Fright Favorites

31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond


By David J. Skal

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Turner Classic Movies presents a collection of monster greats, modern and classic horror, and family-friendly cinematic treats that capture the spirit of Halloween, complete with reviews, behind-the-scenes stories, and iconic images.

Fright Favorites spotlights 31 essential Halloween-time films, their associated sequels and remakes, and recommendations to expand your seasonal repertoire based on your favorites. Featured titles include Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Cat People (1942), Them (1953), House on Haunted Hill (1959), Black Sunday (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Young Frankenstein (1976), Beetlejuice (1988), Get Out (2017), and many more.


Ann Miller in an undated seasonal pinup


Both Hollywood and Halloween emerged as significant cultural fixtures during the same decades of the early twentieth century. Americans have always believed that a malleable identity is our birthright, that we all have the prerogative and power to become anyone or anything of our individual choice. Like Halloween, Hollywood is about dressing up and acting out all the possibilities of our mercurial national personality.

Halloween made its American screen debut, however briefly, in The Three of Us (1914), starring Mabel Taliaferro, well known at the time as partner to the future horror director Tod Browning in Komic-Mutual two-reelers. The Three of Us, from the 1906 stage play by Rachel Crothers, depicted a festive Halloween dinner in a Colorado mining town. A more upscale celebration was featured in The Way of a Man with a Maid (1918), directed by Donald Crisp, in which a struggling bookkeeper scrimps and saves to afford the fashionable attire that will impress a girl he escorts to a party on the magic night of October 31.

A far more sensational Halloween was featured in Do the Dead Talk? (1920), a story of seances and spiritualism that included actress Herminia France setting fire to her clothes while lighting a jack-o’-lantern. It was the first time a movie had sounded any kind of cautionary note about the holiday, presaging in a tiny way the tsunami of fake blood and rubber body parts that would eventually overwhelm the seasonal festivities. No one connected with Do the Dead Talk? could imagine that, a century later, Halloween celebrations would routinely include the movie-derived thrill of being chased through a theme park with a chainsaw.

Early Hollywood overwhelmingly approached Halloween affectionately. The wholesale commercialization of the holiday was a distinctly post–World War II phenomenon; studios like Universal, for instance, didn’t begin licensing Halloween costumes of their famous monsters until the 1960s. Halloween made regular cameo appearances in films, and audiences smiled at the homespun costumes and activities that reflected their own holiday customs. In the real world, Halloween vandalism was a big problem during the Depression years, but Hollywood, ruled by the all-powerful Production Code, would never depict anything but the mildest holiday prank on-screen for fear of demonstrating the forbidden “technique of crime” to the young and impressionable.

Fans of the classic movie magazines never saw October advertisements for Halloween film tie-ins and merchandise, but they were regularly treated to glamorous photo pinups of their favorite actresses inspired by traditional Halloween postcards and decorations. Starlets and established stars alike posed in pointy hats and racy witch costumes surrounded by the holiday’s obligatory paraphernalia and imagery: jack-o’-lanterns, black cats, bats, and broomsticks. The pioneers of this durable tradition were silent stars like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore, followed by the likes of Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Veronica Lake, Ann Miller, and Debbie Reynolds.

Spooky publicity photos of actors were usually reserved for top horror stars like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Vincent Price. Their classic fright films were released year-round, but photographers never resisted vintage Halloween iconography for these assignments whenever they occurred. Shadow silhouettes of black cats, bats, and cobwebs worked just as well for movie marketing as they did for party favors and decorations.

Disney, as usual, always had its finger on the pulse of commercial possibilities for Halloween before its competitors. Its animated Silly Symphony series short, The Skeleton Dance, was a perfect embodiment of the holiday spirit, delighting audiences throughout the fall of 1929. Mickey and Minnie Mouse were among the earliest examples of character licensing when they first appeared as Halloween costumes in the 1930s, and Disney’s 1952 Donald Duck cartoon Trick or Treat, with its catchy title song, modeled and standardized the begging ritual for millions of suburban children, just as candy companies got on the bandwagon in a big way.

Clara Bow

Yvonne de Carlo

Huey, Dewey, and Louie explain Halloween to postwar America in Trick or Treat (1952).

Halloween has been an expanding industry ever since, growing exponentially every decade, and is now a multibillion-dollar annual cash machine—the largest retail holiday after Christmas. In recent decades, Halloween has also become more cinematic than ever, with the latest scary movies competing for October release dates, and established entertainment franchises like The Walking Dead showcased in major theme park attractions, as in Universal Studios’ long-running Hollywood Horror Nights. Beyond cold economic considerations, it’s also an especially beloved celebration, with warmly treasured personal meaning and nostalgic memories for people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests. Therefore, this book is not intended as a comprehensive history of spooky films—indeed, scary movies now comprise such a multitude of genres and subgenres that such an undertaking would fill an encyclopedia set. Instead, Fright Favorites is a diverse sampler of chilling, thrilling, and often laugh-provoking classic movies especially well suited to mark the thirty-one days of October (or, considering the year-round interest in all things Halloweenish, maybe we should make that the 365 days of October?). Some readers will be familiar with the films included here, but I hope you enjoy some fascinating new anecdotes and rarely seen images. Others of you will be discovering these gems for the first time. If that’s the case, get ready for a holiday treat calculated to last the whole year through.

Halloween kicks up its heels: Disney’s The Skeleton Dance (1929).

Vincent Price in a publicity photo for The Bat (1959)


The story behind Nosferatu is almost as frightening as the film itself, at least from the perspective of historic film preservation. Today an undisputed masterpiece of world cinema, F. W. Murnau’s most celebrated achievement was the first, though completely unauthorized, film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the specter of copyright infringement haunted it from the beginning, endangering its very survival. Most silent films have been lost through neglect (75 percent, according to the Library of Congress). In the case of Nosferatu, the film was the target of a campaign aimed at its deliberate destruction. Had Nosferatu not survived, the entire trajectory of fantastic filmmaking could well have been materially altered—and greatly impoverished.

Nosferatu is a prime example of German expressionism, a broad category covering a range of artistic experimentation arising from the cataclysm of World War I, and often employing grotesquely distorted characters and situations, allegory, and social criticism. In cinema, expressionism employed stylized theatrical settings and a dramatic use of light and shadow. The most influential expressionist film was another horror story: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which featured skewed sets and sharp shadows reflecting a preoccupation with nightmares and insanity. The story of a mesmeric carnival charlatan (Werner Krauss) who controls a murderous somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) has been interpreted as a parable of the Great War itself, in which untold numbers of soldiers were sent forth by madmen in positions of power to kill and be killed.

Blood vessel: the vampire commandeers a ship, killing its crew.

The guiding force behind Nosferatu was the artist and occultist Albin Grau, who in 1921 founded an independent production company, Prana Film, dedicated to supernatural themes. In the end, Nosferatu would be its only realized project. Grau hired Henrik Galeen, a screenwriter and actor known for his work on The Golem (1915), and the rising German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Grau took a hands-on approach to his vision, acting not only as producer but also as art director and costume designer; he additionally created all the publicity materials and posters.

Grau attributed the film’s genesis to vampire legends he heard recounted in Serbia during his service in World War I. Like Caligari, Nosferatu told a story by way of allegory; Grau regarded the war itself as a “cosmic vampire” that had drained the lifeblood of Europe. He also interpreted Dracula (whom he renamed Count Orlok) as a rat-like vector of plague—a highly effective and grimly appropriate choice. Overcrowded hospitals attending maimed soldiers had proved a major breeding ground for the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–1920. Like the fantasy world of Nosferatu, Europe itself was gripped by a plague, which by some accounts took more lives than the war.

No one knows exactly where the word “Nosferatu” originated. Bram Stoker assumed it was the Romanian/Transylvanian word for “vampire” (based on a claim made by a Scottish folklorist), but it cannot in fact be definitively traced to any language. Nonetheless, it sounds authentically ancient and convincingly creepy, and it is now generally accepted as a synonym for “undead.”

Original promotional art by Albin Grau ABOVE Czech poster BELOW Russian herald

Whereas Dracula is set contemporaneously in Stoker’s Victorian age, Nosferatu takes place much earlier in the nineteenth century, during the age of the Brothers Grimm, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and the full flowering of literary Romanticism. The characters are archetypal and simply delineated, like figures in a fairy tale. The actors all came from the German stage, which had already been advancing the acting and design conventions that greatly influenced expressionist film. The most memorable performance is that of Max Schreck as Orlok/Dracula, an indelibly disturbing amalgam of human and rat. Stoker’s Dracula was also repulsive—a fact usually overlooked by filmmakers—but Grau’s conception exceeded even Stoker’s vision.

While Nosferatu changed many aspects of Stoker’s book, it retained others. Dracula is an epistolary novel—an assemblage of letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and other documents—and Nosferatu parallels the technique through an extensive use of calligraphic title cards that provide an omniscient narrative framework. A direct borrowing from Dracula is the use of a ship captain’s harrowing log, recounting the stowaway vampire’s commandeering of the doomed vessel.

One of the most famous and chilling images in film history occurs after the heroine Ellen (Greta Schroeder) learns that the vampire can be destroyed by a virtuous woman willingly inviting the monster to her bed and keeping him there until sunrise. Ellen makes the invitation by flinging open her window, and then, in what amounts to the most iconic pair of shots in German expressionist film, Count Orlok’s shadow is seen stealing up the stairs to her bedroom, followed by the dark shape of his claw-like hand stretching out to her door.

Hutter discovers his host’s resting place and understands his true nature.

A gala Berlin premiere, including a costume ball, was held in early 1922. Grau’s publicity efforts were ambitious and extensive, reportedly costing more than the film’s entire production budget, and word of the film’s existence soon reached the widow of Bram Stoker, who had died ten years earlier. Florence Stoker struggled to maintain a stable income from Dracula’s royalties and was eager to exploit potential stage and film adaptations. Universal Pictures had considered a film version as early as 1915, but passed because of irregularities with the book’s American copyright registration. Nevertheless, in 1920 Universal made a press announcement that it was considering Dracula as the next vehicle for its up-and-coming “mystery man” director Tod Browning—who, of course, would ultimately helm the famous 1931 version.

When Nosferatu appeared, the filmmakers naively made no attempt to hide the fact that it was “freely adapted” from Dracula. Florence Stoker was outraged at the brazen infringement of her copyright and immediately enlisted the assistance of the British Society of Authors to help press a legal case. A three-year legal war ensued, which bankrupted Prana Film. The widow never collected money, but in 1925 she did win a ruling by the German courts, which officially declared Nosferatu an infringement of her copyright and ordered all prints of the film and its negative to be destroyed. But even without copyright protection, pirated copies of Nosferatu were soon surreptitiously escaping Germany, seeking refuge in foreign lands in much the same way that Dracula had fled his native Transylvania.

Count Orlok (Max Schreck) welcomes Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) to Transylvania.

Nosferatu, however, was not finished disturbing Florence Stoker’s dreams.

Because Nosferatu never had a proper American distribution, when Murnau, by then acclaimed for the Ufa production of Faust, relocated to Hollywood, interviewers and publicists didn’t know of the earlier film’s existence and never asked him about it. Murnau died tragically in a car crash in 1931, having never given an interview or other account of the film’s production. Nosferatu essentially vanished until the 1960s, when prints began to resurface and the full importance of its achievement was recognized. It has since been regularly revived, often accompanied by highly creative new orchestral scores performed live. A definitive restoration utilizing the best available elements was finally completed in 2013.

In 1979 Werner Herzog’s remake/homage, Nosferatu the Vampyre, starred Klaus Kinski closely resembling Schreck but playing Dracula as a tragic, lonely figure. In E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a fictionalized account of the making of Murnau’s film, Willem Dafoe played Nosferatu/Schreck (the actor presented, cheekily enough, as an actual vampire), with John Malkovich as Murnau and Udo Kier as Albin Grau.

If you enjoyed Nosferatu (1922), you might also like:


Conrad Veidt recoils from the transplanted hands that have taken on a life of their own in The Hands of Orlac.


Broken bodies and ruined faces were common sights on the streets of America in the 1920s, as untold numbers of maimed and disabled World War I veterans tried, often unsuccessfully, to merge back into society. Broken bodies and ruined faces were also a curiously persistent feature of Hollywood movies in the Jazz Age, particularly those starring the protean Lon Chaney—“The Man of a Thousand Faces”—and directed by Tod Browning. Chaney never actually played a wounded soldier, but the public’s need to confront the veterans’ plight, however indirectly, may go far to explain the popularity of Chaney’s trademark portrayals of disfigurement and disability.

In 1923, Universal Pictures released its sumptuous production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, featuring Chaney as the deformed Parisian bell ringer, Quasimodo. The actor’s established facility with greasepaint, putty, and prosthetics was given its biggest challenge to date, and he rose to the task by creating one of the most iconic characterizations of the silent era. During a trip to Paris, Universal’s president, Carl Laemmle, had made the acquaintance of the French mystery writer Gaston Leroux, who gave him a copy of his 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Immediately intrigued, Laemmle heeded his showman’s instincts and purchased the screen rights for Chaney.

Leroux’s story was, at its center, a modernized version of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. The title character is Erik, whose face is hideously deformed since birth. A musical genius in his own right, the “Opera Ghost” haunts the cellars and boxes of the Paris Opera and becomes romantically obsessed with a rising young singer, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin in the film). When the opera management fails to promote Christine as he demands, Erik drops the opera house’s massive crystal chandelier on an unsuspecting audience. Amid the ensuing horror and confusion, Erik abducts Christine to his subterranean lair. Provoked by the face covering he wears, she rips away the mask, revealing the living death’s head he has kept hidden from the world. The rest of the story involves the efforts of Christine’s real-world lover, Raoul de Chagny (played by Norman Kerry), to rescue her, Christine’s pity for her kidnapper, his threat to dynamite the opera house, and the Phantom’s eventual death from the heartbreak of unrequited love.

The Phantom leads Christine (Mary Philbin), his “angel of music,” deep into the shadows of the opera house.

In the guise of the Red Death, the Phantom makes a daring public appearance at a masked ball.

Chaney’s makeup, withheld from the public in all advance publicity, re-created the look of a skull by enlarging the actor’s nostrils with dark paint and pulling up the tip of his nose with small hooks and fine wires hidden by makeup and putty. There are few cinema faces more indelible and iconic than Chaney’s Phantom, a single photo of which still has the power to immediately conjure the world of silent film.

Lon Chaney as Erik, the unforgettable Opera Ghost

To re-create the interior of the Paris Opera, Universal erected a new, steel-reinforced, state-of-the-art building—Stage 28—that could support the weight of massive sets and hundreds of extras. These extras played the audience members who witness the crashing of a full-scale crystal chandelier onto the stalls, and the revelers at a lavish masked ball that takes place on an exact replica of the Paris Opera’s grand staircase. Stage 28 achieved the distinction of being the world’s oldest working soundstage before its demolition in 2014, and the venerable opera boxes appeared in many other Universal films over the decades, the last being The Sting in 1973. The preserved sets were afterward occasionally undraped for photo shoots and documentaries.

The film had a Hollywood preview in January 1925 and was poorly received. The production had been compromised by director Rupert Julian, who clashed repeatedly with the cast, especially Chaney, who ultimately directed himself in most scenes. To protect its investment, the studio took the drastic step of reshooting the majority of the footage, adding subplots and comic relief that radically changed the film. In the process, Julian quit and was replaced by Edward Sedgwick. One of Sedgwick’s major contributions was replacing Erik’s mawkish, lovesick demise with an exciting chase as a mob storms the Phantom’s lair and then drowns him in the Seine. Nonetheless, an April preview in San Francisco proved a complete disaster; the audience actually jeered and booed. Film editor Maurice Pivar and Universal’s prolific (and at one point highest-paid) director Lois Weber were given the task of creating a third and final edit of the film. Weber had Carl Laemmle’s complete trust, and her extensive and trailblazing work as an actress, screenwriter, producer, and director made her unusually qualified to impose a workable dramatic shape on the troubled production.

In this original version of the film, the Phantom dies of a broken heart.

When the picture finally premiered in September 1925, with a general release in November, it clicked with audiences and reviewers alike. Its worldwide gross was $2 million, less than the $3.5 million earned by The Hunchback of Notre Dame but still enough to make it a major success. Chaney’s performance was widely praised, but Philbin’s doll-like demeanor failed to endear the actress to critics. Universal released a reworked, part-talking version in 1929, with music and new dialogue sequences featuring Philbin and Kerry.

In the 1943 remake, Claude Rains wore a stylized mask patterned after his own face.

Notably, later screen versions of The Phantom of the Opera didn’t even try to replicate Chaney’s singular makeup achievement, although the 1957 Universal biopic Man of a Thousand Faces


  • "Fright Favorites is like the full-size candy bar in your trick-or-treat bag: it's small enough to hold in one hand, delicious, and is written in digestible, bite-sized sections so that you can savor it or eat read all of it in one sitting!...From its menacing black and orange cover to its full-color end papers featuring horror movie posters, David J. Skal's Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond is a seasonal treat that horror and classical film fans will want to keep on their coffee tables all season long."—Ally Russell, Out of the Past Blog
  • "An essential book especially for those just starting their journey into horror movie history."—Reviews Coming at YA
  • "Turner Classic Movies presents a gorgeous coffee table style collection of modern and classic horror that captures the Halloween spirit. It's full of curated images, reviews, and behind-the-scenes stories to expand your annual Halloween viewing horizons."—Bloody Disgusting
  • “I must say that Fright Favorites is almost a perfect list of films that could easily serve as a haunted advent calendar to count down to Halloween.”—Waylon Jordan,

On Sale
Sep 1, 2020
Page Count
224 pages
Running Press

David J. Skal

About the Author

David J. Skal is the author of numerous books, including Hollywood Gothic, The Monster Show, and Something in the Blood. His media appearances have included NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Today, A&E Biography, Ancient Mysteries, and many others. Skal lives in Glendale, CA.Turner Classic Movies is the definitive resource for the greatest movies of all time. We entertain and enlighten to show how the entire spectrum of classic movies, movie history, and movie-making touches us all and influences how we think and live today.

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