(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This iconic scene in What Lies Beneath uses a classic scare tactic to catapult the tension to unbearable levels.)

Upon release in theaters 20 years ago this week, Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to channel Alfred Hitchcock with his PG-13 supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath failed to impress critics, despite making a strong showing at the box office. Written by actor Clark Gregg (The AvengersAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), the film employs the typical scare tactics, a fairly standard ghost story, and a few overt nods to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The film’s biggest strength comes from its casting; Michelle Pfeiffer makes for a compelling, sympathetic protagonist unaffected by the script’s limitations. The second not-so-secret weapon is the memorable bathtub scene that kickstarts the film’s thrilling climax. Zemeckis eschewed the traditional role of a jump scare by using it to create tension instead of relieving it, and it delivers the film’s standout moment as a result.

The Setup

One year after a devastating car crash, housewife Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) must learn to readjust her daily life when her only child leaves for college. Her empty nest syndrome is exacerbated by the constant absence of her workaholic husband, Dr. Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford). Once strange, unexplainable things start to happen around her lakeside Vermont home, Claire grows convinced that a ghost is haunting her and that it has to do with the new next-door neighbors. Her husband thinks she’s depressed and potentially losing her grip on reality. The more terrifying the situation becomes, the more determined Claire is to discover the truth.

The Story So Far

After seeing a haunting face in the lake and her bathtub, Claire enlists her best friend Jody (Diana Scarwid) to participate in a bathroom séance. It results in a supernatural message in the mirror that spurns Claire on an investigation to find the ghost’s identity. The volatile relationship between her new neighbors, in conjunction with the wife’s disappearance, has her suspecting the husband (James Remar) of murder, only to learn the wife (Miranda Otto) is alive and well.

Following a series of clues and a slow trickle of truth by her husband, she eventually learns the ghost is Madison Elizabeth Frank (Amber Valletta), a former student of Norman’s with whom he had an affair. The discovery of this prompted Claire’s car accident, erasing the memories of her husband’s infidelity in the process. Remembering the cheating triggers the final act of the film, in which Norman admits to dumping Madison’s car and body in the lake. Claire demands he report this to the authorities, and he instead paralyzes her with a drug from his lab. Norman intends to frame his murder of her as a suicide by drowning in the bath.  

The Scene

Norman confesses everything as he carries Claire’s paralyzed body up the stairs and places her into the bathtub. He tends to their dog and calls Jody to secure his alibi while he fills the tub with water, leaving Claire frozen with fear as she faces impending death. As he checks on her, he notices a chain around her neck. Lifting her to inspect the necklace cues the film’s biggest jump scare, Claire momentarily transforms into the ghastly corpse of Madison, causing Norman to fall back and knock himself unconscious on the sink. The jump scare only marks the beginning of the suspense-filled battle against the clock as Claire struggles to stop the rising water.

The jump scare technique, which relies on classic misdirection, works best when the viewer invests in the character or the scene. Thanks to Pfeiffer’s strong performance, the viewer is deeply invested in her well-being. The accompanying music sting, in conjunction with Norman’s physical revulsion to the paranormal shift in his wife’s countenance, effectively makes us jump out of our seat. The focus on a beloved character in peril distracts us even when visual clues told us to expect the scare – Claire’s visibly not wearing a necklace when she’s first placed in the bathtub.

The jump scare is often used as a pressure valve release, an abrupt shocking jolt to alleviate the pent-up suspense of a drawn-out sequence. Once it’s over, the viewer can momentarily catch their breath before the director orchestrates the next pulse-pounding moment. Here, Zemeckis gives no release. He subverts the use of this tried-and-true horror tool to douse the tension with gasoline, not extinguish it. Norman’s chilling, nonchalant confessions of murder while in the act of committing one sparks tension, and the jump scare spikes the pressure to unrelenting levels.

It’s a smart tactic that causes the viewer to further empathize with Claire’s desperation by creating a palpable response that mirrors the physical state of the film’s protagonist. Waiting with bated breath to see how the scene will unfold reflects Claire’s looming inability to take in oxygen herself as the waters threaten to engulf her mouth and nose.

Zemeckis sustains this almost unbearable level of suspense by removing all sound from the scene, save for the faucet’s running water. The camera cuts back and forth between Claire’s horrified expression, a depth of desperate emotion conveyed through Pfeiffer’s eyes alone, and her feet as she attempts to force her toes to move just enough to loosen the plug and drain the water.

In using the jump scare to elicit a physical response first, Zemeckis found an ingenious way to put the audience directly in the protagonist’s shoes to heighten the dramatic effect of the scene. There’s no release, just a breathless level of dread and suspense that matches the sheer terror exuded by the film’s fantastic lead. The viewer is only allowed to catch their breath when Claire finally frees herself, and it makes for one knockout scene in an otherwise rote ghost story.

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