Whether or not you enjoy a good scare, have you ever wondered what exactly makes horror movie novelists, screenwriters, and directors tick? Call them deranged, call them genius, but definitely call them college educated — which means that your favorite horror flick might just have been inspired by an eerie encounter these creep inducers had on campus.

Check out our top 20 list of horror novelists, screenwriters, and directors (including two dynamic duos) and the classics with which they found their fame and fortune. Then see where these masters of the macabre matriculated — maybe you’re heading there yourself, if you dare.


1. William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist. Arguably one of the scariest movies of all time—audience members would faint during screenings—The Exorcist had its start as a novel by William Peter Blatty. The Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC is the main locale of this tale of demonic possession, and Blatty happens to be a graduate of Georgetown University. Props to Blatty for heeding one of the most famous pieces of advice for writers—write what you know.

carpenter 2. John Carpenter, Halloween. Thanks to this graduate of both Western Kentucky University and University of Southern California film school, never has a lit jack-o-lantern been scarier than during the opening credits of the first Halloween installment. The movie, which made Jamie Lee Curtis a household name, was produced with a budget of just $320,000, hence the dearth of movie blood and the clever reuse of a spray-painted Captain Kirk mask to hide Michael Myers’ grim features. Genius.

craven 3. Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, Scream. Craven might be his name, but this horror genius is anything but timid when it comes to scaring the bejeezus out of viewers. It’s been said that Freddy Krueger is a mashup of a childhood bully and a creepy guy he once saw, but there MUST have been other people and events that spooked Craven during his time as a writing and psychology major at Wheaton College and later as a grad student at Johns Hopkins University.

benchley4. Peter Benchley, Jaws. This Harvard grad’s novel taught us that it’s always a good idea to have a bigger boat when it comes to doing battle with a blood-thirsty shark. Of course, it didn’t hurt Benchley’s writing career that his grandfather was Robert Benchley, the famous New Yorker writer and regular of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and critics that included Dorothy Parker.

depalma5. Brian DePalma, Carrie. This director is known for other film classics like Scarface and Carlito’s Way, but horror fans know him for bringing Stephen King’s Carrie to life on the silver screen. DePalma actually started off as a physics undergrad at Columbia University, but moved on to graduate work in theatre and film at Sarah Lawrence, where he won a writing fellowship. Smart move, DePalma.

harris6. Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs. Thanks to Thomas Harris, an English major from Baylor University, we forever link chianti, fava beans, and the heebie jeebies with his most famous fictional character, Hannibal Lecter. Sir Anthony Hopkins won the Academy Award in 1992 for his turn in the film adaptation as the cannibalistic Dr. Lecter, who had a soft spot for FBI cadet Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, who also took home an Oscar.

hitchcock7. Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window. The shower used to be a safe, happy place before this British filmmaker introduced the world to innkeeper Norman Bates and his devoted mother in Psycho. In the thrilling classic Rear Window, he taught us that people should really mind their own business, especially when they have murderous neighbors. After secondary school, Hitch enrolled in the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation and was a draftsman and designer after graduation before pursuing his illustrious film career. Film fans enjoy spotting Sir Alfred’s cameos in movies—he can be seen walking his own dogs in the beginning of The Birds.

hooper8. Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaws are creepy to begin with, but television sets took on their own brand of horror in Poltergeist, thanks to Tobe Hooper. This former college professor actually made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a cast culled from professors and students. Sure hope they got extra credit for that bloodfest!

king9. Stephen King, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, etc. Stephen King’s novels run the gamut from sheer terror in The Shining (“Heeeeere’s Johnny!”) to tear-jerking inspiration in The Green Mile. But this University of Maine alum’s initial claim to fame was his first published novel, Carrie, which told the horrifying tale of a telekinetic girl who exacted revenge on her tormentors. What many people don’t realize is that King happens to be a really funny guy (grab a copy of his On Writing memoir and see for yourself) as well as a huge Boston Red Sox Fan. Sorry, King. This baseball season must be a nightmare for you.

Levin10. Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives. The late great novelist—a graduate of NYU–brought the devil to New York City in Rosemary’s Baby and strangeness to the suburbs in The Stepford Wives, two of his most well-known works. Rosemary’s Baby enjoys additional notoriety, as the film version, starring a young Mia Farrow, was directed by the highly controversial Roman Polanski.

myrick11. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project. These filmmakers, who both graduated University of Central Florida in 1994, had most of us believing that three college students really did disappear into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. (They didn’t). Never have stick figures been so creepy and hand-held camera footage so nauseating as in The Blair Witch Project, one of the highest-grossing independent films ever. Nice job, boys.

Miller12. Victor Miller, Friday the 13th. If a certain day on the calendar has you freaked out, blame Victor Miller for creating the characters and events at Camp Crystal Lake that kicked off the Friday the 13th saga. In all fairness, however, Miller distanced himself from the bloody franchise, since he did not approve of Jason becoming the killer (fans will remember that it was Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s mom, who was the original stalker). Miller earned his BA in English from Yale and an MA in Theatre and Speech from Tulane. He eventually moved more towards the theatre world, becoming co-founder of the American Shakespeare Theatre’s Center for Theatre Techniques in Education.

Raimi13. Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead. Comic book fans love or loathe Sam Raimi for his direction of the Spider-Man blockbusters, but this English major from Michigan State really made his name with the 1981 gorefest The Evil Dead, in which we learned that zombies are willing to travel to secluded cabins in the woods to feast on humans. The Evil Dead is such a favorite of horror fans that Raimi was compelled to not only write sequels, but also create a remake of his own original, due out next year.

rice14. Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire. Give it up for the only female to make our list! Novelist Anne Rice showed some respect for the undead with the creation of her most famous character, Lestat (played by Tom Cruise in the film adaptation) as well as reminded readers that vampires are BAD. (Hear that, Twilight fans?) Rice earned her undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University and later earned her master’s in creative writing. Sadly, Rice’s young daughter died of leukemia, and some say that it was her grief that led her to write such haunting tales.

romero15. George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead. This master of horror might have witnessed his classmates pull a few too many all-nighters at Carnegie Mellon University to come up with his bloody classic, Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s work is too much for some viewers, but many directors adore this guy and pay homage to his films every chance they can get.

roth 16. Eli Roth, Cabin Fever, Hostel. While a wicked case of psoriasis in his early 20s was most likely the inspiration behind the gross display of a flesh-eating virus that is Cabin Fever, Eli Roth formally learned the art of filmmaking at New York University. (He graduated summa cum laude, so we’ll take that to mean he learned it well.) This dude likes blood and gore, as seen in Hostel and Hostel II, so it’s only right that he landed in the “Splat Pack” of Hollywood’s horror elite.

Spielberg17. Steven Spielberg, Jaws, Jurassic Park. Yes, Steven Spielberg is known for non-horror masterpieces like E.T. and the Indiana Jones movies, but don’t forget that he made us afraid to go into the water and led us to believe that extinct creatures could be a credible threat. Believe it or not, USC film school turned down this film titan TWICE, so he opted for California State University Long Beach. Bonus trivia: Spielberg is a not-so-proud brother of Theta Chi fraternity, which hazed him so terribly that he is said to include some kind of reference to the brotherhood’s crest and secret ritual in each of his movies as sweet revenge.

shyamalan18. M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense, Signs. You won’t be hiding your eyes from gore in any of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies, but chills still prevail. “I see dead people” will go down as one of the most famous movie lines in history, thanks to this NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad. Shyamalan was born in India but raised in a tony suburb of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania often figures prominently in his movies. Like one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Shyamalan writes himself into his scripts, though unlike Hitch, Shyamalan has considerably more than a walk-on part in movies such as Signs and Lady in the Water.

Wan19. James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Saw I—VI. The Land Down Under has exported a fair share of movie talent over the years, the latest crop of which contains the brains that launched the Saw franchise, James Wann and Leigh Whannell. These two buddies met at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and the rest is box office history. To say that the Saw movies are graphic is the understatement of the century—there’s a reason that this duo is among “The Splat Pack.”

zombie20. Rob Zombie, House of 1,000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects, Halloween (remake). With a name like Rob Zombie, you know you’re not in for the feel-good comedy of the year. Zombie spent some time at the Pratt Institute before he launched his music career. The former frontman of the metal band White Zombie made his foray into film with the well-received House of 1,000 Corpses. These days, Zombie is into remaking classic horror films like Carpenter’s Halloween and putting his own bloody spin on them, which has earned him both praise and criticism from horror fans. Despite earning his place in Hollywood’s “Splat Pack,” Zombie claims that his favorite horror films are the virtually bloodless creations of the 1930s and 1940s.

~Barbara Bellesi

99 responses to “Horror Movie Masters: 20 Who Got Their Start In College”

  1. beenthere says:

    Spielberg was hazed during the joining process at the chapter. However, the references in some–not all–of his movies have thus far been of public knowledge. Those include the address of the national headquarters when Spielberg was joining the chapter. The “crest”, as you put it, is actually the upper portion of the coat of arms and there is nothing secret about any aspect of the coat of arms. Spielberg has consistently declined invitations to appear at events or to engage in correspondence with representatives of the fraternity, and those who know him have said that the hazing is the primary reason for that distance.

  2. Na says:

    College is useless in this day & age.

  3. And don’t forget the man who helped influence them all…

    Roger Corman!

    Engineering at Standford University

    His horror debut was “The Beast with a Million Eyes.” It doesn’t have quite the punch of the 20 listed here.

  4. Wheresthesources says:

    I have seen on 2 different websites about Spielberg’s hazing while being in college but no sources what so ever? I’m not saying it didn’t happen because it was well known that fraternities hazed sometimes extremely, but I’ve only seen 2 people say this happened and they both are the same word for word? So it sounds more like BS that one made up and the other one copied. In his biography written by Joseph McBride, Spielberg does talk about how his fraternity helped him make his movies and he relied on them a lot throughout his college career. Once again, I’m not trying to say this isn’t true, but I do want sources because I find it interesting, and I’m bored!

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