Essays · Movies

The Scariest Moment in Cinema History

By  · Published on October 28th, 2016

We tackle a big question in advance of Halloween: what cinematic moment is the scariest?

As Halloween weekend begins, we know that everyone is recommending great movies for you to watch over the next few days. In our archives, you’ll find all kinds of stuff – from 20 Underrated Horror Films for Your Halloween Viewing Pleasure to this year’s plea for More Non-Horror Halloween-Themed Movies. Not to mention the numerous years in which we ran a feature called 31 Days of Horror. Our boss even did an entire podcast episode on A Storm of Spoilers with some recommendations.

If you threw a rock at the movie blogosphere this week, your chances of hitting a Halloween-themed listicle is 104%. So instead of defining insanity within the wormhole of the internet, we’re doing something a little different. We asked our staff to go around the horn and talk about what is, by the own measures, the scariest moment in cinema history. This allows us the opportunity to talk about being truly terrified at the movies. It’s also a great way to introduce our readers to some of the new writers that have come over as part of our merger with One Perfect Shot.

Here are our picks. Please feel free to share your own in the Responses below.

Rob Hunter: The Exorcist III

Jump scares are for the lazy. I watch a lot of horror movies each year, and the majority of them seem to think the key to success rests in cheap scares telegraphed well in advance and captured in close-up. Who in their right mind would think the best scares are the ones you see coming?

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a terrific film, but let’s be honest… unless you’re under the age of ten or over eighty and Catholic it’s not a very scary one. (Your gut wants to disagree, but just ignore that urge , re-watch it, and silently agree with me. I won’t tell anyone.) William Peter Blatty’s sequel however, curiously titled The Exorcist III even though there was never a part 2, features some very unsettling scenes in addition to a rare and highly rewarding jump scare.

The majority of the nearly four-minute sequence is captured in a static wide shot down a hospital hallway. We watch a nurse at the desk as she works and interacts with a police officer before taking a brief detour into a room to investigate a sound. We get the expected cheap jump scare here, but the scene continues. The cops move in and out of the hall, the nurse checks another room, she exits and BOOM ONE HELL OF A SCARE! Blatty succeeds here through a combination of perfect pacing, skewed expectations, ambient sound, and a wide shot that lulls us into a relaxed calm. It is perfection.

Matthew Monagle: Ravenous

How do you construct a perfect horror sequence? Escalation and release. Any competent horror filmmaker knows that the moment you provide the money shot – a chainsaw through the torso, for example, or a cleaver through the back of the head – you’ve traded tension for disgust; once you’ve made the implicit explicit, there’s no going back to the uneasiness of before. That’s what makes the rescue party sequence in Antonia Bird’s cannibal-western Ravenous such a perfect example of audience manipulation. The actors become increasingly frantic. The onscreen violence becomes increasingly graphic. The soundtrack drones incessantly, layering new instruments as the onscreen action builds to its violent conclusion. And then our hero throws himself off a cliff. By the time Ravenous gets to its infamous cliff scene, the audience has already watched multiple characters get disemboweled onscreen; we’re safe in the aftermath of the explicit, until suddenly an actor is flailing wildly through the air and we’re watching a stunt that makes our stomach churn. There is a very real sense of wonder at a time when we shouldn’t be feeling anything but relief. And from here on out, whether we know it or not, we are eating directly from the palm of director Antonia Bird’s hand.

Christopher Campbell: Poltergeist

Jump scares are best when you know they’re coming, and that’s proven with the clown doll scene in the original Poltergeist (not the remake, which does the same bit all wrong). Suspense and surprise tend to be accepted as separate entities, but here they work together for one of the most perfect three-part frights in film. It’s actually rather simple. First there’s the set up, showing the doll and establishing it as an object of terror, at least for the little boy. Next comes the kicker where that ordinary fear is escalated by some sort of twist – if it were a magic trick, this would be the turn. In this case it’s the revelation that the clown has moved, presumably on its own. This is also where the suspense begins as we expect the clown to pop out somewhere at some point but we don’t know where or when. And finally, anticipated yet still sudden, comes the payoff, which is the clown revealed as it attacks the boy. Of course in the 34 years I’ve had to think about the scene since it first messed me up in the theater at age 5, I’ve dissected the construction, to make me feel I’ve conquered it. But it still scares me, especially the longer I go without seeing the movie and I forget exactly where and when the payoff hits. Seeing it again now that I’m a parent, there’s an added sense of fright to the whole sequence, which is intercut with a scene where the boy’s mother hears him scream and is herself attacked by an invisible force prohibiting her from helping her kid. This movie is just terrifying on so many levels.

H. Perry Horton: Don’t Look Now

By the time you get to the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, you should be emotionally spent. You have shared in the suffering that comes from the most horrific thing imaginable, the loss of a child, and watched as the parents, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie), have each in their own ways tried to move past the tragedy, the former by throwing himself into work restoring an Italian church, and the latter by reviving her hope via psychic sisters who claim to be in contact with the spirit of the dead child. It’s a game of who’s grieving better until John catches a glimpse of a little figure in a red coat – just like his daughter’s – running through the streets of Venice. At the film’s climax, he finally catches up with her, filled with the hope of an impossible promise: his daughter, alive, returned to him. But this is horrifically foolish. Instead he’s greeted by the most terrifying little person this side of Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place who proceeds to kill him with a cleaver. And it all starts with this one, simple, static, quiet shot of the red-coated killer turned into a corner like she was in time-out that simultaneously evokes innocence, predation, helplessness, and inexplicable terror. It’s such an impactful visual that it was mimicked a couple decades later at the end of The Blair Witch Project.

Jamie Righetti: Black Christmas

Black Christmas is such an overlooked gem, with one of the most brilliant endings I’ve probably ever seen in a horror film. Released in 1974, it predates A Stranger Calls with the reveal about the phone call coming from inside the house, but it’s actually the film’s first obscene phone call that still leaves me uneasy and terrified. During a Christmas gathering at a sprawling sorority house, Jess (Olivia Hussey) answers the phone and quickly calls over the rest of the girls, telling them that the moaner is back on the line. As Jess holds out the phone, we pan the circle of women, who are listening with horror and, perhaps most jarring of all, tired indifference as the caller moans, pig snorts and squeals, and finally begs in a sinister voice to lick their pink cunts. As the film progresses, the phone calls begin to reveal the very splintered mind of the lunatic hiding in the attic, who is picking off sisters one by one, and calling from a forgotten phone line hidden upstairs. It’s a film full of delicious terror: the sorority sister with the Saran wrapped head stuffed in the attic, the killer’s gaping eye behind the slit of the open door whispering “hey, it’s me, Billy.” But I always come back this first phone call, so grounded in the ugly reality of harassment women have long faced, and shiver the most.

Chris Coffel: Willow Creek

Much has been said about the found footage sub-genre, by which I mean everyone complains about how they hate it just like everyone complains about how they hate everything. In 2013 Bobcat Goldthwait decided to bravely venture into the much maligned format. The result was Willow Creek, a frightening and surprisingly charming Bigfoot movie that makes great use of the found footage approach.

Willow Creek peaks with a 20-minute, single take scene inside a tent. Taking place at night and dimly lit, the scene puts the audience in the middle of a small, dark place. Goldthwait allows the camera to linger and creates fear with what he doesn’t show you, instead relying on terrific sound design to force our imagination into play. This all adds up to one of the most intense, suspenseful and flat out scary moments in the history of cinema.

William Dass: Night of the Living Dead

“That’s one more for the bonfire.”

Night of the Living Dead’s lasting impact is due in large part to the brilliant social commentary laced throughout the flick. It’s a deft touch that provides depth to the events. That said, the film’s violence is grotesquely wonderful. Romero’s effects ripped the guts out of good taste and spread them across the room for everyone to play with. For all that, most of the terror comes from grabby hands and stress induced mistakes. And that allows the viewer to connect to the characters and their fate.

After a night of death and loss, Ben shambles out of the basement into the harsh light of day. He’s survived against the odds. The sheriff and his men have been steadily reclaiming territory all night. Ben looks out the window. They see him from a distance. We know what to expect. We’ve seen movies. The nightmare is over. What happens instead is one of cinema’s scariest and most haunting moments precisely because it is so sincere. The sheriff’s men, coffeed up and ready to kill, only see another target. Mistaking Ben for a zombie, they shoot him dead. It is a dispassionate death, without fanfare. Ben is alive. He’s survived. And then he’s dead. Fin. Want a credits outro? Stick around for a slideshow of folks being ignominiously tossed onto a bonfire.

Brad Gullickson: The Shining

A house is something human. We put our labor, our money, and our love into the bricks and mortar that shelter us from the elements. Being born from our wants and desires, we also place our failings, our loss, and our rage into the dwellings we so desperately maintain in our life. The best of haunted house stories understand that whatever cruel acts we commit are forever trapped like rats in the walls. The brilliance of Stephen King’s The Shining is transforming the living haunted house into a cruel beast of a resort hotel. We cannot forget, or ignore our dark history, and the Overlook Hotel is a maze of frozen debauchery quietly waiting for Danny to glide his tricycle down the halls. Danny does his best to ignore the woman in Room 237, but when his wheels grind to a halt in front of the Grady Twins, the young boy must not only confront the horrors of the Overlook’s past, but also the horrors of what man is capable of committing, and more importantly, what his father is capable of committing. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…

Max Covill: Jaws

Few movies offer as many genuinely frightening moments as Jaws. The Stephen Spielberg summer thriller has frightened countless souls from stepping foot in open water. Surprisingly some of the most horrific moments of the movie come when the shark isn’t seen at all. While the opening sequence has its share of fans, for my dollar the best sequence involves that of a floating head.

Brody and Hooper are out looking for some sailors that haven’t come home. At this point, the shark could literally be anywhere as the sheer terror of the animal has been witnessed time and time again. Hooper is excited to get into the water with his expensive diving gear and investigate the boat. He discovers a giant bite hole and then with the all important queue from John Williams, the head of one the dead sailors floats into few. No matter how many times I’ve seen this sequence, I’m never prepared for that sheer moment of terror. Truly one of cinemas greatest jump scares.

Neil Miller: Prince of Darkness

In the deep abscesses of my memory banks there are numerous cinematic moments that have been stuffed inside a box and locked up. Perhaps my aversion of the genre of horror was born out of watching too many very scary movies at too young an age. I’m also just a wimp. It’s okay if I say that. In that box, safely padlocked for my own sanity, lives almost all of Poltergeist, a bunch gnarly 80s slasher flicks, and several John Carpenter movies. It also includes the movie Legend, or at least the iconically designed Prince of Darkness. I’m convinced that the visual of the Prince of Darkness emerging before his lady in Legend and the mirror scene at the end of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness have been conflated to become one scene. When recalling the scene, I was convinced that the Anti-God actually steps all the way out of the mirror in Prince of Darkness. A rewatch confirmed that this isn’t the case, but it is the case in Legend. Basically what I’m saying is that the notion of the devil emerging from an enchanted mirror-like surface is fucking terrifying. So as not to lose any street cred, I’m giving the nod to John Carpenter and the reaching hand of the Anti-God.

What is the single scariest moment in cinema history, according to you? Let us know below.

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