The 25 scariest movie moments that will keep you awake at night

10. The Conjuring (2013)

The scary moment: The claps in the cupboard

Ah, the classics: creepy children laughing in the dark, exploding lightbulbs, and the ebbing safety of finger-singeing, ever-dwindling matches. This whole sequence works because so much happens so fast that you’re not sure where the threat is - the fall down the stairs, the bouncing ball, the popping bulb - and then it seems to end with silence in the dark, encouraging you let your guard down. Sure, what preceded was creepy, but it was bearable. Then a ghostly child asks about playing a game and claps right behind the mother’s head.

9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The scary moment: Night vision

There are few scenes in cinema as stressful as Agent Starling’s exploration of Buffalo Bill’s pitch dark basement, her hand reaching out into the blackness as the serial killer toys with her at arm’s length. It’s the presentation that nails it. From the moment his night vision goggles fire up with a jarring ‘Pweeeeeeeeee’ to render the scene in a ghostly, green static, it makes you complicit as you watch through his eyes: playing with with Starling’s hair and pushing the boundaries of personal space. All with the threat of imminent harm, until his carelessly cocked revolver gives her the sound-cue she needs to fight back.

8. Rec (2007)

The scary moment: The fireman falls

Rec uses its mundane setting - a Spanish apartment block - to really underline its found footage horror. Where most films of the genre rely on spooky settings and foot-pounding, shaky running shots, this give you ordinary people in an ordinary place. It makes the death of the fireman even more gnarly: as residents panic around a stairwell, a muted scream that you barely have time to register announces a falling body that smacks into the ground with the sort of noise that suggests things definitely burst as much as broke. For a film full of murderous rage-zombies it’s that fall that makes you wince more than anything. 

7. Misery (1990)

The scary moment: Hobbling

A plank of wood, a hammer and two feet: one of the worst combinations of all time. The build up is the hardest thing: Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes calmly explaining how mine workers were prevented from running away as she slides a block of wood between James Caan’s ankles. Somehow, having waved a knife about for a few minutes, that block combined with the sudden appearance of a sledgehammer is far, far worse: pain is coming, horrible bone-breaking pain. After teasing the threat over Caan’s feeble protests, the film moves quickly to execute it before you have time to come to terms with it. The swing; the crunch; the scream, all happening in one wince-inducing clench of a moment. 

6. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

The scary moment: Kayako’s face

Japanese horror has an incredibly unique feel, especially when coming from the late ‘90s/early 2000s vintage. It’s largely its traditional folklore means that country has nailed spooky female/child ghosts behaving weirdly. The Grudge’s vengeful spirit Kayako has mastered the ‘crawling across the floor like a broken pile of bones’ thing, but her most terrifying moment is captured on a security camera - having watched a shadowy shape glitch and walk the corridor, a black mass suddenly fills the screen before wide, dreadful eyes appear. Nightmares for weeks

5. Ringu (1998)

The scary moment: Sadako gets out

Queen of the Japanese creepy-child ghosts, Sadako wrote the book on moving wrong. With a shock of black hair covering her face, she walks slowly and uncomfortably in the video she inhabits, cursing those who watch it. It’s the finishing touch though, where she really sticks the landing - pushing her way out of the TV screen and clawing along the floor with her fingernails, moving almost, but not quite, like normal people, on her way to claim a soul. An amazing physical performance and a few simple but clever camera tricks make this an iconic moment in horror cinema.

4. It Follows (2014)

The scary moment: The tall man

There’s an impassive quality to It Follows’… follower. Its pursuing punishing spirit isn’t implicitly horrific - simply appearing as a selection of ordinary people - but when the tall man appears it’s one of the most unpleasant moments in the whole film. Firstly it breaks so many rules: the scene has entered a ‘safe state’, with the arrival of friends (that can’t see him). But he doesn’t care. He just bursts in and then casually steps around. Plus, there’s the emotionless, almost matter-of-fact way he ducks under the doorframe and gets on with his task, which only heightens the fact that this creature is more natural force than vengeful, evil monster. It doesn’t care, it just... follows. 

3. Paranormal Activity (2007)

The scary moment: The feet

You can’t move in Paranormal Activity without some sort of horrible, personal-space invading ghost event. The thing is, it usually all exists as some sort of nebulous presence, pervading the overall substance of the house. That’s not great, admittedly, but the discovery of tiny little powder footprints suddenly makes things way worse, giving the demonic presence a more corporeal form. Those tracks left by invisible feet imply a body, and suddenly make the threat in the building much more ‘real’. And it certainly doesn’t help that its victims then run all the way up to the attic, where nothing bad ever happens... 

2. The Descent (2005)

The scary moment: The night vision camera

The Descent is full of horrible moments, in a way that a only claustrophobic film about being trapped underground with a bunch of cannibalistic cave-mutants can be. However, it’s the moment the creatures properly reveal themselves that’s top of the horrible pile. Trapped in a cavern full of human remains, the group’s nerves fray. Amid the shouting and panic, the viewfinder of a night vision camera suddenly settles on a monster standing over one of the climbers. Juuust long enough to register the malicious intent in his eye before the screaming starts. 

 1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The scary moment: Standing in the corner

While found footage is a tight formula now, The Blair Witch’s confusing, shouty blur of shaky cameras and frightened faces has an unfocused, less practiced technique that keeps you on your toes. So, when you enter that house and see one of the filmmakers standing in the corner - exactly like serial killer Rustin Parr had made his victims previously do - it takes a split second to understand what’s happening and unravel the relevant info, effectively making you work out your own scare. It doesn’t need noises, or jumps for terror here, just the creeping sense of dread you’ve instilled in your own brain. 

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.