The most unsettling short films ever

Horror is a genre that requires exact timing and expert pacing in order to deliver the maximum amount of scares. While every horror fan (especially around October) has a well curated list of their favorite horror movies, books, and shows, there's a huge amount of incredible horror shorts you can watch for free online. Short, sweet, and terrifying, here are some of the best spooky short films you can watch for free.

The Ten Steps (2004)

Children left alone by their busy parents is a well-trod horror trope, but it's effective for a reason. Parents usually represent safety and the mundane; they're symbolic talismans to ward off evil. The Ten Steps, directed by Brendan Muldowney, is a perfect example of a short, atmospheric horror film with a grim punchline. In the short, the power goes out while Katie is babysitting her younger brother as their parents dine out. The fuse box is in the basement, and while her father talks her through it over the phone, Katie ends up in a very different place than she imagined. Stay through the credits for some squirm-inducing sound design as things start to get…squishy.

The Gable Film (2007)

The Gable Film is a famous bit of mysterious footage supposedly found in an attic that depicts a man searching for, and then finding, a mysterious bear-like creature in the woods. The Michigan Dogman, as it became known, became a viral internet sensation with thousands of people vouching for its authenticity or mocking the fake footage. Still, regardless of whether the film depicts a real monster, there is something truly unsettling about the way the Dogman bounds towards the viewer in the last few seconds. The loping, sideways gallop looks uncanny, whether it's man…or Dogman.

Downstairs (2015)

One of our favorite horror shorts of the last few years, Downstairs follows a security guard investigating mysterious sounds in the basement. If that sounds pretty cliche for a horror story, you're not crazy. Created by Lee and Sam Boxleitner, Downstairs sticks to the basics of horror movie rules: an early warning of things to come, some light character work to establish who's going to meet the monsters, and then just minute after minute of fright as ghosts start to appear. 

While it's not the most innovative short on this list, it's definitely the most competent, with realistic dialogue and some of the best blocking (when a character stands in front of another actor to hide them from the viewer's sight) that we've seen in years. You'll be hard-pressed to go downstairs for any reason after watching this short.

Symmetropia (2017)

There's always something a little unsettling about perfectly symmetrical rows of things. Call it people's natural desire for chaos or trypophobia, but either way Symmetropia (written and directed by Zachary Davis) taps into something very creepy. 

A doctor drives his blindfolded patient into a strangely symmetrical patch of forest, while a tape player replays a previous session in which the patient is made to read palindromes. The slow pace and barren forest landscape start to make the palindromes sound incredibly sinister, and you start to wonder if maybe there is something sinister about the word "Racecar." For anyone who's ever been creeped out by a Wes Anderson movie, Symmetropia taps into that strange fear that perfectly balanced things can't possibly be made by human hands.

The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow (2008)

One of the most inventive horror shorts we've seen, The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow continually plays on your expectations and changes of perspective. Written by Rodrigo Gudiño and directed by Rodrigo Gudiño and Vincent Marcone, the short shows an old photograph depicting what seems at first like a happy family vacation. As the camera dances around the photo as if it's a diorama, details leap out at the viewer, and the final shot paints a very different picture than the opening scene. If horror is the fear of the unknown, then The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow gives you all the tools you need to be conquer your fear, but figuring out what's actually happening in the picture might not make you feel any less afraid.

3 Versos (2014)

A strong production design can often carry horror movies with weaker scripts, but 3 Versos, directed by Antonio Yee, doesn't need the help. The script is surprisingly dense, layering a deeper mythology and some hidden surprises into dialogue that seems naturalistic. In this Spanish-speaking short, a famous psychic who is more than she seems helps some haunted girls who are likewise more than they seem. 3 Versos is clearly indebted to classic black and white horror films of the early 20th century, but with a multitude of visual influences that distort the viewer's perspective about when the short takes place, adding to the discomfort of watching it. Is it the '50s? The '20s? The '80s? It could be any of them or all of them. True horror is timeless.

Alexia (2013)

Another foreign film, this time from Argentina, Alexia (written and directed by Andrés Borghi) acknowledges what we've always known: that Facebook is evil and trying to kill us. Well, not quite. The story's actual focus is on the ex-boyfriend of the titular Alexia, racked with guilt following her suicide after their breakup. The gradual build-up of guilt and subtle implications of abuse in their relationship help take this short to the next level, while the set design and escalating discomfort keep the short scary. "Te Amo" ("I love you" in Spanish) has never been so terrifying.

Don't Move (2013)

Don't Move gets all of its backstory out of the way before the opening title, as six friends accidentally summon a demon that's going to kill five of them, but let one live. The title serves as both the characters' only rule book and the most-used bit of dialogue, but the real treat of the short is the incredible creature design and special effects. The monster and its violent mutilation of the victims looks like a Troma film with a higher production value, simultaneously grotesque and appealing. Written by David Scullion and directed by Anthony Melton, Don't Move was supposedly created on a low budget, but you'll be hard pressed to tell as you watch it.

The Birch (2016)

Like Don't Move, The Birch was co-created by Anthony Melton (and Ben Franklin) and it's not hard to see similarities. Both shorts have an incredible creature design and stripped down story. The Birch follows a bullied young boy given a mysterious book and a promise from his grandmother that someone will protect him. Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the tree monsters, but when the tree monsters look this good, that's not a bad thing.

This House Has People In It (2016)

The patriarch of a family screams about the importance of togetherness. A baby plays with a gelatinous green goop. An old woman's clay tutorial videos seem to be sending disturbing messages. All this as a series of unexplained edits from security camera footage of a house. This is the premise of This House Has People In It, an Adult Swim-produced, surrealistic nightmare directed by Alan Resnick. Part of Adult Swim's "Infomercials" segments that they air at 4 a.m., This House Has People In It taps into a deeply uncomfortable sense of voyeurism, like watching a reality show from a horrific alternate reality.

Unedited Footage of a Bear (2014)

Another one of the "Infomercials" series from Adult Swim, Unedited Footage of a Bear pivots pretty quickly from its titular premise. Directed by Ben O'Brien and Alan Resnick (also of This House Has People In It), the short always seems on the verge of swerving into either outright comedy or gruesomely violent horror, and the ever-present medication warnings that flash along the bottom only enhance the mundane creepiness. "You're your own worst enemy" is a popular idiom, but it's never been so disturbingly visualized before.

He Took His Skin Off For Me (2014)

He Took His Skin Off For Me is a much quieter short than you might be expecting from the title. The story of a man who takes his skin off for his girlfriend is viscerally unpleasant, obviously, as he wanders through the house looking like a ghoulish muscle diagram from science class. But the real horror of the short doesn't come from the empathetic disgust that viewers feel whenever he touches something with his skinless hand, but rather the girlfriend's quiet dissatisfaction with her boyfriend's sacrifice. Directed by Ben Aston, the short is eerily romantic and terrifying in how calmly understanding everyone remains the whole time. As Meat Loaf once said, "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that."

Lights Out (2013)

Directed by David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is easily the simplest concept and execution on this list. A woman arrives home and sees a frightening figure that appears whenever the lights turn off and disappears when the lights are turned back on. Great horror usually depends on subverting viewers' expectations and tricking them into thinking they understand the rules of the world better than the characters. Like comedy, horror can depend on a punchline that a viewer wasn't expecting, and this short is a perfect example. While the short was later extended into a full-length movie (also directed by Sandberg), the original is still the best. In under three minutes, Lights Out reminds you that even the simplest ideas can be terrifying.

The Smiling Man (2015)

Most horror movies hide the monster from view for as long as possible to keep the viewer in suspense, but The Smiling Man, directed by AJ Briones, gives you an upsettingly long, direct look at the monster. The short focuses on a little girl who follows a trail of balloons into her kitchen where a smiling man starts to play with her. The cinematography immediately places you in the little girl's perspective and forces you to engage with her confused naïveté. Why is this man here? Who is he? Is he friendly? Audiences might know the answer to that last question, but it's even more unpleasant finding out the other answers.

Skypemare (2013)

In Skypemare (directed by John Fitzpatrick), a routine Skype call with a friend goes horribly wrong when it looks like someone is moving in the room behind her. Following in the storied tradition of technology being a delivery system for horror, Skype, email, and cell phones become reminders of how little privacy the characters have. Still, sometimes it's your friends that are the real monsters.

On My Way (2016)

Hollywood loves the one-take tracking shot, given its frequent use in Prestige television and high budget movies. Still, we've never seen a tracking shot for a horror short like On My Way. In the short directed by Colin Krawchuk, a man drives through town on his way to a party, all the while something strange has started to happen to the residents of the town. The short keeps the exact nature of the chaos vague, letting viewers' confusion map onto the protagonist as he tries to drive through rapidly escalating pandemonium. If nothing else, hopefully watching the short will encourage you to actually arrive to parties when you say you were going to arrive.