While I’d taken it upon myself to pick some horrific non-horror films a few Halloweens ago (Guillermo del Toro’s eyes-in-the-hands guy, you’re always on my mind), this year I was interested to know what my fellow TNB contributors might say were the most terrifying movie scenes they’ve endured to date. Below, if you dare to read on, you’ll find those iconic dead-eyed twins, bad hell-spawn hair, an unfathomable choice, and more, but first I’ll get this party started with Willy Wonka’s boat ride from the 1971 Mel Stuart film. Most of my phobias can be traced back to these two manic minutes in the tunnel:
I returned from a family trip to Hawaii, sometime in the mid 1980s. It was the latest in a succession of trips of ever-greater cultural distance from my PA home, orchestrated by my salesman father and his ever-growing cache of frequent-flier miles from his business travels. We had traveled to California and would soon visit Paris and London, but for now, our visit climaxed atop of the dormant Haleakala volcano, its misty top like a clouded moonscape … which made my return to Eastern time after the long flights from Hawaii to LA and from LA to Philadelphia all the more jarring by the reconstitution of my room, codified by my small television displaying Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with its long hallway traversed by Danny’s big wheel, and with the Grady twins suddenly at the far end, shot at Danny’s eye level, saying, play with us, forever, and then my TV snapping off, and my jet-lagged young body falling back, under the covers, into a word of strange, volcanic uncertainty.
I recently watched, for the first time, Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—for which Fredric March, in the title role(s), won an Academy Award—and I was surprised, given the movie’s dated staginess, at how bothered I was by the murder of Ivy, the “fallen woman” played by Miriam Hopkins, who fancies the handsome Jekyll, a darling of society, while being “kept” by his alter ego, the Neanderthal Mr. Hyde. Of course Ivy doesn’t realize that Jekyll and Hyde inhabit the same body, and, fearing for her safety, she penultimately begs Jekyll to protect her from Hyde. It’s the intensity with which she begs, and her palpable terror of Hyde, that makes her offscreen death so harrowing; even bourgeois audiences of the early thirties, inclined to dismiss (poison?) Ivy as a reprobate, surely couldn’t fail to recognize her fundamental humanity, her bedrock will to live, as Hyde moves in for the kill, using her own words—to Jekyll—against her.
I never lost any sleep over the horror movies I watched repeatedly in the 80s. Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers seemed all in good fun. But then, at the end of the decade, I sat down in front of Pet Sematary one night with a group of friends. I eye-rolled my way through the gore, the Stephen King cameo (which I took the liberty of pointing out to the group) and the mediocre horror fare.
Then came Zelda.
Through a flashback, the mother, Rachel, tells of caring for her diseased sister, Zelda, who’d been left otherwise alone in bed to die. But Zelda isn’t just sick; she’s portrayed as a half-dead ghoulish hag via Rachel’s memory. I took one look at this thing and a jolt went through me. Zelda had an awful spine poking out of her back, a drawn face and gleaming eyes. Where horror for me meant pop-out surprises or gross bloodletting, this now was something else. This was a vision of suffering crossed jarringly with a vision of a corpse-witch. This rattled dark psychic corridors. This was my own nightmare brought to life before me on the screen.
Zelda appeared again, reanimated to her sister’s present, rubbing her hands together and cackling lines like “I’m gonna twist your back like mine!” as the camera zooms in on her face. I couldn’t watch. And telling myself it was only a bad movie made it worse.
Years later, I’d learn that Zelda had been played by a man (Andrew Hubatsek), which is obvious now when I rewatch it, though I still need to shield my eyes just to get through the Youtube clip. Zelda always reduces me to a trembling mid-pubescent. Whenever a movie builds suspense on something unseen around the corner or whenever I happen to get jittery alone in the dark, it’s Zelda who I’m sure is waiting there for me.
The most terrifying movie scene for me is when Samara in The Ring comes crawling out of the television set on semi-disjointed hands and knees with her hair all filthy and matted over her gray, bloody face and kills Noah. I really don’t understand why there has to be such bad hygiene in hell. If she can manage to pop out to say hello through a TV, surely she can run a brush through her hair once in a while.
In 1956, when I was nine, my brother took me to a movie I can’t identify. In an early scene a beautiful woman in a tight red dress slowly turned into a snake. I remember standing up and screaming. My brother dragging me out of the theater vowing he’d never take me to another movie. So far he’s kept his word.
The scene where Sophie has to pick which one of her children will get taken by the Nazis is easily the most haunting scene from any movie I’ve ever seen, ever. Sophie’s Choice. I saw it as a kid, and I’ve never been able to watch it again. Which is saying something. Because I can handle just about anything.
The other super-evil movie I’ve seen in more recent times is a documentary called Deliver Us From Evil. You want to see evil personified on screen, watch that on Netflix. The guy is Satan.
I may not be the best one to ask, as I’m no fan of horror movies. I can’t even remotely watch them. I think this comes from forcing myself to watch the Freddy Kruger movies and the Friday the 13th movies with my friends as some kind of bravery test at too young of an age. Even Jaws scares the shit out of me. But, I mean, that’s what these types of movies are designed to do. You know? So when you’re terrified by a movie that is designed to terrorize, it’s not especially unique. I think for me, the only time I can really appreciate being terrified is when it comes out of nowhere or is totally unexpected. An example of this that I can think of off the top of my head is that final scene in Flowers in the Attic when the mom accidentally hangs herself at the end. You know what I’m saying? That shit came out of freakin’ nowhere and was incredibly satisfying.
I was a sensitive child. Shy. Overly-concerned. Didn’t like rollercoasters. All due to my parents divorce, of course, but that’s for another column. (“Scariest Scene From Your Childhood”…?) This fear of being scared (um, sanity?) bled into my adult life as well but try as I might’ve, I wasn’t able to avoid, entirely, the devil, the evil puppet, the girl who looked harmless from afar but whose deadened eyes told another story. Since I closed my eyes and covered my ears as tightly as possible whenever confronted with such situations, I can’t describe a scene verbatim, but I can share my idea of the scariest movie ever, culled from bits that I’ve found myself privy to against my will:
A group of popular girls throw a bucket of blood on our hero while a dwarf in a red cape tries to save her from drowning. She is revived by a priest who she thanks by projectile vomiting pea soup in his face. A masked man comes to the door on Halloween who isn’t there to trick or treat, but rather to kill her. She runs to the graveyard where her oppressive mother is buried and as the masked man descends upon her her mother’s hand reaches up from the grave and pulls him under with her. Twins. Dolls with eyes that move. Slow but steady insanity. A man who wants to be president lying all the time. Look in the mirror, an old crone stands behind you, you turn and she’s gone, return to the mirror and her face stares back in place of your own. The power goes out. Creaking. Phone rings. Pizza delivery can’t find your house. Your name is (high-pitched scratchy sound.) No one remembers you. You remember no one. Coming next summer, part two.
In 1990 a bunch of us went to the cinema to watch Jacob’s Ladder, without knowing much about it. When we came out we stood around silently for a few seconds, until someone did the vibrating head thing and we all started going “Oh my God what the fuck was that?”
I haven’t watched it since then, as it used devices that have become commonplace, like disorientating fast cuts (which probably look relatively slow today) and unannounced transitions from the everyday to a decayed, diseased aesthetic (lifted wholesale by Silent Hill).
These were unsettling new tricks, but what made it proper scary, rather than just exciting or tense, was the uncertainty. Anything – and it would be something weird – could happen, usually just when we were getting comfortable. There was no apparent logic, no monster to kill, nowhere to run from or to. Jacob’s Ladder has had a much stronger influence on subsequent ideas of creepiness than it’s ever credited with.
If I have to pick one scene? The hospital, obviously. With the doctor. The one with no eyes and a massive syringe.
And imagine waking up and suddenly finding you’re not married to Elizabeth Peña after all. Harsh.
Black Christmas (1974). “The calls are coming from inside the house!” This line fucked my shit up ten ways ’til Sunday. Oh Lord, did that creep me out. You’ve got this sorority house full of perky co-eds being dispatched one-by-one, each in a new, twisted and unspeakably gory manner. The creepy and profane killer keeps prank-calling the house, the rather clear technological implication being that as long as he’s on the phone, he’s somewhere else. The police have the phone tapped and the protagonist, Jess, cannily keeps the killer on the phone long enough for the cops to trace it (almost a quaint premise now, in the time of mobile phones). She then gets back on the phone with the cop, who tells her to get her butt out of that house tout de suite. She hems, haws, and like a dutiful heroine, says she’s gotta go check on the others, until he finally clarifies why she needs to get the hell out of the house–the caller is inside the house. Holy shit. In that sentence, all illusions of safety are eviscerated and every corner of the dark, creepy house might be shrouding a psychopathic slasher. Of course she goes to look for her friends …. The ending of this flick is supremely satisfying in the way they avoid a pat resolution and instead double down on the creepiness.
One Christmas, when I was about ten or eleven my dad asked me if I wanted to stay up late and watch Psycho. I said yes to the whole arrangement because I rather liked the idea of staying up past midnight. So I sat there on the sofa with my dad, eating the last of the Christmas Stilton and drinking a little port, and generally enjoying the film. I don’t recall finding it very scary at all, not until the very end … and this is why Hitchcock is so good. Pyscho isn’t gruesome, but it’s full of suspense and surprise. It remains really the only scene in a horror film that scared me to the point where I had nightmares, had to sleep with the lights on, and keep all my limbs under the covers so Mrs. Bates couldn’t touch me. The scene where they find Mrs. Bates, or what’s left of her, is horrifying. It was, at least at the age of ten and in a world a little way from the digital age, a complete surprise for Mrs. Bates’s chair to swivel around and reveal that disgusting, decomposing skeleton.