[Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence in film, and in real life situations inspiring some films.]
In front of the camera, there is a rich catalogue of women who have come to define the face of the scary movie: Jamie Lee Curtis in her screen debut as Laurie in the Halloween series. Mia Farrow’s haunted womb, Shelley Duvall with a kitchen knife, Rie Ino’o as Sadako in Ringu, Linda Blair’s spider-walk down the stairs, Heather O’Rourke as the tow-headed Carol Anne pursued by a Poltergeist… the list goes on and on.
Read on for our suggestions of some scary movies you can enjoy for a Halloween night in—these featuring women creators behind-the-scenes:
1. Advantageous (2015), Jennifer Phang
This subtly futuristic Netflix sci-fi film places a mother’s struggle to provide for her daughter at the center of a technological landscape not too dissimilar from our own. Aging and fertility loom menacingly in the lives of the protagonist and even her preteen daughter. “Why did you have me,” the daughter asks, “when you knew the world was so bad?” Tapping into fears about diminishing natural resources, director Jennifer Phang creates a world described by The New York Times as, “a strange if alluring mash-up of Stella Dallas and Michel Foucault, with a smidgen of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville and a hint of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Written, Produced by Jacqueline Kim, Jennifer Phang
2. Always Shine (2016), Sophia Takal
With this film, director/producer Sophia Takal explores one of the most frightening things for a lot of women, professionally: gendered expectations. “Some of my female friends got a little more successful, and I started to get jealous. I had been taught that my whole identity was wrapped up in my career and this idea of being successful, and the people I saw getting successful were, I thought, more feminine than me. They were these shy, quiet, beautiful, perfect female archetypes. I started to go crazy—I was angry at all my friends, I alienated them… Then I started to realize that throughout my whole life I had encountered this narrative of being too loud, aggressive, ambitious.”
3. American Psycho (2000), Mary Harron
What’s scarier? The pathological bloodlust of Patrick Bateman, or directing a satirical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ wildly successful novel only to have Roger Ebert write that it was “the most loathed” film at Sundance? Twenty years ago, on the eve of her film’s release, director Mary Harron said in an interview that, “a certain part of the audience—the young male audience—[want] to see a horror movie, and is disappointed because it’s not.” Regardless of your expectations going in to the movie, it’s undoubtedly brutal. Harron even had to fight for it to be downgraded from NC-17, ultimately cutting 18 seconds of footage—not of violence, but a sex scene—to land an R rating.
Written by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner
4. The Babadook (2014), Jennifer Kent
Jennifer Kent has continued to helm horrific features with last year’s thriller The Nightingale, but her debut The Babadook, an adaptation of her own short film Monster, has quickly become a cult favorite of the genre. Beyond simply spooking with a monster in a closet, Kent’s film explores the frightening realities of grief and human weakness. In her own words: “[I’m] very drawn to facing the darkness in ourselves … a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.”
Written by Jennifer Kent; Produced by Kristina Ceyton
5. The Bad Batch (2016), Ana Lily Amirpour
This one’s for those who like their horror films more gory than ghoulish. This is Amirpour’s second feature, as disparate in tone, style, and storytelling as possible from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Described as, “a trippy, sun-scorched apocalyptic horror film with a rom-com finish that gets as bloody, visceral and cannibalistic as its U.S. R rating will allow,” be aware that the film has been widely criticized for its “offensive racial politics.”
Written by Ana Lily Amirpour
6. Body at Brighton Rock (2019), Roxanne Benjamin
Spending a night alone in the wilderness can be a terrifying prospect all on its own. The central character in Roxanne Benjamin’s suspenseful debut feature does just that, compounded by a discovered crime scene and a deep need to prove her own mettle.
Written, Produced by Roxanne Benjamin; Cinematography by Hannah Getz; Edited by Courtney Marcilliat
7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Fran Rubel Kuzui
Okay, this one is definitely more fun than freaky, but Fran Rubel Kuzui’s portrait of a teenaged cheerleader destined to fight the undead has had an indelible influence on nerdy genre culture. Before seven seasons on TV and countless esoterica, there was the ’90s-slang-slinging of Kristy Swanson saving the day to protect crush Luke Perry. Add in Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, and David Arquette for a cult classic that’s perfect for a midnight viewing if you don’t want to be too scared after dark.
Edited by Jill Savitt, Camilla Toniolo
8. Carrie (2013), Kimberly Peirce
For her third feature after Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss, Kimberly Peirce reimagined Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror classic, itself an homage to the Hitchcock catalogue. Upon its release, The New Yorker observed what a difference a female director made: “For Peirce, Carrie is more than a symbol, more than a suffering cipher, and her identity seems denser, her intelligence surer, her sensibility more nuanced than in the earlier film—therefore, her telekinetic powers are more of a surprise to her, and her discovery of them has the feel of a strange and ambiguous awakening.”
Edited by Nancy Richardson
9. Chanthaly (2012), Mattie Do
Filmmaker Mattie Do, who began her career as a makeup artist, also produced and sound edited this supernatural exploration of grief, the first feature directed by a Lao woman, and the first horror film written and directed entirely in Laos.
10. Dearest Sister (2016), Mattie Do
The first Laotian film ever submitted for consideration to the Academy Awards for the “Best Foreign Language Film” category, it has been described as, “an insightful look at the impact of colonialism and unbalanced gender roles in Laos, and it’s also a gripping and accessible horror story.” This supernatural mystery was inspired by the 19th Century ballet La Bayadère.
Original title: Nong Hak; Produced by Mattie Do, Helen Lohmus, Annick Mahnert
11. Fugue (2018), Agnieszka Smoczyńska
This dark psychological thriller uses the trope of amnesia after a long disappearance to show how frightening it can be for a woman’s entire identity to be defined by her roles as a wife and mother.
Original title: Fuga; Written by Gabriela Muskala; Produced by Agnieszka Kurzydlo
12. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Ana Lily Amirpour
The title of Amirpour’s first feature—a chiaroscuro western—could make you think that the scary part of this story is the vulnerability all women have felt when walking alone at night. Keys between knuckles, eyes darting wildly, headphones on even if only as a prop. But no! Amirpour’s titular Girl is a vampire skating around an Iranian town in a hijab, hunting men to exsanguinate.
Written by Ana Lily Amirpour
13. Hair Wolf (2018), Mariama Diallo
This comedic short has made a splash on the festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for narrative short film. Art imitates life in Diallo’s piece, then takes it to the literal extreme. “In a black hair salon in gentrifying Brooklyn, the local residents fend off a strange new monster: white women intent on sucking the lifeblood from black culture.”
Produced by Valerie Steinberg; Cinematography by Charlotte Hornsby; Music by Ariel Marx
14. Half-Life (2008), Jennifer Phang
Surely every generation must think that they are the ones finally on the edge of global annihilation—but Phang’s art house fantasy explores all the tangible reasons why we could be facing the end of the world. Natural disasters, poor air quality, and xenophobia give way to supernatural powers in the suburbs of Northern California.
Written by Jennifer Phang; Edited by Floria Vela
15. The Headless Woman (2008), Lucrecia Martel
This tense mystery uses the red herring of an amnesia that cloaks its protagonist’s life in doubt and unfamiliarity, to tell a more political story about class drama. According to Time Out, “In what could be one of the greatest films ever made about the emotional realities of a damaged mind, this giddily disorienting latest from Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel is a work of frenzied genius.”
Original title: La mujer sin cabeza; Written by Lucrecia Martel; Produced by Tilde Corsi, Verónica Cura, Esther García, Lucrecia Martel, Marianne Slot; Cinematography by Barbara Alvarez; Music by Roberta Ainstein
16. The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Ida Lupino
This nail-biter of a classic film noir centers a villain with a violent nature who’s picked up by two men on a fishing trip. Trauma and sadism are writ large in this character, inspired by spree killer Billy Cook, who murdered six people and kidnapped drivers who offered him rides.
Written by Ida Lupino
17. Honeymoon (2014), Leigh Janiak
This eerie thriller is an intimate look into a young couple’s time spent vacationing at her family’s remote lake cabin. Uncomfortable conversations regarding their plans for the future and readiness to have a baby could be a portent for things to come. A walk in the woods in the middle of the night sets off a series of mysterious symptoms affecting the newlywed bride, putting both her and her husband’s lives in peril.
Written by Leigh Janiak; Produced by Esmé Howard; Music by Heather McIntosh
18. I Am Not a Witch (2017), Rungano Nyoni
Writer-director Rungano Nyoni was inspired to make this feature by stories of children accused of witchcraft in her native Zambia. While not a scary movie in the traditional sense—there are no actual supernatural threats—it’s certainly frightening to see that women’s behavior can still be policed by those who fear us. Call it gas lighting, “hysteria,” or a witch hunt, it’s horrific to see it happening to the serious young girl at the center of this film.
Written by Rungano Nyoni; Produced by Juliette Grandmont, Emily Morgan
19. Jennifer's Body (2009), Karyn Kusama
Karyn Kusama, of Girlfight and Destroyer, described this campy high school horror as, “a tribute to the fierce power of estrogen.” After all, it’s not just Carrie whose supernatural violence is brought out by the tumult of high school hormones. That’s what makes horror films set during adolescence so terrifyingly relatable. As the San Francisco Examiner said, “Cody and [Kusama] seem less interested in cheap scares than in something more substantive: exploring the purgatorial existence of teens caught between being kids and adults.”
Written by Diablo Cody; Edited by Plummy Tucker
20. The Love Witch (2016), Anna Biller
In film schools, professors wax poetic about the great auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman, but it’s doubtful that many filmmakers have been as slavishly dedicated to their work as Anna Biller, who went as far as to personally latch hook a rug with a complex satanic design integral to one scene in her film. Let The Guardian‘s description of this “beyond camp, beyond pastiche” film’s heroine entice you: “She is a white witch with occult powers and leaves a trail of men in her wake—woebegone, lovelorn and, indeed, dead. These handsome beefcake guys have become a gallery of castrated swains who have sacrificed themselves for Elaine, as she demurely presides over her secret occult court of predatory lust.”
Written, Produced, Music, Editing, Production Design, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Costume Design, and Set Design by Anna Biller
21. The Lure (2015), Agnieszka Smoczyńska
There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching this Polish movie, described by The Los Angeles Times as, “shimmying by itself in the corner of the horror-musical canon.” Ostensibly about a pair of mermaid sisters who fall for the same human man, the film “openly borrows Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless metaphor for what’s gained and lost with womanhood.” It’s an adventurous experiment crossing genres, and having fun doing so.
Original title: Córki dancingu
22. Near Dark (1987), Kathryn Bigelow
This well-loved tale of a roving band of modern vampires was Kathryn Bigelow’s first solo outing as a feature director, years before she’d become the only woman to have ever won the Oscar for directing, for 2008’s The Hurt Locker. Beyond the obvious threat posed by the blood-suckers, the film centers a romantic obsession that could result in catastrophe. “There’s a ghastly humor in all this,” wrote The Los Angeles Times, “and Bigelow brings it out without overindulging it. Faced with a nearly repulsive subject, she makes the blood flow inside it, stream out over the cuts.”
Written by Kathryn Bigelow
23. Pet Sematary (1989), Mary Lambert
A major part of the canon for Stephen King-philes, this original adaptation does what good horror movies do best: use ghoulish tropes to shine a light on the most universal and paralyzing real-life fears. Between the abject tragedy of losing a child, and the inevitable dread that builds with a good suspenseful story, there’s classic gore and the gnawing unease that comes from watching characters make one bad decision after another.
24. Prevenge (2016), Alice Lowe
What kind of woman writes, directs, and stars in a film about a homicidal expectant mother, filmed during her own real-life pregnancy? Alice Lowe is that woman. There’s lots of blood on screen, as Lowe’s character is manipulated to go on a killing spree while being mind-controlled by her unborn child. For some women, pregnancy and childbirth are the zenith of body horror, and for many mothers, the question of lost autonomy can loom over the prospect of raising a child. But, the film’s bizarre, dark, distinctly-British sense of humor offsets what could otherwise be a very troubling moviewatching experience.
Written by Alice Lowe; Produced by Jennifer Handorf
25. The Ranger (2018), Jenn Wexler
Providing a stylistic and tonal throwback to the golden age of slasher pics (the ’80s), this tribute to the genre follows a group of suburban teenage punks hunted by a creepy, quippy, violent park ranger. It’s an excellent addition to the canon of movies (and podcasts) entreating viewers to yell at the screen, “Stay out of the forest!”
Written, Produced, Edited by Jenn Wexler; Produced by Heather Buckley, Ashleigh Snead; Edited by Abbey Killheffer
26. Raw (2016), Julia Ducournau
Is Raw a paean to the virtues of veganism? Maybe. Apparently, screenings came with advance warnings of audience members fainting, vomiting, or needing emergency medical attention. Perhaps that’s what happens when a lifelong vegetarian begins her education as a veterinary student, and her first taste of meat (during a hazing stunt) awakens cannibalistic tendencies.
Original title: Grave; Written by Julia Ducournau
27. Revenge (2017), Coralie Fargeat
Much like how Margaret Atwood has said that what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so frightening is how little of it she had to invent, the inciting incident of this movie is sadly all-too-real. However, the protagonist of Revenge gets just that, hunting down the men who brutalized her and left her for dead. Fair warning from Time Out‘s review: “If you usually find the genre icky and exploitative, try this one—but only if you’ve got the stomach for an abattoir’s worth of blood in a single movie.”
Written, Edited by Coralie Fargeat
28. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), Amy Holden Jones
An archetype of the low-budget slasher films representative of producer Roger Corman’s ouevre, the title tells you most of what you need to know: a group of beautiful high school girls is victimized by a madman whose weapon of choice is a power drill. What’s especially interesting about this first chapter in what would become a B-movie trilogy, is its unlikely conception. Written by Rita Mae Brown, whose 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle has feminist and lesbian themes, the apocryphal origin of this movie is that Brown initially penned the script as a satire, until the studio urged the filmmakers to play it straight. But don’t worry, “what survives from Brown’s script is the idea of a drill as a phallic symbol, and the terror of young women who confront it.”
Written by Rita Mae Brown; Produced by Amy Holden Jones
29. Suicide by Sunlight (2019), Nikyatu Judu
Sierra Leonean-American director Nikyatu Judu was inspired by Caribbean and West African folklore to develop this short film, which has made the rounds at festivals, receiving Tribeca’s “Through Her Lens” production grant. In her words, “We created a world in which Black Vampires, protected by their melanin, can day-walk. Because of their biological advantage of being protected from the sun, they are able to seamlessly blend into humanity.”
Written by Nikyatu Jusu, R. Shanea Williams; Produced by Nikkia Moulterie; Cinematography by Daisy Zhou; Edited by Marina Katz
30. Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017), Issa López
Many have found this Mexican fantasy tale evocative of the great Guillermo del Toro. Set against the frightening and extremely real backdrop of drug cartels, it follows a group of orphaned, homeless children whose imaginations lead them through a magical realist landscape affected by trafficking and violence. The film has made such a splash on the Mexican film landscape, that del Toro himself is a fan, and has attached himself to produce López’s next feature, an as-yet untitled “werewolf western.”
Original title: Vuelven; Written by Issa López
31. Trouble Every Day (2001), Claire Denis
This controversial film caused such a scandal when it played at the Cannes film festival, that “even the French critics booed and walked out.” Director Claire Denis has insisted that the gore of a woman whose cannibalism and sensuality are entwined, is not about violence, but desire. It’s grisly and primal, while still a more subdued, European film; more drama than thriller.
Written by Claire Denis; Cinematography by Agnès Godard; Edited by Nelly Quettier
Finally, one film to get excited about early is Nia DaCosta‘s Candyman, which is being described as “a ‘spiritual sequel’ to the 1992 horror film … that returns to the now-gentrified Chicago neighborhood where the legend began.