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The Scariest Moments in Movies

Updated on August 5, 2020
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I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

The intent of this list of the top scary moments in movies is to provide a mix of some predictable films with some not-so-predictable films. This isn't meant to be authoritative in any way, but simply my recollection of some moments I found horrifying or particularly scary. Having been a film critic for many years and having seen almost every film over a certain period of time, I can say with some degree of authority, that moments most people consider scary are frequently predictable. I like scary moments that are creative, out-of-the-blue, and odd. Thus, I give you my list of the top ten scary moments in movies.

Meet Joe Black (1998)

Director: Martin Brest

Starring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Claire Forlani

Its top 10 Scary Scene: This isn't a film that most people would cite as scary. It's not. However, it actually has a groundbreaking scene in it that scared me silly. Perhaps a lot of people don't remember or don't know because lots of films have copied this particular scene, but as far as I know, this was the first film to do it. Basically, it's the scene where Brad Pitt's chararacter is killed prior to becoming Joe Black. Basically, he walks into the street and is plastered by a couple of cars. The special effects are pretty phenomenal and it's pretty unexpected. Other films would expand on this scene in ways that were totally silly, usually involving somebody walking in the street and being hit by a bus or something that the audience couldn't hear coming. "Meet Joe Black" did this scene first and best and it was completely startling and gross.

Signs Movie Poster
Signs Movie Poster

Signs (2002)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin

Its top 10 Scary Scene: There are a fair number of M. Night Shyamalan films that one could mention on a list of scary scenes, but for my money, "Signs" has one of his best scenes, though it's not the one that most people will think of immediately. The scene from this film that comes up most often is the scene where Mel Gibson puts the knife under the door with the alien on the other side. There's also the scene at the end where the alien has the ill son. However, for my money, the most unnerving scene for me was when the characters come out of the basement for the first time after locking themselves down there. Shyamalan really knows how to set up some scenes and what makes some scenes really frightening. Nothing happens in the scene I'm referring to. The camera kind of floats up the stairs and turns each way very slowly. You expect something to jump out, but it doesn't. It's that anticipation that's built up over the course of the film that allows this scene to be riveting yet, on paper, sounds completely boring.

Torso (1973)

Director: Sergio Martino

Starring: Suzy Kendall, Tina Aumont, Luc Merenda

Its top 10 Scary Scene: This film has one of my favorite horror movie scary scenes of all-time. It's just a great scene. In fact, it's so great that if you haven't seen this movie, you should go rent it or buy it right now because it saddens my soul to think that I'm going to ruin it for anyone. But, if I must. Basically, the main female character has been locked in a room and when she tries to look through the key lock, she realize the key is in there, so she proceeds to slip a piece of paper or something under the door as she tries to knock the key out so that the key will land on it. After getting everything in place, she pushes the key out, only to have it bounce on the paper and then off it onto the floor. Bummer! Then suddenly the killer's hand comes into view, grabs the key, and gently places it on the paper unbeknownst to the woman who pulls it under the door. Success, she thinks.

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat

Its top 10 Scary Scene: In this scene, Kurt Russell has his flame thrower and has tied everyone else to a chair except for one guy who is helping him. His goal is to test everyone's blood and see if anyone is a thing. He puts a hot wire in front of the flamethrower and then touches the wire to samples of blood. All the guys in the chairs look notably concerned for a variety of reasons. As Russell touches each sample, the tension rises until finally he hits one that's the blood of a thing, there's a scream, and the guy starts convulsing violently. The tension-building in this scene is great. What makes it even better is the realization by everyone of what a half-assed plan this was because once the thing is revealed, everyone is still tied to their chair. Then Russell's flamethrower doesn't work as the thing attacks the other guy who's not tied to a chair.

Audition (1999)

Director: Takashi Miike

Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina

Its top 10 Scary Scene: It's entirely possible that you could make a pretty good ten best list of scary films scenes from just Takashi Miike films. If you haven't seen this director's films and you like horror movies, you'll be surprised, to say the least. His films tend to be over-the-top in a variety of ways. There are a good number of scenes from "Audition" that could qualify, but I'll just use one because, as I remember it, we don't really know what's going on at this juncture of the movie. The main male character is trying to decide whether or not to call the main female character. We cut between the two. The man is at his office while the woman is at home, sitting on the floor with a big burlap bag in the middle of the room. She's very mysterious and a little bit disturbing. The phone rings a couple of times, then suddenly the burlap bag goes rolling across the room of its own accord and we're pretty sure there's something alive in there.

Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcok

Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Hopkins, Vera Miles

Its top 10 Scary Scene: The famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" seems positively tame by today's standards. Unfortunately, the reason it doesn't play as well today is that everyone is so familiar with it. You know it's coming. Even then, it's still a beautiful scene because the viewer has absolutely no idea that it's going to happen when it does. Now imagine you were watching this film back in 1960, when virtually nothing like this had ever been done. It was completely shocking. Furthermore, Janet Leigh was perceived as the main character and she's suddenly killed off early in the movie, further increasing the surprise. Maybe it's not the scariest, jump-out-of-your-seat moment in the history of cinema, but it's certainly one of the greatest horror film scenes ever.

Alien Movie Poster
Alien Movie Poster

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt

Its top 10 Scary Scene: There are lots of scary scenes in "Alien", but easily the most shocking is the first one in the movie where the alien bursts from John Hurt's chest. It's all the more shocking because, as you might remember, Hurt's character has spent some time with the face hugger attached to him and nobody who watched the film for the first time had any idea what was going to happen. Then suddenly, the face hugger is off him and everything seems okay. There's this brief lull where the whole crew is eating and having a good time and the next thing you know, Hurt is convulsing and suddenly this little alien bursts from his chest, lets out a screech, and takes off.

The Exorcist III (1990)

Director: William Peter Blatty

Starring: George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif

Its top 10 Scary Scene: One of my all-time favorite jump-out-of-your-chair scenes. It's so good because the build up is so long and you have absolutely no idea what is going on. Blatty lulls us into this false sense of safety - it's brilliant. I can't recall what was happening just before this scene in the hospital corridor, but I believe one of the characters is in a room and the camera just kind of comes out into the hallway and seemingly lingers there. Fairly far down the hallway are a nurse and a cop. The nurse is at her station and the cop is sitting on a chair. The cop gets up and leaves while the nurse goes and check a room. Everything is as mundane as can be as the nurse locks the door and walks away, only to be followed by this white-robed ghost holding a pair of giant scissors going right for her head. It happens so fast you could miss it if you look away, but it's one of those scenes where everyone in a crowded theater screams at the top of their lungs.

Don't Look Now (1973)

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Starring: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason

Its top 10 Scary Scene: If you're a parent, the opening sequence where the young girl drowns is pretty awful. However, the entire movie builds up to the final frightening sequence where Donald Sutherland's character finally confronts the red-hooded figure he's been seeing all around Venice. The red raincoat certainly appears to be the same one his daughter was wearing when she drowned and the psychological horror of continually seeing this figure builds and builds. Is it a figment of his imagination or is it real? The horror of what happens at the end is completely unexpected and disturbing.

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss

Its top 10 Scary Scene: This particular scene is a very simple scene, but the build up is so perfect, it has to be one of the best, most startling moments in cinema history. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are searching around at night in the water and we know the shark is out there somewhere. They happen upon a boat and Dreyfuss goes in the water despite the danger. He's got a fairly small flashlight, so pretty much anything could be lurking around the corner and we wouldn't see it. The sense of danger is just astonishing in this scene. Dreyfuss pokes in a hole in the boat and a head rolls out and pretty much anyone in the theater seeing this film for the first time hit the ceiling.


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