A good horror movie will stay with you for the rest of your life, for better or worse. There are some movie like The Wolf Man, Jaws and The Conjuring that I’ll always remember and revisit because they’re well made, fun movies that fill me with joy. Then there are movies that I’ll always remember because they have moments that have burrowed deep into my psyche. They caused personal, guttural responses that may be confusing to others. We all have scenes that have affected us, and while some people are scared away from horror forever, others chase after that feeling.
I’m not talking jump scares or gross out scenes, I’m talking about movies that have carefully crafted scenes to make an audience poop their pants. These are the scenes that’ll pop into my head every so often. These moments have become so ingrained in my mind that if evoked, my blood temperature will drop a few degrees. It’s what a good horror movie does.
Some are scenes that I saw as a child and have affected me to this day. So, I understand if you read this and laugh at the pathetic man who’s afraid of a doll or an old lady. I make no excuses; these are scenes that I have a personal connection to. Because of that this is in no way a definitive list. Movies like The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arguably have some of the most disturbing scenes in film, but these are not the movies that have affected me. Everyone is different.
I’m sure that this list will change. As time goes on, moments will be added, and there are a few I’d like to see move off and into my distant memory, but that probably won’t happen. In the end, that’s the greatest testament to these films. Maybe this will be a cathartic experience or maybe it will drag me back into the darkness, either way, this is what horror is all about.
Major spoilers ahead.
Child’s Play (1988)
No horror movie has affected me quite like Child’s Play. This isn’t really a scene, as much as it is the character. I could pick almost any scene from the first 3 Child’s Play movies that have filled my childhood with tear-inducing fear. However, it’s the scene in the first movie, when Chucky comes alive for the first time, that still raises the hair on my arms. I know there really isn’t anything to fear (except fear itself of course), but that scene pulls my brain back to when it didn’t know any better. Even when he pops up in Ready Player One for 7 seconds, all those feelings came rushing back because I wasn’t prepared to see that son-of-a-bitch doll. This is something I have to live with.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
The Taking of Deborah Logan seemed like pretty standard horror fare. A documentary crew filming the effects of dementia on a woman and the struggles of her caregiver daughter, but something more evil is at hand. As this better-than-average horror film progresses and motivations are revealed, there is one scene at the end that truly took me by surprise and has haunted me to this day. After Deborah has stolen a child, the film crew is hot on her trail following her around a corner and then… My eyes took a minute to figure out what the hell was happening. Oh, it was a dead eyed old woman consuming a child head first, like a snake. The buildup to the scene, the lighting, the camerawork, all helped to make the scene unforgettable. Dammit.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Sleepaway Camp is a run-of-the-mill, Friday the 13th rip off that is more forward thinking than most horror movies of the 1980’s. Most of the movie is bland, and the kills are certainly forgettable (death by bees, maybe? I don’t know. I’m not on board). The movie relies on the whodunnit aspect; was it one of the children we see at the confusing beginning committing the murders? Yes, but there is more to it. The final shot of the movie has become iconic in the world of horror. The reveal that Angela was committing the murders, and is actually a boy, could have been done in a way that was memorable without scarring me for life. Instead we got Angela, fully naked, flapping in the breeze, holding a weapon, screeching like a goddamn banshee. A darkly lit shot makes for a disorienting image, and that sound, my god, that sound.
The Ritual (2017)
It may be the most recent release on this list, but The Ritual is such a strong film that it’s already affected me. The movie is filled with surreal images, but one scene takes the cake. When our protagonist begins his escape from the cult and the creature, the fool decides to explore sounds he hears in the attic. I pleaded with him not to go up there, but I don’t think he heard me for some reason. Once upstairs, the chanting on the other side of the door grows louder. The door is opened to reveal a Pagan service, and the motionless dead facing the altar and chanting has been a hard image to shake. I felt it deep in my bones. Sure, we don’t spend too much time in that room, and the dead are torched, but the damage to my mind had already been done. I begged him not to go upstairs, begged.
The Strangers (2008)
Lauded as a modern classic horror movie, The Strangers is a cat-and-mouse, home invasion movie. This sub-genre doesn’t sit well with me, and I can trace the reason right back to this movie. Maybe I was naive to think that there was a chance of a happy ending, but I was a fool. Specifically, the invaders response to the question “why are you doing this to us?” has truly haunted me; “because you were home.” The back-and-forth game is usually fine, but I like to see a hopeful ending. This is not the case for The Strangers; there is no hope, just dreadful randomness. The movie may be of great quality, but the message is that Man is the greatest monster. I don’t need a movie to tell me that, I’ve been to a Costco on a Saturday.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
This may technically be a jump scare, but the image of being in a small, darkened hall, lit only by candle light and turning around to see an old haggard woman inches from your face was haunting to me. That scene will often play out in my head when I’m walking around in the dark, even within my own home, where I live. I’d like to say that there’s a deeper meaning, like being confronted by the fact that time will ravage what was once a beautiful body, but it was a moment that shocked me because I let my guard down. Now I’m paying for it years later. Also, I never had a beautiful body.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
One of the greatest moments for a film is when an audience’s belief about the limits of how far the film can go are shattered. There have been moments when I know the movie won’t go a certain direction because they have to play it safe, and when a movie takes a step over that line, well, now I’m completely in the hands of the filmmakers. One specific scene where that happens is the trailer scene in The Hills Have Eyes. Thinking that some of the characters are safe from true horrors is completely stolen away when the desert freaks rape and kill, and revel in their acts. It’s not a fun scene to watch, but it was effective, more effective than a man being burned alive in front of his family.