Fear. It’s what drives the horror genre. It’s what vicious killers feed off of in horror movies. It’s what gets your adrenaline up when you’re watching something truly frightening, ideally at night with the lights off. For the Halloween season, the spookiest time of the year, I asked various makers and shakers this question: What is the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen in a film?
For me, there’s a long list. I was obsessed with horror films as a kid, but was also a giant crybaby who scared pretty easily. My dad would consistently terrorize me with his impressions of the Cryptkeeper and strategic placements of the My Buddy doll I had, which I was convinced would to be taken over by the spirit of a serial killer and try to murder me in my sleep. Because of the latter, the original Child’s Play trilogy always frightened me to my core. The original 1988 film had the mysterious element for the first half of the movie, until the scene where Catherine Hicks discovered there were no batteries in Chucky’s back, bringing him to life in a profanity-laden tirade while he tried to kill her. The second film, however, is the one that got me the most. The scene where foster dad Phil walks down the basement stairs, only to be tripped up by Chucky and held upside down until falling to his neck-snapping death on the concrete floor. Yes, in retrospect the quippiness of Charles Lee Ray in this specific scene is corny (“how’s it hanging, Phil?”), but as a young boy there were a litany of things going into that moment of the film that shook me to my core: the dark lighting, the expression on Chucky’s face, the glint of pure fright in Phil’s eye, and the eventual death itself. My childhood home also had similar steps leading to the basement, which didn’t help my theories of Chucky waiting for me under the stairs. All of these elements scared the hell out of me, especially when I would catch glimpses of My Buddy out of the corner of my eye as I watched.
CHELSEA REBECCA (co-host, Dead Meat Podcast)
I think the reveal of the creatures in The Descent is one that really stuck with me. Also, the final imagery of The Blair Witch Project is burned into my eyes forever. It’s so simple, but so disturbing.
CHAUNCEY K. ROBINSON (journalist, Rotten Tomatoes)
The most terrifying thing I’ve seen in a movie is from a film I still to this day cannot sit and watch all the way through. John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s where the doctor goes to use the defibrillator on the patient and his hands go right through as the stomach seemingly eats his arms. It not only grossed me out, but terrified me in the way it used something so simple such as a human body part and made it so sinister. It was the stuff of nightmares. The idea that the enemy, or a dark force, could turn your friends and loved ones into a physical monster, making the image of them grotesque and dangerous still chills me to this day.
KARA JEAN (Night Flight)
Mulholland Drive. Imagine quietly enjoying a dizzying feature-length softcore lesbian preamble, and suddenly Dumpster Monster spins out of an alley. I’m screaming like a woman just conjuring the image. It’s scary because it’s unexpected, even with the lead up: a crusty phantom inserted within a scene that takes place in the daytime behind a Winky’s. It’s the antithesis of the modern lazy jumpscare. I haven’t seen that film in 15 years, and it was the very first thing that sprang to mind.
JENNIFER MANRIQUEZ (editor-in-chief, The Joe Bob Briggs Fanzine)
Well, most notably during my childhood I saw what some would consider life-altering scary images in horror films. In the 80s, there were no age restrictions on rentals, so I could rent anything I wanted and nobody said squat. I walked out of there with The Exorcist in my bag at ten years old. Watched that thing alone. And, yeah, it… “changed” me. But it’s easy to be scared as a child. So, I’m going to go with something that scared me as an adult. It might surprise you! The first time I watched Insidious, I was alone. It was nighttime. The baby was asleep. The husband was asleep. The house was quiet. Barbara Hershey was speaking words of wisdom, as she does. The scene was quiet and serene. Then, out of nowhere, this little Darth Maul-wannabe demon face popped up from behind Patrick Wilson and I nearly shat myself. I seriously had to pause the film and just take a few deep breaths. It scared the living bejeezus out of me. That scene is old-hat now, of course, and you can find pictures of it all over the internet. People will say it’s not scary at all, maybe even a little hokey, but I rented it when it was freshly available to be rented. I think I got it from a Redbox. I hadn’t heard anything about it. I only knew that it was a spooky movie and I wanted to watch it. So, when that little bastard showed up, I was not expecting it. At all! And I still don’t think my heart has fully recovered.
GENA RADCLIFFE (co-host, Kill By Kill podcast)
I’ve seen a lot of gruesome stuff, and nothing makes me cringe like Joe (Ed Begley Jr.) getting his arm torn off in Cat People. An excellent practical effect, it’s viscerally horrifying — you can hear bones crunching, and there’s so much blood, and everyone’s rising panic feels very authentic. What makes it particularly awful, however, is that Joe is just some poor schmuck doing his job. While it’s true that most horror movie characters don’t expect to die, there’s just something existentially bleak about being killed while going about the ordinary trappings of your boring life. You almost expect to see a clip of Joe’s death to show up in a “Shake Hands With Danger”-style job safety film.
PATRICK HAMILTON (co-host, Kill By Kill podcast)
I was sheltered. It was an active sheltering. My parents, driven by concern for my well-being and religious fervor, attempted to make a bubble for me so that I might not be dipped into the horrors of this physical world. Preserved for greater, holier purposes? Maybe they just didn’t want the disappointment that I would eventually become? Well, that all ended one afternoon when KABC 7 in Los Angeles aired the 1972 TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s certainly melodramatic and perhaps not as glossy as big screen fare, but what it lacked in sophistication it more than made up in unmitigated nightmare fuel. Kim Darby in a kicky hairdo unleashes 3 demonic imps from a sealed fireplace and spends the rest of the run time attempting to avoid a hellish fate while being ignored and dismissed by her husband and everyone else she knows. To say the end of this motion picture haunted me would be a grand understatement. I was simply not prepared for such existential dread. For those who have not seen it (and no, I never caught the remake because… no) I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say it was of those perfect 1970s bummer conclusions that leaves the viewer shaken, worried, and ultimately harmed on a genetic level. I was unable to shake the film’s dire conclusion for the rest of the summer, despite watching it in full daylight on a small TV overlooking the beauty of the Balboa Island bay. I might as well have been sealed inside the Cask of Amontillado. The world from that moment on was untrustworthy and dangerous. Death lurked everywhere and now it had found me. I was branded.
AMANDA WALTZ (co-host, Ghoul On Ghoul podcast; senior writer, Pittsburgh City Paper)
I have a strange idea of terrifying. I’m not creeped out by monsters or murderers. Instead, l’m really freaked out by gaping maws or exaggerated facial expressions or movements. I think it’s because it’s uncanny, like that’s still a human face but unnatural. I watched this 2015 indie movie called The Interior where a guy decides to become a hermit in the Canadian wilderness and starts imagining that a man in a red parka is terrorizing him. There’s a scene where he’s in his tent and parka man unzips the opening and pokes his head in, but his mouth and eyes are frozen in this big, open expression. I screamed. I felt similarly to other movies like Hereditary and Before I Wake where characters had big sinister grins or their eyes were super wide.
DIANA GOODMAN (co-host, Thirty Twenty Ten podcast)
This might be a bit of a cheat, but the most terrifying thing I’ve seen in film is because of its realism. I thought about good ol’ fashioned body horror, which tends to get to me: the gynecological devices in Dead Ringers or the slow eye puncture in Fulci’s Zombi, but honestly the movie that terrifies me the most is Welcome To The Dollhouse. This is totally my own trauma talking. I was small and weak and nerdy and weird and a perfect target for bullies, and the scenes of middle school in that movie made me queasy because of how realistic and familiar they are. People are afraid of movie monsters because they are pitiless and inhuman, and that’s 12-year-old girls to a tee. We could wipe out ISIS tomorrow by telling the middle-school girls of the world we totally heard ISIS talking shit about them. I don’t know how writer/director Todd Solondz did it, because I assume his experience as a boy was different. With girls, aggression is all social – spreading rumors, ostracizing, teasing – and only occasionally threats and violence. And the movie nails it. The threats and bullying are all massively illogical. I got picked on for NOT liking the New Kids on the Block by some girls I didn’t know. Does that make even the tiniest bit of sense? Somehow they heard I didn’t like the New Kids, decided to expend the energy to find me, and then give me shit for something that didn’t affect them. That’s in the first scene of the movie. When you’re a Dawn Weiner, you never know if someone’s going to turn on you. It happens all the time – someone you thought was at least neutral joins in with the bullies. It could be your friends next. Teachers and parents make things worse. Everyone will disappoint you. It’s illogical. It can’t be reasoned with. The monster could be disguised as your best friend. You never know when it’s coming. There’s no escape. Welcome To The Dollhouse is The Thing without the flamethrowers.
MICHAEL KENT (host, Toxic Schlock podcast)
Like many die-hard horror fans, I was a very fearful child. Not in a giddy or enjoyable way, but rather I’d be thrown into a stasis of either crying uncontrollably or not speaking for hours after witnessing popular tv shows at the time like Are You Afraid Of The Dark or youth-oriented horror/fantasy films like The Witches. As I grew into my pre-teens, I gained some confidence from watching schlocky slasher sequels released at the time like Halloween Resurrection and Jason X, thinking I was needlessly scared as a child, not knowing that what I was watching were far from “legitimate” horror cinema. Seeing the 1984 movie A Nightmare on Elm Street shook me up in a profound way, scaring me away from the genre once more. I dipped my toes back into the genre in my early teens from being turned onto Romero zombie films, The Shining, The Evil Dead, as well as growing a profound love of the Halloween franchise. But still, I was far from an expert on the genre, and I knew my limits well enough to not dive into films shocking enough to truly horrify me. It was not until I was in my sophomore year of college that I saw a movie that would truly fill me with a profound sense of dread and horror that I still carry with me to this day. That film was Ti West’s 2009 modern classic House of the Devil. The film is centered around a college girl who is strapped for cash and takes up a babysitting job at a lonely rural house, only to find herself pulled into a truly horrific turn of events. I will not spoil the ending of the film, as much of its power is in the dread of not knowing what to expect, but as the film reaches its shocking climax, I was filled with such a chilling sense of horror, I was clinging to the couch with my mouth agape. Perhaps it was because I was watching the film in the dark with my close friends in a quiet dorm room, but I will never forget my walk back to my dorm that night, looking over my shoulder and nervously jogging through the wooded path home, unable to scrub out of my mind the horrific and bloody events I had just subjected myself to. To this day, I have never felt quite such a visceral reaction to a film, but it created a craving for me to find that feeling once more. I always tell people that in such a dour world where the culture we surround ourselves with is often the artistic equivalent of watching paint dry, I crave art and entertainment that garners a genuine emotional reaction from me. I would rather feel a profound sense of horror than to feel nothing at all. While many films have come close, I am still looking for a film that horrifies me the way that House of the Devil did all those years ago.