The scariest scenes in cinema

Snapshots of terror to send shivers down your spine.

by Jennie Kermode

To celebrate this year's Film4 Frightfest, we asked our writers to tell us about the film scenes that have scared them most. The result is an eclectic collection that contains a few surprises, but there's bound to be something in there that sends a shiver down your spine - so before viewing the clips, remember that you have been warned!

"Writing about your favourite scary scene, when you're not a big horror fan - or, to clarify, you like horror films but don't necessarily find them scary - is a bit of a challenge," says Robert Munro. "What I find most scary is the unexplainable. A dread emanating from deep, dark corners of the the mind which defies understanding. Who does deep, dark, inexplicable dread quite like David Lynch? While the whole of Mulholland Drive (his masterpiece, in this reviewer's humble opinion) exists as some haunting nightmare, there is one scene in particular which always floors me.

"It is often identified as the key scene in the film, the one in which nightmare turns into reality... or does it? Personally I find attempts to explain the plot of the movie dull and unnecessary - but I digress. It takes place in Club Silencio. Betty and Rita sit in the theatre watching a mysterious compère declare "There is no band". Yet we hear a band. That sultry, lonely music that Angelo Badalamenti provided so frequently and successfully for Lynch. As one would expect, it's odd and unsettling, underpinned by the creeping sound design layered beneath the trumpets and clarinets. Then an Argentine opera singer appears and gives us a version of Roy Orbison's Crying in Spanish which never fails to leave me in floods of frightened tears - just like Betty and Rita.

"Why is it terrifying? Why does it affect me so profoundly? I've really no idea. But that's the power of Lynch's manipulation of the cinematic medium. Perhaps it's Lynch's ability to tap into a world we'd all rather believe didn't exist. His ability to pull up that red curtain and reveal something beneath the surface that we'd rather not see, hear or feel. A bit like when he delves into the grass at the beginning of Blue Velvet - Roy Orbison again providing the inspiration. Nothing is rosy, white-picket fenced serenity. Something black exists at the very core of all of us. And we'd rather not know what."

"For me the scariest film scenes are those which are grounded in reality," says Keith Hennessey Brown, one of our most prolific horror critics. "If you accept Noel Carroll’s cognitivist approach to horror, then the defining characteristic of horror is 'fearing fictions' – i.e. being scared by something you rationally know cannot exist. This something is usually a supernatural monster. As I find this suspension of (dis)belief difficult, I don’t find horror films particularly scary. What I do find scary are those terror films that are grounded in reality, whether by being based upon the activities of real life killers or by presenting fictitious scenarios that could conceivably be(come) real.

"I think it’s relatively easy to produce a scary scene through the use of obvious shock devices, like sudden noise, movement, edits and so on, but a lot more difficult to produce a film that is consistently scary," he adds. Nevertheless, there are a few scenes that he considerss worthy of mention; "The dead man’s rise from the bathtub in Les Diaboliques; the moment in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when Leatherface first appears; and the final scene of The Vanishing in which the protagonist finally learns the fate that befell his partner."

All of these are films crafted to disturb, but sometimes terror turns up in ostensibly innocent fare. We're particularly vulnerable to it when we're children, hence Amber Wilkinson's selection.

"I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's child catcher incredibly scary as a child. With his grotesque nose to sniff out unsuspecting kids, gothic get up and elaborate 'ginger bread' style carriage/cage, he embodied several fairytale villains at once - from Rumpelstiltskin to wicked stepmothers and witches, rendered even more frightening because he was simultaneously an unknown quantity."

Jeff Robson also remains haunted by childhood terrors, with his first choice being Nosferatu. "The vampire’s shadow. I saw it as a clip on a documentary aged about seven and it gave me a sleepless night. When I first saw Murnau’s classic in full at an arthouse cinema many years later it reduced a chattering classes ‘I’m too cool to be scared by this’ audience to silence. Because it’s the most primal fear encapsulated in one image: the bogeyman is coming upstairs to get you." Disney's Fantasia, too, gave him the shivers. "The Night On Bare Mountain section. Forget the dancing mushrooms, the boring bit with the dinosaurs and Mickey Mouse in a wizard’s outfit. The crowning glory of Walt’s finest hour and a half is the chilling visualisation of a witches’ sabbat, set to Mussgorsky’s literally diabolical music. Visions of hell, grotesque half-human creatures cavorting and the Prince Of Darkness himself; every scary storybook illustration and cautionary stained-glass window you can remember brought to life as animation reaches the level of dark art. And they let kids watch this stuff."

Alongside these terrors, Jeff cites some scenes from films more honest about their scary intentions. "The Shining - the twins in the corridor. A long tracking shot to build the suspense, then the dead stop as Danny encounters the scariest little girls in the history of cinema. They just want to play with him – for ever and ever. Umpteen viewings of the Spaced and Simpsons parodies can’t stop this scene giving anyone with a nervous system Olympic-standard goosebumps every time," he says. "Rosemary’s Baby - two entries for Polanski’s classic because I can never decide which creeps me out more. The coven cooing over the black pram with the inverted crucifix mobile, made more horrific by its matter-of-fact domesticity; or the subliminal image which so terrifies Mia Farrow. Who’s the daddy now?" And finally "Psycho - ‘She wouldn’t even harm a fly’. The set-pieces take you to the edge of your seat and back, of course, but the final scene is proof (every horror director please take note) that Hitchcock knew a funny look can be the as terrifying as anything in the world. Norman Bates, totally possessed by his mother at last, looks straight at the camera and the audience with a smile to freeze the blood. And we’re all reminded that the most malevolent demon could be the boy next door."

Anton Bitel is no lightweight when it comes to horror films and has reviewed a lot of scary stuff for us, but some things still really get to him. "In Shimizu Takashi's chronology-confounding J-horror Ju-on: The Grudge, after Saeki Takeo has murdered his wife Kayako and son Toshio in a rage, their ghosts execute an implacable and deadly curse upon anyone who enters the house where they were killed. So when, some time later, Hitomi (Ito Misaki) visits the Saeki house to have dinner with her brother and sister-in-law, her fate is already sealed (as is theirs). We know that she is going to die, and the film section headed with her name has only to elaborate the grisly details. Yet despite being menaced by a ghostly presence in her near-empty office building late at night, and witnessing the death of the guard to whom she turns for help, Hitomi manages to return safely to her own apartment. There, haunted by more uncanny phenomena, she retreats, terrified, to her own bed. Every child knows the primal fear of what might lurk in the closet or under the bed - but the one place that is supposed always to guarantee sanctuary from one's irrational fears is under the sheets - which is exactly where Kayako is waiting, impossibly, to take Hitomi away forever. This is horror at its most literally discomforting."

We stay with bedrooms and come back to the work of David Lynch for my own selection - specifically, to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Horror is a very personal thing for me - some supposedly terrifying films don't make much impression at all, whilst those that do tend to be too close for comfort to my own experiences. In this film, there's a scene where the heroine, Laura Palmer, has just returned to her family home. For her it's not a place of safety but she's trying to deal with that by blocking it out of her mind. Nevertheless, she's afraid as she walks up the stairs to her bedroom. She knows there may be someone up there waiting for her - a terrifying presence she still can't acknowledge directly. And her fear is well founded. The horror here hinges on the perversion of the commonplace and on the sense that there is no alternative path for Laura. Perhaps she could simply leave the house and keep walking, try to put her life together somewhere far away - yet not only would that entail its own dangers, it would require that she shed the illusions that are enabling her to stay sane. So she walks up the stairs and she opens the door. It feels inevitable. It is a horror rooted in powerlessness and the awareness of a hostile world that extends much further that the immediate threat.

We hope you've enjoyed our walk on the dark side. Sleep well tonight, and don't let the bed bugs bite.

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