10 Most Horrifying Scenes in Non-Horror Films

Unexpected nightmare fuel for the film buff’s soul.

Days Non Horror

Oddly enough, some of the scariest scenes in film aren’t actually from horror movies. In fact, their not being in horror movies is a huge part of what makes them so dang scary. We haven’t knowingly bought a ticket to a horror show and our guard isn’t up. A big dimension of “nightmare fuel” is its ability to leave a lasting impression. It’s the cinematic equivalent of absentmindedly channel flipping only for the remote to run out of batteries on a Cronenberg set-piece.

Horror certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on disturbing content. Personally, I’ve flinched away from more rom-coms than horror flicks. I would sooner watch a million Lucio Fulci eye-gauges than one excruciatingly awkward misunderstanding. The scenes below have a certain generic oddity to them; an uncanny sense that we’ve entered into a different space. Crossed through some wormhole to a cinematic language more at ease with the ghoulish, ghastly, and gore-heavy.   

Keep reading for a look at the top ten most horrifying scenes in non-horror as voted on by Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Jacob Trussell, and myself.

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10. Call It | No Country for Old Men (2007)

This scene is cruelty personified and I fucking love every second of it. As someone who hates people talking to me when I just want to buy things, I side with the bad guy in this situation. That said, it’s still a nerve-shattering scene. Here we have an elderly shopkeeper, working beyond retirement age to make ends meet, just trying to pass the hours of a mundane day by making innocent small talk with his psychotic customer. This proves to be a mistake, though, as our psycho isn’t the chatty type and decides to gamble the old fella’s life just because he can. This scene is a reminder that life is random and only death is certain. It’s a reminder that sometimes bad things can happen to good people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our old dude survives, sure, but from that day on he’d know not talk to speaker to strangers. His mother should have taught him when he was a kid. — Kieran Fisher


9. Just! Like! This! | Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

As his name suggests, Judge Doom isn’t exactly a good guy. As if the black cape, gloves, sword cane, and infatuation with capital punishment didn’t give that away. Legend has it Tim Curry originally auditioned for the role, but was nixed for being too terrifying. Which is saying something considering the nightmare fuel of a performance Christopher Lloyd puts in. In his most terrifying scene, Doom makes two confessions: he killed Eddie’s brother, and he is a Toon. That until now Doom was so sane and serious compared to the rest of the cast makes the transition all the more terrifying; his smile stretches, his eyes bug out, his voice shatters into a manic screech. Nope, nope, nope. — Meg Shields


8. Time for Dinner! | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth Horrifying Non-Horror

If one were able to crawl inside the mind of Guillermo del Toro and hang out there for a bit there is no telling what weird and bizarre creatures you’d be likely to encounter. Unfortunately, Innerspace technology does not yet exist so all travel plans to the depths of del Toro’s brain are presently on hold, however, del Toro is kind enough to release some of his brain matter every few years. In 2006, he released what is maybe his most fantastical look at his inner workings, Pan’s LabyrinthThe dark fantasy inspired by del Toro’s lucid dreaming contains an entire world full of mysterious characters brought to life by the help of a bit of CGI and a lot of make-up and animatronics. Perhaps the most memorable creation, and without question the most disturbing, is the Pale Man. This thin creature with saggy skin and eyes planted in the middle of his palms is awakened when the film’s protagonist, Ofelia, eats a couple of grapes from his table. Visibly upset, Pale Man promptly bites the heads off of two fairies and lunges after Ofelia. If nightmares were a time traveling DeLorean, Pale Man would be the plutonium that powers them. — Chris Coffel


7. Cannibal Basement | The Road (2009)

Anything that comes from the imagination of Cormac McCarthy is a basically a bedfellow of horror. His stories have a tendency to be as horrifying, bleak, and gruesome as any traditional scare fare. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of his post-apocalyptic drama novel of the same name is the type of movie that should come prescribed with a course of anti-depressants and a newborn puppy to take your mind off of it. However, this scene, which features an underground lair populated by cannibals and their victims is particularly grim. It’s not just the cannibals seeking human flesh that make it scary — the images of their prisoners starving and naked is also the stuff of nightmares. Very few scenes evoke the feeling of hopelessness as powerfully as this horror show. — Kieran Fisher


6. Eye Slice | Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Un Chien Andalou Horrifying Non-Horror

I can’t deal. Seriously. This moment… I just can’t. I first caught it from the back of my communications class in college. I have no idea why we were watching the film; I just remember my lackadaisical response to the various surrealist images parading before me. My memory has me nodding off before the razor caught my attention, but that could also be hyperbole taking over reality. What I do know is that for a moment, I thought I had experienced a snuff film in class, and the horror of that possibility was traumatic. Since then I’ve gone on to not only appreciate Luis Buñuel but obsesses over him. He ranks at the very top of my auteur’s list, but after examining the eye slice from Un Chien Andalou multiple times after that first-watch, I do not need ever to see it again. Even the still image can upset me to this day. Tiny cuts are the worst. Paper cuts. A nick while slicing a cucumber. A splinter. Those are bad enough to send shivers across my skin, but to apply such sharp and swift action to one of my peepers? No way. I just can’t deal. — Brad Gullickson


5. Curb-Stomp | American History X (1998)

American History X is a haunting drama about hatred, redemption, and consequences, and while it features any number of harrowing sequences it’s the curb stomp that lands with the kind of visceral gut punch any horror film would be lucky to have. It’s already a tense and high-energy scene as Edward Norton‘s jacked-up skinhead forces a young black man to essentially bite the curb. His teeth scrape on the concrete almost like nails on a chalkboard, and with the sound and image already leaving us filled with dread-soaked anticipation, it takes the most horrifyingly gruesome of turns. The stomp itself is capped with a sickening crunch, and as the horror sets in the score shifts to an angelic choir painfully contrasting the hellish act we’ve just witnessed. — Rob Hunter


4. Picnic | Zodiac (2007)

There’s a reason most horror films set their scares at night or in the dark as it’s a quick (and sometimes lazy) way to up the creepiness without much effort. It takes skill to chill a viewer’s blood in the bright light of day, though, and David Fincher (who previously showed the necessary chops with the final sequence in Seven (1995) involving a certain box) turns the terror to eleven here as a young couple enjoys an idyllic sunny day by a lake before being approached by a masked man with a gun. He cuts an imposing figure, and the immediate feeling of fear is magnified as what starts as a simple robbery reveals far grimmer motivations. Adding to the immediate horror is the couple’s loss of control. Once they’re tied up and thinking it’s all over they have no choice but to take what the soft-voiced killer gives them — a steel-bladed nightmare thrust repeatedly into their torsos as their screams echo across an otherwise peaceful lake. — Rob Hunter


3. Wakey Wakey | Se7en (1995)

While Se7en borders on non-horror, the police procedural thriller from David Fincher introduced unsuspecting audiences to a world of sadism by the likes we had never seen this side of the Lament Configuration. But the the most chilling scene in Fincher’s film doesn’t rely solely on grotesquerie, but rather good old fashioned theatrics: the jump scare. The “Sloth” scene is a cinematic Jack in the Box. While we are busy drinking in the moody and bloody atmosphere early Fincher was famous for, he distracts us long enough to put us off our guard, much like the police officers in the scene. As they cautiously enter the room, seeing the cadaverous body and air fresheners hanging from the ceiling we think to ourselves, “It can’t get worse than this.” But when it does, and in turn we leap from our seats, Fincher is putting us all off our guard for the remainder of the shocking film. — Jacob Trussell


2. Open Wide | Marathon Man (1976)

I hate the dentist. I always have. It’s a terrifying experience I fear so much that when I moved to Portland and needed to find a dentist I tracked down one that specializes in sleep dentistry. That leads me to the Marathon Man, a movie not typically perceived as scary but that contains a scene that rivals the most haunted of houses. The scene has Dustin Hoffman strapped to a chair in a dark, gloomy room being tortured into giving up information. The form of torture? Oh, just your standard dentistry. The moment that mouth mirror enters Hoffman’s mouth I’m dead. I can taste the cold, sterile steel pressing uncomfortably against my tongue and then there’s that scraping. The scrape, scrape, scraping of the periodontal scalers against the teeth. And this is all just the precursor to the grinding death screech known as the dental drill. The mere thought sends a shiver through my teeth. If you want to scare someone this Halloween dress up as Laurence Olivier with a scaler in one and a drill in the other. That ought to do the trick. — Chris Coffel


1. Snare | Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down Horrifying Non-Horror

After sensing that something’s not right, Fiver bolts out of Cowslip’s Warren. Bigwig follows, chastising the young rabbit for being selfish. Bigwig storms off, he vanishes, and all we can hear are gurgles. Turns out the misty feeling of deception Fiver spoke of was bang on: the food was bait laid by a farmer to ensnare rabbits. Literally. Wire caught around his windpipe, Bigwig pants, mouth agape, tongue lolled out. His friends scramble to dig the peg out of the earth, and frothy blood oozes from Bigwig’s nose and lips.  You know — for kids! — Meg Shields

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