In this article:
- When done well, horror movie posters can tell you a lot about the movies they’re promoting.
- The strategic use of visual language helps audience-goers get a sense of not only the quality but the type of horror they can expect from the movie.
- From Psycho to The Exorcist, these 10 classic horror movie posters are great examples of how a stunning poster captures the greatness of some of the best horror movies of all time.
There’s something about horror movies — and horror media in general — that’s just difficult to get right.
While it’s true that every horror fan has their own unique tastes, many of us seem to agree that cheap jump scares just don’t make for good horror. Add Hollywood’s increasingly formulaic plots and tropes on top of that and you have a very limited selection of new horror movies to watch that are actually good.
Unlike new movies, classic horror movies are the “tried and tested” of the horror genre. After several decades, time separates the wheat from the chaff, leaving us with only the best bloody morsels that the horror genre has to offer.
This article lists some of the most visually stunning horror movie posters made for some of the best horror movies in the history of film. We’ll be taking a deep dive into the visual elements that enable these posters to hold our attention as well as the legacy of their films.
The 10 Most Iconic Horror Movie Posters
1. Psycho (1960)
You can’t write a top horror list without bringing up Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This seminal piece in horror is still remembered as one of, if not the best, of Hitchcock’s work. It also happens to be one of his most influential.
Even moviegoers who aren’t fond of horror movies will recognize Psycho‘s iconic shower scene and the shrill, spine-chilling score that plays over it.
Blue and yellow aren’t exactly the first colors we’d think to associate with horror but these are the most dominant hues we see in the poster for Psycho.
Designed by Tony Palladino, the poster breaks from the dark-colored palettes we’ve come to expect from horror movie posters. Palladino’s first involvement with Psycho was when he designed the cover for the book it was based on.
The book, which was written by Robert Bloch, featured a bold and eye-catching type with a crack running through the ‘PSYCHO’ title which you can see here.
Alfred Hitchcock found the design such a stroke of genius that he brought Palladino on Psycho and tasked him with designing all of the promotional materials for the movie. Palladino then kept the same font style for Psycho‘s promotional materials and used bright yellow to draw our attention to the female protagonist and the title.
What to expect: Psycho featured one of the first shows of graphic violence and sexual content on the silver screen.
This comes as no surprise, seeing as Psycho is the granddaddy of the slasher genre. While it’s no longer controversial today, the 60s was a more innocent time, giving Psycho bonus points in the spooky department.
The movie introduces us to lovers Marion and Sam who worry about not having enough money to finally get married.
It’s this need for money that kickstarts the questionable decisions that lead Marion to the steps of the Bates Motel. Hitchcock creates and maintains a suspenseful atmosphere throughout the movie. His clever twist is a predecessor to the likes of Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees.
2. The Birds (1963)
Just like Psycho, the poster for The Birds does away with the conventional dark colors of horror movie poster design. This poster is even brighter than the original, featuring a white background framed by yellow margins on the left and bottom portions.
Another similarity to Psycho is the large font used in displaying Hitchcock’s name. But unlike the Psycho poster, his name is written in a font large enough to rival that of the title of the movie. This unconventional choice could be explained by two reasons that are inseparable from each other.
Firstly, Hitchcock knew he was famous. His films drew large crowds and made thousands of dollars on the silver screen. Though he was already a well-known filmmaker, his popularity skyrocketed further with the release of Psycho and fans of the 1960 film were eager to see more of his work.
Second, Hitchcock had a massive ego. It was no secret that the genius of horror was full of himself, at one point even comparing actors to cattle.
It was his film and he wanted everyone to know to the point that you’ll see a full-body image of him on the left border, a practice that directors today wouldn’t dare to try.
What to expect: Nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense‘, Hitchcock showed off the full extent of his skills in creating a truly horrifying viewing experience by somehow managing to make birds scary.
The movie has us follow a beautiful socialite in her search for a beau in a small town in Northern California. Though the premise sounds like the start of a Hallmark movie, things quickly take a turn for the suspenseful when birds start attacking the town’s inhabitants.
3. The Thing (1982)
Struzan is well known in the movie industry for his masterful illustration skills that gifted us with other iconic posters like the ones for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. When John Carpenter, director for The Thing, contacted Struzan to create a poster for promoting his sci-fi horror movie, little did Struzan expect that it would have to be done in 24 hours.
But even with such short notice, Struzan managed to create one of the best posters in cinema history.
The Thing‘s poster uses a cool blue palette, alluding to the film being set in the Antarctic. Prismatic details in the background bring the image of ice to mind while snowflakes flare out of the foreground of the poster.
In the center of the poster is the imposing figure of a large man clad in winter gear. A bright glare of light comes from his face, instead of the background, making us question whether he’s human at all.
What to expect: Expect a classic of sci-fi horror that’s right up there with Alien. The Thing takes us on a journey to snowy Antarctica, far from the safety of civilization.
We join a team of researchers whose base of operations, Outpost 13, is disturbed by a helicopter hunting down a dog. As for why the group of Norwegian researchers is trying to kill a poor dog is for you to discover and be horrified by.
4. Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th is another classic of the slasher genre that follows in the footsteps of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Directed and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, the movie poster is dominated by the ghostly outline of our mysterious antagonist, Jason Voorhees.
This memorable poster gives us a glimpse into the movie, showing a group of very unlucky teenagers out on a camping trip in a creepy, moon-lit forest.
Though the slasher film was already mainstream by the time Friday the 13th came out, it was this movie that invented the summer camp slasher variety of horror movies. It also boasted gratuitously bloody visuals inspired by the gory horror films that came before it.
Friday the 13th built on its predecessors and birthed an entirely new subgenre of a subgenre that inspired the likes of Dead by Daylight‘s The Trapper.
What to expect: A fun and bloody movie that has all the key tropes of the summer camp slasher. We have a group of teenagers spending their summer at Camp Crystal Lake getting slowly killed off by a masked murderer with psychological issues and a large knife.
If you think it sounds cheesy, the only reason it does is that Friday the 13th was so good it made these tropes popular. If you’re gonna watch a simple yet enjoyable horror film, you may as well go see one of the best.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Despite it being less visually busy, the poster for The Silence of the Lambs has the most going on compared to other posters on this list. Take a few moments to look closer at the details of the poster and you’ll find the horror starts to set in.
The first thing one may notice in The Silence of the Lambs‘ poster is the pale face of a woman. Her heavily edited image has been washed out to the point that her skin is entirely white and the outline of the left side of her face blends into the rest of the background.
The woman’s bright red eyes stare back at us and, if we follow the bridge of her nose down to the rest of her face, we’re brought to the center of the poster. Here, we find another face but not one that looks remotely human.
Resting on the back of a bright orange moth, the Jigsaw-esque face wouldn’t look out of place on a Saw poster.
But it isn’t a face.
Art geeks will notice a resemblance to Salvador Dali’s iconic Women Forming A Skull. The photograph, which was taken in 1951, is a great work of surrealist art. It shows Dali on the lower left, showing his side profile to the camera, while on the upper right is a group of naked women forming the image of a skull.
Bring the photos up side by side and zoom into the moth and you’re bound to see it, too.
What to expect: A sleepless night spent under your covers with the lights on. The Silence of the Lambs has us join a brilliant young FBI Academy student, Clarice Sterling, in her attempts to study Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist turned cannibal.
Though he starts off as polite, even almost amicable with Sterling, the opening scene quickly makes a sharp 180-degree turn to show us who really holds the power in this movie.
6. The Evil Dead (1981)
Initially released in 1981, The Evil Dead is a classic zombie movie directed by Sam Raimi. The movie, having been made the year after Friday the 13th, draws on similar tropes established by the summer camp slasher.
Like its predecessor, The Evil Dead features a group of teenagers taking a vacation at a cabin in rural Tennessee.
The movie is a well-traveled one, having been released in the U.S., UK, France, and Japan. But since different demographics will have differences in taste, the posters used for the promotion of the movie in each country featured some interesting variances in design.
The U.S. poster, which you can see in the image above, keeps things simple and fairly minimalistic. A woman reaches up into a dark blue sky, desperate to stay above ground, while her other hand pushes against the soil devouring her lower half.
Our line of sight is led down to a parallel of the same scene, this time with the hand of an undead ghoul, gripping the woman’s throat.
For one, while the French poster kept the central image of the U.S. poster, it completely changed the mood with colorful swirls that gave the impression of a more avant-garde film.
While you would expect the Japanese poster to be the one to go ham, given Japan’s propensity for making weird commercials, it was still fairly tame and stuck to classic horror tropes. The poster showed a man with a chainsaw, the screaming face of a zombie, a terrified woman, and a lot of blood.
Meanwhile, the UK poster took a turn for the straight-up campy. British designer Graham Humphreys used contrasting reds, oranges, violets, and purples that practically explode in the viewers face. It’s the most 80s a poster could get and it’s visually gripping.
What to expect: Expect to see all of the classic, and now cheesy, summer horror flick tropes. A group of teenagers, a cabin in the woods, and a stupid idea to play demonic incantations from a tape recording.
Really, the only trope missing from this movie is a Final Girl. It’s a fun movie that goes well with a cold beer and a greasy snack.
7. Opera (1987)
Now this is a movie you likely haven’t seen before in lists of horror movie posters or of top horror movies. The Opera, also known as The Terror at the Opera, is a giallo style horror movie directed by Dario Argento.
The film is Italian in origin and its genre, giallo, refers to the paperback thriller, horror, crime, and mystery stories that were popular in Italy at the time. The books would have yellow covers, hence the genre being named after the color.
The poster for The Opera offers up some spine-chilling imagery. Its most striking aspect is the pair of eyes that dominate the upper half of the poster. The eyes, which are deep-set in marble white skin, are held open by needles taped to the lower lash line.
Flecks of blood can be seen on the needle and on the skin around the eye, suggesting that the person is injured with each attempt to look away from the horrors The Opera has to offer.
Look a little further down and we see an imposing view of an opera interior. Our position relative to it tells us that we are the ones being watched. As we look up at the balconies, just how many needle-held eyes are looking down at us?
What to expect: The Phantom of the Opera but with less drama and romance. The movie is a bloodier derivation of Gaston Leroux’s classic novel that ended up being censored in the UK for its depictions of wanton violence. If the suspenseful bits aren’t enough to put you on edge, the mutilations will.
8. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Its status as a giant in the horror scene makes it a no-brainer that the movie has left an indelible mark on horror cinema, particularly on the topic of motherhood. Many of the recent critically acclaimed films such as Get Out and Hereditary were partially inspired by the 1968 film.
In fact, Darren Arnofsky’s mother! makes no secret of its influences. Even the poster used for the promotion of mother! featured an almost exact copy of that of Rosemary’s Baby, but with a warmer color palette.
Gips chose a black and green palette that highlighted the two opposing forces of the film: Rosemary, who is rendered in green, and her child, symbolized by the dark silhouette of a crib. Their interests are fundamentally opposed to each other and the poster makes this clear.
A dejected Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, stares blankly into the sky, as if she had stopped struggling after realizing she’s powerless to stop the unspeakable forces working against her.
What to expect: The feeling of dread slowly sinking into your bones, anchoring you to your seat. Rosemary’s Baby is based on a book by the same name written by Ira Levin, the same genius behind The Stepford Wives.
Rosemary’s Baby features a truly terrifying plotline with strong feminist overtones that draw inspiration from Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Women watching Rosemary’s Baby will find that the real horror of the movie doesn’t come from its Satanic cult and traditional horror elements, but from the deprivation of autonomy that Farrow’s Rosemary is made to suffer through.
9. Fright Night (1985)
Fright Night is another one of the fantastic horror films that the 80s has blessed us with. Released in 1985, the film was directed by Tom Holland (no, not the Spiderman actor, the one who directed Child’s Play).
It starred William Ragsdale in the role of Charley Brewster, a nosy young teen with a love of horror films and not minding his own business. His suspicions that his neighbor may not be human leads him to contact a TV show host to help him in his investigations.
The poster for Fright Night was designed by B.D Fox Independent, a distribution company that provides full promotional services for films. The company went with straightforward imagery of an ominous house on an empty street.
This is based on the movie’s suburban setting. Look a little closer at the house and you’ll notice the figure of a man standing in a lit window. He seems to be staring back at us, hinting at the film’s ending scene.
But the most eye-catching part of the poster, and the reason why it’s on this list, is the army of ghoulish spirits springing up from the roof of the house.
Rendered in ghastly blue and white, the cloud of evil spirits features a hundred heads with a thousand gnashing teeth. In the center, grinning at the viewer, is a humanoid face with long, vampire-like fangs.
The use of lighting and the different directions in which each ghoul appears to reach toward us make this poster easily the most dynamic one on this list.
What to expect: Like The Evil Dead, Fright Night is an enjoyable horror movie well-suited to an after-work self-care session. You might experience the occasional jump scare but it’s not excessive to the point of being annoying.
The lack of excess gore and blood also makes it a fairly safe movie to watch with a younger horror fan.
10. The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is among the biggest staples of the horror genre. You’d be hard pressed to find a horror fan who hasn’t watched, or even heard, of The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, the film won Oscars for both the Best Writing and Best Picture categories.
The movie was based on a book, also titled The Exorcist, written by William Peter Blatty. It told the story of a woman troubled by the possession of her daughter by what seems to be a demon. Whether the daughter in question was actually possessed or was just mentally ill sets up the premise for the opening scene of the movie.
The poster used to promote The Exorcist features a still from the movie that shows Father Merrin, a Catholic priest contacted to exorcise the girl, approaching the family’s house.
The image has been altered to consist of nothing but sharply contrasting black and white, hinting at the binary forces of good and evil portrayed by Father Merrin’s battle against the Devil for a young woman’s soul.
The understated poster, which gives no overt hints of the religious themes of the movie, was designed by artist Bill Gold. Gold is also known for his work on A Clockwork Orange, another movie with a legendary poster.
Regarding The Exorcist, Bill Gold had this to say in an interview with AFI:
“I picked the still of the priest, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), arriving at the house in Georgetown for the exorcism with a briefcase in his hand because it struck a chord with me. When you looked at this still, you knew somehow that whatever is about to happen inside that house is not going to be good! I adapted it by taking a lot of the detail out of the photo and turning it into a design, and after that no one wanted to see anything else.”
Warner Brothers certainly made a good call on refusing to see other poster designs. The Exorcist was a smashing hit that made $428,214,478 USD in cinemas worldwide.
What to expect: Just like the other films on this list, The Exorcist uses time-tested tropes that only seem tired now because it made these tropes popular. Inspired by the St. Louis exorcism in 1949, the success of The Exorcist virtually invented the evil-vanquishing priest trope and created Catholic horror as we know it today.
Did we miss anything? Share your thoughts down in the comments and let us know what your favorite horror movie poster is.
Not in the mood for a feature length film? Check out Take This Lollipop and Enter a Zoom Nightmare for a more…personalized horror experience.