The best horror movies based on a book

Many of the page-turners that terrified you so badly you had to sleep with the light on have since been made into films. There’s definitely a certain art to successfully adapting a book to the screen in a way that works to enhance the author’s use of characters, plot and atmosphere.  

Whether or not you've read the novels on which these hair-raising horror films were based, you can be sure to find a dreadfully familiar pit of fear in your stomach as you watch every one.

Titles are listed in order of the release dates of each film adaptation and we have also included details on where to view each film.  

Psycho (1960)

  • Novelist: Robert Bloch
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin

Under Alfred Hitchcock's thumb, Anthony Perkins' portrayal of a passive, placid-seeming motel-keeper turned psychotic killer under his mother's thumb remains an icon for man's precarious potential for evil. The film portrays particularly well the budding discoveries in psychology at the time about split-personality disorder conveyed so vividly in the book. The shower scene alone still holds its place among the scariest scenes in cinematic history.

Alfred Hitchcock turned many other books into nail-biting films, but perhaps the only other one that could truly be called a horror film was The Birds, which he made in 1963.

📺 Watch on Fubo, Apple TV, Showtime through Hulu

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

  • Novelist: Ira Levin
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer

Mia's Farrow's portrayal of a young pregnant woman terrified her unborn child has demonic origins is enough to make any woman afraid to bear children again. Under Polanski's notoriously dark and devilish eye, the woman's fumbling husband and strange neighbours painted so vividly in the novel only make her situation in the film seem all the more hopeless.

What helped make the film the catalyst it was for the whole horror genre in movies was its source in a novel widely praised among critics as "perfectly crafted" (Cherry Wilder,) "a genius masterpiece" (Gary Crawford) and a "sly, seductive impeccably-written... expertly-constructed... playwright's book" (David Pringle).

📺 Watch on Starz on Demand through Hulu, Apple TV, Vudu

The Exorcist (1973)

  • Novelist: William Peter Blattey
  • Director: William Friedkin
  • Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb

What Farrow and Polanski did for mothers of the unborn, Burstyn and Friedkin have done here for mothers of the born, as it were. Concerned about her daughter's odd behaviour, a mother finds, with a local priest's help, that the girl may be possessed by the devil. The source novel's detailed reimagining of a true-life 1949 instance is perhaps part of what makes this film hit so close to home.

📺 Watch on Apple TV, Vudu

Jaws (1975)

  • Novelist: Peter Benchley
  • Director: Stephen Spielberg
  • Starring: Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

Possibly the one true horror film made by the director known as a master of the family film, this adaptation of Peter Benchley's blood-curdling tale of a killer shark has made beachgoers everywhere afraid to get into the water to this day.

📺 Watch on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu

The Shining (1980)

  • Novelist: Stephen King
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall

It's hard to pick just one novel by master of horror Stephen King that has been made into a killer horror film, but as main characters go, it's tough to beat Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance, especially as witnessed through Stanley Kubrick's masterful lens.

Other Stephen King novels made into great films:

  • Carrie (1976)
  • Salem's Lot (1979)
  • Christine (1983)
  • Cujo (1983)
  • Pet Sematary (1989)
  • Misery (1990)
  • Needful Things (1993)
  • Doctor Sleep (2019)

Great TV movies and miniseries' also exist of Stephen King's books including It and The Stand, among others, while many of his short stories, like Children of the Corn, were made into feature films.

📺 Watch on HBO Max, Apple TV, Vudu

The Ring (2002)

  • Novelist: Koji Suzuki
  • Director: Gore Verbinski
  • Starring: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox

Based on a Japanese novel and film of the same name (minus the "The") this English-language remake brought the lush imagery of the novel to life, offering a nod towards the era's most artful music videos.

The plot is simple: a journalist investigates deaths allegedly caused by viewing a certain videotape. As manifested in the film's production value, the novel's use of modern technology as a major plot point and almost a character unto itself, is what helped make it and its adaptation feel so current and present a real element of danger to audiences of the day. The film also spawned four sequels.

📺 Watch on Hulu, Epix, Paramount+

Bird Box (2018)

  • Novelist: Josh Malerman
  • Director: Susanne Bier
  • Starring: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver

This Netflix Original based on Josh Malerman's debut novel terrified viewers so much that just as many warned each other about it as recommended it! Sandra Bullock as a mother trying to protect her two kids from inconceivable harm tore at the heartstrings of every parent watching her.

The author's depiction in the novel of blindness imposed by the blindfolds that keep the characters safe from the creatures that turn them suicidally insane translated impeccably to the horror genre's fundamental trope of keeping viewers in the dark. Meanwhile, the author's use of flashbacks in the novel helped add to the film chaotic and disjointed feel.

📺 Watch on Netflix

As you can see, many novels and short stories have been adapted for the big screen. If you're writing a book and thinking about self-publishing, now it may be a good time to see how much that would cost, or how learn how much money writers generally make!

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This article is always evolving and being updated regularly by our expert writers. Information featured in it has been fact checked and verified.
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