Summer is drawing to an end, so obviously it's time to start contemplating Halloween costumes and pumpkin carving. This is the perfect time of year to plan a horror movie marathon to celebrate the spookiest of holidays, but is fall the scariest season by default? Horror movies aren’t just for October 31; some of the best and most terrifying entries in cinema are set in the summer when the days are long and the nights are warm. Winter and spring also have a case to make for themselves. One represents the death of nature, while the other is steeped in rebirth and rituals.
The summer of ‘99 saw the release of two sleeper horror hits, with both The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense landing themselves in the Top 10 domestic grossing films of that year. In 2019, the March-released Us topped the horror box office (and is currently the fourth-highest horror earner of all-time). IT Chapter Two is just around the corner, and considering how wildly successful the first part was (landing at number seven in the Top 10 of 2017) it will likely rack up the dollars again. Debuting at the start of September definitely makes IT a transitional season contender. Of course, not every movie is set during one specific season; the first IT starts in October with Georgie’s rainy day Pennywise encounter, but the majority of the action takes place the following summer when The Losers' Club don’t have school to keep them occupied.
The following not-so-scientific study will look to the scary movies that have a strong connection to the season they are set in, whether it is part of the setting, narrative, or a specific holiday. Weather can also be a vital factor in both impacting the tone and as a plot device, which can elevate scare levels.
Here are the cases for and against which season is the scariest.
Halloween is the official designated day of scares, so it makes sense for horror to dominate this time of year, both in release schedule and the films that set a story in late October. The leaves are turning brown, the days are getting shorter, and a chill can be felt in the air — not only that, but the Boogeyman is probably keeping watch behind washing lines and hedgerows. In 1978, John Carpenter turned this night of costume revelry into the perfect cover for Michael Myers, given that no one will question someone wearing a mask on this day of dressing up. The recent reboot did a good job of not only utilizing this holiday but also gave a different spin on both fancy dress attire and Final Girl tropes.
That said, fall isn’t just for Halloween, and other scary movies have utilized this pumpkin-filled season without resorting to costume shenanigans. The trek into the woods to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch takes place during October 1994; the last date the three students were seen was just 10 days before Halloween. Woods can be creepy at any time of year if it is dark enough and unseen entities are messing with rocks and twigs.
So is it too obvious to crown the season of trick or treating and Michael Myers as the scariest right out of the gate? Halloween gives autumn an advantage because it is inherently creepy, but setting a movie during this celebration could be considered cliché. Like the vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is now a night to take off from doing something scary. But fall also marks a return to school (which can be terrifying all on its own) and the lead-up to Thanksgiving. The latter has escaped any major horror connotations, with only lesser-known titles such as Thankskilling and Eli Roth's fake trailer for Grindhouse getting in on the turkey action. Maybe fall isn't so scary after all?
Being trapped in a house because of a snowstorm is all well and good — if you have enough supplies to keep you warm and fed. The right company is vital in this kind of scenario too, because while the weather can keep people out, it can also trap you in. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining falls into the latter camp, which makes a good argument as to why spending time in a giant hotel with just your family and many ghosts is a bad idea. The seemingly endless freeze that prevents a rescue or even contacting the outside world is beyond any person’s control. Isolation of this kind is an ultimate worst-case scenario.
Weather isn’t the only factor that adds to the danger levels; the rotation of the planet around the sun also delivers the perfect scenario for a perilous and uncontrollable assault. The small town of Barrow, Alaska experiences a month-long period of darkness in 30 Days of Night, which is the perfect time for vampires to launch an attack. There is no escape and every resident of this town who has stayed behind is vulnerable.
Christmas is meant to be a joyful time of year, but Gremlins manages to turn this holiday into a briefly chilling exercise in tragedy. The biggest scare of this movie isn’t Stripe and his squad or mean old ladies, but a story of a Yuletide treat gone very wrong. There is nothing more disturbing than Kate's Santa Claus story.
Third time's a charm for Black Christmas that will see Blumhouse take on the 1974 sorority slasher. The 2006 version was uninspired playing into tired tropes, but this new version sees Sophia Takal serving as director and co-writer (alongside April Wolfe) and will hopefully breathe new life into this time of year. Starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes this looks more Happy Death Day than the original '70s outing.
The holiday season can be an ordeal for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t excuse the many cheesy and bad horrors set over this festive period. As with Halloween, there is a tendency to churn out uninspired slashers with Christmas as the backdrop. Nothing is scary about a snowman. Additionally, Valentine’s Day is enough of a nightmare without a half-hearted attempt to make it scary. We don’t need a recently desouled Angel stalking the streets.
The Case For and Against Spring
Christopher Lee has delivered a number of terrifying performances, but perhaps his most frightening is when he leads a merry band of Islanders in rituals that result in burning someone alive. The Wicker Man is set on the cusp of summer, celebrating May Day with the dancing, swordplay and a parade, and those outsiders who witness these acts are most likely going to end up regretting this particular vacation.
Spring break is also central to various horrors from The Evil Dead to Piranha 3D; where there are isolated trips to a cabin in the woods and drunken revelry, scares will follow. Piranha 3D leans hard into a lot of ridiculous tropes with one tongue placed firmly in cheek but it could easily be mistaken for another summer flick. The original version was, of course, capitalizing on the Jaws phenomenon.
The main issue with horror movies set in spring is they could easily be mistaken for one set in the summer. Sure, there are Easter examples but Critters 2: The Main Course doesn't necessarily achieve Gremlins or Halloween-levels of name (or quality) recognition. Does April Fool’s Day need a horror flick? That day is exhausting enough without a slasher competing against the brands that take to Twitter attempting to one-up each other.
As with The Wicker Man, Midsommar takes its floral crown and runs with it in a pagan-type ritual as the central conceit. The daylight horror of the Hårga Swedish setting is just as unnerving as the endless dark in 30 Days of Night. Psychedelic drugs, personal tragedy, and everyone in matching attire also add to the unsettling atmosphere.
There are a number of rules to remember if you want to survive the summer, including: don’t go in the water, avoid a summer camp with a dark past, don't cover up a hit and run, drive past a creepy looking house when on a road trip, be careful where you pitch your tent, and don't wander off alone while at a fair. There are so many cautionary tales that take place during the summer it is a wonder anyone wants to go to the beach ever again. Sunshine doesn’t mean bad things can’t or won’t happen.
The new season of American Horror Story is going all-in on the movies Friday the 13th spawned and while the trailer is straight out of the summer slasher playbook (including an overt nod to I Know What You Did Last Summer), it will likely subvert and skewer this overplayed sub-genre. As with spring break, bikini-clad bodies are offered up like lambs to slaughter in a lot of summertime scary movies. Promiscuity is punished and the only thing that is scary about this particular trope is how long it was the standard.
As with everything horror-related, it is all personal and subjective; one person’s terrifying can warrant a shrug from another viewer. If you fear nature or spending time outdoors, then summer with its camp stalking killers, sharks, and outdoor rituals is not for you. Winter takes the prize for most isolated, as a snowstorm will leave you trapped or an endless night will make you vulnerable to an attack. A lack of sunshine can be just as damaging as too much. It can be argued that spring is the least scary, as spring break slashers and pagan rituals somewhat mirror the following season. Fall has Halloween, so it has an in-built advantage on what makes it scary. However, there has to be a winner!
Thanks to the breadth and width of the horrors it delivers in both quality and quantity, the scariest season is summer! Perhaps it's fortunate that we're putting it in our rear view for another year.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.