Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from film editor A.A. Dowd:
We’re already covering movies that scare us the most for Watch This during our 10 Days Of Horror, but for this week’s AVQA, what are the film scenes that scare you the most? They don’t necessarily have to be from scary movies.
I’ve always been convinced that David Lynch is a horror filmmaker who doesn’t make horror movies. In terms of unnerving atmosphere, he’s almost unrivaled, and more than a few of his films operate on a wavelength of pure, irrational dread. For me, the scariest moment in a Lynch movie—and maybe any movie ever—is the Winkie’s diner scene in Mulholland Drive. In broad daylight, Patrick Fischler describes to Michael Cooke a reoccurring nightmare of his, one set at the very diner at which they’re having breakfast. Convinced by Cooke that he needs to face his fear—including that of a mysterious figure who, in the dream, is lurking out behind the restaurant—Fischler goes about re-creating his nightmare step by step. It’s the inevitability of the scene that gets under my skin: Lynch draws out the long walk the two men take, drudging toward what feels like a terrible foregone conclusion. What happens at the end of the scene is so expected, but that’s what it makes it weird and terrifying in a primal way—it’s a realization of the character’s (and the audience’s) worst fears. (It helps that Fischler looks utterly, convincingly petrified.) No single moment in cinema better evokes the feeling of being caught in an actual nightmare, knowing it, but still being at the mercy of its terrible machinations. Hell, I just re-watched the scene, in the middle of the day and on a tiny laptop screen, and still felt seized with anxiety.
The first appearance of Leatherface is the scariest scene in my favorite scary movie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It terrified me the first time I saw it, and it continues to terrify me, even though I know what to expect every time I watch it. What’s magnificent about it isn’t just how director Tobe Hooper uses color and space, drawing your eye toward a strange red room with mounted animal skulls in the long shots of this remote house’s dreary interior. It’s how he uses pace. Most horror movies draw out the big scare, and this scene starts like that. We know something bad is going to happen to Generic Good-Looking Guy and Generic Girlfriend, because we know what kind of movie we’re watching. The scene starts out that way, too. He spends a lot of time calling out for the occupants of the house. The camera focuses on that red room, and we know something bad is going to come out of it and get him. Even up to the point where the pig starts squealing, we sort of know what to expect. But then Hooper throws the usual pace out the window. The guy runs toward the red room, to see what might be back there, and Leatherface pops up out of nowhere and smacks him in the head with a hammer. It’s over in an instant. And after just the briefest of pauses, Leatherface drags the guy back into the room and slams the door shut. Everything speeds up, just when we expect it to slow down, and that gives the film a nightmarish quality that doesn’t let up.
Any time I’ve watched Night Of The Living Dead (always, stupidly, at night) I’ve had to summon the courage to head back out into the larger world, mostly because of the sequence in which George A. Romero’s holed-up survivors run a suicide mission to a nearby gasoline pump. The power of the film is in its close-quarters setup, the way it makes the space surrounding the farmhouse the true terror, its periodic cuts to the ghouls lumbering outside serving as a constant reminder of the encroaching danger. When the protagonists give up the relative safety of their hideaway, it’s obvious that things are going to go wrong, but the degree to which they go wrong gives me pause about stepping into the night to this day. And just when Ben thinks he’s gotten out of the jam, that asshole Cooper has barricaded the entry to the house. Plenty of horror movies play off the fear of a locked door preventing an escape from danger—Night Of The Living Dead heightens that fear by making another person the reason Ben can’t get in. From that point on, legit security is off the table: They’re coming to get you, Barbara, from within and without.
I hadn’t experienced a movie-induced nightmare since childhood until I saw The Blair Witch Project, which freaked 23-year-old me out so much I had trouble sleeping that night and bad dreams. So much in that film scares the shit out of me—thanks in part to my overactive imagination—but the one that still makes me gasp happens when the film crew hears little kids outside their tent. Then the kids start shaking the tent or something, and the crew runs screaming into the woods. We never see the kids (or the baby who’s crying), but it’s goddamn terrifying.
Most horror movies scare me. I’m jumpy and easily manipulated by that “gotcha” scare moment, but that feeling is fleeting. A truly terrifying film taps into my deep-seated fears in real life, the most prominent of which is aerophobia. I really do not like flying, and the slightest bit of turbulence is enough to trigger some overactive crash paranoia. That’s why Robert Zemeckis’ Flight was the scariest movie of last year to me, and a film I can’t ever bring myself to re-watch under any circumstances. During the first half hour of the film I gripped the armrests of my seat in the theater like I would if I was on an actual flight during turbulence, sweating profusely and wishing I would never have to deal with anything close to that incident. I feel no shame in admitting I was welling up with tears of panic. The rest of the film features some great performances, but that first sequence, from the moment Denzel Washington wakes up in his hotel through waking up in the hospital, effectively captures the absolute height of my worst fear.
I make a conscious effort to avoid “scary” movies, so most of the scenes I find myself genuinely terrified by are from dramas, where the real scare comes from the potential realness of the action. The scenes that usually give me the biggest fright are ones dealing with unexpected and gruesome deaths, ones that involve people getting dragged to the bottom of the ocean or trapped in burning cars. One of the scenes I’ve long found terrifying is Thomas J.’s horrible and deadly run-in with the hornets in My Girl. It’s not a creepy movie, but that scene is just so sad, and so, so scary. When I was younger, it made me afraid to go into the woods, lest I accidentally step on a hornet’s nest, and now, as a 32-year-old who’s thinking of having kids someday, the scene has developed the added dimension of being terrifying just because, hell, you can’t always watch your kids, and what if something bad happens to them? Ugh. You just can’t win.
Toward the end of The Orphanage, J.A. Bayona’s terrific 2007 Spanish horror film (one of many executive-produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who knows and nurtures talent when he sees it), the protagonist chooses to play a children’s game in a haunted house. (Seen The Conjuring? I’m fairly convinced the “hide-and-clap” game is a direct rip-off of The Orphanage’s “One, two, three… knock on the wall” game. As is usually the case, the original is scarier.) As many times as I’ve seen this scene, even though I know what’s going to happen, it still pushes my heart up into my throat. One of the things that gets me most is that it acknowledges typical horror-movie “OH GOD YOU IDIOT WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT” behavior—what she’s doing is terrifying and dangerous—but it gives her excellent reason to make the choice she makes. Both her bravery and her foolhardiness help add immense tension to what is already a breathlessly tense game of “I’m going to hide my eyes and actively encourage the supernatural to sneak up on me from behind.” If you haven’t seen the film and you’re looking for some scares this Halloween, I can’t recommend this one enough.
The music geek that Daniel Stern plays in Diner was one of the first characters I’d ever seen in a movie who defined himself according to his pop-culture tastes, and he appeared at least 15 years before the type went mainstream, in the work of people like Nick Hornby. The scene in which Stern blows up at his wife (Ellen Barkin) for misfiling one of his records was hair-raising for me, partly because it could give you nightmares about how their marriage was destined to turn out, and partly because it was possible to relate to the emotion behind what he’s saying while recognizing that he’s putting it to indefensibly cruel purposes. (He wants to make her feel stupid for not being able to understand his filing system; beyond that, he wants to punish her for not loving the music in the “right” way.) The scene has non-supernatural echoes of The Shining, except that Wendy Torrance finally had the meager consolation of knowing for sure that her husband was nuts.
I discovered my claustrophobia at a middle-school sleepover when I was the first person to fall asleep and my friends collapsed a tent on me, forcing me to wake up in a confined space that I couldn’t easily escape. I was overcome with anxiety in that moment, and those feelings come rushing back when The Bride is buried alive in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Quentin Tarantino has staged some incredibly tense and horrific moments, but the close-quarters terror of this scene gets me every time. Giving The Bride a flashlight to show the tightness of the coffin is a brilliant way to amplify the panic in the audience, creating a feeling for the viewer that is the opposite of the The Bride’s calm determination. There’s never any doubt that she’s going to overcome this most recent obstacle on her journey, but that doesn’t prevent me from completely freaking out once she’s put in the ground and covered in dirt. The dread doesn’t dissipate when she finally breaks through the wooden lid, either, sending all that earth crashing down on her body as she pulls herself out of the ground. The second volume of Kill Bill is the more intimate and personal half of the story, and The Bride’s burial scene doesn’t just bring the audience closer to the character; it traps them in a small wooden box with her.
The thing about pinpointing the scariest scene, lifting it out of the context of the torture-rack film or the pitch-black room and holding it up above everything else, is that such a removal can’t help but usurp some of the scene’s power. Not so for The Shining, which is so relentless and just inexplicable enough that it refuses to be diminished. Every other scene could make this list, but the one that gets me the most is a quiet one, when Danny walks by his father staring out the window, and Jack calls him over. Jack makes Danny sit on his lap so he can caress him, kiss his head, and tell him he loves him. Jack’s out of it, Danny’s visibly uncomfortable, and it’s traumatic even without the hints of prior abuse and mounting dread. Poor Danny has to go through the motions of affection with this man, this dissociated drunk, who only looks like his father. There aren’t enough trigger warnings in the world for that resonance.
There are plenty of horrifying moments in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, but by now, I’ve seen the movie so many times that they don’t really stay with me. The cemetery zombie, the corpse at the top of the stairs, the truck cookout—all great scenes, but all ones whose fundamental impact has been dulled by repetition— transgressive, unsettling sequences transformed into Halloween anecdotes. But there’s one scene that never stops getting to me no matter how often I see it: a little girl stabbing her mother to death with a trowel. Like the Psycho shower scene (which Romero seems to be referencing), it’s a quick bit of violence that seems to go on forever. Partly it’s the build-up: By the time we see the girl for the first time, she’s already been bitten, and we know she’s a time bomb even as her parents bicker around her. Once the inevitable happens, we’ve been waiting so long that it’s easy to forget, which is always the nastiest sort of surprise. Partly it’s the look on her mother’s face. Partly it’s the dingy basement, the stark black-and-white cinematography, the angle of the trowel as it comes down again and again and again. Plenty of terrible things happen in the movie, but that one is just slightly worse.
After spending way too long trying to figure out the best of all possible answers to this question, Marah’s response suddenly reminded me of a moment in film that, like hers, isn’t actually in a scary movie, but is nonetheless one of the most horrifying moments in any film I’ve ever seen. It yanked the breath right out of me the first time I saw it and fills me with such a sense of dread even now that I can’t bear to watch the film again. 1991’s The Man In The Moon stars Reese Witherspoon—in her first movie role—as Dani Trant, a teenage girl who finds her first crush in farmhand Court Foster (Jason London), but he introduces her to the first traumatic loss of her life as well. It’s a little tricky to talk about the scene in question without giving it away wholesale, thereby ruining a key plot point of the film, which I hate to do if you’ve never seen it. So I’ll just offer up the clip below and say that what makes the moment so scary is that it’s sudden and completely unexpected and yet it occurs purely accidentally in the midst of an effort to perform a sweet gesture. Like the best scares, it happens completely offscreen, but, oh, dear lord, what visions your mind will create to fill in the blanks.