Of all the emotions evoked by cinema, fear is one of the most powerful – and most elusive. From the Lumiere Brothers to Thomas Edison, many of the medium’s pioneers crafted their earliest movies using macabre or shocking storylines. In the decades that followed, horror has remained an enduring, though maligned, staple of film.
This is not meant to be a “scariest scenes” list – Bravo already compiled 100 of those, and they’re all pretty spot-on – but rather a reflection on the scenes that proved cinema’s power to terrify. Fear is subjective, and anything or nothing can scare a viewer, depending on the circumstances; but there have been moments in cinema that alter the genre’s landscape so greatly that they can’t be dismissed.
In an era of scares driven by metallic sound design and good makeup (or bad CGI), we reflect on scenes that terrified audiences while also changing the rules of the game.
PICKING FLOWERS: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
While Dracula was technically released a few months prior, this early adaptation of culture’s most recognizable monster is arguably the most important Universal monster movie. Not only did director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff create their own grotesque icon, they gave it a heart – which makes the scene in question even more difficult to watch. Watching Karloff’s bumbling character run out of flowers, then look at his child companion with such innocent intent, will forever send chills down viewers’ spines.
BUS ATTACK: CAT PEOPLE (1942)
When RKO Pictures ordered young producer Val Lewton to slap together a Wolfman knockoff, they couldn’t have expected it to become one of horror’s best works. Telling the tragic tale of a woman who fears she’ll turn into a panther when aroused, Lewton and team turned a B-movie premise into a heartbreaking look at loneliness; and a scary one, too. This scene may be cinema’s first successful jump scare; but for viewers who pay attention, the tragic story leading up to it contains the real fear.
SHOWER: PSYCHO (1960)
Sure, Alfred Hitchcock’s most shocking film might be over-discussed, but I’ve seen this sequence countless times and it never fails to physically affect me. As Alexandre Philippe explores in detail through his fabulous documentary 78/52, Hitchcock structured this scene with the utmost sadism – each edit, each spike of strings, works to twist the viewers’ nerves into a frenzy. But it’s the scene’s sheer boldness as well – not only does it shock, it alters the entire course of the story, veering into a groundbreaking and hideous direction. The gore itself is nothing to mention; it’s the scene’s utter brutality, the senselessness, that gives it an eternal ability to disturb.
THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
George Romero didn’t set out to make a masterpiece when he crafted this film, but he winded up doing so anyway, with one of the bleakest and most harrowing horror stories ever brought to screen. Not only does it comment on police brutality and xenophobia long before those conversations were allowed on film, it uses nihilistic themes of human failure to add depth to its highly suspenseful premise. The entire movie is horrifying, but that first scene – starting with a faux-spooky line – remains a masterclass in turning a mundane conversation into the stuff of nightmares.
CRUCIFIX: THE EXORCIST (1973)
Younger audiences typically fail to understand the transgressive power of this film, perhaps because religion doesn’t influence our lives as it used to. This may be for the better, but when watching William Friedkin’s transcendently frightening film, viewers must remember: mainstream audiences had never seen demonic evil portrayed so realistically. This scene, shot in broad daylight, shows us just how far the nightmarish entity is willing to go – defiling a girl in front of her mother, with one of culture’s most holy objects. It doesn’t get much scarier than that.
CLEAR!: THE THING (1982)
The success of Steven Spielberg’s adorable E.T. convinced 1982 audiences that aliens were our friends; thus, John Carpenter’s remake of a classic B-movie flopped upon release. Luckily for us, time has remembered this paranoid film for the masterpiece that it is. Carpenter’s work here may not be as simple and breathless as it is in Halloween, but he broke ground in his willingness to show his monster – not only that, but root it directly to the character’s bodies, our most personal space. The scene in question is the film’s most surprising moment, and its absurd escalation into violence afterwards makes it a landmark in visceral horror.
YOU LIKE SCARY MOVIES?: SCREAM
In a move that echoes an earlier moment on this list, Wes Craven decided to open his mid-90’s comeback by killing off the endlessly-likable Drew Barrymore. Considering the stale nature of horror cinema around this time, Craven’s choice could simply have been a PR move – but Kevin Williamson’s brilliant screenplay turns Barrymore’s brief role into a masterclass in terror. The scene isn’t just groundbreaking for its nastily-realistic violence or its brilliantly-calibrated shifts of suspense; it proves that horror films can poke fun at themselves and still scare the shit out of people.
THE TALL MAN: IT FOLLOWS
The past few years have seen a resurgence of arthouse horror, and this may be the most popularly recognizable example. Its ingenious invention – a shape-shifting STD that stalks its victims – has proven divisive, while the film itself made its mark with gorgeous cinematography, a game cast and an iconic score. And anyone who has felt terror over their sexuality – or recognized the way that sexual shame follows one, tormenting them invisibly – might tune into the story’s nightmarish grip. No better scene encapsulates the absurd sense of fear than this brief moment; just as everything seems normal, a pure nightmare heads right for us, reminding us that no moment is safe.
NO, NO, NO: GET OUT
Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning, boundary-pulverizing debut is not one’s typical horror film – no grotesque apparitions, maniacal killers, or bodily transformations. Just centuries of hideous deeds that our culture still hasn’t fully acknowledged. Peele’s brilliance with satire and attention to detail ensured that audiences believed every image and word, however – and that’s the key to transformative horror. Through a fantastical idea, Peele sheds light on very real – and well-hidden – atrocities. While the finale of Get Out properly pays off the slow buildup with brilliant chaos, this scene – anchored by the phenomenal Betty Gabriel – proves the film’s ability to generate unease from a simple word.
Think we miscounted? Nope. Horror has never been richer and more exciting than it is now and our friends at ScreenCraft just launched their Horror contest again. So now we encourage YOU to put together a scary scene that will change everything. Enter “The industry’s #1 horror screenplay contest,” according to Indiewire, before the early deadline on May 3rd!
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid