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The 20 Scariest Movie Scenes of the 21st Century

Horror movies are more than the sum of its parts, but no genre is more dependent on discrete scenes to make you hold your breath.

15. “Enemy” — House Spider

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered” is the epigraph that opens Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy,” not that it’s much help with what’s surely the most bizarre penultimate shot of any movie in recent memory: Jake Gyllenhaal walks into his bedroom and discovers that his wife has transformed into a giant, cowering tarantula. Fin. Images of spiders recur throughout the film, providing just enough thematic breadcrumbs to be confident that this eight-legged metaphor has a perfectly good reason for being there. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying to find the massive arachnid curled up into the corner like it’s just been caught in a lie. For arachnophobes, this will probably be the most traumatizing thing they’ve seen on screen since “Arachnophobia” (and at least that movie was gracious enough to warn us with its title). But even those viewers who aren’t scared of spiders are likely to be jolted by Villeneuve’s cheeky kiss-off, which leverages a familiar fear in order to access a number of much deeper ones. -MN

14. “Kill List” — The Tunnel of Death

Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” feeds off of your confusion, inviting you to lean forward and make yourself vulnerable to the gauntlet of terrors that are hiding in the second half of this unclassifiable film. For most of the movie, it seems that Jay and Gal — mercenaries turned hitman — are in control. We know that there’s a world beneath the one to which they’re privy, but it doesn’t seem like anything their machine guns can’t handle. That is, until our valiant heroes launch a midnight raid on a rural English manor, only to find themselves stumbling upon a bloodthirsty coven of masked, torch-burning nudists (imagine the cast of “The Wicker Man” engaging in some spirited “Eyes Wide Shut” cosplay). Jay and Gal are spotted, inciting a chase through a pitch-black network of underground drainage tunnels. It shouldn’t be much of a battle — again, it’s machine guns vs. an angry horde of shriveled dicks — but the cultists are unstoppable, their naked bodies rushing at the screen like they’re possessed. Destabilized by the sheer inexplicableness of it all, we’re too caught off-guard to process what we’re watching, and the attack overwhelms us with the immediacy of a nightmare. -David Ehrlich

13. “The Conjuring” — The Witching Hour

James Wan manages to build up to one of the most startling and terrifying moments in “The Conjuring” by manipulating us into a state of relaxation. Sisters Christine and Nancy share a bedroom in the sprawling, and quite haunted, house their parents have just bought, but Christine can’t quite get to sleep because something keeps nudging her awake. When her sister grumpily tells her to go back to sleep, she begins to peer under her bed and the tension begins to suffocate us. But…nothing happens, and we start to exhale and relax. Big mistake. Christine wakes up her sister, whispering tearily that there’s something behind the bedroom door. Nancy, like us, doesn’t see a thing and she walks over, peeling back the bedroom door to soothe her sister, who has probably just had a nightmare. But the nightmare is very real, and when Wan finally reveals the witch, hovering hateful and sinister on top of the girls’ wardrobe, it’s a shock that still has the power to rattle upon multiple viewings. Have fun sleeping after watching “The Conjuring,” and whatever you do, don’t peek into the dark corners of you bedroom if you wake up in the middle of the night. You never know what’s watching you back. -JR

12. “Prometheus” — Alien Abortion

“Get it out of me!” cries Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” Swedish actress Noomi Rapace brings strength and spirituality to her role as a space-trekking archeologist. In an eerie echo of Scott’s infamous chestburster in “Alien,” Shaw’s shocker comes on moon LV-223 when she realizes with horror that she has an alien growing inside her uterus. Not about to let that continue, she strips down, straps herself into the spaceship’s airtight Med Pod, and fiercely performs a painful Cesarian on herself with robotic surgical arms and a laser scalpel, removing the alien embryo and stapling up her bare stomach. She then places her dead boyfriend’s ring on her finger and returns to the fray, alien-free. -Anne Thompson

11. “Get Out” — The Sunken Place

In its first act, Jordan Peele’s first feature is already a fascinating tonal juggling act, one that melds racial satire with genuine chills in a brilliant combination of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and more sinister horror tropes. Then, in the dead of night, it catapults into a far more remarkable abstract place, one with haunting reverberations on many levels at once.  As Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visits the country home of the parents of the white woman he’s dating, he encounters her eerie psychotherapist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) after dark and she hypnotizes him. The resulting sequence is a mesmerizing immersion into “The Sunken Place”: Chris collapses into another plane of awareness, drifting away into a black void within his own mind, where Missy can keep him locked away as long as she wants. The scene is a masterstroke of editing, performance, and sound design that apes Chris’ sense of disorientation and become a pivotal moment for the movie’s tonal shift into scarier territory. Peele has referred to The Sunken Place “this symbol for the marginalization of black people,” which would be an extraordinary concept even if it weren’t so brilliantly executed. But The Sunken Place is horrifying — a menacing empty world where escape is impossible, and the observer can only watch the privileged world in frozen terror from afar. No matter its surreal aspects, the scene is also a shocking reality check for the age. -EK

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