Horror films in the ’60s took a dramatic turn for the shocking, morbid, and salacious. Due to the lifting of certain censorship, the decade saw the rise of experimental films like Orgy of the Dead, and the sight of Janet Leigh taking a shower in Psycho. Audiences were exposed to ideas and imagery they’d never seen before as hulking fiends like Frankenstein’s Monster gave way to the creepy Norman Bates or the loner Mark Lewis.
In the ’60s, stripped of insects filling in for aliens, bizarre lizard men, or attacks by 50-foot women, horror became uncomfortably close, like a stranger stepping from the shadows to breathe across your neck. Its thematic elements drew on the psychological and the supernatural, which parallels much of the current genre. Here are 10 ’60s horror movies that are still terrifying today.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed films, Psycho is widely regarded as one of the most masterful horror films of all time due to its palpable sense of suspense and dread. It relies strongly on lighting, ambiance, and strong performances to communicate its terror.
A young secretary (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her work and flees across Arizona; eventually, exhaustion overtakes her and she’s forced to check-in at the eerie Bates Motel. The proprietor is Norman Bates, a shifty young man with a deeply rooted obsession with both taxidermy and his mother.
9 VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
Village of the Damned was one of the first science fiction horror films to produce pint-sized antagonists, showcasing children being the main perpetrators of murder, a concept that would be duplicated many times in later films like Children of the Corn.
When the English town of Midwich becomes the victim of a strange phenomenon that results in all the childbearing women becoming pregnant at the exact same time, the townspeople are horrified to find the offspring are all children that seem to be able to telepathically communicate and force their parents to do things against their will – including kill!
8 CARNIVAL OF SOULS
More obscure than other films on this list, Carnival of Souls has since become a classic horror film in the many decades since its release. It has few of the special effects that permeate more modern horror films, but what it does have is an eerie sense of calm that builds into an uneasy sense of foreboding that’s impossible to escape.
It focuses on a young woman, the lone survivor of a car crash who moves to Utah to forget the tragedy. While working as a church organist, she becomes inexplicably drawn to the carnival at the edge of town, now abandoned, or at least of living souls…
7 THE BIRDS
The sunshine state is the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller The Birds, specifically the coastal areas of Northern California. Like many great films from the genre, The Birds instilled a fear of the everyday and mundane in audiences, to the point where a blue jay out a kitchen window heralded impending doom.
A wealthy San Francisco woman (Tippi Hedren) finds the patron of a local pet shop charming and decides to pursue him to a coastal town near Bodega Bay. As they strike up a romance, strange occurrences with birds begin to happen all over the town, until swarms of them are attacking anyone that ventures into the streets.
6 EYES WITHOUT A FACE
As lyrical as Billy Idol’s ’80s ballad of the same name, Eyes Without a Face is a haunting horror film with a premise as beautifully constructed as it is ghastly. While its concepts are unsettling, they also speak to human nature, the familiarity and inevitability of which cannot be ignored.
When a brilliant but obsessive surgeon finds that his daughter has been disfigured after an accident, he struggles in vain to restore her radiant looks. Keeping her locked up in his mansion, he lures unsuspecting female victims to his home in the hopes of removing their faces and grafting them on to his daughter’s.
5 THE HAUNTING
The Haunting has received a revival of sorts with the tremendous success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, though the film and the series differ drastically from one another, save the fact that they both take place in a haunted manor.
Psychologist John Markway is curious about psychic phenomena and brings two women to stay at Hill House; Eleanor, whose experiences with the supernatural has left her shy and reserved, and Theodora, who is bold and unafraid. Together with the Hill House heir, Luke, they experience terrifying occurrences that cannot be explained.
4 ROSEMARY’S BABY
Considered by some horror fans to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, Rosemary’s Baby has stood the test of time thanks to its atmospheric cinematography, haunting visuals, and a strong cast, led by a stirring performance by a young Mia Farrow.
When newlyweds Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into a New York apartment together, the old building and eccentric neighbors aren’t part of their plans, but they’re excited to start a family. Rosemary’s pregnancy doesn’t go as planned, however, and much of the horror comes from viewers watching how helpless she is when the father might be a demon.
3 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
The first of George A. Romero’s renowned zombie films, Night of the Living Dead was the groundbreaking horror film that started his legacy as the grandfather of ghouls. It was made for $115,000 and made 250 times its budget, and was critically despised for its explicit gore but revered by audiences across the United States.
The terror begins when a couple is suddenly attacked by undead fiends while in a graveyard. The woman flees to a farmhouse where she’s joined by several other victims, and they all brace for a long night of survival against the hordes of cannibals outside.
2 PEEPING TOM
Considered extremely controversial when it was released in the UK, Peeping Tom has grown in cult status over the decades, even as its director’s film career was forever marred by its creation. Even by today’s standards, it’s uniquely harrowing.
A lonely aspiring filmmaker, Mark Lewis likes to clandestinely film women. Sometimes he’ll invite promising subjects to his apartment, where he films them up close and personal before murdering them with a knife. As Lewis progresses to the completion of his “documentary on fear,” the police close in and he’s forced to orchestrate the gruesome finale earlier than expected.
1 THE INNOCENTS
Based on the thrilling novel The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is a 1961 ghost story that marketed itself as being based on a screenplay in which the paranormal occurrences were completely legitimate. Acclaimed author Truman Capote worked on the script.
A governess (Deborah Kerr) looking after two young wards begins to question the strange goings-on of the manor where she lives, but their uncle, a drunken bachelor, is not concerned. She soon suspects the manor is haunted and that the children are being possessed by supernatural entities.
NEXT: 10 Horror Movies From The ‘80s That Will Still Terrify You Today