Looking back on a film like The Exorcist, the scariest moments seem to be the ones that don’t involve pea soup and potty-mouthed little girls. We’ve wondered before if the movie has lost its shock value, but we pointed to Regan’s (Linda Blair) hospital test scenes as some of the movie’s most enduring horrors. The subliminal demonic face that pops up during a dream sequence makes this list, however. “I saw subliminal cuts in a number of films before I ever put them in The Exorcist, and I thought it was a very effective storytelling device… The subliminal editing in The Exorcist was done for dramatic effect — to create, achieve, and sustain a kind of dreamlike state,” director William Friedkin explained. It works. Happy Days actress Eileen Dietz played the demon and gave us an image that has been impossible to erase from our minds all these years later.
Many people have tried to describe the central monster in Stephen King’s novel, It. Some say the creepy clown is an alien being, others have called it a demon, and to many he’s a supernatural creep. Pennywise became a reality in the 1990 film adaptation, featuring brilliant character actor Tim Curry in the role of the child-murdering joker. The red-nosed predator lures a young boy to his death when the child loses a paper boat down a sewer drain. The striking image of Pennywise lurking in the dark below the street is chilling. “When you’re down here with me, you float too,” Pennywise tells the boy before attacking him. The haunting clown exploits the biggest fears of its victims, and the audience isn’t immune to Pennywise’s grim provocations.
“I wish I was big just once,” Joe Pesci’s unhinged mobster Tommy jokes when he relates a story to his fellow thugs. “You’re really funny,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill responds innocently with laughter. The lighthearted exchange suddenly takes a turn for the worse. “Funny how?” a deadpan Tommy asks him, and Liotta’s character scrambles for the right words to reassure his hot-headed associate. Tommy has already proven it doesn’t take much to offend him, and he leaves Hill hanging on his every move. Eventually the gag is up, but Tommy teases him, “I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.” Although he usually seems like a monster blinded by his own rage, Tommy has smartly identified the one thing that will cause their crime kingdom to crumble. Henry eventually talks. The scene confirms that Pesci doesn’t have to be a “big” man to make us shake in our shoes.
When the strange, pale-faced Mystery Man appears at a party in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, it feels like the air is sucked out of the room and time is standing still. He tells Bill Pullman’s character Fred that they’ve met before and insists that he’s even inside the troubled jazz saxophonist’s house that very moment. “Call me,” the Mystery Man challenges him, when Fred brushes the claim off. What follows is the typical Lynchian weirdness, but Robert Blake sells it to us with chilling effect.
The Adventures Of Mark Twain
One moment, the 1985 stop motion-animated movie is a children’s adventure tale about Mark Twain and several of literature’s famous characters on a mission to see Halley’s Comet. In the next moment, it’s a surreal, apocalyptic interlude with a shape-shifting Satan. We sobbed when Bambi’s mother was killed, but this scene makes other scary moments in kid’s movies look tame.
We included Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted house chiller in our Halloween horror countdown because of scenes like this one. Spooky whispers, chanting, screaming, crying, and shadowy phantoms drive a frightened woman to wonder, “Whose hand was I holding?”
American History X
Many of the movies on our list center on fictional creatures or characters we might never meet in real-life. The scariest part about the neo-nazi skinhead, Derek (Edward Norton), in American History X is that we know people like him actually exist. The character is at his most frightening during the scene when he curb stomps an African-American man to death. While that’s brutal enough, it’s the look in Derek’s eyes when he’s being arrested that makes us cringe. It’s as though we’re staring at pure evil.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
One of horror cinema’s golden rules tells us that teenagers won’t survive if they have sex. Wes Craven’s classic fright flick, A Nightmare on Elm Street, abides by this cliché. Tina (Amanda Wyss) has been having strange nightmares, in which a disfigured madman stalks her. After having sex with her boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) one evening, she has a dream about the monster, who we later learn is a deceased child murderer. He kills Tina in her dream, but as her boyfriend quickly realizes, her death is also happening in reality. The scariest part of the gruesome incident is that Rod can’t see who is murdering Tina right before his very eyes.
We meet another invisible monster in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. This one attacks an unsuspecting skinny-dipper. Chrissie takes an evening swim, which starts out as an innocent flirtation with a guy she’s just met. The playful tone of the scene grows dark when something frightens her beneath the water and starts dragging her down into the murky ocean. We can’t see it, but we’re forced to watch her thrash about and scream for her life. Her inebriated swim partner is no help, of course. Chrissie’s scary final moments rank as some of the most horrifying in horror history.