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For the uninitiated, the vast and diverse world of horror can be daunting. Yet, it’s a genre that has proven time and again its ability to thrill, scare, and entertain in a myriad of ways. This list is crafted with the beginner in mind, presenting you with 11 essential American horror movies to watch. These films not only define the genre but also offer an excellent starting point for your horror journey.

In this guide, we’ve carefully curated a selection of 11 horror films that span across various eras. If you’re just dipping your toes into the vast ocean of the horror movie genre, we believe this lineup provides an excellent launching point.

Table of Contents

  1. ‘Psycho’ (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
  2. ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974, directed by Tobe Hooper)
  3. ‘Halloween’ (1978, directed by John Carpenter)
  4. ‘The Shining’ (1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
  5. A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984, directed by Wes Craven)
  6. ‘Scream’ (1996, directed by Wes Craven)
  7. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)
  8. ‘Get Out’ (2017, directed by Jordan Peele)
  9. ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018, directed by John Krasinski)
  10. ‘The Exorcist’ (1973, directed by William Friedkin)
  11. ‘Child’s Play’ (1988, directed by Tom Holland)


(1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Anthony Perkins in Psycho

Psycho is an early masterpiece that redefined the horror genre. The plot centers around Marion Crane, a secretary who ends up at the secluded Bates Motel after stealing money from her employer.

The stand-out scene, undoubtedly, is the infamous shower scene that still sends shivers down the spine. The film stars Anthony Perkins in a career-defining role and Janet Leigh whose performance garnered her a Golden Globe.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

(1974, directed by Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a group of friends fall victim to a family of cannibals while on a trip to visit an old homestead. The terrifying first appearance of Leatherface, chainsaw in hand, remains a standout scene.

While the cast didn’t feature any major stars at the time, Gunnar Hansen’s iconic performance as Leatherface left an indelible mark on the genre.


(1978, directed by John Carpenter)

HalloweenTommy Lee Wallace in the infamous Halloween closet scene

John Carpenter’s Halloween introduced one of horror’s most enduring characters – Michael Myers. The film follows Myers as he stalks and kills on Halloween night. The opening long-take from Myers’ perspective is an unforgettable cinematic experience.

The film also launched the career of Jamie Lee Curtis, making her a defining “Scream Queen”.

The Shining

(1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick)

The ShiningJack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel, tells the story of Jack Torrance, a writer turned winter caretaker for the isolated Overlook Hotel. The memorable “Here’s Johnny!” scene is a chilling testament to Jack Nicholson’s impressive performance.

Here’s Johnny!

Shelley Duvall also delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal as his wife, Wendy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

(1984, directed by Wes Craven)

iPhone 11A Nightmare on Elm Street

In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven created Freddy Krueger, a monstrous spirit who kills teens in their dreams. The horrifying death of Tina is a standout scene that showcases Krueger’s nightmare realm.

The film starred a young Johnny Depp in his first major film role, alongside the unforgettable Robert Englund as Krueger.


(1996, directed by Wes Craven)

Scream Matthew Lillard

Scream is a unique blend of horror and satire where a killer known as Ghostface begins murdering teenagers in the town of Woodsboro. The suspenseful opening sequence with Drew Barrymore set a new standard for horror film introductions.

The movie features a strong ensemble cast including Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette.

The Blair Witch Project

(1999, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)

Blair WitchThe Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project, a seminal found footage film, revolves around three film students who hike into the Maryland woods to film a documentary about a local legend, only to disappear.

The chilling final sequence in the basement perfectly encapsulates the film’s pervasive sense of dread. Despite a relatively unknown cast, Heather Donahue’s performance received critical acclaim.

‘Get Out’

(2017, directed by Jordan Peele)

The Sunken Place in the movie Get Out

In Get Out, a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s mysterious family estate, leading to a series of disturbing discoveries. The Sunken Place, a metaphorical representation of suppression, is a standout scene, embodying the film’s sharp social commentary.

The film boasts compelling performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams.

A Quiet Place

(2018, directed by John Krasinski)

‘A Quiet Place’ (2018) Paramount Pictures, Platinum Dunes

A Quiet Place is a modern horror classic that centers on a family struggling to survive in a world overrun by extraterrestrial creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

The nerve-wracking bathtub childbirth scene underlines the film’s unique premise and brilliant execution. Directed by John Krasinski, who also stars alongside real-life spouse Emily Blunt, the film exemplifies innovative horror storytelling.

The Exorcist

(1973, directed by William Friedkin)

ExorcistLinda Blair in The Exorcist

The Exorcist, often hailed as the scariest movie of all time, follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and the two priests who attempt to exorcise the demon. The infamous head-spinning scene still stands as one of the most disturbing and memorable moments in horror history.

Featuring compelling performances by Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Linda Blair, The Exorcist is an absolute must-see for anyone new to the horror genre.

Child’s Play

(1988, directed by Tom Holland)

Brad Dourif and Tyler Hard in Child's Play (1988)Brad Dourif (voice) and Tyler Hard in Child’s Play (1988)–IMDb

Commonly known as “Chucky”, Child’s Play presents a unique twist on the horror genre with a killer doll at its center. When a serial killer’s soul is transferred into a ‘Good Guy’ doll, young Andy receives the most terrifying gift of his life.

The scene where Chucky reveals his true nature to Andy’s mother is a standout moment. The film stars Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, and the voice talent of Brad Dourif as Chucky.

From Psycho‘s unforgettable shower scene to the innovative silence of A Quiet Place, these 10 essential American horror movies offer a rich exploration of the genre’s possibilities. Each film presents its own unique spin on what it means to scare, thrill, and captivate, ensuring a varied and interesting initiation into the world of horror.

Remember, fear is a journey, and these films are just the beginning. There’s a vast universe of terror waiting for you to discover. Happy viewing!

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