The 50 Scariest Moments in Horror
Because we'd like to feel scared without having to sit through 'The Exorcist' or 'Hereditary' again.
Images via YouTube.
I’ve experienced this moment countless times: It’s close to Halloween and being a “pop culture guy,” I’m asked for horror movie suggestions. Being the nice pop culture guy that I am, I’ll throw a few titles their way only to receive ungrateful, pointing fingers that say “that wasn’t scary.” But that’s the thing about “scary,” it’s entirely subjective. You’re sitting in a theater, watching a scary scene and you’re holding your breath, but meanwhile, the guy to your left is yawning his ass off.
Great horror has a way of sneaking into the darkest and deepest part of our psyches, but it’s dependent on individual traumas and dogmas. Some may not like the dark, others will be fearful of the unknown, and in the case of myself, it’s the unnaturally calm that gets me. In an effort to give my final stamp on suggestions, I’ve put together a long list of 50 moments from several films (in no particular order); some from horror, others from thrillers, all of which I think will satisfy even the toughest horror critic.
Zodiac, “I do the posters myself”
Actors: Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox
Director: David Fincher
Consider the elements here: This is a David Fincher flick about a true-to-life serial killer doing some serial killing shit (The Zodiac Killer), AND HE HASN’T BEEN CAUGHT. This is a very important distinction to take in as you head into this scene after a two-hour and 18 minute build up to where he potentially meets the murderer.
What’s so scary?
When our stubborn clue-finding cartoonist with a cause, Jake Gyllenhaal, comes face-to-face with the perfectly ordinary co-worker of his current suspect, there’s a perfect blend of framing, in that dark-and-stormy-night sort of fashion that let’s audiences know that Gyllenhaal is alone in this scenario. It’s later when his potential killer reveals with a line, “I do the posters myself,” before inviting him down to a dark basement. Every viewer is thinking the same thing at this moment: Get the fuck out!
Jaws, Quint monologue
Actors: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary
Director: Steven Spielberg
You know the drill: A shark comes, slips a fin above some water, cue in the music—da dum, da dum da dum—insert scare. Jaws isn’t strictly terrifying. I mean sure, Steven Spielberg plotted a classic thriller starring a long great white; but it’s still just a shark. And some of us can still avoid water like our feelings. Enter this one scene with Robert Shaw as shark hunter Quint, who begins to tell the story of his physical scars. As he’s detailing an experience aboard the USS Indianapolis, a musical score begins to play still and eerie, with Quint informing Richard Dreyfuss's Matt Hooper and Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody about sharing an ocean with a group of hungry sharks of his past. He was the only survivor of the bunch.
In this one sequence, Robert Shaw is placing you in his shoes, providing every moody thing one needs to imagine why this shark in this single movie is something to be feared. It’s an emotional unease of a story that never lets up.
The Exorcist, Crucifix stabbing
Actors: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Linda Blair
Director: William Friedkin
A damn good scare plays on expectations. You’re not expecting some little white girl to be the embodiment of evil... normally. It’s the stupid horns on some red skin that feels more manageable. But here you are watching twelve-year-old Linda Blair in some pajamas, stabbing her private parts while cursing up a storm in front of her mother on some other kind white privileged shit. This girl who hasn’t even had the sex talk is defiled, and there’s no escapism from that.
Director William Friedkin is taking this ideal image of purity in a 70s context and exploiting our religious dogmas all at once—the idea that evil can infiltrate any soul and can cause the good and bad to do terrible and supernaturally fucked up things. If you grew up in any kind of religious household, you watched this horrifying perversion of what’s good and believed it to be real, and by example, assumed that anyone could be corrupted.
IT (2017), Sewer death.
Actors: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs
Director: Andy Muschietti
One has to forever give props to IT from 90s miniseries for suggesting that a child could be killed by a demonic clown on prime time television. But in 2017, this somehow feels all the more extra disturbing with what we know about child killers. As little, sweet Georgie encounters his killer clown in a sewer, every viewer understands the inevitable at this point, but we aren’t expecting a kid’s arm to be chomped off in brutal fashion like it just did.
Clowns are unsettling enough, we've written articles about this shit before. But it’s the way which Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown curls his lips. It’s in the moment when he drools and goes still at the sound of Georgie’s laugh. Like any child predator, he knows how to play his victim and can hardly hide his hunger. The whole child screaming in pain without an arm thing is just the icing on the fucked up cake.
The Shining, Old lady in the bathtub
Actors: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Director: Stanley Kubrick
A lot of people were into the blood rushing from the elevator scene, but it’s all about the subversion of expectations again in a movie about a haunted hotel and the man whose goes steadily insane because of it. It should come as no surprise to see an old naked lady of all things, right?
When Jack Nicholson ignores the warnings of Room 237, it’s still a shock to see this non-hauntingly beautiful woman walk naked out of a bathtub. It's understandably exciting in the most hormonal way here. But when an angel changes and we see an old, foul, and halfway rotting body with loud cackles, it felt like taking the coldest of showers.
Rosemary’s Baby, Ritual
Actors: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
Director: Roman Polanski
Satan is a concept that few would’ve mocked in the 60s. So the literal idea of Satan being birthed by a human woman is still absolutely disturbing.
Pregnancy is difficult on its own, but Rosemary’s Baby merges that with a sexualized violence happening in a several minute stretch that's absolutely disturbing. We know something is off with Rosemary and her neighbors, but we can't help her. There are frights that hit us in a moment and lose their impact, but then there’s this. A setting of the unsettling that never sits right.
Actors: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth
Director: Rob Reiner
“You’ve been out of your room.” It's this quote from an obsessed fan in Annie Wilkes played by Kathy Bates that hits hard. Just before this moment, Paul Sheldon, played by James Caan, is at the mercy of a crazed devotee of his work following a car accident. Things escalate when questioned about an attempted escape and we witness the punishment of a lifetime.
As Annie nurses Paul back to health, director Rob Reiner presents several shades of a nutty behavior—from easily offended, to enraged, to patiently calm. When Paul momentarily finds his way out of a room he’s been relegated to for some time, she paces around his bed, calmly telling him a story about medieval punishments—foreshadowing the obvious fucked-up-ness that happens next. She’s at her most calm and most mad as she breaks his ankles with sweet concern.
The Thing, Chest defibrillation
Actors: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Director: John Carpenter
There’s something about body deformation that’s unnerving. We spend every damn year of our lives looking at the human form with a certain order; two hands, a head, and two legs... cool. But then a movie called The Thing enters the fray, with its uncanny valley of practical effects, and viewer eyes struggle to piece it all together. I shouldn’t have to delve into this plot (seriously, what are you waiting for?), but it involves an alien life form that invades bodies while pretending to be said body. In scene, an autopsy is performed on a suspected host before it breaks into a gory spectacle, one gut-busting transformation after another.
The scene itself starts out calm. Just a regular ol’ autopsy that jumps from zero to 100 the moment a chest cavity alters into a mouth, and then alters into a fucking spider creature thing. The images mess with the state of what’s normal and gnaws on our denial of how fragile our own human bodies can be in the most disgusting way.
Se7en, “What’s in the box?”
Actors: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: David Fincher
Over the stretch of this two-hour and seven minute thriller, audiences are given a deep invitation into the detective work of both Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), as they follow a serial killer framing his murders around the seven deadly sins. In the end, killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) claims to deliver his final sin (Wrath) by letting our guy Mills know—handcuffed with a gun pointed at his head—that his wife is probably dead, and probably in a certain, freshly delivered box that just arrived in their vicinity.
It’s the white-in-the-face reaction of Morgan Freeman—whose presented as a detective who is steady and reserved—that does it. We aren’t given the graphic details of what’s in the box, but we're setup to view a character played by Gwyneth Paltrow as the purest soul in this movie. When she potentially becomes the most victimized, in a fashion that can fit in a tiny box, we’re all asking the same question, “what’s in the box?”
Psycho, Killer smile
Actors: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Some of us are trusting people. So at the instant when this assumed-to-be-innocent man in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is revealed to be a serial killer—handsome, charismatic, and lovable—you wonder why he did it and it’s his smile at the end that says it all.
It’s that dead motherly voice over in his head, chronicling a crime, with that slow zoom on Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates that feels the most wrong. The whole shot feels isolating with an insane smile that creeps into view. The same sinister smirk that you may spot on the most normal of persons, without giving it a second thought as to whether or not they’re slightly off.
Watership Down, Bunny massacre
Actors: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson
Director: Martin Rosen
If you’re the target audience of this animation (kids into cartoons), you're into cute things: bunnies, dogs, all that positive shit. But then you find yourself watching an animated dog rip cute bunnies into shreds while rabies-infected rabbits go toe to toe.
This scene has the misery and gloom of an Darren Aronofsky film, and somehow it manages a G rating. It takes the basic laws of nature, make it cute, and brings it all down to a humanistic and realistic level. Mass murder never looked so furry.
Trainspotting, Ceiling Baby
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd
Director: Danny Boyle
For a movie directed by Danny Boyle about drug addiction, you’re supposed to expect a certain level of self-destruction. But when Allison (Susan Vidler) is screaming and we're witnessing a dead baby in a crib, it hits in an nearly expected way. So fast forward with audiences watching a nightmare sequence involving Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, where the same baby is alive but so obviously dead.
It’s the feeling of unease. You’ve got a baby that’s deformed and bloated crawling on the ceiling of an inescapable room. Then you've got an exorcist-like head spin viewed from a first person perspective, all set to a pulsating techno beat. It’s a shot that holds on for way too long and moves on far too slowly for anyone to feel comfortable with what they’re seeing.
Actors: Megumi Okina, Misaki Itô, Misa Uehara
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Takashi Shimizu understood that subtle presentation shit that’s often the best kind of suspense. In this case, we have a plot about a vengeful spirit that enjoys the marking and pursuit of anyone dumb enough to enter their place of residence. It's a movie that started every single long-black-haired female ghost that wailed loudly while filtering around like a humanoid trope. And it's this stairway scene that set the standard.
It's that crackling sound that every person knows how to make: you hold your breath and breathe out; that nails-to-chalkboard effect that gets under the skin, becoming louder with each creep of a woman’s movements. There’s already something very unnatural about a person crawling on all fours down a pair of steps without blinking an eye. But this creature in its agony wants to hurt and touch this actress all in the same breath.
Alien, Tunnel hug
Actors: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright
Director: Ridley Scott
OK, yes, we all know what’s coming in this scene. But when Tom Skerritt is in that tunnel shitting his pants, as an alien tracker ticks faster and faster—indicating that something is coming closer—it’s still hard to be prepared for the exact moment when an alien comes into view for a deadly hug, causing viewers to also shit their pants.
It’s the play on the environment. For one, it’s dark and pitch-black, exploiting the fears over darkness and claustrophobia. All of that is kicked up a notch with Veronica Cartwright’s frantic performance as Lambert, screaming at our man to get the fuck out of there. And then comes the trick: He shines a light in our direction, blinding the view of the actual danger. And without a hint of a camera shift, we see the alien go in for the hug; cue in the zoomed shot that puts that ugly mug right to our faces.
The Ring, Cursed video
Actors: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox
Director: Gore Verbinski
It’s all about the tape itself. Sure, it’s a PG-13 American adaptation of a much better film, but there’s something about knowing that a fictional piece of VHS footage is cursed—even if fake—and as a viewer, being made to watch the damn thing from start to finish.
It’s the fact that this sequence is playing out on the full screen. You’ve seen characters die as a result of watching this video, but here it is, like a bad dream—video static, an image of a lone chair, someone’s intestines coming from their throat, a solar eclipse with maggots among other effigies. It’s the paranoia that after you watch this sequence, these filmmakers will do something bad, and perhaps something bad will happen to you if you believe it enough.
Memories of Murder, Long stare
Actors: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Jae-ho Song
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Maybe I’m biased as this is one of my favorite movies of all time. But consider this as a biopic around the South Korean Hwaseong murders—one of the first serial killers recorded in their country. It centers around several detectives who spend two hours and 11 minutes seeking out a killer who they may or may not have come in close contact with.
It’s what happens decades later in the context of this movie. Our main detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) returns to the scene of one of the crimes, now retired with a family but still haunted by something unresolved. As he's inspecting, a girl comes up to him and references a man who did something similar in that same spot. He asks what he looked like and she answers, “kind of plain... just ordinary.” It takes an investment in this movie to feel those haunting words; that the several ordinary looking people you assumed to be no one was a serial murderer. Park Doo-man’s deadpan stare into the camera says it all.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hammer death
Actors: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, William Vail, Paul A. Partain
Director: Tobe Hooper
Believe it or not, there's no sex or blood in this 1974 joint about some teenagers getting lost in the countryside. Just a tension developed by being at the mercy of an inbred family on some Texas backwater murdering shit. It begins with first victim William Vail who hears faint squealing noises coming from within an abandoned house. Like a regular dumbass white dude, he goes in to investigate and meets his fate.
It’s the sound design and framing. The first half takes place from a distance, so in a way, there’s some comfort here, but at the very last minute our guy seems to trip into danger moments before a man in butcher’s clothing appears, immediately knocking Kirk with a hammer causing him to twitch violently on the floor. There’s no suspenseful music here to remind you that this is a movie. It just happens; a metal door shuts, leaving us to imagine what this “butcher” will do to poor old Kirk.
Enemy, House spider
Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon
Director: Denis Villeneuve
The story goes like this: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a glum history professor who discovers that there is someone out there who looks exactly like him right down to the hair follicles and, as far as he knows, he has no twin. In saying that, the following scene involving a giant spider has little to do with the overall mood of this movie, as this story isn’t so much about horror as it is about the psychological.
It’s a giant fucking spider in a mystery thriller. Just imagine watching this flick about a guy searching for his doppelgänger, sure that’s weird. But without warning, or any indication that this is all a dream, Jake calls out to a loved one and around the corner and there sits a giant twitchy spider on the wall before him. It captures one of our greatest phobias in non horror movie, and manages to keep our guards down in time for the scare. In this single sequence, we never see it coming.
The Sixth Sense, Kitchen
Actors: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
There’s a scene when tiny “I see ghosts” Cole is hiding in a tent as if that shit could save his little behind, but the issue comes in his need to take a piss. So he musters the guts (he’s too good to piss in a cup apparently) and waddles his way to the bathroom for a wee. Naturally, he returns to his tent with thermostat eerily lowered, and spots a woman screaming at him from the kitchen. He runs back to his tent in a fright.
Many of us carry anxieties about ghosts, but Hollywood often depicts them as the see through figures of our nightmares; the beings with “demon face” states of being. It’s unusual to see them at their most normal, popping up wherever they damn well please whenever they need a good vent. This scene works because it's tricking viewers into expecting something fantastical, but a mad woman as the payoff, just before blasting us with the real culprit, a vomiting child with the look of pain.
Pulse (2001), Ghost Walk
Actors: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
In this Kiyoshi Kurosawa horror movie about spirits invading lives our through the internet (sounds like Twitter), victim Ryosuke finds himself in an awkward position when he's facing a woman in a hallway; only it’s dark and he can’t spot her face. As she closes the distance, she appears to trip, but regains her balance in an unnatural, animalistic fashion because of course, she’s not human. Everything from her strut, to the heels that touch the ground feels like a horrific imitation.
This approaching Japanese woman appears as familiar as any woman, but the distinctions end there. It’s in her walk, the complete oddness of her gait. She isn’t demonic with a display of horns, she's normal, but abnormal in the most silent and deadly way.
Deliverance, “Squeal like a pig”
Actors: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Billy Redden
Director: John Boorman
There are moments that remain disturbing and horrifying, and then there are moments that require cold showers. White dudes with kitchen knives aren’t as scary for many in 2018. But southern white men pushing unwanted sodomy on grown ass adults? That’s a constant. I won’t go into details, but Ned Beatty is giving an amazing performance as one of four Atlanta businessmen on a canoe trip amidst the Georgia wilderness. They finally come across some men in the country, who end up not being so nice.
It happens just minutes into the encounter, when Beatty finds himself face down on the ground, with a nasty redneck smacking his behind and violating him. Like the audience, friend Jon Voight can only watch helplessly in a scene that arrives out of nowhere without a single musical assist. Viewers watch a man be reduced to a begging child. And it becomes the most rooted portrayal of stranger danger in cinema.
Silence of the Lambs, Night Vision
Actors: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Director: Jonathan Demme
Once Silence of the Lambs reaches its finale, with the FBI about to catch their serial killer and raid his house, FBI agent Clarice (Jodie Foster) does a follow up on an interview lead separately. We witness Buffalo Bill rushing to clean the stink of murder off of himself before hitting the door. At this exact moment, when you believe the FBI to have the right door, lone Clarice becomes the one who meets the killer face to face unbeknownst to her. What follows is a sequence in a dark cellar—the stalker eyeing his blind pray.
It's another case of a classic suspense scare. We already know something is coming, but what that something is remains an unknown. By now, audiences witnessed the tales of this man’s skin peeling murders through exposition. Leading up to the moment, through a clever crosscut between agents and the agent, we’re not expecting Clarice to meet her boss fight so soon. This is before the age of cell phones when backup could be a call away. So she's alone and we pray that she walks away unharmed.
Sleepaway Camp, “She’s a boy”
Stars: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields
Director: Robert Hiltzik
It has all the 80s horror/thriller beats: a summer camp, heat, hormones, and a faceless serial killer with a completely homophobic plot twist. It’s the ending itself that’s the biggest draw here. Don’t get me wrong, the film operates with a thick layer of corniness attached, but it doesn't skimp on the fright. At the very end, we find out that the killer is someone we assumed to be a future victim; a girl, but only she was never a girl but a boy caught in the act.
When everyone discovers that it was innocent Angela played by Felissa Rose who was the killer, it’s that frozen, wide-jawed face, and uncanny valley male frame that sells the fuckery. Even when watched it in all its 80s corniness today, this campy bit of an ending sticks with you, even when the movie leads you to believe that the real terror comes from Angela being a male all along, rather than a murderous killer.
Signs, News broadcast
Actors: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
In a movie that spends a great deal of time talking about aliens, hearing aliens, but never actually displaying an alien, it’s Merrill Hess played by Joaquin Phoenix who gets the first privilege. He’s watching a news broadcast in a closet about the crop circles that have been occurring around the world. Few people purport to have had first hand footage of an alien. But the real comes in a found footage styled broadcast, just before a crowd departs, and as clear as day, we spot our alien strut across a zoomed in screen.
Sure, this is technically a cheap jump scare, but as mentioned, there are a ton of smoke and mirrors littered across this movie. You also have to consider that this is a M. Night Shyamalan flick here; a man infamous for subverting our expectations through twists. If we’re to believe in the existence of an alien, there would have to be another explanation. So the suggestion that there was an actual extraterrestrial presence in this movie felt like the lie wrapped in a twist, hence the shock.
Jacob’s Ladder, Psych ward
Actors: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello
Director: Adrian Lyne
There are plenty of monsters in cars with freaks rocking shakey heads to go around in this Adrian Lyne psychological film about a Vietnam veteran. But it’s this moment when vet Jacob Singer is gurnied into a psych ward filled with naked middle-aged folks above caged ceilings with thick portions of human flesh scattered around that hits an uncomfortable peak.
In between moments of the normal and hellish, we’re made to know that Jacob experienced a bayonet wound to his stomach years prior. We aren’t given the outcome of this incident, but when the imagery begins to ramp up in this scene, displaying sights that defy human nature, one has to consider if Jacob boy has been dead all along—an answer you’re never fully given.
Requiem for a Dream, Shock therapy
Actors: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans
Director: Darren Aronofsky
While Aronofsky’s idea of drug abuse is slightly hyperbolic, there’s something undeniably fearful about drug abuse gone wrong. It has the ability to change people inside and out. And Requiem understands this with a stylized POV that displays the desperation of folks on the chase for their next high. Between Jennifer Connelly’s sex show scene and Jared Leto’s amputated arm, it’s Sara Goldfarb’s shock treatment moment by Ellen Burstyn that’s the most frightening and disturbing.
As we witness Ellen play the mother of a drug addicted son, we’re given a world in which everything is right before it goes wrong. It’s a slow transition from the naive woman using experimental diet pills, to her receiving the shock treatment meant to cure her of her inflicted dementia. She only wanted to feel young and fit into a red dress again. And she lost that weight but her mind as well. The loss of control is forever a terrifying concept.
Full Metal Jacket, Pvt. Leonard kills himself
Actors: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Stanley Kubrick
It’s the eyes. From the very start of this scene, viewers know that Pvt. Leonard has reached a breaking point. He’s presented as the most out-of-shape cadet during a Vietnam training exercise, and because of that, he’s the most picked on by General Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). In typical Stanley Kubrick fashion, the entire episode takes place in a bathroom: Pvt Leonard in his undies with a loaded rifle, and Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) attempting to talk him down. One thing leads to another, and we’ve got Hartman shot in the chest with Leonard’s own blood on some tiles behind him.
It felt heartbreakingly grounded. Audiences were watching a once pleasant cadet go completely mad. The whole environment is dark, cold, and silent as a camera rarely attempts to distract the audience from the large gun resting at Leonard’s back. You know what’s liable to happen, and combined with Vincent D’Onofrio’s natural ability to look creepy, it’s a scare from a pair of gunshots that lingers well after the movie ends.
Carrie, Hand from the grave
Actors: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving
Director: Brian De Palma
At the finale of a movie where audiences are sure that a quiet girl with telekinetic powers perished in a tragedy, audiences aren’t awaiting a comeback. She isn’t Jason or Freddy Krueger, she’s a human girl with the power to manipulate objects with her mind; she’s not indestructible. So when a mourning classmate Sue Snell visits Carrie’s defiled gravesite, no one's ready for the bloody hand that bursts out of the ground.
Audiences are lead to believe that they’re safe here. That they ought to feel sorry for Carrie who’s bullied into self-destruction for being different. Even the grave is an illusion of safety. We’re not prepped to sniff out the scare before the jump and it works super well.
Scream, “Do you like scary movies?”
Actors: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette
Director: Wes Craven
The gimmick of this film has often been the idea that both the stalked and the prey were fully aware of the kind of situation they were in—their own horror movie. But Scream doesn't begin this way. A phone rings and victim Drew Barrymore answers the phone just before packing it in for the night in front of a scary movie. When our mystery caller responds, going from pleasant to demanding in one murderous sequence; Words are exchanged and what audiences are left with a brutal stabbing.
You had to consider the time period. This was in 1996 and cellphones weren't a widespread thing. This meant 80 percent of the time, you have no idea who it is on the other line. The idea of a killer finding your number and taunting you over the phone is a very down-to-earth fear that many audiences already have since a “he’s in your house” phase of storytelling. This scene only contemporizes those fears.
A Quiet Place, The nail
Actors: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds
Director: John Krasinski
Here’s the setup: A world has been plagued by human-killing creatures that can locate victims only through sound. When silent, you’re safe, but with the slightest noise, it means instant death. When a family finds their modified farm of soundless walls and squeakless floorboards infiltrated, a pregnant mother played by Emily Blunt accidentally stomps her bare foot on a nail as a creature sniffs out her possible cry.
It’s relatable. As regular walking folk that use our feet to move around, we understand what a nail through the foot would feel like. Add in the idea that Emily is pregnant and vulnerable adding a pain that viewers can easily imagine happening to themselves in this moment. It shifts from the fantastical to the believable.
[Rec] (2007), Ending
Actors: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano
Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
It’s another found footage film, a genre everyone loves to hate. But this Spanish-based story around a reporter’s survival and investigation into an outbreak works best in this way. When Angela finally comes in contact with a demon possessed girl who is the cause of the outbreak, it’s shot with a night vision overlay, completely showcasing the elongated body of the girl turned creature.
It's the fact that the audience knows the outcome, and that it won't be a good one. We spot this disturbing looking thing, and the moment it catches the lens, things spiral out of control until the last bit Angela’s life is snatched into the unknown.
Pinocchio, Donkey transformation
Actors: Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
There’s a ton of disturbing qualities to this 1940s children’s film, but it’s really the donkey transformation sequence, featuring one of Pinocchio’s pleasure island pal’s, Lampwick that traumatizes. Every child tricked into watching this horror film wrapped in a Disney package walks away damaged for life.
Just imagine your best friend screaming in agony as his humanity is stripped from him. I know I’m being dark with this shit, but it’s exactly what happened. Lampwick slowly turns with his silhouette against a flickering being the most of what an audience sees. Arms turn to hooves, his back begins to arch as his nose adjusts into a snout. The last thing every kid hears is a crying voice that’s snuffed out.
Lights Out, Room
Actors: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
Director: David F. Sandberg
Let’s just begin with the notion of a monster that can’t attack when light is introduced. Granted, there was a better short film based on this idea, but the danger is mostly the same. In the opening scene when two midnight shift workers spot a figure in the dark, there’s a series of on and off light switches that play on this idea until our first victim performs this one too many times.
It’s the natural fear of the dark. Some of us fear darkness because it masks the unknown. And throughout this sequence, we can't see a face, just a figure as darkened as the objects we feared in any closet. The entire scene is one of tension with a complete danger through the unfamiliar. Will this thing attack? How will it attack? And why won’t they keep that damn light on.
Lost Highway, Mystery Man
Actors: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, John Roselius
Director: David Lynch
There’s always some allegorical boogeyman in a David Lynch film, but it’s the bizarre encounter that mixes the creepy and comedic that best showcases this footprint of Lynch. At a particular party, Fred Madison meets a man who claims to have met him before. He’s rocking a sinister smile as the background track fades. When asked where they met, our mystery man claims to have met him at his home and that he’s in fact there at that very moment. Fred entertains our crazed guy and stares in confusion as he hears the mystery man answer the phone from his residence.
No one enjoys the unexplained. Some will claim to, but there’s something deeply unsettling about a man with a permanent smile that claims to know everything about you without a name. It’s the reason we assign names, labels because there’s a comfort in the identifiable. This scene feels scary because David Lynch never gives us an opportunity to understand what's happening, and that alone is deeply unpleasant.
Exorcist III, Nurse
Actors: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif
Director: William Peter Blatty
You already know the drill, demon possession and all that jazz. By the third movie, the idea of demons heading into little girls is mostly played out by this scene. But the scare begins with a security worker located at the far end of a hallway saying his goodbyes. Nothing strange here. And of course the lone nurse moving between rooms is nothing to be suspicious of. The camera stays static the entire time giving the viewers the assurance that a fresh scene is about to kick in. A nurse crosses the hallway one last time until a ghostly figure springs out from behind her.
It’s the suddenness. Static cameras showing action at a distance aren’t exciting. It tricks the eyes into finding safety in a filler sequence; that moment when nothing happens apart from idle actions. So when a nurse walks away from a shot, followed by a figure aiming a weapon at her neck, the immediate transition to a headless statue tells us all that we need to know with a jolt. It respects our twisted imaginations enough to fill in the blanks.
The Blair Witch Project, The corner
Actors: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
The found footage film that arguably started it all. You had be there when The Blair Witch Project rocked a marketing campaign that convinced thousands that the events behind a movie involving filmmakers searching for a witch was true. But despite it all, it's the final shot of Michael standing in a corner, turned away from Heather that is haunting even today.
We’re never given the answers. Minute after minute we're witnessing bad things happening to this group. It begins psychologically and suggests something supernatural. There was always something disturbing about a loved one acting abnormal. Everything Heather associated with Michael facing a corner seems dead and artificial. And it’s only seconds before we hear the scream before silence. Everything else is left to our warped imaginations.
Eraserhead, Dinner scene
Actors: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph
Director: David Lynch
I’ve been writing about David Lynch throughout this joint, so by now everyone should know what he’s capable of. I don’t know how to describe Eraserhead in a way that makes sense. Just know that Henry has an angry girlfriend, and in this scene he has dinner with her parents. On one spectrum, you’ve got his girlfriend’s Dad grinning like a psychopath, and then there’s the chickens. A cooked chicken that begins to animate and omit a black ooze. Meanwhile, mother dear is moaning at the ceiling with her tongue out for reasons we don't know.
It’s the idea that as a viewer, you have no idea what the fuck is happening. David Lynch has a way of making you feel like you’re going insane. Nothing makes sense and the seemingly normal people who witness these acts operate like it’s the most normal sight in the world. The whole sequence is shot in black and white, and every disgusting element is shoved into the camera lens in a way that compels you to want to look away.
Actors: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff
Director: Ari Aster
For a movie that revolves around a family and a supernatural curse, it’s this one scene rooted in a natural tragedy that dished out the most horror. Just after younger sister Charlie realizes that she can no longer breath because of an allergic reaction, her older brother Peter shoves her in a car and speeds to a hospital. Just before spotting an animal on the road, Peter swerves, not noticing Charlie's head is out of his rear window gasping for air. When the swerve is made, we see the pole, Charlie’s surprise, and we hear the thump. All that’s left is Peter staring into a camera refusing to look to the back seat.
It’s the suddenness. You can read it on Peter’s face. He’s helpless and he wishes he could take it back—the fact that he just inadvertently decapitated his younger sister. It’s a relatable feeling everyone goes through just seconds before a life changing dread occurs; when you stay still enough in the hope that you can wish it away. When the camera stays zeroed in on Peter’s shell shocked eyes, it’s the most honest and palpable horror in this entire movie.
Get Out, The Sunken Place
Actors: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Director: Jordan Peele
For some viewers, the idea of an African American visiting the parents of his white girlfriend is scary enough. But as we move along, Jordan Peele presents audiences with a psychological scenario that plays on our most primal race-based fears. For most people, this family is an innocent party rather than the users of black bodies. When our man Chris Washington is hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother, things get real.
Particularly from a black perspective, the darkness Chris enters into plays at the fears black folks have of a society that once treated black bodies as cattle. Even when it isn’t physical, our willingness to become the slaves to a white doctrine can become psychological and self-inflicting. Even today, blackness is a commodity—from our humor to our culture. It's often used and abused.
The Babadook, Covers
Actors: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Director: Jennifer Kent
In this scene about a widowed mother dealing with the supernatural creepiness of a monster lurking in her house, it’s this sequence when Amelia hides under her covers and we hear the twisted voice tussling to get a word out. The figure appears above, twitching before entering her throat.
The sound. It starts with an ambiance that audiences understand isn’t human, but in knowing that we need to identify it to feel safe. Like Amelia, we can’t spot the Babadook, so we imagine horrifying teeth, demon eyes, until we get the unexpected white face with hollow eyes rushing a camera lens
Lord of the Rings, Demon face
Actors: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom
Director: Peter Jackson
It’s admitting cheap, but this is Lord of the Rings we're talking about here. Audiences aren't expecting sweet ol’ Bilbo the Hobbit going demon faced on them, but in needing a taste of Sam’s ring, Bilbo displays just how ugly a hobbit can become in the chase of his high.
In an instant, Bilbo’s face goes from pleasant to demonic. Pretty straightforward and you never see it coming.
Actors: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou
Director: Michael Haneke
In a story about a married couple who obtain a series of agonizing surveillance video tapes anonymously, we arrive to this moment: In the hunt to figure out who's sending his family twisted tapes, husband Georges interrogates a close friend named Majid who may be responsible. The exchange seems pleasant just before Majid slashes his own throat in front of a shocked Georges.
There’s something about surrender that’s deeply relatable. People unfortunately surrender every day, and we’re capable of it if given the right circumstances. In this scene, the surrender comes out of pocket. Audiences don’t expect it to occur but when it does, it’s a visual self-destruction without a single sound effect or quick shift of an camera angle; it’s just a suicide like every suicide that can occurs without meaning.
The Conjuring 2 - Valak Painting
Actors: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe
Director: James Wan
When paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine leave a self-imposed vacation to deal with a new haunt, Lorraine faces one of her most challenging assignments. The sequence sets up with Lorraine herself being lured into a dark room. She sees the illustration of a demonic nun that appears lifelike. It’s a slow-build up, with sounds lurking in every corner. It’s the creak in the floorboards, the scratching of a window, but when fingers finally appear from behind a frame, the attack comes in-your-face fast.
The anticipation combined with the confusion. It’s hard to tell what’s about to happen even though the cues are all there. So audiences are left feeling uncomfortable, prepared for the jump but not completely. A perfect blend.
It Follows, Tall Guy
Actors: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi
Director: David Robert Mitchell
It’s a thing that can take many forms, and it never stops chasing, however slow that it moves. As audiences watch this thing transition from a naked man on a roof to a squirming boy and an old lady in a hospital gown, it comes in completely unexpected when we see a 7’7” tall shape continue the chase. The giant flashes briefly across the screen, but the large slow frame combined with a doll-like stare completely sets us off guard.
The shock to what’s normal but still isn’t. There’s nothing crazy strange about a 7’7” human being, we got NBA players for that. But it’s the drastic change from normal frames that makes this sequence so damn surprising and unnerving.
The Others, “I am your daughter”
Actors: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Children can be creepy little things, and a movie that knows how to play into that feeling can genuinely scare. In one of the better jump scares, Nicole Kidman is investigating her daughter who seems to be playing under a mottled veil. When she asks the strange figure who she is, we see a withered old face rocking a familiar child-like voice, “I am your daughter!”
When you see a difference face but hear a familiar voice. Our voices are a form of identity, and in seeing a character change come at us so drastically is a sort of uneasy confusion that strengthens the scare of this sequence.
Dawn of the Dead (2004), Peace no more
Actors: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer
Director: Zack Snyder
Let’s be honest, it’s difficult as all hell to make the zombie scary again. But when Zack Snyder performed a career-launching remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, he made them fast, crazed, and young. In the opening scene, we see a gentle shot of a couple going from sleepy time to morning time. When the boyfriend notices their neighbors kid in their hallway, he inspects and spots the missing flesh on her jaw and goes in for the rescue. Audiences of course watch as everything go downward from there: The girl bites our hero guy, music amps up, guy turns to bite girl, and on and on it goes.
It’s the chaos in motion, within an eight-minute span, we find out just how quickly things can go wrong if zombies had a little more quickness (28 Days Later did it first). From the heart-beating music to the excellent use of wide shots and sound design that showcase kill after kill of diseased mania, it’s hard for audiences to get a moment to exhale.
Mulholland Drive, Diner scene
Actors: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Director: David Lynch
If I haven’t already mentioned that David Lynch is a twisted bastard, well, he is. To understand the creepiness of this scene is to accept the plot: After a wreck on Mulholland Drive, a woman is rendered as an amnesiac, and for the rest of the movie, she along with a Hollywood-hopeful look for answers between an LA that may be both dream and reality.
In knowing this, a conversation in a diner between two men works on two levels. It begins with what feels uncomfortable within that context; one man talking to another about a dream and nightmare while being hinted at being in a dream and a nightmare. The diner itself was in a dream, and as he describes it to this man, his face is frightened but hysterical. Once a man is described as the orchestrator of it all, we skip to a scene around a corner alleyway when audiences meet their stranger with a black face.
It’s the questions that enters your mind as you take in this sequence. You wonder if it’s really a dream, and if it is, how far is it willing to go to twist it into a nightmare. As a camera floats between faces, one clearly terrified and the other confused, audiences are ushered into the hints of an hallucination; a woman randomly laying down to sleep. The shots linger on the expressions of Patrick Fischer whose forehead veins pop with nervous sweat. And when he’s asked to confront the unknown figures of his dreams, the sudden face covered with dirt and grime comes at audiences fast. This scene took place just 15 minutes into a film that carried a drastically lighter tone, so it makes this whole sequence ridiculously effective.
Inland Empire, Phantom
Stars: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Theroux
Director: David Lynch
This is another instance of a David Lynch film where I won’t bother trying to explain the plot. Just know that the sequence is one of disorientation. In the final sequence of one of Lynch’s most experimental movies yet, Lauren Dern who plays an aspiring actress, is approached by a man referred to as “the phantom” in a hallway. For reasons that need a proper viewing, she shoots this man in the head only to see a distorted version of herself screaming from his face. It’s unsettling and completely abrupt in its strangeness.
It’s the crude copy-and-paste job of an image that gives impact to the scare. Lynch has a particular way of introducing eyes to images of the unfamiliar that make you feel uneasy about your reality. You try to comprehend this shot of a blown up face of Lauren Dern who later oozes blood, but your mind can’t itself wrap around it. Once again, you’re left with questions.
The Cell, Enter the King
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Tarsem Singh
The Cell asks that you imagine a Matrix-like interface that taps into the minds of patients. With that set, we’ve got Lopez who plays a therapist tasked with diving into head and twisted imaginations of a serial killer in order to discover clues as to the whereabouts of his latest victim.
It’s in the artistic influences of Damien Hirst and H.R. Giger who have affinities for displays of the outer worldly. You imagine a serial killer’s mind to be a dank and dark place, but there’s a pristine chaos to Carl Stargher mind as played by Vince Vaughn, and with each deeper level Lopez heads into, things get stranger and more unexpected. With a soundtrack that shares that same alien uneasiness, it’s that moment when Lopez lays eyes on the master of his world as he bellows demonically, “where do you come from!” that’s the most unsettling.
Pet Sematary, Every Scene with Zelda
Actors: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Director: Mary Lambert
You know the deal: Doctor Louis moves his family to a house near an old burial ground. Some bad things happen and his two year old son is run over by a nearby speeding truck several months later. Once Louis gets the idea that he can bring his son back through an ancient ritual, things pop off. What’s perhaps the most scariest moment in Pet Sematary comes in wife Rachel’s sister Zelda. It has nothing to do with an intentional scare because we know that she’s ill and deformed in the most non-PC 80s way, but it comes in the fact that she was played by a man (Andrew Hubatsek).
It’s the wild and crazed through performance in which Andrew Hubatsek plays Zelda. She’s unpredictable, to the point of spinning her head around when fed before choking herself to death. Than it’s Zelda in one sequence standing hunched before springing to the camera with a sinister smile on her face.
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This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
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