Horror has long been one of the most popular, profitable, creative and effective genres in all of film bringing to life some truly iconic moments over the course of over a hundred years. Horror films seek to frighten us, scar us and shatter our perceptions of reality and sanity through their twists, turns, quick cuts and horrifying dialogue that send shivers up our spines sparking our fight or flight responses like few other genres could ever hope to do. It’s been a while since I’ve done a list on the blog so in honor of Halloween and the scariest time of the year, as well as a genre that is among the most popular and a personal favorite of mine, I decided to take on the daunting task of picking out what I feel are the best, most effective and frightening scenes in this genre’s storied history. These are my picks for the Top 20 Scariest Scenes in Horror Movies.
For this list I scoured the countless scenes of horror cinema that left a mark on me personally by striking fear, discomfort and a sense of unease and dread into not only my heart but the hearts of millions who have also been fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to experience them taking into consideration several elements such as the context of the scene, its creativity or shock value, its lasting impact on me personally as a viewer as well as the legacy these scenes have left behind in horror cinema. These are my favorite jump scare, deaths, surprises and reveals that shocked and frightened me and countless other to the core. Like many lists this is completely subjective and are just 20 scenes that for me have stood the test of times as lasting examples of the most frightening cinematic moments horror has offered to date. It should be noted in case it’s not obvious that a HUGE SPOILER ALERT is included with this list as many if not all of these moments spoils twists or elements of the plots of their respective films.
What do you consider the scariest movie scene you’ve ever experienced? Let me know in the comments below as I’m sure there’s more than a few great moments I’ll be leaving out that deserve an honorable mention. Let’s get to it!
20. The Tree Rape, “The Evil Dead”
Starting off this list is one of the rare horror scenes that’s as effective in the remake as it was in the original. While there are plenty of terrifying moments from Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic the one that has always stuck out to me is the tree rape scene which was equally as effective in the 2013 remake. After hearing noises in the woods Cheryl goes to investigate only to find herself wrapped up by demonically possessed vines and branches that proceed to rip off her cloths and have their way with her leading to her own possession and the start of the true terror the film had in store. Even for today’s audiences this scene feels incredibly uncomfortable and graphic with actress Ellen Sandweiss presenting a truly gripping and raw portrayal of hopelessness and fear. Her screams cut right to your soul and, like many great genre pieces, it’s our inability to interfere and our perspective as a fly on the wall to a pretty uncomfortable moment that give it that special touch. It’s one of those terrifying movie scenes that feels so wrong, but you just can’t look away.
19. Pennywise in the Sewer, “It”
While the original miniseries did a fine job presenting Pennywise’s debut as he famously eats Georgie from the confines of a sewer, the 2017 movie version of StephenKing’s classic novel did an even better job. Bill Skarsgård amps up the tension perfectly as the entity of fear It in the for of the clown Pennywise wooing Georgie into a false sense of security before chomping down on his arm leaving a trail of blood and a helpless, armless meal before him easy for the taking. Even knowing what this scene had is store given the continued relevance of both the book and Tim Curry’s famous previous portrayal of the character, this moment was surprisingly effective capturing in a few short introductory minutes what made Pennywise so scary. Not the mention seeing a child in danger and nobody around to help is always an effectively uncomfortable situation to put viewers through and it remains for me the scariest moment in the duology.
18. Rosemary is Impregnated by the Devil, “Rosemary’s Baby”
This is one of a few scenes on this list I had difficulty finding online without visiting some…questionable websites due to the nudity involved so the video above is the best and most tasteful version I could use here. Anyways, this scene from “Rosemary’s Baby” fits a theme this list seems to follow, the helplessness of innocent characters is obviously an effective scare tactic. “Rosemary’s Baby” is an undeniable classic of the genre as a slow burn decent into terror where a woman finds herself the unknowing target of a cult seeking to bring about the spawn of the devil. It’s this uncomfortable scene that depicts the very conception of that child as Rosemary, portrayed by Mia Farrow, finds herself drugged and raped by the Devil himself with only a short glimpse of the Devil’s eyes revealing him as she slowly begins to realize what’s happening. We can only watch helplessly as Rosemary falls victim to an evil she has yet to even begin to comprehend. Watching a rape scene is uncomfortable enough in films, but in horror and in this context, it makes it even more uncomfortable and unsettling with every viewing.
17. Jason Rises from the Lake, “Friday the 13th”
This legendary franchise starter helped perfect the final moment jump scare with the debut of Jason Vorhees. As many horror aficionados will remind any casual fan, Jason wasn’t actually the villain of the first “Friday the 13th” movie. His mother was. Still his legend permeates the story and his death by drowning at Crystal Lake serves as the villain’s main motivation. So, after final girl Alice, played by Adrienne King, kills Mrs. Vorhees and makes her escape via canoe we think she’s in the clear until a deformed Jason jumps out of the water and grabs Alice dragging her into the water. She awakens in a hospital where noone believes her story. What makes this moment so special and effective time and time again for me is that this is the one and only scare Jason himself is responsible for in the first movie and it feels completely random since he wasn’t the main villain so a bit of that shock remains even though you know it’s coming. It serves as a spooky reminder that Alice is not safe and that an even more dangerous figure is ready to take his revenge.
16. Christine is Dragged to Hell, “Drag Me to Hell”
Sam Raimi shows up for the second time on this list, this time with the surprise 2009 critical darling “Drag Me to Hell” which sees a loan officer named Christine, played by Alison Lohman, become the target of a curse after she denies a gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage. The woman curses Christine to be dragged to hell in a few days for her actions and we follow Christine through the movie as she tries to alleviate the curse. By the end we think she has won, but due to a small mistake she discovers the curse is still on her and she is out of time. We see her fall onto train tracks and then get pulled into the dark depths of hell in a pretty cool looking and extremely disturbing moment while her boyfriend looks on in horror. Her desperate pleas for help add to the moment while the shock on actor Justin Long’s face is mirrored by the audience itself. Adding to the horror is that Christine isn’t even really that bad a person, so it’s easy for us to see ourselves in her shoes. We witness a pretty normal human being be punished for a simple poor decision, something we could all make in our own lives, adding some real-world context to the terror this moment evokes with every rewatch.
15. The Nurse Scene, “The Exorcist III”
An all-time great jump scare, this highlight moment from “The Exorcist III” is probably the one scene most people know from this underrated threequel. The movie follows a police lieutenant who is investigating a series of demonic murders he believes tie in with a diseased killer named the Gemini. One such murder occurs in a hospital in an expertly crafted and paced scene that slowly builds up to the death of a nurse. The leadup to the actual scare is draw out and tense as a nurse checks a room across from her desk only to be suddenly attacked by a cloaked figure after she turns her back. It works on so many levels because even upon several rewatches the pacing of the scene and lack of sound creates an awesome lead in. Little details like seeing the security guard at the end of the hall leave, re-enter, and then leave again make everything feel so normal and then you consider that the nurse entered a room she felt was empty and safe only to have the figure exit said room suddenly and without warning. It’s an awesome scare and it won’t be the last “Exorcist” scene you’ll see on this list.
14. Night 21, “Paranormal Activity”
The final night in the original “Paranormal Activity” movie is the highlight of the film and for me the scariest moment in any of the movies in the series to date. The entire film builds up to this moment showing the mysterious entity torturing Katie and Micah, possessing Katie, and finally fully taking over her body on the 21st night of recording. We watch as familiar and new elements of the haunting take place until Katie finally walks downstairs and we hear a blood-curdling scream waking Micah who runs downstairs and after what sound like a very brief struggle everything goes silent. Then the good part…we hear heavy footsteps slowly work their way up the stairs and a pause that seems like forever adds incredibly tension to the scene before Katie through Micah’s lifeless body at the camera and eventually attacks the camera itself. Even after watching this movie countless times I still can’t get the timing for when that body is going to fly at the camera. Say what you want about this admittedly overdone franchise, the original had great scares, and this was by far the best living up to all the buildup the movie had put us through.
13. Hide and Clap, “The Conjuring”
“The Conjuring” is by far one of my all-time favorite haunted house movies and it’s scenes like this that make it so special. Following Ed and Lorraine Warren as they help a family try to rid their home of an evil spirit, this scene takes place prior to the duo’s arrival as the matriarch of the home Carolyn, played by Lili Taylor, attempts to get to the bottom of some strange clapping noises recalling her games of hide and clap with her daughters. She eventually tracks the sound to the basement before the door shuts in her face as she tries to exit. She lights a match to see her way only for a childlike voice right behind her to ask if she wants to play Hide and Clap before a pair of hands stick out and clap beside her head causing the match to go out. It’s absolutely terrifying with the claustrophobia, darkness, and Carolyn’s helplessness having been locked in the basement all helping drive home the fear along with great timing and suspense. For me it’s my personal favorite moment in the entire “Conjuring” universe to date and it gets me every time.
12. The Video Tape, “The Ring”
The American version of “The Ring” was and remains a creepy picture with outstanding dark imagery and atmosphere and a slow burn story that explores a cursed video tape that kills you seven days after you watch it. While there are some notable great scares like when Samara finally emerges from the television, it’s the cursed tape itself that gets the nod from me here. When protagonist Rachel, played by Naomi Watts, first views the tape we see it in full in all its haunting glory with seemingly random details, nightmarish imagery and that ear-splitting high-pitched noise that accompanies it all. “The Ring” as a film is an effective piece of legendary 2000s horror cinema, but, as with the video above, you can take just the tape itself out of context and that alone provides an unsettling experience. Playing out like an arthouse short film, the video tape that serves as the driving force of the entire movie overshadows the rest of the film and remains the spookiest element of the franchise.
11. The Defibrillator Scene, “The Thing”
Similar to another sci-fi horror movie scene that will show up later on this list, the emergence of the titular Thing from John Carpenter’s classic remake is as horrifying and fun today as it was back in the 80s. While this isn’t the first time we see the Thing or its abilities, it’s by far the most iconic scene involving the shapeshifting being as one of the Americans at a research station named Dr. Cooper, played by Richard Dysart, attempts to revive another crew member named Norris setting into motion a bloody moment of cinematic brilliance with some of the best practical effects of the time. Norris’ chest opens to reveal a set of jaws as Norris has been assimilated by The Thing. The alien chomps Cooper’s arms off and explodes into the room revealing a revolting, spider-like form with Norris’ head. The realism of the scene, the iconic imagery and the very thought of experiencing such a monstrosity ourselves makes this the most consistently scary moment in an overall incredibly unsettling piece of sci-fi brilliance.