The genre can be just as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
Horror isn’t only for jump scares and gore. When done right, horror movies have the ability to make us care for characters, root for their survival, and leave us devastated at the possibility of their demise. If you have ever found yourself welling up when things go wrong for horror film characters, I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. For the times when you need a good scare and a good cry, here are 15 horror movies that just might do the trick.
Potential spoilers ahead for A Quiet Place, among others. You’ve been warned.
A Quiet Place
John Krasinski‘s A Quiet Place, in addition to being an excellent movie, is also a powerful testament to the horror genre’s emotional side. Krasinski’s Lee struggles to keep his family safe throughout the film. This comes to a head in one of the movie’s pivotal scenes when his children are attacked by one of the monsters. The decision that Lee makes at this moment is heartbreaking on paper and even more effective on screen thanks to Krasinski and Millicent Simmonds‘ outstanding performances as father and daughter.
28 Days Later
Danny Boyle‘s 2002 horror movie not only revitalized the zombie movie genre, it also gave us some grisly death scenes. The most heartwrenching of these is the demise of Brendon Gleeson‘s Frank, who becomes infected by a single drop of blood. It’s horrifying to watch as he is turned almost instantly, but not before he tells his daughter that he loves her one last time, and is then forced to push her away so she doesn’t succumb to the same fate as him.
Guillermo del Toro’s films
The Mexican auteur gets his own category on this list, and it’s well deserved. Between directing and producing, he’s given us a lot of horror movies that tug at the heartstrings. His 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone and his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth were two of the first movies that came to mind for this list. Both films follow young protagonists as they come to understand the supernatural or fairytale worlds around them while contending with the harsh realities of their environments during and after the Spanish Civil War. Both films explore the effects of trauma on their young protagonists, and even though the imagery is otherworldly, the stories certainly hit close to home. Del Toro is also an accomplished producer with dozens of credits to his name. Two especially notable ones are The Orphanage, director J.A. Bayona‘s 2007 horror movie about a woman who returns with her family to the orphanage where she was raised, and Mama, Andy Muschietti‘s debut feature film about two young girls and their attachment to the eponymous supernatural being. Both films explore trauma and family dynamics, and though del Toro didn’t direct either, the films carry his signature emotional resonance.
I Am Legend
Whether you’ve seen I Am Legend or not, you probably know the reason it’s on this list: the dog dies. Despite this movie being a box office smash hit, I never got around to watching it because I know I won’t be able to enjoy anything after the dog dies. If you’re braver than me, the movie is probably perfect for when you need a cathartic cry sesh and a good dose of post-apocalyptic action. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you that the dog dies.
From beginning to end, Martyrs is a heavy movie. Pascal Laugier‘s 2008 New French Extremity film is a nihilistic deep dive that questions how much suffering people are willing to inflict on others, and in turn, how much suffering those victims can bear. While the ending of the film is particularly gut-wrenching, I don’t think anyone could blame a viewer for tearing up throughout the movie as they watch protagonists Lucie and Anna (Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui) revisit and confront the horrors that were inflicted on Lucie as a child.
Come for the body horror special effects, stay for the surprisingly touching meditation on ambition and self-destruction. In David Cronenberg‘s 1986 horror movie, Jeff Goldblum‘s Seth Brundle is a scientist who accidentally splices his DNA with that of a fly and begins to transform into a hybrid creature. As he is corrupted by his goal of self-preservation, Geena Davis‘ Ronnie is forced to have a showdown with Brundle and watch as he loses nearly every last trace of his own humanity. Needless to say, this isn’t easy to watch, and it’s hard to not feel sympathy for all parties involved.
Stephen King adaptations
Like del Toro, Stephen King is worthy of his own category here. One of the most recent adaptations of his work, 2017’s IT, packs some emotional punches, particularly when Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) accepts the death of his brother and is able to defeat Pennywise. Mary Lambert‘s 1989 Pet Sematary adaptation is also quite emotionally charged, especially when Louis (Dale Midkiff), the well-meaning patriarch of his family, is forced to kill his own son who has returned from the dead. But the crowning glory of gut-punch endings goes to Frank Darabont‘s 2007 adaptation of The Mist. I hesitate to reveal too much even with the spoiler alert above because King himself once remarked in regard to The Mist that “there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. Just do so after emotionally preparing yourself for the worst.
Director Joel Anderson‘s 2008 mockumentary style horror movie Lake Mungo follows the remaining members of a family who struggle with grief following the death of sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker). Alice’s mother, father, and brother are all unable to process and accept her death. As they begin to discover more secrets about her life on earth, it becomes clear that Alice may not truly be gone after all. The film’s effectiveness at keeping audiences emotionally invested and on their toes about what is or isn’t real also means that Alice’s surname isn’t the only thing that calls to mind Twin Peaks.
Night of the Living Dead
There’s a long list of horror movies where characters who deserved better still meet a tragic end. The undeniable top spot on this list belongs to Duane Jones‘ Ben in Night of the Living Dead. Director George A. Romero allows us to believe that Ben will make it out alive after a fraught night spent fighting zombies and his fellow man. This hope is shattered by a bullet from a small town would-be zombie hunter who mistakes Ben for one of the monsters and kills him. No matter how many times I watch the movie, this scene is just as devastating as the first time.
The Final Girls
Todd Strauss-Schulson‘s 2015 movie The Final Girls is billed as a horror/comedy. This suggests there should be laughs instead of tears. Wrong! This movie gets meta as hell when Max (Taissa Farmiga) and some of her friends are transported into the world of an ’80s slasher movie that starred Max’s now deceased mother (Malin Åkerman). Max is able to reunite with her mother via her character in the movie, Nancy. But eventually, Max and Nancy have to say goodbye. With the help of a killer soundtrack, this climactic moment is the highlight of the film, and one of the best tearjerker horror moments in recent memory.
If you can’t get enough of sad horror movies, there are even more I wasn’t able to include. Jacob’s Ladder, Train to Busan, Eden Lake, Odd Thomas, The Others, The Sixth Sense, The Girl Next Door, Poltergeist, The Changeling, May, Return of the Living Dead 3, The Babadook, Signs, Pulse (2001), A Tale of Two Sisters, and Carrie all pack some emotional punches that make them well worth a watch.