scariest movie scenes

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. This week’s edition, tying in with the release of Alien: Covenant, asks “What is the single scariest scene you’ve ever watched in a movie?” As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team.

If you’d like to share your pick for the scariest movie scene, please send your thoughts to slashfilmpitches@gmail.com for a chance to be featured on the site. Find our choices below!

Alex Riviello: An American Werewolf in London

I was 10 or 11 – far too young to be watching An American Werewolf in London. But that’s the movie my dad had chosen to show me. I still don’t know what prompted his decision, since he was never big on horror.

Regardless, it happened. After turning it on, my dad stuck to his usual M.O., which involved nodding off after about half an hour into a deep, snoring sleep. This was good in some way,s since it allowed me to avoid awkward conversations during the scene in the porno theater…but it also meant that I was alone…in the dark…with the wolf.

I was disgusted by Griffin Dunne’s wiggly skin. I watched the transformation scene in horror. But the scene that rattled me the most is the simplest, the purest.

The Tube.

The worst horrors are the ones your own mind makes for you, and the film plays on that beautifully in this moment. You watch as the man gets more and more terrified of something off screen. He gets lost in the maze of the tunnels and begins to lose himself as well, as he reverts to the primal fear of survival that mimics what the audience is feeling right this moment.

I looked over at the other couch to see my dad sleeping. The house was dark, and quiet…and then the werewolf calmly walks into the top of the frame and I literally jumped off of the couch. What the hell was that?

Later on I recognized the film for its comedic genius but that night? It wasn’t funny.

Ethan Anderton: Halloween

While I find myself startled and anxious by plenty of horror movies, I’ve never really felt a genuine sense of dread or even fright while watching one. Whenever friends tell me they can’t watch horror movies because they’ll have nightmares for days or they get too scared, it’s not something that I understand. However, there is one particular scene from a classic horror movie that totally freaked me out, and while it’s not necessarily as scary today, at the time I saw the scene in question, it made me feel as scared as a horror movie will probably ever make me feel.

When I first saw the original Halloween, I was probably a little too young to be watching that kind of horror movie, but that kind of thing is a rite of passage. By today’s horror standards, John Carpenter’s 1978 is fairly tame, but at the time, it was a groundbreaking piece of horror and it essentially launched the slasher genre. However, at the time that I saw it, I was already familiar with other horror movies that came after Halloween that didn’t really terrify me much. I had already crossed paths with a couple Friday the 13th movies and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and while they were certainly suspenseful, I didn’t find myself really scared by them. So why did Halloween frighten me?

Well, it’s the particular sequence you see above when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) walks home from school. Michael Myers stalks her, though he doesn’t exactly pursue her. The difference between Halloween and the other horror movies I had seen at the time is that Michael Myers was appearing in broad daylight, where anyone could see him. For some reason, this was more terrifying to me than Jason Voorhees killing campers in the woods at night or Freddy Krueger haunting dreams. I think it was just the fact the daytime is when people often feel the most safe, but Michael Myers had no problem stalking Laurie Strode while the sun was still up, and that’s pretty terrifying when you think about it.

Jacob Hall: The Innkeepers

Ti West’s The Innkeepers is far from the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but it remains the only horror movie to send me into such a state of panic that I actually spoke out loud in the theater. Okay, so I didn’t speak. It was more like a ghastly combination of a whimper and a mutter. There was probably a four-letter word involved. For a moment, this movie reduced me to something primal. I was one with the characters on the screen and their fear became my own.

And that’s the amazing trick of The Innkeepers – the two leads, the only two characters of significance in the entire movie, are played so affably and likably by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy that their descent into terror feels more real than in most horror movies. These two slacker hotel clerks, who spend their final days of work at a closing historic hotel attempting to communicate with the ghost that supposedly haunts the premises, are among the most relatable and human characters ever seen in the genre. It’s a wonderful joke that the first half of the film is essentially a low-key workplace comedy, with these two bouncing off one another, trading bards, and scaring each other with amusing internet jump scares (the only cheap jolts in the whole movie). By the time the ghost actually shows up, by the time their mundane work day has become something truly dangerous, we’ve bought into the lives of Claire and Luke in a big way.

So let’s focus on the one scene that got me to make audible noises in a movie theater. It’s the one where Luke and Claire attempt to directly contact the ghost of Madeline (seen in the embed above). There are no big scares here. We don’t see the ghost, even though we have already seen it by this point in the film. We are just alone in the dark room with two characters who like each other, characters we have grown to like as well, and they are afraid. They are petrified. They can barely deal with what is going on. Out of context, the scene doesn’t offer much. But stuck in the middle of a movie that has lulled you into its web with wry comedy and character-building, it acts as a jolt to the system. A ghost is scary, but do you know what’s really scary? A ghost that wants to harm people you love.

Jack Giroux: Jaws

I still vividly recall hearing Susan Backline’s screams of terror for the first time as a kid. The opening of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece still unsettles me now as much as it did then. The feeling of helplessness, despair, and absolute pain terrifies me every time I watch Jaws. That screaming…the sounds of somebody confused and shocked, but knowing it’s all over. The piercing silences, the beautiful sunrise, and the young man passed out on the beach makes it all the more horrific. Something grisly and godawful is happening and nobody knows. The character suffering all alone, experiencing only unimaginable pain and terror. It made for a valid reason not to want to go into the ocean anytime soon. Even before the great white arrives, the shot of Backline’s leg going under the water makes me cringe in fear of what I already know is coming.

Josh Spiegel: Mulholland Drive

For me, the answer has to be Mulholland Drive, specifically the scene where a side character describes a recurring nightmare he’s plagued by, only for that nightmare to essentially come to life. Few filmmakers are better at capturing palpable dread better than David Lynch, and the scene where Patrick Fischler’s character walks behind the dumpster of a local diner to be attacked by the fearsome-looking mystery figure of his night terrors is the peak of such dread. That mystery figure and the dumpster show up later in the film to spook someone else, but that early sequence, made all the more tense because of how lengthy it feels, is terrifying to think about, let alone watch.

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