10 ‘Scary’ Movies for People Who Don’t Like Horror

You can handle these, we promise.

Illustration of a film slate with a monster claw
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Not long ago, a colleague who’s squeamish about horror movies described some of the scariest films she’d been able to make it through. One of the titles she mentioned? Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. But wait, I thought, that’s not a horror movie. A tense thriller, maybe, a satirical drama with some frightening set pieces, but not something that would've been put on the “horror” shelf in video stores, back when video stores existed.

Still, it does belong to a fun category of films that play with suspense, mystery, and creepiness without sowing constant fear; these stories unsettle but aren’t primarily made to distress and disturb viewers. Below are 10 other worthy and fascinating films that I’d consider to be great “scary” movies for people who don’t like horror. Even if you’re easily spooked, like my colleague, you’ll find something on this list to love.

The Novice (2021, directed by Lauren Hadaway)

A brilliant and sadly underseen indie movie from first-time filmmaker Hadaway, The Novice initially presents as a sports drama. A competitive college freshman named Alex Dall (played by Isabelle Fuhrman) takes a rowing class and catches the itch, quickly rising to join her school’s team. As the plot progresses, Alex’s passion turns into obsession, and she becomes particularly fixated on the clockwork consistency demanded of the best rowers. Fuhrman (known for the Orphan horror franchise) gives an intense performance, but Hadaway’s skill at ratcheting the tension to nightmare levels stands out most as Alex’s devotion turns surreal.
Watch it on Showtime or rent/buy

Camerapeople filming girls dancing
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The Fits (2016, directed by Anna Rose Holmer)

Another astonishing and under-the-radar debut, The Fits is disquieting because it evokes a specific mood: that of early-adolescent anxiety. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old training at a boxing gym in Cincinnati who becomes intrigued by a group of older girls practicing dance there. As she starts dancing with them, a strange and inexplicable seizure disorder begins to spread through the group, a phenomenon that Holmer’s script keeps in strictly metaphorical territory. The Fits is an odd, sometimes disconcerting, but subtle and insightful look at the bizarre ways peer pressure can manifest.
Watch it on Showtime or rent/buy

Nerve (2016, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)

A techno-thriller with a slick, modern sense of humor, Nerve was a low-key hit in 2016 but isn’t talked about enough today. Based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan, the film is a clever bit of satire built around an online game called Nerve that encourages players to livestream themselves doing outlandish dares in exchange for money. Vee (Emma Roberts) gets signed up by her friend as a gag; she quickly finds herself paired with fellow player Ian (Dave Franco), and they rampage around New York City carrying out ever more intense tasks. Nerve is quasi–action film, quasi–rom-com, but there’s a creepy edge to it all, both in the depiction of the game’s mob mentality and the darker turns that Vee and Ian take in the movie’s final act.
Available to rent/buy

Berberian Sound Studio (2012, directed by Peter Strickland)

Peter Strickland’s psychological drama is a great way to watch a horror movie without actually watching a horror movie: It’s about the production of a film that the audience never sees. Set in an Italian production studio, it follows the mild-mannered sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) as he cooks up audio effects for a giallo movie (a particularly vivid Italian subgenre of horror) that seems to involve all sorts of torture and shrieking. Strickland’s trick is not really letting on what the film-within-a-film is about, or even giving much detail on the scenes Gilderoy is working on; instead, the tension comes from witnessing how the aural process slowly wears away at the character’s sanity.
Watch it on AMC+, Kanopy, or rent/buy

Girl with butterfly wings pinned to a wooden table
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Paprika (2006, directed by Satoshi Kon)

The trippy final masterpiece from the Japanese animator Kon, who died of cancer at the age of 46 in 2010, Paprika is a dazzling depiction of the bleeding edge between dreams and reality. Set in the near future, it centers on a new piece of technology that lets scientists enter other people’s dreams. If that sounds like the plot of the later blockbuster Inception, yes, the comparison is often made. But while Christopher Nolan’s movie has an action-thriller bent, Paprika is much weirder, as Kon’s animation style loads each dream sequence with busy and unnerving imagery. Some of Kon’s movies (particularly Perfect Blue) could be classified as outright horror, yet Paprika walks a much blurrier line; it can be funny and surreal in one instant, and bone-chilling in the next.
Available to rent/buy

Red Road (2006, directed by Andrea Arnold)
The feature debut of Arnold, who went on to direct Fish Tank and American Honey (along with Season 2 of Big Little Lies), Red Road is a taut psychological thriller that takes place in a real, now-demolished housing project in Glasgow, Scotland. The Red Road Flats were the tallest residential buildings in Europe when they were built in the 1960s, but they eventually became a symbol of urban blight, and Arnold uses them to explore Britain’s growing reliance on surveillance amid the collapse of its social safety net. Jackie Morrison (Kate Dickie) is one operator monitoring the buildings, spying through countless CCTV cameras in search of criminals and trespassers; eventually, she grows fascinated with an ex-con named Clyde (Tony Curran) and seeks to connect with him in real life. Arnold’s movie is a bleak but authentic watch, turning its grim venue into a backdrop for a doomed romance.
Watch it on Kanopy

In the Cut (2003, directed by Jane Campion)

Campion’s film, based on a novel by Susanna Moore, gleefully defies genre definition, which is typical for the Oscar-winning New Zealand director, but also a likely explanation for the movie’s poor reception on release. It deserves cult-classic status though, because it weaves together a sex thriller, a detective story, and an anthropological study of early-2000s New York in beguiling fashion. Meg Ryan (in a quiet, against-type performance) plays an introverted English teacher named Frannie Avery who starts dating a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating a string of murders connected to her building. In the Cut is both genuinely sexy and sometimes startling, with moments that shatter Franny’s bourgeois downtown existence—but that’s all part of the thrill of watching it.
Watch it on Roku or rent/buy

Swimming Pool (2003, directed by François Ozon)

Somewhat of an homage to the classic 1960s French drama La Piscine, Ozon’s movie is a great and undersung erotic thriller that pits a screen legend (Charlotte Rampling) against an emerging ingenue (Ludivine Sagnier) in a battle of wits and egos. Sarah Morton (Rampling) is an author using a country home in the south of France to try to overcome writer’s block. Julie (Sagnier) is the owner’s daughter, who shows up out of nowhere and starts throwing everything into chaos. What begins as an uneasy cohabitation turns sexually charged and antagonistic as Julie’s private life starts to encroach on Sarah’s, and Ozon heightens the dreamlike suspense beautifully with each act.
Available to rent/buy

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in 'Beloved'
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Beloved (1998, directed by Jonathan Demme)

A big-budget adaptation of a canonical work of American literature, Beloved was released with hopes of it becoming a major Oscar player, starring and produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Demme (whose prior two films were The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia). But audiences and critics found it off-putting at the time, maybe because it’s such an effective piece of filmmaking, both a ghost story and a searing narrative about slavery. So much of the imagery in Beloved, which follows a formerly enslaved woman named Sethe (played by Winfrey) wrestling with the demons of her past, is plainly shocking. But its supernatural storytelling, swirling around the mysterious ghost Beloved (Thandiwe Newton), who enters Sethe’s life and starts to unravel it, is the most frightening.
Watch it on Showtime or rent/buy

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, directed by Peter Weir)

So many of the best non-horror horror films are scary because of what they don’t show, and Weir’s Australian masterpiece is memorable precisely because it revolves around something unseen. Set in Victoria, Australia, in the year 1900, it follows the disappearance of several schoolgirls while on a picnic, a possibly supernatural event that disturbs the local community. The longer Weir’s tale goes on, the more the efforts to solve the mystery fail, which only fuels the dread around what actually might have happened. Picnic at Hanging Rock would be far less effective if it ever revealed what was going on; as it is, Weir’s movie is one that viewers will turn over in their mind for years after seeing it.
Watch it on HBO Max or rent/buy