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.
20. The Vacancy (1985)
Desperate for work, two friends arrive early to a supermarket for a job interview and along with two other interviewees and the manager, who locks them in the store because they’re the only ones there and the store isn’t open yet, are stalked and attacked by a masked killer. An obscure SOV hidden gem, The Vacancy is a charming British short that gets by on heart and the enthusiasm of all involved. It has that “putting on a show in the barn” type energy a lot of no budget movies have. If you’re a fan of SOV movies and you have a high tolerance for amateur filmmaking, The Vacancy might just be your new favorite discovery.
19. Laura Hasn’t Slept (2020)
One of the few shorts that works in tandem with the film it later inspired instead of just being a rough draft, Laura Hasn’t Slept is the prologue to Smile. It actually helps expand and flesh out the story of that film and reveals things about the lore you wouldn’t know if you’ve never watched it. The film still works without it but the fact that Parker Finn decided to tie the two of them together shows he really cares about the world he created and wasn’t just making a short to break into Hollywood.
18. Teaching Jake About the Camcorder, Jan ‘97 (2021)
Jake, who we never see, watches and rewatches an old tape his father made for him years earlier. As the title suggests, it’s an instructional tape all about how to work a camcorder. At first, there’s nothing off about the footage but the more he (and by extension us) rewatches the tape, something new is revealed. If you’ve ever watched old home movies, especially ones where a beloved one is directly addressing you in the future, you know that feeling when the past and present start to interact. It’s a beautiful feeling that’s about as close to time travel as you can get. This short perfectly taps into but it also taps into that feeling you get when you watch an old tape made by a loved one you never should have watched. There’s something wrong about this tape, something strange. Teaching Jake About the Camcorder, Jan ‘97 is subtle horror at its finest.
17. Concrete City Exploration (2022)
ScareTheater is a popular YouTube channel that explores all things creepy and scary. It covers real life murders, ghost sightings, creepypastas, urban legends, blood curdling 911 calls, disappearances and other hair-raising topics. But hidden in amongst all the real life videos is Concrete City Exploration, a fake vlog that’s easily as horrific as anything else on the channel. Two urban explorers decide to check out concrete city, a series of graffiti ridden, dilapidated buildings out in the middle of nowhere. What starts off as a typical vlog takes a sudden turn into the horrific when the two get stuck in a time loop and one suddenly goes missing.
16. La Cabina (1972)
One of the oldest shorts on this list, La Cabina is an early example of short form surrealism. The short opens with a phone box being installed by mysterious individuals early in the morning. We hold on the phone box and watch as a sea of random passersby walk in and out of frame until a man needs to make a phone call. He does but when he tries to exist, he can’t. His pleas for help go ignored and are even mocked by some who decide to watch him struggle. As time goes on, and the reality of his situation becomes more and more solid, even the viewer starts to feel his nervousness and desperation. When those same men arrive to remove the booth, his relief turns to puzzlement, and into horror as he’s taken away into an even deeper hole of desolation.
15. Too Many Cooks (2014)
What starts off as a retro-sitcom intro quickly transforms into a mind-bending experience that continually escalates the absurdity. Too Many Cooks relentlessly mocks the clichéd opening credits of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms, with an overly cheerful theme song and an extended cast introduction that seems to go on forever. However, as the minutes pass, the video takes a dark and unexpected turn. The characters become increasingly bizarre, new characters are introduced rapidly, and the plot becomes convoluted and nonsensical until it goes full horror. Adult Swim is a shadow of its former self with this being one of the last truly great things it ever produced.
14. My House Walk Through (2016)
“This is not horror video. This video was created simply by filming inside my house.” That description by the man narrating the video, isn’t a set up for a jump scare at the end. It truly is just a walk through his incredibly large, impossibly dark house. But the decay of the structure coupled with the sound of the raging typhoon outside in addition to the darkness and narration, create an eerie ambiance that’s indistinguishable from genuine horror. Because of its uniqueness (there’s really nothing else like it), My house walk-through is an instant classic in internet horror.
13. The Woods (2017)
What was meant to be a fun night for a group of old friends out at a holiday cabin, turns into a nightmare when they find themselves stranded in the woods, unable to escape the dense labyrinth of trees and worse yet, they’re not alone. If you’re familiar with their YouTube channel, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a horror comedy (or even just a straight comedy) but The Woods is very much a serious horror short. Sugar Pine 7 have shown that their acting, cinematography, and serious writing skills are all just as impressive as their approach to off the wall wacky YouTube bits. If this was a feature length movie, it would be one of the most impressive things on YouTube. It’s that good.
12. Slut (2014)
You don’t make your short Slut unless you’re aiming to push buttons and if controversy was all this short had to offer, it wouldn’t have made the list this high. Chloe Okuno knew exactly what she was doing when she named it that. The title grabs your attention and the short itself, grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. A naive young girl becomes the target of a murderous sociopath when she attempts to reinvent herself to impress the boys in her small Texas town. Based on the strength of this short, her segment in V/H/S/94 (Hail Raatma!) and her debut feature Watcher, Okuno is quickly becoming one of the best new voices in horror.
11. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949)
You would’ve expect a Disney short to make it this high on a list of the greatest horror shorts but anyone who’s seen their adaptation of Washington Irving’s famous tale can attest — this is Disney at their absolute most terrifying. They’ve dabbled in horror before but never as overt as this. A faithful retelling all the way down to its shocking conclusion, the short gets major points for not tacking on a happy ending or minimalizing the threat of The Headless Horseman. This short was meant to scare the living bejesus out of generations of children and it’s still as effective today as it was almost 75 years ago.
What are some of your favorite horror shorts? Do you think they’ll be in the Top 10?