Every day, millions of people live their lives in fear, suffering from one phobia or another. While some of them are rare, like arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, others are more common, and prevent people from doing simple things, like sticking their toes in the ocean.
For decades, the horror genre has played off our real-life phobias, exploiting them for profit, while scaring audiences half to death. Despite these phobias, though, that hasn’t stopped us from going to the movies, either to try and overcome them, or to be frightened by what we see on screen. From classic hits, to recent blockbusters, let’s take a look at 10 films that have utilized our fears to their advantage, making for some truly terrifying cinematic experiences.
10 Cujo (1983)
No one knows how to play on our everyday fears like Stephen King. He’s become the master of taking something unassuming, and turning it into our worst nightmare. For people with cynophobia, which is a fear of dogs, Cujo is a terrifying scenario that was brought to life thanks to Lewis Teague’s adaptation of the King novel in 1983.
Starring Dee Wallace, the film follows the simple premise of a woman and her child trapped in a broken-down Pinto, with a rabid St. Bernard stalking their every move. Tension grows as the midday sun rises, adding to the already sweltering hot situation. With no food, no water, and no one around to help them, it’s up to Wallace to come up with a way out, and save her son before he succumbs to dehydration. It might seem like an easy fix, but when a 180-pound dog with rabies is trying to tear you apart, things aren’t so black and white.
9 The Ruins (2008)
Though they are harmless, everyday flora to some, for those with botanophobia, the fear of plants is very real. Which is why the idea of being trapped atop a Mayan temple with a carnivorous vine makes Carter Smith’s 2008 film, The Ruins, so terrifying.
Based on the 2006 novel of the same name, the film sees four American tourists trek where they shouldn’t, thus leading to them being trapped in an impossible situation, all while trying to avoid being consumed by a vine growth with a thirst for blood. Toss in some angry Mayans that shoot first, and ask questions later, and The Ruins plays off our fear of plants in an expertly done horror adaptation that’ll make you think twice before watering your ferns.
8 Snakes on a Plane (2006)
While they might make nice pets for some people, those with ophidiophobia want nothing to do with snakes, thank you very much. They certainly don’t want to think about the venomous reptiles while flying 30,000 feet in the air, either, which is what makes the 2006 cult hit, Snakes on a Plane, so deliciously horrifying.
Featuring pythons, corn snakes, rattlesnakes, mangrove snakes, and just about every other snake you can think of, Snakes on a Plane saw passengers of an unsuspecting flight completely mauled by the slithering creatures, thanks to a mob boss trying to prevent a witness from testifying against him. Unfortunately for him, Samuel L. Jackson was also on the flight, resulting in a comedic horror film that’s sure to make even the most staunch snake lover cringe. For those with aerophobia, which is the fear of flying, Snakes on a Plane is a double whammy of terror that makes no apologies for its pure schlock. With the recent news of a cobra infiltrating a cockpit, we’ll be keeping our feet on the ground for a while.
7 The Descent (2005)
Those with an intense fear of the dark, or nyctophobia, will find The Descent disturbing enough, but when coupled with claustrophobia, it becomes an even more terrifying film that plays off our fears of tight spaces as well.
Following the exploits of six women who go descending into the Appalachian mountains for a spelunking adventure, The Descent plays off our worst fears, as not only are they trapped in an unknown cave system, but the women are also being terrorized by humanoid creatures looking for their next meal. Directed by Neil Marshall, The Descent is an excellent British horror film with lots of tension that makes for a nail-biting experience for those who often wonder what goes bump in the night.
6 M3GAN (2022)
As if artificial intelligence taking our jobs wasn’t scary enough, those with technophobia have even more to worry about by way of sentient dolls attacking our children. The recent horror hit, M3GAN, plays off those fears all too well, exploiting the dangers of AI to the point where living off the grid is starting to look pretty good.
While films like The Terminator, and I, Robothave been terrifying those with technophobia for years, M3GAN brings the horror home, literally, when a grieving child is given a prototype AI doll by her aunt. A prototype? Big red flag right there. When the doll becomes too overprotective of her human companion, all hell breaks loose in this film that makes Child’s Play look like a Disney movie. Those with pediophobia, which is a fear of dolls, will find M3GAN equally disturbing, as Jenna Davis plays the part to perfection, causing us to rethink all those talking dolls we give to our kids.
5 Cabin Fever (2002)
Featuring the directorial debut of horror connoisseur, Eli Roth, Cabin Fever goes out of its way to make those with mysophobia feel as uncomfortable as possible. Playing on the intense fear of germs, the film features a group of college graduates falling victim to a flesh-eating virus at a remote cabin in the woods.
Though movies like Contagionexamine what an outbreak would look like on a global scale, Cabin Fever confines its epidemic to close quarters, offering up disgustingly brutal scenes that are not for the faint of heart. It’s a full-throttle examination of paranoia and isolation that will make you want to take a Lysol bath when it’s over. While it had an unnecessary remake in 2016, nothing will ever beat what the original did to petrify viewers upon its release.
4 Arachnophobia (1990)
Starring John Goodman, Jeff Daniels, and the late Julian Sands, the title of this one says it all. Exploiting the fear of spiders, Arachnophobia shows just how dangerous spiders can be, after they invade a California town, and run rampant over its inhabitants.
A throwback to creature features of yesteryear, Arachnophobia deals more in atmospheric scares than it does straight-up gore, with its more unsettling scenes broken up by the comedic efforts of Goodman to ease the tension. Those with a fear of spiders will find it deeply disturbing, as the climactic ending features enough close-ups to make your skin crawl, as if a hundred, eight-legged critters were dancing all over you.
3 It (1990)
Remade in 2017 by director Andy Muschietti, the original, 1990 television miniseries of It terrified a generation of those with coulrophobia, thanks to Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the clown. To this day, viewers still remember that bright red nose, and those razor-sharp teeth that seemed as if they’d jump out of the TV and bite your arm off.
Still a classic, this adaptation of the Stephen King novel was hindered thanks to being on the small screen, but Curry made good use of his time as the evil clown terrorizing The Losers Club during the first half of the miniseries. Cracking wise throughout, which made him all the more frightening, his facial expressions coupled with make-up, and prosthetics, made for truly ghastly television. It’s one of his most memorable roles, and though Bill Skarsgård was a worthy successor, nothing will ever beat Tim Curry’s fear-inducing performance that still sends shivers down our spine.
2 The Birds (1963)
This Alfred Hitchcock classic features Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in a film that was based on a short story by English writer, Daphne du Maurier. While it may seem tame by today’s standards, The Birds is one of those films that stands the test of time, making those with ornithophobia watch in dread through their fingers.
You might not think a single bird can do much damage, and you may be right, but when they’re grouped together in a flock, those warm-blooded vertebrates can pluck out your eyeball just as good as any 1980s slasher villain. Inspired not only by du Maurier’s story, but a real life bird attack in Capitola, California in 1961, The Birds proves that those who fear the winged animals have a justifiable reason for doing so. With bird attacks on the rise, it’s best to watch the skies while out and about, lest you find yourself dive bombed by a sparrow.
1 Jaws (1975)
“The thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.” Those were the words of Robert Shaw, who starred as Quint, alongside Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss in the 1975 hit, Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s one of those rare films that resonates with audiences to this day. For those with galeophobia, the fear of sharks, Quint’s famous USS Indianapolis speech gave them chills, as if the threat of a great white shark wasn’t enough.
For those with thalassophobia, which is a fear of the ocean, Jaws is a one-two punch to the gut of horror, even though the shark barely makes an appearance in the film. That’s what makes it so terrifying, though, as the dread over what you don’t see is sometimes greater than presenting the monster itself. While the odds of getting attacked by a shark are about 1 in 3.5 million, those numbers provide little comfort to those suffering from a real-life phobia of a fish that has spent the last 450 million years swimming in deep waters.