Horror movies can be a great source unnerving fun and the same can be said for their respective trailers. Bite-sized versions of longer scary fare, these trailers can be an art form in themselves as examples of how to convey a movie’s atmosphere, tone, and scariness without lapsing into either self-parody or spoiling everything in the features they’re promoting. This is a delicate balancing act that not every horror film trailer is up to the task of accomplishing.
But over the decades, many horror titles have released trailers that have proven to be exceptionally scary creations even detached from the longer-form art they’re connected to. The reasons why these trailers prove to be so eerie vary greatly from one movie to the next and can also include details specific to trailers from certain eras of film history. Across the nine scariest horror movie trailers of all-time, though, one constant factor is how they help one appreciate the art of crafting together a great trailer as well as just how downright frightening they can be.
Hereditary deserves a spot on this list just for the way one of its trailer’s opening shots (depicting a casket being lowered into the ground) managed to hide a gigantic spoiler in plain sight. But even aside from that feat, the trailer for Hereditary is a commendably terrifying concoction, particularly in its pacing. It starts with an extended single take zooming in on a dollhouse and a calmer score accompanying the on-screen action. However, as it goes on, things change. The clicking noise from young Charlie (Milly Shapiro) becomes more noticeable, ditto the dissonant music on the soundtrack. The shots also get progressively shorter in length and far more intense. It all culminates in a final montage that alternates between extremely brief bursts of inexplicable scary imagery and quotes from critics praising Hereditary’s strengths. It’s easy to see why Hereditary was such a success, this is the kind of trailer that grabs people’s attention.. and their nightmares.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Trying to condense the chills of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre into a trailer that can play in public theaters for all potential audience members to see is a daunting task. But the trailer for this film found a smart solution in punctuating moments where Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) would, say, clobber someone over the head with a meat cleaver with a sudden flash of a bulb. The unexpected effect and accompanying eerie squeak ensured that nothing explicitly graphic snuck into the trailer while making sure this piece of marketing had its own scary moments to offer.
This is also one of the best examples of a trailer voice-over in a horror movie, with the dry delivery of the narrator enhancing the uneasy atmosphere rather than distracting from it. Lines about “even if one of them survives, what will be left?” and a closing line about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that remarked how “once you stop screaming, you’ll start talking about it” wasn’t just eerie. They also rightfully suggested how lastingly impactful this horror film would be.
Modern movie trailers using “dark” covers of classic songs are a dime-a-dozen. Far more fun is trailers that use familiar versions of classic tunes and then find ways to warp them as the trailer goes on. Case in point: the trailer for Us, which begins with a diegetic use of the original version of Luniz song “I Got 5 On It”. Initially used to convey the idea that we’re watching a normal family vacation, the song becomes more and more fractured as the trailer goes on before fully transforming into a cover told through bursts of dissonant violins. This auditory component was outstanding on multiple levels. In addition to being a great variation on a trope of modern trailers, the differences between the two versions of “I Got 5 On It” mirrored the differences between the two versions of the characters seen in Us. Best of all, this tune helped to make the trailer for Us a truly unsettling creation.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project had a truly groundbreaking marketing campaign that relied on some of the earliest uses of viral marketing ever attempted by a feature film. Part of this advertising including a teaser trailer that largely centered on one of the most unnerving scenes in the whole movie depicting Heather (Heather Donahue) recording a message to her loved ones and apologizing for everything that’s happened in the woods. Even detached from the context of the larger film, this moment works as an uncomfortably vulnerable and expression of hoplessness as well as utter fear.
Following up that filmed apology with faux-news footage and voiceover exclusively made for this trailer smartly enhanced the concept that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t just a routine horror movie. This was something real, something that had repercussions on actual people. Of course, that wasn’t true, it was all a part of The Blair Witch Project’s historically immersive marketing campaign. Committing to that element didn’t just lure moviegoers into the theater, though, it also made a memorably scary teaser trailer.
Any piece of marketing for the original 1978 Halloween movie would inevitably have to linger on serial killer Michael Meyers, the franchise’s key character that’s proven to be enduringly merchandisable. But back in 1978, when this John Carpenter movie was just another new slasher movie in the marketplace, nobody knew how impactfully scary this character would be. Thus, the original teaser trailer for the first Halloween largely keeps Meyers out of sight, instead restricting his presence to shots told from his point of view, a figure covered in shadows, or an obscured individual in the background. Approaching Meyers like this only enhances the scariness of this trailer, which carries a unique sense of the eerie unknown that’s hard to shake.
The Silence of the Lambs
Johnathan Demme’s movie The Silence of the Lambs has lots of scares to offer ranging from the threats of what a cannibal is capable of to what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated workspace. Its theatrical trailer, though, offered up some scares of its own thanks to unique editing choices that frequently cut to bursts of rred-coated flashes of lead actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. The disorienting visual motif suggested what a strange and unpredictable domain protagonist Clarice Sterling was wandering into. The boldness of this new visual detail was admirable, but some of the scariest parts of this trailer come directly from scenes in the film with little editing needed. Most notably, the precise timing of Hopkins’ discomforting line deliveries is maintained perfectly in the trailer.
It’s fitting that a horror classic like John Carpenter’s The Thing would also get a classic movie trailer. This particularly eerie trailer makes so much with so little, like the extended intro that gets a lot of mileage out of gradually revealing the movie’s title. Keeping so many of the more graphic and outlandish monstrous moments of The Thing hidden was a boon to this trailer, which chillingly suggests the presence of something hideous but never fully shows anything. As a fittingly superb capper to this trailer, it closes out on another scarily minimalist note with just a collection of static and wind playing against a darkened screen. This crucial piece of marketing for The Thing shows as much tact in executing memorable scares as the movie itself.
The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead was produced way outside of the studio system and its norms, so it’s only fitting that its primary trailer would be similarly unorthodox. Unlike most promotional materials from this era, The Evil Dead’s trailer had no narration to explain to the audience what they were watching. Moviegoers were sucked into the mayhem of Sam Raimi‘s horror madness, an extra disorienting experience because of how Raimi was an unknown filmmaker at that point. With his style similarly a mystery to the public, the trailer functioned as a bolt out of the blue. Even today, this intense cavalcade of grisly images and abrupt mayhem is enough to give one the chills. The Evil Dead’s inability to adhere to conventionality was a boon to it as a movie so it’s only fitting that the same quality would define its chilling trailer.
Suspiria 2018 teaser
Luca Guadagnino’s expansive Suspiria remake is as much a vibe as it is a movie so it only makes sense that it would kick off its marketing campaign with an atmospheric teaser that’s hard to shake. Dialogue is absent from this inaugural trailer, with the Suspiria teaser instead conveying its tone through a haunting score and the startingly strange imagery flickering on-screen in between the gradual reveal of each letter in the title. The shots in this teaser range from a woman gliding up the side of a wall to horses galloping in a field. It’s all so inexplicable but that’s what makes this teaser such a great reflection of Suspiria…as well as utterly terrifying.
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