There’s probably no aspect of movies that offers as much attraction and repulsion, in equal doses, as their ability to terrify. Speaking from personal experience, I don’t think any other kind of scene or image can stake a claim in a person’s memory to the same extent that a moment of horror can. And those moments will be most effective if they reach a viewer at a tender age, before he’s developed a firm grip on the distinction between fiction and reality. Movies don’t scare me like they used to.
But as I was pondering a list of the scariest movie moments I’ve experienced, the examples that sprung to mind were nearly all in films I saw at a young age — quite a few of them in Disney films, which is probably not too surprising. For some of those scenes, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I ever found them frightening. You see, not only was the distinction between fiction and reality a little fuzzy in my mind as a child, but so was the distinction between horror and comedy. A few of the selections below illustrate this, but I’d say the majority of them can still get my adrenaline going even today. Shocks get stale, but creepiness endures.
I just want to be clear that I’m not trying to be “objective” in any way, shape or form. So, yeah, caveats. These are personal reminiscences. I felt like sharing scenes that I, somewhat perversely, cherish — the kind that I’d watch from between my fingers. This should not be mistaken for a list of my favorite horror films (1) because most of the movies don’t fit that description at all and (2) because some horror movies that I absolutely love, such as Halloween, The Shining, and Night of the Living Dead, don’t appear. Lacking a scene that grabbed me by the throat when I happened to be young and vulnerable doesn’t affect my appreciation for those films at all. Neither should the rankings on this list be treated as a measure of how frightening I find the scenes today — again, it’s more of a retrospective, and I’ve toughened up a little bit over the years.
Now let’s take a trip down memory lane on a cold, moonless night, with a biting wind that makes you hug yourself as you try to discern whether what you’re hearing is just the echo of your own footfalls, or something else.
25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
Being reminded of this segment from the anthology film based on the famous television series is what sparked my interest in forming this list, so I had to include it. However, until two nights ago, I don’t think I’d ever seen the entire segment, let alone the whole film. The image of the, uh, critter on the wing of the plane was seared onto my brain when I came across it whilst channel surfing years ago. Flying is scary enough without gremlin sightings.
24. The Brave Little Toaster (1987) Toaster’s nightmare
Lists like these demand at least one appearance by a scary clown. There are more prominent live-action examples, but the simplicity of the idea coupled with the authentically dreamlike transmogrifications makes this scene unforgettable. And there’s no better example of the link between horror and comedy than the sight of a toaster with a face dangling over a bathtub filled with water.
It’s been a long time since I covered my eyes during this scene at the beginning of the film. I mean, a really, really long time. But I remember. Scares don’t get any simpler or more primal than the sudden appearance of a badly decomposed corpse. It “jumps” out at you because the coffin lid opens so suddenly. Mel Brooks set the mood perfectly with this opening; it’s the best filmmaking of his career, by far.
22. Zodiac (2007) Basement scene
I saw this movie for the first time a year and a half ago, making this the most recent addition to the list, a scene that’s frightening for adults as well as children. Basements are inherently scary places — the claustrophobia, the darkness, the noises. David Fincher makes incredible use of all three. Perhaps it straddles the line between suspense and terror, but the suggestiveness of this scene is amazingly visceral.
21. The Ten Commandments (1956) Angel of death
Visualizing this part of the Exodus story with a lethal creeping mist has become standard procedure, but the quiet terror of this scene has never been matched. The image of a thin green cloud slowly spreading over the moon is enough to give me the shivers; never mind the plague itself, which of course is not shown explicitly. That image says “death,” plain and simple.
20. Oklahoma! (1955) Laurey’s nightmare
A young woman’s simple, lighthearted romantic dilemma descends into darkness and violence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking ballet sequence. Of course, the fact that this dream is told in the language of ballet only makes it creepier, along with the use of shadows and the red sky. This is a much darker treatment of sexuality than one might expect from a 50’s musical, although naturally the themes are cloaked.
19. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987) Buried alive
I could have included any scene involving a large spider, but this stands out for combining that with the fear of paralysis and, as mentioned above, the fear of being buried alive. The protagonist is given a drug that paralyzes him to the point where he appears to be dead but remains conscious. And so he is placed in a coffin with a tarantula. The dirt is shoveled over the coffin; his eyes are open; the spider starts crawling on his face. Yeah.
18. Superman III (1983) Cyborg
This one definitely doesn’t scare me anymore — just typical 80’s weirdness. The whole movie is all over the map. But that supercomputer could do some crazy things. Like graft its machinery onto a human body and create a magical killer robot. I kid. Those eyes are still creepy, though. And the underlying concept, dehumanization (which will come up again on this list), certainly gets at something basic.
17. Gone with the Wind (1939) Scarlett’s dead mother
There are several other traumatic moments in this film, but the music and the shadows really get at me in this scene. The filmmakers’ insistence that we share in the complete despair of the characters can be a little overbearing, but the sight of death — particularly when it’s matter-of-fact rather than Hollywood-style gruesome — wipes everything else away. It can drive a person insane, this much grief, and that’s even scarier.
16. Seven (1995) “Sloth”
The dark apartment, the air fresheners hanging from the ceiling, the SWAT team’s flashlights — Fincher masterfully sets the stage, then turns the screw a couple more times. Now this is Hollywood-style gruesome, an exploration of the depths of evil to which humanity can sink. This scene affects me because of shock value, sure, but after that comes the realization of exactly what the movie’s serial killer villain was doing.
“I hope that I never see that face ever outside of a dream.” I wouldn’t want to see it in a dream either. Just in this movie is fine for me. This one’s another “shock” scene, another scene that slowly builds suspense before the big surprise, and coupled with the Seven scene we observe how the same effect can be created in two entirely different ways. In this case, it’s all about the fear of nightmares coming true.
14. Fantasia (1940) Rite of Spring
I chose the whole sequence because there are a number of scary or shocking moments to be found within it: the sudden close-up of the volcanoes, the arrival of the T-Rex, the agonizing dinosaur deaths in the desert, the earthquake. More importantly, Stravinsky’s music throughout is among the most terrifying ever composed. It’s primitive madness that never lets up.
13. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Big Ben
The villain gets pretty scary at the end of this movie — rabid in the fullest sense of the word. It was much more frightening when I was young because it was so much harder to make sense of it. The suave Vincent Price-voiced criminal mastermind is replaced by, well, an animal, determined to kill as animals do. The giant, unstoppable gears of London’s famous clock only reinforce the fact that this is no place for a mouse detective.
12. The Matrix (1999) The agents put a tracer in Neo
I don’t think the Wachowskis ever took better advantage of the visual possibilities of a world created by a computer intelligence than the scene in which Keanu Reeves loses his mouth. Seriously. When I first saw it, it was so unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That freakish moment might be enough, but then there’s the insectoid tracer that burrows into Neo’s belly button. Played for maximum squirms.
Even knowing that it’s just a prosthesis — and it’s pretty easy to tell — this moment still works. I could have picked a number of scenes from this brilliant film (scary clowns, again), but the idea of falling apart in front of a bathroom mirror works both literally and figuratively. I’ve seen it reused in everything from The Fly to District 9 to Black Swan. We get a reprieve at the end of the scene, but all that says is that the ghosts are just messing with us.
10. The Mummy (1999) No eyes/tongue
The bad guys who get what’s coming to them in this film are embarrassingly cartoonish, and this sequence begins with the ol’ “Oh no, my glasses fell off! I can’t see a thing. Oops, somebody stepped on them.” But when I was a lad of twelve, the sight of a face sans eyes was something I didn’t care for. I include it on the list because it’s one of only a few from which I have distinct memories of actually averting my gaze.
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) The Ceti eels
This one’s the scariest moment involving insect-like creatures that I can think of. Chekhov and Captain Terrell are held down as the larvae crawl into their ears. So we have the “scary animal on your face (and this time in your brain)” idea again, but these creatures are especially invasive because they take over the two men’s minds. Dehumanization again, the loss of free will.
8. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) The Headless Horseman
The pumpkin-wielding phantom is frightening enough, but really it’s the ride through the dark forest prior to his appearance that deserves mention. Ichabod has let Brom Bones’ ghost story sink in a little too well, and now every sound, every crooked tree branch seems intended to startle him. A cloud shaped like a hand closes around the moon, and even Ichabod’s whistling echoes eerily in the night. This man is being haunted, by himself at least.
7. Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) The banshee
The moment when Darby opens the door and sees a banshee was probably the biggest shock in any movie I saw when I was young. Is there anything more to it than that? I don’t know, because I’ve never actually seen the whole movie (hey look! Sean Connery’s in this). Checking out a YouTube clip now, I see that the special effects are surprisingly durable, but it doesn’t make me jump out of my socks anymore. Over the years, a person’s imagination can embellish these things quite a bit.
The most agonizing moment of dehumanization I’ve ever seen in a film. A bad boy, repentant too late. This scene will scare children into seeking the straight and narrow as effectively as any description of hell itself. That’s a neat trick considering how well the film had previously portrayed the fun of mischief on Pleasure Island. Part of learning right from wrong is being able to see the consequences of choosing to do wrong. It takes awhile, but Pinocchio learns.
5. Psycho (1960) Detective Arbogast ascends the staircase
Not the most obvious choice, I know. I omit the shower scene for the same reason I omit moments from The Exorcist, Alien and others. I consider them taken. The shower scene is so iconic that the shock wore off long before I actually saw the movie. Therefore, it was the second time Bernard Herrmann’s strings stung my ears in the film that really scared me. That moment was more surprising for me and offered a better look at the killer.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Hospital guard
If memory serves, there was a taboo attached to this film in our household when I was very young. This made sense, in retrospect. But it only increased my attraction to the movie, an attraction mixed with trepidation. The scene in which the guard gets himself a cup of coffee serves as my earliest memory of the film. The T-1000 remains one of the scariest movie villains. There’s almost nothing he can’t do, except show emotion.
There are terrifically grisly moments in every Indiana Jones movie, but I picked this one because I think it’s the first I encountered (that’s what comes of being born in 1987 and discovering movies on TV). Objectively speaking, the effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark work much better (Last Crusade is essentially a carbon copy of Raiders, just adding — hey look! — Connery again), but this one freaked me out first. Now that I’ve grown, I can control myself enough to appreciate the old knight’s zinger after the bad guy bites the dust.
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) The Evil Toon
I need a moment. This guy is still terrifying to me. From the second he starts moving after being literally steamrolled, cartoon logic takes its darkest turn. Plot-wise, this development closes a crucial narrative thread in the film, but it still comes as a shock. It makes a character we already knew was a villain even more disturbing. The idea alone is scary, but then you throw in the bulging red eyes and the high-pitched voice. Cartoons could scare me the most because they were typically so comforting. If you can’t trust a whimsical drawing, whom can you trust?
1. Fantasia (1940) Night on Bald Mountain
This is where the idea of attraction/repulsion reaches its apotheosis, because this is my favorite sequence in the film, and it’s one that I remember avoiding as a child, or at least gritting my teeth through. Mussorgsky wrote the scariest musical piece of all time, hands down. Mostly it’s the anticipation that gets to me. All that happens in the sequence is this: the demon Chernabog beckons the dead from their graves, hosts a bacchanalia on the titular mountain, and casts his minions into the inferno before a tolling church bell forces him to relinquish the dead. In a nutshell, this is what horror in the movies is for, ideally: a long, hard look at evil followed by a return to safety. For me, that return only happens when my imagination has finally settled down, when my heart and my head can agree that it was only a movie.