Scariest Movie Scenes
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What’s the scariest scene you’ve ever seen in a movie?
Plenty of film scenes terrified me when I was younger, but since I hit adulthood, nothing has rattled me as much as Samara’s final attack in The Ring. We’ve seen a million J-horror takes on the same idea since The Ring came out—it was so effective, of course it’d be ripe for copycatting—but this was the first J-horror remake I ever saw, and it left me with twitchy nerves that didn’t relax for a month. There’s something definitively frightening about Samara’s inescapability, and the way she (like her J-horror predecessors and followers) moves, with that flickery, twitchy unpredictability that means victims and viewers never know exactly where she’s going to be next. Apart from possibly crawling wetly out of their TVs the next time they leave the channel on static for more than a few seconds.
I love George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead more than I love just about anything in this entire rotten world (excluding my wife, my kids, sunsets, buffalo wings, and the Atlanta Braves). For the most part, Dawn Of The Dead is as effective as a drama, a satire, and an action epic as it is as a horror film, but I brace myself every time the SWAT team infiltrates the basement of a tenement building early in the film, and finds the room filled with zombies, casually gnawing on dismembered human body parts. Have you ever discovered a colony of insects when you lifted up a rock, or writhing maggots in your garbage? I get that same feeling of disgust and mild panic during that scene in Dawn Of The Dead.
Fittingly, one of the scariest movie scenes belongs to one of the scariest movies, the scariness of which cannot be overestimated or over-cited enough: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s chockablock with great, shocking scenes: Leatherface’s eruptive entrance, unannounced by heavy breathing or other slasher-film hallmarks, the horrifying dinner scene. But the one that still gives me shivers and gets my eyes darting around the edge of the screen so I don’t have to actually connect with it is one that totally undermines the film’s expectations of scariness. I’m talking about the scene where Paul A. Partain, the wheelchair-bound character who stymies our attempts at developing empathy for him at every turn by being entirely unlikeable (a genius move on the part of Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel), is separated from the other kids. Rolling through the rough-hewn, dim environs of the Texas ranch house where our heroes will meet their grisly demise, Partain begins cursing his friends for abandoning him, and blowing raspberries at them. It’s almost unbearably tense, watching Partain slowly rock around the outside of the house all alone, where we presume that someone will jump out and grab him any second. But nobody does. Instead, we’re left with this uneasy feeling of expecting (even hoping) that Partain will be offed, an expectation that’s ingeniously upended, but succeeds in making us feel horrible about ourselves. So that, and every single thing in Kubrick’s The Shining. There is probably no more singularly terrifying text.
I’ve finally joined the rest of America in seeing the Paranormal Activity franchise, and while the second one seemed kind of boring, the first featured one of the creepiest low-budget scenes I’ve seen, just as scary for what it didn’t show as what it did. While special-effects gurus try to scare us by reaching new levels of grotesque monstrosity with each creature feature, it was a scene in the franchise’s first film featuring just a set of footprints that scared the bejesus out of me. Besides the creepy monster factor, there’s also another psychological fear at play, the fear of home invasion (nailed perfectly in the equally terrifying French film Ils), that adds a layer of paranoia and anxiety to the film’s atmosphere of mounting dread.
There’s a particular split second in The Orphanage—the 2007 Spanish movie produced and kinda shepherded by Guillermo del Toro—that actually made me jump off my couch a little bit the first time I saw it. I believe it’s the first time you see the little ghost-child wearing the burlap-sack mask—that shit is scary enough—but he just appears out of nowhere, then disappears. The image itself is effective and creepy, and the surprise element just sends it off the scary charts. The whole damn movie is scary and fantastic, and deserves a place alongside classic creepers like The Omen. It’s thoughtful and the story is great, but it also might make you pee your pants. Win, win, win.
The single scene that made me jump the highest was probably the ending to Carrie—the moment when, having reached and sustained a remarkably high-pitched level of fright, Brian De Palma cools everything out, lets heart rates return to normal, then tries to see how many members of the audience he can send to the coronary ward. It’s all the more amazing how effective it is when you consider that you aren’t expected to think it’s really happening. It’s a dream sequence that looks like a dream sequence—something I can appreciate, since staging a scene that looks like every other scene in the movie, then revealing it’s just a dream, so as to get in some shocks that won’t have any real bearing on the story, is one of the scurviest horror-movie tricks. It carries a message: The horror lives on even after the danger has passed. And what better way to convey that particular message than to send viewers out of the theater needing a change of underwear?
Paranormal Activity is a good example, because for those of us with active imaginations, low-budget films can be way more terrifying than their special-effects-laden counterparts. Paranormal Activity freaked me out, but The Blair Witch Project gave me the first scary-movie-related nightmare I’ve had as an adult. Two scenes stick out in that film, but if I had to pick one as the scariest, I’d say it’s toward the end of the movie, when Mike and Heather run screaming from their tent. Before they make a run for it, they sit in quiet terror as what sounds like children or something stand outside and START TOUCHING THE TENT. There’s just the briefest flash of a hand pressing from the outside before Mike and Heather bolt, and it’s goddamn terrifying. The very last scene is also scary as hell, but it’s a little spoilery and hard to explain—if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. I barely slept that night—and when I did, I had nightmares. Did I mention I was a 23-year-old adult at the time?
I hate horror movies and avoid them when I can; when I can’t get out of watching one, I spend the parts where it looks like something terrible is about to happen with my fingers in my ears and my eyes shut. So, having actually watched only about a third of the few horror movies I’ve forced myself to sit through, I’m pulling from a pretty self-imposed shallow pool. Therefore neither of these is from a traditional scary movie. But having played piano for more than two decades, I still cannot watch the scene from The Hustler when Paul Newman hustles a couple guys at pool and they take him out back and break his thumbs. God, that noise! The other scene that drew me in enough that I didn’t reflexively go into sensory-deprivation mode was when the refrigerator rattles over and eats Ellen Burstyn at the end of Requiem For A Dream. I watched this as a teenager and have refused to watch it since after spending a humiliating few weeks unable to pass by a dark kitchen at any speed less than a dash. Even a decade afterward, I used to scoot up the stairs a little faster if I was alone in the house when the 30-year-old fridge in my apartment started its twice-hourly ritual of shaking and moaning as if possessed by the angry spirit of diet-pill abuse. I was happier than was really rational when the old behemoth finally bit it and was replaced by a much smaller and cheaper—but blessedly silent—new model.
I’m not much of a slasher-flick watcher, or a monster or zombie guy. So when I get scared at the movies, it’s usually during a scene where I put myself in the place of someone we all know is about to get his head blown off. If I were on the other side of Joe Pesci’s “Funny, how?” rants in Goodfellas, for example, I’d probably be shitting my pants. But no pre-gunplay speech gets my stomach roiling more than Samuel L. Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction. You know the scene, where Jackson, in his Jheri-curl wig, makes his dramatic “Ezekiel 25:17” speech right before he blows away nerdy dude Frank Whaley, who “fucked” Jackson’s boss by keeping a mysterious briefcase and its glowing contents. Jackson has already killed one of Whaley’s junkie buddies and shot Whaley in the shoulder, so in order to make his job even more dramatic, he speaks this made-up Bible quote, because nothing’s scarier than a guy with a gun who’s quoting the Bible. As he turns around and says, “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers,” in that loud and urgent voice Jackson was known for, I actually felt bad for that weasel Whaley. The kiss-off, “And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee,” is the scary icing on the frightening cake.
There are scary scenes that make you feel—on some impulsive level—that you’re in danger yourself. Then there are the scary scenes that go deeper and undermine your fundamental, existential sense of up and down. No scene disorients me more savagely yet surgically than the final moments of Videodrome. After sucking viewers into a downward spiral of biotech mutation, epistemological shock, and nested paranoia, David Cronenberg delivers the coup de grâce—a scene so visceral, yet coldly distant, that it feels almost merciful. Punctuating it with the resonant, prayer-like line “Long live the new flesh” only makes it that much more horrifically surreal. And the scene’s recursive structure takes on the tone of apocalyptic prophecy, one that fulfills itself every day, for everyone, in every mundane moment.
Lots of things scare me, but what gets to me most are moments of inexplicable menace. With a monster, or a guy with a knife, you know what’s going on; there’s a threat of physical violence and ugly, awful death, but these are known quantities, unquestionably unpleasant but still possible to comprehend. And once you comprehend something, you’re just a few steps away from finding a way to deal with it rationally, and that’s the death of fear. It’s the odd touches that get me, like those masks in The Strangers; yes, clearly these are people who wish the heroes harm, but why those masks, exactly? And what is the motive, beyond wrecking Liv Tyler’s day? I freak out over movie moments that force me to question basic assumptions about the world. Like one of the freakiest scenes in Pulse, described here and here. It’s unsettling because it speaks to a place beyond safety or reason, a place where the lights don’t work, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. Which is why, if I had to pick a scariest moment, it’s the diner scene from Mulholland Dr. Even in a movie full of abstract digressions and symbolism, the scene has nothing to do with plot. It’s so simple, it’s almost stupid—a guy tells another guy about a bad dream, and then they go outside and see the bad dream is real. Part of the reason it’s so effective is that you know what’s going to happen. Lynch uses that knowledge to make it worse, to get to the primal nerve endings where it doesn’t matter if I’m a grown-up and I own a car and I have a job and I know that shadows at night don’t mean anything. The scene, like the best horror-movie scenes, stares viewers straight in the eye and then just keeps on staring.
My compassion in Poltergeist was for Robbie. Everyone was always worried about Carol Anne, and whether a bunch of dead cult members howling in purgatory would try to kidnap her and siphon her life force through televisions and closets. Yet there’s Robbie, the classic example of a quiet, lame-duck sibling, left to his overactive imagination. But vengeful spirits turn that imagination against the poor kid, using him as some kind of torture-pawn in their strategy to capture Carol Anne. Hard to say which scene was more traumatizing: the evil tree come to life, or the sinister clown doll. Either way, writer/purported surrogate director Steven Spielberg successfully ensured myself and millions of other small children would be petrified not only of going into the water, but our own bedrooms as well.
The scariest movie scene I’ve ever seen is from a movie I’ve never identified and I recall so vaguely that I know I’ll never be able to track down. All I know is that it was British, it played on television during an afternoon edition of Dayton’s Dr. Creep-hosted Shock Theater, and it featured some kids playing around a crumbling manor in daytime while being drawn to a space beneath the house where something rotten and terrifying lurked. Maybe a skeleton. I honestly can’t recall. But I do know it scared me as a little boy, and that the scariest moments I’ve had in a theater since recall that same moment of “don’t go down in the basement” terror, the helpless feeling that comes from watching characters that could easily be you or someone you love getting caught up in something horrifying and beyond their control. I have no idea what that movie was, but I can still summon up the way it made me feel. As a kid, Poltergeist gave me nightmares for weeks. A Nightmare On Elm Street obsessed me as a teen, in part because it took place on a street that looked like one from my neighborhood (or a lot of people’s). I like many types of horror films, but the scariest ones are the ones that hit close to home.
I’m behind Kenny Herzog 100 percent with his pick of Poltergeist, but while I’d never argue against the premise that the first film is the best in the trilogy (if only the special effects had held up, I’d totally be writing about Marty at the mirror right now), I have to admit that I’m ultimately far more creeped out by a scene in Poltergeist II: The Other Side. I didn’t know anything about Julian Beck when I first saw him playing the disconcertingly gaunt—let’s face it, dude’s virtually skeletal—Reverend Henry Kane, so it’s somewhat fascinating to have subsequently discovered that he was an anarchist and former Abstract Expressionist painter who, along with wife Judith Malina, founded The Living Theater. Insofar as his performance in Poltergeist II goes, though, there’s something even more important to know about Beck: Not only was he suffering from stomach cancer at the time he delivered his infamous screen-door speech, but he succumbed to the disease before they even completing filming. It was already terrifying enough when Beck cried, “You are gonna diiiiiiie!” Knowing that he was actually dying when he delivered it makes it all the more chilling.
There are really too many scene from which to choose: I had to stop watching David Cronenberg’s The Brood on VHS twice—during the day, no less—because it scared me so much, and there are candidates as recent as the hitch-stepped specter in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 film Pulse or any of the various oscillating “fan-cam” shots in the new Paranormal Activity. But the one moment that really stands out comes from The Exorcist III: Legion, and it’s a shock that’s perhaps made more effective by how mild the film is in comparison to its more atmospheric (and hysterical) predecessors. Holding the camera in a minute-long medium-to-long shot down a hospital hallway, director William Peter Blatty quietly surveys the action at a nursing station, building unbearable tension and expectation from the sheer mystery of such a long take. And then, just as a nurse emerges from a room—bam!—the camera zooms forward and out comes some horrible spectral figure with its arms outstretched, some sort of bladed weapon in its hands. As jump-scares go, only the big reveal in Don’t Look Now comes close.
I know I am not alone in finding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to be one of the scariest movies of all time, if not the single scariest film ever made. The film is filled with terrifying setpieces, dazzling sequences (for sheer filmmaking virtuosity, it’s hard to top the chase through the maze, a tour de force that made brilliant use of a then-recent innovation called the Steadicam) and images burned indelibly in the public’s mind. After The Shining, no one looked at twins, flappers, or spooky old off-season hotels the same way again. But the most terrifying thing to me about The Shining isn’t a scene or a sequence, it’s a line-reading. I’m referring specifically to a scene where Jack Nicholson’s increasingly insane hotel keeper talks to a ghostly previous caretaker of the hotel (Phillip Stone), and Stone tells Nicholson that since he was careless enough to let outside agitators into the hotel, he must “correct” the situation. The implication is clear: Stone’s infernal ghost wants Nicholson to murder his wife and son, and the bloodless, bone-dry way Stone utters the word “correct” renders it absolutely terrifying.
Scott got me thinking about movies that I had to turn off because I got so freaked-out, and the example that immediately rushed to mind was David Lynch’s Lost Highway. (Although I might have shut off the Mulholland Dr. diner scene Zack mentioned too, if I hadn’t been in a theater.) The scene where Robert Blake’s “mystery man” lets Bill Pullman know that he’s at Pullman’s house ratchets up the creepiness in a manner of seconds. The background music drops out, Blake’s forced smile begins to look more and more sinister, and you keep waiting for the other goddamn shoe to drop ’til you can’t take it anymore. Of course, that didn’t come until later, after I turned on all the lights and put the movie back on and it freaked me out all over again.
The scariest movie scene I’ve ever seen as an adult is the introduction of Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, simply because of how off-kilter it is, but John’s already described what makes that movie terrifying very well. So I’ll back up a bit and pick two John Carpenter scares. The first: Roughly the first hour of Halloween. Sure, what happens once Michael Myers starts killing people is scary, but I find the buildup almost nauseatingly tense, particularly the way Carpenter starts dropping this weird, white-masked figure in places where he shouldn’t be. (The sequence where he’s standing amid a bunch of billowing laundry, just looking threatening, is a particular highlight.) The other is the blood test in The Thing, probably my favorite horror movie to just pick up and watch when I’m in the horror mood. I don’t think of that movie as incredibly scary—more wildly entertaining and exciting. But that one sequence, with all the guys in the remote frozen outpost waiting to see which of them has been turned by the titular alien, is great mostly for how it plays off of attempts to figure out the film’s timing. And just when you’re pretty sure this guy can’t be the monster…
During its time-keeping, tension-ratcheting first act, 2009’s House Of The Devil establishes the friendship between unashamed party blonde Megan (Greta Gerwig) and her (naturally) chaster, more even-tempered brunette friend Samantha (Jocelin Donahue). Megan drives Samantha out to a remote babysitting gig in a sinister rural locale to kick off the actual horror component of the film, then drives off. She stops, pulls out a cigarette, and a bearded guy comes from nowhere to offer a light, at which point—the first real scare in the film after 25 minutes—I totally lost it. The one-shot jolt involves no sudden noises, sudden threatening objects coming out of the dark, or other jump-cut effects: It’s a out-of-nowhere jolt at an already-tensed up moment. That sets the tone for the next hour, as Megan—alone in a house, dancing by herself to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another”—repeatedly encounters numerous false (or are they?) alarms, even though there’s seemingly no one in the house besides an elderly invalid. Until its stupid Satanist last act blows all that tension to laughable ends, House Of The Devil is one of the most consistently nerve-racking things I’ve seen, no matter how low the volume or bright the lights.