I know it’s a big question to ask, given just how many great ones the genre has offered up over the years, with new ones being added to the list all the time. A head spinning around, a crazed man chopping down a door, an alien bursting through a chest… There are many that stick in the mind and chill us to the bone.
As tough of a question as it is to answer, the folks at HMV.com have given it their best shot. Using OnePoll.com, they surveyed 2,000 people to find out what the British public considers the scariest horror movie scene ever, as well as giving us some cool info about what makes a good horror movie and how people soothe themselves of the spooks once they finish watching.
Before we look in detail, I’ll just give the full top 10 list below in full. NOTE: There will be spoilers for some of the films so I’ve given the title first so you can skip past if you like:
10. The Woman In Black – the rocking chair
9. Saw – man cutting off foot
8. The Silence of the Lambs – night-vision scene
7. The Birds – children being attacked
6. The Shining – Grady Twins in the corridor
5. Alien – chest burst scene
4. The Ring (2002 remake) – girl coming out of the TV
3. Carrie – hand grabbing the arm at grave
2. Psycho – the shower scene
1. The Exorcist – the head spin
As you can see, it’s a pretty mainstream list featuring some of the best known horrors of all time. But I think that speaks to which horrors have reached the most people through pop culture, ease of access etc. than it does a purposeful lack of viewing diversity. That and the fact that they’re damn scary and therefore deserve a place in people’s chilled hearts. It’s also interested to note that the 1970s came out on top as the scariest decade, accounting for more than a quarter of all votes.
Of those listed, The Shining scene is the one that gets me the most. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece could not differ more from Stephen King’s source material if it tried but it’s an entirely different, wholly cinematic beast. The corridor sequence is just one of the many, many terrifying moments to be found within the walls of the Overlook Hotel – the Room 237/woman emerging from the bath scene and of course the breaking down of the door scenes are a couple of notable others – as the innocent but spiritually gifted little Danny cycles his way around the corridors until he reaches the dreaded twins. No matter how many times I see it, the sound of them saying “Come play with us, Danny!” while shots of them hacked to pieces is intercut with them standing still gets under my skin.
As for the #1 spot, it’s amazing how much William Friedkin’s demonic religious horror has stood the test of time with people. I’m not old enough to remember the hoopla surrounding its initial release but the reports of people fainting and proclaiming the film was actually possessed are legendary. The “spider-walk” sequence that was reinserted for a the Extended and Directors Cut still freaks me out the most but the legendary head turn is undoubtedly deeply unsettling. It’s not hard to see how it got the most votes.
Out with the actual scariest scenes themselves, the HMV poll also looked at what people think makes a great, scary horror movie. Major things mentioned include a strong story, a well-crafted soundtrack – here’s a little experiment; watch a scene you consider scary with the sound muted and more likely than not it’ll neuter the tension – and shocks to keep you guessing and out of your comfort zone. Above all people look for a film that creates a palpable feeling of suspense.
Finally, the poll explored how people calm down after a good scary movie. I think we can all relate to many of the results: coming out on top with more than 45% was switching all the lights on, 41% said watch a comedy TV show, 18% replied going to bed right away, another 18% said reading a book helps and finally 17% said watch another, presumably wildly different film.
Ian Hunter, Professor of Film Studies at De Montfort University, offered some insight on how the genre has evolved:
“Traditionally horror films were either about supernatural and primal fears or monsters that transgress what seem to be natural boundaries (the dead who live, humans who are also animals, and so on). Today, while such films still exist, the most frightening are perhaps about the terrors of everyday life and the worst monsters are versions of ordinary people – psychopaths, serial killers – who threaten our sense of rationality.”
Richard Hand, Professor of Media Practice at the University of East Anglia, also offered his thoughts on the inner-workings of great horror cinema:
“A masterpiece like Psycho may be (in)famous for its shower scene, but the genius of the film is established long before that scene happens, in the slow tightening of its suspense, gradually unnerving the viewer with a simple but compelling narrative, a genuine ‘composition’ of excellent performances, editing, design and, perhaps most importantly of all, soundtrack. Indeed, it is often the sound of horror that can haunt us most thoroughly, worming its way deep beneath our skin and haunting our nightmares even when we turn away or cover our eyes.”
As a little bonus, HMV have provided a fun little horror movie quiz. Think you know the genre? Prove it and have a go!
Head over to the next page for my personal scariest horror scenes…