(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: the most memorable scare from The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes advantage of fear conditioning through sound to maximize the terror.)
Simplicity tends to be an asset in horror. A less-is-more type of approach to the narrative lets the horror do the heavy lifting, and it often becomes much more effective as a result. The Autopsy of Jane Doe serves as a great example. A chamber piece oozing with atmosphere and limited answers makes for one of the more terrifying entries in modern horror. The straightforwardness of the setting and narrative lets the characters and scares to take center stage, creating a haunting tale of familial obligation, grief, and trauma-induced rage. Director André Øvredal transforms this intimate tale into something remarkable in how he patiently and insidiously conditions the viewer to unwittingly develop a triggering fear response to a sound that would be benign in any other situation.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: An iconic scene from The Exorcist III single handily proves the merit of the jump scare.)
The jump scare gets a bad rap. One of horror’s most oft-used tools is the equivalent of a cinematic magic trick, an artform of misdirection to create an abrupt fear response. There’s nothing like a perfectly executed jump scare to make your heart skip a beat. Yet, like most tools, relying on the jump scare solely to create frights versus atmosphere often relegates the technique to cliché.
All of which to preface this – after the abysmal and chilly reception of Exorcist II: The Heretic, an anticipated follow-up to an all-time horror classic, no one expected the franchise’s third outing to deliver one of cinema’s most significant jump scares. The Exorcist III proved to be a pleasant surprise in more ways than one, including its perfection of a genre artform. Nestled deep within a sequel that relied heavily on atmosphere and psychological chills, writer/director William Peter Blatty mastered misdirection and delivered an iconic scene that would be emulated in pop culture still to this day.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: a terrifying and memorable scene in Child’s Play marked the transition from atmospheric chiller to full-blown practical effect driven extravaganza.)
Of all the horror icons to emerge from the ‘80s, killer doll Chucky and his Child’s Play franchise seems to have left slasher titans like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger in the dust. Between last year’s reboot and upcoming Syfy series Chucky, the pint-sized maniac is still going strong. Granted, no other horror icon traversed as winding and complicated a path as Chucky, from serial killer hellbent on revenge to depraved family man. The mouthy, psychotic Good Guy always opted to eschew traditional slasher convention.
There’s something inherently terrifying about a possessed doll, and Child’s Play boasted no shortage of creepy moments. Yet it’s a game-changing scene halfway through the film that delivered chills with a deceptively simple manipulation of tension that proved to be most memorable of all. Not just for its effectiveness, but because it transitioned the terror of Chucky from psychological fear to full-blown practical effect driven spectacle.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness kicked off the second act with a memorable introductory scene to the insanity ahead.)
The cosmic terror that permeates throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s work tends to make for a tricky task when it comes to cinematic adaptations. Vast, shapeless creatures from beyond that are too horrible and strange for the human mind to comprehend, let alone describe, was the favored style of Lovecraft’s horror. That means it’s up to the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks, which conflicts with the visual art form of film. Thus far, it seems the best approach to creating the distinct brand of Lovecraftian horror for the big screen is with an original story inspired by the author’s works.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, penned by Michael De Luca, wove in various references to Lovecraft stories but created an original plot that perfectly captured the unsettling, indescribable cosmic horror that shatters the minds of those who encounter it. In the Mouth of Madness announces the surrealism ahead in its opening moments. Still, it’s the simple, memorable scene that kicks off the second that chills with an unnerving declaration that Carpenter fully grasps the mind-breaking nature of Lovecraftian horror. From this moment on, reality ceases to be what it used to be.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Ring violated the viewer’s expectations and sense of security with this iconic scene.)
Much of horror’s effectiveness stems from its ability to elicit a visceral response from suspense and anticipation; the viewer knows something terrible is going to happen, but it’s the when of it that creates a feeling of unease and dread. The best horror instills a foreboding sense of anticipation through a variety of tactics and then shocks with a violation and subversion of audience expectations. It’s the latter that proves the trickiest; building suspense is far easier than delivering a satisfying payoff. Just ask Stephen King; the prolific horror author has developed a reputation for scaring the pants off of readers only to fail to stick the landing in the story’s conclusion. So much so that It: Chapter Two poked fun at the “bad Stephen King ending” cliché in a scene that featured King himself in a cameo.
This is what makes one of the most iconic scenes in modern horror stand out. The Ring stretched out anticipation to its fullest and lulled viewers into thinking they’d already witnessed the terrifying conclusion. When other horror movies would be winding down with a happily-ever-after epilogue, The Ring unleashed one final, memorable scare that served as a traumatic sucker punch that violently ripped away all sense of security.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Black Christmas ushers in an exhilarating climax with a minimalist approach to the horror and a peeping eye.)
Director Bob Clark helmed not one, but two definitive Christmas classics in his career; A Christmas Story and Black Christmas, two widely varying takes on the holiday. While the former elicits endless replays on cable and theaters this time of year, the latter established itself as a prototype to the slasher subgenre and played a vital influence on John Carpenter in the creation of Halloween.
Initially released in the U.S. under Silent Night, Evil Night, on December 20, 1974, audiences failed to show up. It wasn’t until the original title was restored and re-released in theaters a year later that Black Christmas finally found its audience. Audiences who were then promptly terrified with Clark’s minimalist approach and a refusal to reveal the killer’s identity outside of a few key POV shots and obscene phone calls. It all culminates in a thrilling final act that begins with a crucial scene; one that that heightens the fear dramatically with the startling sight of a peeping eye.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: M. Night Shyamalan’s specific visual rules for the supernatural effectively triggered a fear response in viewers, setting up the biggest scare in The Sixth Sense.)
“I see dead people,” became an iconic mantra after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s debut feature twenty years ago. Whispered by a timid, melancholic little boy with a supernatural affliction during a moment of confessional vulnerability, the four-word line aptly summed up the film’s entire premise. A PG-13 drama centered around a dejected child psychologist aiming to redeem himself by helping a troubled young boy through his trauma matched its emotional potency with devastating supernatural scares. These elements, combined with one hell of a twist ending, made The Sixth Sense the sleeper hit of 1999.
In the decades since the film’s release, M. Night Shyamalan has solidified his reputation as a king of twist endings, racked up an impressive list of credits, and fostered emerging voices in film and television. The latest of which is Tony Basgallop’s Servant, premiering over Thanksgiving. While Shyamalan’s career has grown immensely since 1999, his impressive debut is a crowning achievement. The film’s blend of heartbreaking character work and potent, bone-chilling scares is uncannily effective. While The Sixth Sense boasts no shortage of goosebumps-inducing spectral encounters, none hold a candle to the film’s most terrifying encounter of all with a vomiting child ghost. A vital scare scene for which Shyamalan invested a lot of time visually and emotionally priming the viewer to achieve maximum levels of fear.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Horror icon Freddy Krueger clawed his way out of a nightmare and into the pop culture pantheon in A Nightmare on Elm Street.)
Thirty-five years ago, the theatrical release of A Nightmare on Elm Street solidified director Wes Craven as a definitive voice in horror, launched a major horror franchise, and introduced an iconic movie monster in Freddy Krueger. Delivering his supernatural take on the slasher, Craven created a horrifically scarred killer whose favored slaying grounds is a place that should offer the most safety, in the nestled comfort of your dreams. Dreamscapes bleed into harrowing reality, often literally, and the only way to evade Freddy’s clutches is to stay awake. But no one can stay awake forever.
Craven demonstrates the high-stakes in this slasher right away with one of the most seminal horror scenes of the ‘80s. The blurred lines between waking life and imagination disorient as Craven goes straight for the jugular, offing a major character in the grisliest fashion after setting her up to be the lead character. This vital scene didn’t just set the tone for the rest of the film; it left an enduring, indelible mark on the genre.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: John Carpenter employs Hitchcock-levels of suspense to maximize dread in Halloween.)
“You know, it’s Halloween. I guess everyone’s entitled to one good scare, huh?” Sheriff Brackett asks Laurie Strode mere seconds after startling her on her walk home from school. It’s meant as a playful line of dialogue, but it happens to succinctly sum up how a lot of us feel about the holiday. We’re all searching for that one good scare every Halloween. With John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween, the ambitious director wasn’t content to deliver just one good scare. He delivered many.
The truth is that this 1978 slasher classic offers up numerous iconic scenes the elicit chills. Anyone of them makes for strong candidates in a column that celebrates the scariest scenes in horror. Yet, it’s the film’s first major death that packs the biggest punch. It’s a scene that wears its Alfred Hitchcock influence on its sleeves and coils the tension tighter until it explodes in violence.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Conjuring reveals its frightening villain with the film’s biggest scare sequence.)
Few horror movies have shaped the genre over this decade quite like 2013’s The Conjuring. Its hugely successful theatrical run proved there was a robust appetite for horror at the box office, inspiring other studios to follow in its wake. Moreover, it marked the birthplace of an ever-expanding franchise that includes sequels, spinoffs, and spinoff sequels in what’s been dubbed The Conjuring Universe.
It’s easy to see why, too. The Conjuring is a chilling culmination of everything horror master James Wan had learned in his career so far. From the nail-biting suspense of the Saw franchise, hard lessons learned in Dead Silence, and reinvigorating haunted houses in Insidious just two years prior, Wan was well prepared to deliver the scares. Boy did he deliver the scares. The Conjuring is a major juggling act of unrelenting terror; the scares come nearly nonstop. There are countless memorable moments that are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine, but none manage to top the petrifying reveal of the film’s central antagonist, the evil witch Bathsheba – played by none other than Insidious’ Lipstick-Face Demon actor and film composer Joseph Bishara.
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