You don’t have to be a horror fanatic to be horrified by film. For #hAElloween, we asked our staff and readers about the scariest scene they ever saw within a non-horror film. You can read their answers below and add yours in the comments.
In 1999, The Matrix was released; I was 11 and not ready for it at all both as a movie and as a basic introduction to philosophy. The fear starts when Neo wakes violently in a vat of gelatinous goo (liquefied dead people, we later find out.) Covered in sockets and holes, he becomes aware of the “real world,” gazing at millions of others suspended in the same lie. The real horror is in the enormous scale of the lie and its implications for life. Neo is leaving behind everything he knows to be true, and the reality isn’t exactly comforting, bright, or beautiful. This is something I identify with strongly. Unplugging from the Matrix is a scary thought even though it’s perceived as a step towards the truth, and staring into the void of the meaninglessness of life is terrifying. Even at a young age the idea horrified me: I turned it off immediately and didn’t manage to watch the whole movie until last week. Though I’m older and have moved through and dissected that form of nihilism, the movie still affects me the same way it did so long ago. – Becky Belzile
Towards the end of Zodiac, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes he’s made a breakthrough in the case of the Zodiac murders. Slowly succumbing to paranoia and obsession, he finds himself at the home of a man who he believes might know the identity of the Zodiac killer based on handwriting found on a movie poster. It is then a little disturbing when the man reveals that he himself made the posters and that if Graysmith wants to know more he’ll have to join him in the basement, something that not many people have in California, but that the Zodiac has written about having. Graysmith joins him and as the man steps in and out of the shadows there comes the sounds of footsteps from above. I’ll stop there because the hairs are standing up on my arms, and I don’t want to ruin it for you. Fincher uses all the tools at his disposal to tighten the screws: lighting, Gyllenhaal’s eyes, Charles Fleischer’s unnerving calm, a tightly written script that gives nothing away, and just good old fashioned horror tropes like creaking footsteps and locked doors. In the end we’re left with a three minute scene that will make you want to switch on all of the lights and make sure all the doors are properly bolted. – Sean W. Fallon
The Dark Knight
As Batman leads a city through a long, dark night, wiping the streets of organized crime, the people of Gotham look toward a bright future. But it’s not the organized criminals that tear Gotham asunder. The clown prince of Gotham is no ordinary man. Bursting through any semblance of preconceived establishment, the Joker is a monster dressed in purple and greasy-green hair uproots the positive direction of the city. Gotham is sent into a state of anarchy as the Joker says, “Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets.” Not quite the abhor of a vacuum as much as it is a kickback of Batman’s good intentions. A ferocious vortex of chaos, the Joker only exists because Batman exists. It’s a ballet between Gotham’s Dark Knight and the Clown Prince with the soul of Gotham in the balance. No scene highlights the terror of the Joker as the discussion of law and order in the interrogation room. As Batman and the Gotham PD attempt to understand the mysterious villain, he secretly begins wrapping them around his haphazardly painted fingers. Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are surrounded by barrels of gasoline in different locations, Batman pummels the chaotic leviathan to no avail, and the Joker escapes without breaking a sweat. It’s an oft-noted highlight of the movie for good reason, but the culmination of the scene reveals how even with his mangled presentation, the Joker is always in control–order through chaos. Though the Joker’s reign of terror is ended by the Batman and a unified front of civilians, the twisted manifestation of The Joker leaves Gotham’s hope hollow as his laugh haunts the streets of a proud city. – Diego Crespo
The Adventures of Mark Twain
The often forgotten 1985 stop motion animated children’s film The Adventures of Mark Twain doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative through line. For the most part it is a series cute little vignettes, largely extracted from the works of Twain, that have been strung together with a plot that finds Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher adventuring with Mark Twain on his airship. One of these vignettes finds the children visiting The Mysterious Stranger, a headless figure who refers to himself as an angel named Satan. He takes them into a black void (presumably Hell) and hands them clay, requesting their help in crafting the citizens of a tiny clay kingdom. Satan brings the clay people to life and, while sharing his bleak view of humanity, begins to destroy the kingdom and kill its inhabitants. The children flee from him in terror and he is left alone in the void. The whole sequence is one of the more horrifying and traumatic scenes to ever be included in an animated kid’s movie. It’s totally out of place in the film but good lord, is it ever scarring. – Ryan MacLean
Requiem for a Dream
I remember exactly where I was when I first saw it. Back in 2009, I was beginning my ongoing love affair with Netflix and discovering more about my own taste in film and television. A Tumblr-obsessed 16-year-old me was learning about David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky through endless GIFs and long, moody posts written by other teenagers, inspiring me to dive in headfirst to each director’s body of work to see what I enjoyed. One night, while blowing off Algebra 2/Trig homework, I decided to watch Requiem for a Dream on my virus-ridden laptop. Unfortunately, there were no porn-ad popups to block the screen for the film’s climax, where each character’s drug addiction finally led them to an unimaginable rock bottom. The electroshock therapy that Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) undergoes was truly horrifying to me – thinking about the extreme close-ups of her face in that pained grimace literally makes me sick to my stomach. I sat at my desk with my hands over my mouth, completely stunned, and stayed like that for a full five minutes after watching that scene. I’ve only watched it one time in my life, but Requiem for a Dream triggered my intense and now-lifelong fear of being electrocuted. It’s the one time in my life that I wish I had done my homework instead of watching a movie. – Staley Sharples
Return to Oz
In all honesty, I’m not sure if this entry even counts, because there is a good argument to make that 1985’s Return to Oz actually is a horror movie for children. But since it doesn’t label itself as such, and since I can’t think of a non-horror movie that frightened me more, Return to Oz it is. (The runner up is 1994’s The Jungle Book with that quicksand scene.) The Wheelers and the Deadly Desert were scary enough, but it’s the Princess Mombi head scene that takes the cake. In Is It Still Scary: Return to Oz, I said nothing about this scene other than it was the scariest in the movie, so not to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure, but here goes. Dorothy, upon her return to Oz, finds her way into the castle, and meets Princess Mombi, who seems like a potential safe haven in the hell that Oz has become. Princess Mombi escorts Dorothy into her golden, ornate walk-in closet of heads. Yes, this beautiful princess has dozens of heads she attaches and removes like accessories. Each head not only changes her looks but also her personality and temperament. As Dorothy witnesses the body remove one head and replace it with another, the eyes of the other heads dart around, paying attention to the guests in the room; they are eerily quiet but awake and listening. When Princess Mombi’s body sleeps that night, she does so without a head, locking up each into their individual display cases. Dorothy takes this opportunity to break into the room of heads with Mombi’s key to steal the Powder of Life, a necessary potion in her escape plan. As she reaches into the compartment, Mombi’s angriest head comes to life, screaming “Dorothy Gale!” and waking up all the other heads, who all scream in terror. It is then that Mombi’s headless body emerges from her bed to find and stop Dorothy. – Grace Porter
When we started compiling this list, I asked for a ruling on whether Mulholland Drive counted as a horror movie. My colleague Nathanael Hood explained, “It’s scary . . . but I think it has bigger fish to fry.” He couldn’t be more correct. Mulholland Drive is a movie thick with substance, Lynch knotting thematic resonance and complex narratives into a maze of cinematic brilliance. But right there in the middle, simply presented, is a short horror film that’s almost quite literally heart stopping. What’s exceptional about the sequence in which Danny faces his nightmare is that its victim tells us, essentially, exactly what will happen. Nothing should be a surprise. That it still manages to elicit the reaction that it does is a testament to Lynch’s control of film language and the power of film to terrorize. – David Shreve Jr.
@WeTalkMovies Large Marge scene in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
— MISS GEMINI CROQUET (@HardlyIndie) October 26, 2016
A tie between the diner scene in Mulholland Dr. and Bilbo Baggins’ quick switch to demonic in The Fellowship of the Ring https://t.co/6hGo6BfDq6
— Mr Spookista 🎃 (@MrNerdista) October 26, 2016
all the scenes on the plane in United 93 were scary af. https://t.co/u4j8qS0q5a
— SNG (@FilmCruffShawna) October 26, 2016
@WeTalkMovies That scene in Boyhood where they are playing with the saw blades.
— NickOfTheLivingDead (@nickissac) October 26, 2016
@WeTalkMovies The scene from Mulholland Drive where the homeless freak pops up from behind the building and scares a man to death.
— Keith Adams Jr. (@BigBrother1988) October 26, 2016
@WeTalkMovies The basement scene in Zodiac. Most scared I’ve ever been in a theater.
— John Dugan (@johnbdugan) October 26, 2016
@WeTalkMovies Anything in Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT. That movie is chilling.
— Whit’s Movie Reviews (@WhitsMovies) October 26, 2016
— Matt Brown 🎃 (@CallMeRoy88) October 26, 2016
— Jason Urban (@livullmanns) October 26, 2016
Featured Image: Artisan Entertainment