Horror movies are so much more than the sum of its parts, but no genre is more dependent on the power of discrete scenes, self-contained episodes to make you feel like you’re sweating through what’s happening on screen first-hand. It doesn’t matter if a horror movie is an atmospheric slow-burn, or if it’s a symphony of jump-scares that alternates between peaks of sustained tension and long valleys of eerie calm, all of the most terrifying films rely on a few unforgettable moments. Some of these instances are long setpieces, some are just perfectly executed jolts, but all of them are exquisitely traumatizing microcosms of the movies that contain them.
Shut off the lights, turn up the sound, and enjoy our list of the 20 scariest movie scenes of the 21st Century.
20. “The Others” — “I am your daughter!”
“The Others” doesn’t just boast one of Nicole Kidman’s best performances ever, it’s also one of the best psychological horror movies of the 21st century, with a delicious twist ending that truly pulls the rug from under viewers. Horror movies learned long ago that there’s nothing creepier than children, and “The Others” takes a page from “The Innocents” and kicks up the creep factor by giving the children in question a strange disease which means they must be kept away from sunlight at all Times, and locked away in a sprawling, haunted house. The film’s biggest scare (and often parodied line) comes when Nicole Kidman discovers her daughter playing underneath a mottled Victorian veil, but what lies underneath is anything but innocent and only drives Kidman closer to brink of madness. -Jamie Righetti
19. “mother!” — The Baby Arrives
Popular on IndieWire
By the time Jennifer Lawrence’s character gives birth in “Mother!,” we’ve watched for more than 90 minutes as she’s grown to detest her now-hundreds of uninvited houseguests: she’s found them trespassing in her husband’s study, eating her home cooked dinner, sitting on her unbraced kitchen sink, kissing in her bed, fornicating on the other side of an open door, committing fratricide, and carrying out rapid-fire executions. So when her husband (Javier Bardem) presents their their minutes-old son to his mob of followers — against her wishes, while she sleeps — certainly something horrific is about to happen. Seeing the tiny, helpless infant crowdsurfing through the violent, ham-handed horde left me nearly choking on my own dread, which was more terrifying than beholding the imminent gruesome act, a hyped, massive taboo director Darren Aronofsky tried to warn audiences about. -Jenna Marotta
18. “Pulse” — Ghost Walk
Nothing can move like that. Nothing should move like that, at least. The scariest scene in “Pulse” — which is saying a lot, given that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film has as much claim to being the scariest of the century as any other — is scary for the same reason monsters are: It’s familiar and foreign all at once. The sequence in question involves nothing more than a ghost walking down the hallway, but her swooping, almost balletic movements and the soundtrack’s wailing amount to pure nightmare fuel. Watch it the way it’s meant to be seen — late at night, with no light on — and try not to jump out of your seat when you first see her move. -Michael Nordine
17. “Paranormal Activity” — The Original Ending
Oren Peli’s 2007 microbudget genre effort was a breakout phenomenon that revived the found-footage horror trope with a first-rate use of home video to capture the experience of a haunted house. When the movie finally opened in theaters around the country, it ended with an abrupt jump scare, as a possessed woman lunges at the camera moments after murdering her husband. It was effective device, but given the slow-burn chills leading up to it, a little too gimmicky for its own good. So of course that was a studio-mandated change. Peli’s original ending was far more effective: The woman wanders the room in a daze, kills her husband, comes back to the room and just…stands there. For a really, really long time. Someone shows up off-camera, screams bloody murder, and eventually the cops arrive. She leaves. We hear gunshots. Roll credits.
It’s a chilly, dreadful march into the morbid outcome the movie’s been hinting all along, as evil overtakes the lives of the movie’s anxious couple, and suddenly they’re gone — leaving us alone with an ambiguous supernatural force harboring murderous intentions. The ensuing silence is deadly. -Eric Kohn
16. “The Witch” — Black Phillip Speaks
Presumably, the worst has already happened by the time Black Phillip, the world’s most intriguing goat, opens up his evil maw and asks young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) what she wants out of life — that whole “living deliciously” thing — but director Robert Eggers is really just getting started. The first-time feature filmmaker’s indie horror hit follows an especially ill-fated 17th century family as they deal with an increasingly bleak way of life that’s been compounded by the unnerving mystery surrounding their recently abducted baby. Eldest daughter Thomasin blames herself — and so does everyone else! — and as the film unspools and the terrors are steadily ratcheted it up, “The Witch” becomes nothing less than a battle for her soul. Spoiler: The Devil wins it. After decimating what’s left of her broken family in a truly eye-popping sequence that doesn’t skimp on the gore, Thomasin cries out for the last being who might have her: evil goat Black Phillip. He responds. -Kate Erbland