The lights are off. The house is quiet. That creak you just heard was really just your imagination. Or was it?
Here, we will not only revisit these blood-chilling moments, but also take a look at exactly why they succeeded in not only terrifying audiences, but in some cases, altering social behavior on a massive scale.
So flip on the light switches and double check the closet. You never know what may sneak up on you while staring at your computer screen.
10) IT (The Thing in the Drain)
Though made for T.V. and showcased as a two-part event, the adaptation of Stephen King’s classic IT still managed to drive audiences to their breaking points. And it accomplished it in only the first 7 minutes.
Namely, two things make the surreal and nightmarish appearance of Pennywise the Dancing Clown so pervasively scary. Firstly, the simple fact that Pennywise (though actually a monstrous creature) chose the form of a clown when he appeared to entice children…just before he ripped them apart. Clowns, for virtually an uncountable number of reasons, strike fear into the hearts of adults and children alike. Secondly, Tim Curry’s impeccable portrayal of the depraved, sadistic, and blood-thirsty creature often proved too much for some. Twenty-one years later, I can still recall those nightmares.
9) JAWS (Underwater Horror)
Not much can be said about JAWS that has not been already. The epic story of two men struggling to survive against a monster shark has not only become a legend in cinema, but to this day, thirty-six years later, people are still afraid to go back in the water, never again to be certain they are alone amongst the waves.
Director Steven Spielberg capitalized on one simple motif to make JAWS as terrifying as it was. Drawn from his efforts in The Duel he discovered that not being able to see the adversary was far more nerve-rattling. And by-proxy, such reveals were made all the scarier because only your imagination could give a face to the creator of so much gruesome death.
8) The Ring (3D Evil)
In the late 90’s and early 00’s, a trend emerged in horror resulting in the remakes of numerous Japanese horror films. Inspired by the original stories steeped in Eastern legend and the lack of inhibition when it comes to graphic violence and images, notable entries came in the form of The Grudge and Dark Water, but the one that started it all was 1998’s The Ring, its significantly frightening visuals made real as the vengeful Samara crawled her way straight out of the T.V. to claim her victim.
Extreme use of psychologically disturbing images, deranged non-sequiturs, and horrific scenes of violent aftermath made for a mind-bending, gut-wrenching experience akin to running from a psycho-killer through a shuttered building full of funhouse mirrors. While the borders of reality seemed to break down around Rachel, it seemed as though at some point, Samara herself would punch her way through the theater screen and take you away screaming.
7) Paranormal Activity (Micah’s Death)
The most unique quality of Paranormal Activity was its creators ability to utilize simple haunted house attraction style gags and terrifying the living hell out of audiences by filming it. By doing so, they proved that given the right medium, an unexplained shadow on the wall still brings hearts into throats and children scurrying under the covers. But it was poor Micah’s brutal end at the hands of an unseen assailant that brought audiences out of their seats in pure, unadulterated fright.
Simplicity proved the best gamble in Paranormal Activity. By reinventing the formula established by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, writer/director Oren Peli played on the concept of “reality entertainment” by using the “found footage” approach. And as more than half of the nation’s population believes in ghosts in some form or another, the combination proved fruitful as Paranormal Activity went on to gross almost $200 million worldwide off a $15,000 budget.
6) Friday the 13th (Boy in the Water)
While modern slasher-flicks were notably fathered by John Carpenter and his classic Halloween, it was the emergence of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th franchise that changed the face of stalking horror forever. After the audience had suffered through the terror of Mrs. Voorhees rampage, the last survivor is left adrift in a rowboat on the lake. And just as the police arrive and audiences felt they could breath again, suddenly a decomposing Jason leaps from the water and drags Alice down with him.
It was the modern horror audience’s minimal experience of such horror that led Friday the 13th to its success. No one expected the level of violence, suspense, tension, and taught narrative contained within. Combined with editing, shooting, and reveal tricks all inspired by Carpenter’s Halloween, Cunningham’s slasher was primed for the longest series of any horror icon in history.
5) The Thing (Petri Dish)
In the 80’s, few knew how to visually capture gripping fear better than horror legend John Carpenter and the cult status of 1982’s The Thing was a prime example. The concept that an adversary could hide within a person, become them, imitate them so expertly that you would fail to discern the difference until it was too late, chilled people to the bone. But when the hero MacReady devises a test that could help prove who is human and who was not, that’s when things really got interesting.
Carpenter’s classic succeeded greatly because of two conditions, one deviously planned and one tragically unexpected. Primarily, The Thing shocked audiences with its steady balancing of sterile, cold environments and sudden and explosive violence and gore. Secondly, the sudden emergence of the AIDS pandemic created a national fear that personified the “danger lurks within” mindset.
4) Alien (Dinner Surprise)
While previous alien films had frightened audiences, the space-horror bar was reset with Ridley Scott’s Alien. Showcasing mind-blowing visuals, claustrophobic conditions, and one of the meanest, most vicious creatures ever conceived, Alien not only shocked audiences but even proved too much for its own cast in one particular scene.
By only showcasing the H.R. Giger-designed creature in small amounts and in brief snippets (the smallest of which was six total frames), Scott broke new ground in the unseen terror department. Coupled with the claustrophobic nature of the space ship and the perceived inability to escape the beast proved a potent mixture that even left its stars shaking in abject fear.
3) Psycho (The Shower Scene)
The original master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock delivered some of the greatest film classics of suspense and terror. Arguably one of his greatest films, Psycho became an instant hit, its languid and eerie pace suddenly interspersed with maddeningly frenetic moments almost unheard of in theaters at the time. But one scene in particular broke new ground as people were shown just how vulnerable they were during what was normally a routine, daily task: taking a shower.
The use of camera trickery and fast edits helped to cement the infamous shower scene in the annals of horror history. Its wicked simplicity conjured images of helplessness while bathing in its thousands of patrons. Also, Hitchcock’s strategy of utilizing psychological fear played well, finding charge off the nation’s current “fear of the unknown” frenzy left over from the age of McCarthyism.
2) Nightmare on Elm Street (Bed Death)
Wes Craven’s masterpiece of terror brought audiences a villain that made all others look tame by comparison. How could you fight something that only existed in your dreams? The experience was mutually terrifying as the iconic Freddy Krueger wreaked bloody vengeance upon a teenage girl…while her boyfriend was lying right next to her.
Cleverly-timed edits and some of the best visuals of the time made this reality-bending and gruesome scene one of the scariest. As the dreaming Tina is savagely ripped up the walls and across the ceiling, her boyfriend Rod paralyzed by fear as he watches, audiences at last felt what it would be like to be truly helpless.
1) Exorcist III (Hallway Suspense)
Our last entrant, is a moment so terrifying that even those who have seen the film multiple times are still surprised at how fast their blood-pressure rises when the scene finally arrives. And the best part of it all: it lasts less than two seconds.
The success of this moment can be attributed to a masterful grasp of “tension without release”. Leading up to the scene is almost painful to watch, as you know in your heart, the nurse is soon to meet a grisly end. But every time you try to anticipate the coming horror, it catches you off guard, and leaves you shaking with the realization of just how quickly your own life could be snatched away.
Many will most likely disagree or have their own opinions with what other scenes should be on the “Scariest” list, and while they may have good points, the scenes above did more than just terrify with gripping visuals or well-timed reveals. They preyed upon our most primal fear; that of the unknown, leaving us trembling in our beds, intensely aware of each and every little noise, wondering which one just may be the only warning we’ll get before meeting a brutal end.