While this fan-favorite genre took a dive in the late forties and early fifties, then again in the late eighties and early nineties, a majority of the ride through Hollywood has been smooth sailing. Most of the decades since the beginning of cinema have been replete with quality horror films. Today, though, we’re going to dig just a tad bit deeper.
These are the ten best decades for horror movies, ever, from the 1900s to current day. Let’s get to it.
10. The 1950s
David Cronenberg’s body horror classic The Fly (1986) was actually remade from a 1958 film of the same name. And despite the disparity in popularity, the original holds a slightly better score on Rotten Tomatoes with 95% opposed to Cronenberg’s 92. And before John Carpenter’s adaptation (The Thing from 1982), the first film based on John W. Campbell’s novel “Who Goes There” was released in 1951: The Thing From Another World, directed by Christian Nyby.
While neither of those quite hold up to their more contemporary counterparts, there’s plenty left to write home about. Director Jack Arnold crafted two sci-fi horror films from the 50s that are still held in high regard today: It Came From Outer Space in 1953 and The Creature From the Black Lagoon in 1954.
House on Haunted Hill is another solid, creepy entry for this the lowest-ranking decade, but the one project that propels this one above the 1940s and the 1910s comes by way of House of Wax from 1953. It holds an impressive 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has since been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
9. The 2020s
Considering we aren’t even three years in, this is obviously the shortest decade on the list. But I’d be lying if I said the 2020s weren’t already giving the top tier horror eras a run for their money.
With X, its prequel Pearl, and Freaky starring Vince Vaughn, the popular slasher sub-genre has so far produced three brilliant projects in the 2020s. Well-established slasher franchises also saw releases in this current decade—and while Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends were botched by critics and fans alike, the fifth entry in the Scream series from 2022 actually provided excellent entertainment.
However, the biggest takeaway herein lies with a certain trilogy distributed by Netflix in 2021: Fear Street. They’re three of the most creative slashers ever made, and they propelled the 2020s to number nine. And even though we’re only three years deep, Fear Street also solidified this decade as perhaps the best ever for the slasher sub-genre. The only competitor comes with the 1980s, but I think these provide a more consistent rate of quality. To each their own, though.
With other horror entries like Nope by Jordan Peele, the contemporary adaptation of The Invisible Man, and A Quiet Place: Part II by John Krasinski, I’d be interested to see if anyone disagrees with this choice. And there’s no telling how much this list will change by the time the decade is done.
8. The 1920s
With absolutely legendary horror projects like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), this decade was jam-packed with thrills and chills that still hold up a century down the line. Those two aren’t the most everlasting, per say, but they played such a large role in shaping the modern horror movie that it’d be criminal to leave the twenties off the list.
The Phantom of the Opera is another big-name title from the early years of Hollywood (1925), and while it received middling reception upon release, more modern reviews have praised the silent-horror film. Also, while it may not be the highest-quality film that holds up a hundred years later, or anything, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adds even more name value that rounds out this decade to a tee.
7. The 1960s
With classic horror entries like Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), the 1960s saw Alfred Hitchcock establish himself as the “Master of Suspense.” Those two films hold a 96% and 93% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes, and they’ve been inducted into the National Film Registration for preservation by the Library of Congress. Not even those achievements can truly underline their significance, though. They’re two of the most inspirational horror movies ever, and Hitchcock is a legend because of them.
There are two other major players in the horror game that emerged in this decade, and coincidentally, even the same year. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (both from 1968) have also been preserved by the Library of Congress.
The most underrated horror film of the era, though, came by way of Peeping Tom (1960), Michael Powell’s turn-of-the-decade, highly-controversial horror effort. It’s credited as the first mainstream slasher film, and considering the number of films at that genre and will soon be touched on, much of this list has Peeping Tom to thank for their inclusion.
6. The 2000s
With horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) on top of the Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, zombies really hit their Hollywood stride in this decade. However, the biggest story thereof was undoubtedly Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). The 28 Weeks Later (2007) follow-up was great, but Days set the standard for modern zombie movies, and remains a classic of the genre twenty years down the line.
But enough about decaying, brain-eating humanoids. The other horror sub-genre seemingly mastered by directors of this era was the found footage film. With Rec, a Spanish language found footage film from 2007, we got perhaps the most underrated entry ever made within the sub-genre that had been made famous by The Blair Witch Project in the decade prior. Paranormal Activity is the most popular movie of its ilk, but for my money, Rec is the best of the bunch.
Other popular horror movies like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) bolstered the genre’s vigor throughout the 2000s. Perhaps the perfect end-note for this entry, though, comes by way of Sam Raimi. After helping popularize superhero movies with his Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi returned to scare form in 2009 by releasing Drag Me to Hell (2009). It’s silly at points, but it will also haunt your dreams. Watch with caution.
5. The 1930s
This decade was absolutely dominated by the Universal Classic Monster movies. Films like Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and Werewolf of London (1935) cemented horror films as a staple of Classical Hollywood.
Through this slew of monster films, one man in particular walked away as the most accomplished name thereof: James Whale. He made Frankenstein in 1931, which holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been selected by the library of congress for preservation in the national film registry. The Invisible Man (1932, 94% on RT) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935, 98% on RT) were also preserved.
Whale’s most underrated film of the Monster line came by way of The Old Dark House in 1932. While it was never selected for preservation, it has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and has long been considered a true cult classic.
4. The 1990s
The biggest story re: 90s horror undoubtedly unfolds when analyzing the Academy Award wins and forever acclaim of The Silence of the Lambs, the psychological horror from 1991. It won the big five awards at the Oscars: Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Actor. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most recognizable villains in the genre, and will forever be the face of the 90s.
That is, unless we account for the Ghostface killer, introduced in 1996’s Scream, directed by Wes Craven and establishing him as the king of slashers. The signature black cloak with a long, white mask—inspired by The Scream, a painting by Edvard Munch—has been a staple Halloween costume for the past two-and-a-half decades.
The screenwriter of Scream, a guy named Kevin Williamson, also penned the scripts for its sequel Scream 2 (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (also 1997), and The Faculty—that last one is super underrated, and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Another big-name filmmaker with a 90s horror movie under his belt was Guillermo Del Toro, who made Mimic in 1998.
I could rattle on about more popular movies like Sleepy Hollow (1999), Interview With a Vampire (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and The Sixth Sense (1999), but the final movie to focus on is The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps the most famous found footage film ever, Blair Witch in 1999 popularized the sub-genre in America while remaining inspirational for horror directors to this day. And it holds up just wonderfully.
3. The 2010s
Off the bat, four films walked away as the juggernauts of modern horror: The Conjuring (2013), It Follows (2014), Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018). Those were the best of the bunch, but it’s also worth noting that three of those four were directed by prominent horror filmmakers.
James Wan, who directed The Conjuring, also made Insidious (2010), Insidious: Chapter Two (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). While the Insidious franchise resulted in poor scores from critics, they made great money at the box office—plus, both Conjuring films succeeded across the board.
With regard to Get Out: we all know it was Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and some of us might be on a Peele resurgence thanks to Nope in 2022. His 2019 horror film Us bolsters his standing as a horror director, and adds great value to the decade itself. When accounting for Ari Aster (Hereditary) releasing Midsommar in 2019, it’s clear those three were operating on a different level.
Perhaps my favorite films from this decade, though, were the horror comedies: namely Tucker and Dale vs Evil and The Cabin in the Woods, the latter of which also verges on science fiction. They’re not as big on scares as they are on laughs, but man, they’re absolute riots—two of the funniest films ever made.
And with both franchises having entries that released in 2022, it would criminal not to mention the films that reinvigorated two of the biggest horror properties to ever exist: Scream and Halloween. Both Scream 4 in 2011 and the Halloween reboot in 2018 transcended any expectations that fans could muster. The quality of the subsequent sequels have seen a decline, though.
2. The 1980s
With four Halloween sequels, the inception of franchises like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead, and with several acclaimed projects from the genre’s best—John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, for example—the eighties are without a doubt the most famous decade in horror movie history. But that doesn’t make it the best.
The original Elm Street (1984) definitely holds up, and while the same can’t be said for Friday the 13th, Jason’s trademark machete and a hockey mask will go down in horror history. Also: both Evil Dead movies are two of the best the genre can offer. These franchises—along with other series like Gremlins and Child’s Play—exponentially aided the growth in popularity of horror movies.
Of course, the biggest takeaway herein could well be The Shining, made by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. While it was initially dogged by critics, it’s since been cited by fans and academics alike as one of the greatest of its kind. It’s also been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and it eventually spawned a sequel: Doctor Sleep in 2019.
In terms of directors, John Carpenter had an incredible run of thrills and chills—The Thing in 1982, Christine the following year and Prince of Darkness in 1987—and so did David Cronenberg with Scanners in 1981, Videodrome in 1983 and The Fly in 1986. This was the decade that solidified their names as legends of horror, and they’ll go down in history for it.
1. The 1970s
From compounds with science fiction—Invasion of the Body Snatchers—to comedic movies with creepy backdrops—Young Frankenstein and Rocky Horror Picture Show—the horror movies of the seventies had great variety on top of critical and commercial success. On Time Out Magazine’s list of the 100 best horror movies, six of the top ten are from the seventies. Let’s get to them.
This decade is often recalled for popularizing the slasher sub-genre. The first of the bunch came with Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, which absolutely holds up to this day, while the next dropped that same year: Black Christmas. In 1978, however, the sub-genre was instantly mastered by John Carpenter when he wrote, directed and scored Halloween. I could dedicate this whole entry to the renown and legacy of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, but we all know the acclaim thereof.
I’d be remiss not to mention underrated gems like The Stepford Wives, Deathdream and Ganja and Hess. However, there are three more juggernauts of the genre to touch on: The Omen, The Exorcist, and Jaws (1975). Of course, the last one was made by Steven Spielberg, and while it wasn’t the outright scariest movie of the bunch, it just might be the best.
And none of those left me room for movies like Carrie, Dawn of the Dead and Don’t Look Now. But, before you all have my head, I’ll name Alien as the picture that seals the deal for the 1970s. It was the best decade for horror, and in my eyes, there’s really no debate.
Thanks for Reading!
What’d you think? Agree with the list? Let us know your favorite decade for horror movies in the comments below, and have a happy Halloween!