Self-purported, “true horror fanatics” will argue that the terror of a scene escalates exponentially when the worst of the worst is never shown; that the inside of a moviegoer’s mind is far more hellish than anything a director or writer could create. Yes, horror can be successful when relying on darkness and screams behind closed doors, but this film fan humbly cries bullshit on that theory.
The most terrifying moments in movies arise when you realize the film maker doesn’t have your best interest at heart; he isn’t just offering a good scare, he genuinely wants to hurt you. The viciousness these movie makers are capable of achieving is far worse than anything you could imagine on your own, and best of all, they are willing to leave the lights on while they do it. This is not a list of slaughterhouse flicks that rely on blood and entrails, substituting shock for fear. Terrifying moments in film don’t have to be gory, but they are committed with the door open, right there in front of you, with the potential to harm even through the screen. This list pays homage to 13 of the scariest moments in film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – Dinner Scene
Shot on grainy 16mm, the entire movie feels like a snuff film. But the crescendo of terror occurs when the protagonist Sally wakes up tied to a chair at a dinner table with Leatherface’s family. Sally and the audience realize simultaneously that there is no help here, that the entire community is dangerous and that this family of sociopaths intends to eat her. The scene is unrelenting, getting more difficult to watch when the family attempts to feed the blood from her fingers to the dying grandfather at the end of the table. It should also be noted that the blood drawn from her finger in the scene is entirely real because the filmmakers couldn’t get the stage blood to work properly. The insanity of the family is almost beyond imagination, and baring witness to that horror makes viewers just as terrified as Sally.
Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Buried Alive
A handful of films have capitalized on the fear of being buried alive, but none as successfully as Serpent and the Rainbow. While in Haiti, anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is given a drug that temporarily paralyzes his entire body. To the world, he appears dead, but Alan maintains his senses. He is buried alive and, adding insult to injury, his gravediggers put a tarantula in the coffin to keep him company. The last thing the audience sees as the dirt rains down is the spider crawling over Alan’s open eyes, then complete darkness.
Marathon Man (1976) – “Is it Safe?”
Torture in cinema is forced to walk a delicate line; an audience always has the ability to detach from the movie and shut their eyes if things get too gruesome. The trick is to keep people so invested in both protagonist and antagonist that they are willing to stay glued to the screen, even when it hurts. Marathon Man handles torture deftly in the infamous scene between Babe (Dustin Hoffman) and Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Strapped to a chair, Babe undergoes torture by dentistry as Szell drills though his teeth into the nerves in the hope of uncovering information. Szell’s charm and general calmness only heighten the horror of the torture, and the audience is as clueless as Babe while Szell repeatedly asks the cryptic question, “Is it safe?” The sound of the drill and Dustin Hoffman’s screams reportedly caused moviegoers to literally cry out in theaters, “He doesn’t know!” during the film’s release.
When a Stranger Calls (1979 and 2006) – “The call is coming from inside the house.”
Film fans have a strange relationship with voyeurism. In movies about stalkers, they root for and associate with the character being watched, regardless of the fact that everyone in the theater is participating in the watching. Both the original and the remake of When a Stranger Calls play with the idea of boundaries between observer and the observed. A young woman is babysitting for children in a house that seems to be made entirely of windows. A good portion of the movie is spent establishing boundaries; inside the house equals safe, outside the house equals danger. Then, in a single moment, the film breaks those boundaries down completely as the “safe zone” is infiltrated. The most terrifying scene in the movie comes when the police tell the babysitter, “We traced the call, it’s coming from inside the house.”
Skip forward to 3:40.
Mulholland Drive (2001) – Discovering Diane Selwyn’s Body
The worst moment of any nightmare is when you want to scream but can’t. In Mulholland Drive, characters Betty (Naomi Watts) and the amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) break into a bungalow in the hopes of finding clues to Rita’s past. There they discover the rotting corpse of Diane Selwyn in the bed, but given the circumstances of having broken in, neither woman can scream. David Lynch doesn’t shy away from showing the whole body, or the look on the corpse’s face as the women stare on and cry quietly. The silence only works to escalate the terror, and the audience is left with a good understanding of what it would be like to stumble across a dead body.
Trainspotting (1996) – The Baby
While on the subject of corpses, there are few more startling to see than those of children and babies. And when one of those baby bodies crawls across the ceiling, it’s enough to make some people pass out from fear. As Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) attempts to quit heroine cold turkey, he suffers through some horrific hallucinations in his bedroom. The worst of these is the body of his friend’s child crawling across the ceiling toward him. The child died of neglect days earlier because, well, her parents were heroin addicts. The most terrifying moment comes when the baby stops directly above Renton, slowly turning its bloated face to look at him with sunken eyes.
The Blair Witch Project (1999 )— Children’s Handprints on the Walls
While ultimately a somewhat disappointing movie, The Blair Witch Project contains moments of sheer terror, namely, the moment when Mike and Heather are searching for their friend Josh in the middle of the night and stumble across an abandoned house in the woods. Earlier in the movie, one of their interviewees tells a story about the Blair Witch who would lure kids to her cabin and kill them. As the two filmmakers wander into the upstairs floor of the house following the screams of Josh, the camera flashes past a hallway wall covered with children’s handprints. The characters are too invested in their search to comment or react to the prints, but the audience knows exactly what they are, and that it means the stories are real.
Skip to 2:25
Event Horizon (1997) – The Video Log From the Crew
From Hellraiser and Spawn to Constantine, moviemakers have often provided their own interpretations of hell, but arguably one of the most terrifying appeared in Event Horizon. The ship Event Horizon has been missing for seven years before it is discovered orbiting Neptune. The team Lewis and Clark is sent to investigate exactly what happened. Upon entering the missing ship, the group finds no signs of life and only a captain’s log from the previous crew. It’s hard to say exactly what the video log shows—numerous fans have watched the scene frame by frame and immediately regretted doing so—but in real time, it seems to be an amalgamation of screams, blood, death and sexual violence. It only lasts around five frightening seconds, which is more than enough. Throughout the rest of the film, small clips of hell are replayed, each one hard to comprehend but filled with menace. It’s difficult to imagine a hell as terrible as the one we only see for five seconds in this film.
The Exorcist (1973) – The Head Spin/ Crucifix Masturbation
It’s hard to objectively look back at some moments in cinematic history because they have been reproduced and parodied so many times. Frankly, it’s difficult for the horrible to remain horrible. Still, for anyone walking into The Exorcist for the first time knowing nothing about the film, these scenes will likely inflict a substantial trauma to the psyche. Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil is possessed by the devil and goes through changes so horrifying that they could have only been concocted on the fringe of human creativity. In fact, audiences were so startled by these scenes during the film’s release that the Exorcist wasn’t allowed to play in certain cities and was entirely banned in the UK.
Skip to 1:45 and 8:05
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – Re-watching the Home Invasion
To begin, this movie was so horrifying to the rating administration that it couldn’t get an R rating until four years after its release. The film has its fair share of gore, but the most horrifying scene comes when the two killers, Henry and Otis, sit passively on the couch, watching themselves on tape during a home invasion. The two men filmed an attack on a woman, and also the killing of her boyfriend when he arrives unannounced. The true terror of this scene is the parallel made between the killers and the audience. The killers are compelled to watch the violence onscreen, just as the audience is compelled to sit through it; it is a terrifying moment when you realize your desires are so close to those of a serial killer.
Skip to 1:09
Misery (1990) – The Hobbling
The hobbling scene from Misery is so iconic that it doesn’t require much explanation. After saving author Paul Sheldon from a car crash, lunatic fan Annie Wilkes keeps him captive in her home. In order to prevent his escape, she places a block of wood between his ankles then breaks each with a sledgehammer. Sheldon’s helplessness and Annie’s insistence that she is doing it because she loves him makes the scene scream worthy. It also doesn’t hurt that we get to see it all happen in the light of day.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Agent Starling vs. Buffalo Bill
At the end of Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is in Buffalo Bill’s house, trapped in the darkness while he watches her through night vision goggles. She is working a case following a serial killer who is fattening women up, then killing them in order to make a suit from their skin. Once in his house, Clarice sees the extent of the butchery and the unfinished suit right before the lights go out. It’s agonizing to watch her stumble around in the dark, aiming her gun wildly while Buffalo Bill follows right behind her, even reaching out at points to touch her hair.
The Shining (1980) – Inside Room 237
You can really take your pick as far as terrifying moments from The Shining and most would make this list. But we are going to concentrate on Jack’s encounter with the woman in room 237 because it seems to be responsible for the most nightmares worldwide. After staying in the Stanley Hotel with only his family for the past five months, Jack Torrance is on the tipping point of insanity. It also doesn’t help that the hotel is gently prodding him to kill his wife and kid. Jack enters room 237 after his son Danny comes out of the room with choke marks on his neck. There, Jack discovers an inexplicable naked woman in the bathtub who he, understandably, makes out with. During the kiss, she transforms into a decomposing corpse who begins laughing maniacally. This is all inter-cut with Danny remembering what happened in the room as the dead woman slowly rises from the bathtub. It’s well lit, with few cuts and is a perfect example of how chilling a scene can be without surprises behind dark corners or copious amounts of blood.
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