(This article is part of our Best of the Decade series.)
Fear is a complex emotion, and filmmakers use a variety of tricks to induce it. There are many ways to scare audiences, from bogeymen jumping out while violins screech to slow, gut-churning dolly shots leading up to horrific visuals. Fear can be a creeping sense of dread, a shock to the heart, or a terrifying realization. Ranking the scariest movie scenes of the decade meant paying homage to the myriad ways fear presents itself, whether in screams or silent despair.
Each of the scenes on this list stuck with me in some way long after the movie was over. They sank their claws into my brain and won’t let go, earning them each a place among the scariest movie moments of the decade. Some of these scenes are from later in these films, so this is your spoiler warning for each movie listed.
10. Georgie’s Death – It: Chapter One (2017)
The opening sequence of Stephen King’s It is iconic. Even people who haven’t seen the films/read the novel are aware of its visual trademarks, from the paper boat and leering face of Pennywise in the sewer to Georgie’s rain slicker. We all know Georgie isn’t going to make it out the scene alive, but what’s particularly shocking about Andy Muschietti’s version in It: Chapter One is the details of Georgie’s demise.
Violence against children is rare in cinema, even in horror. The destruction of innocence, particularly in gruesome ways, is a taboo that few directors are willing to play with. If kids die in movies, it’s usually off-screen or obscured in some way. Not little Georgie, whose arm is ripped clean off before he’s dragged into the sewer. By showing audiences the brutal death of a young child in its opening sequence, It: Chapter One informs us that the gloves are off and no one is safe.
9. Peachfuzz Says No – Creep (2014)
Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep is a masterwork in minimalist storytelling. Creep follows videographer Aaron as he tries to document the final days of "Josef", a man who hired him online to create a documentary for his unborn son. Things start getting weird fast, and before long Josef is wearing a wolf mask and calling himself "Peachfuzz". Josef just seems strange and lonely, and Aaron feels sorry for him. Josef begins latching onto Aaron, however, and reveals some horrifying secrets.
After discovering that Josef is both deranged and dangerous, Aaron tries to escape Josef’s home. He is stopped in his tracks by Peachfuzz, standing in the doorway and blocking his way. It’s the first time we see Peachfuzz as truly threatening, and it sets the tone for further horrors to come.
8. The Bell-Ringing Undead – The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Much like Creep, André Øvredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe is beautifully simplistic. A father and son mortician team must perform an autopsy on a "Jane Doe", a nameless female corpse, before morning. This corpse isn’t like anything they’ve seen, however, and they begin to discover increasingly horrible things about how she died.
Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are brilliant as the father and son, whose relationship is haunted by an inability to communicate. Thankfully, both actors have mastered wordless expression, and their terrified reactions sell the scariest scenes. This is best illustrated when one of the corpses in their mortuary begins walking the halls, the bell tied to its foot echoing ever closer. (There’s an old Victorian practice of tying bells to the hands and feet of the dead in case they wake up.)
This ever-growing terror leads to The Autopsy of Jane Doe‘s most terrifying and tragic moment when they kill an innocent person instead of the walking dead. This entire film is a lesson in building tension, but nothing is quite as effective as the sound of a ringing bell.
7. Sawing in the Shower – Evil Dead (2013)
Unnerving sound choices also play a big role in Evil Dead‘s scariest sequence. In Fede Álvarez’s remake/sequel to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, insane violence is a guarantee. Gleefully gross gore-gags abound, each more disturbing than the last.
One sequence that hews closer to the slow discomfort of The Evil Dead (1981) than its splatstick sequels follows Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) as he goes to check on Olivia (Jessica Lucas) while she showers. They’ve all just experienced some serious supernatural weirdness, so tensions are already high. Eric hears a sawing sound coming from the shower and slows his walk. By the time Eric (and the audience) get to Olivia, we already know it’s too late. The sawing tells us that whatever’s behind that curtain is going to be horrifying.
Olivia’s face, sawed open by her own hand, is a particularly grotesque reveal. She immediately attacks Eric, however, and Evil Dead delivers an eye-gore gag to rival Evil Dead II‘s (1987) plank-in-the-eye. It’s a brilliant blend of measured tension-building and intense, brutal gore.
6. Lawnmower – Sinister (2012)
Effective jump scares are an art. They’ve become such a readily abused tool in modern horror that many fans can spot them coming a mile away. Sinister‘s "Lawn Work ’86" super-8 reel is one of the greatest jump scares of all time because of the way it subverts audience expectations. It’s a subversion of typical jump scares and relies on the way people look for patterns to create genuine surprise.
Most of Sinister‘s scares rely on a juxtaposition of domestic bliss and domestic tragedy. We see brutal violence alongside the victims in happier days, nearly forcing empathy for the victims. "Lawn Work ’86" breaks with this well after the audience has settled into the movie’s rhythms, and the shock is incredible. It’s an all-timer.
5. Hold the Door – Green Room (2015)
While many of the movies on this list feature highly stylized violence or supernatural creatures, Jeremy Saulnier finds terror in the mundane in his Neo-Nazis vs. punks siege flick, Green Room. When a punk band gets trapped in the green room of a white supremacist-run bar in the Pacific Northwest, it feels disturbingly plausible. Saulnier takes a similar approach to violence, even pointing out how different movie violence is from real violence via character dialogue. "There’s no blood!" a character exclaims after someone is stabbed in the head and the blood is trapped. It’s a meta-commentary on cinematic violence and grounds the movie in a way that few horror movies attempt.
When the band agrees to hand over an unloaded revolver in their possession, things ratchet up to new intensity. Pat (Anton Yelchin) has his arm yanked through the crack in the door, blocking the audience from seeing what’s happening to him. His frenzied screams and pained face give clues, but the destruction to his arm is entirely unseen. At the same time, Reece (Joe Cole) breaks the arm of their Neo-Nazi hostage, snapping it backwards with a sickening crunch.
When Pat finally retrieves what’s left of his arm, we get to see the absolute carnage. Massive, realistic-looking knife wounds flay his flesh. Saulnier’s approach to violence is realism, and the special effects work on Yelchin’s arm is top-notch. Green Room might be too intense for some, but it’s a brilliantly crafted film on the mundanity of evil.
4. Home Invasion – The Devil’s Candy (2015)
Writer-director Sean Byrne’s love-letter to classic horror and heavy metal, The Devil’s Candy, is pure stylized brutality with a surprisingly grounded center. While many stories about evil houses revolve around affluent families, the Hellman family are forced to move into a crumbling mansion because it’s all they can afford. Their patriarch, Jesse (Ethan Embry), has his own demons before the house gets its claws in him, much like the Amityville father or The Shining‘s Jack Torrance. What sets The Devil’s Candy apart from other possession films of its kind is the empathy we grow to have for this family. Their love for each other is the one constant throughout the wild hell ride they endure. The scariest moment is when that, too, is taken from them.
The Devil’s Candy crescendos into a home invasion scene for the ages, resulting in the horrifying deaths of innocent, loveable characters. No one is safe when devil-possessed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) returns to the place of his possession. By playing with tropes and setting a more fantastical tone before dropping the floor out from beneath the audience, Byrne created one of the most horrifying sequences of the decade.
3. Cannibal Cleaving – Bone Tomahawk (2015)
As other entries on this list have illustrated, truly groundbreaking horror happens when storytellers subvert expectations and create empathy. S. Craig Zahler does both in the most disturbing sequence of his cowboy-western cannibal horror, Bone Tomahawk. Most of Bone Tomahawk is a gritty, nihilistic western about four men trying to rescue some townsfolk from a group of cannibalistic cave-dwellers. The cannibal Troglodyte aspect is only really hinted at for most of the runtime, however, and the sheer viciousness of the cannibals is understated.
After our "heroes" are captured by the cannibals, the cannibals do what they do best and carve someone up for dinner. They hang him upside down and chop him in half. Zahler lingers on his body as it splits down the middle, his frantic screams turning to broken grunts. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) begs and screams in protest, but soon he too is silent, and Zahler focuses on his horrified face while we hear the cannibals continue their butchering in the background.
The dread and resignation on Russell’s face is even more unsettling than the violence we just witnessed. The sheriff has been broken in spirit, and it’s as heartbreaking as it is horrifying.
2. Mutant Bear – Annihilation (2018)
Much like John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982), Alex Garland’s Annihilation uses the human fear of losing our identities to generate scares. When your friends can have their brains controlled by the thing you’re supposed to be fighting against, and your own brain is equally suspect, all bets are off. Nothing is as it seems, and the audience and characters are both completely in the dark.
Annihilation plays with its identity horror best while also paying homage to more traditional monster cinema. Once the characters realize that the "shimmer" has gotten into their DNA and begin mistrusting one another, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) captures the other women and ties them to chairs for an interrogation. Right before this moment goes full The Thing, the bear that killed their friend Cass arrives and proves Anya’s belief that it doesn’t exist horribly wrong. The bear-monster, a mutated grizzly with parts of its face missing and a human face on one side of its head, breaths in the ears of the restrained scientists a’la the Xenomorph and Ripley in Alien³. If the terror of seeing the protagonists trapped and helpless isn’t enough, the bear’s roar is composed of Cass’s screams for help. The horror moves from the mundane to the existential, striking down to the core of what it is to be human.
1. Red Lanterns – The Invitation (2015)
While Annihilation examines existential horror through science fiction, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation explores it through a much more banal lens. The Invitation is primarily social horror, deriving anxiety from characters being forced into uncomfortable situations with one another. Pretty much everyone on the planet has been trapped at a gathering they want to leave but can’t without causing a problem. The Invitation plays with ideas about social obligations, making the character’s decisions to stay in a bad situation not only understandable, but relatable.
The characters in The Invitation go from being trapped by societal pressures to being physically trapped by a death cult. It’s a slow reveal that eventually gives way to explosive violence. When the violence has ended, however, and we think our heroes have escaped somehow, the film delivers a final blow. Following their death ritual, the cult leader lit a red lantern to signal its completion. The protagonists escape into the backyard and see red lanterns lighting up across the Hollywood hills. The horror that they just experienced, and that the audience just experienced, has been happening on a much greater magnitude. The body count goes from a handful to unknowable hundreds in an instant before the movie cuts to black.
Honorable mentions: The Townspeople Invade, We Are Still Here; Charlie’s Demise, Hereditary; Transformation, Sorry to Bother You; The Tall Man, It Follows; Opening Scene, Terrifed; Dance of Death, Suspiria