The 25 Scariest Movie Scenes of All Time (a Viewer's List)
My husband and I share a love for horror movies, which -to our delight- has passed on to our children. When Halloween time is approaching we will often rent some of our favorites to enjoy over the weekends. But before we commence into tradition this year I thought this might be the perfect time to make a list of my very favorite spooky scenes from the horrors enjoyed over the years.
The scenes making my list don't all come from my favorite films, nor are the films they come from all particularly great cinematic productions. Nevertheless, I love these scenes for the sheer terror they have given.
25. The Grudge - the ghost boy tries to give a warning
Little kids can be spooky as heck. The scare factor this little guy had going for him was that he could appear perfectly human one moment and in the next transform into the creepiest and yet most pitiful of ghosts. He left you rattled, he left you consumed with anger over the circumstances behind his death, he left you hoping to never see his sunken-eyed cherubic face again. A dark plot and plenty of thrills with The Grudge!
24. An American Haunting - the meetings between the girls
The only thing worse than living in a new turn-of-the-century home that looks and feels like it's next on the city's condemned list is not having anyone to talk to about the the nasty bumps and bruises incurred while being drawn down your new home's crickety stairs by unseen forces. Thankfully the paranormally-tortured teen girl in this film had a BFF; a faceless BFF, yeah, but beggars can't be choosers. Nonetheless, the fact we couldn't see the little kid's face bolstered the suspense and unease. And even as I staunchly disagree with the underlying propaganda of An American Haunting -that men are basically all sexually abusive dogs- the director did provide some genuine and hard to forget shivers.
23. Rosemary's Baby - Rosemary sees her baby's face
The worst aspect of being knocked up by Satan is not knowing what physical traits the baby is going to inherit - your bony features or Papa's eyes. Luckily for Rosemary she found out in time to get the little devil to a good plastic surgeon. He fixed the kid right up and saved him from a lifetime of social embarrassment. As for the kid's ocular problem the surgeon simply recommended wearing dark glasses.
Seriously, this film had suspense and chic gothic atmosphere coming out the yin-yang, and to Roman Polanski's credit he pulled it off brilliantly. This particular scene is the climax, and even after all these years it still provides creeps.
22. The Exorcist - Regan's head turns around
Like I said earlier kids in horror flicks can be scary. Take Regan here for example. If it had been her Mom's head getting an inhuman spin the audience may have winced. But since it was a child the demon decided to torture with inhuman contortionist abilities, somehow this scene just grabs our psyche and won't ever let go.
21. Dead Birds - the kid under the bed
Oops, another kid. Now I liked the premise of this movie, but the script brimmed with inconsistencies and the characters met disaster mainly because of their stupidity. At least the premise was almost saved by a cool ending and the mysterious kid in the house. And this one jaw-dropping scene was definitely not expected, which made for a nicely done startle amidst the flaws.
20. Nosferatu - Nosferatu in the doorway
Some readers may remember that the star of this film, Max Schreck, made my list of Best Owned film performances in an earlier hub. Playing Count Orlov in this 1919 Dracula-by-another-name film, Schreck's performance was so extraordinary as to stand as the exemplar of silent screen gothic terror.
This particular scene -where Orlov/Dracula first appears in his castle- is pure genius. The stark make-up and wardrobe and glints of unearthly lighting provided a dismal atmosphere to be sure. But it was Schreck's accompanying knack for conveying otherwordly gestures and facial contortions -all without the help of audio- that made this moment electrifying for audiences way back when. Schreck's vampire was the personification of the undead of legend -gaunt, hungry nocturnal predator and wandering lost soul- much more than any other vampire portrayal to follow. It was chilling then and it still is.
19. Paranormal Activity - Katie gets pulled off the bed and dragged down the hall
For the most part Paranormal Activity was basically just a poorly accomplished rip-off of everything that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project. The exception was this one scene. Now I don't know how they did it but it was perfect -completely unexpected and psychologically terrifying. This single scene is the exception that makes the rule for the rest of the sorry film; and yet that it was so well-done it does make the whole thing worth watching at least once.
18. The Exorcism of Emily Rose - one unhappy camper of an unclean spirit!
Watching this movie was painful on several levels; least of all for the fact it so inaccurately recounted (and hyped) the details of a real-life tragedy. Nevertheless, as a film it projected a startling eerie atmosphere and a few scenes were very well executed. The crowning feat was Jennifer Carpenter's portrayal of the allegedly possessed Emily Rose. From the deep, banshee-like shrieks to painful body contortions and to the demonic facial gestures Carpenter was captivating and left the viewer shuddering long after the closing credits. My favorite of all scenes was the one in Emily Rose's bedroom when the raging demon attempts to crawl up the wall. Creepy performance, just wonderful!
17. Psycho - the shower scene
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was one of the very first serial killer horror films and definitely had a bigger box office draw than any of its predecessors. The famous shower scene featured Jamie Lee Curtis's own mother, Janet Leigh, and it set the tone for countless slasher films to follow. But Hitchcock had one thing most of his imitators didn't have - artistic genius. This talent alone helped make Psycho the grim masterpiece it was, and also insured that this instrumental scene would set the standard for cinematic penalties of attractive non-virgins.
16. Jacob's Ladder - revelations via the surreal
The horror in this fine story comes in glimpses; ones that bring terror for the main character, Jacob Singer, and the audience. Are the images Jacob keeps seeing just products of his imagination or are they real? And if they are real, is their purpose for evil or something else? A great plot with a mature script and general surreal feel that leads to one of the most shocking endings ever.
15. Hellraiser - meeting the Cenobites
Although this film spawned a gradually predictable series, the original was definitely an audience stunner. While generally I don't like gory films, Hellraiser was different in it was beautifully crafted and left viewers unsure of whether the underlying message is that the line between pain and pleasurable is murky, or that a curiosity for the morbidly brutal is punishment in and of itself.
This scene from Hellraiser is the one that brought me the most goosebumps and , as I've discovered, is a favorite for many other viewers. Here we saw the consequences for humans who get hold of the legendary metal puzzle box. Kirstie has been locked in a hospital room. With nothing else to do she figures out how to open the puzzle box and in the next moment everything changes. A portal opens up and Kirstie investigates. The frightful things she sees compels her to run back to the room. As the portal closes and Kirstie thinks she's safe the white walls begin to crack, a glint of pale light punctures through. There is a pulsating red flower slowing unfolding its petals on the TV screen, the crimson blood spuming into Kirstie's I.V.., muffled moans in the background.. all playing out beneath a rising orchestra of lush music. No typical music, either, but a deep strain of forbidding melody. As it grew louder and quicker in refrain you felt nervous, frightened and yet shivering from head to toe with anxious curiosity. The music reached a clamoring climax..the walls ruptured forth in a blinding splay of white light and the Cenobites came forth. Led by Pinhead, in all his leathery finery. His stern eyes took your breath away and his cool, smooth voice stroked your very soul, making your blood quicken all over again.
Even watching this scene today gives me the shudders. And the need for a cigarette right afterward.
14. Halloween - our first clue that Michael Myers has a problem dying
Throughout the looooong Halloween saga Michael Myers has died more often than the Obamas go on vacation. But it was in this first film that his gift for self-resurrection genuinely frightened. We had watched poor Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) discover the grisly remains of her friends, seen her defend the children in her care, rooted for her as she battled the masked killer and cheered when we saw her finally destroy him. It had been a wild night in Haddonfield and our emotions had been put through the mill. We were ready to breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief for Laurie. Exhausted and psychologically traumatized, she turned her back on the killer's body and opened the door to finally leave the corpse-ridden house. And then just as she catches a breath of fresh air we glimpse -just past her shoulder- the daunting figure of the surely-dead Michael get to his feet.
The first time watching this movie I screamed at this point, making my boyfriend jump and loose our popcorn. His sister, who was sitting on my other side, fainted and slid straight off the seat, taking me with her as she'd had a death grip on my hand for over an hour. I guess it was better than her leaping into my lap for a third time, though in going down I did lose my last Junior Mint.
Yep, that was one memorable night. And one unforgettable movie moment. And my hand still throbs sometimes. Damn that Michael Myers, he owes me at least a Junior Mint.
13. The Blair Witch Project - the final scene
It was a horror flick made on a shoestring budget, without benefit of any studio sound set and filmed like someone's home movie. There was no theme, not even background music. The script was simplistic and the stars' faces bereft of a single brush of pancake. Does it sound like just some cheesy production thought up by a bunch of unsophisticated college kids? If you've not yet seen this movie think again.
At the time of its release the promotion alone was a big draw factor for movie-goers (like me) who didn't know it was fiction. The Blair Witch Project played out like the homespun yarn of an experienced storyteller.The eerie journey the three main characters partook was one we'd never forget; it discomforted, it made us frustrated, it grew darker and more tedious with every futile twist and turn in the woods.
The dread-inspiring events came to a horrific culmination in this final scene. It was grim, disorienting and absolutely terrifying for what the audience wasn't allowed to witness. Evil confirmed yet remaining elusive. One of the most perfect endings ever for any film!
12. The Others - the Confirmation gown scene
For the ghost story connoisseur The Others had all the classic nuances: the gothic mansion with a history of untimely deaths, a damsel in distress, mists galore and a graveyard conveniently located on the manse grounds. What this one had over other films of this genre was a truly unnerving mystery -actually a couple of mysteries- and a positive nod for ancient pagan beliefs concerning death and the afterlife. With the tight script and fine acting it was only bettered by some deeply chilling moments, and thankfully it delivered these in spades. The scariest scene by far, however, was the Confirmation gown scene. One class-A movie and one unforgettable horror scene!
11. Eraserhead - every single psychologically disturbing second
This is the only inductee here that includes the entire movie. Additionally, it is the only one that I absolutely refuse to watch a second time.
Written, directed and produced by David Lynch, the plot of Eraserhead is quirky but simple enough: a guy has strange neighbors, a stranger girl fiend, a still stranger girlfriend's mother, a strange mystery to solve, a pitifully mutated infant with strange needs and a generally strange apartment radiator. Ok, if this isn't weird enough practically every single second of this movie is drenched in surrealistic imagery of the most unpleasant nature. Even the dialog is surrealistic, and the music and sound effects are either disorienting or inappropriately blithe. Altogether, this film plays exactly like one of the worst nightmares you can ever, ever imagine having. While I give Lynch kudos for making the most bizarre movie I have ever watched, it is something I never want to endure again. NEVER EVER again!
10. White Noise - the things on the television screen
I love the message of White Noise - that investigating the paranormal, as fascinating a pastime as it may be, requires cautionary measures to protect yourself from psychic and physical harm. When main character Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) begins -for the best of intents- dabbling into the White Noise phenomenon he does so without utilizing a single bit of time-proven psychic self-protection. Jonathan's scientific bent actually nay-says the cautionary advice from a concerned life-long psychic, and he gets so hooked on studying White Noise that he becomes a junkie. Eventually he is drawn into a crime mystery; one that he realizes only too late was designed by malevolent forces that take sheer delight in screwing with the heads of curious mortals.
These forces initially mask themselves behind the benign faces of the dead. But as the film progresses they grow bolder, more audacious, and although the characters don't always know when they're around, the audiences are given startling tip-offs. The most persuasive of these come from the "recordings" playing on the television sets while the characters are out of the room. Unexpected, convincing and thoroughly fear provoking!
9. Prince of Darkness - the voice in the reoccuring dream
Written, directed and scored by John Carpenter of Halloween fame, this movie was a long-shot in the horror genre. The budget looked low, the gore aspects were sometimes only amusing and the premise was unbalanced (was it supposed to be about zombies or the anti-Christ? The audience just couldn't be sure). What Prince of Darkness did have going for it were some really good visual effects, the adeptly talented Donald Pleasence, the underrated Jameson Parker and the always-awesome Alice Cooper. More importantly, however, it had one particularly original and bone-chilling sound effect: the voice in the dream. What scared the bejesus out of me wasn't even so much the netherworld tinny quality of the voice, but the fact -realized only near the very last- as to what and more so, where, this voice actually was. The first time I watched this movie I lost a night's sleep thanks to that darned voice. Yep, for a horror lover, well worth having to endure the cheesy B-movie aspects of the film.
8. The Sentinel - the legions of the damned appear
The Sentinel was the film adaptation of one of the tightest, most suspenseful horrors of its day. So, as is often the case, the movie version paled by comparison. With one exception, however, the climatic scene where the legion of the damned appear. I won't tell you what about this scene provokes such an utter sense of disturbing horror, because in this day and age the same elements would most likely be considered politically incorrect. But take my word for it, the scene was poignant in a very scary sense of the word. If you like horror and have not yet seen The Sentinel, do yourself a favor and rent it. And then, if you truly want to be enraptured read the novel The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
7. The Shining - Danny meets the twins
Whenever I talk about the film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining, 99 times out of 100 I'm talking about Stanley Kubrick's adaptation not the miniseries that came with King's stamp of approval. Mr. King's cinematic vision aside, while his novel rates with me as one of the two best horror novels ever written, the miniseries totally failed. It was all touchy feely, sentimentality love fest, with a redemption theme that gushed over and suffocated the horror elements of the original novel. Sorry Mr. King, you are an excellent author but very often a film just cannot convey the same sense of horror found in a literary work, and you proved it with that mini-series. I'll never understand why you'd want to self-consciously white-wash a script of every trace of the cynical, smut-mouthed literary style that, while at times tedious, made you famous. And all this for a blunderous, boring morality tale. Sheesh.
Anyway...even as Kubrick's adaptation disappointed King, movie goers have adored this film since it's release. There is one reason: it's freak'n SCARY. One of the scariest moments in the film came when Danny first meets the twins. Sure, they looked sweet and normal enough; oh, for about two seconds..three seconds longer than I think it took Danny to realize they weren't quite the kind of little girls you might expect to bump into. They were surreal, they were damaged in their innocence, and they totally owned that forbidding hallway.
6. The Haunting - the pounding of the walls
This film was the first adaptation of the other novel that makes my list of two best horror novels ever written, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Released in 1963, it was rather faithful to the novel, though director Robert Wise did seem hard put to convey the depth of sheer horror the novel produced. However, he did succeed with taking audiences off balance with the ungodly pounding of the walls. Directors have attempted since to duplicate or imitate these integral moments from the novel and not a one has succeeded. Genuine horror here, and a story that ravages the psyche even on screen.
5. Fire In The Sky - aliens torture humans
Other films have broached the subject of alien abduction, but none have instilled the pure terror this one did. Based on a true life event, Fire in the Sky, took audiences into a sterilized torture chamber where humanity means nothing and science and medical curiosity serve the same heartless interest. Scary to witness and hard to put out of mind once the credits have gone by, this is one movie you honestly shouldn't watch alone.
4. The Sixth Sense - numerous upset ghosts showing up at least expected moments
I happen to feel that The Sixth Sense wasn't just a great horror flick, but also an all-around great film. The premise was original, the script suspenseful, the visual effects stunning and the cast first-rate. And how about that surprise ending? Certainly didn't see that coming! Fantastic.
I have to give the horror components due credit, too. The first time watching it, those startling appearances by the ghosts had me jumping and gasping for the duration of the film. The angry ones in particular were startling. And I still get goosebumps watching it today. One of the most satisfying horror movies ever made!
3. The Exorcist - Regan descends the stairs upside-down
The first time I watched The Exorcist (and it wasn't until I was an adult) it was the widely distributed theatrical version. A few years later I got to see the uncut director's edition. Now, while the famous scene of Regan's head turning around was scary enough, this particular scene from the director's edition was so unexpected I literally jumped into my husband's lap. The scene was set up as one of the calmer moments, when we think the poor Mom just might get a few moments peace. Just as she turns around Regan suddenly scrambles down the staircase upside down. It happened so fast; and the poor girl looked like some attacking spider-human mutation. Shudder-iffic!
2. The Mothman Prophecies - the voice on the phone
Despite a few historical inaccuracies, The Mothman Prophecies is one of the better inspired-by-true-events horror/suspense films. It had an escalating sense of anxiety perfect for the subject matter, as well as realistic dialog and stunning performances by the cast. I was especially impressed by Richard Gere, as frankly his acting usually comes off as too self-absorbed. Anyway, it was a mesmerizing film with an unnerving plot.
What truly made this a great horror flick is that while the characters came across as solid, very ordinary people, the story itself was shrouded in mystery. Even by the end of the film the audience is left to wonder what was really going on? Were the disturbing visions and cryptic revelations coming from supernatural sources -dead, demons, angels, aliens?- or perhaps from an individual or individuals from a universe or time we just can't begin to understand?
The most unsettling components of the film were the telephone messages from the mystifying entity, Indrid Cold. The voice was not only disturbing to hear, but the scientific analysis related about its source only intensified the mystery and the viewer's unease. Scary as heck - if you've not seen The Mothman Prophecies, I definitely suggest renting it this Halloween season!
1. The Shining - the freaks in the hotel room
Nothing manages to rattle a movie audience quite like an unexpected spur-of-the-moment confrontation with menacing forces. In The Shining we were anxiously rooting for poor Wendy in trying to defend herself and her child against an insane husband. And while we knew -or thought we knew- what other dangers were afoot in the haunted Overlook Hotel, we were completely taken off guard when Wendy stumbled into this weird spectacle.
Ghosts? Demons? We can't be sure. What is certain is that their appearance not only made our hearts leap, but what they appeared to be caught in the middle of made the skin crawl! The sudden combination of fear and repulsion made for a shocker to both eyes and psyche.
This is indeed a deeply disturbing scene from one deliciously frightening movie. And my Halloween movie watching season won't be complete without seeing it again!