“These films will, if you allow yourself to succumb to them, scare you rigid, not from blood or gore, but from what you sometimes cannot (and will never) see, what you must imagine, situations that are disturbing, things that may or not be real or possible,” said McLean.
“Even when they make you giggle at one or another of their implausibilities or, in the case of the older films, general campiness, you will likely find yourself awake in the middle of the night at some point in the future remembering scenes from all of them.”
Her recommendations are:
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). “This film is in black and white and made on a tiny budget, but it contains one of the most influential horror scenes of all time — a woman being terrorized in a swimming pool by shadow and noise only. A perfect example of how the monster (a young married woman who becomes a vicious black leopard) is to be both feared and pitied — we cheer when she kills the sleazy psychiatrist who finds her ‘exciting’ and thinks he can control her. We mourn her death.”
The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961). “An adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, this film is about a governess who agrees to take care of two strange and possibly possessed children in a mansion in the middle of the British countryside. Also in black and white, it is probably the scariest film I have ever seen, purely on the basis of its evocative and disturbing images—a cherub with an insect crawling from its mouth, a figure standing in a lake, a dead bird under a pillow. The soundtrack is also terrifying.”
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). “Most people are aware of this film thanks to Jack Nicholson’s performance as the unhinged proprietor of a remote resort hotel, but it remains one of the creepiest films ever made. Your startle reflex will get a tremendous workout.”
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). “Yes, it has bizarre plot holes — why don’t the three lost students just follow the stream back to civilization instead of wandering around in circles? But, for dread created from very little (stick witches hanging from trees, piles of rocks, a blurry severed finger) this movie is hard to beat.”
The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001). “A ‘twist’ film, sometimes compared to The Innocents for its creepy children and the fact that there may or may not be ghosts in the house. Literally, it is quite a dark film because the children suffer from some disease that makes them sensitive to light, and all the scarier for it. The sequence involving a photograph album containing actual images of dead Victorian and Edwardian children will stay with you for years.”
McLean has a PhD in film studies from Emory University and is the author of many books on film including Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2008; second printing 2011).