Horror cinema has led to many innovations in film history.
Horror filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Wes Craven have contributed more to cinema than just the jump scare; they and other directors like them have created iconic scenes that have influenced pop culture and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
Here the modern horror genre will be surveyed, and we’ll explore everything from the scariest scenes of all time to the most iconic horror movie scenes all while exploring the best aspects of the horror genre in a broader historical sense.
Naturally there are spoilers in the article. Read only if you have seen the movies.
This scene, which runs three minutes and involves 50 quick cuts, is said to be the most-watched scene not only in horror, but in all of film history. Shot in black-and-white, the “blood” is chocolate syrup, and the sound of the knife plunging into human flesh was created by stabbing a casaba melon. After stealing from her employer in Phoenix and fleeing into rural California, Janet Leigh (mother of Jamie Lee Curtis from Halloween) stops at a creepy little motel. As she starts to take a peaceful shower and wash off all her stress, we see an anonymous figure approach from behind the blurry murk of the shower curtain. It rips the curtain off its holders and proceeds to stab Leigh to death as Bernard Herrmann’s screeching-violin composition called “Murder” amplifies the terror.
Night of the Living Dead is definitely not the first zombie film—that would likely be White Zombie (1932)—but it is unquestionably the godfather of the slew of zombie movies that followed in its wake. In the opening scene, siblings named Barbara and Johnny are visiting their father’s grave in a rural Pennsylvania cemetery. As the weather grows stormy and Barbara starts to get creeped-out, Johnny sadistically starts to mock her fear: “They’re coming for you, Barbara!” Then he points at someone walking about 100 yards away and says, “There’s one now!” To Johnny’s horror, the person he pointed to is an actual zombie that attacks his sister and then kills Johnny. Truly one of the most startling and frightening opening scenes in film history.
In the penultimate scene in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the titular character finally sees her baby after being told it had been stillborn. While the baby is never shown to the audience, Rosemary is horrified. She screams “what did you do to his eyes?” Her neighbors assure her that nothing is wrong with the baby, and that he has his father’s eyes—revealing to Rosemary that her husband is not the father of her child, Satan is.
In a film that is packed with horrifying scenes, the one where Regan’s (Linda Blair’s) head spins around to the nauseating sound of her cracking neck vertebrae is undoubtedly the scariest and most famous. It happens when the title character, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), tosses holy water on the demon-possessed Regan and demands that Satan leaves her body. In 2019, it was voted the “scariest scene of all time.”
At the very beginning of the franchise, our first glimpse that something is horribly wrong comes when two teens enter an unlocked home looking for gas or directions to a gas station. One is immediately killed by Leatherface with a hammer. Leatherface then impales the other on a meat hook, where she must watch while he dismembers her friend with a chainsaw.
When shy outcast Carrie White gets voted Prom Queen as a cruel joke, she stands happily on the stage in her dress and crown—until her bullies pour a bucket of pig’s blood all over her. Shock and then fury overwhelm Carrie as she realizes what happened and she unleashes her newly discovered telekinetic abilities on her classmates and teachers. This scene is widely referenced in horror culture, including an important moment in Scream (1996) when Billy Loomis reveals the wounds he was sporting were actually made of dyed corn syrup.
The original Alien movie by director Ridley Scott contains one of the most gruesome and icky alien scenes in cinematic history. One YouTube commenter explains his history with this movie: “I was 5 years old when I saw this movie with my Dad in the 80s….This scene scared the hell out of me…for years anytime I had a stomachache or saw someone with a stomachache I thought an alien was inside.” Yuck!
The scene in the original Halloween (1978) where Jamie Lee Curtis unsuccessfully hides from Michael Myers in a closet is one of the scariest in any horror movie. It seems like a foregone conclusion that Jamie should be killed off in this scene; there’s no escape from a small closet when the Boogeyman is right outside the door. Luckily for us all, our super-smart final girl fashions a weapon out of a wire hanger and lives to see another day (and a never-ending well of sequels).
There are many iconic scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic The Shining. Perhaps the most iconic is the moment where Jack Nicholson breaks down a bathroom door, behind which a terrified Shelley Duvall hides. Succeeding in creating a hole large enough to see though, Jack Nicholson sticks his head up to the hole and says, “Here’s Johnny!” The ad-libbed line was a reference to late-night host Johnny Carson.
This scene shows a man painfully being transformed from man to werewolf. It’s a powerful scene, and between the special effects and makeup it is one of the most innovative scenes from any movie in the 80s. In fact, the transformation was so good and realistic, American Werewolf in London won an Academy Award for best makeup in 1982.
During their last night in a house that is haunted by malevolent spirits, the Freeling family begins packing up their belongings in an attempt to relocate because the house is possessed beyond redemption. But in the process, little Robbie is attacked by a clown doll, matriarch Diane is attacked by corpses in a swimming pool, and as they attempt to flee the house, rotting corpses and coffins begin emerging out of the ground. As the house is absolutely bursting at the seams with paranormal activity, the Freelings flee in their station wagon as their house implodes in the rear-view mirror. The last shot shows them dazed and battered as they check into their new home—a motel room at a Holiday Inn.
In this horror-comedy that goes light on the horror and heavy on the comedy, one of the creepiest scenes shows two normal people sharing the same pre-afterlife waiting room with ghoulish freaks and misshapen taking corpses. When an obviously rattled Geena Davis asks another character, “Is this what happens when you die?,” a green-skinned woman who was apparently Miss Argentina explains it’s what happens when everyone dies, then reveals her biggest regret is slashing her wrists, which she displays to Davis just to amp up the creep factor. According to Broadway World, “The Netherworld Waiting Room is a great moment where audiences get a glimpse in what the afterlife could be like! Flat men, skeletons, and shrunken heads are just a few of the things waiting for you when you cross over into the great beyond.”
In a flashback that sticks with many horror fans, Rachel Creed remembers caring for her sickly sister as a child. As her sister became disfigured due to spinal meningitis, Rachel and her family began to passively wish she would pass on. The striking scene shows young Rachel’s fear and disgust with her sister in gruesome detail.
Based on the Stephen King novel Misery, this kidnapping movie has a scene of what might be called excruciating slow-burn torture. There is no gore or any explicitly graphic violence. Rather, it’s just an unsettling moment of seeing Annie Wilkes hobble her favorite writer so he can’t escape her home. Though this onscreen violence haunts even the most devout horror fans, the book is even worse. In the novel version, Annie cuts off her victim’s foot with an axe. She also later cuts off his thumb when he complains about the typewriter she forces him to write on.
Wes Craven’s Scream is arguably the most famous slasher movie of all time. The opening scene of the film, however, is definitely the most iconic horror movie opening and the most quoted of all time. Drew Barrymore’s character is alone in her house, making popcorn when she receives a call from a strange man who asks her if she likes scary movies. The sequence quickly devolves into a death scene that is radically gruesome.
David Lynch’s neo-noir horror stars Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman, but it is the Mystery Man character who steals the show whenever his creepy presence occupies the screen. He is initially introduced as a figure in the main character’s dreams, until one day he shows up in real life, causing terror and panic to his targeted victims. His supernatural presence seems otherworldly, but unfortunately, his manic behavior is all too real.
This scene hits different because it’s a fear we’ve all had. There’s someone hiding under the car waiting to slash your Achilles tendon and then attack while you’re vulnerable and unable to run away. This happens to the college dean in Urban Legend, and the killer doesn’t stop there. As the dean crawls away looking for safety, the villain gets in the car and runs him over one of those “do not back up severe tire damage” spike strips.
The final scene of the OG found-footage movie is the one that sticks with viewers. In the film, three film students go into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to make a movie about a local legend, that of the Blair Witch. After getting lost in the woods and being tormented by an unseen presence, the trio find an abandoned home. Inside the basement their cameras are knocked to the ground, giving us just a glimpse of their fate: one of them standing calmly facing the corner before the film cuts to static.
The premise of 28 Days Later is that Cillian Murphy’s character, Jim, wakes up from a coma in an abandoned hospital after Great Britain was overwhelmed by a zombie virus. A confused Jim stumbles into a chapel and discovers piles of dead bodies. After he yells “hello?” he is attacked by a fast-moving zombie priest and has to fight for his life for the first time.
The opening scene of Ghost Ship (2002) is so uncanny and horrifying it’s the most memorable part of the entire movie. At a fancy dance on a cruise ship a little girl dances with the captain. Suddenly, a sharp wire snaps through the crowd, beheading, disemboweling, dismembering, and otherwise killing every person onboard other than the little girl, who was too short to be harmed by the wire.
Hanson the butler in Scary Movie 2, played by comedy actor Chris Elliot, performs one of the most memorable sequences when he uses his malformed hand to make mashed potatoes and dessert for a group of kids staying at Hell House. It’s crass humor but unforgettable.
It’s interesting that this scene may be the last of its kind. Anne Hathaway and the production of The Witches were criticized for giving Hathaway’s character a cleft hand in order to portray her as “hideous or something to be afraid of.” Hathaway and production apologized and because of the negative publicity it’s unlikely malformed limbs will be used as a vehicle for disgust or humor in the future.
A scene so singularly un-bloody yet gruesome that the name alone can cause a visceral reaction. In the movie, one of Jigsaw’s victims has two minutes to dig through a pile of syringes in order to retrieve a key. If that isn’t bad enough, the intended victim bypasses the trap by pushing another one of Jigsaw’s captives into the needle pit. She’s forced to play along and search for the key. 120,000 fake needles were built for this scene.
Just when we think our heroine Liz is about to save the day, she is stabbed from behind. Wolf Creek villain Mick Taylor then paralyzes her by severing her spine and delivers a grisly monologue about how he has turned her into what he calls “a head on a stick.”
Toward the end of this fictionalized account of California’s infamous Zodiac Killer—who taunted authorities but was never found—Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) leads Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) down the stairs into a dimly lit basement, calmly asking him questions about the Zodiac murders. When Graysmith hears creaking on the floorboards above him, he asks Vaughn if there’s someone else in the house, but Vaughn assures him there isn’t. Terrified, Graysmith runs up out of the basement and attempts to leave the house, only to realize that the front door is locked and he can’t leave. Vaughn unlocks the door and lets Graysmith leave, but the implication is that Vaughn is the Zodiac Killer. According to The Ringer, “the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.”
Hereditary is a unique horror movie because it sneaks up on you slowly. The film’s scare factor is both sedated and protracted, which makes the moments of violence and terror all the more like a sledgehammer coming out of nowhere and hitting you over the head with a supernatural strength. In this iconic scene, a brother is driving his sick sister home, and she moves her head out the window. An animal carcass is on the road and the cars swerves, and as the header indicates something horrible happens. The horror of the scene is magnified by the human drama that unfolds from the implications of the death, as well as its brute violence.
This is a remake of the classic 1970s Dario Argento giallo film, the most shocking scene unfolds when a dancer named Olga (Elena Folkina) proclaims that she is finished with the little witches’ coven at this dance academy. While a new girl named Susie is performing a dance scene at the academy, the camera keeps cutting back and forth between the dance scene and images of Olga, who is now trapped in a secret mirror room, having her limbs tossed around as if Susie is a voodoo doll whose every movement injures Olga. When Susie snaps her arms into alignment, Olga’s shoulder blades violently snap as a result. When Susie does a pirouette, Olga’s ribcage nearly gets dislodged from her torso. According to Decider, “The broken lump that is left of Olga by the end of the scene is hard to watch, but it’s the one moment in the movie where the horrific promise of Suspiria is paid off.”
The film is called A Quiet Place because it involves a family who occupy a house where they are stalked by evil spirits who target them via sound. The infamous “bathtub scene” shows family matriarch Evelyn (Emily Blunt) sobbing uncontrollably as she enters an empty bathtub fully clothed. Then we see a torrent of blood emanating from between the pregnant woman’s legs—a miscarriage, perhaps? Then we see a long-clawed hand grab onto a railing in order to make an ascent toward the bathroom. Then it is obvious that the long-clawed hand is right behind Emily in the bathroom. The scene ends with the obviously tormented Emily emitting an ungodly scream.
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