Ten of My Favorite Terrifying Horror Movie Scenes

On today’s installment, at the excellent recommendation of a listener, I’m going to discuss ten of the horror movie scenes that I personally found the scariest, or made the biggest impact on me the first time I saw them, lingering uncomfortably in my memory for years afterwards. Some of these choices may be idiosyncratic, to say the least; I honestly have no idea why certain things in movies freak me out and other things don’t bother me at all, so please don’t ask me to expound further upon it or chastise me for picking scenes that AREN’T EVEN SCARY, OH MY GOD. Scary is subjective; deal with it.

I also tried to avoid choosing scenes from films that I’ve already discussed at length on this site or over on one of my YouTube channels; I just like to keep a bit of variety in my content, so I’m not just talking about the same movies over and over again. For example, some of the scariest scenes in horror cinema, to me, appeared in The Haunting, The Tenant, Stir of Echoes, Burnt Offerings, The Shining, and Don’t Look Now, but I’ve already discussed those films elsewhere in slightly different contexts, so I won’t be rehashing that here. That said, though, I’m sure I will eventually do a part two of this, as there are tons of scenes that I had to leave off. With all that out of the way, here’s the list, in no particular order.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

The scene I want to talk about first was a no-brainer for me; it was the first one that popped into my head when I decided to do this post. I have always said (to myself, mostly) that many of the scariest scenes in film don’t even come from what would normally be considered horror films. For a long time, I thought I was pretty much alone in this opinion, but then, in all my internet wanderings, I came across this 2017 article from Decider, and was presented with SWEET VINDICATION.

Winkie’s. Fucking. Diner.

If you have not seen David Lynch’s masterful 2001 mystery Mulholland Drive, kindly do yourself a favor and get on that shit tout suite. For real, I’ll wait. It’s a sinister layer cake of creepy-awesome that rewards multiple viewings, like a rich, nightmarish puzzle that taunts you with its dark, schizophrenic glamor.

The setup of the five-minute diner scene is mundane in the extreme. Minor characters Dan and Herb, who seem to have nothing to do with the movie as a whole and barely appear again, are sitting in Winkie’s Diner in broad daylight. Dan is telling Herb about a recurring dream he’s had that took place in the very diner they’re sitting in. It all sounds fairly humdrum until Dan says that there is a man behind the diner. “He’s the one who’s doing it,” Dan says, though he doesn’t elaborate on what ‘it’ might be. “I can see him through the wall.” He then tells Herb that he hopes he never sees the man’s face outside of a dream, with the implication that the face is too horrible for him to describe. Dan looks sweaty and intense and apprehensive as he talks, haltingly. Later in the scene, Herb takes Dan outside in an attempt to show him that the man in his dream is not really back there, and this goes about as well as you’d expect.

What is it about this scene that gives me the horrors every single time I watch it? It isn’t the most obvious “scare,” the sudden appearance of the nightmare man from behind the dumpster. That’s sort of frightening when it happens, in a jump-out-of-your-seat way, but it’s not particularly dread-inducing. No, the scariest part of the scene is everything leading up to that: Dan’s strangely rubbery facial expressions and lopsided nervous grins, the flat affect of his voice as he describes the dream, the way the camera floats around the men, unsettlingly, as they talk. One particular moment that actually caused a chill to rocket up my spine was when Dan was saying that Herb had also made an appearance in the dream. “You’re standing right over there…by that counter.” The camera pans slowly over to the counter, at which no one is currently standing, then focuses back on Dan’s anxious face. “You’re in both dreams, and you’re scared.” A few minutes later, Herb goes to pay for their lunch, and thus actually is standing right where Dan saw him standing in the dream. The men share an extremely disquieting glance across the diner. Also rather nerve-wracking is the men’s walk out to the dumpster behind the diner. Every shot, every camera angle, every edit as they walk seems pointedly calculated to be as skin-crawlingly sinister as possible, but without being obvious or overtly frightening in any way. It’s a fantastic trick, and I wish I could figure out how Lynch so effortlessly achieved it.

I’m amazed that Lynch managed to film such an ominous scene out of elements that are anything but scary at first glance (other than the nightmare man’s horrible face, that is), but I’m even more amazed by the fact that he’s done it more than once. Lynch is a master at something I tend to call time displacement, for lack of a better term. He has filmed several scenes in which the line between reality and nightmare is blurred, of course, but he also seems to have a similar predilection for playing with overlapping timescales, characters being in two places at once, and that type of thing. In 2006’s Inland Empire, for example, the intensely freaky-looking Grace Zabriskie (as Visitor #1) points to an empty couch in Laura Dern’s house and tells her that if it was tomorrow, she would be sitting right. Over. There. And then suddenly it is tomorrow, and Laura Dern is sitting exactly where the old woman said she’d be sitting. There is also the famous scene from Lost Highway (1997), where a white-faced Robert Blake tells Bill Pullman that not only is he standing there talking to him, but at the same time, “I’m at your house right now.” Every single scene Lynch has filmed like this has freaked me right the hell out, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that might be. Perhaps because when done well, these scenes serve to undermine the fulcrum of reality and make the viewer feel completely adrift in a universe that makes no rational sense.

Or maybe it’s the fact that Lynch, better than any other filmmaker in my opinion, is cursedly skilled at portraying the incongruity of dreams on film, so that we almost feel as though he’s directly tapped into our collective subconscious and forced us to look unflinchingly at what’s lurking there. Or it could be his consummate talent for utilizing slightly off-kilter facial expressions, camera shots, voice inflections, and background sounds to convey an unsettling mood. Whatever the reason, I suppose it just goes to show that in the right hands, traditional horror movie monsters and situations have nothing on a simple shot of the back of someone’s head, or a strangely intense glance, or a daylight stroll through a diner parking lot.

The Eye (2002)

I’ve spoken before about my love of atmospheric horror, of those rare film scenes that get under your skin using nothing but suggestion and subtlety to evoke a feeling of overwhelming dread. The next scene I’d like to discuss is a prime example of this, a scene that is very simple but devastating in its chilling effectiveness.

The excellent Pang brothers film The Eye (2002; I shouldn’t have to warn anyone against bothering with the vastly inferior American remake) is one of the standouts of the Asian horror renaissance that began sometime around the mid-1990s. It is also a sterling illustration that not all horror filmmakers are content to rely on visceral shocks or over-the-top computer-generated imagery to deliver their impact.

The premise of The Eye is straightforward, I daresay even unoriginal: Mun is a classical musician who has been blind since early childhood. Upon receiving a corneal transplant, she gets a little more than she bargained for; namely, the ability to see ghosts. Did I mention that the ghosts she sees are also portents of impending deaths? Yeah, that too.

As I was researching this writeup, I discovered that I am absolutely not alone in singling out one particular scene as one of the scariest in cinema; if you have seen the film, you know the scene I’m referring to.

That. Elevator.

Elevators make fairly frequent appearances in horror films and thrillers, perhaps because many people, including me, find them at least a little unnerving. You are, after all, confined in a tight metal box that could conceivably trap you in the limbo between floors or suddenly send you plunging into the basement to your doom. Added to this is the unease we often feel when we are forced into close quarters with strangers. The elevator scene from The Eye takes all our rather mundane anxieties about elevators and ramps that shit up into the stratosphere.

Mun has returned to her apartment building and is waiting for the elevator, as you do. The door glides open, but when she peers inside, she is confronted with the eerie sight of what appears to be an old man in pajamas, standing in the back corner with his face turned toward the wall. She glances nervously up at the CCTV cameras and sees that the clearly occupied elevator is actually empty, leading her to the obvious conclusion that the man she’s seeing is no longer among the living. Wisely, she decides to wait for the next elevator, but as she stands there, a young couple blithely rushes past her and into the ghost-o-vator, unaware of who they’re sharing the car with. The couple looks at her strangely as her terrified gaze flickers from them to the CCTV cameras and back again. The door glides closed.

The next elevator arrives. Mun peeks apprehensively into the car and makes another check of the cameras. This elevator appears to be wraith-free, so she reluctantly gets on board. There are tense close-ups of her hand pushing the floor button, and of her wide, frightened eyes. The elevator begins to climb. Ever. So. Slowly. Mun is still intensely nervous, almost expecting the inevitable.

And soon enough, her fears are realized. A hazy reflection appears in the steel wall of the elevator. It’s the old man. His back is still to her, which makes the whole thing a thousand times creepier. She knows he’s back there, and she is visibly petrified, but she resolutely does NOT turn to look. She just stands there, paralyzed but clearly losing her shit as the old man glides behind her, back to back. There is an eerie shot of the man’s bare feet hovering inches above the floor behind her, and then the old man begins to turn around, unbearably slooooooowly, and we see that there is a horrifying CANYON where half of his face should be, and then he’s gliding toward her and his toes are just about to touch the back of her ankles and GAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!

Sorry, I had to stop for a second.

Okay, I’m all right now. Moving on.

So the elevator door opens and she sprints right the fuck out of there and goes tearing down the hall, as you would. She gets to her door and frantically tries to get in, but her key won’t work, and then she realizes that in her panic she’s gotten off on the wrong floor. She goes bolting toward the stairwell and stumbles up the steps, passing a little boy in a baseball cap who’s on the landing. When she reaches the top of the stairs, she turns to look at the boy, who suddenly runs toward the window and jumps right the hell out.

This scene really hits all the right notes: there’s the tight, tense closeups of the terror in Mun’s face; the flat bluish-silver light the whole scene is washed in; the trapped feeling of helplessness and of wishing the elevator would HURRY UP AND GET TO HER FLOOR, GODDAMIT; the languid menace of the old man as he drifts unhurriedly behind her; the slow reveal of his frighteningly disfigured face; the chilling details of the metallic reflection and the eerie floating feet. There’s also the kicker of the scene, the incongruity of the decidedly un-creepy little boy inexplicably jumping out the window after the main danger has apparently passed. It all adds up to one of the most perfectly realized scary scenes in modern horror cinema, and a shining example of the principle that sometimes, less is more.

Dracula (1979)

The next scene I want to discuss is another one of those that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me for 40 years, even though the rest of the movie is just kind of mid-tier for me. The scene itself is only a couple of minutes long, but I can still vividly remember the heart-stopping shudder that traveled through my body the first time I saw it, and further recall how I studiously covered my eyes during the scene on subsequent re-watches of the movie (and skipped over the still shot of it in the novelization of it that I had as a kid).

John Badham’s version of the classic Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella as the titular Count, came out around the same time as a few other vampire films, notably Werner Herzog’s elegant remake of Nosferatu. Badham’s adaptation wasn’t horribly reviewed, but apparently audiences were experiencing some vampire fatigue, and it only did so-so business at the box office. I was only seven when it was released in theaters, so I didn’t catch it until it ran on television a year or two later; in fact, I’m fairly sure it was the first of the major Dracula film adaptations I ever saw, even before the more-famous Bela Lugosi and Hammer versions.

Like the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, Badham’s Dracula was based on the stage play rather than the novel, and followed a lot of the tropes of the Universal version. For example, Dracula is portrayed as a seductive, romantic figure rather than a rat-like monster as in the book, and the entire first part of the novel (where Harker is kept prisoner in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle) is removed, allowing the movie to start with the Count’s arrival on English shores. Something the Badham film does that I thought was odd, though, is that it reverses the characters of Lucy and Mina (and it’s not the only Dracula adaptation that does this, which confuses the hell out of me); Mina is the first one attacked and vampified by Dracula, for example, while Lucy is Harker’s fiancée, and is attacked later but ultimately saved when the vampire is staked. The film also portrays Mina as the daughter of Van Helsing and Lucy as the daughter of Dr. Seward. These changes don’t ruin the story or anything, but they also don’t really add to it, so I’m not sure why they were made. Perhaps because some characters were eliminated for brevity (like poor old Quincey Morris, who hardly ever gets a part in these adaptations), the screenwriter thought it would increase the drama and emotional coherence of the characters to make them all related somehow, but I’m just speculating about that. Still doesn’t explain why Lucy and Mina were reversed, but whatever.

As I said, I like this film just fine; though it’s not my favorite Dracula adaptation, I was always quite taken with Langella’s graceful performance as the Count. But that one brief scene really stood out to me, and still gives me goosebumps, this many decades later.

If my quick Google search is any indication, I’m not the only one that has had this scene burned into my memory since childhood. I’m not entirely sure why the scene is so memorable; it could be simply because in the context of the film, it is so shockingly unexpected. This version of Dracula, after all, was marketed more as a supernatural romance than a horror film, and played rather like a staid English parlor drama (with fangs). There was little to no gore that I remember, and nothing that was outright frightening. But then this happens:

The lovely Mina has been exsanguinated by the foxy Count one night while her friend Lucy is out tramping it up with Jonathan. It makes me feel weird to even type that, you guys. It’s like they were cheating or something, what with the character reversal and all. Though now that I think about it, how great would a Mina/Lucy catfight scene have been? Anyway. The next morning, Mina is pale and gasping for breath, and dies as a horrified (and guilty) Lucy looks on. Dr. Seward has no idea what could have killed Mina, and summons Dad Van Helsing to help solve the mystery.

No slouch, Van Helsing immediately jumps to the most obvious conclusion, that eine nosferatu is running loose in the vicinity. As an aside, though, this is Van Helsing we’re talking about. He probably blames a vampire every time one of his socks disappears from the washing machine. Sure, he was correct in this case, but even a stopped clock, yadda yadda.

Anyhoo, Seward and Van Helsing visit Mina’s new grave in the cemetery, and find that her coffin is not only empty, but contains a ragged hole where she presumably dug herself out. The hole leads underground into some old mining tunnels, and they crawl down there to investigate, pretty sure of what they’re going to find. As they peer into the darkness, visions of the beautiful Mina probably uppermost in their minds, they begin to hear a shuffling sound coming toward them. They raise their lamps or candles, and there, shambling out of the darkness, is an absolute horror, reaching for them and begging for a kiss.

That shit scared me SO BAD, you guys. And in this sense maybe it was a sound storytelling idea to make Mina Van Helsing’s daughter, because the tragedy of the scene is very apparent here, and underscores the horror with great effectiveness. The figure of the undead Mina is terrifying but also heartbreakingly pitiful, and the viewer really feels it when Van Helsing has to put down the monster his daughter has become. The rest of the film isn’t nearly as powerful, but that one scene is a knockout.

Suspiria (1977)

Let’s talk about Dario Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him long ago, when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films. Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I mentioned Daria Nicolodi, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.

Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.

First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. It looks so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous.

Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle. The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.

But I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.

While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc, walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.

There is some banter and tomfoolery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she reclines back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder. We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.

Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.

At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

I’d like to talk a bit here about things that scare us, or scare me in particular, since part of the appeal of compiling these scenes was, for me, a desire to examine why I find particular images or situations disturbing, when perhaps other people may not. In regards to the next two scenes I want to discuss, I’d like to focus on a particular subset of body horror, particularly facial “wrongness.”

It seems reasonable to assume that from an evolutionary standpoint, human brains developed with an instinctive ability to assess the physical “normality” of our fellow humans, if only in order to identify genetic fitness in potential mates. It’s why studies that have been done all over the world show that the humans consistently rated as the most attractive are the ones that are the most symmetrical. I’m simplifying here, but you get the gist. Humans know when someone looks okay, and when they don’t, even if they can’t articulate why.

This feature of the human mind can, of course, be subverted. Take, for example, the concept of the “uncanny valley,” that unsettling grey area where a human simulacrum looks so similar to a real human that we are almost fooled, but is ever-so-slightly “off” in a way we can’t quite put our finger on, causing us intense discomfort.

Horror filmmakers, consciously or not, have been playing with the concept of subverting physical normality since horror movies first began. Sometimes it’s blatant, like Regan’s 360-degree head-spin or her freaky “spider walk” down the stairs in The Exorcist, or the strange, jerking movements of long-haired female ghosts in many an Asian horror film. And sometimes it’s more subtle, like simply taking one facial feature and changing it in a way that upsets our deep-seated sense of physical regularity.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) was an anthology film featuring several stories by different directors. The bulk of the stories were adapted from episodes of the classic Twilight Zone television series. One of these, the Joe Dante directed “It’s a Good Life,” was a loose remake of one of the most famous TZ episodes of all time (which had been in turn based on a short story by Jerome Bixby), the one that starred Bill Mumy as a functionally omnipotent child who could “wish people into the cornfield” if they did something to displease him.

In the 1983 film version, a schoolteacher named Helen stops at a café while on a road trip and there meets a young boy named Anthony. She intervenes when he is being harassed by bullies, and then ends up giving him a ride home after she “accidentally” hits his bike with her car in the parking lot. Upon arriving at his cavernous mansion of a house, she quickly discovers that something is very amiss with Anthony. His entire family seems deathly afraid of him, and take great pains to bend to his every whim, whether that’s serving candied apples and peanut-butter-topped hamburgers for dinner, or allowing cartoons to play endlessly on every television in the house. It turns out that the family’s fear is well-placed, as Anthony has the supernatural ability to wish anything he desires into existence, and severely punishes anyone who interferes with his wishes.

One of the recipients of Anthony’s wrath is his sister Sara. As Helen is wandering the vast halls of the mansion Anthony calls home, she stops to peer into a long, darkened bedroom. She smiles indulgently at the rows of identical single beds with their identical stuffed pandas, and then she notices a girl sitting in a wheelchair at the far end of the room. The girl’s back is to her; she seems to be wearing pajamas and is staring at a flickering television screen playing a loop of a black and white cartoon. Helen calls out to her, but the girl doesn’t answer or turn around. Anthony comes up beside Helen in the doorway and explains that this is his sister Sara. “She was in an accident,” he murmurs, and then he and Helen proceed down the hall.

We then see a shot of Sara from the front, though half her face is concealed by the angle of the television set. Her eyes are wide and a bit crazed as they frenetically follow the cartoon action on the screen in front of her. And then the camera tips upward to reveal the bottom half of the girl’s face. She has no mouth, only smooth flesh where the lips should be. It’s a very short but chilling moment, and all done very simply. There is no gore, no blatant deformity, just that disturbingly empty expanse where the girl’s mouth should be. Later in the story, we learn that Anthony crippled his sister and took her mouth away so that she wouldn’t “nag” him anymore. The other sister who reveals this information (played by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson) has an even more horrifying fate; Anthony puts her into a cartoon, where she is pursued and eaten by a dragon.

That girl with no mouth, though; that wigged me out.

Fright Night (1985)

The second example of disturbing facial distortion is far more ostentatious, but it affected me mightily just the same. The Tom Holland-directed Fright Night (1985) was one of the best horror comedies of the decade, faultlessly combining hilarity, pathos, and terror into a wildly entertaining whole. Charley is a regular high school kid who lives with his single mother, has a goofball horror-nerd best friend named Evil, and a goody-two-shoes girlfriend named Amy.

Apparently, Charley also has a vampire as a new neighbor, though naturally no one believes it. Through binoculars, Charley has been watching neighbor Jerry Dandridge evidently picking up high-class prostitutes and later carrying suspiciously body-shaped garbage bags out of the house next door with the help of his manservant/thrall Billy Cole. After trying to alert family, friends, and then police, all to no avail, Charley gets desperate and enlists (well, buys) the services of his hero, has-been TV horror host Peter Vincent (portrayed with great sensitivity and humor by Roddy McDowall) to help stop the bloodsucker.

At one point, the charismatic Dandridge has put his vampy moves on the virginal Amy, chasing her to a downtown nightclub and dancing with her seductively before biting her. Later on in the film, Charley comes across Amy in the basement of Dandridge’s house. She is nearly unrecognizable, her formerly good-girl demeanor completely transformed into a feral sexpot (a giant upgrade in my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there; incidentally, I dressed up as Amy’s vampire form a couple of Halloweens ago). She approaches him in her see-through white gown and bares her fangs at him, then cruelly teases him: “What’s wrong?” she says, running her hands through her wild red hair. “Don’t you want me anymore?”

Charley, frightened by this frankly sexual creature who used to be his withholding girlfriend, thrusts a crucifix at her. She shrieks and turns from him, then tries another tactic. “It’s not my fault, Charley,” she cries pitifully in her good-girl-Amy voice. “You promised you wouldn’t let him get me! You promised!”

Charley, dope that he is, falls for it and drops the crucifix, moving toward her. “Amy…” he says. And then we pan over to Amy’s face, and YIKES. There is a terrifying rictus of a mouth, huge and impossibly wide and filled with sharp teeth. When I first saw that mouth in 1985, I think my heart stopped a little bit; it was just the enormity of it, the way it consumed the lower half of her face. Between the mouth and the round red eyes, I was put in mind of a giant anaconda about to swallow someone’s head. That image has stayed with me from that day to this. For his part, Charley, upon seeing Amy’s bloodcurdling visage, screams and tries to fight her off, foxy vampire or no. He is profoundly relieved when she is transformed back into her ordinary self after Dandridge is killed.

And so Fright Night leaves us with a question for the ages: Better to have a slightly annoying girlfriend who won’t put out, or a supernatural, oversexed hellbeast who wants to eat your face off? Charley chose the safer option; would you?

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) is a horror behemoth that not only spawned fifty squintillion sequels and spinoffs, but also established one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. There probably isn’t a horror fan alive who hasn’t seen it. While the merits of the sequels can (and have been) debated to death—and I for one tend to be one of those people who feels that most of them, while good films, veered too far into self-parody to be effectively frightening—I think it’s pretty much universally accepted that the original was one of the scariest horror films of the 80s.

The scenes that fans and reviewers tend to point to when they talk about “scary parts” are usually the more splashy ones (in both senses of the word), like the blood geyser that erupts when Johnny Depp is sucked into his bed (during the Miss Nude America pageant, no less), or Tina’s gorily and gloriously airborne murder. Another popular choice is Freddy’s appearance in Tina’s dream, his shadowed figure approaching through the alley, his freakishly long arms causing his finger-blades to scrape unsettlingly across the walls. These are all great options, but the one I want to feature is much less showy, since as I keep repeating, the creepiest scenes for me are ones that are predicated on suggestion and atmosphere.

Main protagonist Nancy is sitting in her English class, wearing a tragic combo of pale pink sweater-vest and high-waisted beige slacks (ahh, the eighties). Since her terrible dreams have been keeping her up nights, she’s understandably a mite drowsy. She struggles to keep her eyes open as the teacher drones on, and then as a student gets up in front of the class and begins to read from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

She blinks sleepily, but for a moment we don’t realize that she has dozed off (and neither does she, apparently). Then things start to get weird. She happens to glance to her right and sees that her murdered friend Tina is standing in the doorway of the classroom, ensconced in a bloody body bag. Tina’s hand reaches out inside the plastic. “Help me,” she says. And then Nancy turns back to survey the classroom, perhaps to check if anyone else is seeing this crazy shit. The boy is still standing at the front of the class reading Julius Caesar, but now he is staring straight at Nancy and reading in a flat, menacing whisper.

The first time I heard that whisper, my blood legit ran cold, because for whatever reason, one of the things that disturbs me the most in films is when a character inexplicably starts speaking in a different voice. Other examples of similar movie scenes that had the same chilling effect on my psyche were Danny’s croaking “Redrum” getting suddenly higher-pitched in The Shining, the Judge’s normal voice jumping into screeching cartoon mode in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the little old woman talking in the voice of Nicole Kidman’s daughter in The Others. I realize that this is a particular bête noire of mine, so readers’ mileage may vary, but for my money, the boy in A Nightmare On Elm Street reading Shakespeare in the slow, hissing whisper is easily the most unnerving part of that scene, and for me it added a nice little fillip of terror.

Moving on, Nancy looks back at the doorway. Bodybag Tina is gone, but there’s still a big ol’ blood puddle on the floor to mark her presence. Nancy gets up from her seat and goes into the empty hallway. There’s a wide blood trail allllll the way down the hall, and at the end of it, there’s Tina lying in her body bag. Her feet are raised as though an invisible person is holding them up, and then she is dragged slowly out of the frame.

The entire scene is five minutes long, but it’s really only these first two minutes that are effectively scary. Once Nancy runs around the corner and crashes into the snotty hall monitor in the telltale striped sweater, and then descends into the boiler room where she confronts Freddy, big as life and oozing with green chest-goo, the frightening part of the scene has already happened. The little details of the buildup are what make the scene eerie for me; after that, it’s just a comedown from the high.

Lake Mungo (2008)

This underrated Australian mockumentary from 2008 is simultaneously one of the spookiest and one of the saddest horror films I’ve ever seen, and one of the things that makes it so disquieting for me is its subtlety and its quiet realism.

The movie is set up as a documentary-style exploration of the strange aftermath of the death of sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer. While spending the day at a picnic spot with her family, Alice disappears, only to be found later, drowned. Because Alice’s father Russell is the one to identify his daughter’s upsettingly bloated corpse, her mother Rosie still holds out hope that Alice might still be around.

And for a while, it would seem that her suspicions have merit, at least in one sense; a few eerie happenstances around the Palmer homestead lead the family to believe that Alice is haunting them, and her brother Matthew sets up video cameras around the house to try to record the paranormal phenomena. They also consult a psychic named Ray to help in the investigation. During the course of the inquiry, some images are captured that make it fairly clear that Alice’s ghost is lurking about, perhaps trying to communicate something important.

So far, so creepy. But then, the movie throws us for a loop when it’s revealed (spoiler alert) that Matthew has been faking all of the footage that purportedly showed Alice; he admits he did it because he was worried about his mother not having closure about his sister’s death, and he hoped that by casting some doubt on the whole affair, he’d be able to get Alice’s body exhumed, at which point his mother would finally come to terms with the fact that Alice was dead.

So the whole supernatural angle was just a hoax? Well, yes, but not so fast. While the family is sorting through the videos, they actually come across something not paranormal, but just as unsettling: footage of their neighbor poking through Alice’s room, as though looking for something.

It turns out that Alice, who had babysat for the neighbors on several occasions, was also involved in a sexual relationship with the couple, which may or may not have been entirely consensual, and had video of it stashed in her room. So here are more secrets about Alice that her family didn’t know, and her parents begin to despair over the fact that they only discovered their daughter was a stranger to them after she was gone.

They also find out that unbeknownst to them, Alice had also been to visit the same psychic that later came in to help with the supposed haunting, and that she had told him that she’d been having disturbing premonitions of her impending death. It also comes to light that she’d been on a school trip to Lake Mungo not long before she died, and a classmate’s cell phone footage inadvertently recorded her burying something at the base of a tree out there. Her family later go to the tree to unearth whatever this was, and find Alice’s cell phone. And on that cell phone is one of the creepiest fucking things I ever saw in a movie, and it’s seriously giving me goosebumps just typing it.

The video—which of course is low res and grainy, because 2008, which just makes it all the more uncanny—was apparently taken while a distraught Alice walked along the lake shore, feeling as though something ominous was about to happen. A figure slowly approaches out of the darkness, and at first it just looks like another person, but as it gets closer, the viewer begins to realize that the figure is a doppelgänger of Alice, who looks exactly like the bloated corpse that was pulled from the lake near the beginning of the movie. The shot is so brief, but so damn impactful, and all the more so because the movie surrounding it is so restrained.

So Alice obviously knew she was going to die, and had been troubled for quite a while beforehand, though her parents had no idea any of this was going on. Once the family accept Alice’s death, they move out of the house, ready to carry on with their lives, but the film leaves us with one final, tragic twist: the “fake” photos of Alice’s ghost that Matthew made are shown again, but this time we can see that the real spirit of Alice is standing there, in a spot we didn’t notice before. Which means that Alice’s ghost actually was in the house the whole time, and now her entire family have left her there alone. Heartbreaking.

The Ring (2002)

Back in the early 2000s, it seemed like any Asian horror film that got any sort of buzz in the horror community was going to be remade for American audiences, and while most of these were not all that great (as I mentioned earlier when discussing The Eye), I will give director Gore Verbinski a massive amount of credit, not only for making the sole American remake of an Asian film that I actually thought was better than the original, but also for making a movie that scared the absolute shit out of me back when I saw it in the theater in 2002.

Like the 1998 original, The Ring is a supernatural murder mystery of a sort, revolving around a mysterious videotape that supposedly has a curse attached to it: watch it, and seven days later, you’ll die. In the 2002 American version, Naomi Watts plays a journalist named Rachel, whose sister asks her to look into the strange death of her daughter/Rachel’s niece Katie. As she investigates and comes across a copy of the weird tape, she begins to believe that all the urban legends about the video are true, and that she now only has seven days to solve the mystery behind the videotape and figure out a way to break the death curse before it’s too late.

The whole vibe of this movie is eerie as fuck: it’s always chilly and raining, everything looks washed out and is tinted a sickly bluish-green, and every interaction between characters seems haunted, melancholy, and edged with menace. There are many terrifying scenes in The Ring, including Samara’s climb out of the well and into our reality via the TV screen, the incongruous and unbelievably upsetting sequence of the panicking horse leaping off the ferry and being chewed up by the boat’s propeller, and the flickering, surreal footage of the cursed video itself.

But for my money, the most effective scare in the film, the one that stuck with me and gave me nightmares for weeks after I saw it, happens only about fifteen minutes in. There’s a spooky opening set-up, in which the doomed Katie and her friend Becca are talking about the urban legend making the rounds, about the videotape that kills you if you watch it. Katie admits she thinks she’s seen the video, but at first makes light of it until creepy shit starts happening around the house: the TV coming on by itself multiple times, an unexplained puddle of water on the floor. She stares at the screen, her face going slack, and then we cut away to Rachel picking up her son Aiden from school. Aiden has been drawing disturbing pictures of his cousin Katie for three days, ever since she died.

The next day, Rachel and her sister Ruth—Katie’s mom­—are talking at Katie’s wake. Everything is very solemn and subdued, as it would be. Ruth is bereft, of course, but she’s also confused, because no one can tell her exactly what killed her daughter; it seems that her heart just stopped for no reason.

So while you as the viewer get lulled into this scene, which is just two women having a conversation, Ruth says, sadly, “I saw her face.” And then BAM! The movie cuts to what Ruth saw, and HOLY SHIT, did that sudden cutaway fuck me up for weeks afterward. I’m usually not all that affected by jump scares, because they’re so often telegraphed, but this one absolutely was not, and was all the more terrifying because of it. THAT is how you do a jump scare right: no eerie lead-up with someone walking through a dark hallway, no ominous music suddenly fading out to silence to prepare you for the jolt. Nope, just a regular conversation that is suddenly interrupted by one of the most ghastly visuals ever put to film.

Hereditary (2018)

Where the hell do I even start with this movie?!? Ari Aster’s 2018 horror masterpiece took me completely by surprise when I went to see it in the theater; I just sat there, watching it, and my stomach was just curdling from dread the whole entire goddamn time. Look, I love horror movies, but it’s very rare that one actually scares me; I’m not saying that to be a badass or anything, it’s just that I’ve seen so many that a lot of the “tricks” don’t really work on me anymore because I’ve seen them done so many times, and usually badly. I also write horror myself, so I’m pretty familiar with the methods used to elicit certain emotions out of a reader or viewer.

But Hereditary was a different beast altogether. I don’t think I’ve been that traumatized by a horror movie since I was a kid, and I simultaneously loved and hated Ari Aster in equal measure for making me feel the way I felt (as well as the month’s worth of nightmares that followed). I saw a review of the movie that called it “emotional terrorism,” and that actually resonated with me pretty hard, because it just made me so anxious during its entire running time, and even though I desperately wanted to see it again, because I knew there were so many subtleties and details that I missed, but I put if off for TWO FUCKING YEARS because just thinking about sitting through it again gave me heart palpitations. And really, I can’t think of higher praise for a horror movie than that.

I think most people reading this are probably acquainted with what Hereditary is about, but if you aren’t, it’s basically the story of a dysfunctional family, the Grahams, who are dealing with the recent loss of the maternal grandmother, who it turns out may have had some secrets pertaining to an evil witch coven she was involved with. Said members of this coven seemingly begin to infiltrate the lives of the Graham family without them being entirely aware of it, leading to some pretty fucked up demonic antics that I’ll let people who haven’t seen the movie discover for themselves. It sounds like a simple premise, honestly, but it’s the execution of said premise that immediately rocketed Hereditary into my top ten favorite horror movies of all time within moments of its release. It’s that fucking good, although I will note here that there do seem to be two camps surrounding the movie: one camp containing people who thought it was laughable and/or wasn’t scary, didn’t really get what was going on in regards to all the subtle shit happening in the background of the thing, or didn’t get emotionally invested enough in it for it to have any kind of effect on them. Then there’s the other camp of people like me, who got completely invested in all the characters and their dynamic, felt almost overwhelmingly apprehensive pretty much from the first frame, kept thinking about scenes from the fucking movie every time they got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and were too chickenshit to watch it a second time even though they really wanted to (I eventually did rewatch it, and it stressed me out less the second time, but that’s only because I knew what was coming).

This is another movie where I can’t just pick one scene that fucked me up, because there were so many, and the thing about Hereditary is that the horror of it is really pervasive; even the scenes that don’t appear scary on the surface are still really unsettling when the whole thing is taken in aggregate. Of course the big showstopper sequence is the one where Charlie is beheaded by the pole, though I think the scariest thing about that (other than imagining that happening to you or someone in the car with you…UGH) was seeing all the reactions of the other characters: her brother Peter, driving the car, simply going into shock; her mother Annie, wailing in grief in a way that actually hurt my heart. By the way, holy SHIT, why didn’t Toni Collette get an Oscar for this? Anyway. Oh, and then there was that brutal smash-cut to the girl’s fucked-up severed head lying there in the road, which no lie made me want to get up and nope out of the theater. FUCK.

Then there were also ALL THE OTHER SCENES: Peter in school slamming his own head against the desk; the dream Annie has about seeing Peter’s face all covered with ants, then waking up to realize she’s standing over him about to set him on fire; Peter in his darkened room, with the viewer slowly realizing that Annie is perched up in the corner of his room in the shadows near the ceiling; Annie floating in the air, sawing her own head off with piano wire; Annie banging her head rapidly against the attic door after she’s possessed; the creepy naked guy hanging out in a darkened doorway in the background with absolutely no one noticing; there were just tons and tons of moments like that. And the one that actually gave me the most sleepless nights wasn’t even one of those; it was the one where Peter woke up from a dream after (I think) hearing that clicking noise that Charlie always made when she was alive; he looks over in the corner of his room and doesn’t see anything at first, but then it appears that Charlie is standing there in the shadows, and then HER HEAD TIPS FORWARD AND FALLS OFF, and oh man, I did not like that. Beheading has always freaked me out anyway, so that moment really got me, especially because it was so unexpected and sort of low key. BRRR.

Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed this lengthy examination of some of my favorite scary scenes, and as I said, I might do a revisit one of these days to cover the million or so other ones that I didn’t talk about. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

2 thoughts on “Ten of My Favorite Terrifying Horror Movie Scenes

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