Every October I revisit Bravo’s ‘100 Scariest Movie Moments’. This thing aired way back in 2004. Thankfully, it’s been reuploaded to YouTube so many times that I never forgot about it. It has since become part of my yearly Halloween ritual. I’m sure people have picked apart the rankings to death, but that’s missing the point; it’s an entire history of horror to sift through.
So I decided to go through my own bit of horror movie history. These are the moments from childhood til now that chilled me to the bone, shook me to my core, and had me turning on all the lights in my house – electricity bill be damned. I tried to narrow this to a list of 10 but I simply couldn’t make up my mind. With 13 days to go until Halloween, why not? Here are the 13 scariest movie moments that got yours truly:
13. The Empty Man – Followers in the field
I gotta give a shout out to The Empty Man. Dumped in midst of the pandemic and one of the last movies displaying the 20th Century Fox logo before rebranding as “20th Century Studios” under Disney, The Empty Man never had a chance. Fortunately, it’s finding a 2nd life and an appropriate cult following since it dropped on HBO Max this summer.
The Empty Man follows James on the search for a missing girl named Amanda. Days ago, Amanda and her friends called out to the mysterious “Empty Man,” an urban legend like Candyman or Slender Man. They all wind up dead, save for Amanda. James’ investigation leads him to the shady Pontifex Institute, and a wider cult surrounding the Empty Man. It’s here at an abandoned camp where director David Prior flexes some wicked horror muscles. James stumbles upon a field of followers chanting, grooving around a campfire. What starts out dreamlike and hallucinatory turns nightmarish, and it’s nothing but an army of silhouettes staring right back at James. To say more (and to say why this happens) would spoil the movie. The Empty Man is full of chilling images that have been seared into my brain. Think the lurid investigation of The Ring + the bleakness of Hereditary and you get The Empty Man. If that sounds like your cup of kool-aid, SEE IT.
12. Dawn of the Dead – Out for Ana’s neck
The first ten minutes of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a ferociously scary movie all on its own. You’re fooled into thinking that we’re working our way up to the full-tilt intensity of running zombies, like a roller coaster. After all, it’s Ana and her husband Lewis in bed in the morning. Surely we’re easing into this, right? HELL TO THE NAW. A zombie girl has gotten into their home (how? who gives a shit) and it’s hold on for dear life. You forget you’re on a fucking ROLLER COASTER. It’s what happens—or what becomes of Lewis after he’s been bitten that still scares the shit out of me. He’s Ana’s husband one second, then he isn’t. Snyder’s sly homage to The Shining here is where we get a closeup of both those reanimated eyes and that piercing zombie shriek. The opening credits couldn’t roll fast enough, though it was hardly a reprieve.
11. Texas Chain Saw Massacre – Hammer time
Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre was the first time that onscreen violence made me queasy. I grew up an action junkie so I was already exposed to violence. But since it was in slow motion or perpetrated by the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Willis, I never gave violence much thought. Until I saw Leatherface bludgeon poor stumbling and bumbling Kirk. The combo shot of Kirk tripping as he steps into the house followed by the sudden reveal of Leatherface’s ghastly appearance, I was out in 60 seconds. The sound of hammer striking skull is visceral enough, but then we see Kirk twitching violently on the floor. I knew instantly why my parents, aunts and uncles fought so hard to keep movies like this away from me and my cousins—and why we were so fucking stupid for putting on the VHS late at night anyway. (Technically, it’s my aunts and uncle’s fault; they had the movie in their collection, we were just nosy.)
10. The Grudge – Under the covers
Yo fuck this scene. Say what you will about Hollywood’s Asian remake craze in the early 2000s, but it gave us The Ring and The Grudge. Whether you’ve seen the original or the American remake (or the Scary Movie spoofs that followed), you’re aware of the premise and the wide-eyed ghoulish imagery. Joke all you want but this shit here got me GOOD. In the bed of all places! It’s where we retreat to when we’re scared as kids, right? Underneath, it was free game for the bogeyman or whatever. But buried in our blankets, we were supposed to be safe and secure. To have that wielded against us is both brilliant and straight up fucking mean.
9. Scream – “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
There was going to be at least one Wes Craven moment. For me, it’s Scream’s unforgettable opening scene. Drew Barrymore is literally just vibing when Ghostface turns her world (and ours) upside down with a single phone call, and a single sinister question. The horror 25 years later is less about what happens to her. Because we know, since it’s been referenced and spoofed to death too. It’s how it happens that’s still so goddamn brutal. The kill happens swiftly, but her emotional torment is prolonged like a medieval torture device. It’s gut-wrenching, shocking, and – courtesy of the spoofs and homages done in Scream’s name – damned iconic.
8. Silence of the Lambs – Hannibal cuts loose
The mad genius of Silence of the Lambs is that it’s a slasher movie dressed as a prestige thriller. The trenchcoat comes off when Hannibal Lecter goes free. Along the lines of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s another peek at violence that upended my insides. You don’t see Hannibal butchering the cops, though you see plenty enough. Anthony Hopkins bites one guy in the face, then beats the other with a nightstick. When reinforcements arrive, that’s when we see Hannibal’s horrific (angelic?) masterpiece of a disembowelment. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series makes this look like a child’s drawing, but being exposed to such macabre imagery for the first time, this was pure nightmare fuel.
7. The Blair Witch Project – Outside the tent
The fun of rewatching The Blair Witch Project is deconstructing the scares. It’s so obvious how they pulled this off; the film crew prodding and messing with the actors just outside. So really all the filmmakers shot was just a bunch of people scared inside a tent. And yet, this simple magic trick is nightmarishly effective 20 years later. I’ll never forget my siblings and I quieting down just to hear what they were hearing – an immersive quality that only added to the terror. You think you hear voices, maybe giggling; it’s all in darkness and the confusion is just enough for your mind to twist it into something inhuman. The rattling of the tent then happens so matter-of-factly. (Again, you can just picture the film crew surrounding the tent, shaking the whole thing.) RIP camping.
6. The Thing – Should’ve steered clear, doc
More than any John Carpenter movie, The Thing gets under my skin the most, and it’s because of all the practical creature effects on display—still god-tier nearly 30 years later. It’s sickening, it’s gory, and the stuff of otherworldly nightmares that would’ve made Lovecraft jealous. None more so than the defibrillator scene. You have no idea what’s going on at this point, who’s who, who’s human, what the alien is exactly, etc. You think Norris will come to, but you’re not quite sure. Then the motherfucker opens up, and I’ve never seen a more grotesque creature design since. It doesn’t stop with the torso! The freakin’ head melts off then sprouts like a Martian spider??? Germaphobes and arachnophobes probably went comatose during this scene. No offense to the Alien franchise, but I’d rather hug a Xenomorph than deal with this species.
5. Hereditary – Smiling in the dark
The more I watch movies, the less I’m jolted by stuff coming at us. I’m more startled by things that are just there, still, staring back at you. Hereditary’s second half is full of no-holds-barred frights. The one I gotta single out is near the end, when the Graham family tree converges on Peter once and for all. Peter wanders through the house in darkness, disoriented, when he spots a naked man lurking in the shadows behind him. Nothing is said, they’re staring at each other for what feels like an eternity, and the fucker is just smiling like a Cheshire cat. Yeah… it’s gonna be a hell no from me, dawg.
4. The Ring – Samara in crisp 4D!
You know the scene, I don’t have to set it up for you. (Just when we think the movie’s over…) My family rented The Ring and that made the movie even scarier. As kids, my cousins and I loved laying right below the TV set, feet propped up on the stand. When Noah’s TV flickers on and Samara started lurking closer and closer, yo we BOOKED IT across the living room. I’ve never flung myself from the screen with such urgency before or since. I knew something scary was gonna happen at the end as it happens in horror movies, but I didn’t think the girl was gonna crawl out of the fucking screen! The TV was my whole livelihood. Suddenly, I never wanted to turn on the thing ever again. The Ring might’ve been parodied to death like The Grudge and Scream, but nothing can dampen the cultural impact of this moment.
3. The Conjuring – The witch and the wardrobe
Of all the movies on this list, I’ve only seen 3 of them in theaters. (That’s right, my memories of these movies are purely through VHS or DVD.) The Conjuring is among the few I got to experience firsthand. So sure, I might be looking at this through rose-colored glasses. But what can I say? This terrified me into the stratosphere. If the teaser hadn’t spoiled the hide and clap scene, that would be my pick. What’s kinda funny about this scene is that this got spoiled in the main trailer too, yet no one saw it coming. James Wan’s clever tact and misdirection with the camera pays off fiendishly here. A simple pan upward boasts the unhinged power of the holy ghost. It’s the first time we see the witch and we pray it’s also the last time. It got a scream outta me and for that, James Wan, I thank you.
2. Evil Dead – Card trick
I didn’t see The Exorcist until much later so it was Evil Dead that gave me a crash course in demons and possessions. There’s a lot, A LOT in this movie that a child isn’t supposed to see. What scarred me for life is the scene where poor innocent Cheryl turns demonic. I had never seen a possessed face before so this right here was burned onto my irises. You don’t forget a face like that. I didn’t FOR MONTHS trying to go to bed. I hated cards, I hated magic tricks, and I hated my cousins for daring each other to sit through the movie. (Oh, the stupid games we play as kids.) Of course, I’d come to love the shit out of Evil Dead and Sam Raimi. But at the time, Evil Dead was the movie that had me routinely checking for demons underneath the bed.
1. JAWS – Shark in the pond
Growing up in the Pacific, the ocean becomes your first playground. I wanted to be at the beach all the time. My family went every weekend and I would stay in the water for 8 hours, no joke. I knew of JAWS but I never watched it from beginning to end. I don’t know when or why I eventually did, I just knew that I was ruined. This shot right here fucked me up, more than the opening kill, more than that doomed kid on the raft. Because up until then, you didn’t actually see the shark, not fully. This was all through Steven Spielberg’s genius of the camera and control of the frame. So when you get to a shot like this, you’re suddenly forced to contend with how big the shark is, how vast the ocean is, and how small we are—that we’re all just fodder in the end. The ocean was no longer a playground because it felt like a hunting ground.
This was the horror movie moment that rattled me forever. I never swam in the pool by myself, as irrational as that sounds. Even now, I can’t swim too far out in the ocean because I always have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a shark not far off, watching me. Spielberg, I just wanna talk.
So how about it? What are the scariest movie moments that traumatized you?