L-R: Luca Guadagnino, Karyn Kusama, John Krasinski
Photo: Getty Images
The first movie memory I have is of something horrible. I was 2 years old and watching Hellraiser at home with my mom, two years after the Clive Barker classic was released. When I close my eyes now and think back on that moment, I can’t recall any dialogue specifically, but I can vividly remember Frank rising from a puddle of gore and turning into a meat-covered skeleton. It made me wonder: Which scenes have been responsible for traumatizing the directors who make our horror cinema? Vulture reached out to dozens of filmmakers, and over 50 of them responded with scenes from film or television that scared the life out of them, and set them on the path to crafting so many of our nightmares.
Jaws was the first horror movie I saw at a young age and, like most of the world, it changed me. Of all the big scares, the one I oddly remember most was the sharks first big close-up. Not just the moment he pops his head out, but the entire sequence. It lulls you in with humor as Chief Brody angrily shovels blood and chum into the water, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Then the big reveal. The shark pops out of absolutely nowhere with a music sting that made my feet sweat. Then … the acknowledgement. On Brody’s sheet-white face, the other characters see just how formidable their foe really is. You are now locked and loaded for a heart-pumping third act … if you can even make it through.
The experience of horror has always been for me one of extreme exhilaration, so I am scared but also uplifted. The Fly by Cronenberg is an all-time masterpiece, one of the very many masterpieces that Mr. Cronenberg has made, and it’s very horror. But the horror of it for me is at the end when you realize that the character of Jeff Goldblum and the character of Geena Davis desperately love each other, but they’re not going to be together. The ultimate horror of that movie was the impossibility of the love between the two of them, which in a way is very close to the ending of Suspiria. When the fly asks her to fire the rifle in its head, that’s an incredibly powerful, terrifying, beautiful moment of horror that explains in one sequence the importance of this genre and its capacity to totally transcend.
Buster and Billie is a tender love story between the gorgeous football player and the outsider new girl at school, who is almost mute, and now I think we might say is somewhere on the spectrum. But they have a love affair. They start to fall in love, genuinely, and he breaks up with his hottie girlfriend played by Pamela Sue Martin. And it is so disturbing to his friends and the community that he genuinely falls in love with this girl, and she’s such a surprising a choice, that the end of the movie — improbably but sort of perfectly sensibly — all of his football player friends follow her on her walk home from school, chase her into the woods, and rape her to death. Then he finds out, goes to the pool hall where they all hung out, blinds all of them with a pool cue, and goes to jail for the rest of his life. That scene of that rape, which felt very much like you were with her and her horror of the experience, was incredibly transformative for me, and wasn’t strictly horror. But I experienced it as my first horror memory.
It’s strange how your perception of things can be enhanced to the point of vivid hallucination by emotions. I’ve always found that driving to an unknown place seems to take forever, but the drive back is short and sweet. Anxiety can shrink a room. Fear can make a city block seem like a mile. Normal noises are suddenly harsh harbingers of doom. Maybe the first movie I ever saw was a condensed highlight reel version of One Million B.C. on Super 8 in our tiny house in rural Sweden. There’s a scene where a giant turtle emerges, screeching, from behind a rock. This is the first time I can remember feeling fear from a moving image. I closed my eyes but could still see the image in my mind. That unsettled me deeply.
The other scene I really need to mention is the Large Marge jump scare in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I was sitting at the back of the cinema when Marge’s face metamorphosed into a claymation ghoul. The shock was like a wave you could see spreading through the audience as they screamed in terror. Not only was it one of the most unexpected moments in film history, it showed me anything can happen in a movie. That the possibilities are truly endless.
“The power of Christ compels you!” Can you hear it? I still can.
I was about 11 years old and sleeping over at a friend’s house after swim practice. She lived in a really cool house with wooden shingles on the outside. It was close to a main road but surrounded by woods. I remember the living room had a wall of windows looking out into the woods. It was really pretty. Until it got dark. We had basic TV and maybe had just gotten our first cordless phone. We most certainly did not have cable, and that is why sleeping over at this friend’s house was particularly awesome. She. Had. Cable.
I remember liking horror movies at that age — the jumps, the squeals, the cringes — but I hadn’t seen many R-rated movies yet. I have no recollection of what we did or watched before she fell asleep, but I do know that I couldn’t sleep, and when, in the middle of the night, I was sitting by myself surrounded by windows and woods, The Exorcist came on. I was transfixed, and completely traumatized. To this day I can recite every line, mimic every sound, describe every image. I generally have a horrible memory, but that movie was seared.
The movie that has been most formative for me is The Omen. It was the first horror movie that wasn’t just running around. It was really serious and profound. It’s just such a consistent feeling of horrific discovery that scared me throughout watching that movie, how you delve deeper and deeper and deeper into discovering how horrible everything is, basically building the case against this little kid who is the Devil. Obviously, when they go into the priest’s room in that church and they discover everything about him, seeing these pictures with all these lines through them and putting all this together with what we’ve seen happening — it’s just one thing following the other, tumbling down into the rabbit hole. And in my choice of movies, like doing The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Scary Stories as well, this idea of constantly discovering the deeper truth is what fascinates me today as a filmmaker. It goes for my very first film, Trollhunter, which is also about discovering the deeper truth of this secret society of trolls. There are things that have aged about it, but The Omen is still a concept that terrified me with its intelligence and its real-life tone.
It was March 1974. I was watching TV at home. I was 13. The BBC’s Play for Today came on. This was a strand of one-off dramas, usually kitchen sink, certainly strictly realist, never even hinting at genre, that were the 1970s BBC version of a TV movie of the week. The “play” began — it caught my attention as it was instantly more cinematic than the usual glum sad sacks and their social problems. The music was Elgar, “The Dream of Gerontius.” A bloodied hand was superimposed on a landscape as the soprano’s voice seemed to get stuck on her high note and it turned into an eerie screech. The film was called Penda’s Fen, and was directed by Alan Clarke, written by David Rudkin. I won’t attempt a synopsis. You should find it and watch it. What terrified me was one particular scene: a teenage boy has fallen off his bicycle at the sight of a (rather lame) superimposed demon. Knocked unconscious, his mind wanders to a formal garden. We hear a repetitive “chopping” sound as he wanders among the topiary. He comes to a manicured lawn with a sundial in its center. Young girls stand around in pretty yellow dresses. Everybody smiles. A smiling girl places her hands on the sundial. A man with a chopper amputates her hands with one blow. The severed hands are brushed off the sundial by the blade. The girl smiles. Everyone seems pleased by the ritual. I can tell you I did not sleep that night.
I was very young when I saw Carrie. I think I was about 11 years old, and it took me about 20 years to watch it again because I was so afraid of it. The irony and the camp was totally lost on me as a kid, and if anything, that borderline kitschy, extremely bluntly satirical tone just served to heighten what was disturbing about the film for me. It has this deeply malignant sense of humor that serves to make it as disturbing as it is. I was drawn so deeply into this profoundly sad story about a young woman who has no place in the world, and I was just left with images that really bothered me. I realized that so much of that had to do with what De Palma was doing with audience sympathy. We’re in total sympathy with Carrie White, who is something of an irritating character. She is such a victim, and the whole film we just want her to do something self-advocating. Then you’re finally given what you’ve been desperate to see, which is some sort of action, but it’s the wrong kind of catharsis. So when Sissy Spacek finally turns and we no longer recognize her, it serves as a real betrayal. And when the pig’s blood is dropped on her and we see her expression curdle from utter horror to this like dead-eyed, buzzing vacancy — that was kind of traumatic for me.
I remember watching the film and not being particularly scared by it, but then I went to bed that night and found that the images were nagging at me. It really took me about three years to even begin to shake it. I couldn’t walk through a dark house at night, because I would project images of either Piper Laurie with that blissful smile on her face when she’s chasing Carrie through the house with a knife, or Sissy Spacek’s rigid stance with her eyes just utterly locked open. Those images followed me for years. I didn’t drink water at night because I was afraid that I’d have to go to the bathroom, because I just wouldn’t be able to avoid replaying those images.
Before Blockbuster, the beauty of the early, feral video-rental stores was to walk into one after school, find a movie you had never heard anything about, and rent it just because you had watched everything else in horror. The Haunting of Julia was like that, and the very first scene stayed with me forever, shaping how I write a first scene and how I shoot it. Sickly sweet piano and synth wash over the creamy pastels of ’70s Fuji 400T. An English townhouse. It’s Friday morning. Lovely daughter opens the curtains of her bedroom. Stretches. Lovely mom in a bathrobe sips tea by the living room window. It’s Rosemary’s Baby’s mom, same Mia Farrow, older baby; her girl comes down and they hug. Oh, domestic bliss. Inside the kitchen, Katie, the daughter, all limbs and blonde bangs, English school uniform, discusses school with American mom, Mia. Mom is busy. Katie calls handsome dad Keir Dullea, fresh from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. Breakfast is ready. They all sit down to eat. Dad is dismissive, in a suit. Mom and dad are a bit distant, but it’s a regular, everyday breakfast for our handsome family. As mom and dad ignore each other, we leave them off frame and slowly push on Katie, who takes an apple in spite of mom telling her to eat her eggs first. Katie coughs. An apple chunk is stuck in her throat. Mom asks off frame if she’s all right. Katie chokes. Mom comes closer. Tries to help, pats her back. Katie falls to the floor, dragging the tablecloth with her. Plates. Eggs. Tea. Dad shouts orders. Mom panics. Katie’s eyes roll into her head. Dad calls an ambulance. Mom screams. There’s no time. She puts two, three fingers down Katie’s throat. Katie’s lips are blue. Mom takes a knife. Gives it to dad: Make a hole! Take it out! There’s no time! Dad stands there, paralyzed. The paramedics arrive. It’s later. It’s too late. Nobody rushes anymore. Mom stands in the kitchen, eyes glazed. There’s blood on her white T-shirt. She’s shaking, but just a tiny bit. It’s too late. Too late.
I’m a kid. I’m watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — the Gene Wilder version, not the Tim Burton one. Despite being a horror filmmaker now, as a kid I couldn’t really handle scary movies. But I’m told this is a movie for kids, and for a short time I believed it. It starts out all shiny and bright. But I guess I should have known better. Mr. Slugworth is creepy as hell. And there’s that guy with the knives who hangs out outside the factory and basically says that no one ever comes out alive. But I was naïve and trusting, and oh, how wrong I was. You get to that damn tunnel scene, and all bets are off. I was terrified. I had to have been around 7 years old, and I was utterly petrified. Gene Wilder’s performance is amazing but terrifying, as he coldly spouts this existential diatribe as though it’s a children’s rhyme. And then there are the flashes of horrific images, a technique that would years later be used in Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Looking back on it now, this scene really sets the stage graphically for Argento’s Suspiria six years later. (Yes, I’m suggesting that Willy Wonka may have influenced both The Exorcist and Suspiria.) But the scene really sings because of that intangible sense of “I feel so uncomfortable and I don’t know why. I don’t entirely know what’s going on, but I’m engaged and enthralled, and I feel really weird.” It’s that abstract feeling that David Lynch captures so well. It’s the best feeling in horror movies. And it’s what I’m perpetually seeking as a filmmaker. During the scene, Grandpa Joe turns to Charlie and says, “It’s strange, Charlie … But it’s fun.” And that really sums up why I love horror movies.
“Oh, it’s too scary for someone so little.” Dad smiled at me, using the oldest trick in the book, but I didn’t know it yet. He had read in the TV guide what was coming on the Sci-Fi Channel later on that night, and he needed strength in numbers to get that on the tube rather than my mom’s shows. “You won’t be able to sleep tonight, so you’ll have to stay in your room while I watch the movie.” And the indignant kid who knew he was the bravest Boy Scout in the room ended up begging his father to let him watch The Thing.
My dad described a few of the scenes to me in advance, but the one that grabbed me hardest was merely the greatest cold open of all time: a happy dog sprinting across an Antarctic wasteland, pursued by a helicopter holding a desperate man trying and failing to snipe that dog with a high-powered rifle. Outside of all the slimy tentacles in the later parts of the film, that opening is its most Lovecraftian, especially to me, as a bleeding-heart dog lover. It presented an impossible mystery: How could a dog be so awful that these grown men spend all their time trying to murder it? What is going on? The terror that question implies is something I clumsily tried to capture with some of my earliest films. It crystalized when I met Justin Benson and we started making what could be described as dark mysteries. It’s not the gore. It’s not the (amazing) creature FX. It’s not the flamethrower or explosions. It’s the deep unmentionable question that goes from your mind to your heart through the bottom of your stomach when things aren’t quite right, and you realize that you’re entering into a universe that is slipping beyond your comprehension. That’s when horror casts its strongest spell.
Clash of the Titans isn’t a horror film, but it was one of my earliest experiences of sheer nerve-shredding terror and fueled a wide-eyed obsession with Ray Harryhausen’s other creature-filled “DynaMation” adventure movies for the rest of my life. I was 7 years old and it was my cousin’s 8th birthday. For the occasion, my aunt and uncle had rented a VHS player. This was before “home video” in the home was a normal thing, and they had rented us lucky kids a double bill of Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Clash began to roll out its epic adventure and Harryhausen’s wonderful stop-motion creations took on a magical life of their own, nothing could have prepared me for … her… the one with snakes for hair and a withering death stare. Indeed, Perseus and we were warned earlier in the movie, “One look from the head of Medusa can turn all creatures into stone.”
It was the anticipation of this that frightened us all half to death, as Harryhausen embodies the whole scene leading up to the arrival of Medusa with a pure cinematic sense of creeping dread: the jittery snake-like movements, the fleeting glimpses in the flickery flame-lit catacombs, and the spine-chilling tail rattle had me gripped in white-hot mounting fear as Medusa stalks Perseus, her prey, with a fiendish predatory intent. “Don’t look her in the eyes. don’t look her in the eyes.” This culminated in quite possibly the most impacting and terrifying “breaking of the fourth wall” of all time. As Perseus hides behind a pillar, we witness another poor wretch being outwitted by Medusa, who then looks directly at “us” with those burning green eyes, actually staring straight out of the screen and directly into our peepers, challenging our birthday party to keep watching as her withering gaze reduced a man to stone. It was too much. We turned away in fear that, in participating in this moment, we too would suffer the same damned fate.
The film bored its way into my being that day, and later in life when creating my own films, The Hallow and The Nun, I found myself referencing that thrilling sequence, as, like so many, I have been inspired by the cinematic force of Ray Harryhausen and his beautiful and terrifying creations.
At the risk of dating myself here, I saw the original Poltergeist in a packed theater on its opening weekend. It wasn’t the first horror film I had seen. My parents divorced when I was 6, and my dad just wanted to win the whole “cool dad” thing so he let my sister and I see a lot of scary stuff we probably shouldn’t have … but I digress.
There’s a scene that plays out toward the end of the movie where the Freelings attempt to rescue their daughter from a ghostly dimension. The stakes are insanely high. The life of a child hangs in the balance. What ensues is nothing short of pure movie magic, an emotional roller coaster. Diane Freeling, played brilliantly by JoBeth Williams, stands at the opening of the spiritual gateway, a rope tied around her waist. She kisses her husband Steve goodbye (played by the equally amazing Craig T. Nelson). They stand in profile, silhouetted in the strobing light. The kiss is such a powerful affirmation of their unbreakable bond. Diane finally steps through the gateway and disappears. Things unravel quickly, with Steve trying to pull his wife back, only to be confronted by a hideous poltergeist. And just when we think all is lost, Diane and Carol Anne emerge on the other side of the portal. Carol Anne finally stirs and simply says, “Hi daddy.”
The sequence fires on every conceivable cylinder — as a horror movie, as a drama, and it even finds the appropriate moments to make you laugh. The impact of this scene (and this entire movie) on me cannot be overstated. I return to it again and again because it succeeds where most horror films fail: It makes you care. We love the Freelings and need them to get their daughter back. I don’t think anyone has been able to touch this movie on a pure, emotional-visceral level since.
I watched Death Becomes Her when I was in my late teens or early 20s and got to the scene where the women are trying to kill each other (where Goldie Hawn gets the hole in her belly). I started hysterically crying and had to turn the movie off. It was one of the more visceral reactions I’ve had to a film. Strange, I know, since I think it’s supposed to be funny? Anyway, at the time, the characters’ obsession with youth and their willingness to do anything to stay young and desirable was so horrifying and upsetting to me that I couldn’t get it out of my mind for weeks, months. This was before I shifted my focus from acting to directing and have since become preoccupied with telling stories about women’s relationships with each other, their own bodies, and how unrealistic expectations placed on women can drive them insane. I hadn’t actually thought about the connection between that film and what I am interested in making movies about before, but I guess it’s safe to say it was pretty formative.
It was the mid-’80s, and I had to become quite friendly with the local purveyor of VHS rentals in order to convince him to let me rent R-rated movies without my parents. One night I brought home a movie called The Thing, and it ended up being the first time I ever stopped a VHS tape. Stopped it hard, left the room, and waited a good half hour to find the courage to return and eject it. I brought the tape back that same night. My pal at the rental store opened the clamshell, noticed how far I’d gotten through the movie (so much for “Be Kind, Rewind”). He grinned. “It was the dog scene, right?” I nodded. “Yeah, a lot of people don’t get past that one.” His words became a challenge. About six months later I made it to the credits.
I remember being a child and stumbling into Fire in the Sky on TV. The abduction sequence inside the ship was playing out, and it was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. It stayed with me for many years to come until I finally managed to muster up the courage to watch the entire film. There is something deeply unsettling about the sequence, and looking at it now, maybe it’s because it is both abstract and visceral at the same time. It has everything I love about a single horror sequence. It’s focused on a single character experiencing something beyond words, it has great cinematography, terrifying production design (the space ship), abstract sound design, and comes to a head with the reveal of the creatures themselves: in this case, aliens.
The other aspect of the film that may have made this sequence even more terrifying to me is the fact that I related to the setting these characters first experience horror in. I grew up in a similar looking and feeling remote logging town, and the idea that something out of this world could snatch you away while you were alone in the forest or on a quiet highway always really freaked me out. It still does. I was so obsessed, I basically went and made a giant fan film to the alien abduction subgenre. It played Tribeca in 2014 and is called Extraterrestrial. You’ll see the Fire in the Sky inspiration all over it.
Peeping Tom was a formative film for me as a filmmaker. I saw it in my early 20s as part of a Michael Powell film festival in New York. In it, Karl Boehm plays Mark, a serial killer who films women as he kills them. In one terrifying scene, Mark offers to give starlet Vivian a screen test after-hours, telling her he wants to photograph a murder while it’s being committed and to capture the victim’s expression of fear. She thinks he’s talking about a fictional scene, but he isn’t. He sets the lights and gets everything perfect, then films her as she does a wild expressionistic dance, which ends with her being murdered by a knife that emerges from a leg on the tripod of his camera. We see her terror through the crosshairs of the camera as she dies, thus placing us in the point of view of the killer. Powell reminds us in this way that we are all voyeurs and makes us accomplices to the murders he commits.
It’s a terrifying film, but what excited me most was how it captures the essence of cinema and reveals how we are all Peeping Toms when we go to see a movie — any movie. The movie exposes the fetishism of filmmaking, how creepy it is that we pose bodies and wring out raw emotions from people we light and manipulate and record it all to experience later when we are alone, or give to others to watch in the dark. The visuals are also very striking. I love how Technicolor conveys things like blood and lipstick to a special pitch of intensity, and Powell was a great colorist. It was scary but also exhilarating, and it opened up a world of undiscovered possibilities for me in cinema.
In the Norris heart-attack scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dr. Blair tries to revive him by shocking him with a defibrillator. Suddenly, as he lowers the paddles, his patient’s chest opens and “eats” his hands and arms! And Norris transforms into horrible forms that twist his head and body.
This scene had an impact on me both for its sudden surprise and on the visceral level of your body being invaded by an alien and transformed into something monstrous. Even more scary, we can’t trust what we see anymore, paranoid that behind the normal people we think we know, there might be a hidden monster waiting to “eat” us. What terrified me so much about the creature design is that its form is based on stuff that speaks to our primal fears: insects, appendages, filaments, fluids, weird fusions of elements that mix together in horrible combinations, like a human head on an insect body with multiples legs and arms wriggling. The film’s use of practical VFX enhance its impact, adding so much intensity to the flesh and blood of the creature. Horror is really about “sensations,” about what the images make you feel at a very unconscious level. And it’s even stronger when you are young because you have no filters and just respond to symbolism and the associations of ideas. The invasion of your body by something else, your transformation and mutation into something you cannot control and do not know, is one of The Thing’s most terrifying elements precisely because Carpenter taps into the “imagination” of our fears.
In third act of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Phoebe Cates comes out of left field with a monologue that took a sledgehammer to my innocence, and that of so many other ’80s kids. I was 6, and it fucked me up good.
It was the age where a PG rating didn’t really mean anything in terms of child safety. Jaws and Temple of Doom were further proof, and of course the PG-13 rating was born of all this trauma. But this goddamn speech. I mean, Jesus. We’re in the middle of a film that, despite its edge (e.g. Gremlins have been blended and microwaved, Mrs. Deagle’s been launched from a window), has mostly been a cozy Spielbergian creature romp. Then Cates’s character reveals why she’s not so much a Christmas person: When she was little her father broke his neck and died while trying to climb down the chimney dressed as Santa, and his body was only discovered when she smelled the rotting corpse from the fireplace. Then comes the kicker: “…And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.” Fucking mic drop.
This didn’t just leave an imprint, more like a crater. The Santa Claus part was one thing. I put that on some way-back mental shelf of denial and went on trying to believe. But something got broken, and part of me still says a Christmas movie rated PG that spoils Santa is NO FAIR. On the other hand, the monologue absolutely rules, and as a kid who already knew he wanted to bring scary things into the world, I discovered that another kind of horror could show up in these movies, too, and it could all be this messy mix of funny and scary and wrong. That intrigued me, and would later inspire me to try mixing those same things up.
I was lucky enough to be raised by parents that loved movies. My dad was the true cinephile, and he introduced me to the Universal monster movies when I was in elementary school. I immediately loved them, and my love of the horror genre started to grow. Since I handled those films so well, when I was 10 years old he decided to show me one of his favorite horror films, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I was a little intimidated by the title, but I tried not to show it. He told me that if I got scared we could turn it off, though I had already made it up in my mind that I was going to be brave and watch the whole thing. How scary could it be? It was black-and-white so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Wrong. Honestly, from the minute the opening shot started and the score kicked in, I was totally freaked. But it wasn’t until Johnny started to tease Barbara with, They’re coming to get you, Barbara! and the reveal of the cemetery zombie (played by the amazing Bill Hinzman, the first zombie I had ever seen on the big screen) that I was really scared. Um, I don’t know if I can watch this, I said to my Dad. Just give it five more minutes, he replied. Then the zombie attacks Barbara! Johnny jumps in to save the day, but gets his head bashed in! The zombie looks up to Barbara… setting his sights on HER! Lightning flashes! A sting from the score! She runs and he immediately goes after her! And all of that happens within the first seven-and-a-half minutes of the film. Sure enough, I was completely entranced and mesmerized with the feeling the film had created for me. I was paralyzed with fear, but couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for the remainder of the film. I think it was then, in those terrifying opening moments, that I knew I wanted to direct horror films.
This is a scene from a movie I honestly barely remember, but that scared the absolute crap out of me when I was a kid. It’s a scene from the 1996 film The Arrival, in which a woman is assassinated by lacing her room with hundreds of scorpions. Looking back, the thing that makes this scene so scary is that not a single actual scary thing happens. The tension, indeed the body horror itself, exists simply through suggestion. We know the scorpions are likely to attack the woman, but the anticipation of waiting for it only makes us feel the visceral pain that we know she will experience. The movie never delivers on an actual scorpion sting –– we simply later return to the motel room to find the woman dead and to see a single remaining scorpion crawling on her ceiling fan. Again, by allowing the audience to fill in that blank we create a horror that is real and personal for ourselves. After I saw this movie, I was afraid to put my feet all the way down to the bottom of my bed for years. The best horror film doesn’t need to show something scary. It simply plants a seed of terror in the audience’s brain, allowing their own fears to foster that seed and let it bloom.
I remember very, very clearly I was about 9 and I was off school sick. My mum had taped a couple of films the night before. The first was the original black and white Lord of the Flies, but the second film was why she had set the VCR to record. It had “a good Scottish actor in it” and was The Wicker Man. She came home from work and asked, “Did you watch the film?” My reply was, “They burnt him. The baddies won.” That was my first taste of a ending where the bad guys won in the end, and I was terrified of this prospect.
The original Dutch version of The Vanishing is one of my favourite films. It’s a deeply disturbing psychological horror about the dark side of obsession told from both the hero and villain’s points of view. The masterfully crafted slow burn pulls you in deeper and deeper until you are just as involved as the protagonist — his obsession is now yours. That’s why the climax is so utterly terrifying. The hero takes a sedative knowing that he’s putting himself in danger, but he knows it’s the only way for him to find out what happened to his missing girlfriend. And when he wakes up, trapped underground in a coffin, you are totally shocked. You’re shocked because you realize that’s what happened to his girlfriend — she’s dead. But you are also wondering — hoping — that he’s going to get out. The claustrophobia is incredibly effective. The panic is real. You can’t end it like this — movies aren’t supposed to do this to us. Of course he doesn’t make it out. It’s like experiencing your own death.
When I was 12 years old I went to the 5th Avenue Theater in Inglewood, California, to see the first horror movie I’d ever seen with a black cast: Blacula. While the movie was low budget, and may seem cheesy by today’s standards, it featured a couple of powerful things:
— William Marshall’s performance as Blacula was great! He brought dignity and gravitas to the part, as well as the ability to be terrifying!
— The scene where the Lady Cab Driver (played by Ketty Lester), who died when Blacula bit her, comes back as a vampire and charges down the morgue hallway at Elisha Cook Jr.’s character, Sam. She is absolutely terrifying as she sprints at him, full starving vampire slow-motion fury, and it scared the hell out of me.
For years I would think of this scene whenever I was alone in the house at night. I don’t think anything else I saw as a kid had such a lasting impact as that image. It still gives me chills to think about it.
The Scene: Chunk, the lovable fat member of the bunch in The Goonies, falls right back into the spider’s nest — Texas Chain Saw Massacre style — and is jailed in a dark, damp underground cell, chained to a chair. The only light source in the room is a TV. In front of the TV is another person chained to a chair. An adult. Chuck is scared to death, but he desperately pretends that he is not (which is supposed to be funny, but I was disturbed as a 5-year-old). Chunk wants to communicate with the adult, but the adult makes funny noises, moaning and groaning. He finally turns to Chunk, and you see Sloth’s disfigured face for the face time! I was so scared that I turned it off, and I could only watch it the next morning. As cartoonish as this scene is, at the time I had never seen a “scary scene” in my life. This gave me nightmares, despite falling in love with Sloth. I’ve since dreamed of making a children’s movie one day with darker elements, and using horror movie clichés. And I finally did. Girl With No Mouth will be out in 2019.
As a wide-eyed, movie-obsessed child growing up in the 1980s, I was a Spielberg fanatic from a very young age — somehow able to understand and appreciate his ability to whimsically interweave fantasy, adventure, and frights before I truly understood what any of those concepts were. And while the director’s sixth feature, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, had its share of shocks and bloodshed throughout, it wasn’t until the film’s final moments when I truly understood the multifaceted director’s grasp on horror. Sure, I’d been scared senseless by 1975’s Jaws, but when the mysterious Ark of the Covenant is finally opened in Raiders’s climax — setting loose spectral, skull-faced angels of death — I was catapulted from what I assumed was a reality-set adventure into a supernatural bloodbath, where very human villains I’d spent the past two hours with were suddenly having their heads melted and blown to pieces as they screamed in disbelieving terror. To this day, every time I hear Indy shout, “Shut your eyes, Marion!” I feel as though he’s barking those commands at my 6-year-old self. Because, similar to the climax of Hideo Nakata’s masterful Ringu nearly two decades later, Raiders’ ghostly finale flipped the script, violently and unexpectedly ripping its audiences from the real world into the uncanny. And while the Raiders’ gooey gore hasn’t aged as well as the film itself, the unexpected terror those deaths delivered formed not only how I wanted to experience horror from that moment on, but also how I hoped to one day create it.
As a special-effects artist, you end up working on a lot of horror films. I once did detailed on-set makeup on a strange extra who, it was revealed later, was not actually on set, and who I sincerely believe was an actual ghost. I also once wrote the Hannya Shingyo (a sacred Buddhist sutra) across an actress’s entire body, and when I was done her face appeared supernaturally deformed when we filmed her. Neither of these things scared me, though. I sincerely don’t think I’ve ever really been scared of anything before. Okay, well … that’s actually a lie. When I was 7 years old I saw something that absolutely terrified me, and it has stayed with me for my entire life. It was the first thing in my life that created such fear deep within me. I was in elementary school, and my mother was kind enough to purchase a book for me about monster movies. In its pages was an image of a wide-eyed serpent woman played by the late Jacqueline Pearce, from 1966’s The Reptile, a Hammer horror film directed by the great British filmmaker John Gilling. The photo gave me such a paralyzing fright that I physically couldn’t open the book to that page.
Years later, I was able to come to grips with the fact that it was just a character from a movie, and I even went so far as to buy a VHS tape of it. The craziest part is that I still have never watched the film. That said, the image of that serpent woman remains a major influence on my special-effects molding, as it is the perfect example of how visual imbalance naturally creates fear and unease. Even to this day, I shudder when I think of it.
Growing up in the Fangoria-infused ’80s, when FX Wizards of Gore like Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Steve Johnson, and Rob Bottin were competitive rock stars trying to shove splatter onto the screen, I was used to “scary stuff” being front and center, ready for its close-up. But sometimes, what we see in the distance can be far more harrowing. In Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s a perfect example. Our hero Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is in the throes of a school-set nightmare (already a vulnerable setting) when she leaves her now-silent classroom to wander the halls after seeing her dead friend Tina (Amanda Wyss) standing in the classroom in a translucent body bag. When Nancy walks around the corner, we see the body bag on the ground in the distance. It’s left a trail of slick blood on the linoleum and then … the legs lift up, as if an invisible gravedigger (or malevolent dream demon) had grabbed the corpse’s legs. The body draaaaags across the floor, around the corner, and out of sight, leading Nancy further down the Kruger hole. What makes the moment even more squirm-inducing is how Tina’s lifeless arm slops down onto the floor, catching up with the rest of the corpse. This one shot, and how it almost makes you squint to see the details, was an image that always stayed with me. Craven didn’t always have to bring the blood right up into the frame and linger on it, a common selling point for slashers. Rather, he let you witness it as a helpless spectator. Whenever I’m working on a scene that calls for conjuring up a nightmarish image, one that would hopefully burrow under the audience’s skin or have them jump out of it, I always wonder, “Would it be better down the hall?”
When I was an undergraduate film student at USC, I took a class that focused solely on the works of Alfred Hitchcock. At the time, I was unaware the impact that such a class would have on my creativity. It just seemed like an interesting way to fill my Thursday evenings. Over the course of the semester we watched and analyzed most of his works, before ending with his second to last film: Frenzy. To be honest, I remember very little about it, except for one shot: a simple dolly shot where the camera pulls back down the stairs of an apartment building. The shot didn’t show us much, but it was what it did not show that had such a lasting, frustrating, and genuinely terrifying effect on me.
The film revolves around a serial killer who stalks and strangles women. At this point in the film, we as the audience know his M.O. and recognize the danger that a young female character is in when he chats her up and invites her back to his flat. The camera follows the killer and his next victim as they pleasantly talk while ascending the staircase to his apartment. As they enter, the camera stops, and then begins to descend back down the stairs. Instead of going into the apartment with the characters, it pulls back down the entire staircase, out the front door, across the busy street, and then just settles there. We watch the people on the street pass by the apartment, with no idea what is going on inside. But we, as the audience, know that she is getting brutally killed inside that building. We feel helpless, just like her. It was this strange image of the unknowing world outside instead of the brutal actions inside the apartment that terrified me. How often have I been going about my day, unaware of things that were happening around me? It scared me in a very unique way. So, when it came time to design the climax of my own film, I knew exactly what to do with the camera to instill that same sense of frustration, dread, and helplessness: Let the camera leave the scene.
For most of the run time of Black Christmas, you don’t see the killer — like, at all. Billy was a mostly unseen muttering thing, dispatching people with such random brutality that there was something very human, very possible about him. In that sense, he was scarier than any slasher villain I’d ever seen. And that principle eventually came to a head in what I believe is one of the most effective scares in film history: Olivia Hussey’s Jess is the last person alive in her sorority house and has just come across the corpse of one of her friends. We see her reaction, and then softly, we hear Billy’s familiar, insane whispering from somewhere in the room. The camera casually pans up to a crack in the bedroom door, REVEALING A SUPER CLOSE-UP SHOT OF THE CRAZIEST FUCKING EYEBALL I’D SEEN IN MY LIFE.
Up until now we’d only heard Billy or seen his hands, so I’ve got to hand it to the performer, because that little glimpse of a single eyeball conveyed so much, so quickly. Whoever this eyeball belonged to was so broken, so truly insane that one obviously couldn’t reason with them. They’re going to do the very bad thing that they want to do to you, no matter what. That scene taught me more about constructing a creepy setpiece than anything else I’d seen, before or since. Find a way to put your audience in the shoes of the lead character, and then make that threat feel very close, very unpredictable, and very possible.
I was totally floored when I first saw The Exorcist. I’d heard stories before seeing the picture. I remember my friend David in the sixth grade telling me in morbid detail of the horrific flick his older brother had shown him the night previous. This little girl yaks, says the F-word like a trucker, floats, she even spins her head around. Did I mention she pukes? When I finally snuck and saw the film (old VHS from West Coast Video), it certainly held up to the hype.
But what I found most chilling and what I must attribute to William Peter Blatty’s novel, perhaps the greatest horror novel ever written, is the use of psychology and manipulative mind-fuck agency he gave the demon. “Pazuzu” wears down Father Damien Karras over the guilt of his sickly mother and the grief of her death. Friedkin utilized these dreamlike silent shots of Karras’s mother staring plaintively, hands outreached, begging him to save her. This is what chilled me to the bone and something I always try to invoke when working in horror: a demon or adversary with intelligence that would use our deepest emotional pain against us. Destroying what we love.
I grew up in a family of cinephiles, and our parents exposed my brother and I to a wide range of genres from a very young age. This included horror. They trusted us and educated us in a way that these experiences were entertaining, frightening, but pleasant. There are a quite a few scenes from horror movies that has stuck with me since I was a child, but I will focus on a scene from Poltergeist II. I was probably around 8 years old, and being a little girl, I identified very easily with Carol Anne’s character, which probably made everything feel more terrifying. The moment I really want to talk about is the apotheosis of the Vomit Creature — when the father starts to gag on this slimy, bubbly, giant larva-like creature, struggling until it finally completely drops, its evolution after it slithered under the bed, and its horrifying final form of skinless, deformed body crawling out of the room. This is what’s printed in my brain until this very day. I feel like what made this scene work so much is the amazing use of practical effects, no CGI at all. Everything in that scene felt so real, because it actually was! Most of the horrific moments in cinema that stuck with me are often related to amazing use of puppets and practical effects.
If there’s a particular horror scene that fueled my nightmares when I was young and that will forever be imprinted in my brain as if it was written in indelible ink, it is the one with Zelda, the dying sister in Pet Sematary. Simply thinking about that scene makes me uncomfortable, so you can imagine how having to revisit it for the sake of this article makes me feel.
It’s no ghost, no monster, but a human being dying from a severe medical condition, spinal meningitis. What makes it so terrifying is the truth behind it. Taking it from the point of view of a young child as she’s trying to understand or make peace with the fact that this sick person is turning into a creepy, skinny corpse, hidden in the back bedroom, but she’s still her sister. And she has to watch her suffer every day, helpless. I usually love getting scared, but this is way too real and hits a little too close to home for me.And let’s just say that the remake will have a high bar to top to attain this level of creepiness!
An avid horror fan from an early age, my most memorable scare wasn’t from a traditional fright flick. Instead, it was induced by a children’s film. I was 6 when my mother took my sister and I to see Walter Murch’s Return to Oz, advertised as a whimsical sequel to The Wizard of Oz. But instead of dancing little people and catchy musical numbers, it was a horrifying descent into madness that left me mentally scarred and simultaneously yearning for another terror fix.
The real scare that stayed with me was caused by masked, grotesque “Wheelers” — villainous creatures unlike anything I had ever seen. Revisiting the film, I had expected to find that time had taken the edge off these wheel-limbed fiends, but, though the effects have become dated, the Wheelers are still pretty terrifying. Design aside, it’s their performances which makes them so scary. They cackle like maniacs, screaming and howling as they chase down poor Dorothy. Yes, Return to Oz scared me, but it was also a gateway to a lifelong love of horror and fantasy cinema. I feel quite privileged to have grown up in a time when confrontational, bizarre films were still made for children.
In the Mexican classic Even the Wind Is Afraid, directed by master of horror Carlos Enrique Taboada, a group of girls in a boarding school are spending time in detention, sharing their intimate feelings and secrets with each other. At one point, one of them begins to dance provocatively in front of the others, which causes a fair amount of surprise and awe. The scene takes its time to unfold, ultimately becoming a fun, carefree moment that offers rather vivid insight into the culture of the late ’60s.
And then, amid this fun, a face appears in the window.
It’s Andrea, the ghost of another pupil from the school. The scare is incredibly effective in its delivery, but there’s something else to it. Having the spirit interrupt the fun can certainly be seen as a punishment for the girls’ inappropriate, carefree behavior. Yet, as we discover in the film, Andrea was herself a victim of repression and, because of this, never attacks the girls. She simply watches them enjoy themselves and, for a brief moment, rebel against a system that has oppressed them. Witnessing this scenario seems to motivate Andrea’s ghost as, ultimately, she turns against the school’s principal and the governing status quo, liberating the other girls and setting her spirit free. Even the Wind Is Afraid is a masterpiece of Mexican cult cinema, and delivers a memorable, formative scare that works as both a perfectly executed jump and as a vehicle for the crucial theme of the film itself.
Being raised Catholic, the Devil was painted as the root of all evil, with concepts like exorcisms only discussed discreetly among adults. Having that curtain pulled back in The Exorcist was unimaginable. Like seeing a tornado in real life, witnessing an exorcism sounds exciting and fun until you actually come face-to-face with it. The Exorcist is not a film of jump scares. Instead, it slowly builds an unforgiving tone as you’re thrust into the battle to save this girl from an unseen evil. Countless moments from the film are burned into audiences’ minds, from young Regan’s backwards crab-walk down a flight to stairs, to the bloody, vomitous exorcism itself.
For me, however, The Exorcist was scariest when in conversation with the Devil. Yes, Regan claimed to be possessed by the Devil himself. The Devil would taunt and ridicule the priests, spitting out half-truths and manipulations. Father Karras, the younger of the two, has a particularly difficult time when the Devil exploits his vulnerability about feeling that he failed his ailing, late mother. Father Merrin, the other attending priest, sends Karras out, but when he returns he finds Merrin has died of heart failure. Begging the demon to take him instead, Karras is possessed, but manages to throw himself to his death out Reagan’s bedroom window. Though the demon leaves Regan, both priests die in the process, leaving the feeling that evil can never truly be defeated. Perhaps what stuck with me the most after all this time is when I asked my childhood priest, a former exorcist, if all the events in the film really happen during exorcisms. He said, “Yes. But rarely all during the same exorcism.”
While not traditionally the kind of film you would expect to have such a fright at the end of it, Fat Girl’s surreal, dream-into-nightmare “suburban gothic” vibe should have been warning enough. The film, titled À ma sœur! in its native France, follows a female child-sex-abuse victim as she becomes sexually active — via rape by an older man — which her overweight sister witnesses every night while the siblings are on a trip with their mother.
These scenes are difficult to watch because the Hollywood glamor of an older man and a teen girl has been stripped away, and adult audiences are forced to watch it much like her unwilling sister does, witnessing a disturbing sexual assault in the guise of a secret romance. The sister’s mother and sibling in this tale are vile and terrible to her, now deeming her too unattractive to be like them and, hence, an outcast. Sexuality is again used as a weapon — those not fitting into the dominant narrative of what is beautiful are not allowed to possess it. The film’s action unfolds masterfully by writer-director Catherine Breillat. At the film’s end, the family is driving home with a heaviness in the air. The mother pulls over at a rest stop to sleep with her daughters, the beauty in the front seat, the other sister in the back. Then suddenly, the windshield is smashed by a lunatic with an ax. The murderer kills the sister and strangles the mother. All while the sister watches in the backseat. She runs into the woods where he rapes her, but her reaction to this act is otherworldly and dark. When the police come to the crime scene, she insists she wasn’t raped and the film ends.
The film was banned for a time in Canada for its depiction of sexuality and minors, but it’s important for exploring female sexuality in a predatory world. Child sex abuse is dressed up in our culture as ways to market and sell products to the masses, but we don’t think of the damage those images do to the psyche of young women. Fat Girl unapologetically explores what this damage can do when it twists the lives of two young girls. The concept of the “Lolita” was created as defense by men who prey on underage girls. Fat Girl is the female perspective of the horrors those relationships inflict on young women.
The Christian Brothers at my Irish primary school would occasionally convert our school hall into a makeshift cinema and project whatever films they could lay their hands on. The movies they showed us usually leaned heavily on kid-friendly science-fiction and fantasy; but for whatever reason, one Friday afternoon they decided to treat us to John Badham’s 1979 adaptation of Dracula. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to show this fairly adult horror movie to a room full of boys — ages 5 to 11 — but the results were incredible.
Fairly early into the movie, there’s a scene where Dracula, played by Frank Langella, crawls gracefully down the wall of a mansion, making his way very slowly like a bat or a spider approaching its prey. It’s an incredibly eerie moment, but nothing I couldn’t handle. That is, until the strangest thing happens: Without missing a beat, Dracula turns and looks right into the camera. It’s a fleeting glance, but done with such style and precision that, to my mind, Dracula turned and looked right at me — right into me. With a low but steady collective groan, panic broke out in that school hall, and as Dracula scratched away at Lucy’s bedroom window, the young students of Scoil Mhuire Marino began to whimper, cry, and run for the doors to escape. I was too terrified to run. I just sat there glued to the screen, and did my best to brave through what ended up being my first cinematic horror experience.
When I think of an absolutely seminal movie scare from my youth, the moment that, ahem, jumps to mind is Terence Young’s 1967 film Wait Until Dark. The thriller stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman in a New York basement apartment and Alan Arkin in a fantastically sadistic turn as the head of a gang of hoods that terrorize her. The sounds of the city, the music by Henry Mancini, and the colors in the apartment as the set is drenched in golden sunlight when day inexorably surrenders to darkness, all convey an overwhelming sense of mounting dread and claustrophobia. Isolated by her blindness and her absent husband, Hepburn slowly becomes aware that she is being tormented by a ruthless gang that wants something from her she doesn’t even have. When it comes down to the final confrontation between Arkin and Hepburn, our nerves are truly frayed. And then there is a sudden image of Arkin leaping through the dark that takes your breath away. It is one of the great jump scares in film history. I was at an impressionable age when I saw the movie unspooling on 16mm in an old clubhouse by the beach in Cape Cod and have never forgotten it. It is singular, affecting, hard-earned moments like that that made me fall in love with cinema.
When I was 7 years old, I was at a family reunion and wandered into a room where a bunch of adults were watching a movie. I looked to the screen and staring back at me were two ghostly twin girls in blue dresses, in a wallpapered hallway that seemed to extend forever. It was the scariest image I had ever seen, and I ran out of the room swearing that whatever that was, I never ever wanted to see it again. Of course, The Shining has since become one of my favorite films, and it’s been a source of inspiration to me. When I want to remember what true terror feels like, I think back to being a kid and seeing the Grady twins for the very first time.
I spent my early childhood years convinced my family and I were living in a haunted apartment. Because of that, I already had a general fear about the unknown and was very afraid of the dark for a long time. The first time I saw Poltergeist as a kid, I was at a friend’s sleepover and her mother rented it because it was PG. It’s probably the scariest PG movie I’ve ever seen. Several scenes in the film were chilling to me as a child, but the one that really got to me was the scene where we hear Carol Anne’s voice through the TV when the paranormal investigators are at the Freeling home.
As a kid in the ’80s, TV was the most exciting thing in the world — especially once my folks got cable and I could watch endless cartoons. I would sit directly in front of the TV and still lean in. (Something my mother was always telling me to stop doing.) Watching TV was my blissful escape from my fears of my haunted apartment and the dark. So to see Carol Anne trapped in this unknown purgatory, her little voice pleading for help, trying to find her mommy while being chased by unseen monsters, rattled me to the core. TV was supposed to be a happy place. This film turned it into some terrifying entity that I no longer sat too close to.
It’s 1992. I am 7. My teenage cousin has laid down a challenge: We are about to watch what she swears is the scariest movie of all time. Psssh, I was tempered. By this point I’d seen all three Alien movies, most of the Friday and Nightmare films, and wasn’t even aware that you were supposed to be afraid of the shark in Jaws.
Enter Silence of the Lambs. With its somber skies, soggy locations, and stylized drabness, it had the overall effect on my 7-year-old brain of appearing like a real-time documentary. The theatricality and melodrama were lost on me, as were the cat-and-mouse potboiler trappings of the genre, and I spent the entire run time with my stomach and heart jammed up my throat, praying for this thing to just resolve itself so that I could maintain my pride in front of my older, supercool cousin. To be sure, if she wasn’t there I would have dutifully hit the STOP button on the VCR. The scene that nearly made me tap out was the abduction of Catherine Martin by James Gumb. And it starts out with the most unlikely of elements: Tom Petty. Is there anything more achingly human than singing your own backing vocals? What a wonderful way to give somebody who we’ve spent no time with an immediate connection to us. Her life has its own momentum, she’s got destinations, and we watch as they are taken from her. I remember the finality of those van doors closing, and praying that the movie would cut to the next scene so that I could get some respite, but NO. We go inside the van, with Gumb huffing and grunting in shadow, set about his work.
Mercifully we do eventually make it out of there, and while the movie had yet more nightmare fuel in store, nothing stuck with me or affected me more than that scene. For years afterward, nearly until puberty, it gave me nightmares and reinforced for me the idea that every male stranger was suspect — especially if they had a van — while also giving me a near Pavlovian reaction to “American Girl,” of which I suspect I’m not alone.
I could talk about how my parents went out for the night when I was 5, and thinking it was a kid’s movie, rented Child’s Play to keep me company. (Thanks Mom.) But that’s a nightmarish blur. My first horror scene that was truly formative was in Alien. Harry Dean Stanton searching for Jonesy the cat in the loading dock. The steady clinking of chains hanging from the ceiling. Spaceship condensation dripping onto the brim of his hat. Layered over the dread it’s almost peaceful, until he spots Jonesy and calls out and then OHMYFUCK it’s unfurling from above and he never saw it because he’s wearing a hat. I was 12 and pissing myself and that scene is why you will never see me wearing a hat. Still the greatest use of costume design in a horror movie.
I remember I was 10 years old. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grades, and I had just returned from my first foray at sleepaway camp, where I made many friends and where my favorite counselor appeared at flagpole one morning in blackface. Anyway, I was back home in New York City, nestled comfortably beside my mother, who herself was curled up on the couch, eyes fixed on the television. I don’t know where my brother or my father were. In this memory, it is just me, my mother, and the TV.
We were watching a black man chauffeur a car. In the back seat were a white man and woman, giddy with youthful energy, drunk on so much more than the bottle they passed between themselves. They weren’t supposed to be drinking, or even in that car together, but as I watched the sweat form on the chauffeur’s brow, I understood that the woman was blameless. Even the dandy beside her shrugged culpability. Everything turned on the chauffeur. It was not only his responsibility; it was my own. Already, I had an idea of how it would end. Panic-stricken, I followed the many intervening details, each one more wrenching than the next. A blind mother entering the bedroom where the chauffeur had safely returned his young white charge, the drunken young woman laughing insouciantly, ungratefully. To silence her, to save himself, he held a pillow to her face. She was dead within moments.
I was bowled over by the stunning inevitability of this scene, the hopelessness of it all. The dread that crept over me was one far greater than any ghost story. It painted a horrific picture of blackness in this country — not only would we be made to suffer nobly through tribulations and indignities, as my curriculum reminded me each February — we would also be made guilty. We were trapped. Many, many years later I discovered that the scene of my most enduring childhood horror was from the 1986 adaption of Richard Wright’s Native Son. I thought to myself, how right.
The scariest scene that I can remember growing up is the pond sequence in Jaws. The entire scene is masterful, but there’s one shot in particular that burned itself into my mind and has never left. After Michael is knocked into the water, along with an anonymous man in a boat, there is a breathtaking overhead shot of the shark pulling the man under the water. There’s no sting, no sound effect, just a brutal moment where the form of the shark is visible under the murky water, rolled to its side with its mouth open, gracefully tugging the man down. The shot is terrifying. The shark has been an unseen presence in the film up until now, just a fin above the water. But this shot, and the way the water obscures the features of the massive creature, is the stuff of nightmares. A quick cut moments later shows the shark’s head breaching the water, delivering a final bite and giving us our first real look at the monster.
What I love about it is how casually it is presented, how matter-of-fact. It activates the imagination, forcing you to picture the details of the attack that are happening under the surface around the edits. It’s a haunting moment nestled in a beautifully executed sequence, and brings the horror to a new level in the film. I still get goosebumps thinking about that scene.
It wasn’t until American Werewolf in London when I was 9 that a film genuinely gave me nightmares. Parents instill in children a fear of getting lost and the dangers that lurk. When David Naughton and Griffin Dunne found themselves stranded on the moors the locals gravely warned them to keep away from, it was like the worst culmination of everything I’d been warned about. Combine that with the deep dark night, the isolation, a full moon, and a mythology that brought folktales to modern life and, well, I was putty in John Landis’s hands. I distinctly remember climbing into bed that night still shaken from the experience, then peeking through the crack in my curtains to find a full moon above. Commence nightmares.
Growing up in the ’80s, I enjoyed my share of slumber parties where we watched everything from I Spit on Your Grave and Nightmare on Elm Street to Blood Beach. (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water — you can’t get to it.”) We shared lots of jump scares and good times, but there were always too many people in the room to truly feel afraid. I found it much scarier to watch this stuff alone. Every Friday the 13th the local TV station played a horror movie marathon. I would wait till my parents were in bed then sneak out of my room, commando crawl down the hall to the lounge room and the only TV in the house. (The commando crawl was probably unnecessary but seemed vital to the subterfuge.) It was during one of these movie marathons I first saw John Carpenter’s Halloween. Even though it was modified for TV and cut up with commercials, I was still so scared I had to turn the radio on while I watched it. From the very first shot, Halloween is a master class in control of point of view and timing, a film that continues to inspire and terrify me.
I wasn’t really consuming horror movies as a kid, and because of that, it was pretty easy to scare me. I remember having to change the channel when the title sequence to Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? came on. All that to say, I was 6 when Jurassic Park came out, and I was caught between this brilliant excitement and crippling fear of seeing dinosaurs onscreen. My dad took me to the theater to see the movie, and before we left, my mom armed me with a paper towel that I could hold in front of my eyes if I ever got too scared of what was happening. Cut to: there’s a goat waiting to be eaten in the T. rex paddock. I deploy my paper-towel shield, and it tears. For whatever reason, I’d forgotten that closing my eyes was an option. I remember this being the first time I was ever afraid in the theater. My young mind had already been blown seeing “real-life” dinosaurs, all of which I could name, and here I was feeling like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I didn’t want to see the T. rex anymore. While there’s no way I’d be able to articulate it as a child, that film ignited a fear (if not respect) of nature. I’m proud to admit I’m no longer afraid of the scene.
I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as a stunned teenager. It was the first time I can remember being aware of the details in cinematic language that create mood. Also came the awareness that fear doesn’t have to be perpetrated by jump scares. Fear can fill a spectator drop by drop until they float in a sea of unease. In Don’t Look Now, the mysterious bathroom attendant, the shuttered windows of Venice at night, the sheets covering the furniture in the hotel lobby, the strange cadence and body language of Billy’s headmaster — these details enthralled me then and enthrall me now. Of these moments, the one that stands out is when Mr. and Mrs. Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) return to their hotel in Venice and all the furniture in the lobby has been covered with sheets. The tourist season is over. By that point in the film, Venice has already become a treacherous and unfathomable place, where the lives of our protagonists might be threatened. However, the city is also still the Venice of lore, full of beauty, history, and magic. When they enter the hotel and walk into the sheet-covered lobby, something shifts. The first time I watched the film I can remember being vividly struck by the understanding that suddenly the Baxters were alone. No longer safe. The structure around them is falling away and being replaced by — what? Venice, or the facade that the city presents for its tourists, is no longer a known quantity. Visually and metaphorically, they are now in the land of ghosts, and I discovered that with a small detail like the addition of some bedsheets (which I stole for my own film), the viewer can be consciously or unconsciously put in a deep state of unease. RIP Nic Roeg, one of the all-time best.
My most formative “scary scene” wasn’t a jump scare, or even a murder setpiece. It was a character’s telepathic vision from Brian De Palma’s The Fury. In the scene, teen psychic Gillian (Amy Irving) stumbles while walking up a staircase. Her doctor (Charles Durning) quickly grabs her hand to steady her. The sudden physical contact triggers Amy’s vision, in which she sees Charles chasing a supposedly deceased boy (Andrew Stevens) up the very same stairs, sometime in the past. De Palma stages the vision with startling “stutter cuts” into an extreme close-up of the two entwined hands, followed by a brilliantly deployed rear-screen projection of the rotating “vision” behind Amy: Charles chasing Andrew up the stairs in slow motion, while Amy herself remains in normal speed in the foreground. The effect was disorienting, surreal, and quite shocking, the past intruding suddenly and violently into the present. It’s a purely cinematic concept, an experimental riff on the notion of the “flashback,” which frankly shatters traditional modes of visual narrative storytelling. The virtuoso filmmaking dovetailed with the supernatural event in the story, creating an unforgettable moment. The scene showed me the possibilities of the horror genre, and of cinema itself.
The original Halloween is one of those monumental films in my life — the opening of the film, specifically, where we actually are in young Michael Myers’s POV. It completely captivated me. I don’t remember ever being in a POV like that before. Then putting the mask on, I clearly remember going “What’s this? This is no good. I don’t like this.” Then all of a sudden as the camera travels through the house, he picks the knife up and then he starts doing the breathing, and you start going through the entire house. I remember kind of seizing up. I saw it in a theater and I was really young, but I remember getting nervous and all I could hear was the breathing. I felt like I was in the mask and kind of claustrophobic, because I couldn’t see anywhere. I was bound by these two eyeholes, and then experiencing the horror of the kill through the mask, like I was doing it. It was just absolutely horrifying to me.
I only took one film course in college and we ended up watching that scene, and I realized how helpless I was as a viewer and how I was at the mercy of the filmmaker — and just how important sound and atmosphere is, and how a little bit goes such a long way. The power of the image, the power of confining me as an audience member — I think it’s what you want out of horror. It’s like a nightmare, like you can’t get out of it, and that’s what the sequence was to me. Carpenter made you go on that journey, and that to me is horror. That’s relentless. It still to this day remains utterly terrifying, utterly claustrophobic, and perfect. I got involved in the Paranormal Activity franchise and I realized as I was starting to edit just how much Halloween had impacted me, how much that sequence was a found-footage sequence. The parallels were just huge for me.
The night-vision scene in The Silence of the Lambs scared the hell out me. It still does. Obviously there are a ton of horrifying scenes in this film, but there’s something about this one that really tickles my amygdala. It’s partly because the emotional stakes are much higher at this point. We’ve seen the exhausting mental chess game that Clarice has navigated through, and as she finally closes in on her target, the killer turns off the lights and puts her in check. The stakes are intensified when Buffalo Bill chooses to watch her as she becomes enveloped in fear instead of killing her on the spot (serial-killer faux pas). Most of the scene is played out through the killer’s POV, making us voyeurs, helpless to save her.
I didn’t come from a household that obsessed over film. We watched movies, sure, but we didn’t even have a VCR in our house until I was in the second grade. So, I didn’t really start watching films until I was a dumb 17-year-old who was suddenly trying to figure out what he liked and what he didn’t. Horror was a particularly tricky category for me to appreciate. Most of that was me looking down on a genre that I thought I was too smart for. (I wasn’t.) That said, I hadn’t really seen something that truly scared me, which I felt was the ultimate goal of the genre, to terrify. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized I was the problem, not the genre. One shot in particular did it for me, in Rosemary’s Baby. Near the end of the film, Rosemary is brought home from the doctor’s office by her husband and his doctor friend. As she gets back to the apartment, she slams the door shut and locks the men out. She runs to her room and grabs the phone to frantically call for help. As she’s talking, she stands in the hallway. The camera frames her and the hallway behind her in a way that doesn’t hint at what is about to happen, which is why it utterly blew me away when it happens. In the background of the shot, two figures tiptoe across the frame, unseen by Rosemary.
There is no score or sting of strings. There is no camera movement. We don’t cut to their POV or a closer angle of them. There is nothing overtly “horror” about the shot. The film doesn’t have to tell the audience to be afraid in this moment — we just are because of the two hours that have led up to it, and because we have been there with Rosemary the whole time. I watched the shot again today and out of context it is almost comical (the men tiptoe in a way that is borderline cartoonish), but in the context of the entire film, this is the single most frightening moment in cinema I have personally seen. Context is key. Tone is crucial. Since watching Rosemary’s Baby for the first time, I realized I was doing myself a disservice by thinking of horror as a challenge — “scare me” — instead of watching it as you would any other film and letting myself be scared if it was earned.
The opening of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, those ominous shots from the depths of the ocean, creeping up toward an oblivious Chrissie Watkins as she playfully wades in the water … and then the thrashing and the screaming. The summer after I saw Jaws, my family visited our lake house and my siblings all jumped into the water with reckless abandon. But I hesitated to follow, and when they finally coaxed me in the images rushed back. Suddenly Chrissie’s legs were my legs; her impending peril was my impending peril. My heart began to race as I could feel the shark approaching, its teeth about to clench down on my ankles. My imagination was creating the horror once again, and I immediately thrashed my way back to the dock in a breathless panic.
From then on, I refused to swim in natural water. It was maybe the earliest and greatest fear I experienced from watching something play out onscreen, one that stayed with me long after the credits stopped rolling. And now, all these years later, I realize just how much of my lasting trauma was created by Spielberg’s masterful restraint, giving just enough to get me started before letting my imagination run wild to create the real terror. I realize now that’s how true fear works — it starts with a suggestion, a poke in the right direction. Then we run with it, and it grows like a tornado wreaking havoc over our minds. Before we know it, we’re facing a life of never feeling the salt water splash against our faces.
Horror appeals to the emotional in a very intense way, and so a film can spellbind us even if it has some flaws. But there are also perfect horror films, and one of them is undoubtedly Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (¿Quién puede matar a un niño?). Everything in it is original and powerful, hence its incredible influence on the works of filmmakers worldwide. I’m fascinated by the story of a very particular descent to hell, in which evil grows where you least expect it, in that which is most pure and innocent. I’m fascinated by the mastery with which Chicho perverts all which is quotidian. He also does this in broad daylight, turning an idyllic and bright island into the worst of hells. I’m fascinated by its ambitious thematic machinery, that goes from the wild survival instinct to evil as something that can’t be controlled. I’m fascinated by the author’s ability to transcend atmosphere and fright, to exchange visual impact by situations of pure horror articulated around ideas. And I’m fascinated by how it’s shot, with a concision and spectacular sense of rhythm and tension, turning the exteriors of an island burnt by the sun into the darkest and most claustrophobic place in the world. It’s a wonder.
It took me a long time before choosing a scene, but my mind settled on one of the greatest jump scares in cinema history, the “Hallway Scene” of the Exorcist III. It starts with a wide shot of a hallway inside a hospital. By the way, is there a scarier building than a hospital? Anyway, we follow a nurse doing her rounds when she hears a sound coming from a room down the hall. As she enters, a patient jumps up from his bed and gives us a standard jump scare, the kind that makes you jump for a second and then giggle because you got caught, the inoffensive one — ha-ha! However, that’s not the scare we’re talking about today, even though it is useful to the rest of the scene as it keeps you on the edge, knowing something else is coming, but you just don’t know when. And so we go back to the wide shot of the hallway, to the silence of the scene. The nurse goes into another room, exits, closes and locks the door behind her … and that’s where the magic happens. Like a very good sleight of hand from a great magician, the nurse turns around and BAM! Zoom in! The killer is right behind her, ready to chop off her head! But … but … we saw her close the door. It’s impossible! That’s why I love that scene — with a simple trick of light and acting, they made the audience feel safe, just for one second, so that the jump scare is amplified a thousand times.
When I was a kid I was introduced to the strange, eerie, and terrifying world of British children’s television. That’s my formative scare stuff. To this day, the musical sting that accompanies the Thames logo, the production company that made a lot of these shows, still sends shivers down my spine. My God, in the ’80s when I was a youth it was scarier than The Shining. There was one show called Worzel Gummidge that was about a scarecrow that comes to life. In the opening credits of Worzel Gummidge, a scarecrow comes up to the window of a child and is looking in, and it’s this actor, Jon Pertwee, who’s made up to look like a scarecrow. It scared the shit out of me! The American version of children’s television was like a motorbike that could talk. They were doing karate like, “Hey, Steve! Let’s get over here and get this guy!” And for some reason the Brits’ version of entertaining children is having a chimney sweep stand there with dead eyes saying, “You’re going to die. You’re going to die tonight.” I would say that these were definitely the things that sent shivers down by spine.