If you search for the scariest horror stories of all time, your results for best chills will most likely be post-Poe and not a nightmare beyond the 80s paperback. Horror readers tend to repeat the same titles as the all-time scariest novels, but do these old haunts still keep us awake at night?
Here's a few horror fan favorites. Beware of spoilers.
1. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, 1971
Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil is the daughter of a famous beauty and actress, but she's not exactly her mother's spitting image—rather, she favors spitting at priests and desecrating holy artifacts. She used to be such a mama's girl, but now Regan is a typical teenager: barely getting out of bed, cursing her mother and her mother's friends, and just being a real wet nightgown. Hey, puberty does some weird things to our bodies.
Chills. The Exorcist is still psychologically terrifying, even if only for the explicit scenes of body mutilation. The crucifying jabs are enough to make the reader consider wearing a chastity belt and perhaps belting a few hail Mary's (or Bloody Marys—whatever frees you from your sins).
2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, 1959
Dr. John Montague rents a decrepit mansion to hunt for ghosts. He selects a number of hapless souls with past paranormal traumas, but oddly enough, only two accept the vague invitation from a complete stranger: little Chipettes named, Eleanore Vance and Theodora. Alongside the heir to the dusty throne, Luke Sanderson, the four interlopers drink brandy and devour gourmet meals from the mansion's crotchety caretaker, Mrs. Dudley, who warns each guest about the strict mealtimes. The guests laugh and banter and listen to the noises outside their color-themed rooms and no one can ever find the dining room! Well now, I'm scared.
Bore. A pioneer novel to the haunted house parade that would soon follow, Jackson commits to honest and flawed characters until she doesn't—then the story gets terrifying. Enter the cartoonish monster-wife, Mrs. Montague, whose dialogue looks especially hairy against the rest of Jackson's more human characters, which are significantly more rounded and suited to the novel's charm.
Although Hill House is about as scary as Disneyland's Haunted Mansion (and the subsequent Hollywood horror starring Eddie Murphy), Jackon's novel is beautifully written and worth the ticket to ride once.
3. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, 1967
Meet Rosemary's husband, Guy Woodhouse. He's an arrogant, struggling actor, and truly the kind of man that thinks flowers will make everything okay after acting like a complete dickens, but what's worse? He impregnates his wife while she's sleeping. That's right—after a suspicious chalky mousse, Rosemary is pregnant with the spawn of Satan.
Chills. Yes, pink-cheeked Rosemary is about to have the devil's baby—except the father is the Devil himself, not the deuce she married. The implications are enough to make any left-wing feminist claw the bedsheets, but what makes the novel's horror timeless is the little red demon inside all of us. Think about social media. Like Mr. Woodhouse, we're constantly selling ourselves for fame and followers. Witches, all of us. Witches.
4. Ghost Story by Peter Straub, 1979
A group of wealthy, white chowder-heads get bumbling drunk and tell a series of fact or fiction stories to each other for almost 600 heavily dog-eared paperback pages—if you bought Ghost Story, it's a once-loved copy—but you will never guess which ones are real!
Bore. Ghost story is a good old husband's tale, but it's as terrifying as a call from an unlisted number—there are no real chills here and we're just a little annoyed that Straub's keeping us up this late. No need to watch the dust collect, let's move on.
5. Pet Sematary by Stephen King, 1983
The city folk are goin' to the country, gonna to bury 'em a lot of pooches—and felines and people. Young doctor, Louis Creed moves his reluctant wife and children into a house with a busy road. Judd Crandall, a grandfatherly neighbor, shows the family a cemetery created by children in the days of yore. It's a classic case of doing what I say and not as I do, as Judd warns the doctor never to go beyond the deadfall, but later takes him there to bury his dead cat and bring him back to life. Evil ensues. Soon the doctor is burying everyone there while a rotting, ex-patient ghost follows him throughout, more-or-less pleading: stop doing that!
Chills. Some ghoul must have buried King's novels up there—because his work keeps coming back and rightfully so. King earned his title to the horror throne with his other equally disturbing novels, but Pet Sematary is by far the most chilling. You will never forget Zelda in her bedroom, or crazy Louis as he fears that he might have placed his son's corpse in the car backwards. Yes, like bending his legs the wrong way kind of backwards.
What horror novels keep you awake at night?