The recipe for horror has, more or less, always been the same. Have a scary plot that involves a villainous character or creature. Throw some jump scares, shock value, and suspense into the mix. And depending on the story, there could be a pinch of gore or a bloody abundance of it.
Most horror films all possess these elements. But some films did a better job at creating memorable – and downright terrifying – movie moments. Many of these films are hallmarks of the 20th century. But which of them have the scariest movie scenes of all time?
Here’s a countdown of 10 scary movie moments that we’ll remember for generations to come!
10. Quint’s Indianapolis Speech – Jaws
We don’t always see or know what’s lurking in the water we swim in. And no film plays on this fear better than Jaws. Of course, it’s scenes where the shark devours people that we find most disturbing. But one scene, in particular, still sends chills up people’s spines 43 years on.
Towards the end of the film, Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Quint set off to find – and kill – the shark. While drinking and comparing scars, Quint reveals that he was on the USS Indianapolis. The famous vessel sank during WWII after delivering the Hiroshima bomb. The sinking became the worst loss of life in the history of the US Navy. Those on board were subject to dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and shark attacks.
Shaw’s monologue may not be your typical horror scene. But the scene itself not only describes what nature is capable of, but the horrors, like war and violence, man inflicts on each other. The delivery is as bone-chilling as it is memorable. The monologue also serves as a grim foreshadowing of Quint’s fate in the jaws of the shark, something the character couldn’t escape twice.
9. Prom Scene – Carrie
What’s next on our list of the scariest movie scenes of the 20th century? With this next film, we’ll still stay in the 1970’s, but with an entirely different horror film.
The prom scene in the 1976 film adaptation of Carrie is iconic even to this day. As the telekinetic teenager comes to terms with her powers, her life seems to start to change for the better. She’s asked to go to the prom by a popular student. She learns to stand up to her religious fanatic mother. Her classmates, who once ridiculed and bullied her to no end, begin to accept her.
But that all changes when she’s crowned prom queen. After a couple of vicious students douse her in pigs blood, Carrie unleashes the infamous rampage.
8. “They’re Here” – Poltergeist
Take a happy suburban family with 3 kids and a dog. Place them in a cookie cutter home built on top of an old cemetery. And you’ve got the makings of one legendary haunted house story.
The genre of horror was no stranger to the concept of haunted houses. But 1982’s Poltergeist took it to a whole new level.
Before the poltergeists kick it into full gear and terrorize the Freeling family, little Carol Anne makes contact with them. She does so by communicating with them through television static. A ghost’s wispy hand reaches through the screen, which acts as a portal to other side. The spirit-like entity then enters the house violently, causing an earthquake.
Carol Anne goes on to announce their arrival in one of the most quotable movie lines of all time:
7. Michael Stalks Laurie – Halloween
Compared to Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, there’s a realness to Michael Myers… at least in the earlier films. And it’s for this reason that Halloween continues to be one of the scariest slasher movie franchises of all time.
In one of the very first scenes of the series, Michael stalks Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) around town. Though miniscule in comparison to the horror Michael will go on to unleash, it’s creepy nonetheless. It’s the first time we see his blank stare and shadowy silhouette. And it’s certainly not the last.
Not to mention, John Carpenter’s daunting piano melodies in this scene is still spooky to this day.
6. Shower Scene – Psycho
A beautiful screaming damsel in distress. It’s one of the key ingredients in any horror story. And it all began with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.
Janet Leigh plays Marion, a woman who stops for a night at the Bates Motel. Though, she probably shouldn’t have because while in the shower, she’s stabbed to death.
It’s not only a central point of the film. Janet Leigh’s screams and the angles from which the scene is shot makes it one of the most memorable of all time. Leigh also paved the way for future female leads in horror films – including her own daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis!
5. Chestburster – Alien
We’ve reached the top 5 scariest movie scenes of the 20th century. Lots of screams and nightmares went into these top 5 moments… but as horror fans, we’re certainly grateful for them.
Science fiction and horror often go hand-in-hand. No other movie demonstrates this better than Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien. It’s the first of a popular franchise among Sci-Fi fans and horror enthusiasts. And it’s most well-known for one gruesome, gory scene. If you haven’t seen the film yet, proceed with caution!
The Nostromo crew enjoys a meal together back on board. Everything seems to be going fine. That is until one of the crew members starts convulsing. He’s then killed when a small alien bursts through his chest.
So often when people think of Alien, it’s this scene that comes to mind… and we can understand why.
4. Staircase Scene – Nosferatu
German Expressionism, the roots of noir and horror, graced the world in the 1920’s. There was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and then there was Nosferatu, arguably one of the first vampire films ever.
But Nosferatu is more than just a vampire movie. It was a groundbreaking visual masterpiece for its time. Its abstract imagery and shadows were influential not only on horror, but other film genres.
The scene where Nosferatu climbs up a staircase is a scene that’s studied in film classes today. You can see his hooked nose, his hunched back, and his clawed hands from just his shadow. Few films had ever implied a character’s presence through a shadow alone. And it’s a film practice we see so much today but hardly pay attention to.
3. Danny Meets the Grady Sisters – The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is world-renowned as not only one of the scariest movies of all time. Kubrick’s cinematography exemplifies how you can transform a simple story into a living Hell.
There’s a scene where Danny rides his big wheel through the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Kubrick’s use of symmetry while filming this is impeccable. As Danny turns a corner, he’s confronted by a set of young twin girls clad in matching blue dresses. They hauntingly utter out to him from the end of the hallway:
“Hello Danny. Come play with us. Come play with us, Danny. Forever… and ever… and ever.”
These words serve as a warning to Danny, who could suffer the same fate as them at the hands of his father, Jack. In between their echoing words, Kubrick narrows in on Danny, whose facial expressions quickly shift from a hard, perplexed stare to outright terror. He begins to see the girls brutally murdered with an ax in the hallway, with blood puddled on the floor and the walls.
2. Baseball Bat Scene – The Shining
The Shining gets another mention on our list of the scariest movie scenes from the 20th century. Coming in at #2 is the baseball bat scene featuring Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson. Like Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws, this scene in The Shining is not your typical horror scene. But what makes it so terrifying is its portrayal of madness and the violence we as humans inflict on each other.
All Work & No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
Duvall plays Wendy Torrance, the terrorized wife of Jack Torrance (Nicholson). She realizes he has written a novel’s worth of , “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s the first time the suspecting wife gets confirmation of her husband’s descent into madness. And Duvall’s convincing performance makes audience-goers feel her unease.
Discovering her, Jack slowly intimidates a hysterical Wendy, who clutches a baseball bat because her life literally depends on it. There are also flashes to a horrified Danny, who is seeing visions of blood flooding the hotel lobby.
Duvall’s performance as poor, tormented Wendy is so convincing for one legendary reason. Kubrick had bullied and wore out Duvall intentionally to bring out her character. In fact, Duvall became so stressed over filming that her hair began to fall out. And despite Kubrick’s questionable treatment of Duvall, we can at least feel grateful for her legendary performance.
1. Headspin – The Exorcist
When The Exorcist premiered in 1973, it changed the world. People were not only lined up around blocks to see this tale of demonic possession. Many wound up leaving theaters in hysterics, crying – with some even vomiting and fainting.
At the time, no other film had tested people’s faith quite like The Exorcist. We’re used to usual scare tactics, like demonic possession. But The Exorcist truly set a precedent for future films to come.
Out of all the unforgettable horror scenes, the head spin comes in as the scariest movie scene of all time. There are several elements that make this the most horrifying movie scene of all time. There’s the makeup and Regan’s demonic eyes. The foul language in the chilling voice of the demon. Not to mention, the fact that a little girl’s head has twisted 360° around.
The Exorcist Changed the Horror Genre Forever
Maybe it’s the fact that, at the time, no other film had ever touched on demonic possession. Nor had any other film grappled with such a scary concept and involved children in the process. But The Exorcist truly set the stage for future horror films.
There were other freaky – yet iconic – body movements throughout the film. For example, the possessed Regan comes bolting down the stairs in a crab-like, spider walk. We see this same evil, unsettling walk again in The Ring (1998), The Unborn (2009), and in various TV shows.
Whenever we see headspins or crawl walks in film and TV today, we can’t help but cringe… and we can thank The Exorcist for that.
Watch the Scariest Movie Scenes of All Time This Halloween
The genre of horror has been around since the ancient times. But with today’s special effects, horror has evolved exponentially. Many of the scariest movie scenes of all time were in films created before CGI and prosthetics. And there are still qualities about these classic films that we love and will come back to time and time again.
This Halloween, you can be sure to binge on the scariest movies of the 20th century. But when it’s time to experience the horror for yourself, haunted houses do more than deliver.
Cutting Edge Haunted House is the world’s largest haunted attraction. Experience the horror for yourself and buy your tickets today! And stay tuned for more countdowns of the scariest movie moments in cinematic history.