I have a confession to make: I am a weenie. I am scared of basically everything, so enjoying the Halloween season can be a struggle. Horror movies are completely off the table, and one can only watch HOCUS POCUS so many times. What’s a girl to do? If, like me, slashers, gore, and jump scares are more than you can handle, then never fear! There are still plenty of non-horror options that will get your blood pumping without going too far.

Get into the Halloween spirit with these movies that are achingly suspenseful, psychologically torturous, and delightfully disturbing — but will still let you sleep at night.

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Where I spend the month of October. Join me! Courtesy of Nickelodeon

1. PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Not a monster movie in the classic sense, but the fantastical beings of PAN’S LABYRINTH are almost as terrifying as the human beings they parallel. Sure, the child-eating Pale Man is scary, but he’s no fascist evil stepfather. It’s a tall order to make a movie half fantasy and half war drama, but the two plots work in tandem so brilliantly that the horrors of real life are amplified and the escapism of fantasy somewhat shattered by the loss it requires to believe in it.

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This scene is still too much for me, a 24-year-old. Courtesy of Picturehouse

Director Guillermo del Toro has repeatedly affirmed that PAN’S LABYRINTH is a fairy tale, and it certainly shows those influences, but not in the cute Disney way. It’s more of an Alice in Wonderland acid trip with a Grimms’ Fairy Tales body count. It straddles the line between horror-fantasy and non-horror psychological drama. There are deeper meanings to get into to really appreciate it, but on a surface level, it’s a wildly creative story that keeps you on the edge of your seat through each and every plot line.

2. COME AND SEE (1985)

Ok, bear with me on this one. Yes, it’s in Russian and yes, it’s about the Belorussian genocide. But it is worth it.

In his review of COME AND SEE, Roger Ebert wrote that it is impossible to make an anti-war movie because movies about war inevitable glorify the soldiers and the excitement of their actions, but that COME AND SEE disproves that theory. Instead of following a band of brothers who see the horror of war but must power through, it follows one boy, teenage Flyora, who wants to join the resistance in Nazi-occupied Belarus and the atrocities he witnesses. As opposed to most American war movies, there is no feeling that some good will come from this or that there is any moral high ground. Everything sucks and people die. Horrifically.

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On second thought, this might actually be a horror movie. Courtesy of Letterboxd

Young actor Aleksei Kravchenko is the key to this. “Shell-shocked” is an understatement for the expressions he creates. You feel the pain he feels and can sense the way his life is changed forever by these experiences. The movie, on the whole, is nearly horror in its violence and the fact that these things really happened, but the cryptic ending brings it away from that realm. As he stares into a muddy puddle, Flyora repeatedly shoots a portrait of Hitler and real footage of Nazi Germany plays in reverse, turning back time. It’s the least terrifying part of the movie, but it’s the part that leaves your heart feeling cold long after the credits roll. It’s the closest you can get to horror while still falling into a non-horror genre.

3. APOLLO 13 (1995)

If the Holocaust is a little much for you, APOLLO 13 has exactly opposite vibes. Based on the real Apollo 13 space mission, the back-of-your-mind thought that this all actually happened is part of what makes it so tense. Most people know going into it that it’s the story of everything going wrong, so you’re just waiting for terrible things to happen, keeping your nerves eternally on edge. And then everything does start going wrong and the tension is so thick that it’s suffocating. I’ve seen this movie a handful of times and I stop breathing each and every time that oxygen tank bursts.

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Everything is topsy-turvy in space. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Telling this kind of story could be overly cheesy: astronaut movies often are, and Tom Hanks in any kind of “inspirational” role can sometimes be a lot. But it has enough layers to it that the cheese factor is turned into genuine fear and sadness. There’s the heart-stopping fear for the astronauts as they face life-or-death situations one after another. There’s the empathetic fear in watching the families back on Earth and having to think about what it would feel like to have your husband or dad up in that lunar module. And, watching this again in the year 2018, I felt a distinct mournfulness and hopelessness because I can’t even imagine the country coming together to achieve something as grand as going to the moon, or even being able to share the same emotions over a situation. But maybe that’s just me.

4. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

Truthfully, any Hitchcock movie is a worthy entry on this list, but STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is my personal favorite. Because of the semi-censorship of movies back in the day, horror as we know it couldn’t exist. But these non-horror movies introduced some of the most skillful devices for fear that their horror descendants would build upon. Blood and guts were off limits, so fear had to come from that incredible tension and suspense that Hitchcock understood better than anyone.

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Making friends as an adult is hard. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Two men — strangers, if you will — meet on a train, one a tennis star and one a crazy person. The crazy person, Bruno, tells the tennis star, Guy, about his plan for the perfect murder, in which the two would “swap murders” — Guy’s wife for Bruno’s father — so that there would be no motives for the police to find. Guy is amused, and Bruno is very serious, thinking the plan is a go.

Let’s just say that it becomes more than just a misunderstanding. Robert Walker is perfect as Bruno, exposing his psychopathy bit by bit as he puts the pressure on Guy. Hitchcock’s signature noir style is in full display, creating a visual tension to match the story. And the climax takes place at an amusement park, which, let’s be honest, are among the creepiest places on earth.

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Guess which one’s the murderer. Courtesy of Warner Bros

5. THE CONVERSATION (1974)

If there were an Oscar for Best Use of Creepy Piano Music, THE CONVERSATION would win it hands down. It’s a classic ‘70s movie in that it seems like nothing is happening until the last twenty minutes in which everything happens. But there are cues like the piano music that keep you thinking that something creepy is right around the corner.

Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who becomes obsessed with his own personal security and the idea that his apartment is bugged (again, classic ‘70s, Nixon-era themes). The recordings he makes are weaved in and out of the dialogue (or lack thereof) to reveal new meanings over time and constantly make the viewer question their own senses. Does what I’m hearing match what I’m seeing? Which sense should I take as truth? Can I really trust one sense without the other?

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Can’t hide from the demons inside your mind. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

For a movie that lacks significant action (until the Hitchcockian final act), the tension and, to me, real horror comes from how easily a person can descend into madness and how it can be the result of relatively normal circumstances. It’s Caul’s own desire to make the right moral decision, to protect himself from the things he’s seen, and the loneliness that ensues that causes his downfall. And that is terrifying to me.

Kids’ Movies: Horror or Non-horror?

For the ultra weenies out there (or, you know, actual children), don’t worry! We’ve got something for you, too! They might be non-horror movies by virtue of their target audience, but kids’ movies can mess with your mind for life. Here’s a selection that stands the tests of time when it comes to horror level weirdness.

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1961)

As a movie, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG completely holds up over 50 years after as its release. As a villain, the Child Catcher is ten times scarier than anything I’ve seen in a horror movie. A glorified dog catcher that rounds up children using professional entrapment techniques is terrifying enough, but the look and mannerisms that Robert Helpmann brings to the role? That’s just wrong. Also, if you’re afraid of dolls, then this is the non-horror movie for you.

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I still have nightmares. Courtesy of United Artists

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

I can’t think of a movie more universally adored, yet universally traumatizing, as THE WIZARD OF OZ. There are just so many dark elements that get glossed over by the Technicolor dreams and Judy Garland’s sweetness. Flying monkeys are objectively scary, and then they do terrible things like kidnap Toto and tear the stuffing out of the Scarecrow. And, frankly, Mrs. Gulch might be more terrifying than the Wicked Witch. And yet just about every child in America for the last 80 years has seen this movie. Thank you, Margaret Hamilton, for nearly a century of childhood nightmares.

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Iconic, if traumatizing. Courtesy of MGM

PINOCCHIO

I don’t remember much about PINOCCHIO if I’m being honest, but I vividly remember the Pleasure Island sequence, in which naughty boys are turned into donkeys and sold into slavery. There’s no way to phrase that in which it seems like an appropriate thing to put into a non-horror movie. Early Disney movies are famously scary, and PINOCCHIO is really the cream of the crop in that regard.

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What a cute donkey! Oh, that’s actually a kid? Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

What are some of your favorite non-horror movies that get your heart racing? Or are there any traumatizing childhood villains that we missed? Let us know in the comments!

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