No doubt, any great horror film will make the spectator scream in terror, white-knuckle their armrest, and feel like they’re having a heart attack. However, there are a slew of horrifying films that aren't in the horror genre, to say nothing of more explicitly horror-adjacent efforts. These movies that traumatize don’t need to rely on gimmicks like an invincible slasher or a haunted house that terrorizes its inhabitants. For these 14 scary non-horror movies, there is no monster hiding underneath the bed, and the boogeyman is real.
What makes several of the films on this list especially terrifying is that they actually happened in real life. Is there any greater horror than the events depicted in Schindler’s List? Would a genre horror film like Halloween make one question humanity like 12 Years a Slave?
These movies force the spectator to examine issues of race, psychological torment, and the depths of the human spirit. They delve into the deepest pits of the soul and force us to question our own morality. Most of these movies are not for sleepy Sunday afternoons, and most are too disturbing to watch more than once, but certainly important enough to screen when the time is right.
Make your voice heard; vote up the scariest films that aren't horror movies. And when you're done, be sure to check out our ist of horror movies that aren't as scary as people think.
- Photo: Avatar Films
Of all the films made surrounding mass school shootings, Benjamin Coccio's 2003 faux-documentary Zero Day may be the most disturbing. In Zero Day, two students make a year-long plan to shoot up their high school, but even though audiences are being told what is going to happen, it somehow doesn't seem like the boys will actually go through with it in the end.
However, when the reprieve does not come, the boy's pointless killing spree is terrifying. Knowing that this kind of horror actually happens in real life only makes Zero Day more dizzying to watch.
4,4751,968Is this scary?
- Actors: Cal Robertson, Christopher Coccio, Johanne Keuck, Samantha Philips, Andre Keuck
- Released: 2003
- Directed by: Ben Coccio
- 6Video: YouTube
In Room, a young woman and her son are being held captive by a violent psychopath in a small shed. The five-year-old son, a product of rape, knows only the sheltered life of the shed, or "room," as Ma calls it. The small space is his whole world, as the young boy doesn't even know that he's a prisoner.
Room is essentially two horrifying films. The first half deals with Ma and Jack's claustrophobic life inside the shed – culminating in the audience's realization that their captor rapes Ma every night while Jack listens.
But then there is the second half, Ma and Jack's life after the escape. After being held captive for years, the elements of the real world seem just as psychologically terrifying to them as their life inside the shed.
4,7042,111Is this scary?
- Actors: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy
- Released: 2015
- Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
- Photo: Lions Gate Films
Irréversible was specifically designed to make audiences panic. Gaspar Noé's 2002 graphic revenge drama literally made viewers sick. The director used a 27 hertz bass frequency during the first 30 minutes of the movie, a frequency that cannot be heard by the human ear, but has the ability to induce panic, anxiety, extreme sorrow, and heart palpitations.
Several audience members reportedly left the theater during the film's opening scenes because they felt sick and disoriented. And the film already features a beyond-disturbing, nine-minute rape scene that is nauseating enough without the low-frequency bass designed to induce panic.
Film critic Roger Ebert described the feature as, "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable."
3,3791,510Is this scary?
- Actors: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Gaspar Noé, Albert Dupontel, Philippe Nahon
- Released: 2002
- Directed by: Gaspar Noé
- Video: YouTube
Tony Kaye's extremely controversial 1998 drama, American History X, reminds audiences just how hateful and violent people can be. Kaye pulls no punches, showing the spectator what it's like to be a Neo-Nazi in Venice Beach, California. These mostly young, white men wear their hate on their sleeves and are willing to do anything to anyone who threatens their dangerous dogmatic ideologies.
At its core, AHX is a family drama, centered around two brothers. The older sibling Derek (expertly played by Ed Norton, who earned an Oscar nod) goes to jail for the crimes showcased in the film's notorious curb-stomping scene. It's a violent, highly graphic scene juxtaposed with brilliant black and white and poetic slow-motion.
It is difficult to look away from but equally hard to watch. There is no redemption in a film like American History X. Just when we think that Derek has earned it, Kaye makes the film's protagonist pay double for every one of his past sins.
6,2813,436Is this scary?
- Actors: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly DAngelo, Elliott Gould, Fairuza Balk
- Released: 1998
- Directed by: Tony Kaye