Without question, Halloween is my favorite holiday. You can keep your cupids and leprechauns; I'll stick with my ghosties and ghoulies, thanks. Although Halloween's origins date back to Celtic times with the festival of Samhain, the modern celebration of the holiday celebrates the strange, weird, and macabre. There's just something about having one night to be a little spooky (or spoopy, if that's more your speed) that makes me excited every year when the weather starts to change and the carved pumpkins and skeleton and zombie decorations start popping up everywhere.
And, of course, Hollywood has capitalized on movie-goers' need to get a good scare. Every year, I get my snacks and binge on my favorite Halloween films—sometimes with the lights on if I'm feeling brave. So, in anticipation of October 31st, I wanted to compile a—clearly unbiased and comprehensive—list of the best Halloween-themed movies, covering everything from hauntingly good-natured fun to scare-your-pants-off fright.
What are your favorite Halloween-themed movies? Let me know what you'll be watching this All Hallows Eve!*
Director: Bill Melendez
Starring: Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Sally Dryer & Cathy Steinberg
A classic since the 1960s, and for a good reason, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown follows Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang as they celebrate with trick-or-treating and a Halloween party. All but Linus, who waits patiently for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, a mystical figure who rises out the pumpkin patch, flies into the air and delivers presents to good children all over the world.
DYK? After this special originally aired, children from all over the United States sent candy to Charlie Brown out of sympathy.
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Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair
I couldn't make a Halloween-themed movie list and not include this film; The Exorcist was the first genuinely frightening movie I ever saw...and I've been a scaredy-cat ever since. When actress Chris MacNeil's 12-year-old daughter Regan's behavior changes dramatically, and supernatural phenomenon happens in the home after she uses an Ouija board, she seeks the help of two priests to perform an exorcism.
DYK? When Regan infamously projectile vomits on Father Karras, the "vomit" is actually Pea Soup Andersen's split pea soup. The production crew tried Campbell's pea soup, but it didn't have the same consistency and effect.
Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman & Kenneth Mars
Where to Watch: Prime Video
A Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder classic, Young Frankenstein is a comedic take on Mary Shelly's monster tale, Frankenstein (pronounced "Fronk-en-steen"). An American grandson of the infamous scientist Dr. Victor von Frankenstein struggling to prove that his grandfather was not as insane as people believe is invited to Transylvania, where he discovers the process that reanimates a dead body.
DYK? In 1974, Aerosmith took a break from a long night of recording to watch Young Frankenstein. Allegedly, Steven Tyler wrote "Walk This Way," inspired by Marty Feldman's "walk this way...this way" scene.
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Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P. J. Soles, Nancy Loomis & Tony Moran
While the Halloween franchise has had its ups and downs over the last four decades, it's truly incredible that it has spawned eleven films, several novels and comic books, merchandise, and a video game. Its' last installment, Halloween (2018), premiered as the biggest Halloween opening ever, earning $100 million in a week, the second-biggest October movie opening, and was the largest movie opening with a female lead over 55 (heck yeah, JLC!). However, none of this would have been possible without the original 1978 slasher film. Halloween follows Michael Myers, who escapes from a mental hospital fifteen years after murdering his sister on Halloween night and returns to the small town of Haddonfield to kill again.
DYK? Because of Halloween's limited $300,00 budget, the prop department had to use the cheapest $2 mask that they could find in the costume store: a 1966 Star Trek William Shatner mask. The team spray-painted the face white, teased out the hair, and reshaped the eye holes.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, Barret Oliver, Joseph Maher & Sofia Coppola
While Tim Burton's short film Frankenweenie is the source material for the 2012 stop-animation remake, the 1984 version is still my personal favorite. After learning about electrical impulses in muscles at school, Victor Frankenstein tries to bring his recently deceased dog Sparky back to life. His experiments are successful, and Victor decides to reintroduce Sparky as the dog they all knew and loved to his family and neighbors, but they quickly become scared and angry.
DYK? Tim Burton was initially fired from Disney for "wasting" their resources on shorts like Frankenweenie, which was initially supposed to air with the 1984 re-release of Pinocchio (1940), which they deemed "too scary" for family viewing. However, after Burton's success with Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989), Disney released a censored version of Frankenweenie and other Burton-directed shorts on VHS. When The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was released on DVD, Frankenweenie was included in its first uncensored version.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Rick Moranis & William Atherton
The OG ghost hunters, parapsychologists Peter Venkman, Raymond Stantz, and Egon Spengler are scientists working for Columbia University and are fascinated with the paranormal. After they lose their cushy positions, they become "ghostbusters" to wage a high-tech battle with the supernatural for money. With their first recruit Winston Zeddemore, they stumble upon a gateway to another dimension, a doorway that will release evil upon the city. The Ghostbusters must now save New York City from complete destruction.
DYK? Almost none of the scenes were filmed as scripted, and, in fact, nearly all of the scenes had at least one or two ad-libs. Of all of the actors, Bill Murray's lines were the most ad-libbed.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara & Jeffrey Jones
In one of Michael Keaton's best performances, Beetlejuice is the kind of visual feast you'd expect from a Tim Burton film. After Barbara and Adam Maitland die in a car accident, they find themselves stuck haunting their country residence, unable to leave the house. When the obnoxious Deetzes and their teenage daughter Lydia buy the home, the Maitlands attempt to scare them away without success. Their efforts attract Beetlejuice, a rambunctious spirit whose "help" quickly becomes dangerous for the Maitlands and innocent Lydia.
DYK? Warner Bros. originally wanted to call the film "House Ghosts." As a joke, Tim Burton suggested the name "Scared Sheetless" and was horrified when the studio actually considered using it.
Director: Kenny Ortega
Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw, Doug Jones & Jason Marsden
"It's just a bunch of hocus pocus!" This film is a Halloween favorite of mine! It's a tradition (maybe compulsion) of mine to always watch Hocus Pocus on October 1st—at this point, it feels wrong if I don't watch it. Three outlandishly wild witches—Midler, Parker, and Najimy—return from 17th-century Salem after they're accidentally conjured up by some unsuspecting pranksters. It's a night full of zany fun once the tricky 300-year-old trio set out to cast a spell on the town and reclaim their youth...but first, they must get their act together and outwit three kids and a talking cat.
DYK? Actor Sean Murray of NCIS fame played the human Thackery Binx. He was dubbed over by actor Jason Marsden, the voice of the cat Binx, for consistency.
Director: Henry Selick
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page & Ed Ivory
This beautiful stop-motion animated film follows the misadventures of Jack Skellington, Halloweentown's beloved pumpkin king, who is bored with the same annual routine of frightening people in the "real world." When Jack accidentally stumbles on Christmastown, with all of its bright colors and warm spirits, he gets a new lease on life. Jack plots to bring Christmas under his control by kidnapping Santa Claus and taking over the role. But Jack soon discovers even the best-laid plans of mice and skeleton men can go seriously awry. But the best part about this film? You can start watching in October for Halloween, and just keep on cruising through December for Christmas!
DYK? It took a group of about 100 people three years to complete the stop-motion animation for this movie. For one second of film, up to 12 stop-motion moves had to be made.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
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Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston & Micah Sloat
While the franchise has spiraled a bit out of control (in my opinion), the first installment of Paranormal Activity is so successful because of its simplicity. Director Oren Peli shot the entire film in ten days with a camcorder, making for an intimately scary movie. Soon after moving into a suburban "starter" home, young couple Katie and Micah become increasingly disturbed by what appears to be a supernatural presence. Hoping to capture evidence of it on film, they set up video cameras in the house but are not prepared for the terrifying events that follow.
DYK? Paramount acquired the U.S. rights to the film for $350,000. The film made $193 million worldwide, making Paranormal Activity the second most profitable movie ever made based on a return of investment as it cost $15,000 to produce. The first most profitable film is The Blair Witch Project (1999) which cost $22,000 to make and earned $240.5 million.
Director: Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck & Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Laika Studio's second film after Caroaline (2009), ParaNorman's stop-motion animation is gorgeous and the story, despite, ironically, being about the undead, has a lot of heart. Young Norman Babcock can speak with the dead—and he often prefers their company to that of the living. Norman receives word from his strange Uncle Prenderghast that a centuries-old witch's curse on their town is real and about to come true and that only Norman can stop it. When zombies rise from their graves, Norman must summon all his courage and compassion and push his paranormal abilities to the limit to save his fellow townspeople.
DYK? Animating the cheesy horror movie Norman watches at the film's start was reportedly very difficult for the filmmakers to produce. They had to intentionally make a bad movie with bad camera angles, poor focus, bad "acting," etc., while still working within the very technically demanding confines of stop-motion animation.
The Babadook (2014)
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Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman & Daniel Henshall
I absolutely would not recommend watching this one with the lights off. Jennifer Kent's directorial debut, The Babadook, follows Amelia, a widowed mother plagued by the violent death of her husband who battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
DYK? William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, said of the movie, "I've never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook."
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Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Sophia Lillis & Jeremy Ray Taylor
Responsible for giving people coulrophobia since 1986, Stephen King's Pennywise the Dancing Clown is never not scary. I debated whether to include the 1990 mini-series starring Tim Curry as Pennywise or the 2017 version starring Bill Skarsgård. Still, there's something about Skarsgård's performance that really takes it over the top for me. Plus, the 2017 version has a lot more freedoms to work with without the confines of television, making it ultra scary. In the summer of 1989, a group of bullied kids bands together to destroy a shape-shifting monster, disguising itself as a clown and preys on the children of Derry, their small Maine town.
DYK? Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie) was the first child actor to work with Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise). Grazer would cry and gag during their scene while Skarsgård was right in his face yelling and drooling. Skarsgård was genuinely concerned for Grazer and, after the scene ended, asked him if he was okay. Grazer looked right at him and said, "Love what you're doing with the character!" Skarsgård was left confused and impressed with Grazer's attitude, calling the child actors "little professionals."
*Remember to keep the lights on! Happy viewing.