It’s Halloween, y’all! I’m Travis S. Burgess, and I’m gonna scare the hell out of you. Any questions? And I thought that today would be the perfect day for my final Wednesday Listicle of Sacred Walloween, the Top Ten Scariest Movie Scenes!
Like my list of the Scariest Television Scenes a few weeks back, this will be a ranking of the ten scariest scenes in any movie, regardless of genre. The only requirement is that the scene scares the living bejesus out of you. Furthermore, unlike the television list, this list will indeed include a ranking of the Top Ten, as listed below. Honorable mentions range from the oldies, like the first murder in M and the flower scene in Frankenstein, to the classics, like the opening to Jaws and the Head Swivel scene in The Exorcist (probably #11 or #12, if I’m being honest). I explored psychologically thrilling sequences of horror, like The Conjuring’s Clapping Game and the Hand scene in The Haunting, as well as torture-porn sequences like the Hobbling Scene in Misery and the beautifully gory opening to Suspiria. Some of my favorite sequences are based solely on the tension the director manages to create, like the opening 24 minutes of When A Stranger Calls and the similar opening to Scream. Others involve a well-executed jump scare, like the ending to Friday the 13th and both the bunny scene and the bathtub scene in Fatal Attraction. There are several fans for the ending of Don’t Look Now, while if I expanded this list, I would be more likely to pick the “I am your daughter” scene from The Others or “It rubs the lotion on its skin” from The Silence of the Lambs. And while I focused more on horror movies this time around, you can bet that I paid attention to The Wizard of Oz’s Flying Monkeys and Willy Wonka’s Tunnel, because honestly what the f*ck was happening there? Anyway, these are my Top Ten Scariest Movie Scenes! Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, there will be spoilers.
10. The Exorcist III – The Hospital
The reason I’m putting this scene at #10 and not in the top five is the same reason that I put a mediocrely received sequel above an original ranked #3 on the list of horror movies. To this day, I have not finished The Exorcist III. I’m not sure I ever will. The Hospital Scene scared me too greatly. Honestly, this is a near-perfect horror scene. It’s a flawless execution of the classic formula: tension, relieve, scare. The camera sits solitary for nearly three minutes as we watch a nurse casually walking through the hospital performing her duties. We know something’s going to happen, because why would the camera linger so long? Knowing something’s going to happen, our mind begins to wrack itself to come up with logical conclusions to this scene, wondering the purpose of following this nurse weaving in and out. We watch as she locks the door to a ward and turn away, and that’s when the demon attacks her, the audience pisses their pants, and I turned the film off and never returned. You can watch the scene below to understand why, and to understand the perfect way to make a horror movie scene.
9. The Blair Witch Project – The Ending
The Blair Witch Project is a frightening film for precisely the reason that it’s not a scary film for most of its runtime. For 75 minutes we’ve heard stories about this so-called witch, and some weird things have happened in the woods, but outside of a few piles of sticks and a friend going missing, nothing really happens. However, we do know that these characters are lost, and that something is in the woods with them that’s just not right. This triggers our minds to be on the lookout for something to attack the characters – who, due to the “mockumentary” style, are synonymous with us, the audience. So when nothing happens for nearly the entire film, it just makes us more and more uneasy. That is, until the finale, when we immediately want to go back to the safety of the woods. Every little hint and allusion we’ve learned along the way comes back in a big way to create one of the most unsettling film endings in all of history. We watch as the two remaining characters, pushed to their mental brink, stumble upon a house, and wonder if their friend Josh may be in there. They enter, and we as an audience immediately know this is the house of Rustin Parr, the serial killer. We see markings along the wall, a reference to Parr’s crimes, and possibly to the Blair Witch’s own crimes. As Heather searches the house, things become more and more unsettling, and we know something is coming. Heather, our protagonist, continues searching, more and more hysterical, before her camera captures one brief image: Mike facing the corner. According to legend, Parr, possessed by the Blair Witch, would make one child face the corner while he murdered the rest of the children. It’s clear something has a hold of Mike, and it could get Heather too. And so it does, as she drops the camera, disappeared except for her screams, while the film runs out focuses on Mike’s motionless body. It’s a terrifying, unsettling sequence, made worse by the hour-long buildup, and it ends up as one of the best sequences in modern history.
8. The Shining – “Come Play With Us”
There’s a lot of creepy sh*t going on in The Shining. I mean, it’s the world’s greatest director artistically demonstrating what it’s like for a bad person to go insane. Everything seems just a little…off, pretty much from the moment blood creepily pools out of the elevators of the Overlook Hotel. From then on, things just get weirder and weirder, and more and more upsetting. There’s the witch in Room 237, and Redrum, and “All work and no play,” and of course “Here’s Johnny.” However, the scariest scene in the movie features nothing more than killer sound mixing and groundbreaking cinematography. You see, throughout the film, we watch as little Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through the halls of the motel. His ride is done via the innovative Steadicam, following him at a distance at a disturbing low angle. The sound builds up the tension more and more as he crosses over carpet and wood, alternatively. This scene is done three times, each one filling the audience with a sense of dread. The first two times, nothing happens, as we cut away to see whatever the hell Jack Nicholson is doing. The third, however, features Danny turning the corner, only to find himself face to face with two twin girls. And not just any twin girls – the twin girls we learned in the beginning of the film were chopped to bits by their father. The girls are greeted with a loud clanging sound, and are framed emotionlessly in the center of the camera, staring directly into the audience’s souls, as they beckon Danny to “Come play with us. Forever. And ever. And ever.” As if the twins beckoning a child to death isn’t frightening enough, we also cut to subliminal images of the girls’ murders, the hallway covered with their blood as they lay lifeless. It’s enough to scare the sh*t out of you. Stanley Kubrick may have only made one horror film in his varied career, but like every film in his oeuvre, he accomplished something greater, scarier, and smarter than any of his contemporaries. And it makes for one of the scariest movie scenes of all time.
7. It Follows – The Beach
It Follows, as you saw in last week’s Listicle, is one of the scariest films in recent memory. Director David John Mitchell used his modern tricks and abilities to craft a John Carpenter-esque thriller about a killer monster that hunts you after sex. It’s a really innovative idea, and a lot of the terror comes from not knowing who’s real and who isn’t, especially as we see things from Jay’s (Maika Monroe) first-person perspective, meaning we can see the monster. This allows for great scares, from the man in the hallway to a sequence where a man sees an invisible figure in a movie theater. However, the scariest scene, bar none, comes when the characters relax on the beaches of northern Michigan after escaping It. As they sit around the circle, the camera focuses on Jay’s face. In the background, we see Yara, one of the friends, walking towards the circle. Immediately, the audience is curious, as we don’t see Yara in the shot, and yet something seems…off. Could she be the real Yara? For a full minute, we don’t see any reason that she may not be real. And then, without a music cue, indication, or hint out of the ordinary, we see Yara float by out on the lake. Suddenly a slightly unsettling scene becomes terrifying, as we begin hoping that Jay will turn around and see the imposter – invisible to everyone else but her – before it catches her. Unfortunately, it does eventually grab hold, which we see from the group’s perspective, as her hair is magically lifted by the now-unseen entity, and it seems all hope is lost. It’s shocking, disturbing, frightening, and tense, and it is completely done through the magic of simple cinematography. No tricks, no cheats, nothing out of the ordinary. Just the simple act of filmmaking working to scare the living bejesus out of us.
6. Zodiac – The Basement
Not every film on this list is a horror film, at least not in the traditional sense. For example, David Fincher’s Zodiac is many things. It’s a horror, a mystery, a newsroom thriller, a police procedural, and a character study. We see the effects that one serial killer can have on a community, especially the people investigating it. As with any serial killer film, there are several frightening moments, including the first three murders and any sequence where a character goes somewhere alone. One perfect example of this, and one that establishes the themes of the film, follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert as he follows up a lead involving a movie poster at the house of a creepy old man living alone, Robert slowly realizes that all the clues he’d tracked down to this location actually point to the house owner. When the owner asks Robert to come down into his basement – made creepier by the fact that basements are rare and one is supposedly possessed by the Zodiac Killer himself – Fincher delivers us his own twist on the “Don’t go down there!” trope and has his lead follow a potential killer into the basement. Once down there, the tension builds and builds, threatening potential harm to our hero while never actually confirming that this man is a threat. The entire sequence plays like a take on classic horror movie tropes, building up tension despite the fact we know the story and know that Robert will turn out all right. The sequence is brilliantly directed, and perfectly plays into the film’s theme that in a city of several million, anyone can be the killer, no matter how well we know or don’t know them. There are many reasons that Zodiac is Fincher’s greatest film (and one of the greatest films of all time), but this sequence is an excellent example of what made it special.
5. The Omen – The Hanging Scene
I first saw the infamous “hanging scene” from The Omen when I was 12. I didn’t see the movie in its entirety for ten more years, almost to the day. This scene is the reason for that. It’s perfectly executed terror, playing into our own fears of death and self-harm, and kicking off the fight-or-flight chemicals in the brain at the thought of it. The film has a fairly simple set-up: a young boy adopted by an ambassador to replace his dead child begins to show sinister signs that he may be the Antichrist. There are several great scenes in the film that add to the creepiness: the infamous beheading scene, the grave digging sequence, and all of the creepy signs that the child may not be normal, all scored to the sinister “Ave Santini,” but anyone who’s seen the film knows that nothing is creepier than the hanging scene. At Damien Thorne’s (the child) fifth birthday, the crowd celebrates with grown-up and buttoned-up festivities while Damien looks more and more bored. Suddenly, he makes eye contact with his nanny, and he stares deeply into her soul, as something takes control of her. The film then cuts to Damien riding a carousel as you hear the nanny’s voice: “Damien! Damien, look at me! Damien, I love you!” The crowd turns to see the nanny standing on the roof of the house, a noose around her neck. “I’m doing this for you, Damien!” she declares, before leaping to her death, horrifying the crowd and breaking a window in the process. The joy she takes in doing so remains etched into our brains for an eternity…or at least until the camera slowly pushes in on Damien’s smiling face. It’s a scene that plays on our fear of death, our fear of a power greater than us taking advantage, and our general discomfort at facing something this heinous. It’s a perfectly executed horror sequence, and it speaks to the talent of Richard Donner in pulling it off.
4. Alien – Chest Buster
Arguably, this is the most famous horror scene on this list. It’s one of the most shocking scenes in history, it’s the best sequence Ridley Scott has ever composed, and it changed the course of one of the greatest horror films ever made. Truth be told, for the first half of Alien, it’s just your average sci-fi movie. The crew of the Nostromo spends most of this portion of the film, eating dinner, doing their jobs, and exploring a desolate planet that serves as the final resting place to the massive Jockey. When a small alien creature attaches itself to Kane’s (John Hurt) face, we begin to fear the worst, especially as the scene plays on men’s fear of molestation and emasculation. However, after a few hours of terror, the creature dies and releases Kane, and things return back to normal. And then we have the dinner scene. Famously, Scott didn’t tell the cast what would happen during the scene, only telling them that something would happen, and to improvise naturally. So we watch as they share a natural meal together, symbolically sharing a Last Supper before things take a turn. As they joke, bond, and more, Kane begins to choke. The crew leaps to their feet to take care of him, and they try to clear out his throat. And that’s when his chest explodes, showering the surprised crew with blood. In a warped twist on childbirth, Kane’s chest gives way as a Chest-Buster crawls out, scurrying into the night and growing into the infamous Xenomorph. The sequence has a naturality that only comes from improvisation, and it changed Alien’s legacy from that of an average sci-fi film to that of a high-concept, terrifying, game-changing horror film that sits a cut above the rest of the field for all eternity.
3. Poltergeist – The Clown Doll
Poltergeist is supposed to be a horror film for children. It’s supposed to be kind of silly, kind of scary, and never overtly threatening. The scariest scene should just involve the little girl declaring “They’re here” as she talks to the static on a television. So why. The. F*ck. Would they allow that clown scene? Why? What do they have against children? Do Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg hate them? I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain this scene is why I’m afraid of clowns, especially after I watched it at the age of nine due to a naïve (or inattentive, either way) mother. Nevertheless, few scenes have the sheer terror of the Clown Scene in Poltergeist, and those that do are never as overlooked as it. You see, while most people are caught up with Carol Ann and Tangina Barrons, brother Robbie is forgotten as he deals with his own battle with the creepy clown doll his grandmother got him. Every night, Robbie covers the hideous abomination with his coat, hoping to escape the terrifying gaze. Shortly after the demons are “defeated,” Robbie misses as he tosses his coat, and he immediately tries to go to sleep to forget about the monster lurking at the edge of his bed. He wakes up shortly after, only to see the doll has disappeared. In one take, we watch as Robbie checks down one side of his bed, sees nothing, and slowly reaches to the other side to check below. The tension builds as watch with baited breath as he lifts the sheet to reveal…nothing. He’s safe. He climbs back up…only to reveal the possessed doll is behind him, his smile twisted and contorted beyond belief as it strangles the young boy and pulls him under the bed. Luckily, Robbie survives, but nothing will make you forget the terror of the doll attack. Perhaps it’s the fact this movie was supposed to be a child’s horror movie and I saw it young, or perhaps because Hooper is a master of suspense, but no matter how many movies I see or how many horrors I watch, no scene has terrified me the same way as that clown doll. It is probably the reason I’m scared of clowns, probably the reason I’m scared of dolls, and definitely the reason I love/hate the genre. It’s the most underrated sequence in horror history, and deserves a rightful place as #3.
2. Halloween – Michael Lives!
Look, there’s no question: Halloween is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It created a genre, yet remains smarter than it. It improved upon the tension of masters like Hitchcock and Franju. And it cemented John Carpenter as one of the greatest directors of all time. And it has no shortage of scenes that are actually scary, as opposed to just passably scary. There’s the opening scene shot from the perspective of the killer, only to reveal it’s an evil little boy. There’s the first murder of a girl who returns to her now-unlocked car. There’s the murder of Bob, followed by the murder of his girlfriend, Lynda, while Michael Myers attacks her dressed as a ghost in Bob’s glasses. There’s the climax, where Michael slowly stalks his main target, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and the final scene, where Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) realizes that Michael has survived being shot, and the cut between the house as we hear his breathing without seeing his presence. However, as far as I’m concerned, there is no sequence as truly terrifying as Michael’s return. In the climax, Laurie alternates between running and fighting back, getting a few stabs in at Michael Myers before running for her life. In a last ditch effort, she stabs him in the eye, grabs his knife, and deals the final blow. Traumatized, she stumbles out of the room and braces herself against the wall, catching her breath. And while she remains in focus the entire time, we see in the background as Michael silently sits back up and stares at her. There’s no indication of his action, nothing that draws our attention to it, but we know that it’s happened, and we see Michael’s soulless face. It is terrifying, and made worse as Michael wordlessly walks over to her as the audience screams “Turn around!” But Laurie doesn’t turn around. She can’t hear us, and she can’t hear Michael. And he starts to strangle her. It’s also terrifying to see her tear off Michael’s mask, only to reveal that he’s just some guy, and there’s nothing special about him, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s no sequence as great as Michael’s resurrected head slowly turning to stare at his prey in the background of the shot. If this was a list of favorite scenes, this would be #1 for sure. It’s still a strong #2. However, because I have to reward the greatest sequence of all time, that honor must go to…
1. Psycho – The Shower Scene
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you knew it was gonna be Psycho. It’s the greatest horror movie ever, and they don’t call Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense for nothing. Despite being 50+ years old and everyone knowing the twist, this movie is still capable of terrifying you to the core with its study of psychosis, murder, and all sorts of things we don’t fully understand. The murder on the stairs is sudden and haunting, and the reveal of Norman Bates’ mother at the end is frightening beyond belief, but we all know there is only one scene that can take #1 on this list, and that’s the Shower Scene. The mere mention is enough to make people not want to enter the bathroom. The scene is especially terrifying because when the film first came out, no one knew this was a horror film. Hitch kept the plot a secret, and for the first hour of screentime, we’re led to believe this is a heist thriller. We watch as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) plots to steal money from the bank she works at to run away with her boyfriend. After taking $40,000, she runs into her boss, making her panic and drive off into the night. We watch as she’s afraid of every officer and car dealer she encounters, hoping to escape far enough to start a new life on her own. She arrives at the Bates Motel, run by the weird but affable Norman, who flirts with her, but never outright disturbs her. Norman’s no saint, as we watch him spy on Marion as she changes before he returns to the motel’s books. Marion, meanwhile, strips down and hops into the shower. And that’s where the film changes forever. Because while she enjoys a normal shower, we see the door open. And we see Norman’s jealous mother slowly approach, in silhouette. Then we see the curtain get torn away, and the camera cuts to the knife. What follows is one of the most shocking sequences in film history. Scored with the haunting shrieks of Bernard Herrmann’s symphonies, we cut several times as Mrs. Bates brings her knife down into the naked, vulnerable body of the poor Mrs. Crane. There’s a lot that’s disturbing about this scene. There’s the jarring nature of the changing genre of the film. There’s the fact that our heroine, the main character of the movie, is being killed off at the halfway point. And there’s the fact that Hitchcock edits in such a way we are seeing more than we ever imagined, even if that’s all it is: imagination. Because of his quick, haunting cuts, we think we see each stab, each cut, and each slice of the knife as the blood fills the drain of the tub, despite the fact we never see the knife touch her body. We think we see her naked form being hacked to bits, despite the fact we never see so much as her face, her back, and her lower legs. We think we see everything, while Hitchcock shows us nothing. It is one of the most revolutionary, shocking, disturbing scenes ever made, and it forever changed the game for what horror could and should be.
Thanks to everyone who joined me for Sacred Walloween! I hope you had a spooky, scary holiday season, and I hope you enjoyed my lists this year. See you all next year! (Ok, ok, see you all later this week)