Like all genres, the elements and iconography of horror can seep into and inform the thematic, stylistic, and narrative choices made in stories told in other genres. From aesthetics to entire story beats, horror can be found far afield from its typical trappings. Sometimes, films operating in other genres can even take a time out from their stories to create an entire scene that delves into pure horror.
While these detours into horror may seem strange and out of place, they can make a massive impression on audiences and add far greater complexities to their films when done right. The following 10 scenes are just a few examples of great horror moments in non-horror movies, but there are countless more in the history of cinema. From sudden outbursts of monster mayhem to overwhelming dread in the face of evil, these scenes can stand up to even the best of classic horror.
Ock’s Operating Room – Spider-Man 2
The Scene: After an accident fuses a set of robotic arms to the spine of Dr. Otto Octavius, the unconscious scientist is sent into an operating room for emergency surgery. But the surgeons soon realize that something is wrong, with the four gigantic metal arms coming to life and attacking them in a sudden, horror monster-like rampage.
What Makes It Scary: Director Sam Raimi clearly used this scene as an opportunity to recapture the thrills he created in the Evil Dead franchise. Filled with tension that eventually explodes into violence, the operating room massacre is far darker and crazier than the rest of Spider-Man 2, giving Doc Ock far greater menace. From the quick cuts to the first person, Evil Dead style perspective of the mechanical arms, this is a wild, darkly humorous piece of horror.
The Ark is Opened – Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Scene: The Nazis, led by archeologist Belloq, open The Ark of the Covenant on an island in order to understand its true power. But while Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood shut their eyes while tied to a nearby pole, the power of The Ark flows out, changing from beautifully mysterious spirits into terrifying figures of death, quickly and gruesomely killing every Nazi in the area.
What Makes It Scary: Up until the opening of the Ark, Raiders plays as a light but intense action adventure. But when the Ark is cracked open by Belloq, the scene goes from creepy awe and wonder to outright terror. The human faces of the spirits turn gruesome, the music becomes piercingly frightening, and deaths fill the screen, climaxing in the brutal if cheesy fiery deaths of the three main villains.
The Life of the Mind – Barton Fink
The Scene: Two policemen arrive in a crummy hotel to arrest screenwriter Barton Fink for a murder he didn’t commit, only to be confronted by the formerly friendly and affable Charlie Meadows, who has set fire to the building. Running down the hallway and screaming about the life of the mind (a major focus of the film’s main character and its own themes) as the flames follow him, Charlie kills the men with his shotgun, exposing himself as a renowned serial killer. But Charlie only wants to help Barton better understand himself and the world.
What Makes It Scary: The Coen Brothers know how to create serious menace within their films, and this scene may be their filmography’s most outright horrific. Goodman knows how to portray unhinged, raging madness just as well as jovial friendliness, both of which are seen here for a terrifying combination. The seemingly alive fire helps, too.
Coin Toss – No Country for Old Men
The Scene: Hired killer and haircut enthusiast Anton Chigurh saunters into a gas station in the middle of nowhere. But when the attendant remarks of Chigurh coming from Dallas, the killer becomes a quietly scary and threatening individual, leading to a series of terrifying questions and the proposition to call a coin toss. While Chigurh doesn’t specify the stakes, it’s clear that the answer means everything.
What Makes It Scary: Another moment of Coen horror! At this point in the film, Chigurh has been established as a dangerous, unpredictable man. So while the exact meaning behind the coin toss is not made clear, it’s obvious that death is on the line. The way that the Coens shoot the scene in a simple shot-reverse-shot coverage with very minimal camera movement creates a still tension that reflects the hot and arid atmosphere of the gas station. This is horror played out in minor expressions and sayings, with every little word meaning so much.
Turned into an Ass – Pinocchio
The Scene: Animated puppet Pinocchio and his new friends are taken to Pleasure Island, where they get to smoke, drink, and make fools of themselves. But they soon realize that all boys who travel there are transformed into donkeys and sold into slave labor, even though they still know who they used to be. Pinocchio himself sees a friend turned into a donkey and escapes with the help of Jiminy Cricket before his own transformation can be completed.
What Makes It Scary: Old school Disney knew how to turn on the terror at a moment’s notice. Here, the idea of unwitting young boys being turned into animals for slave labor is outright horrifying and saddening. Seeing a transformation firsthand is akin to a classic Universal Monster movie, wherein the horror is not in anything grotesque, but in the terrifying nature of your body changing against your will and with nothing you can do to stop it.
The Chocolate River Tunnel – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The Scene: After poor Augustus Gloop goes up the chocolate shoot (euphemism!), the rest of the children and adults hop on board Willy Wonka’s river boat to travel down the chocolate river to their next stop. But once the boat enters a tunnel, Wonka begins singing a strange and creepy song as the tunnel starts spinning and disturbing images appear all around. Only for the ride to come to a sudden stop and for everything to return to normal.
What Makes It Scary: The non sequitur nature of the tunnel scene is half of its power, with there being absolutely no hint that something as odd and crazy as this was possible in the film. Filled with psychedelic images and colors, the entire scene feels like a really bad trip. It’s demented fun, with Wilder’s off kilter singing adding another layer of knowing menace to the unknown danger closing in on all sides.
Heroin Withdrawals – Trainspotting
The Scene: Following a near fatal overdose, addict Mark Renton is forced to quit heroin when he’s locked in a room by his girlfriend’s parents. His nightmarish withdrawals peak with his seeing the deceased infant of a friend who died from neglect due to her mother’s addiction. The terrifying and inhuman baby crawls along the ceiling until it’s above him, twisting its head around to look at him and sending him screaming out of pure fear.
What Makes It Scary: While the hallucination of a baby crawling on the ceiling may be a heightened interpretation of drug withdrawal, its grounding in the very real and painful nature of addiction is what makes this so incredibly scary. And McGregor’s very real terror at the sight of the child is what pushes it over the edge, making the moment far more personal and immediate than the scene would be otherwise.
L.B is Cornered – Rear Window
The Scene: After sending girlfriend Lisa to the apartment of the man he suspects of committing a murder (and nearly getting her killed) professional photographer and amateur voyeur L.B. Jefferies is spotted by the man across the courtyard. All alone in his darkened apartment with a broken leg and all his friends gone, the murderer arrives to confront him and quiet him for good. All L.B. has to protect himself is his limited supply of flashbulbs, which temporarily blind his oncoming assailant.
What Makes It Scary: As I wrote about in “Rear Window: Turning Viewer into Voyeur,” the helplessness of L.B. in the climax of Hitchcock’s thriller makes the terror and danger here inescapable for both protagonist and viewer. With nowhere to run, no one to help, and an enraged killer closing in, this perfectly constructed thriller morphs into horror for its pulse-pounding climactic scene.
Bilbo and The Ring – The Fellowship of the Ring
The Scene: After a dangerous journey to the safety of Rivendell, Frodo Baggins meets with his uncle Bilbo, the former possessor of The One Ring of Power. But when the elderly and kindly Bilbo sees The Ring around Frodo’s neck, he is suddenly transformed into a vicious, screaming monster for a brief moment.
What Makes It Scary: It’s the sheer surprise of the moment that makes this work. Yes, it’s a jump scare, which is often the cheapest tactic in a horror movie, but the out of the blue nature of this scene adds a layer of horror to what has happened to the warm and kind Bilbo. It’s not just the jump, but the haunting image of a momentarily transformed Bilbo that brings the terror. Plenty of LOTR fans knew this moment was coming, but it scared the pants off them anyway when they first saw it.
The Pale Man Awakens – Pan’s Labyrinth
The Scene: In her quest to find immortality, young Ofelia ventures into the realm of the Pale Man, a grotesque monster with his eyes on the palms of his hands who is hungry for the flesh of children. When Ofelia disobeys orders to not touch anything there by eating grapes at the Pale Man’s table, the nightmarish monster awakens from his slumbers and attempts to eat Ofelia before she can escape with her prize and her life.
What Makes It Scary: While Pan’s Labyrinth is most definitely a dark fairy tale, this is the moment when legitimate horror seeps into the story. Both the human world and the magical world are filled with terrifying threats, and the disgusting, inescapable nature of the Pale Man fills the screen with dread. The stakes are raised, the danger is real, and the fear is palpable.
Do you have a favorite horror scene in a non-horror movie? Let me know in the comments below!