The 12 Most Terrifyingly Heart-Stopping Movie Moments

As they sing in Halloween III, four more days ‘till Halloween (Silver Shamrock). And while we’ve given you peee-lenty of scary movies recommendations this season (and many, many, many, many previously), as we close in on the ghoulish holiday, we decided to get a bit more micro-focused — pinpointing the single most terrifying moments in all of movie-dom.


It’s an easy pick, sure, but the most oft-mentioned when your film editor put the question forward on social media — even though it’s a scare softened by years of discussion, homage, and parody (hi, Spaceballs). But just imagine how completely stunned audiences must’ve been back in 1979, when that affable crew dinner was disrupted by the appearance of what was lurking inside John Hurt’s very upset stomach.


Like Alien’s chest-burst, the initial head explosion of Scanners is often quoted but rarely equaled — and, again, its initial impact had much to do with its sheer unexpectedness. Before this cranial event, you’re not quite sure exactly where director David Cronenberg is going with this story, which feels more like a Hitchcockian thriller than a horror movie. But then it becomes one. Oh boy, does it ever.


As with Alien and Scanners, Takashi Miike’s harrowing 1999 psychological thriller is a bit of a bait-and-switch; it seems a gentle film about a widower trying to get back out there (albeit fairly deceptively), meeting an interesting woman, and trying to figure out how to interact with someone new. But his ultimately grisly fate is foreshadowed by a key piece of furniture in the young woman’s apartment.


You’ll find a similar (and similarly effective) jump-scare in David Fincher’s 1995 serial killer chiller, again capitalizing on the horror of something moving when you do not expect it to move. This time, it happens during the discovery of John Doe’s “sloth” victim, strapped to a bed, emaciated, starved, and presumed dead. That presumption turns out to be erroneous.

The Silence of the Lambs

Maybe it’s not the same if you’re not afraid of the dark. But if you are, the moment in Jonathon Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ bestseller when Buffalo Bill switches off the lights in his basement lair is, well, harrowing — particularly if you’re old enough (as your film editor is) to have first seen it in a dark theater filled with strangers.


The “scary clown” has become such a cliché, it seems like there’s been a bit of a push-back lately, with naysayers insisting no, clowns aren’t actually scary at all. And it’s tempting to join them, until you remember this scene in Tobe Hooper’s terrifying suburbia tale, and the split second in which that grinning freak appears on that bed, puts the kid in a chokehold, and fills the soundtrack with his cackle. Thirty-plus years later, and it’ll still make you pee your pants, just a little.

Mulholland Dr.

Not to do a full-on Mulholland Dr. site take-over or anything, but it’s impossible to ignore the terrifying early scene at Winkie’s Diner — which is not only a giant jump scare, but a reminder that such scares are as much about preparation and anticipation as they are about the scare itself. The bum that steps out to scare poor Dan to death isn’t even all that scary; it’s the way Dan’s described him (or her?), the way Lynch frames and cuts the long walk to the dumpster, and the way the sound effects and music amp up the dread which make the scene really deliver.

Rosemary’s Baby

Once again, it’s all about the build-up — not only the mysterious goings-on at the Dakota during Rosemary’s pregnancy and the peculiar actions of literally everyone around her, but the drowsy, dream (or nightmare)-like state she’s in as she wanders in, knife in hand, pulls back the curtain, and gets her first look at her spawn. And here, that effect is doubled by director Roman Polanski’s brilliant choice to not let us see what Rosemary sees; he knows, and is right to think, that whatever we imagine by this point is far worse than anything he can conjure up.

Sleepaway Camp

There’s just something unnerving and unforgettable about that last shot in the last (twisty) scene of Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 slasher picture, revealing the backstory of killer Angela Baker. Yet the genitalia and severed head in the long shot aren’t nearly as haunting as that frozen face in the close-up — a necessary byproduct of the nude male model wearing a rigid lifemask of the actress playing Angela. It’s the kind of moment that’d be achieved via CGI today, but the technical constraints of the era resulted in a far creepier effect.


Usually, a big ending jump-scare is tricky in a book adaptation, but Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of Stephen King’s bestseller was its own beast, dispensing with the novel’s unconventional format and going more for straight-ahead chills. And when De Palma decided he needed one last thrill, he and screenwriter cooked up this iconic scene (inspired by Deliverance). Once again, the build-up is everything — De Palma had Amy Irving walk backwards, and then ran the image in reverse, to give it the proper dreamlike quality — but you just can’t beat the combination of cutting, music, and sheer surprise here.

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s King adaptation is considered one of the scariest movies of its era, but it’s light on conventional scares; this is a movie more about atmosphere and dread, about fear of what could happen (which is often scarier than what actually does). And that dread is rarely heavier than in little Danny’s first vision of the Grady daughters; their rigid, waiting-at-attention posture and invitation to “come play with us” are creepy enough, but when Kubrick inserts cut-ins of their slain bodies, (almost subliminally at first, then with steadily increasing visibility), it’s downright shudder-inducing.

The Stepfather

Joseph Rubin’s 1987 thriller is rather a masterpiece of construction: it opens at the end of its serial killer’s previous masquerade, as he washes blood from his hands, collects his belonging, and calmly leaves a multiple-victim crime scene. As he finds his next “family,” we’re keenly aware of exactly what he’s capable of, and waiting for him to show it—which puts the entire next hour on a slow boil. It finally comes to a head in this scene, when his wife catches him mixing up his identities, prompting four words — “Who am I here?” — as chilling as any jump, stab, or slash, quickly followed by the flare-up we’ve been waiting for.