There are scary movie moments and then there are scary movie moments. The split seconds of celluloid where, for a brief period of time, it doesn’t matter that you’re in a multiplex, on the sofa, or even watching on a tablet while cosy in bed, you’re genuinely afraid. Your heart turns cold, you flinch, the rules have changed, the barrier between you and the movie has fallen and for just one moment, an invisible hand has reached through this new open space and grabbed you with its icy grip.
And that’s all it takes. You won’t sleep all night. The moment becomes mythical, the story you tell your friends about when you watched it first. How far you jumped, how much tea you spilled, how many swear words leaked out without a breath. This is a list of those moments. No simple jump scares here. What follows are 25 of the singular most terrifying movie moments in cinema. Some of them might not even be from traditional horror movies but they’ll all get you. Eventually.
SPOILER WARNING - this feature discusses scares, jumps and plot details so you might want to avoid anything you haven't seen yet.
25. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The scary moment: The sick girl
As you’ll find out as you progress through this list, M. Night Shyamalan might have lost his touch when it comes to movies but the man really knows how to horror when he wants to. Of all the iconic moments in The Sixth Sense, the early scene where Haley Joel Osment’s dead people see-er Cole hides in his tent has to be the scariest. Desperate and terrified in his shadowy hallway in the middle of the night, Cole takes shelter in his brightly coloured den to hide from the things in the dark. While his fearful breathing ups the scare ante, the pegs holding the tent together pop away one at a time. Nowhere is safe. and the next shot hits you like a fist in the gut. The girl he’s been hiding from is actually inside with him, vomit dribbling from her mouth. The horror.
24. The Orphanage (2007)
The scary moment: The Sackboy
The main antagonist of The Orphanage is an unpleasant enough prospect - a small, wheezy, violent child dressed like a dirty clown, with one mad eye staring out of a misshapen sack mask. However, he works on two unpleasant levels, creating both a hideous monster and, later, a dreadful twist. Initially it’s his job to terrify the mother now living in a converted orphanage. That isn’t too hard, as a tiny wrong-child who likes slamming doors on people’s fingers. His laughing and darting just out of sight creates a panicky tension, as does the clever use of the bathroom door as weapon, barrier and visual obstruction all at once. However, it’s a secondary reveal when the mother finds a body wearing the costume and pulls the mask off that’s the film’s most horrific moment.
23. Sinister (2012)
The scary moment: The home movies
Ethan Hawke’s failing crime writer, Ellison, is so desperate for another hit that he doesn’t think twice about firing up a mysteriously appearing box of old films. His research starts... badly, as the flickering, broken movies reveal dark and juddering portrayals of the worst kind of murders imaginable. In reel after reel families die horribly together. One group is hung - slowly being lifted into the air as a sawn off branch pulls them skywards. Another is burned inside their car, another drowns slowly, dragged one by one into a pool taped to chairs.
It’s the lawn mower that’s the most distressing, though: trundling over dark, nighttime grass before a face flashes under blades that scream and grind in protest. All bad enough, but these films are alive, changing and shifting as Ellison is drawn in deeper.
22. The Shining (1980)
The scary moment: The twins
There’s a whole movie’s worth of terror in The Shining but the one particular stand out scene is the twin girls you meet as Danny rides his go kart through the corridors. It’s become a tired trope now, as little girls and dolls skip and giggle endlessly through 21st century horror, but there’s still something innately terrifying about these twins. Even before the girls block his path, there’s something disturbing and repetitive about the trapped nature of Danny’s journey as he circles the hotel on wheels, the camera gliding along behind him.
The twins are almost a break from the dark tension as he stops, well, dead but it’s the moment they show their true fate that things get nasty. For a brief second, we see them in the same blue dresses and patent shoes, mutilated on the floor, with blood sprays across the walls. An axe lies in full view. This, if Danny didn’t know it already, is not a nice place. “Come and play” How about no?
21. Insidious (2010)
The scary moment: The demon
Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, people who say he looks like Darth Maul. You’re only laughing because this particular scare got you right where it hurts. From a design point of view the demon is simple - some red face paint and some hooves. But it’s the way those eyes are framed, as well the clever camera-work that reveals them, that brings the scares.
There are slow pans around door frames. You know he’s in the room, it’s just a case of where. And then there are the sleight-of-hand shots, where a simple drift of the lens distracts your eyes and OH GOD THERE HE IS. Specifically, behind the person he definitely wasn’t behind before. His use as a static, menacing presence throughout most of the film only makes the moment he scuttles across the wall like a giant satanic lizard even more of a nasty surprise.
20. The Village (2004)
The scary moment: In the woods
Why anyone thought it was a good idea to let a blind Bryce Dallas Howard go into a forest everyone believes is full of monsters will forever be a mystery. However, it’s a clever subversion of the usual predator/prey horror dance - the ‘creature’ is right there for us to see as it creeps up on Howard’s Ivy. She knows it’s there, of course, but obviously can’t see it, relying on the sounds we’re so suddenly aware of. It builds from a slow and tense, walking-pace chase from tree to tree, to a sudden pounding run where, even blind, Ivy has the smarts and skill to defeat the monster with a hole that nearly claimed her moments before.
19. Signs (2002)
The scary moment: The party
Corn? Check. Joaquin Phoenix in a tinfoil hat? Also check… This crop circle packed offering from M. Night Shyamalan might not sound like it holds one of the most terrifying moments of the past 20 years in cinema but oh, it does. While the dark fields are of course creepy, the true horror comes when Mel Gibson’s family watch the news and catch the very first footage of the alien invaders. A children’s birthday party is innocently underway before the kids start to scream. Panic ensues, the camera wobbles and looks outside at the now empty garden. Then, and it’s only for a second, a grey shape darts across outside. It doesn’t matter that these aliens are traditional extraterrestrials, Shyamalan’s jump scare does its job perfectly. The combination of found footage and children screaming has left its mark on our collective consciousness. *Shudder*