In the realm of horror, brevity can sometimes intensify a thrill, leaving you clutching your book or clinging to the edge of your seat. Some of literature’s most enduring nightmares are short-form. Neither MR James nor HP Lovecraft have a novel to their name, yet they’re amongst the most famous authors of horror and it could be argued King and Barker’s most successful works are their short stories.
In the world of film, there are numerous examples of directors using shorts as a launchpad to bigger and better things. Huge directors such as Raimi, Wan, Waititi, and Burton all got their start with shorts and newer directors such as Bruckner, Sandberg, Muschietti and Jennifer Kent are all finding similar success with theirs as well. Based on how many there are and how well most of them do on YouTube and other platforms, there’s clearly an appetite for bite-size horror and the market doesn’t look to be drying up anytime soon.
In this list, we’ll delve into some of the greatest horror short films ever created, each possessing the unique ability to send shivers down your spine in mere minutes. So, let’s dim the lights, embrace the darkness, and venture into a world where fear lurks around every corner.
These are the 100 Greatest Horror Shorts of All Time.
10. Meshes of The Afternoon (1943)
Meshes of the Afternoon is a groundbreaking experimental short film that’s often regarded as one of the most influential works in the history of avant-garde filmmaking. The film presents a dreamlike narrative in non-linear fashion, blurring the boundaries between reality and imagination. The plot revolves around a woman, portrayed by Maya Deren herself, as she encounters a series of perplexing and surreal events within the confines of her home and its surrounding environment. You can see this film’s fingerprints on everything from David Lynch to Stan Brakhage to Kenneth Anger.
9. The Black Tower (1987)
A man finds himself haunted by a mysterious black tower that appears to follow him wherever he goes. A brilliant short that somehow tackles depression, insanity, gentrification, the panopticon and weird architecture, The Black Tower is a masterpiece of existential horror. It effortlessly chills the viewer with no startling imagery or jump scares. There’s just the narration from an increasingly paranoid man and the titular black tower. The always looming, ever present black tower.
8. The Cat With Hands (2001)
Robert Morgan is what would happen if Guillermo del Toro and The Brothers Quay had a son even more fucked up than they are. The Cat With Hands centers around a young man who stumbles upon an unsettling discovery at adventure old well. He encounters a mysterious cat with unsettling human-like hands, quite different from any feline he has ever encountered. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that there is something deeply disturbing and malevolent about this cat. One of the most striking aspects of The Cat With Hands is its distinct visual style. The film utilizes stop-motion animation, which adds a level of eeriness and uncanniness to the overall atmosphere. The juxtaposition of the lifelike movements of the cat’s hands with its feline body intensifies the unsettling nature of the story, creating a sense of unease and discomfort. There are very few directors still operating in the realm of stop motion and even fewer as talented as Morgan.
7. Bedfellows (2008)
Clocking in at just under three minutes, this brief yet effective horror flick manages to leave a lasting impression on its viewers. The plot revolves around a woman who receives a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night. The caller, claiming to be her boyfriend, insists that he is already lying in bed with her. Confused and frightened, she proceeds to uncover the truth and discovers a spine-chilling twist. The ending has an indelible image that has been the thumb nail of a million creepy articles on the internet. Even if you haven’t seen this short, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen it. From the moment the unsettling phone call begins, Bedfellows builds a sense of tension and then hits you with a nightmare inducing final image.
6. One Last Dive (2013)
Jason Eisener has been consisting knocking it out of the park with his shorts for years now. Treevenge is about killer sentient Christmas trees, Hobo With a Shotgun won a contest to be included in certain screenings of Grindhouse and was later adapted into a feature length film, as was his segment in V/H/S 2 and his segment in ABC’s of Death is all sorts of fucked up. But his best by far is also his shortest. Running just a minute long, One Last Dive involves a underwater crime scene that ends in the most terrifying way imaginable. He’s been planning on expanding this into a film and I hope he eventually does because I can’t think of a scarier premise.
5. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011)
By far the most controversial and unsettling film on this list, The Strange Thing About The Johnsons tells a disturbing story that revolves around a seemingly perfect American family with a horrifying secret. The film delves into the taboo subject of familial sexual abuse, tackling it with a dark and twisted approach. It explores the complexities of family dynamics and the devastating consequences of buried secrets and suppressed emotions. As with everything Ari Aster directs, the performances are all exceptional. The entire cast skillfully portray the internal struggles and psychological trauma faced by their respective characters. Their performances are raw and intense, making the unsettling subject matter even more impactful. Ultimately, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a film that challenges audiences to confront their own discomfort and explore the dark corners of human nature. It is not for everyone, due to its disturbing subject matter and the ethical questions it raises. However, for those willing to engage with its disturbing themes, it can be a thought-provoking and unsettling cinematic experience.
4. The Backrooms (2022)
Directed by an up-and-coming 17 year horror filmmaker (seriously, Kane Pixels was just 17 when he made this), The Backrooms is based on a popular creepypasta and centers around a group of friends who stumble upon a hidden doorway that transports them into a parallel reality called the Backrooms. This alternate dimension is composed of seemingly endless and monotonous yellow-tinted rooms, devoid of any logical structure or purpose. As they struggle to find their way out, the characters encounter eerie entities and face terrifying threats that add a sense of danger and suspense to the narrative. One of the strengths of this horror short is its atmosphere. The production design effectively creates a visually unsettling space, with its dimly lit rooms, peeling wallpaper, and claustrophobic corridors. Combined with the cinematography, the film captures a sense of desolation and dread, constantly keeping the audience on edge.
3. Possibly in Michigan (1983)
Long before the age of YouTube, Possibly in Michigan was past around between horror fans at conventions and played at festivals and quickly became an underground hit for those looking for the bizarre. The plot follows the lives of two women as they navigate the perils of their everyday lives. They are both stalked by the Stranger, a masked figure who has a twisted obsession with them. Through haunting narration and eerie visuals, the film explores themes of female vulnerability, power dynamics, and societal pressures. If you couldn’t tell, Possibly in Michigan is not your typical horror film. It subverts genre expectations and challenges conventions, opting for a more nuanced exploration of fear and vulnerability. It’s more interested in exploring the emotional impact of its story rather than relying solely on jump scares or gore. This approach may not appeal to fans of conventional horror, but those looking for a deeper and more introspective experience will find much to appreciate.
2. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Directed by Luis Buñuel and co-written with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou has remained an intriguing and influential piece of avant-garde cinema for nearly 100 years. With its shocking and often unsettling imagery, the film challenges traditional narrative structures and explores the subconscious mind. The film opens with a jarring scene of a man sharpening a straight razor, which culminates in a shocking image of the blade slicing through a woman’s eye. This infamous scene sets the tone for the film’s exploration of dreamlike and nightmarish sequences. Un Chien Andalou does not follow a linear narrative but instead offers a series of disjointed and nonsensical scenes that seem to be strung together through their shared themes of desire, lust, and death. Buñuel and Dalí purposefully crafted Un Chien Andalou to subvert and challenge audience expectations. They deliberately rejected the logic and coherence typically associated with traditional storytelling, opting instead for a stream-of-consciousness approach. By presenting seemingly unrelated and illogical images, the film aims to tap into the viewer’s subconscious and evoke intense emotional responses. While Un Chien Andalou may not be easily accessible or enjoyable seeking conventional storytelling, it remains an important and influential work in the history of cinema.
1. Lights Out (2013)
Lights Out is number 1 with a bullet for one simple reason: it has the greatest jump scare in the history of jump scares. The short, that later got expanded into an inferior film, is simplicity itself. A woman (played by David F. Sandberg’s wife) is ready to go to bed and when she flick the lights off, she sees a being in the hallway. When she clicks it back on, it disappears. What follows is a woman’s desperate attempt to keep the lights on lest the monster in the dark gets her. It may not be as influential as Meshes in the Afternoon or Un Chien Andalou, have production design as impressive as a Neill Blomkamp short or have much in terms of a story or acting but it delivers where it counts. Which is one great jump scare and an unforgettable image.
What are some of your favorite horror shorts? Did I leave any off the list? Comment down below.