Science Says This Is The Scariest Movie That’s Ever Been Made

Your heart rate is going at a million miles per hour, you can feel the adrenaline pumping around your body, and you’ve just gasped for breath. Oh, and you’re holding a bag of popcorn. Yes, watching a scary movie in a cinema can be the same as running an enduring race. And according to scientists, there’s one particular horror film that’s more frightening than any other.

In 2020 the people behind comparison tool broadbandchoices conducted an experiment dubbed the Science of Scare Project. The aim was to determine which horror movie had the biggest impact on a viewer’s heart rate. To achieve this, each of the participants in the study had a heart rate monitor fitted to their body. Makes sense.

This monitor showed how much the viewer’s average heart rate rose above the resting 65 beats per minute (BPM) per film. No fewer than 50 people were selected for the study, ranging from those only just old enough to get into an NC-17-rated movie to those who remember the heyday of Hammer horror. And they were all put through more than 100 hours of cinematic fright fests in glorious 5.1 surround sound.

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So what inspired the study’s creator to put 50 cinemagoers through their paces in 2020? Daniel Clifford said, “With more people than ever facing a Halloween at home, our Science of Scare study was designed to help people find the most scientifically scary films ever made.” This would also, “save them the time of searching through thousands of titles across streaming services like Amazon, Netflix and Shudder.”

But how did the project’s organizers choose these heart rate-testing movies? Answer: they simply looked at the likes of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB to find 50 horror movies widely considered to be both the best and the scariest. And some films you’d expect to get hearts frantically racing ended up having little impact.

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Take Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, for example. The film, hailed by many as the greatest horror of all time, could only make No.33 in this very specific countdown. Iconic slasher Friday the 13th, found footage phenomenon The Blair Witch Project and devil child tale The Omen all failed to make it into the Top 20, too.

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Elsewhere, Wes Craven’s super-meta mid-1990s’ classic Scream was found to be the 20th most heart-racing horror. Just above it was another Stephen King page-turner brought to the screen, It. And spooky slasher Hush, the Oscar-nominated The Exorcist and Danny Boyle’s gritty zombie movie 28 Days Later just missed out on the Top 15.

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But it’s not just the heart rate that horror movies can have an effect on. Our adrenal glands also produce more adrenaline which in turn increases the blood flow to our muscles and our breathing. This bodily function is responsible for the goosebumps we may feel whenever we get spooked, a phenomenon which has the very apt name of horripilation.

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Plus our eyes can experience a big change when we’re glued to a scarefest. That’s right: our pupils will dilate whenever we’re stressed, enabling more light and clearer vision from bigger distances. The University of Plymouth’s physiology expert Dr. Feisal Subhan told the BBC, “I guess this is the one physiological response moviegoers can benefit from, they get to see the film better.”

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Watching a horror can even release the same rewarding neurotransmitter that you get from a thrilling theme park ride. Yes, cinemagoers will experience an increase in dopamine whenever they subject themselves to a slasher, monster movie or good old-fashioned ghost story. So which 15 films scared the bejesus out of the study’s gluttons for punishment?

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15. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

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For those horror aficionados who grew up in the 1970s, Tobe Hooper’s low-budget The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains the most terrifying movie of all time. Audiences hadn’t seen anything like the sight of masked cannibal Leatherface torturing a bunch of 20-somethings with his beloved chainsaw before. And nearly half a century on, it still has the power to bring out audiences in a sweat.

Yes, the franchise-spawning slasher increased audiences’ heart rates by an average of 12 BPM. And there was also one particular moment when this jumped all the way up to 98 BPM. This could have been the moment of the first gruesome kill, the hellish dinner table scene or the finale where Sally finally manages to flee the clutches of Leatherface for good.

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14. Halloween

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You might have expected John Carpenter’s Halloween to be higher up the list. Because it was the film that established Jamie Lee Curtis as the ultimate scream queen, introduced us to masked killer Michael Myers and paved the way for countless slasher imitators. Still, a 12 BPM increase is nothing to be sniffed at.

And at one point the iconic horror even pushed audiences’ heart rates past the 100 BPM mark. Could this have been the moment when a young Myers bludgeons his older sister to death in the opening scene? Well, Halloween has so many great nerve-shattering kills that it’s hard to determine. It’s also the highest film on the list to have been released before 1980.

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13. A Nightmare on Elm Street

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We’re obviously talking about the 1984 original and not the inferior 2010 remake. With his red and black jumper, fedora hat and face disfigured by horrific burns, Freddy Krueger instantly became one of the most iconic-looking horror villains of all time. And he also made every child who managed to sneakily watch a copy on VHS afraid to ever shut their eyes again.

As the film’s title suggests, Krueger taunted his victims in their dreams, so there was never a permanent form of escape from his clutches. Little wonder, then, that Wes Craven’s game-changing slasher still has the power to get everyone chugging back the coffee. Like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it boosted the average heart rate by 12 BPM. But it’s all-time highest spike was 104 BPM.

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12. A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place might only be rated PG-13. But for some, it sends more shivers down the spine than any X-rated gorefest. Starring and directed by John Krasinski, the post-apocalyptic tale centers on a family who must forever stay silent if they’re to evade the blind extraterrestrials who can hunt their prey by sound.

The breakout horror of 2018 got participants’ heart rates speeding up to an average of 78 BPM. And at one point, that figure moved all the way up to 122 BPM, the fourth-highest spike on this list. That’s little surprise when you consider that the devastating and incredibly tense opening scene proves that no-one is safe.

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11. The Ring

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Audition proved to be the most heart-pumping foreign-language horror in the study, placing at No.35. But the film 24 positions higher also has origins in Japan. Gore Verbinski’s take on J-horror classic The Ring was hailed as one of those rare Hollywood adaptations that doesn’t ruin the source material. And nearly 20 years on, audiences are still being creeped out.

Yes, the story of a videotape which appears to result in the death of anyone who watches it raised the heart rate to an average BPM of 79. The first time that long-haired Samara crawls out of the TV remains one of the most indelible images of 2000s’ horror. And we can imagine this is the moment that sent participants’ hearts racing all the way up to a 107 BPM spike.

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10. The Visit

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M. Night Shyamalan made his name delivering one of the all-time greatest twists with The Sixth Sense. But its scares were undoubtedly more of a slow-burning nature. Yet it’s one of the Hitchcockian director’s more instantly thrilling films that makes this list, 2015’s found footage tale The Visit.

Shyamalan’s return to form sees a young brother and sister head out to spend some time with their estranged grandparents. Of course, the two siblings soon end up wishing that they’d remained estranged. You may even see it as a modern take on Hansel and Gretel. The shocks and scares that followed sent the study’s viewers’ hearts 14 BPM higher than the average.

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9. The Descent

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It’s difficult to determine which part of The Descent caused audience members’ heart rates to shoot up to a mighty 122 BPM. Neil Marshall’s cave bound horror is packed with unbearable tension throughout. Yes, long before the mutants who stalk the all-female group of spelunkers show their hideous faces, this 2005 horror has already packed several punches.

There’s the tragic car accident in the opening scene, for one thing. And anyone even the tiniest bit claustrophobic no doubt broke out in a cold sweat the minute the action moved deep into North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. We’re only surprised that the average BPM isn’t higher than 79.

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8. The Babadook

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Mr. Babadook may have been repositioned as an unlikely ally of the LGBT community. But there’s nothing friendly about his behavior in this psychological Australian horror. The children’s book character continually taunts Noah Wiseman’s troubled youngster in the 2014 tale, pushing Essie Davis’ single mother to breaking point in the process.

The Babadook was hailed as one of the most effective horror movies of the 2010s. So it’s not surprising to see it nestled inside the Top ten of all-time heart-racing scare fests. Jennifer Kent’s feature-length directorial debut sent participants’ average heart BPM a full 15 higher than that of the resting.

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7. The Conjuring 2

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Turns out that if you want to increase the average heart rate of cinemagoers, James Wan is your man. For the director is behind no fewer than three different films inside the study’s Top 10 including this 2016 sequel. The Conjuring 2 sent viewers average BPM soaring to 80 and at one point all the way up to 120!

This time Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s paranormal investigators head to North London where a single mother of four is being haunted by an unknown entity. Cue a number of effective jump scares which proves that The Conjuring universe is the go-to place for supernatural frights. And this certainly isn’t the last that we’ll hear from it.

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6. It Follows

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It Follows may well be the least-known film inside the Top 15. The 2014 release was more of an indie sleeper hit with an overall budget much smaller than what most Hollywood horrors spend. But David Robert Mitchell’s calling card proved that you don’t need big bucks to produce big scares.

Raking in a creditable $15 million at the U.S. box office, the film stars Maika Monroe as a student who’s stalked by a supernatural entity. And for reasons that will become clear, it’s only after she’s first had sex with her new boyfriend that this occurs. Pushing viewers’ average heart BPM to the 81 mark, the minimalist suspense-filled film shows that when it comes to horror, sometimes less can be more.

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5. Paranormal Activity

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The Blair Witch Project is credited with pioneering the found footage format. But it’s the Paranormal Activity franchise that’s taken it to new heights. The first in the series makes inspired use of cameras placed around the couple’s home to prey upon many viewers’ biggest fear: being terrorized in the place you should feel the safest.

On a budget of just $15,000, the flick made a colossal worldwide box office total of $193 million. At 127, it also posted the third highest BPM spike in the study. No doubt that the terrifying finale in which one half of the loving couple is revealed as the demonic presence was to blame.

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4. Hereditary

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The most recent film on the list, 2018’s Hereditary earmarked first-time director Ari Aster as one of the horror genre’s most important new voices. As with his equally acclaimed follow-up Midsommar, this classic is just as much a meditation on grief as it is a chiller. For it’s only when a family is forced to deal with a tragic death that things get really creepy.

That shocking decapitation scene was surely the moment that audiences heart rates rose to 109 BPM. But thanks to a spellbinding performance from Toni Collette, Hereditary manages to sustain the almost unbearable tension throughout. The result is an average BPM of 83 which deservedly places the critical and commercial hit as the fourth scariest movie ever.

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3. The Conjuring

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We can now say that the first chapter of The Conjuring is officially scarier than the second. Yes, James Wan’s original haunted house tale got audiences’ hearts rates racing a full five beats per minute more. And its most effective scare resulted in a BPM of 129, a figure which beats the sequel’s by nine.

So what was it about 2013’s The Conjuring that got viewers more in a tizz? Perhaps it was the fear of the unknown. Because it’s the first time we see just what Lorraine and Ed Warren have to deal with as paranormal investigators. And you could argue that Wan deployed every trick in the ghost story handbook more effectively here, too.

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2. Insidious

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James Wan and regular leading man Patrick Wilson’s pièce de résistance when it comes to giving cinemagoers the heebie-jeebies emerged in 2010 with another franchise-spawning horror. There are four chapters and counting of the Insidious series. According to the Science of Scare Project, though, none have scared as easily as the 2010 first.

Insidious sees a young boy become comatose as a parade of evil spirits from another dimension attempt to take over his body. It also posted the highest BPM for a single scare at an almighty 133! But this might not have happened during the actual film. Because for many the sneak peek at the ghoulish old lady we get in the closing credits was the moment that made us truly jump out of our seats.

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1. Sinister

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So what film could have got participants’ hearts racing to an average of 86 BPM, 32 percent higher than the resting rate of 65? We’ve still not mentioned classics such as The Evil Dead, The Silence of the Lambs or Rosemary’s Baby. Well, you might be surprised to learn that the most effective horror was deemed to be a much lesser-known Ethan Hawke vehicle named Sinister.

That’s right: the story of Hawke’s true crime reporter uncovering the truth behind a series of family killings got viewers palpitating more than any other. The film was a modest critical and commercial hit on its 2012 release. But it does possess one of the all-time great jump scares: the grainy home video, point of view footage in which a body is run over by a moving lawnmower. Ouch!

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