The Most Controversial Horror Movies of All Time

Linda Blair in The Exorcist is sitting on her bed and her head is completely turned around.
Linda Blair in The Exorcist | Warner Bros.

Horror movies have the power to scare the pants off of us. Whether they’re ghost stories, creature features, or tales of real-world terror, the genre is consistently able to capture an audience’s attention like few others. And horror directors love to push boundaries — to find new ways to freak and gross us out. But whether it was due to violence, gore, or suggestive content, the horror movies that have caused the biggest uproar have often gone on to become classics in the genre. Here are five horror films that caused major controversy when they first hit theaters.

1. Psycho

Janet Leigh in 'Psycho'
Psycho | Shamley Productions

It may seem tame by today’s standards, but Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film made censors go crazy in 1960. Psycho featured many scenes that were shocking and divisive to critics and audiences alike — including unprecedented violence and sexual content. Yes, by 1960s standards, a sequence featuring unmarried Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin) partially unclothed and in bed together was scandalous. And the iconic shower scene, in which Marion meets her untimely death, was noted both for its appallingly graphic violence and the character’s nudity. [Correction, 10/10/16: Previously named ‘Psycho’ actress as “Vivien Leigh” instead of “Janet Leigh.”]

Ultimately, the hubbub surrounding Psycho was a win for Hitchcock and the studios. The film was an enormous financial success, and fans stood in long lines to get a glimpse at the film that had everyone talking. In many ways, Psycho paved the way for all future controversial horror films that followed by proving that pushing the boundaries could definitely pay off.

2. Silent Night, Deadly Night

'Silent Night, Deadly Night'
Silent Night, Deadly Night |  Slayride

Horror filmmakers often take seemingly normal people and places and turn them into the stuff of nightmares. So Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t exactly breaking ground when it was released in 1984. But the reaction to this horror film, about a killer who dresses as Santa Claus, was so intense, it was pulled from theaters shortly after its release. Everyone from Siskel and Ebert to the Parent Teacher Association condemned the film for its brutal depiction of violence and its disturbing tie-in to a beloved tradition. Silent Night, Deadly Night was eventually re-released by a different distributor. But it will always be remembered not for its (limited) theatrical merits, but for the commotion it caused.

3. Cannibal Holocaust

'Cannibal Holocaust'
Cannibal Holocaust | United Artists

This terrifying film from 1980 shocked audiences upon its release. Cannibal Holocaust uses a “found footage” narrative to tell the story of a group of filmmakers who are terrorized and ultimately killed by remote tribe. Ruggero Deodato’s film was marketed as a true story, and the gore and horror are so convincing that audiences and even authorities believed they’d actually witnessed the murder of innocent people. Cannibal Holocaust was controversial on multiple levels — for the filmmakers choice to kill real animals during the shoot and for the grotesque displays of violence. Deodato was arrested in his home country of Italy and prosecuted for obscenity. He was only able to convince the public that he hadn’t actually murdered his cast when they appeared to testify for him in court.

4. The Exorcist

'The Exorcist'
The Exorcist | Hoya Productions

It’s considered a true horror classic — but when The Exorcist was released in 1973, it was met with its fair share of controversy. Noted for its graphic depictions of violence against and from young protagonist Reagan (Linda Blair), the film scandalized audiences. From sequences of her defiling herself with a cross while yelling obscenities to her projectile green vomit, the horrors inflicted on the young girl were too much for some moviegoers. The Exorcist caused legitimate hysteria in theaters during its initial run, causing everything from heart attacks to vomiting in the aisles. But despite its graphic content, it remains a favorite among horror fans to this day due to its unforgettable portrayal of good versus evil.

5. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre'
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre | Vortex

More than 30 years after its release, Tobe Hooper’s macabre tale of a chainsaw wielding serial killer and his deranged family is still considered one of the scariest and influential horror films of all time. But when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre first hit theaters in 1974, it was met with skepticism and disgust by critics. The film’s most brutal scenes — including one where a victim is impaled on an icepick — were considered deplorable by many. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was considered so violent and disturbing, it was banned from multiple theaters across the country. But it also inspired a new generation of horror filmmakers to push the envelope even further in years to come.

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