Terror and fear are common traits in all movies, not just horror films. Frightening moments happen in everything from children’s films to blockbuster action flicks. The reason is that fear is an effective tool for filmmakers. First, it is easy to create. Dark picture quality, demonic makeup or special effects, even a simple jump scare can do the trick. As compared to genuine emotional connection to characters or a film’s themes, creating scares doesn’t tax the script too heavily. Furthermore, fear is a very effective way to connect with the audience. If they are scared, there is a vulnerability that the filmmakers can take advantage of to create a more emotional viewing experience.
Horror films are one genre of film that is exclusively devoted to creating fear. However, horror films aren’t the only ones that feature scary moments. In fact, some of the most frightening moments in film have come in films that aren’t horror movies. This is my list of the ten most frightening moments in film that don’t come from horror films. These scary moments are especially effective because they are not expected. To be eligible for this list, movies must not have the category of “horror” listed in their IMDB web page. Other than that, there is no limitation to the type of horror they exhibit.
First, let’s look at a couple sequences that just missed our top ten:
Pan’s Labyrinth – The Pale Man
Willy Wonka – Tunnel of Hell
Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Judge Doom’s Death
Jurassic Park – T-Rex Attack
10. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure – Large Marge
Pee Wee Herman is known for his childlike antics and the adult situations he finds himself in. For his big screen debut, the filmmakers decided to try and tone down the adult situations in order to make the film appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. One character who did not get toned down is Large Marge, the frightening truck driver. Today this sequence is almost laughable, but it has given nightmares to many adults and children over the years. I guess we shouldn’t expect less given the fact that the film was directed by Tim Burton.
9. Raiders of the Lost Arc – Face Melting
This sequence may have lost some of its luster due to the special effects ageing over time, but it is nonetheless a very frightening moment. A man’s face literally melts away like butter. It is as much a statement about the very serious and supernatural forces against which Indiana Jones operates as it is fist pump for Nazi’s getting what they deserve. In the end, it’s an iconic moment in film that happens to also be terrifying.
8. Trainspotting – Dead Baby on the Ceiling
Director Danny Boyle does an excellent job here making the audience as uncomfortable as possible. He wanted to put them in the shoes of his main character, who is struggling to kick his drug addiction. The ceiling baby is a reference to a disturbing scene earlier in the film, and its appearance here is a very bad, nightmare-inducing, reminder.
7. Black Swan – Feather Scene
Director Darren Aronofsky is known for making films that are intense character studies, but filming them almost as if they are horror films. This sequence especially feels like it could have come out of any horror movie. Nina’s obsession is getting the best of her, and she’s powerless to stop it. This sequence uses body horror to great effect, but also the shouting and the quick camera work make it very intense.
6. Se7en – Sloth is Alive!
Se7en is one of those films that isn’t a horror movie, but if you wanted to consider it as one, I don’t think many people would complain. It is full of gore, disgusting visuals, and frightening moments. This sequence is one that takes advantage of the audience’s assumptions. We assume Sloth is dead, because look at him. He looks dead. Except not.
5. Lost Highway – The Mystery Man
David Lynch isn’t necessarily known for making horror films, but he is known for making movies that will mess with your mind. His surrealist perspective often gives us frightening scenery and chilling characters. One of his most frightening characters is the Mystery Man. Everything about this performance is disturbing. That smile just says creep, and his pale complexion makes him stand out across the room. The Lost Highway may be considered a mystery thriller, but it walks a fine line with horror.
4. Requiem for a Dream – Drug-Fueled Nightmare
In school they taught you to stay away from drugs, and this sequence shows one very good reason why. This is a scary moment not just because it is frightening to watch, but because the film is dealing with something even more frightening than a slasher or killer monster. In real life, drugs are a more probable threat to your life than murder, and even if they don’t kill you, they can seriously mess you up.
3. Return to Oz – Almost the entire movie
Speaking of movies that should be horror films but aren’t, this one is a great example. Yes, the original Wizard of Oz had some scary moments, but this one takes it to a whole different level. It starts with Dorothy’s parents sending her away because they think she’s crazy. This shown sequence is just one of several terrifying scenes in this film where Dorothy has to overcome all sorts of disturbing and life-threatening obstacles. Let’s also not forget the Oz that Dorothy returns to is not the charming place we’re accustomed. Emerald city has been destroyed by a group of rock monsters who want to crush Dorothy into dust. Sleep well kiddos.
2. Fellowship of the Ring – Possessed Bilbo Baggins
Another example of a filmmaker who had been known for horror films doing something different, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are full of frightening moments. From merciless orcs birthed from the earth, to faceless wraiths scouring the skies, seemingly everything in Lord of the Rings wants to kill you. Even the the somewhat cute Gollum has his heart-stopping moments. However, I had to choose the possessed Bilbo Baggins moment as the representation of the entire franchise because to this day it still scares the hell out of me.
1. Silence of the Lambs – Face-Eating Scene
Somehow, Silence of the Lambs isn’t categorized as a horror film despite featuring one of the creepiest characters to ever grace the big screen and some of the other Hannibal Lecter films being classified as horror. This whole film is actually very frightening, because the antagonist (“Buffalo Bill”) is almost scarier than Dr. Lecter himself. Lecter just has a weird food fetish that also happens to result in people dying, but Bill makes a suit out of the skin of his victims so that he can become a woman. Together, this movie is straight-up nightmare fuel. However, the face-eating sequence is among the most disgusting and revolting moments in all of cinema, and so that’s what I used to define the scariest moment of this film.
Did we miss any scary moments that come to mind from non-horror films? Let us know in the comments below!