Great poster art conveys the central ideas, overarching themes, and raw emotions of films in a single image. For horror films, that often comes down to distilling a sense of terror into a haunting, unforgettable work of art that catches the eyes and emotions of audiences. While there are plenty of clichéd elements to be found in horror posters (just like the clichéd elements that appear in the movies themselves again and again), like bloody knives, skulls, and shadows, the best art in the genre either crafts bracingly new concepts to reinvigorate the iconography of these films, or uses these iconic elements to their most effective degree.
The following 20 horror movie posters represent the best of the best from across the decades and have made a lasting impact on genre fans. From the defining works of the genre to newer entries that have flipped horror on its head, these horror posters have haunted nightmares and inspired creators the world over.
Have your own personal favorite horror movie posters? Let me know in the comments!
The blood runs deep and red in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and that point is quite clearly made in the film’s poster. Having a massive amount of blood drop off of the porcelain figure of a ballerina makes it obvious that this ballet school-set horror film will have plenty of kills and scares, but it’s the simple yet ghoulish nature of the imagery that seals it as being one of the greats. Like the film itself, the poster for Suspiria is unflinching, blood soaked, and just a little strange.
Old school poster artists seemed to have real issues with properly using space. Most poster art from before 1940 is filled with awkwardly positioned negative space and slapped together elements. But here, Frankenstein uses those elements to portray something darker and more ominous. It’s clear that Boris Karloff as The Monster is the main attraction, with his stark and giant visage looming over all. And while a fainting woman and Dr. Frankenstein with a beaker aren’t exactly exciting elements, the gothic nature of the art and the iconic imagery of The Monster himself have made this one into an enduring classic of the genre.
18. The Cabin in the Woods
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods is meant to upend and deconstruct the conventions of horror, taking a standard genre story of friends getting picked off one by one in a creepy cabin and turning it into a treatise on the nature of the horror genre itself. While those ideas are best left unspoiled for anyone who has not seen the film, this M.C. Escher style poster captures the puzzling and genre-bending nature of the film. The sepia tone, stains, and creases add another layer of faux age to the engrossing nature of the central image itself, with this artistic rendering of the mystery at hand doing justice for the twisty story that unfolds in the film.
17. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Like much of the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s a ton of graphic violence implied yet not explicitly shown in the film’s poster. Yet with all the puzzle pieces here, it’s easy to be shocked by the outrageous gore that isn’t actually shown. Having the fairly small image surrounded by stark white and massive lettering for both catchphrase and title is definitely an aesthetic choice from a bygone era, but the shock and terror is still clear many years later. If there’s any real critique, it’s that there are just too many phrases here. One is enough, not three. But still, this is outrageous horror imagery that works on a visceral level.
16. Fright Night
The twisted vampire visage that appears in a cloud in the poster for Fright Night, and its appearance within the film itself, are easily the most memorable elements of this solid if unremarkable piece of ‘80s horror comedy. But when you know what sells a film, you use it. Having that gnarled and toothy grin loom behind a typical suburban home on a full moon night (it’s always a full moon on horror posters) gives off a sense of dread and fear in the most evocative of manners. By utilizing aspects of both the fear of the unknown and the fear of overwhelming power, the artwork for Fright Night becomes one of the great vampire posters.
15. Dawn of the Dead
A cresting zombie head meant to evoke sunrise for a film titled Dawn of the Dead won’t be winning any prizes for subtlety any time soon, but neither will creator George Romero’s zombie allegories. That said, this B-movie-esque poster works far greater as the sum of its parts than its actual technical execution. Evaluated in pieces, it’s flat, monotone, and far too static. But as an idea that conveys the thrust of the film, it’s highly evocative and memorable.
Much like the film itself, the poster for Re-Animator is a kind of classy trash. It has plenty of cheeky phrases and a sense of gothic style to it all, with the gruesome details of a living, decapitated head left to the imagination. The great balance between light and shadow helps keep the poster moody and mysterious, while still selling the film on its Frankenstein-like sensibilities. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s well formed, clear in its focus, and effective in what it aims to do.
13. The Mummy
This is one incredibly classy horror poster. Filled with lush and gorgeous colors, detailed line work, and all the mashing together of monolithic sans serif and loopy serif fonts that one would expect from a 1932 Universal horror film, this poster for The Mummy has a touch of romance and fear mixed into the ancient Egyptian iconography. Those golds, browns, and blues also pop in a genre that is often defined by blacks, greens, and splashes of red, helping the poster for The Mummy to feel unmistakably classic in all the right ways.
12. Friday the 13th
This is the exception to the rule that silhouette-focused posters are generally terrible (X-Men: First Class, anyone?). By having the mysterious killer front and center and literally shaping the landscape surrounding the potential victims, the poster for the original Friday the 13th feels far more vibrant and exciting than the relatively cheap B movie that it is. Throw in a full moon, some extra moody woods at night, and a bloody knife that drips onto the logo and you have a mysterious, ominous, and attention-grabbing poster that kicked off one of horror’s biggest franchises.
11. Evil Dead II
The simplicity of the poster for Evil Dead II is its strongest feature. In fact, it’s practically its only feature. Black background and a skull, but with striking eyes staring right into your soul. Is it an accurate representation of the film? Not literally, but the unsettling and unflinching nature of the image most certainly represents the movie itself. If one of the main goals of a film poster is to stay in the minds of viewers long after they’ve seen it, then Evil Dead II is most certainly one of the greats in the horror genre.
10. You’re Next
You’re Next works to subvert the typical horror movie tropes while still embracing their thrills through a slasher story set in a rural vacation home. That general idea of the setting and the life or death struggle happening inside it informs the detail-laden poster for this modern horror film, as well as the instantly recognizable animal masks of the killers. Those two elements make for a highly unconventional horror poster, but the themes of fear, death, and the struggle between the killers and survivors make this into a highly effective and incredibly original piece of poster art.
Creepy kid and lots of darkness. That can describe a lot of horror films, but it works incredibly well and as its own idea in the poster for Poltergeist. There are actually very few details to be found in this poster, with only young Carol Anne and the glowing television to be seen. But even then, the child’s back is to the viewer and the majority of the TV is obscured by her. With darkness enveloping almost the entire poster, there’s a sense of unknown evil lurking around the corners that feels oppressive. And that’s really all you need here, as the unknown is often so much scarier than what is known, no matter how terrifying it may look.
8. The Evil Dead
There’s a fine line being walked between the classic art of horror posters from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the exploitation style of the countless horror films that would come to fill the 1980s in the poster for The Evil Dead. Having a young woman pulled underground by the hand of a deadite is a rather off-putting and terrifying image, but it’s also expertly done. From the dutch angle used for the art (which reflects much of Raimi’s camera work in the film, to the focus on overwhelming blues and browns to convey the darkness and griminess of the story, The Evil Dead poster works exceedingly well as a representation of the film and as an eye-catching idea for all audiences to see.
7. It Follows
While the main poster for It Follows, depicting an early scene in a car from a creepily distant angle, is just as eye-catching, there’s something even more satisfying about this throwback style, painted poster. Evoking an ‘80s aesthetic like much of the film itself, there’s an immediacy and a lurking dread here, with the terrified eyes of the central character playing well off the foggy, detail-free nighttime sky ahead. There are very few elements at play, but everything we need to know allows the viewer to fill in the rest of the details, which means that the unknown terror close behind is even more frightening and engrossing.
The iconic egg on the poster for Ridley Scott’s Alien is designed completely differently than the egg within the film itself. Does that ruin this poster for you? It shouldn’t, because the color, design, and atmosphere are so perfect here. It’s the creeping mystery at the center of the art here that draws the eye, causing viewers to both wonder and dread what may lurk within the egg floating in the blackness of space. Throw in a truly fantastic tagline and the creepily ominous title font and you have a horror image that speaks volumes through showing as little as possible.
5. The Exorcist
Done in even a slightly different manner and the poster for The Exorcist would lack the creeping dread and mystery found here. But the simple, starkly lit photo used for Friedkin’s film is dripping with atmosphere and dread. With just the tiniest hint of green used in this nearly black and white image and piercing lights breaking through the foggy darkness, it’s obvious that something sinister is at hand, even without any knowledge of the film’s story. But this isn’t an image meant to sell you on the story, just a mood piece that works incredibly well. And it still does all these years later.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street
The creeping dread is real on the poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street. While the layout and combination of images may not make complete sense (Freddy’s skeletal face was totally added in later due to studio demand, right?), it still works like gangbusters. The sheer look of terror on lead character Nancy’s face and the idea of being completely unsafe in your own bed and dreams is part of what makes the Elm Street series so effective. By having the terror of that situation front and center, the audience is sold on the central conceit of what makes this film scary. The direct eye contact from both protagonist and villain makes the essential terror of the situation that much more immediate and personal for anyone viewing this poster.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
The right shade of green can feel nauseating and creepy when employed in just the right manage, which is exactly the case with the Rosemary’s Baby poster. Having the profile of Rosemary lay in solemn reflection of the silhouetted baby carriage in the foreground provides a gnawing sense of dread and unease about what should be a joyous occasion. As a result, a mix of feelings come from the poster’s imagery and a sense of unnerve is brought to the foreground, as nothing good could come from a seemingly innocent baby.
A jagged and menacing jack-o-lantern face paired with an even bigger and more menacing butcher’s knife says just about everything you need to say about a slasher movie set on the most creepy of all nights. That simple, looming, unknown menace is evocative to the point of being just as recognizable as the masked face of central killer Michael Myers, whose ghostly visage doesn’t even make an appearance. Rather, this is all about the terrifying closeness of death, with the equally bright and shining knifepoint and jack-o-lantern eyes bursting forth from the pitch black for a sense of immediate danger and the terrors that lie close at hand.
1. The Thing
Artist Drew Struzan’s poster work is most often associated with lighter, more adventuresome films, such as the Indiana Jones series or Star Wars. Here, Struzan’s eye-popping use of pencils, water colors, and inks are put to use for something far darker. But rather than put the terrifying gore and otherworldly monsters of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the center of the poster, Struzan’s art depicts the terror of the unknown in a more abstract manner. With brilliant light pouring out of a hooded figure and chilling blue ice all around, Struzan’s poster perfectly captures the themes of The Thing without spelling out the details (which would have likely been too graphic for a poster anyway). The perfect encapsulation of mystery and terror in a single unforgettable image is what makes The Thing the greatest horror poster in history.
Honorable Mentions: The Howling, The Descent, Scream, Scanners