effects it more than makes up in dire nihilism, despair, and oodles of unrelenting cruelty piled on every single character that it spent its first hour kindly introducing. (Mum!) It’s a disaster movie for those who snark at the outrageously unlikely happy endings that the genre typically embraces — Threads ain’t playing around. 

How to watch: Threads is now streaming on Shudder(opens in a new tab) and on Tubi(opens in a new tab).

4. The Blair Witch Project

There were plenty of found footage horror films before Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, like Cannibal Holocaust(opens in a new tab), The McPherson Tape(opens in a new tab), and the aforementioned Ghostwatch. But this wicked indie is very much the line in the sand, the Anno Domini come-to-Jesus moment for the genre if you will. It’s not even for me the widely celebrated extra-textual elements, like the website and word-of-mouth about its filmmakers, Heather and Josh and Mike, really being missing people. 

The scares are right there onscreen, starting with the willowy whispers about horse-hair-fingers from interviewee slash legendary weirdo Mary Brown; the screams echoing in the forest in the middle of the night; the children’s handprints up and down the hallways of that fateful shack in the woods. Images that have haunted viewers for decades now, and still unsettle when they suddenly start popping up on social media timelines come Halloween-time. 

Mileage obviously varies on this film. Lots of naysayers see nothing scary about snot and little piles of twigs. But for those who are disciples of found footage, this is where lots of us learned how to worship the ways of the shaky cam. Bow down to that feisty Blair Witch! (Or else!) 

How to watch: The Blair Witch Project is now streaming on Hulu(opens in a new tab).

5. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Michael Rooker in

Credit: Shudder

The greatest serial killer movie of all time is Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and that movie is streaming on Amazon Prime(opens in a new tab) right now. Have at it. But the scariest serial killer movie of all time is another beast altogether — with the sincerest apologies to Buffalo Bill and his lil Precious. 

This dubious honor belongs to John McNaughton’s relentlessly bleak Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is inspired by the real-life gruesome twosome Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. It is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with all of the humor and the sheen lasered off, leaving a simple bloody pit of filth and despair in its wake. Turning the viewer themselves into Henry’s ride-or-die, it’s like the shower clean-up scene from Psycho stretched out to one hour and 23 minutes. How far is the audience willing to empathize and commiserate with a cold-blooded psychopath? No matter how far you make it, we can only promise you that you’ll feel worse about yourself in the morning. 

How to watch: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is now streaming on the Criterion Channel,(opens in a new tab) Shudder,(opens in a new tab) and Tubi(opens in a new tab).

6. Backcountry 

Sometimes a single scene is enough. Writer-director Adam MacDonald’s crystal-simple survival horror flick from 2014 is much more than one scene – especially once that one scene happens, and the fall-out tension from that one scene follows relentlessly through to the movie’s end. But you know those scary moments, those ones that get burned into your psyche like a terrible brand? Ones that you still see sometimes when you close your eyes? Backcountry has one of those — hoo boy, does it ever. 

Telling the story of lightly bickering city couple Alex and Jenn (Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym) who decide to take a hike in the Canadian wilderness, only to stumble a strange hiker (Eric Balfour), and then there’s a little later on there’s that rustling in the bushes… We’re loath to give away too much. And while a statement like “This movie did for fill-in-the-blank as Psycho did for showers” always gives pause, Backcountry very seriously does this for camping. Seriously, the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts seem welcoming compared to this.

How to watch: Backcountry is streaming on Shudder(opens in a new tab).

7. The Exorcist 

A terrifying scene from

Credit: Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Sometimes you just gotta go with the classics, like vanilla ice cream or Levi’s 501s or William Friedkin’s multiple-Oscar-winning adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bombshell book about a child possessed by the devil. We don’t know for sure if the kids today are still finding the pea-soup shenanigans of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) and her lil friend Captain Howdy scary after all these many years, or whether all of the countless riffs and rim-shots that the movie’s been subject to have dulled its impact. But for most of us, those have never been the scariest moments. 

No, the scariest moments for us have have always been the jittery jerky spinal-tap scenes – the ones where a little girl is screaming and convulsing as the best doctors a movie star mom can buy (holla, Ellen Burstyn, legend!) shred little Regan’s innocence off, one trauma on top of another on top of another. (Learning the onscreen technician was later convicted of a murder and inadvertently inspired Friedkin to make Cruising just makes it that much more horrifying.)

I mean, who isn’t turned into a monster, their spirit relentlessly broken, by the American Healthcare System?

How to watch: The Exorcist is now streaming on HBO Max(opens in a new tab).

8. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 

It was just one innocent little question: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Okay, perhaps not so innocent! But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s tagline sure is to the point, as is everything about this nitty-gritty proto-slasher classic, which deserves every grisly ounce of its legendary reputation and then some. 

In 1974, director Tobe Hooper dragged his poor cast and crew into the sweltering desert outside of Austin, and he didn’t come back until he’d left his great big mark across horror history by leaving several more great big marks across the torsos and limbs of his cast of pretty young people. (And Franklin. Poor, annoying Franklin.) 

But, aye, that’s the rub — watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre again and revel in how very little on-screen violence we actually see. This movie is all atmosphere, all churning sound (that relentless gas generator) and chicken bones. Oh, and one iconic flesh-mask grinning out from every doorway, no matter how much you run, and scream, and run, and scream, and run…

How to watch: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is streaming on Shudder(opens in a new tab) and on Tubi(opens in a new tab).

9. The Invitation 

A dinner party goes badly in

Credit: Drafthouse Films

Some of the greatest horror films prey on our societally bred instincts to play nice and not rock the boat until we’re well past the point of no return. (See also 2022’s Speak No Evil, now on Shudder.) But not many have tightened this vise of politeness as ruthlessly as does Karyn Kusama in her 2015 slow-burn nightmare, The Invitation

The Invitation follows a group of estranged friends who have been invited to dinner by one of their own who’s been through it… only they don’t seem to have any idea what she’s come out the other side of “it” as. But they sure will by dessert! The film boasts a top-notch cast, including Logan Marshall Green, Michiel Huisman, and the aforementioned Tammy Blanchard. And like Zodiac before it, this movie knows how to use the mountainous John Caroll Lynch to his most terrifying effect. We’re all trapped at the world’s worst dinner party, watching as Kusama slams every exit shut tight, one by excruciating one. This one is a legitimate master-work on how to tension and then letting it all out in one sudden, unbearable shriek.

How to watch: The Invitation is now streaming on Tubi(opens in a new tab), Freevee,(opens in a new tab) and Shudder(opens in a new tab).

10. [REC] 

Most of the time you watch a found footage movie you find yourself getting angry at the characters that they keep bungling into the path of horror and don’t run away. Or, even more unlikely, that they keep carrying the camera to document everything! The best solution to these narrative problems is simple — make the lead character a journalist. Because who else would be running toward the disaster while all the sane people run away? 

Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s 2007 found footage masterpiece is possibly the best, clearest example of this, and their film gives us one hell of a newsperson to root for with Manuela Velasco’s beat-reporter turned kick-ass Final Girl, Ángela. Of course, firefighters and police officers would also be running toward the disaster, and so there’s a bunch of those too. And although they’ll mostly be gobbled up by the zombie-demon-things that have begun terrorizing a quarantined apartment building in downtown Barcelona, at least it makes sense! And we certainly understand why Angela keeps holding up that camera of hers, even in the most dire situations. You’d be surprised how far these little touches of behavioral realism go towards making the zombie-demon-things even scarier. And bonus points (a whole score of ‘em) for one of the most terrifying final scenes of all time, with a final shot that’s been aped too many times to count in the years since.

How to watch: [REC]  is now streaming on Tubi(opens in a new tab).

11. Lake Mungo

By far the most subtle film on this list (no caterpillar feasts here!), Joel Anderson’s 2008 “true crime mockumentary” out of Australia goes for the kind of scares that insinuate themselves into your brain rather than the kind that stab you in the crotch with a crucifix. But Lake Mungo’s scares will creep up on you, and Lake Mungo’s scares will refuse to let go once they have dug their fingers in. 

The Palmer family is in deep mourning after the loss of their teenage daughter Alice, who mysteriously drowned, but their search for answers leads to more questions — and strange discoveries. They enlist a parapsychologist, who opens a whole other can of supernatural worms, and soon the audience is being treated to all sorts of clues and whispers and glimpses of things we wish we could unsee.

Like all of the best ghost stories, Lake Mungo is steeped in a pervasive sadness and grief, but there is a single shot in here that belongs in the Scariest Shots Hall of Fame. Anyone who’s seen this movie before knows which one we’re talking about, just by looking down at all of the hairs standing on their arms right this very second. 

How to watch: Lake Mungo is now streaming on Tubi(opens in a new tab).


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