There’s all manner of method to the madness in our selections of the scariest movie scenes ever. Some use high amounts of gore. Others deliver unnerving calm and quiet before shattering the senses. A few feature amazing monster makeup and effects. The one common thread between them all: They work. And work not just at producing a moment of fear, but sustaining that fear, sometimes for minutes on end, to drill deep into our psyche and staying there for decades. These are the stuff of nightmares, what we see when we close our eyes at night. These are the 29 scariest movie scenes of all time. Warning: spoilers abound!
What’s the scariest movie scene you’ve ever seen? Tell us in the comments.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
The scene: The chest burst
One of the things that sets Ridley Scott’s sci-fi nightmare apart from the other horror fare of its era is its relatively slow burn, playing on the claustrophobia of space and the fear of the unknown. So it comes as a shock to the system when a “facehugger” hurtles out of an egg and attaches itself to John Hurt’s Kane, puncturing the atmospheric dread with a visceral jump scare. But the moment that became indelibly stamped in pop culture history comes just a few scenes later, after the facehugger has detached itself and Kane is recovering from the incident. As the crew enjoys a meal together, Kane suddenly begins to choke and convulse on the table, and a small, lizard-like creature bursts through his chest and scrambles away, effectively birthing a horror villain that would terrorize space crews for decades to come.
(Photo by IFC Midnight/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Baba breaches bedroom
A lot has been written about The Babadook: It’s a story about grief, and it’s a story about feminism; it’s less a horror film than a domestic drama; and somehow through it all its central bogeyman has emerged a wonderfully camp gay icon. We’re all for it. But in the midst of the think pieces and the movie’s surprising afterlife, one thing often goes overlooked: The Babadook is just a really, really scary traditional horror flick, too. Take the scene in which the Babadook (dook, dook) taunts Amelia (Essie Davis) in her bedroom. On paper, it’s nothing we haven’t seen in any Conjuring or Insidious movie, but as executed by director Jennifer Kent and acted by Davis (robbed of an Oscar nom, and yes we’re still sore) it’s almost un-watchably tense. Sound and darkness work overtime to drum up the suspense before the Babadook himself appears, jerkily terrorizing the woman on the edge of a breakdown.
(Photo by Artisan Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Mike in the corner
Anyone who tells you this super-low-budget 1999 phenom isn’t actually scary just hasn’t watched it all the way to the end. Because if you can sit through the moment Heather discovers Mike standing in the corner of that abandoned house and not tear the leather off your La-Z-Boy’s arms then you’re a much tougher horror-watcher than we are. The traumatizing screams and image of Mike standing ultra-still in the corner are scary enough – add in the fact that none of it is explained and this is a fright-filled finale for the ages.
(Photo by New Line Cinema / courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: The nun comes to life
Taken on its own merits, The Conjuring 2 was a solid movie, even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor. But it’s somewhat telling that its most memorable scare came courtesy of an entity who spends much of the film on the fringes of the primary story and whose presence was so immediately chilling that it spawned its own spin-off movie. The scene in question takes place inside the Warrens’ (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) own home, when Lorraine experiences a vision in which she is trapped and attacked by the demon nun Valak. Director James Wan milks the tension for all its worth, as a dark shadow moves across the walls and positions itself behind the painting of the nun’s face before it lunges at Lorraine with a shriek. We all checked our pants after that.
(Photo by Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Monsters revealed
Neil Marshall’s The Descent is considered by some the scariest movie of the past 20 years, and for good reason. The movie hooks us in with its claustrophobic setting – a tiny and very unstable cave system somewhere in Appalachia – and its dynamic group of women with their complicated pasts and relationships. Then, when it has us right where it wants us… MONSTERS. And f—king scary ones at that. The movie’s most intense scene is also the first time we see these humanoid beasties, and Marshall masterfully mixes slow-building dread, dramatic distraction, and a helluva jump scare for the big reveal. We’re so caught up in the drama over Juno getting the group lost that we almost don’t notice that thing standing RIGHT THERE.
(Photo by British Lion Films)
The scene: The ending
Up until the very end, you don’t know what the exact nature of the threat is in Don’t Look Now. You’re only aware that something sinister creeps on the fringes, vaguely menacing Donald Sutherland’s character as he wanders Venice with his wife after the accidental drowning of their young daughter in America. It’s the uncomfortable way people talk to him. Or is that just how it always feels in a foreign country? It’s in the way light reflects onto the camera. Or isn’t that how light always bounces around? It’s in Sutherland’s unsettling visions of his wife and daughter. Or is he just processing grief? But it all snaps into place for Don’t Look Now‘s vein-icing final sequence, giving terrible logic and clarity to the preceding 100 minutes.
(Photo by Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
The scene: Spinning heads
William Friedkin’s controversial film, based on a novel that fictionalized purportedly true events, is famous for the raucous reactions it inspired from terrified audiences who nevertheless flocked to see it in droves. It managed to entertain just as effectively as it scared the pants off of everyone, and perhaps no scene captures that special magic as well as the moment when Linda Blair’s possessed Regan – after having performed a rather sacrilegious act with a crucifix – spins her head 180 degrees to face her frightened mother (Ellen Burstyn). Regan does spin her head again later, during the climax of the film, but this first scene is so vulgar, violent, utterly shocking, and ultimately horrifying that it’s impossible to pull your gaze away from the screen.
(Photo by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France)
The scene: Face/off
Director Georges Franju started his career as a documentary filmmaker, an invaluable skill set for his second narrative feature, Eyes Without a Face. It’s the story of a desperate father who, after disfiguring his daughter in a car accident, spends his nights killing women, slicing off their faces, and attempting to attach them to his daughter’s. The concept is gross enough, but the way Franju uses his calm and deliberate camera (indeed, like shooting a documentary) during the film’s infamous central surgery scene gives the fictional proceedings the sheen of reality.
(Photo by A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: An allergic reaction
Like Alex Wolff’s Peter in the movie, we were left completely speechless and frozen the first time we saw THAT MOMENT in Hereditary. We’re being vague for now, because it’s such a recent film and the moment is such a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the movie stop reading now…. OK, if you’re still with us, you know what we’re talking about: Charlie (Milly Shapiro), struggling for breath in the back seat, pushes her head out of the car window and connects with a passing telegraph pole. The whole sequence, from the chocolate cake at the party to the wheezing in the car to the moment of impact, is brilliantly choreographed, but this is one of those scares that was also heavily aided by the film’s publicity. Charlie was at the center of the marketing campaign, leaving viewers to think she would be a central figure right through to the end; when she gets it about a third of the way in, we suddenly know that anything can happen in Hereditary. If Psycho broke the “don’t kill your main character” rule, and Scream stepped all over the “don’t kill your biggest star” rule, Hereditary went one further: Don’t kill the kid.
(Photo by ©RADiUS-TWC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: A tall man arrives
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature, It Follows, was declared a modern horror masterpiece when it was first released back in 2014, and it’s the rare film that has only grown in stature in the years since that initial rapturous reception. The story is simple: a teenager (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend and finds herself cursed by Death, which takes the form of virtually anyone around her and simply moves – relentlessly – towards her, wherever she is. The only way to break the curse? To pass it on. The dread here is painted on as thickly as that metaphor is laid, and Mitchell’s movie is full of scenes you won’t soon forget (the sight of Monroe’s hair rising from her head on the beach still brings the shivers). But for sheer WTF terror we can’t go past the moment a tall man arrives from nowhere just when our hero’s closest friends are starting to doubt her story.
(Photo by Universal)
The scene: The opening scene
Much has been made of Spielberg’s expert use of the unknown and unseen in Jaws, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the movie’s opening scene in which a woman is jerked to and fro by something moving beneath her in the black abyss. (Stuntwoman Susan Blacklinie had hooks attached to her Levi’s and was being pulled by divers.) The scene is also the first time the world got to hear that iconic John Williams score, its pulsing slow-build instantly becoming a mood-building classic. We eventually went back in the water after seeing Jaws, but never at night.
(Photo by Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: A transcendental experience
Martyrs was part of the New French Extremity movement, where a wave of filmmakers put out horror films that hit harder than ever before. Part home invasion, part torture porn, all blood and gristle, Martyrs details a cult-like group who torture young, beautiful women to the brink of death to uncover insights into the afterlife. It all comes to a head with the final sequence, where one of the main characters is flayed alive. Worse: She survives. Even worser: The experiment actually works, as the character enters a transcendental state. The knowledge she gleans about the afterlife and passes on, however, proves too much for the living.
(Photo by Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Annie breaks Paul’s legs
When it comes to visceral gross-out scares, the Saw films may win for degree of difficulty and Hostel (remember that one?) may be the king of holy-f—k gore. But for impact, nothing beats Rob Reiner’s Misery, in which barely a drop of blood is spilled and not a single eyeball plucked. We’re cringing just remembering the moment Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes’ places a block of wood between a tied-down Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) feet and breaks his ankles with the swoop of a giant sledgehammer. The crunch! The unnatural bend of the ankle! The slow and methodical description of “hobbling” that Wilkes gives before she takes her epic swing! Jigsaw ain’t got nothing.
(Photo by ©Picturehouse Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: A knock, knock game
If you were watching director J.A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and wondering why, in the second half, this big-budget dinosaur adventure movie suddenly morphed into a haunted-mansion movie of sorts… well, Bayona’s debut feature, The Orphanage (La Orfanato), will explain a few things. Because, frankly, when you have a filmmaker who’s simply this good at making a scary-house movie, you just let him do his thing. Like The Haunting, The Others, and other classics of the genre, The Orphanage has so much more on its mind than sending tingles up your spine; it’s steeped in grief and history and – led by a terrific Belén Rueda as the mother who moves her family back to her childhood home, a former orphanage for children with disabilities – deeply moving. And, yes, it’s also scary as hell. Perhaps no more so than in the scene where Rueda’s Laura begins to commune with the child ghosts of former residents through the children’s game of “knock, knock”: knock twice, count to three, and turn around to see who’s behind you. With each turn, she sees the specters slowly advancing, until…
(Photo by Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: The 21st night
Oren Peli’s game-changing found-footage film did for the bedroom what Blair Witch did for the woods. The fast-forwarded footage of Katie (Katie Featherstone) standing by her bed and watching Micah sleep was the reason some of us got separate bedrooms – with locks – from our loved ones for months after the hit film’s release. But the movie saved its best shock for last: On night 21, a now fully possessed Katie leaves the bedroom, lures Micah out with a torrent of screams, and then – after a seemingly endless silence – throws him at the screen and proceeds to eat him. Well, at least we think that’s what might happen. Like Blair Witch’s unexplained finale, this one leaves us with lots of theories to chew on.
(Photo by Universal Pictures)
The scene: The shower kill
Hitchcock didn’t invent the slasher, but we’ll be damned if he didn’t perfect it with Psycho and its seminal scene: Marion Crane’s iconic shower death. Even after you analyze the hell out of it – the Hershey’s chocolate syrup in place of blood; the edits that never once show knife penetrating skin – the moment loses none of its ability to shock. The key is the build-up, that wonderful shadow of Norman behind the curtain, and then the brutality: those quick-cut thrusts matched by that iconic burst of Bernard Herrmann’s score.
(Photo by Filmax/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Dragged into darkness
This is a found footage nightmare set in a quarantined building in Barcelona where a zombie virus infection is breaking out. Our protagonist Angela is a newscaster who at first merely wants to report on the mysterious closure of the building, and then becomes the news herself when she ges swept into the quarantine. [REC] is a roller coaster of a film, culminating in its final scene, presented in eerie quiet and night vision, as Angela, seeming like she just might make it out, is dragged into the darkness while the dropped camera rolls on. It’s such an effective moment, it was of course spoiled on the theatrical for the American remake Quarantine.
(Photo by DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: The cursed video
It took us far longer than seven days to wipe the images from this bizarro piece of video art from our minds. Gore Verbinski’s U.S. remake of The Ring is full of excellent creepouts – Samara emerging from the TV; the distorted victims’ faces – but the ace up its sleeve is the video at its center. This unnerving mishmash of static, random ominous imagery (a tree aflame, a woman brushing her hair), and insistent screeching is truly dread-inducing. Even after it’s been aped by the opening sequence of nearly every season of American Horror Story, the Ring video still makes an impact.
(Photo by Paramount)
The scene: Mother and child
The tension rises and falls throughout Rosemary’s Baby, never allowing the viewer to settle in and fully process what’s happening. A demonic rape here, some weird juice there, just to keep the viewer discombobulated. It all reaches a boiling point in the dream-like coda, when Rosemary wakes up after giving birth, in her empty apartment. She finds a hidden room where her husband and neighbors have gathered, all in on the conspiracy for her to deliver Satan’s child, and welcome her in. You never see the baby, but Rosemary’s line says it all: “What have you done to him? What have you done to his eyes?!”
(Photo by Dimension Films)
The scene: ‘Do you like scary movies?’
Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s genre-reinvigorating classic kicks off with what many consider the greatest opening scene in horror history. Plot-wise, it’s basically When A Stranger Calls, ’90s-style – girl is alone in the house, receives stalk-y phone call, happens to have encyclopedic knowledge of the film genre in which she suddenly finds herself – but Craven brings so much smarts and bravura skill to the direction of it that it kicks complete ass even decades later, after we’ve seen the countless imitators that followed and the shock of having a big-star snuffed out in the first 10 minutes has worn off. Credit too to Ghostface voice Roger L. Jackson, that perfectly placed pan of Jiffy Pop, and to Williamson’s script, a step-by-step screenwriting masterclass in how to ratchet up tension. “The question who am I, the question is where am I?”: Chills to this day.
(Photo by Warner Bros)
The scene: Jack on the attack
Kubrick stuffed his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel with so many scary moments and images, trying to pick just one could drive you to Jack Torrance levels of craziness. But we’re doing it anyway. While the Grady twins in the hallway are spooky as hell, and we still can’t erase the image of the bathtub woman from our minds, we had to go with the movie’s most iconic moment: Wendy trapped in a bathroom as Jack hammers at the door. Kubrick’s swinging camera, Jack Nicholson’s mania, and Shelley Duvall’s totally convincing fear combine to make this the most terrifying scene in one of cinema’s most terrifying movies.
(Photo by ©Orion Pictures Corporation/courtesy Everett Collection)
(Photo by Bryanston Distributing Company)
The scene: Leatherface appears
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considered one of the most punishing, sickly transformative experiences in horror. And it’s not even 90 minutes long – and nothing really happens for the first 30 minutes. But once Leatherface appears, the movie never lets up. His grand debut happens inside his house, when a stupidly intrepid young adult enters looking for fuel for his car. Leatherface pops out from a hallway and hits the dude in the hammer, the body crumpling and then twitching on the ground. Leatherface drags the body into the butcher room, and slams the door. There’s plenty of more scares to come, but this opening salvo is as disturbing as they come.
(Photo by Universal/courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: Getting something off your chest
John Carpenter was well into his groove by the time he made The Thing, and he put all of his talents on display to contribute one of the most influential entries in the “body horror” genre not directed by David Cronenberg. We get our first glimpse of the “thing” fairly early in the movie when it absorbs a pack of huskies, and we see it again when it attempts to assimilate Peter Maloney’s Bennings. But the big scare comes when Charles Hallahan’s Norris appears to have a heart attack, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) attempts to revive him with a defibrillator. Norris’ chest opens up like a giant mouth, complete with teeth, and rips Copper’s arms off before Kurt Russell’s MacReady blasts it with a flamethrower. Thanks to some top-notch practical effects and the judicious use of a jump-scare, the scene remains the most memorable and viscerally disturbing in the movie.
(Photo by Claudette Barius / © Universal / courtesy Everett Collection)
The scene: “There’s a Family In Our Driveway”
Horror fans are split on whether Jordan Peele’s Us is a match for his debut feature, the Oscar-nominated and ground-breaking Get Out, or whether the film itself manages to sustain the tension of its first act as its story expands. But few would argue that the initial visit of the Wilson family’s mysterious, red-jumpsuit-clad doppelgängers (their Tethereds) to their vacation home is not among the most well-orchestrated and suspenseful home-invasion scenes the genre has ever given us. It’s not just the expert build-up of tension, as Winston Duke’s Gabe suddenly realizes he may need to get a little “crazy” with the strange quartet who’ve come a-knocking, but Peele’s ability to sear instantly iconic images onto our brain, from the shadowy figures holding hands in the driveway to Lupita Nyongo’s Adelaide clutching tightly to her children and, as the sequence settles, the first appearance of those golden scissors.
(Photo by Argos Films)
The scene: The truth
Forget everything you know about The Vanishing. Oh, that was fast — as if you’ve never seen the Jeff Bridges/Sandra Bullock kidnap thriller before. It was a lousy movie with the distinction of being a remake…with the same director. George Sluzier was brought to Hollywood to direct the remake, and it’s easy to see why: the 1988 Dutch original is a chilling, methodical examination about the mundane face of pure evil. Naturally, the American version has none of that. It also doesn’t have the original’s ending: When the hero finally confronts his girlfriend’s kidnapper, who offers him the opportunity to find out what happened to her. The answer is one of the most terrifying scenes in movie history.
(Photo by Everett Collection)
The scene: A climax in the dark
Sensory deprivation has long been a part of some of the most terrifying sequences in horror film history; see, for example, the climax from Silence of the Lambs, highlighted in this list, or the two Don’t Breathe movies, or, in a kind of inverse of the idea, A Quiet Place and its sequel. All likely owe some debt to Wait Until Dark, the 1967 thriller about a recently blinded woman (Audrey Hepburn) who finds herself under siege in her New York apartment when a group of criminals begin casing the place to find a heroin-stuffed doll they believe is inside. (And yes, you read that right: Audrey Freaking Hepburn is an OG Scream Queen.) The movie’s finale, in which Hepburn’s Susy Hendrix is trapped inside her apartment with the criminals (and which features a jump scare for the ages), is a nerve-shattering crescendo for a movie Stephen King has described as among the scariest of all time.
(Photo by Columbia Pictures)
The scene: The phone calls
Pop in When a Stranger Calls and for the first 20 minutes, you’ll think you’re watching the scariest movie ever made. Carol Kane plays the babysitter, and she keeps on getting increasingly menacing calls to check on the kids upstairs. When she gets the call traced, naturally it’s coming from inside the house! Think this scene won’t work anymore because it’s been parodied and referenced to death since? Think again. It remains a masterclass in editing and suspense. The rest of the movie is pretty lousy, but that opening act can still dial up the tension decades later.
(Photo by British Lion Films)
The scene: The burning
Not quite a masterpiece these days but definitely a classic, The Wicker Man follows a prudish police officer as he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a remote English island populated by pagans. As he follows the clues and contradicting statements of the village people, he edges ever closer to the titular wicker man, a sacrificial vessel to be burned at dusk. Even if you can get who gets put inside it, the sheer intensity and terror of the scene is still something to be witnessed.
Thumbnail image: IFC Films