It is common for short horror films to be scarier than features. Why? There’s limited time to explain what is going on. The audience is simply dropped into a scene and asked to be intelligent enough to keep up. Rarely is the story explained and shorts often end immediately after the film’s climax. There’s no time to decompress and be spoon-fed answers as our hero/heroine recovers in the hospital, we have to do that work on our own.
Short films are also super important to the horror genre because they give a platform to directors who don’t have access to the hundreds of thousands (or more realistically, millions) of dollars it takes to make a movie. This means more women and people of color as well as people who grew up poor and without family connections have an opportunity to get their art made and seen by audiences. This might not seem like a big deal until you zoom out and realize almost all our storytelling is based on a wealthy, white male understanding of reality. In the 867-page overview Horror Film Directors 1931-1990, for instance, there is only one woman listed in the entire exhaustive tome. While there were more women directors during that time period (because minority populations face a two-pronged problem of both struggling to get in the door and then having their achievements erased once they do), this means that almost every horror movie we go to reinforces ideas about the way the world works based on the experience of wealthy white men. We need to marry this perspective with those from other groups of people so that we have a complete understanding of the quality of life in our communities.
Sometimes these stories are told through more commercial work like music videos or even literal ad campaigns when the artist can get away with it. In the horror genre the most famous example is the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video directed by John Landis. More recently, Teyana Taylor directed a horror themed video for Megan Thee Stallion titled “Hottieween”. For traditional short films, many directors have made their shorts available on YouTube for free. Some of them are only a few minutes long while others will fill up your lunch break. You can watch one at a time or host a film festival in your living room. Here are the best short horror movies that are currently free on YouTube:
A pair of teen lovers run away from home and steal a car. On the way to Florida, they stop on a rural road and the woman decides to take a swim in an isolated pond. When she surfaces, her boyfriend is nowhere to be seen but a strange man on the shore taunts her while she treads water.
The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie (2016)
Two preppy siblings prepare for a New Year’s party in 1985. While they await their friends, the “inner circle”, a masked intruder murders them. This is a fun, weird, bloody homage to 80s slasher films.
Little VVomen 2019
A comedic retelling of the classic Little Women story (and especially Greta Gerwig’s recent Academy Award nominated adaptation). Unbeknownst to Laurie, the little women in this adaptation are witches (or, VVitches as a nod to the Robert Eggers film). Beth still dies (probably) but the girls get to do more than worry about who they will marry!
My house walk-through (2016)
Directed by PiroPito, this is an excellent example of how you can build up to sheer terror in just 12-minutes. The premise here is that “this is not a horror video.” The unidentified narrator promises the audience that they just woke up and felt like filming a house tour, but as the walk through goes on, the house begins to feel like a labyrinth of horrors. You will never want to see a fusuma sliding door opened again.
Created with Adult Swim, Jack Stauber wrote and directed this 12-minute semi-animated surrealist psychological horror musical. The title character is a little girl who hears cries coming from the house across the street, which she is forbidden to enter. Without giving too much away, the short is currently the sixth highest rated horror film on Letterboxd with a rating of 4.3.
Directed by Coralie Fargeat, Reality+ is basically a 22-minute Black Mirror episode that answers the question “What if everyone could just buy a device that made them appear hot to others?” Fargeat went on to make the indie feminist rape-revenge thriller Revenge in 2017. She is now working on her first studio film: a body horror titled The Substance starring Demi Moore and Margaret Qualley.
Teaching Jake about the Camcorder, Jan ’97 (2021)
You may have to watch this 10-minute film more than once to understand what’s going on. Created by Brian David Gilbert and Karen Han, this short layers several recordings on top of each other in the style of old VHS camcorders. Each new recording seems to reveal something new about what the man on screen hopes to communicate to his son in the future. Another incredible short by Brian David Gilbert is the 6-minute “Earn $20K EVERY MONTH by being your own boss“.
If you liked Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), you’ll love Ciara Boniface’s 15-minute short about a black woman in small town Texas. Even though she moved to get away from her problems, everyone in our protagonist’s new town seems to belong to the same cult and they all treat her like crap. She thinks she is being stalked, and unfortunately the truth is much more horrifying. At 19 years old Ciara Boniface was given $100,000 to make this film after being handpicked by director Ava DuVernay in a contest held by Disney. She also won a car, a laptop and a trip to Los Angeles to meet DuVernay to discuss filmmaking. Boniface is now 23 and has now written and directed 16 films.
This House Has People in It (2016)
A stereotypical suburban family is preparing for a children’s birthday party when their teenage daughter begins to fall through the floor.
Directed by Timothée Hochet and Normal Tonnelier, this 10-minute film has no visual aspect and consists only of a series of phone calls spoken in French. If you’re an English only speaker like me, you can read the translation on the subtitles on YouTube. The series calls take place while “an event” is breaking out globally. If you find this scary and want to get into more audio horror stories, I recommend Jeff Clement on YouTube and the podcast movie Ghostwriter with Adam Scott and Kate Mara.
Possibly in Michigan (1983)
Possibly in Michigan celebrates another aspect of short films which is that they get to be weird and fun. Very few people have the patience to sit through a feature-length art film but you can be weird for 12-minutes and way more people will be into it. Artist Cecelia Condit‘s Possibly in Michigan is a well known horror short about two young women who are stalked by a cannibal in a shopping mall. The film’s weirdness is meant to convey trauma, which does not exist in the body or the mind in a narrative structure but according to trauma scholar Bessel van der Kolk, “as flashbacks that contain fragments of the experience, isolated images, sounds, and the body sensations that initially have no context other than fear and panic.” Christian Broadcasting Network show The 700 Club reviewed the film, saying that it was “gay, anti-family, and anti-men.” In recent years the short has gone viral on social media sites like Reddit and TikTok, prompting renewed popularity for Condit and her work.
If you enjoy Possibly in Michigan, Condit’s Beneath the Skin (1981) is also available on YouTube.
The Lost Films of Bloody Nora (2019)
Although director Sophia Di Martino calls this 10-minute short a horror comedy, it also feels like a family drama told with horror imagery. A lonely woman named Nora lives with her controlling father. One day the universe gives her a video camera and she is filled with joy and creativity, however her father doesn’t approve.
This 22-minute film has a lot of narration which is rare for a short film, but is helpful to understand the folk magic our protagonist performs in order to conjure her dream man (who, obviously turns into her nightmare man). Wake was screened at the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for several major awards. Writer and director Bree Newsome said she faced so much resistance in making this film that it led to her becoming an activist. In 2015 she was arrested for removing the confederate flag from the South Carolina State House 10 days after white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire at a church in Charleston, killing nine African Americans who were attending a Bible study.
A Love Story (2018)
A 3-minute film with no narrative at all, artist Petra Collins originally made this video with Selena Gomez for the IGTV platform. It’s beautiful and creepy and fun to experience something for pure visual pleasure. I wish it was a teaser trailer and we were getting a full-length feature of Selena joining the psychotic woman in horror cinematic universe some day.
Other short horror movies:
You’re Dead Hélène (2021) is currently streaming on Vimeo and follows a man whose ex-girlfriend is literally haunting him.