11 Best Horror Screenplays You Must Read

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You like scary movies?

You want to write a horror screenplay?  

Here is my list of the 11 best horror screenplays you have to read to become a better writer.

  1. The Ring
  2. Psycho
  3. A Quiet Place
  4. The Shining
  5. Night Of The Living Dead
  6. Halloween
  7. Nightmare On Elm Street
  8. Rosemary’s Baby
  9. Scream
  10. Alien
  11. Saw

Reading screenplays is one of the best ways to improve your craft as a screenwriter.

It’s certainly the fastest and most fun method.

The horror genre has been consistently popular since the early days of cinema. 

With the advent of internet streaming, more scary movies are being made than ever.

Audiences love scary movies.

They’re often hugely successful at the box office and are cheap to produce as they don’t require star actors, can be shot on minimal locations, sometimes just a single one

Evil Dead and Paranormal Activity

Cheap gritty production techniques enhance the scary atmosphere 

Blair Witch Project

Night Of The Living Dead

So for all those aspiring to write a scary movie it’s time to go to Horror Night School and learn from the masters and unlock the secrets to this incredibly successful and enduring genre.

Here are the 11 best horror screenplays you must read.

1. The Ring.

Writer: Takahashi Hiroshi

The American remake of The Ring is surprisingly good but nothing beats the original.

The Ring is possibly the best ghost horror film ever made.

It’s certainly one of the scariest movies.

It has everything:

Mysterious deaths

Haunting imagery 

Frightening revelations

Amazing performances

Brilliant direction 

But most importantly it’s a gripping story.

The Ring has been hugely influential in the genre and copied many times since.

The script is worth reading for the opening sequence alone.  

It goes for 6 pages and sets up the entire story.

The sequence contains all the elements expected in a horror film

Intrigue

Fear

Death

Sexuality

It’s very simple but details the films premise perfectly and foreshadows many events.  

It opens with two high school girls talking in their room about boys and the discussion shifts to an urban myth about a cursed tape that if you watch it you die 7 days later.

The final moment of the sequence is a mysterious and scary occurrence. 

The audience isn’t quite sure what happened and are forced to wait until the terrifying end of the film to have the mystery answered.

That is what you call a perfect hook!

2. Psycho.

Writer: Joseph Stefano.

What is there to say about Psycho that hasn’t already been said?

Many argue Alfred Hitchcock’s mega classic is the greatest film ever made.

It certainly has stood the test of time and still packs a real punch more than 50 years later.

Adapted from Robert Bloch’s creepy novel of the same name the screenplay contains arguably the most infamous moment in cinema history. 

‘The Shower Scene’

Unfortunately all the great moments in cinema are attributed to the director not the writer.

However Hitchcock did turn what could have been a somewhat benign event into an experience of sheer terror assisted by Bernard Herman’s shrieking score. 

But like all great films Psycho started with a great script and Bloch and Stefano wrote some groundbreaking moments that were totally unconventional at the time and became classics. 

At the midpoint the writers killed off the protagonist and the story climax is one of the great twists/revelations in cinema history.

That’s not direction – that’s writing.

The screenplay of Psycho changed the course of horror films with it’s realistic horror of depicting a normal man functioning in society who is a crazed killer. 

In 1960 that was bold and revolutionary.

Prior to Psycho mainstream horror films were mostly about symbolic but fictitious monsters like 

Dracula

The Swamp Thing 

The Mummy

Psycho presented audiences with a terrifying new reality:

Who can you ever really trust?

Even though a person looks like us, acts like us and appears normal they can in fact be a monster!

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3. A Quiet Place

Writers: Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Whilst A Quiet Place isn’t a classic or in the same league as the other films on this list, it is probably the best theatrically released horror film of 2018 and was a box office hit, making $330 million.

The film has some incredible sequences and genuine edge of the seat thrills. 

Most of the scenes contain no dialogue so the visuals carry the story.

There are two reasons to study this screenplay.

The first is its unconventional use of the form.  

The initial draft is some 65 pages long and the description of action is sparse yet effective.

In fact some pages are so sparse they only have a few words. 

Page 16 reads:

John is 30 feet away from the shed…

That’s it.

It creates a dramatic build, like putting a pause in an oral story.

Then page 17

20 feet away…

continuing the build of tension and anticipation.  

This subjective technique makes the reader feel like they are creeping up to the shed with John.

The second reason to read it is the screenplay is a great lesson in draft to draft development and rewriting.

It is so important to not be attached to every idea you have written.

You need to be flexible, get rid of scenes, change story events, lose unnecessary characters or in the case of the early draft of A Quiet Place, change the entire opening of the film.

Sitting in the cinema I was instantly hooked and gripped by the opening sequence. 

It’s an incredible piece of visual story telling that builds tension, mystery and dread as we are introduced to a family scavenging for supplies in an abandoned shop whilst desperately trying to do the impossible, not make a noise.

When I found the screenplay and started reading I couldn’t believe it.

The original version of the script has an entirely different and inferior opening.

Read the screenplay then watch the film to see how the story has developed from it’s initial draft.

4. The Shining

Writers: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson

Stanley Kubrick is arguably the most versatile writer/director as he worked in so many genres.

The Killing – Heist

2001 Space Odyssey – Sci Fi

Paths of Glory – War 

Barry Lyndon – Historical Drama

with The Shining he entered the realm of horror. 

For many of his hardcore fans it is their favourite film of his.

Like many of the screenplays Kubrick wrote (co written with Diane Johnson) its an adaptation of a novel.

In this case Stephen King’s classic horror which leans heavily on the conventions of ghost horror using the techniques of 

A location cursed from past injustices 

A protagonist grappling with guilt 

The line between reality and insanity blurring to the point of inducing craziness.

The Shining is a brilliant study of a man grappling with his past and sliding into insanity.

The screenplay is brimming with great visuals subtext ladened dialogue exchanges and terrifying moments like when Jack is hugging the attractive naked woman who turns into an old cadaver like lady and the axe wielding climax.

This version is the shooting script and as Kubrick was directing it contains shots.  

Though it’s a great script to read don’t include shots in your screenplay.  

Producers and directors aren’t interested in reading them.

They are distracting to the eye detract from the flow of the story and it is not your job to determine how scenes are filmed.

5. Night Of The Living Dead

Writers: George A Romero John Russo

Along with Psycho, Night Of The living Dead is one of the most important films in modern horror cinema as it changed the direction of horror films.

It’s a nightmarish vision of humanity.

Grisly scenes of flesh eating zombies consuming humans.

A child slashing her mother to death with a trawl and people being burned alive, the likes that had never been seen before.

Previously horror films were shot in studios with cotton wool cobwebs hanging from the fake sets and actors wearing rubber suits. 

Night Of The Living Dead is

Gritty

Dark 

Unrelenting 

Right up to it’s tragically ironic final scene.

Romero’s vision of hell not only changed everything with his dead trilogy 

Night Of The Living Dead

Dawn Of The Dead 

Day Of The Dead 

he almost singled handedly created the zombie horror genre and its conventions.

Many films have been inspired by and imitated them. 

To give an indication of how great the writing was on Romero’s original trilogy there’s barely an idea in AMC’s hugely successful The Walking Dead series that isn’t a direct use or elaboration on what Romero created including 

The greatest threat is human’s inability to get along.

The breakdown of society.

Training zombies to civilise them.

The main group being threatened by a posse operating without a code 

and the methods of how to kill a Zombie.

Enjoy reading Night Of The Living Dead for the piece of horror cinema history that it is.

6. Halloween

Writers: John Carpenter & Debra Hill

Though technically not the original slasher film, Halloween heralded the golden age of slasher films (1978-84).

Its mainstream success popularised the horror sub genre and John Carpenter and Debra Hills’ screenplay became the template for the modern slasher film.

It had

A masked killer 

A group of teens 

The teens parents are absent

The teens are murdered one by one 

In increasingly violent ways

The Final Girl who survives

The climax of the screenplay has become common place

The Final Girl defeats the killer..but not quite. 

This depicts the chilling reality that evil can never be fully defeated.

Halloween’s a great study in low budget film making too it was made for only $300,000. 

This was achieved by reducing the elements to

Small cast

Minimal locations 

Modern setting

No major stunts.

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7 . Nightmare On Elm Street

Writer: Wes Craven

Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the greatest horror films of the 80’s.

Wes Craven not only created one of the all-time great villains with Freddy Kruger the script is one hell of a concept.

What happens if your nightmares cross over into your waking reality?

The answer:

When a disfigured killer, with razors for fingers, preys on you in your dreams you are killed in real life.

Absolute genius!

It’s almost the ultimate conflict a story can have, to live all you have to do is stay awake.

Problem is we need to sleep to survive.

No matter how much you fight, what plans you put in place eventually you’ll have to sleep. 

The screenplay also exploits humans vulnerability at night and the strange altered state of dreaming.

Nightmare On Elm Street combines elements of ghost horror  – the wrongs of the past punish the present. 

And slasher films – a group of teens are knocked off one by one for their sins or traits.

Tina is promiscuous.

Rob is a greaser/rebel without a cause.

Glen is too skeptical

Nancy is The Final Girl 

Who survives because she has the right combination of traits 

virginal, smart, law abiding and understands the danger and finds the strength to face her inner demons.

This version of the script is the shooting draft and it’s a great insight into how it is production ready.

8. Rosemary’s Baby

Writer: Roman Polanski

The horror of Rosemary’s Baby is how normal many aspects of the story are.

This isn’t a horror film of gore, jumps scares or things that go bump in the night, this is a truly uncomfortable descent into paranoia. 

It’s every day setting of an apartment block in New York is grounded and realistic which lulls us into a false sense of safety and it feels very much like a drama. 

Slowly but surely the sense of unease builds and builds creating a grave concern for the protagonist.  

She is slowly becoming isolated and coerced into a dangerous situation that her and the audience initially can’t quite grasp but we know we dread it.

The paranoia builds and builds until we, like Rosemary, realise nobody can be trusted. 

Like many horror films it’s climax is simultaneously brilliant and shocking.

But it’s the slow ride there that will send you mad!

9. Scream

Kevin Williamson

Screams screenplay is of those great stories. 

A writer with a spec script sparks a bidding war that sells for a lot of dough

$400,000 in 1994!

The man who made his career off the hybrid slasher film Nightmare On Elm St resurrected his career with a tongue in cheek self aware horror film that simultaneously deconstructed and embraced the conventions and cliches he helped popularise.

Scream is a great modern horror film with many memorable scenes and spawned a new wave of slasher films.

The opening of Scream is a textbook study on how to grab the audience.

It starts with a situation we can all relate to.

A teenager home at night, making popcorn to watch a movie. 

Then the phone rings.

It’s a wrong number

But it develops into a playful

Almost flirtatious conversation

Then a discussion about horror movies starts

The tables turn quickly in the scene

It isn’t a wrong number

The stranger called deliberately and the character now finds themselves in a life and death situation.

It is immensely enjoyable to read. 

The audience is grabbed from page 1 with witty and entertaining banter  but as the protracted scene unfolds they are horrified.

Most importantly, they are now totally hooked and committed to the story.

The first 10 and last 10 pages are the most important of any screenplay.

Screams screenplay shows how to do it.

10. Alien

Writer: Dan Obanon

Great monsters make great horror films and the writers of Alien have created one of the all time greats.

The Alien is fascinating, terrifying and utterly memorable with it’s vicious, calculating and insatiable bloodlust and with an inspired defence mechanism of acid for blood!  

Genius!

The gut buster scene is an all-time classic in not only horror but cinematic history.

The scene starts out as mundane with the ships crew eating a meal around a table. 

There is an air of relief as Kane is now awake an healthy  after having the face sucker on him.

Then he starts to cough and splutter.

Perhaps it is food stuck in his throat but then he starts convulsing and crashes onto the table where he writhes in pain and shrieks guttural screams.

Then the monster bursts from inside his chest. 

It’s gruesome

Frightening 

Gory

Yet stunning to watch. 

From here on Alien is a masterclass in claustrophobia and growing dread as the hapless crew are killed off one by one in increasingly violent and cruel ways by the Alien.

In stark contrast the climax, which delivers the horror convention of 

‘the hero at the mercy of the monster’  

is quiet, almost intimate but no less terrifying.

11. Saw

Writers: James Wan and Leigh Whannell

Written by two young Australian filmmakers, Saw became an international sensation and a franchise with 7 hit sequels.

All but one have made over 100 million at the box office!

The premise presents a moral dilemma 

‘how violent are you willing to be to save yourself’ is a fascinating one.

Saw has great twists, plot reveals and some gruesome murders and, like many successful horrors, the writers created a memorable villain in Jigsaw using the trope of masked or unidentifiable killer.

It’s a great study in low budget horror film making.

The screenplay has lean budget requirements.

It has a small cast

Many of the scenes involve 2-3 actors

Minimal locations.

Much of the film is set in a public bathroom.

A great read for modern horror fans who want to break into the industry.

Let me know your thoughts on this list and are there any horror movies you would add in this list?

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David Willing

David Willing

After working as a writer/director for 20 years and a teacher for 15 years I founded Screenplaymethod.com. Using the 1-Step-A-Day Screenplay Technique I help guide aspiring writers to write their dream Screenplay.

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