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The Scariest Non-Horror Films Of All Time

You don't need insidious spirits, axe-wielding psychos, or even good old-fashioned vampires to make a movie scary—in fact, there's a slew of terrifying movies you won't find under the horror banner on Netflix. Despite not being made as cut-and-dry horror films, they can hang with the best of John Carpenter and Wes Craven any day. Some are documentaries revealing horrors all too real. Others are movies made for children that, in retrospect, should absolutely not be seen by children. And some examine horrific experiences while telling a story that isn't traditionally scary. The next time you need a good scare, any of these flicks will satisfy—no matter how they've been classified by genre.

Return to Oz (1985)

We're not quite sure which studio executive decided a horrific depiction of electroshock therapy, a sentient disembodied moose head, or sending a young Dorothy to an actual One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style asylum was a totally solid idea when they read writer-director Walter Murch's script for Return to Oz, but we admire the brazen decision to sign off on it.  

What the film tries to pass off as whimsy is far more akin to something from the mind of Jodorowsky than the original Wizard of Oz. The creatures of Oz under Murch's direction are horrifying, ranging from an unintentionally scary pumpkin-headed sidekick to the very intentionally scary villain, the Nome King. And that's not even getting into the segment in which we discover that the fun, light-hearted sidekicks from the original film have been turned to stone.

Return to Oz isn't a bad movie, though. The aforementioned horrifying creatures are tremendously designed and puppeteered, and the story, twisted as it may be, has a lot of heart. It's developed a massive cult following in the years since its release, setting the gold standard for those who seek out children's movies on the darker side of the spectrum.

The Imposter (2012)

Were it not crafted as immaculately as it is, The Imposter would still be a frightening documentary on the merit of its subject matter alone. It recounts the story of a child who went missing in Texas, then turned up three years later in Spain. The boy's family welcomed him back—only to later discover that the person in their home wasn't their son. Add a heavy implication from the filmmakers and investigators that the family accepted the imposter into their home to cover up the fact that they had murdered their son and you've got a riveting thriller, even if it's done with History Channel-style reenactments and a monotone narrator.

But The Imposter gets that extra dose of horror from its extensive interviewing of the titular imposter himself, serial impersonator and con man Frédéric Bourdin. His gaze focused directly into the camera for the entirety of his interviews, Bourdin calmly recounts how he went about impersonating the boy and why he did it. There's such a detachment in the way he describes his thought process that the viewer can't help but be horrified. Rarely does a film so directly capture the frame of mind of a serial criminal, and rarely do viewers come across so repulsively fascinating a subject.

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

Before Toy Story launched a multimillion dollar franchise on the concept of inanimate objects coming to life when humans weren't looking, there was The Brave Little Toaster. And if you find yourself wondering why the former took off while the latter has drifted into the distant plains of nostalgia, you should rewatch Toaster to remind yourself that it's a technicolor nightmare of a film that no child has, nor ever had, any business watching.

Without even getting into the horrifying imagery at play, the themes ultimately boil down to a generational shift in household appliances—one that is, in retrospect, totally valid. Technology grows and gets updated, and it's incredibly strange and unsettling that the filmmakers insisted that a kid going off to college should feel sentimental attachment to his toaster rather than doing the logical thing and upgrading to one with a bake setting for pizza rolls.

And then when you do get into the nightmarish imagery, it's a whole new level of inappropriately scary. Evil firefighter clowns, panic-induced hallucinations, and a crushing sequence in which the appliance gang finds themselves trapped in a junkyard make for a psychologically scarring experience that even adults may have trouble getting through unscathed. 

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Addiction is a very real horror millions of people grapple with daily, and perhaps no film has captured it as poignantly as Darren Aronofsky's bone-chilling Requiem for a Dream. Centering on a group of four friends, it depicts the various stages of addiction to drugs including amphetamines and heroin. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the beginning stages of addiction, the side effects that come with it, and the withdrawal symptoms and fallout from trying and failing to get clean. An infected arm is amputated. Another character is given electroshock therapy. And one develops a full-on psychosis as a result of their addiction. 

Aronofsky doesn't sugarcoat a single frame. Everything feels real; everything hurts. Every moment of the film is an agony-ridden reminder of the anguish of addiction. It might not be a conventional horror film, but it's scarier than almost any movie about ghosts or serial killers.

Oldboy (2003)

There are two messages a viewer can take away from Park Chan-wook's Oldboy: Revenge is a dish best served cold, and octopus is a dish best served very, very fresh. Oldboy is a juggernaut of a film, simultaneously an action-packed revenge thriller, a love story, and, in an unconventional way, a horror film. One night, a drunken businessman named Oh Dae-su is abruptly kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel room. After 15 years he's set free, and he promptly sets out on a mission to discover who subjected him to this atrocity and why.

Oldboy is frightening both because of its imagery, including the scene in which Oh Dae-su eats a live octopus (which was infamously unsimulated) and for its gut punch of an ending. Oh Dae-su discovers that his imprisonment was only the first part of his punishment at the hands of an old classmate. The second part comes when the classmate reveals to him that the female companion Oh Dae-su has fallen in love with is actually his own daughter, grown to adulthood over the course of his 15-year imprisonment. The film ends with self-mutilation, suicide, and a horrifying moral ambiguity in its protagonist. It's infinitely rewatchable thanks to its unique narrative form and breathtaking action sequences, but beneath those lies an Oedipal horror that will leave viewers immensely uncomfortable, no matter how many times they've seen it.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story has some frightening imagery—but then again, plenty of kids movies do. It stands above the rest for a very particular reason: its villain, a bone-chilling avatar of nihilism.

Young heroes Bastian and Atreyu are trying to save the land of Fantasia from the Nothing, a spreading of literal nonexistence. It's not a monster. It doesn't have fangs or claws or horrible powers. It's just a void spreading across the land. Everything it touches exists until it suddenly doesn't. The Nothing is a strange concept for a villain, especially in a movie made for children. But taking on such a heavy subject in its antagonist makes for a movie that has stuck with generations long after they've grown up.

Cropsey (2009)

Where do urban legends come from? To find answers, the filmmakers behind the documentary Cropsey look into the origins of the titular New York City boogeyman, a sort of amalgam of archetypes like the escaped inmate and the scary man living in the woods. 

What they find is not a concrete answer as to whether Cropsey was ever real, but rather a sprawling investigation into a series of kidnappings in the '70s and '80s, with more questions springing up every time they find an answer. The truth, as they find, is not only stranger than fiction but infinitely more gut-wrenching. An ex-con named Andre Rand, was found guilty of kidnapping two of the children and is currently in prison—but he was never convicted of the murders, as the bodies were never found. Cropsey is a tragically poignant look at the relationship between truth and fiction, and while Rand may be locked up, the phantom of these horrific crimes lives on.

Akira (1988)

Katsuhiro Otomo's legendary magnum opus is lauded for its groundbreaking animation, design, and thematic depth. What occasionally gets overlooked is the fact that it's a very, very frightening film. Exploring the fallout of nuclear war and the aftermath of Tokyo being razed in an atomic blast, Akira tells the story of bike gangs, psychic children, and the evils of the military industrial complex. 

The subject matter is scary enough, but what really comes down to making it grotesquely terrifying is the visuals. From a giant sentient teddy bear to psychic prodigy Tetsuo's body growing and mutating like sentient Play-Doh, Akira is riddled with visual horrors. Even some of its less intentionally horrific images are unsettling, like the group of psychic children whose bodies have aged without maturing past youth. It'd also be criminal to not cite Shoji Yamashiro's score as a contributing factor. It's filled with cacophonous chants, thundering drums, and droning synths that really pull together the ethereal creepiness.

Akira is a spectacular achievement in animation and science fiction, but don't sleep on how scary it is. Pairing a nihilistic look at humanity's future with graphic imagery animated impeccably, Akira will shake you to your core.

Matilda (1996)

Why is Matilda a low-key terrifying movie? Three words: Principal Agatha Trunchbull. When removed from its villain, it's a fun little film about a brilliant young girl with psychic powers navigating a world that doesn't understand her. But throw in Principal Trunchbull and you've got something much darker.

Trunchbull is sadistic, clever, and almost animalistic in her aggression towards her students (especially Matilda). She also implicitly murdered the father of Ms. Honey, Matilda's teacher and the one person who seems to understand her. Any time a child protagonist is put up against an adult villain, there's a certain power dynamic that makes the relationship inherently hair-raising. But when viewers are presented with a character as fundamentally good and pure as Matilda and a villain as monstrous and borderline inhuman as Trunchbull, it becomes genuinely ghastly. For evidence, look no further than the scene in which Matilda and Ms. Honey sneak into Trunchbull's house and almost get caught. Matilda is a great movie as it is, but the addition of Agatha Trunchbull not only makes it better, it makes it scary.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

At the pitch-black heart of the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a restrained, lurking hulk of a man whose mission of anarchy and evil cannot and will not be stopped by anyone or anything in his way. His performance earned him an Oscar and gave life to one of the definitive villains of a generation.

Physically unremarkable save for a truly horrible haircut, Chigurh trudges unrelentingly through the streets of No Country for Old Men, a hit man assigned to take the life of Josh Brolin's Llewelyn Moss. Despite his uncannily quiet demeanor, Chigurh is a human wrecking ball, killing and maiming indiscriminately as he makes his way to Moss. He resembles less a human and more a force of nature. Bardem's performance is restrained when necessary but brutal and thunderous when the right moment comes. He's the lynchpin of an already stellar film, a masterpiece of tension and inevitability. Moss is doomed as soon as Chigurh has his name—the horror comes in watching him try to avoid a fate the audience immediately recognizes as inevitable.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a movie that is relatively un-terrifying for a long stretch and then cranks its scare factor up to ten with astoundingly little warning. As the movie begins, you're watching a fun, inspirational movie about a boy named Charlie getting the opportunity to tour a magnificent, magical candy factory. Sounds fun, right?

Then Charlie goes to the actual factory and things get weird. The next thing you know the titular Willy Wonka is revealing it's run by an army of tiny orange-skinned-green-haired men that absolutely are not human. One minute the kids are all learning about candy, the next one of them is being turned into a blueberry. Another is left to drown in a river of chocolate, and even if the kid was kind of a jerk, death by drowning isn't something you'd wish on him. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory might not seem scary beyond some of the surface-level imagery (the chocolate river tunnel is a psychedelic nightmare), but as soon as you start asking questions, you realize how horrifying it really is.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Are people born bad or do they become bad? And if they become bad, whose fault is it? We Need to Talk About Kevin poses these questions—to both its characters and its audience—and provides no concrete answers for either. Focusing on the relationship between a boy who grows up to become a mass murderer and his mother who quietly fears and resents him for most of his life, it guides the audience through a childhood doomed to tragedy and a mother-son relationship that never truly connects.

The film's ending is never in doubt, as it opens at the end of the linear narrative. This only makes watching Kevin's life play out all the more agonizing. Every off-putting incident of his childhood is immediately recognizable as a red flag to the viewer, and every attempt by his mother and family to fix him is known to be ultimately futile. It's a deeply affecting, unsettling film about people who are all too recognizable to anyone who watches the news.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

The original Pee-Wee Herman show wasn't exactly devoid of bizarre, horrifying imagery to begin with. But under the guiding hand of master of the grotesque Tim Burton, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure became something truly unsettling to watch.

The film is chock-full of Herman mastermind Paul Reubens' signature weirdness, and Burton's direction cranks it up to the highest possible caliber. It's perhaps no more evident anywhere in the film than in the appearance of Large Marge, a terrifying ghost trucker who gives Pee-Wee a ride early on. The appeal of Pee-Wee Herman as a character has always sort of been caught between adults and children, sometimes skewing heavily in one direction and then suddenly leaning into the opposite. The movie makes that tonal switch frequently, which just makes the more surreal Burton bits all the scarier. One never quite knows what to expect from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

It's easy to joke about the Church of Scientology thanks to a few pretty choice moments from famous member Tom Cruise. But Going Clear serves as a tremendously important reminder that the organization is far more than a punchline—and that it's alleged to inflict a very real horror on its members and their loved ones daily.

The filmmakers interview multiple former members about their time in the organization and what they saw. Their stories will horrify you. From cult-like groupthink to demeaning manual labor, the stories get worse as the film progresses, with a couple of men who held high positions in Scientology openly talking about using physical intimidation on detractors of the church as well as its members. But no segment of the film is as chilling as the one in which a woman recounts the story of the church effectively kidnapping her newborn daughter, forcing her to do hard labor, and what she subsequently went through to break out of a church facility with her child and escape.

Going Clear takes an organization many people are loosely familiar with as a pop culture reference and recontextualizes it as the masterpiece of a career con man, its founder L. Ron Hubbard. That his organization has proven so successful even decades after his passing, and that nobody seems to be capable of stopping them, may be as frightening as any of Hubbard's sci-fi novels.

Jesus Camp (2006)

The way people behave when indoctrinated under systems of belief isn't an uncommon idea explored in horror cinema, popping up everywhere from The Wicker Man to The Sacrament. But while those movies may sometimes draw from real events, Jesus Camp is no fictionalized depiction. 

Any documentary about religious extremism is going to be unsettling, but what sets Jesus Camp over the edge is that it focuses not on the current generation, but the next. It studies the systems that evangelist churches use to brainwash and radicalize children. Seeing the activities in which they participate and the conspiracies they're taught to believe in will twist your gut and break your heart. There's a scene in which the kids are made to pray to a cardboard cutout of then-president George W. Bush that would be almost funny if it not for being real.

Plenty of horror movies are scary because they dwell on a fear of the unknown, of what exists beyond our world. But Jesus Camp is terrifying in that it reminds the viewer of the horrors that exist all too presently in our own lives.