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The Science of Scare: The scariest movies of all time

Whether it's zombies, ghosts or anything else that goes 'bump in the night', is there anything better than a good horror movie? But of the hundreds of horror flicks, which takes the crown for fright night?  

The Science of Scare Project 

Is there anything better than a truly terrifying movie? One that gets your heart pounding, makes you jump out of your seat or sleep with the lights on? 

We don’t think so, but with streaming services giving us an endless supply of horror films at our fingertips, it can be hard to know which can give you a true fright night, and which are child’s play. 

That's why in 2020 we founded the Science of Scare Project, an experiment to categorically find the scariest movies in existence, based on what get hearts pumping and pulses racing. 

Now in its fourth year, the Science of Scare is back and bigger than ever tracking the scariest movies ever made, at its new home here at MoneySuperMarket broadband

How to measure the scariest movies?

Each year, the Science of Scare Project curates a list of the most terrifying English language films and puts them to our 250 strong panel. 

Our test subjects are invited to special screenings of our movies where they are fitted with heart rate monitors and their heart rate is tracked throughout each movie. 

To prevent audience fatigue, screenings take place over the course of several weeks throughout the year, before we publish our results in October, just in time for Halloween. 

In previous years, we would measure the average impact our shortlisted movies had on the heart rate (measured in BPM) of our subjects, compared to the average resting BPM of the total sample size (64 BPM). 

However, new for 2023, we have developed a more detailed way of measuring, with the creation of the Science of Scare Score. 

The Science of Scare score 

One of the main pieces of feedback from horror afficionados and communities (like r/horror) in last year’s study was that only using one physiological factor (heart rate) meant the study favoured heavy jumpscare based movies rather than slow burn horror films. 

That’s why for 2023 we have created the Science of Scare score, a combination of multiple factors, to rank the scariest movies. 

The new score system combines both heart rate (measured in beats per minute BPM), and heart rate variance (measured in milliseconds, or m/s). 

With heart rate (BPM), the higher the number, the faster the movie got our audiences’ blood pumping, an indicator of excitement and fear as part of your fight or flight instinct. 

On the other hand, heart rate variance (HRV), measures the time in between each beat of your heart. The lower the heart rate variance the more stressed our audience members became, a good indicator of slow burn fear and dread. 

After collecting the average heart rate increase and HRV decrease, we then combine both score to create a Science of Scare score out of 100. For comparison, Shrek holds a ‘Scare Score’ of 3 out of 100. 

What is the scariest movie of all time? 

According to our improved scientific study, Scott Derrickson’s 2012 supernatural horror, Sinister has reclaimed its crown as the scariest movie ever made. 

Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as true crime writer Elliot Oswalt who in his obsession with a series of grizzly events documented in chilling 8mm footage, unwittingly puts his own family in danger.  Our audience experienced a 34% uplift in heart rate when watching the movie, from 64 bpm, up to 86 bpm across the movie, with the films scariest moment sending hearts pounding to 131 bpm. HRV dropped by 21% among viewers, the second lowest of any film on the list, indicating a perfect balance of startling moments and slow burn scare.  

Both combined to give Sinister a scare score of 96 out of 100. 

Sinister had originally been crowned the scariest of all time in our initial 2020 study, before losing the top spot to Host in 2021. However, it was Sinister’s ability to give our viewers that sinking feeling that edged it back into first place. 

The Science of Scare 2023  

In second place was last year’s winner Host, with the Zoom-based horror scoring 95, just one point below the top spot. However, Host still got our audience’s hearts beating faster than any other movie on the list. 

In third place was a new entry for 2023, Skinamarink, with the divisive, high concept horror film, terrifying our audiences despite its lack of a clear narrative. Skinamarink impacted audiences’ heart rate variance (HRV) more than any other movie on our list at 24%, causing the most stress and dread among viewers for a score of 91.  

Rounding the top 10 were Insidious, The Conjuring, Hereditary, Smile, The Excorcism of Emily Rose, Hell House LLC and Talk To Me. 

The scariest films of 2023 

In total 13 new horror movies from 2022/2023 were included in this year’s study, with nine making the top 50 scariest movies of all-time list. 

New films to the study 

The scariest film of 2023 was Skinamarink, the experimental horror directorial debut from Kyle Edward Ball, charting at number three, with an overall scare score of 91. 

Other high charting movies of 2022/2023 included another directorial debut in Talk to Me from Danny and Michael Philippou, and Smile

Four of the 13 new films rated this year, Cobweb, M3GAN, Malignant and Pearl missed out on the top 50. 

Science of Scare 2023 quick facts 

  • Sinister reclaims its number one spot this year, having been the winner in our original 2020 study. 
  • Smile’s performance, means star Sosie Bacon and Kevin Bacon (Friday the 13th) become the first father-daughter team on the list. 
  • Ethan Hawk and Patrick Wilson hold the record for most appearances as a different character on the list with two a-piece. Wilson features a whopping six times across the Conjuring and Insidious franchises. 
  • James Wan (4) and Scott Derrikson (3) feature more times than any other director on our list, with Tobe Hooper also making two appearances. 

Below you can explore the full table of 2023’s results, allowing you to order by heart rate or our new Science of Scare score system. You can also compare this year to previous years with the tables below. 

Science of Scare: All Years 

How we choose and rate movies 

There are easily hundreds of horror movies from all over the world, with new indie horrors being released all the time. That means, unfortunately it’s not possible to screen every horror movie ever made to our panel. Luckily, this is where our Scare List comes into play. 

Our Scare List is our collated list of the scariest films taken from critic best of lists, forum and subreddit suggestions (a particular thanks the r/horror community), personal and expert recommendations and of course your feedback. 

Here’s how the Scare List works.  

Based on previous results, the top 25 movies are locked in and do not get rescreened (unless of course a new entry is scary enough to bump them out of the top 25). The remainder of the 50 (our relegation zone) get rescreened alongside our new entries.  

Any movie which doesn’t make the top 50, is blocked for 12 months, after which they can be voted back in. 

Our Scare List only considers English language horror movies. 

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