As it’s the season to be terrified, we set ourselves the terrifying task of gathering up our favorite scary movie moments of all time. Ok, it’s not quite “venturing alone into a darkened mansion during a thunderstorm” frightening, but it is a daunting task, mainly due to the entirely subjective nature of what is “scary.” Most of you must have experienced it at some point: you’re watching a horror film, paralyzed by fear while the flesh creeps slowly off your bones, then you glance in terror at the person beside you and they are mid-yawn. Or vice versa, perhaps, if you’re one of those “don’t scare easy” types (personally I take great pride in being a total wuss). It’s a phenomenon explored in “Fear Itself” a new docu-essay about horror films and their effects on us, which is streaming now on BBC iPlayer, and it’s one that haunts the fringes of this list like a knife-wielding psycho hiding behind a door. Or is it just a cat?
Yet, laughing blithely in ignorance of the terrors ahead like a car full of teenagers heading for a weekend in the woods, we embarked on this folly nonetheless. Our only real rules were to try and keep repetition down to a minimum (so no two moments from the same film) and to try to stay roughly within the horror/thriller genre. Some of the examples below are whole scenes or sequences and some just tiny little stabs of panic; some are stomach-churningly gross, others just wildly creepy. Either way, these are 40 moments that we count among the scariest we’ve ever seen.
Warning: MASSIVE **SPOILER ALERT** for this entire list (do not watch the clip if you haven’t seen the film) but otherwise, if you’re brave enough, turn the lights off, and enjoy.
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40. “Salem’s Lot” (1979)
So yeah, you know that subjective thing mentioned above? We’re prepared to admit that this scene is no longer particularly frightening, and its TV movie provenance could have kept it off altogether, yet for quite a few of us this was one of the first horrors we ever saw largely because it was on TV (and syndicated everywhere, every Halloween in the 1980s). This scene therefore warped a lot of minds so young they really shouldn’t have been watching.
Tod Browning‘s cult classic is brilliant in its reversals, especially for how it more or less demands you share the director’s evident sympathy for the “freaks” of the title — including an entirely limbless man, dwarves, pinheads and conjoined twins among others, all played by actors actually so afflicted. But the final coup is in finding them horrific once again, as they move in from all sides, during a thunderstorm, to exact ironic revenge on the physically “perfect” gold-digger trapeze artist.
38. “Halloween” (1978)
We all agreed John Carpenter‘s defining, genre-spawning “slasher” movie (a category that relies on shock moments more than most) totally deserved to be here, but it was hard to agree on just one moment. There’s the creepy scene of Michael’s first killing as a child (dressed as a clown, natch) and the coming-back-to-life bit, but when it came down to it, the abiding iconic moment is Jamie Lee Curtis‘ Laurie cowering behind those flimsy closet doors, just before her resourcefulness kicks in and she finally turns the tables.
37. “A Field In England” (2013)
You didn’t have to be wholly receptive to Ben Wheatley‘s psychedelic black-and-white period mindfuck to admit there were some genuinely chilling sequences. But none came close to the nightmare-freakout standards achieved by this horrible/uncanny section where, Reece Shearsmith emerges in extreme slow motion from the torture tent, tethered by a rope and clearly deranged while Blanck Mass‘ “Chernobyl” plays on the soundtrack. The definition of unheimlich.
36. “Eyes Without A Face” (1960)
Suggesting that 1960 was a year to rival 1973 in terms of its horror classics, while Alfred Hitchcock was preparing to redefine American horror with “Psycho,” George Franju was doing something similar across the pond in France. This reclaimed classic has influenced countless films since (perhaps most directly Almodovar‘s “The Skin I Live In“) but at the time it was notorious for this surgery scene, which reportedly caused multiple faintings. Despite a censor-mandated fade-to-black it still retains the power to shock, mainly for the procedural calm with which the mad doctor slowly, slowly removes his hapless victim’s face.
35. “It Follows” (2014)
Last year’s big indie horror breakout hit is one of the most recent films on this list, and while ordinarily it’s hard to judge a film’s lasting impact at such close quarters, it’s very probable that its supremely chilling, mood-setting opening sequence will stand the test of time. I’m not sure if it’s the inexplicable high heels (move over, Bryce Dallas Howard!) or the normality of the suburban setting in which the imperiled victim is even offered help several times over, but this opening (culminating in fantastic grisliness) teases a truly unsettling, inescapable horror.
34. “Carrie” (1976)
To be sure endless parodies, rip-offs and repetitions have dampened the impact of Brian De Palma’s famous double-feint ending to “Carrie,” but it’s become an archetype for a reason. The romanced, almost sickly soft-focus slo-mo of Amy Irving‘s approach to the makeshift grave, the dreamy aesthetic and mournful music are such effective misdirection cues that even when you know exactly what’s coming, it still ensures you leave the theater wrong-footed and uneasy.
33. “Zodiac” (2007)
One of the least overtly genre horrors on this list, mainly because it’s really a procedural thriller based around real events, David Fincher‘s lugubrious but brilliant film not only boasts deep thoughtful characterization and intelligent, ambivalent plotting. It also has some genuine, old-fashioned creepshow moments — after all what’s more old fashioned than to feel yourself scream inwardly “don’t go in the basement!” and, once he’s down there, “Get out! Get out! Get out!”?
32. “The Fly” (1986)
David Cronenberg‘s ick-horror masterpiece is characterized as much by the director’s braininess as it is by its atypically touching love story and many grossout moments. But even aside from the latter, courtesy of the genius-level make up work from Chris Walas, the scene that gets us is — of all the old chestnuts — a dream sequence in which Geena Davis gives birth to a wriggling baby-sized pupa. (No straight embed available, but you can see the scene at 2m in to the below video)
31. “Martyrs” (2008)
Pascal Laugier’s 2008 gore-fest, one of the highlights of the New French Extremity movement, pushes buttons throughout, but climaxes in a moment of both utter terror and strange beauty, as heroine Anna (Morjana Alaoui) is flayed alive by a mysterious group, reaching a state of transcendence that causes her tormentor to shoot herself.
Call it its mid-90s provenance, or chalk it down to its inferior, diminishing-returns sequels, but “Scream” had fallen a little out of favor of late. But with Wes Craven‘s sad passing giving us all a reason to rediscover the horror maestro’s canon, the luster is restored to the meta-slasher’s reputation, especially this first section. Combining pin-sharp timing, choreography, self-reference and a terrific turn from the terrorized Drew Barrymore, this perfect opening is basically a witty slasher ballet unto itself.
29. “American Werewolf in London” (1981)
John Landis’ defining werewolf movie balances monster horror and comedy in a way that really only the John Landis of the early 80s ever could — even his “Thriller” video (moon)walked that line perfectly. But if there’s one scene that assures this film of its place in the pantheon, it’s the transformation scene, which even more in the era of weightless CG monsters, has a real-world thrill to it. We watch poor David Naughton transition from man to wolf in what seems like unflinching real time — and just when we think it’s settled into a slightly disappointing guy-in -a-hairy suit, the face/jaw bit happens and we’re howling all over again.
28. “The Wicker Man” (1973)
In the culmination of one of the best-executed bait-and-switch maneuvers in the history of horror cinema, we discover, probably not long before the hapless protagonist (Edward Woodward) just who it is who is intended to be the virgin sacrifice who will guarantee the harvest for the uncannily backward island of Summerisle. Directed by Robin Hardy, from a script by the inestimable Anthony Schaffer, it took a while for this film to gain traction as the unassailable cult classic it now is, but even the clodhopping remake cannot detract from its status today.
27. “Last House On The Left” (1972)
A second appearance here for the late Wes Craven, appropriately it’s for his very first film, notorious “video nasty” “Last House on the Left” (an inexplicably brilliant, scary title too). Loosely a remake of Ingmar Bergman‘s “The Virgin Spring,” recast in the immediate post-Manson era, the film was subject of immense controversy over its violence at the time. And this scene in particular is one that it’s still hard to see how they got away with, it’s the queasy, vacant enjoyment the psycho murderers take in stabbing their victim to graphic death that is particularly shocking. Well, that and the bit with the guts.
26. “Let the Right One In” (2008)
Tomas Alfredson‘s scary/sad/beautiful child-vampire love story is an extended exercise in mood and menace, but perhaps no scene encapsulates all the parallel tracks it runs on as well as this one, where Eli answer’s Oskar’s mischievous question “what happens if I don’t invite you in?” with a simple demonstration. The undercurrent of childish one-upmanship and then of remorse and devotion makes this one of the most psychologically rich scenes ever to feature a child bleeding from the eyes.
25.”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
For a long time regarded as the death knell of “proper” horror, the slasher film has attained a degree of cinephile respectability more recently. And Tobe Hooper‘s sine qua non slasher has been flattered by comparison with its many subpar remakes and sequels. Funny thing is, for a film with such a gruesome reputation, you see very little in the way of gore, yet everyone remembers it as being insanely graphic. We’ll chalk that down to our first glimpse of Leatherface, which is both terrifyingly other and also weirdly prosaic — even happening in the daytime.
24. “Un Chien Andalou” (1929)
It is ridiculous how hard this sequence of cuts is to watch even now, 85 years after Luis Bunuel first concocted it — even more so when you’ve seen it a few times and understand that despite the weird image continuity that goes on in your brain between the moon, the woman’s eye and the blade, the damage is actually inflicted on an already-dead horse. Still, any combination of cutthroat razor and eyeball is bound to make us squirm, and it remains to this day one of those scenes that we get all tense and shrinky even thinking about.
23. “Hidden” (2005)
Horror? Thriller? Long, boring, inexplicable, foreign-language arthouse puzzle? What even is Michael Haneke’s “Hidden”? We’ve had a decade to work it out and are still no closer, but one thing we are sure of — this is one of the most jawdropping scenes we’ve ever been totally perplexed by. Perhaps because it comes without warning in the middle of a long, atmospheric but largely uneventful segment of the film, its impact is magnified, but to say this beat out “Funny Games“‘ torture sequences and anything in “Time of the Wolf” for a spot here should speak volumes.
22. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
A lot of moments from Roman Polanski‘s eerie (but also immensely funny — people do forget that) masterpiece could have made it on here, indeed the “What have you done to its eyes?” scene came very close. But as an exercise in sustained all-out creepiness with the added queasiness of sexual violence in the mix, in which all of Polanski’s considerable filmmaking skill comes together, the dream-that’s-not-a-dream in which Rosemary (an outstanding Mia Farrow) is impregnated by the devil as the coven watches, takes some beating.
21. “Les Diaboliques” (1955)
Believing erroneously that anything black and white, in French and on TV couldn’t be that unsuitable for a young child, my parents let me stay up late one night to watch Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s mesmerizing mystery/horror/thriller hybrid and I’ve never been quite right since. In honesty, the most memorable single moment for me is the glimpse of the photograph in which a ghostly image appears in a window, but that’s hard to find online, and this scene, in which the dead man rises from a bathtub, is probably more stand-alone frightening anyway, even as it plays out and you discover the non-supernatural explanation.
20. “Under the Skin” (2014)
Another very recent addition to our canon of unassailable terrifying moments, we wrote at length last year about our love for this sequence from Jonathan Glazer‘s masterful “Under the Skin” (it was our favorite shot of the year, in our favorite film of 2014) — particularly the last section of this clip in which Scarlett Johansson’s alien drags the swimmer’s lifeless body past the wailing baby on the beach. It’s so completely extraordinary and, well, alien, that in one simple, unadorned moment, we glimpse a perspective that is light years removed from our own humanity.
19. “Psycho” (1960)
No, not the Bernard Herrmann-accompanied, brilliantly edited shower scene, not the tricky clever camerawork that has us push Martin Balsam down the stairs, but this simple, relatively static end shot is the moment we’ve picked from Hitchcock‘s indelible “Psycho.” Why? The answer is obvious: it’s in that totally deranged smile. The tiny flash dissolve to a skull, the mad voiceover, the isolation of the shot — all this is the icing on the cake, but that insane smile from the remarkably handsome Anthony Perkins is single scariest thing in a very scary film, period.
18. “Silence of The Lambs” (1990)
We may have a disagreement here: there are folk who would unhesitatingly choose Hannibal Lecter’s grotesque escape as their scare-highlight of Jonathan Demme‘s genius horror. Others might suggest one of the quid pro quo exchanges between Lecter and Clarice Starling. But we’re going for the bit in Buffalo Bill’s basement which is neither gory nor particularly psychologically rich. It’s just damn frightening, as we see through the eyes (and night vision goggles) of the murderer, and know that Foster’s Starling is blind and helpless in the dark.
17. “The Thing”(1982)
With a few notable exceptions, we’ve largely avoided effects-heavy sequences as oftentimes they’re gross rather than scary, or reliant more on jump scares than actual creepiness. But it could also be because with this brilliant scene from his “The Thing” remake, John Carpenter simply set the bar for effects-based scares too high for anyone else to clear. Starting with the chest caving in during defibrillation, the scene just gets wilder and wilder, and the practical creature effects (mostly by Rob Bottin) totally keep pace.
16. “Se7en” (1995)
Maybe not the most disturbing moment in David Fincher‘s great “Se7en,” (that would maybe be the glimpse of the Lust apparatus, or the ending with the box), still if you don’t leap out of your skin when the fetid, skeletal remains of what was once a man shudder back to life well, we’d advise someone check your pulse too. In fact almost any one of the inventive deaths that John Doe cooks up could feature here (Gluttony’s obese engorged ankles tied with rope is another impossible-to-forget image) but this scene has all that atmosphere and a good old-fashioned YIKES too.
15. “The Descent”(2005)
Speaking of YIKESes … Neil Marshall‘s anti-spelunking manifesto may lose its focus in its later parts (and make sure you watch the U.K. rather than the U.S. cut of the ending which is even more of a letdown) but prior to that it is one of the most inventively claustrophobic horrors in recent memory. Arguably, its initial set up — a group of young women with some interpersonal issues get lost in some underground caves — doesn’t even need a monster aspect at all, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t completely lose our shit the first time we got a look at the goblin thingie.
14. “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990)
Oftentimes it is a moment or image that is very nearly ordinary, but deviates from the norm in a very distinctive manner that is the most frightening. And so it is in Adrian Lyne‘s vastly underrated film. There are many scenes of strobe-lit panic, notably during a nightclub dance scene in which Elizabeth Pena appears to turn into, or be having sex with, some sort of lizard-monster, but the most bone-deep chills in this chilling film come from the ghastly glimpses of the creatures in Jacob’s (Tim Robbins) mind/memory — especially the dude with no eyes. (No perfect embed, but the trailer shows a few shots of them, in the back of the car and then at 1m31s in the surgery).
13. “The Vanishing” (1988)
For a while, before it was readily available on home video, George Sluizer‘s “Spoorloos” aka “The Vanishing” was almost like an urban myth among horror connoisseurs, so much so that it’s probable that word of its unforgettable climax reached you before you even saw it. And yet, the actual thing was hardly lessened at all in impact. The ending reaches a level of psychological torture and pessimism that is rarely ever attempted in American films (maybe “The Mist” is the only thing that has come close), as even Sluizer himself seemed to know when he directed the vastly inferior, toothless U.S. remake.
12. “The Orphanage” (2007)
Having recently talked up Juan Antonio Bayona‘s beautifully creepy and sad ghost story in our Gothic Horror feature, we wondered if we should maybe exclude it from this list and then realized that we absolutely couldn’t. For real, honest, soul-deep creepiness, it simply can’t be bettered, and it has a few killer moments of high tension too. Geraldine Chaplin waking up after the hit and run is one such, but the simplicity of this, our first proper look at, and Belen Rueda‘s first interaction with, the sackcloth-faced boy, makes it indelible.
11. “The Omen” (1976)
What does every little pint-sized spawn of Satan want for their birthday? Why a doting nanny hanging herself from an upstairs window in front of all the guests shouting “It’s all for you, Damian,” of course. As with several other entries here, perhaps the scariest thing about this scene is the nanny’s inappropriate gaiety. Waving over at Damian and trying to catch his attention from the house, she seems almost ecstatic, in a kind of weird religious fervor as she gleefully calls out to him — you don’t even really notice the rope around her neck until she jumps.
10. “Mulholland Drive” (2001)
We’ve had David Lynch on the brain even more than usual recently (here’s yesterday’s retrospective on his feature films) but to be honest our subconscious is only ever a whisper away from “Mulholland Drive” at the best of times. Simply a masterful film that redefines the parameters of psychological horror, surreality and dream-state logic even as it mucks about within them, almost any scene from the film could work here. But we’ll go with the celebrated dumpster “monster,” if only because it’s such a classic Lynchian shock moment — recalling even the first glimpse we got of a crouching Bob in “Twin Peaks.”
The majority of gore and torture porn titles are notably missing from this list — whether because we’ve strong stomachs or are simply desensitized beyond help by now, that school of filmmaking often fails to leave much of a lasting impression, certainly in terms of individual moments. But one title that totally qualifies is Takashi Miike‘s astoundingly weird, profoundly disturbing “Audition,” especially in its extended torture climax. Maybe it’s because it’s the ultimate revenge narrative, and redresses some of the man-on-woman violence we see a lot of elsewhere, or maybe just because of Eihi Shiina‘s girlish joy in her work as she saws through bone with a wire or sticks actual needles into literal eyes, it’s a sequence as compelling as it is unforgettable.
8. “Misery” (1990)
Yes, we prefer creepiness and eeriness to visceral physical horror, but sometimes a scene combines all of those qualities. And so in Rob Reiner‘s great Stephen King adaptation, we get the defining Kathy Bates nutso performance as superfan Annie Wilkes, a late-period genius turn from James Caan as the object of her fandom, and this scene where the extent of Annie’s crazy is revealed. It would be a great horror moment no matter how you shot it, but I remember sneaking in to see this in the theater, and as half the audience clutched at their ankles in agony thinking “I cannot believe they showed the foot.” I still kind of can’t.
7. “The Shining” (1980)
I clearly have a bit of a thing about photographs as the one moment in Stanley Kubrick‘s “The Shining” that for me beats all others for sheer “Oh God, oh God get it out of my head” is the old-timey picture featuring a grinning Jack Nicholson amongst the long-dead patrons of the Overlook. But that’s the payoff to a kind of long-slow-build creepiness, so isn’t quite the kind of visceral moment we’re looking for here. However Nicholson embracing a beautiful naked woman who turns out to be a mouldering, lesion-covered hag will do nicely. See also: flash of dead twins in hallway; every other scene in the film.
6. “Jaws” (1975)
A one-film university course on the art of creating suspense putting anything from Steven Spielberg‘s “Jaws” on this list feels little like shooting a very big fish with a series of barrels (sorry). But it’s an obvious pick for a reason, and while we could have gone for the also iconic head-floating out of the submerged boat moment, we’re keeping it classic with this slice of complete perfection. The misdirection lead-up, the sheer size of the damn thing, its dead, evil eye, Roy Scheider‘s pitch perfect reaction, and the way his crumpled cigarette stays stuck to his lip: this scene is the just the goddamn greatest.
5. “Ringu” (1998)
The American remake, for once, is pretty good too, but there can only be one first time you see a black-haired demon ghost thingie crawl out of a television, and for those of us who saw Hideo Nakata‘s original “Ringu” first, that’s the one that will never be bettered. Especially since there’s something about the more lo-fi, un-glossy finish to this version that meshes well with the video/VHS aesthetic of that creepy tape, and makes the monster even scarier because she seems simultaneously kind of banal.
4. “Alien” (1979)
We all know now that the cast were not told in advance what was going to happen during the dinner scene on board the Nostromo in Ridley Scott‘s classic “Alien,” and that at least partially accounts for the scene’s immense impact: their reactions are nakedly human, and geniunely groosed-out and terrified. But then again, this scene has a vicious, screaming, eyeless, metal-toothed alien burst out of John Hurt‘s chest in a grotesque and violent parody of childbirth, so it’s kind of hard to imagine it was ever going to be ho-hum.
3. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
We always get a few derisive comments whenever we place Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez‘s found-footage horror on any list. It seems to have become terrible unfashionable to admit you were scared by it. But fashion schmasion, this film absolutely terrified me, perhaps more than any other I’ve seen in the theater, and this scene remains to this day one I only dare myself to think about when I want to test how brave I’m feeling. It’s the simplicity and rawness of the facing-the-wall conceit that is part of a mythology we hadn’t even noticed we were absorbing until that point, that makes this moment the one that defined for this cinemagoer, the actual feeling of “skin-crawling.”
2. “The Exorcist” (1973)
So many potential scenes to choose here, but only one can really get the ribbon. There’s the spider-walk (which did not actually appear in the original cut of the film) or the much-parodied head twist or the pea-soup vomit sequences, but all of those are such integral parts of the collective unconscious that there’s not really any point in calling them out again, and they have had a little of their shock value worn down through repetition. So we’ll go for the slightly less frequently referenced (probably because of, you know, the incest, sexual violence and blasphemy) scene below which still beggars belief that it actually ever made it in to any movie, ever.
1. “Don’t Look Now” (1973)
So many of the greatest horrors are a mixture of the uncanny, the horrible and the deeply sad, and Nicolas Roeg‘s peerless, heartbreaking and terrifying “Don’t Look Now” is surely one of the greatest horrors ever made. If perhaps over its whole length, it plays up aspects other than strictest horror, it still contains this one scene at its climax which in everything it is encapsulates everything this list is about: it’s first and foremost a shock, it’s grief made manifest, it’s inexplicable, yet it makes the weirdest sort of sense out of the foreboding and premonitions that have gone before. And it’s also, frankly, kind of gloriously, technicolor gory (the richest, reddest blood on record).
There are too many more to mention, so why don’t tell us which of your own favorite scary moments we missed out in the comments below, and a very creepy Halloween to you all.