What frightens you the most? It really depends on each person. But the scariest scenese in film can transcend personal preferences and a wide range of fears to reach out and instill terror in people around the world. The greatest scary scenes on film get under your skin and refuse to leave your brain for days. And while you may think it’s all cheap tactics and shallow thrills, the best pieces of fiction that terrify can say something about what we really fear and evoke a primal and genuine response in ways that other films cannot.
The following are 12 movie scenes that have frightened audiences everywhere for years. For the sake of all-ages content, there are no videos here, but you can find them online for yourself. Just be warned, they may keep you up at night.
Spoiler Warning! Many big moments from films will be openly discussed here.
He’s Right Behind You – Halloween
Horror movies are all too synonymous with the jump scare today. And while these sudden and shocking bursts have been a staple of cinematic scares for decades, the best scares are the ones that grip your soul and squeeze. There is no better example than the most terrifying moment in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Pursued by the homicidal Michael Myers, babysitter Laurie Strode desperately tries to hide from the killer in a home. Believing she has finally escaped the killer, Laurie pauses quietly against a wall, but the pale white mask of Myers slowly reveals itself from the dark doorway behind her. It’s a slow reveal without any musical accompaniment, making it the literal opposite of the jump scare. But the perfection of the reveal means that true fear washes over the audience, making it far scarier than any momentary “gotcha” scare.
Mother Revealed – Psycho
After seeing the spectral figure of Mother haunt The Bates Motel throughout Psycho and witness the disturbing behavior of Norman Bates throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific horror film, the ultimate reveal of Mother, who sneaks up on the investigating Lila, could have been silly. Instead, it’s perfect. There’s something about seeing Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates reveal as Mother, brandishing a butcher’s knife and illuminated by a swinging single light, that sends a shiver of dread down the spine. With Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score kicking in, the reveal of the killer is downright terrifying.
Zelda is Home – Pet Sematary
Pet Sematary is filled with all kinds of weirdo, messed up scenarios that range from the strange (zombie boy inexplicably in a top hat and suit) to the grotesque (zombie boy shoving an Exacto Knife into someone’s ankle). But it’s the appearance of Zelda, previously deceased skeletal sister of the female lead Rachel’s character that does a fear-drenched mambo on the brains of audiences. Previously, we learned that Rachel had a sister named Zelda who died from spinal meningitis when she was young. Zelda’s deathly appearance and painful death scarred Rachel. So when the deceased sister suddenly appears in all her twisted glory (played by a weird looking man for added effect), the result is a disorienting and fearsome scene that scares more than any violent kill scene.
Hannibal Escapes – Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter is one of the most terrifying and charismatic villains to ever grace the silver screen thanks to Anthony Hopkin’s powerhouse performance and if Lecter was frightening while he was securely locked behind bullet proof glass, he’s pants-wettingly terrifying when he’s on the loose. Moved to a temporary cell, Lecter sees his chance to escape while dinner is being served. Director Jonathan Demme fills the scene with terribly dread, as the audience knows that something horrific is sure to happen. Two unsuspecting guards fall victim to Lecter’s tactics, as he dines on them instead of the meal as he busts out. But it’s the final reveal of how Lecter is actual able to escape that is frightening and disgusting in equal parts.
Blood Test – The Thing
A great scare is the result is perfectly timed editing and the big blood test scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the all-time great examples. But’s it’s not just the scare, it’s also the dread leading up to it and the terrifying results of what is revealed that make this entire scene into something horrifying. It’s also incredibly fun, filled with the types of scares and thrills that make horror movies so great! Having determined that electricity can determine whether a person is actually the monstrous alien creature that has infiltrated their Arctic base, protagonist MacCready ties up his remaining companions and subjects each of their blood samples to an electric shock.
Big Wheel Ride – The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is drenched in dread from the very first shot. No scene is more emblematic of that than little Danny’s big wheel ride through the silent halls of The Overlook Hotel. Happening fairly early into the film and before much of the outright terror has begun, young Danny Torrance rides through halls, with Kubrick tracking the boy through very long tracking shots and little sound other than the noises his bike wheels make on the varying surfaces. Like much of the movie, it’s the quietness that builds the tension until it absolutely has to break, which it does by the appearance of two ghostly twins who appear to Danny suddenly in a hall. They are clearly spirits, but it’s the vision of their bloodied corpses that drives home the terror in both the audience and Danny.
Someone Else in the House – Zodiac
David Fincher’s Zodiac is a parable of obsession and paranoia, both justified and damaging. And even though The Zodiac Killer is a terrifying presence when he arrives to do his wanton killing, it’s often his absence on screen that brings about the most tension. In a film filled with stabbings, shootings, and many more violent acts, the scariest scene is one filled with quiet tension and possibilities. On the trail of the killer, cartoonist Robert Graysmith meets with a man who was friends with the prime suspects, but soon begins to wonder if the man he’s meeting is actually the killer. Led down into the basement to review some possible evidence, the sounds of footsteps upstairs can be heard, despite no one else living in the house. Here, Fincher uses the power of silence and stillness to build dread, rather than resorting to cliched musical scoring or jump scares. The terror is in the uncertainty and vulnerability of the moment.
The Golden Egg – The Vanishing
When on holiday in France, Rex’s girlfriend Saskia vanishes without a trace, sparking his desperate search for answer across three years. When he finds the man responsible for her disappearance, he’s given a choice – kill him now and never learn what happened or take a drugged drink and experience what she experienced. Driven mad by his desperation, he chooses to be drugged. Waking up in total darkness, he soon realizes that he has been buried alive like his girlfriend. At once going crazy and simultaneously accepting the inevitability of his fate, he realizes that Saskia had predicted their fates before her disappearance. With no happy ending (forget the U.S. remake), the darkness and inescapability of Rex’s fate is chillingly haunting.
Under the Red Jacket – Don’t Look Now
Don’t Look Now isn’t exactly a horror film, but it’s climax is most certainly terrifying, which gives it all the more power in the context of the film. Tracking a husband and wife who travel to Venice in an effort to deal with grief over the death of their daughter, the husband (played by Donald Sutherland) is haunted by visions of a little girl in a red jacket, which he believes is his daughter’s spirit. Having finally tracked down the mysterious figure in the red jacket, he puts his hand on the character’s shoulder. Who is it? A hideous female dwarf wielding a straight razor. In moments, his throat is cut and as he lays bleeding out, he realizes all too late that he has been seeing visions of his own death. It’s delightfully bonkers in a way that blows minds as it terrifies.
Evil Clown Doll – Poltergeist
Clowns are scary enough. So are creepy dolls. Through them together in a haunted house story and you’ve got a recipe for nightmares. Kicking off the climax of the film, the seemingly at rest and exorcised house of the Freeling family bursts into chaos as the spirits reassert themselves, most notably by possessing a giant clown doll and attempting to kill the young son. First of all, why would any family have a clown doll hanging out in their children’s room? Second of all, why would it still be there after months of disturbing paranormal activity? Those questions aside, the creepy clown doll scene in Poltergeist is far more terrifying than any ghost or goblin.
The Man Behind Winkie’s – Mulholland Drive
Sometime’s a scene is more terrifying than it has any reason to be. Here, David Lynch shows off his knack for existential terror and precision filmmaking with a truly strange and brain melting piece of horror. Near the beginning of Mulholland Drive, the film cuts to two men in a Winkie’s Diner. One man discusses dreams he had, where he and the other man met at the diner and became terrified by a disturbing man behind the restaurant. The two walk behind the restaurant to dispel the notion, only to be confronted by the creature. Filled with existential dread, mounting tension, and a perfectly conceived sense of horror, this is easily one of the most terrifying scenes in modern film. But it isn’t easy to explain why. It just is, like a nightmare come to life.
Night Nurse – The Exorcist III
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is one of the most seminal horror film ever created, but here we’re going with The Exorcist III for one of the all time great scares. The third film centers on a series of killings in Georgetown that are seemingly being perpetuated by The Gemini killer, who had died years ago. One stormy night in a psychiatric ward, a nurse goes about her duties patrolling the halls. Director William Peter Blatty takes it all in with one continuous shot from a distance. The quietness and monotony of the scene creates a rising tension despite audiences not knowing what is to come. Cue a person in a white sheet coming out of nowhere with a pair of giant sheers about to lop off the nurse’s head. But rather than revel in the oncoming gore, the film quick cuts to a shot of a headless statue before returning to police wheeling out the body. There’s no need for blood and violence, it’s the setup, execution, and disturbing ideas on display that make this incredibly scary.