Cabals, witchcraft, rites and creepy masks – welcome to the list of top occult horror movies ever made.
Portrayed in many forms, using various tools to hail the devil and his wicked designs, occultism has inspired many fantastic horror movies. Undoubtedly, there is something eerie and blood-curdling in devil sacrifices and people fanatically hailing demons from ancient books. Far more disturbing than zombie apocalypse or killers swinging their chainsaws.
In order to praise this fantastic motif, which often returns to horror films, I have compiled a list of 12 truly scary, strangely nightmarish films.
Note: Article updated on the 15th of June, after reading some of the awesome comments below the article!
Top Occult Horror Movies Of All Time
18. Society (1989)
Director: Brian Yuzna
I decided to start with Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), for it’s one of these kitschy cult gems that I remember from my childhood. The film tells the story of a boy, who discovers that his family is part of a cult. Their main occupation is drawing life essence during ritualistic, body-melting orgies, where they consume innocent strangers.
Despite Yuzna’s affection for cheesiness, the last scene of bodies moulded in a disgusting ritual is actually both creepy and grotesque. Just to see this one sequence (which lasts for almost half an hour), you should give Society (1989) a try.
17. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
This is my childhood right here.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is the all-time record-breaker in terms of “budget investment“. It’s an extremely low-budget gem, which gave grounds to a completely new way of thinking about horrors. Directed with hand-held camera, The Blair Witch Project (1999) embraced the aesthetic of “found footage“.
Most importantly, The Blair Witch Project (1999) has reimagined the topic of cults in horror movies. The audience follows a group of aspiring filmmakers, who want to explore the legend of a deadly witch, who’s killing people in the local woods. Although we never get to see any monster or gory images, the film’s original approach has been shocking when it came out. It was a pioneer found footage and a chilling exploration of dark magic.
16. The Golem (2018)
Directors: Paz Brothers
This Jewish folk tale isn’t exactly a movie about occultism, however it certainly wears the coating of such. Made by Israeli director called Paz Brothers, The Golem (2018) adapts a Jewish legend about a creature summoned by rabbis to protect its people. Contrary to the original, the one who brings the creature to life is a woman named Hanna.
Despite a monster that wreaks havoc in the rural area in 18th century’s Lithuania, The Golem’s (2018) a gut-wrenching drama about loss. Oscillating around the tragedy that touched Hanna’s family, Paz Brothers explore how one’s grief causes reckless decisions to be made, and how these bring about terrible consequences.
However, make no mistake – a few scenes push this Israeli movie place it among occult horror movies too. Paz Brothers derive their fright factor from gorgeously dark cinematography, and the use of ever-nightmarish Plague Doctors, who appear in the film. A unique experience it is, but fans of occultism in horror movies shall be pleased with what The Golem (2018) has to offer.
15. The Love Witch (2016)
Director: Anna Biller
The Love Witch (2016) has been in works for years, with Anna Biller working on almost every frame to make it look astonishing.
The effect is a film incredibly passionate when it comes to the execution. The story follows a modern day witch, who uses her witchcraft to lure men to her place and consume their powers. It’s not particularly a cult that we’re discussing here, but The Love Witch (2016) reaches to many occult symbols and rituals to strengthen its credibility as a terrifying, gorgeously shot occult horror movie.
14. Starry Eyes (2014)
Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
The core of Starry Eyes (2014) is the numbing transformation of the film’s protagonist. A fragile girl with big dreams, who turns into a vessel for a demon.
This entire transformation takes place thanks to a weird Hollywood, creme-de-la-creme cult. The occultism in Starry Eyes (2014) is introduced in reference to a conspiracy theory that Hollywood is run by a strange organization (kind of like the Court of Owls from Batman comic books). The main character is entangled in their ritualistic deeds and the way it happens is pretty much… disgusting.
Starry Eyes (2014) takes time to roll its wheels, but once it reaches its full form, the film becomes a terrifying experience.
13. Alucarda (1977)
Director: Juan Moctezuma
Alucarda (1977) is a Mexican horror movie from the 70s. Its protagonist is a dark-haired girl, who is most likely possessed by some strange dark spirits. She joins a convent, where her presence causes people to get literally mad.
Moctezuma’s film is one of the most profound lost indie gems about occultism. It has this strange, vintage mood of the VHS era. and although it didn’t age so well, there are scenes which still give goosebumps – like the one starring a devilish goat-man creature. Alucarda (1977) has also been widely praised for its hidden anti-government comments, and belongs to favorite oldies of director Guillermo Del Toro.
12. The Endless (2017)
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Although The Endless (2017) is not a horror, it creates such a dense, unnerving atmosphere that it eventually becomes cold-to-the-bone frigthening.
The film depicts the story of two brothers raised in a cult. Ten years after they have escaped, they decide to visit the old camp.
As the story unfolds, The Endless (2017) becomes more and more puzzling – the main characters falter in the labyrinth of deceptive lies and events they cannot neither comprehend nor rationally explain. There are moments of sheer brilliance in the film, which also takes an interesting stand in favor (kind of at least) of the cult. It doesn’t condemn the cult commune, which is a novelty for a film touching this topic.
11. The Heretics (2017)
Director: Chad Archibald
This Canadian horror hasn’t been given much love since its premiere, but don’t listen to the haters (yep, I said it).
The Heretics (2017) centers on a very direct body transformation of a young girl, whose being held in a cabin by a very shady guy.
What makes it stand out is the very detailed, meticulously designed disintegration of the girl’s body. In an almost Cronenbergian style, the director Chad Archibald destroys his protagonist piece by piece, turning her into a disgusting, slimy cocoon. It’s super gross, but once it adds all of the occult elements, it crawls under your skin.
10. Apostle (2018)
Director: Gareth Evans
In Apostle (2018), one of the most enjoyable Netflix Originals ever, director Gareth Evans serves a no-holds-barred scarefest. The plot follows a man whose sister has been kidnapped by a cult which resides on a remote isle, somewhere on the British coast.
Upon arrival, the protagonist learns that this congregation lives in symbiosis with a deity that’s like a powerhouse to the island’s prosperity. But there’s a cost – the deity demands bloody sacrifices.
What fuels Apostle (2018) is the slow-paced accumulation of horrific scenes, completed by masterful set designs and ominous soundtrack. Evans really amps up the frights, and does so in numerous ways – from traditional jump scares to blood-dripping, vine-entangled temples and to violence-packed rites, the director really delivers on all fronts. At the same time, occultism in Apostle (2018) finds its more brooding, more pagan form. It’s a fascinating exercise in folk horror too, and one of the best occult movies you can watch on Netflix.
9. The Witch (2015)
Director: Robert Eggers
Again, it’s not the direct occultism that plays its role here. However, Robert Eggers brings all of the dark forces to make his eerie indie gem work.
A family in the 17th century brings to its farm a black sheep called Black Phillip. Since the moment the animal is brought to the farm, the family is tormented in the most vicious ways imaginable.
The mood of The Witch (2015) is incredibly ominous and scary. Eggers throws in a good portion of occultism and witchcraft, all of that spiced up by the god-fearing peasants and their complete subordination to the God’s will. It’s one of these films that is so hauntingly realistic, it almost reaches out from the screen with its ghastly hand to suck you into it.
Read here about Robert Eggers’ second, also mind-bending movie The Lighthouse (2019) – what it is about and how ingeniously it plays with Greek mythology.
8. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick belongs to one of the most blissful directors ever, however Eyes Wide Shut (1999) remained in the hated bottom of his dossier. For reasons unknown, every romance with horror ended up with mixed reviews for Kubrick. But who would listen to the critics, right?
In Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick builds a one-night-stand that goes to pretty uncompromising places. Tom Cruise plays the loving husband who experiences a sexual, ritualistic night full of cabals and witchcraft, all thanks to his wife.
Kubrick steered away from the idea of pagan cults and bloody rituals, at the same time deepening the madness started by Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Eyes Wide Shut (1999) devises a high-end cult, made of white privileged men and women, who enjoy every of their depraved orgies, and rites. Kubrick didn’t want to paint a dramatic narrative around the cult, but instead, he focused on creating a titilating, theatrical experience. The result is, arguably, a tidbit pale in comparison with his most complex movies, albeit the production design remains hard to compete with.
7. The Wailing (2016)
Director: Hong-Jin Na
What if you take the cabals, the zealots, and all the other followers out of the equation, and leave the devil roaming around the world?
The Wailing (2016) follows a police officer, who is dispatched to investigate a strange event that took place in a Korean village. The villagers are hit by a mysterious disease, and it’s not soon until the officer himself notices its effects.
Korean director Hong-Jin Na packed all kinds of horror movies into The Wailing (2016), thus delivering a deeply satisfying blend. There is a ghost story there, a crime drama, and a bit of supernatural horror too, all topped with occultism that comes in late, but in a capably harrowing mode on. Without the need to showcase tribal rituals, or any secret congregations, Hong-Jin Na painted an image of occultism in its most final form – the embodiment of evil walking freely, and planting its seeds.
6. Midsommar (2019)
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s second feature film cemented the director’s enfant prodige status among novel horror filmmakers.
Midsommar (2018) expands on Aster’s obsession about grief and cults. The film follows a young girl Dani, who after recently losing her whole family, is now glued to her asshole of a boyfriend. Contrary to his plans, she tags along on a trip to Sweden, to a cut-off community where the summer celebration Midsommar takes place.
For more than two hours, Aster patiently unravels his magnificent piece of art. Midsommar (2018) takes a bit too long to take off, but once the clique finds themselves in an ever-bright Scandinavian village, things go wild. Aster steers away from much gore or obvious imagery, but instead paints an immersive image of a tight-knit community which cultivates its traditions. Occultism is omnipresent in Midsommar (2018), and it’s designed with utmost attention to detail, deriving much of its appeal from Swedish folklore.
There are bits of stunning cinematography, helmed by Pawel Pogorzelski, as well as outstandingly unnerving score by Bobby Krlic. It’s a stuffy, heavy film to watch, and one that does not go without a bizarre blend of touching moments entangled in brooding horror. However, even for the sake of its unforgettable, cathartic finale, you should give it a try.
5. The Holy Mountain (1973)
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
The Holy Mountain (1973) is a profound surreal experience. Probably the best there is out there. The film portrays a journey to the titular destination – a place of wonders and ever-existence.
It’s hard to categorise this film as a horror (to be fair, its hard to categorise it at all), but it definitely does possess enough up its sleeve to scare the **** out of you.
The Holy Mountain (1973) explores the ins and outs of Christianity, using a plethora of symbols, references and even direct quotes form the Bible. Direction here is flawless, and bold, and becomes so mind-boggling over the time that you find yourself completely shocked, but also mesmerized.
4. Hereditary (2018)
Director: Ari Aster
Ari Aster’s directorial debut, and the best horror film of 2018, is also a fantastic example of an occult-themed frightfest. The story follows a grieving family, which soon after tragedy disintegrates their bond, becomes vulnerable to strange and disturbing events.
Hereditary (2018) works on so many levels that it’s just ridiculously good. Occultism is smartly weaved in details, such as scribbles on the walls. But Aster oozes an omnipresent dread in almost every scene. Evil stays in plain sight in Hereditary (2018), and it haunts the damaged family, taking apart their sanity bit by bit.
It’s mostly a psychological thriller, but it gained a place on this list thanks to its final sequence. An uplifting, eerie soundtrack, a shrine made in a tree house and a whole lot of creepiness mixed with graphic imagery is what causes this scene to resonate with extreme horror.
3. Kill List (2011)
Director: Ben Wheatley
A horror film that showcases the most horrid, obscurely repelling form of a cult. Although the cult-themed part arrives only at the end of this engrossing movie, it is worth waiting for. In a strangely satisfying way.
The film follows a hitman, who takes a very strange job. A job that requires him to follow his target to a cult’s gathering.
The success of Kill List (2011) is based on the fact that the protagonist is not a fragile, scarred being. On the contrary, he’s a blood-curdling hitman, a man whose hands are dripping with blood. Imagine what it must take to break such a man and – to answer the question that is hanging here – he does break.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
This feature film directed by Roman Polanski has influenced dozens of filmmakers – many of their films appeared earlier on this list too.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) follows a couple that moves to a new, fancy neighborhood. They’re struggling to have a child, yet soon after their arrival, a miracle happens.
Polanski’s occult horror was one of a kind. Although some filmmakers ventured to explore occultism before him, it was Rosemary’s Baby (1968) that got the story right. Immersed in a dreadful atmosphere, it’s a film which gave birth to the cabal congregations and summon-the-devil rituals, which populate horror movies nowadays. Anchored by two arresting performances – those by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes – this is a must-see among occult horror movies.
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
You’re probably familiar with the “Not the bees!” scene, where Nicolas Cage tries to escape from CGI’ed bees. Why do I bother, watch it here.
But the original Wicker Man (1973) is nothing like that. It’s a nightmarish portrayal of an absolutely deranged cult, and one that has cast its shadow on many films appearing on this list – such as Midsommar (2019). In The Wicker Man (1973), cabal members of a British cult are dressed in animal heads, among them are brutal murders and all kinds of nut jobs. Robin Hardy swings his camera among the ritualistic dances and hypnotizes with a strange cacophony of music and tribal sounds. It’s a movie-pioneer among the occult horrors movies, as well as one that has defined all of the films that came after it.
It’s rad, so beware.