Horror has come a long way in the past three decades, and the films that terrify us now may look almost comical in just another decade as we further push the limits of the disturbing. Sure, well-timed jump scares will always be able to get our heart rates elevated for a few seconds, but a really good horror sequence will have psychological layers, will be a creative take on the traditional jump scare, or be delivered via impeccable cinematography, for example.
As we trace the development of horror year after year and look forward to the next generation, we can see the influence of these expectations. And the best of the best, the scariest of the scariest, holds up in its own way, giving us scenes like these that linger like vengeful spirits even after decades have passed.
Be warned: Some viewers may find these scenes disturbing, and spoilers follow.
1990’s Jacob’s Ladder: The hospital
In 1990, the psychological landscape of the United States was complicated. The paranoia and fragmentation of the titular character in Jacob’s Ladder would have been somewhat familiar to mentally and emotionally fatigued Americans at the end of the Cold War. But the singular horror of Jacob’s Ladder extends beyond an era-specific appeal. While exploring themes from PTSD to the biblical, the film employs a unique brand of body horror through special effects that were amazingly all done in camera, with none digitally added in post-production.
And that makes this hospital scene, already a terrifying treat, all the more freaky, because as Jacob is bound to a gurney and wheeled past people scrambling with supernatural fervor over the vents above him or rocking frantically back and forth in straitjackets, through bloody curtains and past severed limbs, you know all that horror was in some way very real.
1991’s The Silence of the Lambs: Buffalo Bill stalking Clarice
The scene in The Silence of the Lambs in which serial killer Buffalo Bill stalks FBI agent Clarice Starling with night vision goggles is a reminder of why the horror genre has long made use of first-person perspective, most notably in found footage-style pieces, to introduce a more frenetic, panicked element that hits much closer to home. The inability to get a firm grasp on the scene because of the subjective orientation makes us feel like we have to look over our shoulders for a threat lurking just out of frame.
Or in the case of 1991’s scariest horror scene, right behind the camera itself — right next to us, in fact. In this scene, the perspective offered to us is the first-person point of view of a serial killer stalking our protagonist, which makes us feel just as helpless and at the mercy of his evil whims as Clarice.
1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: Laura’s dream
Rather than pick up where the series left off, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was set up as a prequel to David Lynch’s iconic TV mystery Twin Peaks, and didn’t exactly tie up the series’ loose ends. Possibly because he was able to show much more of a dark side to society than on network TV, the most terrible things that happen in Fire Walk With Me are the emotional and sexual traumas suffered by Laura Palmer. It almost seems like "kicking her while she’s down," because we all know this tragic story only leads to her death.
While it may have been unconventional, Lynch’s direction in this prequel reached even deeper levels of horror than it might have otherwise. You just have to look into Laura’s psyche, and maybe your own, to see it — that’s part of what her dream sequence accomplishes.
1993’s Needful Things: Wilma and Nettie’s double murder
There’s one Stephen King film adaptation that literally has everything you could ever want: 1993’s Needful Things. That’s not to say it’s a perfect film (though it’s widely regarded as underappreciated), but rather a reference to the premise: Leland Gaunt (a disguised demon) arrives in a small Maine town and opens an antique shop that offers items too good to be true. All he asks in return is that you pull pranks on your neighbors.
What’s subtly disturbing about Needful Things is that, although it’s clear something is amiss, Gaunt’s meddling simply seems mischievous, even harmless for a while, rather than outright evil. Arguably, it is the townspeople’s own grudges, prejudices, and pathologies that cause these conflicts to escalate, and ultimately, multiple people to lose their lives.
That psychological underpinning really sells the unconventional, chilling horror of two women fighting to the death in a farmhouse kitchen.
1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare: Heather’s waking nightmare
Can the seventh installment of a horror franchise ever really deliver? Wes Craven’s New Nightmare managed to, with one scene in particular. Part of what makes Heather’s nightmare in the hospital so scary is simple: Hospitals are supposed to be safe, and she has finally fallen asleep in what amounted to a modicum of security. It’s also scary because it begins with Freddy’s voice coming out of a child’s mouth as he stares coldly into her face, deadpan, and numbly removes the oximeter from his finger.
Then a doctor arrives — a brief interlude of false safety — but Heather’s hysteria increases as she sees Freddy’s hands protruding from the doctor’s coat, then looks up again to see that Freddy has somehow infiltrated the hospital staff. The rapid escalation makes this a genuinely scary sequence, even more so because it appears afterward to be all in her mind.
1995’s Halloween — The Curse of Michael Myers: Meeting Michael
In 1995, we were blessed (or cursed, according to critics) with yet another entry into the Halloween franchise, and not very many other horror films of note. Still, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers managed to give us a pretty solid scare when Tommy first meets Michael (if you don’t count the close encounter from his youth in the original 1978 Halloween movie that led to his obsession with Michael in the 1995 film).
As Tommy struggles to free Kara from a locked room, Michael steps nonchalantly into the other end of the hallway. Tommy’s response is one of bemusement and disbelief, then fear, as he frantically tries to break the doorknob in time with an unwieldy fire extinguisher, which makes all of his movements seem even more futile and frantic and adds a little more scare value to the scene.
1996’s Scream: Murderers revealed
Scream‘s satirical approach to the horror genre has helped it endure as a classic. How can you laugh at a film that is already laughing at itself — and is no less scary because of it? In fact, Scream‘s scariest moment was exactly that because it lulled us into a false sense of security and trust. Billy couldn’t be the killer — he’d just been attacked! The impact of the twist was heightened by the disconcerting sight of Billy nonchalantly licking his own "blood" off his fingers (revealing that it’s just corn syrup, just like they used for pig’s blood in Carrie; another meta-nod to the genre).
Couple that with Stu’s sadistic grin, the explanation that the two have had a vendetta against Sid and her family for ages and even murdered her mother, and the fact that Billy and Sid just slept together, and it’s enough to make your stomach turn.
1997’s Lost Highway: The "mystery man"
David Lynch makes the list again with Lost Highway and its "mystery man," who approaches protagonist Fred (Bill Pullman) at a party and claims to have met him — at his own home. What follows is one of the most bizarre sequences of 1997, made even creepier by the earnest but empty smile of the "mystery man," his lilting voice, and his peculiarly pale makeup. He insists he is at Fred’s house at that moment, even as he is standing right in front of him.
He and his double on the phone then begin a disorienting three-sided conversation with Fred (which is pretty much just a one-sided conversation in which Fred says and does whatever the "mystery man" tells him to). The fact that the "mystery man" is able to appear simultaneously so amicable and threatening is unreal, and Robert Blake’s performance will haunt audiences as surely as the confusing nightmare it foreshadows.
1998’s Ringu: Sadako emerges from the TV
Even if you haven’t seen this version of the film, you’ll recognize this scene from 1998’s Ringu if you’ve seen the 2002 American remake, an early example of the extremely popular practice of adapting Asian horror for English-language audiences. (Think The Grudge and The Eye.) If you have seen The Ring from 2002 and want to see the original inspiration, Ringu is scary enough to give you a pleasurable horror viewing experience either way.
Prime example? This scene. The specter clambering out of the television screen in this shot might be familiar to you as Samara, but in the original movie her name was Sadako. And rather than seeing her whole face as you do Samara’s, in Ringu we only see her bulging eye, which is arguably even more threatening and definitely helps lift this scene to the number one slot for scary moments of 1998.
1999’s The Blair Witch Project: The house
Before found footage became played out, The Blair Witch Project made it famous. The young filmmakers behind the project did things in a completely new and effective way. To do so, they ended up shooting about 20 hours of footage — for a film with minimal scripted dialogue. In fact, the original script was only 35 pages long. So the "found footage" really did appear "found" because it was as genuine as it could be without actually being true.
Editing trimmed their 20 hours of footage down to the sub-90-minute run time you can watch today, and one of the sequences that made the cut ended up earning its place among the most iconic scenes in horror. Through a handheld camera, the run-down house in the woods becomes a labyrinth, and by the time the scene concludes, you’ll feel you’ve aged years, not just an hour and a half.
2000’s American Psycho: The chainsaw
We don’t need to muse on the unlikeliness of this scene, thanks to the comically absurd precedent set by American Psycho from the opening scenes of the 2000 film. Instead, we can just enjoy it in all its gory glory. It starts when Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) kills Elizabeth during sex, in some extremely bloody manner (apparently with his teeth) that spatters against his white sheets.
Christie, who had joined them for the encounter, had climbed out of bed earlier and begins to run. On the way out, she sees the bloody bodies of several other females before finally escaping to the stairs, which loop downward for many floors.
Conveniently, Bateman has a chainsaw, which he drops down the center of the stairwell… And it somehow lands on and kills Christie in yet another bloody mess. No wonder the guy likes to stay clean: He’s got a lot to compensate for.
2001’s The Others: "I am your daughter"
It’s hard to raise a kid. It’s even harder when you look down at her and she has the wrinkled hand of an old woman, half-obscured under a veil, who just keeps on insisting, no matter how frantically you assert otherwise, "I am your daughter."
This scene from 2001’s The Others scores extra creepy points because there’s nothing really sinister about the old woman under the veil except that she’s, well, old, rather than a school-age little girl. She doesn’t speak in a creepy voice: In fact, she sounds just like the little girl she replaced, sitting there smiling angelically, hardly a malevolent look in sight.
The real danger in this scene appears to be Nicole Kidman’s character, who violently shakes her daughter and tears at her veil to banish the apparition…only to have it transform back into her confused, hurt daughter when witnesses arrive, making the mother look like the real monster.
2002’s 28 Days Later: The chapel
If there’s one scene that teaches us never to underestimate the simple elements of horror, like the sudden appearance of a zombie, it’s the scene in the chapel from 28 Days Later. Stumbling upon an abandoned church littered with the dead bodies of the congregation is honestly pretty scary already, and you’d think that a response to Jim’s hopeful, "Hello?" would have been just the relief he needed.
When that response comes, though, it’s from a zombie lurching up from a pile of bodies to stare dead-eyed in Jim’s direction. He doesn’t immediately run, though, because he hasn’t seen the ads for the movie he’s in. Nor, as of yet, any zombies.
That changes quickly. Another pops up. He hears footsteps somewhere else in the church. Soon, the whole horde awakens. Jim’s naivete, sticking around rather than running at the first sight of the undead, gave us one of our scariest zombie moments.
2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The hammer kill introducing Leatherface
The scariest scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and the year 2003) didn’t involve a single chainsaw. Instead, this foreboding scene is made extra scary due to its pacing and sound design, featuring vignettes of objects that aren’t really creepy on their own, but are quite unsettling when paced sequentially as Kemper explores the house.
A group of pigs trundling through the living room? Weird, but not especially dangerous. A porcelain head and sewing machine on a desk? Getting there. A record spinning with no sound except the foreboding background music? Now we’re getting creepy, and Kemper sees an eerie old photograph before hearing a sound from another room and continuing his search for Erin. The backdrop of dismayed black-and-white cartoon faces playing on the TV as he is abruptly murdered with a sledgehammer is the perfect juxtaposition to our first introduction to Leatherface.
2004’s Saw: Reverse bear trap
The sadistic game-master has taken various forms in all manner of horror films, but none of them quite gets under the skin (literally) like the one in Saw who set the original "reverse bear trap." This "game" is so titled because the victim, Amanda, has a device strapped to her head that will, when the timer goes off, rip her mouth open permanently (and a bear trap, on the other hand, is a mouth-shaped device that clamps resolutely shut).
As if that weren’t bad enough, Amanda has to retrieve the only key to the device from the stomach of her "cell mate." With a knife. The creepy green light and disorienting camera work add to the horror, but what really gets you is the narration: Amanda is telling her own story, so you know that she got out… But the fact that you know how she had to do it makes that prior knowledge grim rather than comforting.
2005’s The Devil’s Rejects: Housekeeping
Also a bit of a reject among critics, The Devil’s Rejects is a 2005 Rob Zombie flick whose Rotten Tomatoes consensus basically reads as an invitation for genre aficionados but a warning for everyone else.
This "nasty, relentless, and sadistic" horror pic surprises us when a hotel housekeeper finds one of the title trio’s victims, Wendy, still alive, hanging on the back of the door, and wearing another victim’s face. She collapses onto the housekeeper, screaming wordlessly from behind the makeshift mask before both of them make a run for it.
You can honestly see the next part coming: Wendy can’t see out of someone else’s eye holes and stumbles through the desert and onto the road to flag down a car. A truck runs her over. But the scariest part wasn’t her death: It was finding her alive and watching her flail toward her doom (and the camera with her) wearing another person’s face.
2006’s The Hills Have Eyes: Doug facing the mutants
The fact that 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes centers around cannibal mutants in the Southwestern desert hints that there is a good bit of sci-fi involved to give all the horror an extra edge. The hills in which the Carter family’s car breaks down are plagued by mysterious disappearances connected to nuclear testing in an old mining town nearby. And if the cannibalism-ghost town combo isn’t enough, the impetus for the scariest scene is the abduction of a baby, Doug’s quest to rescue her and his confrontation in the mutants’ house.
The stakes in this film always feel high, because while much of it feels supernatural, the sci-fi angle in a strange way almost makes the premise seem more grounded, like it could happen to any of us in the next decade — or sooner. That more visceral fear is what makes us root even harder for Doug in this scene.
2007’s Paranormal Activity: 21st night
The first Paranormal Activity film elevated the found footage subgenre of horror cinema. Whereas the cameras in The Blair Witch Project were intentionally limited in scope, completely subjective and without an omniscient point of view, Paranormal Activity gave us the opposite in 2007. The cameras offered a nearly full perspective of each room they depicted, often unnervingly so.
While the first-person visual narrative of the handheld camera is scary because it puts you directly in a character’s position, limiting your field of awareness to theirs, the setup in Paranormal will make you squirm because contrary to what you’d assume, omniscience is actually limiting in this case as well. You can see "everything," but you can’t move. Whereas in Blair Witch you’re stuck with the characters, sometimes in Paranormal, you’re all alone. How this cold distance heightens the horror is clear on the 21st and final night.
2008’s The Strangers: Kristen smoking a cigarette
This scene from The Strangers was shot so well that its unnerving frame may be familiar to you from the movie’s promotional poster, for which it was eventually used. Though the shot itself is about as static as a still image for a few moments, it’s the chilling stillness combined with Liv Tyler’s slow, casual movements that make it so creepy in the film itself.
It’s also creepy just how long we have to sit and watch and wait, knowing that the intruder is standing mere feet away and the character doesn’t know it. When will she realize that someone is lurking on the periphery? How will it happen? Some jump scares are frightening because they come out of nowhere, but this one reveals a piece of the scare ahead of time, leaving us anxiously expecting another one at any moment because we know it must be coming.
2009’s Antichrist: The fox eating itself
Lars Von Trier is no stranger to being condemned for his art. Many of his films have earned bans and walkouts. His 2009 experimental horror film Antichrist was banned in France seven years after it was released!
This film features many of the most disturbing scenes imaginable (and unimaginable), but one that really sticks is the fox disemboweling itself in the woods. Yep. When Willem Dafoe’s character stumbles upon the fox, he finds the animal ever so slowly pulling the flesh away from its body until a lean strip of it just snaps off.
While the fox’s subsequent announcement that "chaos reigns" is viewed by some fans as so ridiculous as to provide unintentional comic relief, the moments preceding it will chill (or chew) you to the bone — literally. And even if the fox speaking plays a bit more funny than creepy for some audience members, that itself is just as unnerving.
2010’s Insidious: The demon behind Josh
What makes this scene, in which the red demon face briefly appears behind Josh (Patrick Wilson), work so well is the fact that it hardly does anything different from the traditional jump scare beyond a few key elements. We’ve seen faces appear behind people’s shoulders before. We’ve seen people freak at something only they can see.
But what’s compelling about this scene is that the characters are talking about the demonic presence at that very moment, and then it appears, brazenly, as if daring them to speak more. The red color is also a vibrant, attention-grabbing contrast to the shadowy forms demons typically take in horror films.
Most importantly, the demon appears in broad daylight, while characters are seated in a sunny room around a table. This demon was just stopping by because it could, and now the family has to find a way to go on with their day. Savage.
2011’s You’re Next: Dinner deaths
Most horror movies build tension in a manner that revolves around the source of horror itself, like a poltergeist or serial killer. But in 2011’s You’re Next, a horror film with indie allure, the source of tension leading up to its scariest moments is almost always the characters.
The family’s bickering dominates just about every scene (at least before things really get crazy), with the camera and the audience scrambling to keep up. This creates a sense of unease, not unlike scenes in which someone is being chased or hears strange noises and keeps whirling to look over their shoulder. You still get the suspense, but it’s not ostensibly tied to the carnage that ensues as it would be in a traditional horror flick.
At least, not right away. But as the details and drama unfold, we learn that this family is so dysfunctional that a couple of the kids have hired hitmen in creepy, cultish animal masks.
2012’s Sinister: The lawnmower
Genuinely frightening from start to finish, Sinister makes it hard to pick a "scariest scene," but you know that this film is where you’ll find 2012’s winner. As many delightfully disturbing moments as there are, protagonist Ellison Oswalt stumbles upon the best one early in the film when he’s digging through the "home movies" in the attic of his family’s new house.
These movies depict the murders of the previous family, filmed on a handheld camera, and the scariest is the very first. For one thing, even if you can reasonably guess, you really don’t know what’s coming. You’re not sure why the family made a home video of their lawnmower at night, until you encounter the most artful and unconventional jump scare of the year. It’s not a demon jumping out at you, but a victim: the first window into the fact that something absolutely sinister happened at this house.
2013’s The Conjuring: The witch and the wardrobe
If "things that go bump in the night" are standard horror fare, The Conjuring was a bit of a horror renaissance. Early on, the film equips itself for sound-based scares: The Perron family has a special game they like to play called "hide and clap," which is like a variation on Marco Polo with claps replacing the words.
In this scene, the creepy sound apparently comes from Cindy sleepwalking and banging her head against the door. But after she returns to bed, the sound starts again. While a minor misdirection, it was effective: We thought we had ruled out the supernatural as the source of the sound when we discovered that Cindy was causing it, meaning that we might have jumped when it resumed, or at the very least went on higher alert, inadvertently priming ourselves for the fright of seeing the witch on top of the wardrobe.
2014’s It Follows: The Tall Man
To make fear more tangible to its audience, one approach is to make it more intimate. Many directors choose to accomplish this through cinematography or editing, but It Follows takes a decidedly unique and modern approach by tying its horror to sexual intercourse. This topic is the perfect idiosyncratic union of familiar and taboo on which to base a horror film.
For much of the film, we don’t see the demonic entity that passes from person to person after they’ve had sex, and when we do, it takes a different form for each victim. First, it is a naked woman, which only Jay, the afflicted young woman, can see. However, the specter can take any form it pleases and could be anyone, which would be terrifying on its own — but its next iteration, the Tall Man who causes Jay to leap out the window, is the stuff of your nightmares’ nightmares.
2015’s The Witch: The shed
You know you’ve seen a great horror movie when a glorified folk tale can reach nearly 400 years through the centuries and still send chills down your spine — especially when the title menace is only glimpsed fleetingly for most of the story.
In The Witch‘s scariest scene, the witches have barely revealed themselves thus far. That doesn’t stop the family from going on a witch hunt, with only each other as targets. Ultimately, with a little supernatural meddling, they tear each other apart. It’s certainly creepy when the naked witch appears in the shed without entering through the door, but it’s even more horrifying that the children’s parents lock them out there!
Interspersed with and exacerbating this tragic terror are shots of Thomasin’s mother nursing what she sees as her baby, while in reality, a crow gnaws at her chest, even as her real flesh-and-blood children are attacked outside.
2016’s Raw: Finger foods
Sibling rivalry can get bitter, but you’d never expect it to literally taste sweet. Apparently, though, if you come from a family of cannibals, it can. Raw‘s Justine (formerly a lifelong vegetarian) doesn’t think about or behave around human flesh as if it were just another food or dietary preference. Her cravings are pathological, primal, and uncontrollable.
It’s genuinely terrifying to watch her go through her transformation and discover that her body can only survive on human meat. But watching her examine her sister’s accidentally severed finger, then nibble it, then pick it clean — while the soundtrack builds and her sister lies unconscious in the next room — is one of the most alarming things you’ll see this year if you didn’t see Raw when it premiered in 2016. It’s certainly the most alarming thing Justine’s sister saw when she woke up just in time to see Justine finishing her snack.
2017’s Get Out: The Sunken Place
One of the most horrifying thoughts is that true horror exists not in a private, hypnosis-induced nightmare but rather endemically in our way of life. Filmmaker Jordan Peele explained that the Sunken Place in Get Out was a symbol for the marginalized and all the systems that keep marginalized communities oppressed, specifically in this case the impact of the prison-industrial complex on Black communities as well as the lack of representation in film.
It’s frightening to see Chris from the outside, paralyzed but present, vs. the inside, sunken and silenced. The Sunken Place makes every other second of Get Out that much more terrifying by offering the context and revealing the nature of Logan’s outburst and other clues earlier in the film: What may seem inconsequential or "not quite right" in film and life to those who only see a thirty-second scene is flat-out wrong for those whose vantage point is the Sunken Place.
2018’s Suspiria: Olga’s destruction
If you’re ever struggling to decide between a horror movie and a dance movie, you need look no further than 2018’s Suspiria (and after one early scene, you might not want to look any further, period).
Not exactly a remake of the color-saturated 1977 classic, the 2018 version is more of an homage, following similar themes and characters but expanding greatly on the more abstract realm of emotional provocation. At least, that was director Luca Guadagnino’s intent, and provocative doesn’t even begin to cover the scene of poor Olga’s death at the unknowing hands and feet of Suzy, whose dance has been somehow supernaturally linked to Olga’s helpless body. As Suzy dances, Olga’s body is tossed and contorted until she is paralyzed and deformed beyond recognition. While the original movie doesn’t expose the undercurrents of witchcraft right away, 2018’s wastes no time in doing so — in overwhelmingly gruesome fashion.
2019’s Midsommar: Dani’s family
The scariest moment in Midsommar actually plays out on the western side of the Atlantic, not with free falls and sledgehammers in the idyllic Swedish mountains. Not that the rest of the film doesn’t deliver, but Dani’s family’s deaths at the hands of her suicidal sister is more disturbing than anything else.
The sound design of the reveal is piercing, blending perfectly with Dani’s screams. The cinematography and editing are dreamlike, with first responders moving in slow motion through the bluish darkness of the family’s home. There’s something extra sinister about killing your parents in their sleep, not to mention the elaborate lengths to which the troubled girl goes.
Plus, of course, there’s the disquieting realization that when Dani called her parents earlier in the film to say she thought something was wrong, and the phone rang next to them as they appeared to sleep, they were probably already dead.
2020’s The Invisible Man: Cecilia’s sister
What do you think of when you think of "ghosting" someone? If you define it the way most millennials do, as ending a relationship with someone by cutting off all contact without warning or explanation, then Adrian’s behavior in The Invisible Man — remaining in someone’s life whether they want you there or not — is pretty much the opposite.
But you could say that Adrian "ghosts" Cecilia because that is what he literally becomes. He vanishes from view and apparently from life after he stages his suicide, yet tortures her in plain sight while remaining completely unseen and making her concerns seem crazy.
His actions eventually escalate beyond psychological abuse and into killing Cecilia’s sister Emily in public, right in front of her, and framing her for it. An even more chilling element of the public murder is Adrian’s remorseless display of dominance and manipulation in a completely inhuman act.