Animal horror movies, sometimes called creature features, or eco-horror movies, dive into a primordial fear we have of nature taking revenge against us for how we have changed it and adapted it to our needs. As humans, we are used to being at the top of the food chain; however, deep down we realize this is a fragile ecological dynamic and that all these creatures have great power that can horrify us and kill us.
Those small arachnids in our homes called spiders, the snakes outside our abodes, the birds in the sky, the bees buzzing by the flowers, perhaps even our own pets, whether it be a cat or dog — the dangers of even the most domesticated animal are real, and scary at least in these fictional films. Then are the animals we rarely interact with but can be fierce: monkeys, bears, sharks, wolves, bats — and yes, even sheep — to haunt you.
In this list, we’ll explore the scariest movies involving animals throughout cinematic history. Thanks to Jaws, the 70s were a particularly ripe time for this kind of movie. Let’s get into the natural horror movies.
Backstory: This is the godfather of all eco-horror movies and has been remade numerous times. A film producer visits a remote island that harbors a giant ape. He captures it and ships it to New York City, expecting riches and fame rather than horror and destruction. The scenes where the giant ape struggles with a brontosaurus and a T. Rex employed special effects that were far ahead of their time. The film was an immediate sensation.
Animal: Crows and seagulls…
Backstory: This classic Hitchcock thriller is a foundational creature feature or eco-horror film. Hitchcock spared no expense to make his avian masterpiece: An estimated $200,000 was spent on mechanical birds, while animal handler Ray Berwick captured and trained hundreds of crows, seagulls, ravens, and sparrows. Stripped from its environmental theme (the Daphne Du Maurier short story on which the film is based implied birds are acting this way due to climate change), all that’s left in The Birds is a tense, menacing atmosphere and unexplained attacks from flocks of irate birds that’ll give you a new perspective on the pigeons you see daily on your way to work.
Backstory: Based on the 1941 novel A Taste for Honey and featuring a screenplay by Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho, this film tells the story of a fatigued pop singer who visits an exotic island to recuperate, only to realize that the farm’s owner has cultivated a strain of aggressively deadly bees.
Animal: Frogs…but also birds, lizards, snakes, spiders, and even a butterfly…
Backstory: Pay no mind to the fact that, despite the film’s poster showing a human arm disappearing into a giant frog’s mouth, there are no killer frogs in this film. There are plenty of other killer animals to take up the slack, and they are apparently outraged that the Southern plantation’s wealthy owner (Ray Milland of Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder fame) has been over-using pesticides to kill wildlife.
Animal: Bunnies, or rabbits, or really big rabbits…
Backstory: The word “lepus” is a Latin word meaning “hare,” but the film’s producers decided that including the word “rabbits” in a film title simply wasn’t scary enough, even though they green-lit a movie plot involving killer habits who terrorize a remote area in the American West. It stars Janet Leigh of Psycho fame as a woman who is endlessly pestered by the killer bunnies.
Animal: Great white sharks…
Backstory: The thriller Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, took a big chunk of the box office and has since left its bite mark on pop culture. Surely sharks were not seen as friendly animals before; but after that on-screen beach bloodbath, they became evil creatures. The dread-inspiring monster does not appear for the first 81 minutes of the film, mostly because Spielberg judged the $250,000 mechanical sharks to be poorly made and unconvincing. But that unseen danger, lurking close by underwater, is what gave all the thrills to the movie and was a big part of its success. The movie’s impact went as far as reducing beach attendance the year of its release and allegedly produced a “Jaws effect” encouraging fishermen to slaughter sharks and undermining any effort to preserve endangered shark species.
Backstory: The fictional town of Fly Creek, GA, becomes Ground Zero for an infestation of flesh-eating worms after electricity from a power line during a storm zaps the soil and creates the mutant legions of annelids. Half of the thousands of worms used in filming were made of rubber; the other were giant sandworts flown in from Maine.
Animal: Bears, especially the grizzly bear…
Backstory: This movie is sometimes called Claws because it was made by director William Girdler right after the success of Jaws. Instead of scaring people away from the waters of Cape Cod, it made people extremely fearful of national parks, as the star of this scary animal film is an 18-foot grizzly bear that is over 2,000 pounds and terrorizes park rangers and campers. This one has become a cult favorite and also was an instant box-office success.
Animal: Man’s best friend, dogs…
Backstory: The 70s were a great time for animal attack movies, and Dogs is another campy classic. A group of rogue dogs decide to start killing college students at random, and a professor (David McCallum) has to figure out what’s driving them before they kill everyone in town.
Animal: Insects, specifically a fly.
Backstory: Sure, Jeff Goldblum is the star of this cult classic by David Cronenberg that was based on the original 1958 version starring Vincent Price. But an unexpected guest steals his thunder: a fly. While horror movies usually rely on scary animals with lots of teeth and claws (or at the very least who attack in large numbers as in The Birds), all the terrible events of The Fly happen because of one single, ordinary insect. After a fly has entered his teleportation pod while he was experimenting on himself, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle, an eccentric scientist, starts exhibiting weird side effects. A pinnacle of body horror, The Fly focus on the horrid transformation of his protagonist as the fly DNA alters his appearance. Actor performance, special effects, and makeup were praised by the audience and critics alike, as Jeff Goldblum had to wear full body suits for the final stages of his monstrous metamorphosis.
Animal: A dog, but an alien dog…
Backstory: This John Carpenter movie opens on an American Antarctic research station awakened by explosions. Outside, a Norwegian helicopter is relentlessly chasing a dog until their attacks backfire and get all the pursuers killed. The dog is put in the kennel, where it transforms into a terrifying three-headed creature that starts assimilating the other dogs. When the crew manages to kill it with fire, it’s too late: They realize the Thing has already infected one of them and taken their appearance. The 2011 prequel of the same name focus on the infected dog’s origins: In a Norwegian station, scientists dig up an alien corpse that seems to have died 100,000 years ago. But the creature is not so dead; it escapes the block of ice and start assimilating the Norwegian party. Behind the closed doors of the station surrounded by icy winds, bloodshed begins. A Norwegian helicopter pilot discovers the tragic scene in the morning. There seems to be only one survivor — Lars — and when he sees his deceased dog leaping out of the ruins, Lars freaks out and orders the pilot to follow and kill the infected creature, leading directly to the opening scene of Carpenter’s original version. The alien Alaskan Malamute is therefore the link between the 1982 movie and its prequel, which came out nearly 30 years later.
Animal: Arachnids, ticks…
Backstory: In some ways ticks are the scariest animal out there. Unlike a bear or a snake, a tick’s viciousness lies in how small (almost invisible) they are, paired with the fact that they can easily paralyze you and ruin your life. Yet in this goony 90s bug movie, we see ticks take on a nasty, slimy, and gigantic form as they terrorize a bunch of troubled teenagers in the California wilderness.
Animal: Crocodylus, that is a crocodile…from Maine…
Backstory: A 30-foot saltwater crocodile is somehow able to survive in the fresh water of Black Lake, Maine. It terrorizes local residents, who form a posse to track and subdue the prehistoric beast.
Animal: Spiders, really really big spiders.
When it comes to spiders in horror movies, the choices are almost endless. We could have talked about Tarantula!, a 1955 black-and-white movie that paved the way to so many other flicks, or focus on Arachnophobia (1990), which gave a comedy twist to the genre. The fear of spiders has always been common, and movies using this element are legion. Eight Legged Freaks owes a lot to Arachnophobia, as it’s also part of the horror comedy genre. The plot is oh-so-simple: Spiders get exposed to toxic chemicals, turn into giant monsters, and attack a small Arizona town. Eight Legged Freaks is far from being a masterpiece: Special effects of uneven quality, a simplistic script, and a second half with less interest than the first weigh it down. But the whole thing is a touching, entertaining tribute to B-movies, those low-budget commercial films typical of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The icing on the cake: 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson plays Ashley, the moody teenager.
Animal: Sheep, mutant lambs…
Backstory: Another underrated comedy horror is New Zealander movie Black Sheep. The protagonist, Henry, comes back to his childhood farm to sell his part of the land to his brother Angus. We soon discover that Angus is conducting secret, unorthodox experiments on sheep, and a bite from them can transform a man into an aggressive half-sheep creature. Two environmentalists accidentally set a mutant lamb loose, and the contamination begins. This delirious B-movie is full of unhinged violence and fun, fresh ideas. Turning peaceful cattle into rabid monsters is both silly and frightening, and Black Sheep playfully alternates comedy and gory scenes. And after watching the ambiguous happy ending with a bleating dog in the background, one can assume that The Thing (1982, 2011) is among the many cinematographic references in Black Sheep.
Backstory: This folk horror movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy takes the term “scapegoat” to a whole new level. In 17th-century New England, a Puritan family is banished from their community and settles near a dark forest. While Thomasin, the oldest daughter, is playing peek-a-boo with baby Samuel near the edge of the trees, the infant goes missing, kidnapped and killed by a witch in the woods. Devastated, the parents search for answers in their faith. But tragic and frightening events keep occurring (the mother has terrifying visions, the twins seems to be having conversations with Black Phillip, the family’s black goat…), and they soon began to suspect Thomasin for their woes. All the suspicion tears the family apart, leaving it vulnerable to evil forces, and soon everybody’s dead except for Thomasin. That’s when Black Phillip reveals itself as Satan and enrolls Thomasin — who, by now, has nothing to lose and could use a little rest — in a coven of witches. The strong artistic statement of The VVitch is all about authenticity. It’s embedded in the whole movie: Only natural and candle lights were used, filming took place in a very rural area, and the costumes were carefully made with raw materials such as linen and wool. Embodying the Devil as a goat is as old as the hills and allows The VVitch to return to the demonic horror genre’s biblical roots.
Backstory: While shark horror movies are a dime a dozen, The Shallows is one of the better new takes on the subgenre. A surfer (Blake Lively) who is stranded on a rock a mere 200 yards from shore must use her strength, will, and wits to survive being bitten by a great white shark. A seagull named Steven Seagull features prominently in the plot. Blake Lively was pregnant during the filming and later revealed she has a morbid dread of sharks that prevented her from ever watching Jaws.
Animal: Cat, zombie cat…
Backstory: After moving to a small town, the Creed family — Louis, Rachel, and their two children Ellie and Gage — are just starting to adapt to their new neighborhood. But a terrible chain of events is set in motion when Church, the family cat, is killed by a truck on Halloween night. A sympathizing neighbor takes Louis to an ancient burial ground that supposedly brings back the dead. The next morning, Louis witnesses a Halloween miracle: Church is back! Except he’s…quite different. Sporting a shaggy, dirty coat and a sinister look, he exhibits aggressive and sadistic behavior. A few weeks later, on her 9th birthday, Ellie gets hit by a truck and dies on the spot. In the 1989 version as well as in the original Stephen King book, it’s two-year-old Gage that meets his untimely death. But for the 2019 version, scriptwriter Greenberg thought a “more fully formed child” would be “a more credible threat” than a zombie toddler, a change that Stephen King approved. After the death of his daughter, Louis is devastated and goes against the warnings of his neighbor: He buries Ellie’s corpse in the “Sematary.” The little girl comes back, you guessed it, in bad shape and a terrible mood‚ and all hell breaks loose. The Stephen King adaptation has its ups and downs, but Church’s performance (mostly played by a Maine Coon named Leo, who sadly died less than two months after the movie was released), is definitely worthy of a Pet Oscar.
Even more animal horror movies!
- Island of Lost Souls (1932) the first film version of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, where nature fights back.
- The Devil Bat (1940) some early cinema from the 1940s about a possessed and evil bat.
- Them! (1954) possibly the first of endless “nuclear monster” movies from the 1950s, this deals with an attack by giant irradiated ants in the New Mexico desert.
- The Naked Jungle (1954) looking for a horror movie about an army of ants? You just found it.
- Bride of the Monster (1956) in one of Bela Lugosi’s final film appearances, a giant octopus terrorizes all of Lugosi’s enemies.
- Beginning of the End (1957) this is one of director Bert I. Gordon’s (his initials spell “B.I.G.”) numerous forays into the “nuclear monster” genre during the 1950s. In this one, giant grasshoppers terrorize Chicago.
- The Day of the Triffids (1962) an army of tall, intelligent, walking plants — that’s right, plants — stings people to death and feasts on their corpses.
- Willard (1971) a lonely young man befriends a group of rats and lets them breed to the point where they become a vicious army who wreak vengeance against all his bullies.
- Orca (1977) made almost entirely to capitalize on the massive success of Jaws, this features a hunter who battles a killer whale who seeks revenge against the murder of his mate.
- Piranha (1977) another killer-fish film made in the wake of Jaws, this features a pack of bloodthirsty piranhas who have been engineered by the military and are accidentally unleashed on the public.
- Long Weekend (1979) an Australian horror movie about a disrespectful couple that goes camping, and given their bad behavior, all sorts of animals fight back. You can stream this one for free on Amazon Prime.
- Swamp Thing (1982) deep in the Florida Everglades, a scientist makes a horrific error that makes him into a creature that is half-swamp/half-human. Perhaps not technically an animal horror movie, but certainly a creature feature, and humans are scary animals as well.
- Cujo (1983) perhaps one of the more famous animal horror movies about a diseased dog from the master of horror himself, Stephen King.
- Arachnophobia (1990) a spider horror movie where a “web of chaos” ensues.
- Wolf (1994) wolves are pretty scary, but in this rom-com horror film Jack Nicholson plays a werewolf and things get weird.
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) scientist creates a strange man-animal hybrid in this mid-90s film.
- Mimic (1997) a group of genetically engineered subterranean super-cockroaches has the ability to mimic their human prey.
- Anaconda (1997) big-snake-is-going-to-mess-you-up movie from the late 90s.
- Bats (1999) maybe you could call this B-film, which is about a Texas town being invaded by bats, a campy classic.
- Snakes on a Plane (2006) enough is enough! Samuel Jackson has had it with all these snakes on the plane, and that is what this monster-comedy is all about.
- Prey (2007) is a mindless Hollywood flick about the violent power of big cats; lions are on the attack in South Africa in this one.
- Moby Dick (2010) Ethan Hawke stars in this classic retelling of Herman Melville’s whale-hunting tale. There is also another theatrical version of this from 1956 starring Gregory Peck.
- Contagion (2011) while seemingly a virus movie, this one is also at the heart really is about nature and the havoc one animal can wreak on society.
- The Meg (2018) a ludicrous, though amusing, shark movie, somewhat based on the 1997 book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.