One day, when I was about fourteen or so, I went to the video store with my mother. I had just gotten into the Silent Hill video game series and loved it to death. The complex narrative combined with horror elements hit just the right spot in my brain, and I craved more. I was a young, budding horror fan digging my teeth into anything I could find.
As I perused the options at the movie rental store (it was a Hollywood Video – something that no longer exists in Eugene, Oregon, where I grew up), a voice came from behind me: “Oh, there’s so many horror movies out these days! Only a couple of these are good, though.” To my surprise, there was my mom, checking the options right along with me. She started pulling movies off the shelf: Carrie, Psycho, The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder. “You should start with these ones, and go from there.”
I learned that day that my mother was a massive horror fan: as a young girl in New York, she would often babysit her younger brother and would have the TV as her source of entertainment for the evening, discovering many of these movies as she flipped stations. Others, she would seek out with her friends at the movie theaters, which would only show one or two films per screen for months at a time.
So I thought it would be fun to rack my mom’s brain about her favorite horror movies of all time. “A lot of them are more intrigue and less gore in movies I like… they’re not all horror movies, but definitely scary movies,” she warned me as I started the interview. But I trust her choices: this is the same woman who, at Thanksgiving, had us take part in a tradition of watching one Alfred Hitchcock movie each year, chronologically, at our local block party.
Without further ado, here are my mom’s top horror movies of all time.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
This was one of the movies that my mom saw on late-night TV while babysitting her brother. “It’s black and white, kind of spooky… the camera shots are spooky. It seems kind of funny now, but at the time, it wasn’t… I don’t remember [the plot] that well, but the images stuck out. That’s what they did, they held the shot so you’d be getting into this scary thing… there wasn’t a lot of talking in that movie, just these images.”
The film’s cinematography was helmed by master John J. Mescall, whose other works included All Quiet On The Western Front and The Invisible Man, for which he is uncredited. His camera, combined with James Whale’s direction, made for some fantastic still images, many of which can be found on dorm room posters and old-school monster promos to this day. The film is considered Whale’s masterpiece, and one of the most famous of the Universal monster movies.
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” (From An Evening With Edgar Allen Poe) (1970)
This one is actually from a collection of Edgar Allen Poe shorts, which were narrated by the great Vincent Price. My mom attests that this is her favorite reading of the story: “He buries the heart of someone he just killed under the floorboards, and then the police came in to ask him questions… and he put the police chair right next to the heart, and his on the other side. And slowly… you hear this kind of beating, and the heart starts beating louder and louder, it’s so cool! It freaks him out of course, and he eventually spills the beans.”
We couldn’t determine if the collection was a made-for-TV series or if it was a standalone collection, but regardless the combination of Poe-esque acting, Price’s narration, and the compelling stories made for some great, rainy-day horror viewing.
- Christine (1983)
Stephen King was one of my mom’s favorite choices for movie adaptations. While the books themselves were great (we still have many of them in the house), many of the films effectively conveyed the terror brought in the novels. Christine, the story of a killer car out for blood, was no exception.
“The car wants to get back at everybody. I saw this together with dad… People were happily scared to death by it! People would (and still) go to movies to get scared, so!”
- The Birds (1963)
The Alfred Hitchcock classic was an early memory for my mom. “I probably saw it when I was about ten. I saw it with my parents… I was really freaked out by it! All the birds crashing through the windows was really scary.” The effects of those birds crashing, in the case of the final attic sequence, was actually Hitchcock throwing model birds at actress Tippi Hedren; many of her reactions were real. However, they psychological impact of the movie was still something that stayed with my mom, years after watching it.
“I’ve seen it so many times since, I’m not really scared by it at all anymore. But when you walk outside after you’ve seen that movie and you see the birds sitting on the phone lines… you go, ‘Oh my god! What are they plotting to do?’ Even now when dad and I see a lot of birds sitting… you don’t really know what they’re thinking.”
- Rear Window (1954)
More of a thriller than an outright horror film, Rear Window still remains a classic, again by Hitchcock. James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies, who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident. However, as a photographer, he begins to investigate the area around him from his window… and witnesses a murder in the process.
“I remember every little detail about it,“ my mom explains to me. The film also stars Grace Kelly, who infamously goes to check in at a suspicious scene part-way through the movie. Despite there hardly being any blood in the movie at all, the suspense is masterfully executed, leaving you on the edge of your seat. Even watching it now, you can still feel the tension.
- The Shining (1980)
Being a resident of Oregon, my mom has very specific memories of this movie. “When they drive up in the beginning… that’s going up to Timberline in Oregon!” When I was old enough, my mom made sure that we went there just to see the drive. I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet, but we watched it together soon after, and the connection was eerie.
“Jack Nicholson… he was very scary, he really did a great job with that. When he would be typing on the paper, and you find out that’s all he’s typing… oh, it was so good! And when the kid would ride down his tricycle down the hallway, and he ran into the two little girls… and they were killed in the hotel.” (Photography artist Diane Arbus was friends with Stanley Kubrick, and would serve as inspiration for the twins.) “Stanley Kubrick is really good how he slowly adds in things and it builds and builds… it was a really good movie!”
- Wait Until Dark (1967)
This one was a surprise for me; I had almost forgotten about it before my mom mentioned it. “Audrey Hepburn was in it! I don’t think she did any other horror movies… I can’t imagine, she’s so pretty! She had big sunglasses, normally they like to show her face… she was blind in the movie.”
The film starred Hepburn as a blind woman living alone, who is burgled by three men (one of them a young Alan Arkin) attempting to steal a doll with a certain expensive secret. The ending sequence was particularly memorable: “This guy is trying to get her, and he opens the refrigerator, because she’s always in the dark, so he opens the refrigerator so can see… It’s a very creepy, spooky movie!” Refrigerators, man. Can’t trust ‘em.
- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The movie that made me realize my mom was a closet horror fan; one of the first big, in-depth discussions I had with her about horror was for this movie. Starring Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby sees Farrow as a young wife who becomes pregnant – she later learns – with the son of Satan. The subsequent trail of madness by Farrow into her suspicious neighbors and her own husband’s involvement is one of the classics in horror, and arguably one of Roman Polanski’s best films.
My mom described the circumstances of seeing it for the first time: “I would’ve been fifteen when I saw it, so I saw it with friends… you couldn’t see anything on the TV, so you had to see it in a theater. There was a theater in White Plains (New York), which is now a multi-plex… but there used to only be one screen. They’d play the same movie for like, two months – people didn’t go as much, and they couldn’t see it on TV, so they’d have to play it a bunch so everyone could see it.”
- Carrie (1976)
My mom’s favorite Stephen King book, and her favorite film adaptation ever. “It’s so amazing! And her mother was so crazy! And of course the people that wanted to be the prom queen were also crazy… and they spill the bucket of pig’s blood on her, so she runs home, but then her mother is even crazier than they are! Just like a lot of movies, it goes from okay, to nice, to a little strange, creepy, to full-on crazy! It was so scary.”
The ending still freaks me out, even after my mom told me about it before I saw it for the first time. “I saw a movie recently that did a similar thing to the ending, but this last one I saw wasn’t nearly as scary… this one made you jump out of your seat!” One could only imagine seeing this in a packed theater in the 70’s.
- North By Northwest (1959)
This is still a movie that my family watches habitually. More of a thriller than an outright chiller, North by Northwest is about an innocent man (Cary Grant), wrongfully accused and pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm that contains government secrets.
“The main thing is that, kind of near the end, he’s running and running trying to get away from these people… and then an airplane comes down! The last scene was really great. Also they climb over Mount Rushmore, which was really incredible… I don’t really know how they did that. Maybe they just didn’t have anyone go on it that day!” As it turns out, it would be a painting that editors would later superimpose the actors onto, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they really were on Mount Rushmore; Alfred Hitchcock did have a lot of influence, after all…
- The Island of Doctor Moreau (1977)
Of all the movies on this list, this was the one I would least suspect as my mom’s favorite horror movie of all time; still, she assured me that the images from this movie stay with her to this day. “There’s one that came out in 1996, but that’s definitely not the good one… the one I saw is in black and white, by H.G. Wells.”
“I definitely saw it on TV, when I was alone… probably when I was babysitting my brother… I was totally freaked out. And then when I found out the end of the movie, that they’re actually animals that become humans… that freaked me out even more. You don’t really know what the experiments are, and then you find out what they are… I think I made dad watch it once. When we met each other, we had common interests in science fiction books, and in Ursula K. Le Guin, because she lived in the northwest. [The Island of Doctor Moreau] was a movie I had in our VCR, and I made him watch that. Definitely my favorite horror movie.”
If writing this article taught me anything, it’s that you never know who is going to be a horror fan, or what kinds of horror they will like. That’s the great thing about the genre: within it, there are so many different types that exist that can cross over into a number of different audiences. With my mom, she liked more of the thriller / psychological elements of horror, but this would be a trait that would be passed to her son (that is, before his horizons were expanded by friends / morbid curiosity). In the end, it turns out that the world of horror is a large one, and one that has a little something for everyone.