10 horror directors reveal the scariest movies they ever saw

One of the thrills of the annual Fantastic Fest movie festival in Austin, Texas, is the chance to see back-to-back new and upcoming horror films, with the directors usually on site for Q&As and interviews after screenings. At this year’s Fantastic Fest in September, Polygon spoke to a number of directors whose movies are out now, coming soon, or on the far horizon for release next year. And we asked all of them the same question: “What’s the scariest horror movie you’ve ever seen?” Here’s a roundup of their responses.

Demián Rugna

Demián Rugna is the director of the terrifying new possession movie When Evil Lurks, currently in theaters and coming to Shudder on Oct. 27. He’s also known for previous horror movies, including Terrified and You Don’t Know Who You’re Talking To.

Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist, screaming with her hair wild and her eyes completely white Image: Warner Bros./YouTube

The Exorcist. I was in the bedroom with my mother with a blanket. [gestures as if pulling a blanket up to his eyes] She’d say, Yeah, it’s OK, you can see this, you can see this. [gestures at lowering the blanket, then pulling it up over his eyes again] I remember that my mother [talked me through it], but it was horrible. Horrible! I saw it twice the same way, with a blanket over the head. I think I was just 8 or 9.

I don’t know how much that movie influenced my work, but the realism of that horror movie — [I’ve been] trying to reach the realism of the drama. When you see The Exorcist, it’s a drama. If you see Terrified, it’s a drama. I think the way to make an audience say This could happen to me is with drama. I love a horror-comedy. I even made a horror-comedy. But if I want to really scare you, I need to go with drama, like The Exorcist.

David Bruckner

David Bruckner is the director of The Night House, The Ritual, and the 2022 Hellraiser remake. He produced V/H/S/94, V/H/S/99, and the new V/H/S/85, now streaming on Shudder. He also directed “Total Copy,” the V/H/S/85 story wrapper.

Jeff Goldblum, naked and harshly lit, crouches in a ominous, futuristic looking metal pod in a scene from the 1986 film The Fly Photo: 20th Century Fox/Getty Images

I didn’t watch horror films when I was a kid. It took me a long time to be able to watch them, because I was so easily frightened. So the things I saw when I was young — I saw David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly way too young. Full-on body horror, and I couldn’t watch a Jeff Goldblum movie for about 10 years. I remember when Jurassic Park came out, and every time he came on screen, my stomach would be in knots.

Mike P. Nelson

Mike P. Nelson is the director of Wrong Turn, The Domestics, and the V/H/S/85 segments “No Wake”/“Ambrosia.”

A human figure lies on a table and screams, completely blanketed in a yellow-white sheet-like cover that clings closely to his chest, legs, and open mouth in Fire in the Sky Photo: Paramount/Everett Collection

There’s definitely a few for me, in different genres. I was not allowed to watch any real hardcore horror. Like, I grew up with the Universal Studios monsters. I grew up watching stuff from the early ’50s and ’60s, so that was my palate, even though I wanted so badly to sneak into something [scarier]. But I do remember going — I wasn’t even that young, but I was still under 18. And my dad and I rented Fire in the Sky.

One of my favorite things to watch growing up was shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings, which had that feeling of This isn’t real, but… They were presented like news broadcasts — “They just saw a sighting of Bigfoot down in Tennessee!” — and they tried to make it feel as believable as possible. So when Fire in the Sky came out, it was an alien abduction story, which is what a handful of those shows and the Twilight Zone episodes I was watching were about, so my dad and I said, “We have to see this.” I remember being at SuperAmerica, which had a video rental store called SuperVideo. I saw the case and said, “I want to see this!” and my dad was like, “Absolutely,” because it was PG-13, it wasn’t R.

So we brought it home, and my dad and I were both absolutely petrified. I had never seen my dad so unnerved and on edge after watching a movie. Feeling the same way he did was a real shared experience. I will never forget that. It made me fear what’s out there — not that it’s necessarily bad, but even if it’s good, I’m still a little bit nervous. The plastic over the face, and taking the scalpel and cutting the slit in the mouth — that was even worse for me than the thing going into the eye. I was just like, Don’t cut the edges of his mouth! Oh my God, I fucking love that movie, and it’s still ingrained in me.

Gigi Saul Guerrero

Gigi Saul Guerrero is a horror actor (Into the Dark, Re-Home, Trap House) and Blumhouse director (Culture Shock, Bingo Hell). She directed the V/H/S/85 segment “God of Death.”

Regan (Linda Blair), a tousle-haired young girl snarling and covered with blood, in The Exorcist Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Being not allowed to watch anything scary, I was very excited for my 10th birthday, when The Exorcist was remastered and was re-released in Mexico with deleted scenes, recolored, new sound design. I remember telling my mom, “I’m turning a two-digit number! You can’t tell me what to do! This is what I want for my birthday!” You know, being a total brat.

So my mom still to this day remembers she [initially] went to see it around 13, 14 years old, and it still is the most traumatizing thing she’s ever watched. She puts holy water under her bed still. It was too real for her. That’s what I wanted for my birthday, was to go to the movies and see my first horror film. So my mom, thinking it’d work to take me there so I’d never watch these movies again, she said, “OK, bring your cousin too,” because we were really bad kids.

And we walked out crying so much. But I was crying and smiling, like the demon. I was so happy about how scared I was. I’d never seen anything like that. Growing up religious, I felt like the power of Christ compelled me, if you know what I’m saying. That was still to this day the best experience I’ve had with a horror movie. Tons of scary movies out there, but that’s throwing out a classic.

Natasha Kermani

Natasha Kermani is the director of Lucky, Imitation Girl, and the V/H/S/85 segment “TKNOGD.”

Two figures in stylized girl masks with blush on the cheeks and faint smiles loom alarmingly in a cluttered cabin room in The Strangers Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

The Strangers. I was also a big scaredy-cat for a long time. Until basically I was an adult, every horror movie I ever saw was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. I was very scared all the time with horror movies. So The Strangers, I always think about because it’s the one I saw once I was already a horror person. And I was like, I got this, no big deal. Like, how bad can it be? And it’s horrible. It’s so good! It just makes you feel really terrible about the state of the universe. Those kinds of movies — Funny Games, those kinds of really nihilistic films, that really gets to me.

Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson is the director of Doctor Strange, The Black Phone, Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the V/H/S/85 segment “Dreamkill.”

A Korean woman with bloody hands and spots of blood on her dress lies on her back on the floor, hair spread around her in a halo, as a figure with bare, bloody feet stands over her in A Tale of Two Sisters Photo: Tartan Films/Everett Collection

I think there’s different kinds of scary — it’s different being scared by movies and being disturbed. The most disturbing experience I had watching a movie — I had a panic attack after I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I was not well after that movie for a while, for hours.

But scariest scene I’ve ever seen, I was alone when I was in film school, at night, watching A Tale of Two Sisters. And the scene when the old hag comes around the corner of the couch and comes up on the bed — first time, only time in my movie-watching career that I bailed out. It was going up on the couch and I was like, Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, and I just turned it off. And I immediately felt so much shame. I was like, Oh nooooo, oh my God, I turned it off!

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan is a director known for disturbing, thrilling shorts often incorporating stop-motion animation, including The Cat With Hands and Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt. His feature debut, Stopmotion, will be in theaters in 2024.

Jamie Lee Curtis, cigarette dangling from her lips, sits calmly in a car with the window smashed out in John Carpenter’s The Fog Photo: Embassy Pictures/Everett Collection

I don’t get scared by movies anymore, because I’m too imbued with watching horror films all the time. But when I was a kid, a film that really traumatized me was John Carpenter’s The Fog. I saw that when I was 7 or 8 or something, and it totally traumatized me. That and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas — the ’70s style of pre-Halloween slasher movie, which is still really effective. I saw those movies at a totally incorrect age, and they traumatized me.

I was simultaneously attracted and repelled. I imagine that’s probably the case for a lot of people who grew to be horror fans. They saw something that freaked them out so much that they were fascinated. And then you go back for more. It’s a weird sort of perverse attraction, especially when you’re a kid. So I started gradually, bit by bit seeking out more and more horror films. The Fog was like a gateway drug to darker horror films, and weirder horror films. I ended up going down rabbit holes of weird subgenres, and then it became a lifelong obsession.

Jenn Wexler

Jenn Wexler is the director of The Ranger and shorts including Slumber Party and Halloween Bash. Her horror feature The Sacrifice Game will stream exclusively on Shudder starting Dec. 8.

A naked, bloodied man kneels on the floor in front of a dark-haired woman who’s pressed up against the wall of an underlit bedroom in Netflix’s Marianne Photo: Netflix

I’m going to cheat and give you a TV show. Marianne, on Netflix. It came out a couple of years ago, and it’s so scary, it still scares me to this day. It’s the director who directed Cobweb, which came out recently. It’s in French, and it’s demonic, a demon’s story. Just the atmosphere of it — they pull off some incredible, incredible jump scares. Not cheap jump scares. The imagery is amazing. There’s one specific line — I won’t say it, but sometimes [her husband and Sacrifice Game co-writer] Sean will say it to me, just to fuck with me. And suddenly I’m scared again. So definitely check out Marianne. I watch lots of horror movies, and I’m obviously a horror movie filmmaker, but this trumps everything else I’ve watched.

Heather Buckley

Heather Buckley, a producer on The Sacrifice Game, has produced more than 250 movies and videos, including The Ranger and Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson.

A toddler with a sneer on his face, a livid scar running down his forehead, and a scalpel in his head from the 1989 movie Pet Sematary Photo: Paramount Pictures

[1989’s] Pet Sematary by Mary Lambert. It’s disturbing, because the idea is that grief drives you to try to solve death and bring back your loved ones, and you can’t. I feel there’s something incredibly tragic about every frame of Pet Sematary. With the book and the movies, even the 2019 remake, I felt the same.

The most frightening part of King’s book was not that Louis resurrected his family — that’s not the horror. The horror is that he might have to live with his dead family for the rest of his life. In the remake, which our friends directed, I felt like the scene with the little girl in The Ranger — that was so disturbing and so sad. To sit there with a dead child and even brush her hair? It’s like, that’s not your child. It’ll never be your child.

Joe Lynch

Joe Lynch is the director of Knights of Badassdom, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, and the 2019 crime thriller Point Blank. His new movie, Suitable Flesh, premieres in theaters and digitally on Oct. 27.

George C. Scott walks around a hospital, oblivious, as a gray-haired woman crawls across the ceiling above him in Exorcist III Image: 20th Century Fox

There are all the ones that everybody goes to, but honestly, the one I remember affecting me most in the theater was Exorcist III. I love that movie. I saw it opening weekend. Everybody else went to go see Ghost, which is fine. I mean, come on, Patrick Swayze. But Exorcist III wrecked me. I had nightmares for days after. There’s something about the kind of procedural police slasher film, but also embedded with all of the language of the Exorcist films that [William] Friedkin established, that [William Peter] Blatty ported over. You know, everybody talks about the shot. The zoom-in shot. Being in that theater for that moment — that audience went Nah on Ghost, I want to see an Exorcist movie. And that’s not what we got! We didn’t get that type of movie!

But Blatty created something so tense and so disturbing, with some incredible scares in it that no one saw coming. Especially that shot, but I can pinpoint four or five other scenes — the woman crawling on the ceiling. The jump-cut moments from Jason Miller to Brad Dourif, where he would scream into the camera. And then cut to George C. Scott, just kind of falling asleep in the background, going, What the fuck was this movie for? There’s something that still works about that film. I don’t know if I would have had the same experience if I saw it at home, on home video at the time. But being in that theater… [mimes jumping out of his seat] multiple times.

This was at a point where I still had to sneak into movies. My technique was, I would take my dad’s jacket with me and plop it on the seat next to me. And anytime some pimply usher would come by, like [The Simpsons-style warbly teenager voice], “Excuse me, where’s your ticket?” I’d be like, “Oh, my dad’s in the bathroom. He’s got the tickets. I swear to God, he’s here.” And they’d be like, “OK,” and they’d never come back. So for this movie, I’m sitting by myself in a pretty full house. You could tell midway through the movie, the audience wasn’t quite sure what kind of movie they’d gotten. Now, I make those movies too, where people, in the middle, are going, What are we watching? But in this case, the audience was engaged enough. And then the shot happens.

No one saw it coming. Everyone is sitting there going, Why are we holding on to this one shot for so long? And then what happens, happens. And the entire crowd jumped up. Here’s the worst part — someone grabbed me from behind! And went [choked fear noise]. And I jump up and turn around, and there’s this old lady behind me. I’m like, “Lady, what are you doing?” And she’s like, “I didn’t have anyone else to hold on to!” So I go, “Do you want to sit with me?” She sat down next to me, and we watched the rest of the movie together. Horror movies bring people together!