Debates Film Lists

We Debate: Our Top 5 Scary Movie Moments

At WeMinoredInFilm, we both love watching horror films, but the way we watch horror films is very different.  Julianne likes to watch them to be scared by them and appreciate the experience and film-making; I merely watch to appreciate the film-making and hope the gore won’t be nauseating.

As it turns out, that disconnect grates on Juli, who responded to me admitting that I didn’t jump once while watching The Conjuring by offering an annoyed condemnation that I must be some kind of cylon, an emotionless robot made to look human.  I wince at gore, but I’m almost never scared by a horror film…now.  When I was a kid, I was a huge pushover in that area.  So, we decided to each independently compile a list of our 5 favorite scary moments from movies, and come together to talk about them as part of We Minored in Film’s semi-regular feature called We Debate:.  We discovered we were both way too young to have seen some of the films when we did.  Plus, not all of the movies that have scared me the most in my lifetime are ones you’d think of as being scary.  Like, for example:

Kelly’s #5 – Jurassic Park

KELLY: It’s 1993, and I’m 10.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex was obviously the big bad of the dinosaur world, but beyond that I had in my head that he was the only scary one.  Then  Wayne Knight…

JULIANNE: Helloooo, Newman.

KELLY: That’s the one…has that damn scene where he encounters the dilophosaurus.  When viewed now, the scene actually has far more almost physical comedy than I remember and isn’t particularly scary, but at the time it freaked me the hell out.

Here’s the scene:

JULIANNE: That’s what Newman gets for treating a sign pointing you to your destination like it’s a game of Wheel of Fortune.

KELLY: I think I’d always had a fear of the general concept of the cute animal turning out to be malicious, like a cute dog suddenly biting into your ankle with vicious lack of restraint.  So, that maybe played on those fears as the dinosaur that takes Newman down doesn’t initially appear malevolent.  The moment where he is finally done away with in his car was so terrifying at the time for me mostly because Spielberg pulls back from the truck at the kill moment to leave it up our imagination.

JULIANNE: I get that, though the scene in Jurassic Park that always got me was the scene with the two kids hiding from the velociraptors.

KELLY: Honestly, a lot of that movie really messed with me, not just the death of Newman. I remember when Jurassic Park came out McDonalds was doing a cross-promotion with Universal Pictures (way back in the day that a restaurant of any kind doing that was new and kind of awesome) where there would be promotional pictures of the dinosaurs from the film on McDonalds drink cups and fry boxes.  That was actually the first thing in my life to that point that had stopped me, even if just briefly, from eating McDonalds.

Am I the only one who was spooked by Jurassic Park, and then freaked to find that my primary source of food now had images of dinosaurs over all of its packaging?

It was, oddly, reading the Michael Chrichton novel, Jurassic Park, sometime later that defanged the movie for me as his far more explicit descriptions of all the deaths in the book somehow made it less scary by being too specific.

Juli’s #5 – House of the Devil 

Here’s a trailer for the movie:

JULIANNE:  House of The Devil is a great homage to 1980s horror movies.

KELLY: It’s an homage that looks so convincing you could easily mistake it for a film from that actual era and not the year it was actually made, 2009.

JULIANNE: Exactly. It’s a very deliberately paced film, and for the first 30 minutes you kind of wonder when the horror is going to happen.  You know the main girl has gotten a strange gig babysitting for an unseen older woman, made even creepier by the fact that Manhunter’s Tom Noonan hired her.

KELLY: Or Last Action Hero’s Tom Noonan, if you’re nasty.

JULIANNE: Or if you just have shoddy taste in films, but I digress.  So, we know there’s something not quite right because the freakin’ film is called House of the Devil, and for the longest time nothing remotely sinister has happened.  Things don’t seem quite right, but you’re not sure why yet.

KELLY: And then boom goes the head.

JULIANNE: We’ve had no real indication there’s any trouble until all of a sudden the main girls’ best friend, who gave her a ride to the house, is sitting in her car outside the house. A guy appears out of nowhere (always a discouraging sign), finds out she’s not the babysitter, and then with absolutely no warning shoots her in the head point blank.

What is that? Oh, that’s just a girl’s head in the middle of exploding as a result of blunt impact from a gunshot wound.  You know…normal car stuff.

It’s actually a while after that before anything scary happens again, but by introducing that threat and level of malevolence it introduces a near unbearable tension that keeps the audience held in suspense for the remainder of the running time.

KELLY: Did you jump out of your seat when you saw it?

JULIANNE: My butt was squarely in seat, but I flinched, my jaw dropped, and my eyes got pretty wide.

KELLY: In all honesty, the moment didn’t really scare me as by that point I was expecting anything to happen at any given moment to put the film into a second gear.  However, that is definitely a far more traditionally scary moment than my next pick:

Kelly’s #4 – The Mummy

KELLY: My pick involves a man, a pair of glasses, and a no good sonofabitch Mummy.  I refer, of course, to the first Mummy film, and the scene where a man in need of a pair of glasses just can’t catch a break.

JULIANNE: But the mummy can catch his eyesballs.

KELLY: The idea in The Mummy is that the excavated skeletal mummy has to steal/absorb body parts from people to become human again.  During the initial outbreak at the tomb, all of the characters are running for their lives and get scattered to the wind.  The supporting character Burns falls down, loses his glasses which are then crushed by the men rushing past him.  So, we see a demonic-looking mummy stalk him in the background while he squints and reaches his hands out to feel the objects around him so as to know where to go.  

Is a man squinting in the dark while a skeletal figure stalks him in the background scary? Actually, when I put it that way it sounds a lot scarier than it plays in The Mummy.

Then he reaches his hands into the mummy’s chest cavity, and at that point the mummy literally take his eyeballs right out of his skull.  As a person who’s been wearing glasses since the 5th grade, I am understandably…

JULIANNE: Prone to being a big pussy?

KELLY: [ignoring the horribly insensitive Juli] sensitive to any scenes in which a person in need of glasses is robbed of them.  I don’t know that this moment even qualifies for this conversation as I wasn’t really scared by it.  However, making a character’s glasses their Achilles’s Heel hits a little too close to home for me and always makes me squirm.   I am sensing that you just may not have been affected by this scene.  Like, at all.

JULIANNE: What gave it away? I thought I was being really covert.  I’ll admit nothing in The Mummy ever scared me.  It’s not a bad movie.  I just find it more fun than scary.  However, I understand what you mean about characters with glasses.  This isn’t one of my picks, but when you talked about characters’ glasses leading to their downfall, I tend to think of the Rage: Carrie II scene involving a girl’s glasses exploding backwards into her eyes.  That always seemed especially painful to me.

Juli’s #4 – Audition

JULIANNE: This is the least explicit scene in the Takashi Miike film, Audition, but it is the one that made me jump the highest. The premise of the film is that a slightly odd, but friendly seeming guy has staged a fake audition in order to meet women to date. The last girl to show up is adorable and perky, and after their interview they exchange “I’ll call you to let you know”/”I look forward to getting your call” pleasantries.  When we see her later, she is in her apartment obsessively staring at the phone, awaiting his call.   Compounding this strangeness is that in the room across from her there is a human-sized bag on the ground.  Suddenly, the phone finally rings, and when it does, whatever the hell is in the bag suddenly makes an inhuman growl and rolls out of the frame.  When I first saw it I jumped 20 feet in the air.

Here is the moment being discussed in Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments:

Now, Kelly, have you see Audition?

KELLY: That would be an apologetic no.  This is hopefully the only time where I’ll regret the two of us not having shared our lists with one another prior to doing this.

JULIANNE: Audition is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, but it’s also one of the best.  I know it seems strange to say about a film with gruesome torture, wire amputation, and the regurgitation of food into a bowl to feed to someone, that a growling bag would be the scariest part, but it absolutely is.  It’s the initial tip-off, because before that the creepiness seems to come more from the set-up of a man auditioning girlfriends.  Obsessive staring at the phone lets us know the girl is insane, and the growling bag lets us know she is a dangerous threat.  We don’t know what’s been done (and we don’t know what will happen as the film’s narrative unfolds), but we know it will be awful.

KELLY: A lot of the time, listening to a fan of Japanese horror discussing why a particular film is great is akin to listening to someone list off some of the sickest and most brutal things you could imagine.  So, it’s refreshing that what you said about Audition didn’t simply nauseate me, although the wire amputation and food regurgitation gives me pause.

Julianne: I can’t see why. I think those things happened in Lincoln, didn’t they? Or am I thinking of something else?

Kelly’s #3 – Jaws

KELLY: We’re 45 minutes into the film.  Hooper and Quinn are out on Hooper’s boat at night because the shark they are looking for is a night feeder.  They come across a fisherman’s upturned  boat,  Hooper jumps in the water to inspect the boat’s hull (always a good idea when you’ve already established you’re most likely to be attacked by this shark at night), and then…

Perfectly normal. Just a severed head popping out through a crack in the ship’s hull. Nothing out of the ordinary.

JULIANNE: A severed head pops up out of nowhere and scares the hell out of Hooper (and apparently you as well).  It’s one of the best jump scares in the film, possibly only rivaled for me by the scene involving Roy Schedier throwing chum into the water and having the shark pop up.

KELLY: The reason I was more scared by the ole severed head trick was that by the time I actually saw Jaws I had seen the “bigger boat” scene so many times on various lists and documentaries that when I saw it in the film the surprise was not so much there.

JULIANNE: It’s a great jump moment.  I’m right there with you.  I remember watching Jaws on TBS, alone in my room, and then that severed head popped up and I suddenly really wanted someone in there with me, but alas I was all alone.

Juli’s #3 – Carrie

JULIANNE: I’m going to go for a slightly older pick and talk about the brilliant ending to the Brian De Palma flick Carrie.  The “it was all a dream” sequence to end all “it was all a dream” sequences.  The hand coming up from the ground to grab poor Amy Irving at the end frightened me to my core.

Here is the moment being discussed in Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments:

KELLY: Timing is crucial with these kinds of things, both in the film and for your own personal experience.  I, unfortunately, can’t relate to the moment you’re talking about because I didn’t see Carrie until well after I had seen the fake-out ending used countless other times in subsequent horror films.  Plus, through sheer cultural osmosis I already knew about the ending  before seeing the film.  I take it you were not similarly burdened?

JULIANNE: I saw that film when I was 8.  So, no.

KELLY: Hold on.  Wait.  What?  You saw Carrie when you were 8?

An 8-year-old girl is old enough to see the R-rated film Carrie, right?

Let’s talk about that for a moment.  Tell me, Juli, how does that make you feel?

JULIANNE: It made me feel very nervous about high school and reluctant to go to the prom, and I certainly never dreamed of being prom queen.  It gave me nightmares for years.  The entire film made me feel sad and terrified, but I at least thought that by the time it came to the ending I was going to get a little bit of peace.  I was wrong.

KELLY:  I take it you were not also 8 when you first saw the other movies on your list?

JULIANNE: To be fair, some of them weren’t out then, but I was 7 or 8 when I saw Jaws.

KELLY: Holy shit, me too!  I was terrified.  I used to sit in the bathturb terrified a Great White was going to emerge from the water and consume me whole any second.  Pools in water parks were obviously completely off limits for me.

JULIANNE: I never had that problem with Jaws.  I was never scared of it after I quit watching it.  It’s a shark – it needs salt water to live.  I was safe just as long I didn’t go into the ocean.  I gladly let my parents do just that, however, when we went to Florida. I just waved to them from the shoreline, said my goodbyes, and told them my prayers were with them.

Going back to Carrie, the fact that I thought the movie was ending and it was all going to be okay made it so much worse.  I mean it turned out to be okay since it was a dream, but by that point the hand had emerged from the ground and shaken me to my core meaning the “don’t worry; it was just a dream cop-out” was no comfort to me.  It is arguably the last-second jump scare the horror film genre has been chasing ever since.

KELLY: Wait, you mean to tell me that whole dream sequence at the end of Friday the 13th wasn’t a trailblazing concept?

Those stupid dream zombies just think its hilarious to sneak up on you while you’re in a boat and pull you under the water, as depicted here from the famous ending of the first Friday the 13th.  What, you didn’t know?  Oh, zombies are notorious pranksters.

JULIANNE: Nope.  They deliberately ripped off Carrie and made no secret of it in interviews. Beyond that ending, Carrie is so much a depiction of this poor, pathetic teenager girl’s life that gets the power to move objects with her mind. Alas, it’s a power she can’t control, and her bullying fellow student body pays the price for that. It’s both shocking and inevitable when she becomes the villain in the end.  However, it is to Brian De Palma and Stephen King’s credit that she is as much the victim as she is the perpetrator.  The film is almost as emotionally wrenching as it is horrifying, and I don’t just mean William Katt’s hair.

Kelly’s #2 – Aliens 

KELLY: When I was but a child there were few scarier moments in all of film than the moment toward the end of James Cameron’s Aliens when Bishop smiled, shook Ripley’s hand, and looked down to see the acid on the ground and then quickly remembered that there didn’t used to be an alien’s tail in his chest.

Here is the scene played in reverse for some reason:

JULIANNE: It’s a great film, and a startling moment to be sure, but I am beginning to become amused by the shocking tameness of your choices.

KELLY: To be fair, and might I add screw you, I was only 6 or 7 when I saw it which suddenly occurs to me means I was being a wee bit hypocritical with my whole “you were 8 when you saw Carrie!”reaction.

JULIANNE: I was going to say, says Mr. Pott to Ms. Kettle.

KELLY: Honestly, the reason the moment scared me so much when I was all of 6 or 7 is kind of the same thing you were talking about with Carrie.

Visual approximation of my first experience watching the ending of Aliens when I was 6 or 7.

Right before that happens in Aliens, it really, really seems like the movie is over.  They’ve escaped off the planet, Newt is save, and you figure that they are moments away from sitting down to a fun game of android knife between the fingers.

JULIANNE: Boy is Newt going to be surprised, because for her the fact that he can do that would be new information.

KELLY: Well, obvbiously Ripley would go first.  Newt is basically her daughter at that point, evoking the sacred oath of finders keepers.  So, to have the knife between the fingers game post-poned was horribly unexpected and the less fun game of tail through chest was the height of, if not abject horror, then at the very least undeniable shock and awe.  I hadn’t seen Alien at that point.  I didn’t know that they were kind of ripping off the hero getting away only to discover the alien has hidden on their getaway ship trope.  All I knew was that Bishop was torn in half by the biggest goddamn monster I had ever seen at that point in my life, and the way in which Lance Henricksen 100% commits to the moment and sells the horror and surprise of being torn in half with all of that white liquid streaming out of his mouth made it so much worse.

JULIANNE: I get that.  I was a bit older so it didn’t have quite the same effect on me.  It’s a good jump moment that I happened to not actually jump at.  Aliens is a brilliant film, though.

Juli’s #2 – The Ring

KELLY: So, we’ve already established that one of the moments on this list apparently made you jump 20 feet into the air?  How far into the air did the ending of The Ring launch you?

Here is the ending of The Ring (American version):

JULIANNE: This is an especially sad story.  I wasn’t a kid when I saw this.  I was a senior in high school.  I have a very distinct memory of going to a run-down theater after rehearsals for our school’s production of Footloose, sitting in the movie theater, and thinking to myself, “How bad can a PG-13 movie be?”  When the big moment happened I had to bite my knuckle to keep from screaming.  When I came out of the theater in pitch black dark I had to drive home through street light-free country roads, and the entire time I was glancing into my rear-view mirror convinced that the little girl from the ring was going to emerge from my dark backseat and kill me at any moment.

KELLY: Well, the best horror film moments make us behave horribly irrationally some times…

JULIANNE: To make it even more ridiculous, I got home to discover my parents weren’t there and all of the lights were off inside.  So, I sat in my car alone for 45 minutes, far too terrified to go inside. When my grandmother, who I called on my cell, told me to just go in and watch tv, I nearly burst into tears.

Great suggestion. Just go watch TV. Fool! The Ring made TV the enemy!

She just didn’t understand that tv was the enemy. To make matters worse, a few days later, I walked into my mom’s room to discover she had left the light in her circular bathroom mirror on, and it was reflecting a perfect circle on her television. Yeah, I ran out of the house into the comforting sunlight.

KELLY: Let’s deal with the first part of the story. What does one listen to on the radio while getting over post-Ring hangover?

JULIANNE: One listens to nothing.  One just sits in the car and shakes, back and forth.

KELLY: Wow.  This shit just got real.  You’re basically telling me The Ring scared you so much it caused you to rock back and forth in the fetal position in your car for nearly an hour.

JULIANNE: The Ring is one of those genius plots because people go to horror movies to have cathartic, fake scares.  The Ring destroys that idea because it implies that the simple act of watching the movie will in fact lead to your death.

KELLY: A similar principle to your nightmares literally killing you in Nightmare on Elm Street.

JULIANNE: Which is another movie that really messed with me as a child because it took away the one rationale I had where as long as I went to sleep the movie couldn’t get me.  Thanks for taking that defense mechanism away from me, Wes Craven.

KELLY: It feels almost insensitive to say this since The Ring clearly gave you a straight up traumatic viewing experience, but I am not a huge fan of the film.  But, more to the point, I wasn’t even remotely scared, startled or surprised by the ending.  Maybe it’s because my set of circumstances for the first time I saw it – at home, half-watching it at night while also writing an essay for a Freshman college class – were so different than your’s.  I was clearly missing out.

JULIANNE: I feel that The Ring gets a bit of a bad wrap now.  It’s the movie that launched a thousand inferior Japanese remakes.  It has a unique look and feel, with a future Oscar-nominated actress in the lead.  I was a complete sucker for that ending.

KELLY: Pretty much every film on my list is something that scared me when I was a kid, and The Mummy didn’t really scare me but more made me squirm as a person who wears glasses.  Something you’ve been able to maintain into adulthood that I have not is the ability to be scared by a horror film.  Maybe I’m just too cynical now or have developed coping mechanisms, such as constantly wondering how they got certain shots or camera angles or the ingenious sound design when a film is supposed to be scary.  I had a bit of that with The Ring.  By the time the surprise ending happens, I was honestly checking my watch waiting for it to happen because I had become so conditioned to except the last-minute twist ending from horror films while also kind of wondering how exactly they pulled off the effect of the girl entering the room through the TV.

JULIANNE: I had assumed the big surprise was that the mother had killed the daughter, and the film was gonna have a reveal similar to the Misha Barton Sixth Sense reveal.  What I hadn’t expected was that solving the entire mystery was in fact futile and irrelevant.  All you could do to escape Shamara’s wrath was to spread her disease to another individual.

Kelly’s #1 – Nightmare on Elm Street

KELLY: Similar to Jaws, I could probably just nominate the entirety of Nightmare of Elm Street and maybe even all of its sequels up until the 6th one as the horror films most responsible for scaring the hell out of me in my lifetime.  I don’t really feel that way now, but there was no scarier boogieman to me than Freddie Krueger, because you couldn’t rationalize your way out of it.  The scene that probably messed with me the most, though, is the bathtub scene:

Here’s the scene:

I had an experience as a kid where I almost drowned.  So, add in that I was probably too young when I saw Jaws I had some serious fear of open water (or just water in general sometimes) and drowning.  So, this scene really played on that by combining the boogieman who scared me the most, Freddie, with a girl being pulled into an unseen depth of water from a bathtub and almost drowning.  It was horrifying.  It’s only when I watch the film now that I pick up on the sexual connotations of Freddie’s gloved hand rising from the water just on the other side of Heather Lankemkamp’s spread-eagled legs as she lay drifting off to sleep in the bathtub.

JULIANNE: Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favorite horror films.  I love the fact that it plays on the fact of how vulnerable we are when we are sleeping.  Given enough time, our bodies will fall asleep no matter what we want.  The moment you are talking about is incredibly creepy and unsettling.  However, the moment that terrified me the most from the film is when Tina dies with Freddie dragging her up the walls and onto the ceiling, as the boyfriend looks on as she is thrown about the room by (to him) an unseen force.  However, I can hardly argue with you about your logic about the bathtub scene.

KELLY: There are more famous sequences in that movie, like the death of Tina and the blood bath that was once the gorgeous, young Johnny Depp’s body.  However, for me it was one of the simplest moments of the entire film that got me the most.

Juli’s #1 – The Descent

JULIANNE: My #1 pick would have to be the image of the cave monster hiding behind the girls in Descent.

KELLY: Also known as reasons #1, 2, and 3 that Kelly shall never go sperlunking.  Really, actually, that entire film qualifies.

JULIANNE: The Descent is an amazing film.  Beyond being exceptionally scary, it operates on an ingenious metaphorical level about a descent into madness.  However, in a more literal sense it is about women trapped in an abandoned cave with no obvious means of escape.  That is already a horrifying and claustrophobic scenario, and you have a terrifying film before anything supernatural happens.  You add cannibalistic primitives to the mix and the film becomes unbearable.  The scene I am talking about is a brilliant moment.  The film does nothing to establish it’s about to happen.  There’s no music, or obvious jump moment.  In fact, the creature is just suddenly standing behind them.

The scariest case of photobombing I can think of.

It happens so fast it takes you a second to register what you are seeing, taking around as long to adjust as the other characters on screen do.  It’s among the most unsettling moments I’ve seen captured on film.

Here’s the scene:

KELLY: And yet for all of the brilliance of that moment the overall film may be best remembered by both of us as the one that when we saw together there were pre-school-aged children in the audience for some unknown reason.

JULIANNE: That’s right, there were, freakishly young children that I assume were brought by a babysitter.  I had never felt more horrified for children or for their mental well-being in my life.  I worry in fact they may still be in therapy as a result of this incident.

Back to that scare, though. The film’s done enough to establish how creepy everything is before this moment, and you’ve seen brief glimpses of these creatures.  You feel off-balance, because the film has an almost surreal, nightmare quality that keeps you on the edge of your seat for its entire running time.  That scene just pushes you over the edge.

KELLY: For me, that film would have been terrifying even without the cannibals.

JULIANNE: Oh, yeah. The film is an absolutely viscerally terrifying experience.  It’s amazing how much darkness is around the frame of the screen.  The actors look tiny in this small, dark world they’re being forced to inhabit, and that makes the film all the more unsettling, because you feel like abything could be lurking in that enveloping, overwhelming darkness.

KELLY: I think actual immersion therapy for those with claustrophobia would be less terrifying than watching The Descent.

JULIANNE: I agree.

KELLY: Holy crap, are we done?

JULIANNE:  I think so.

KELLY: So, to recap: glasses, or lack thereof,

JULIANNE: House of the Devil

KELLY: Severed heads, growling bags, alien tails through chest, hands from ground, girl in a well and out of a television, glove in a bathtub, and a good old fashioned, “But, wait, there are 6 people in the room.  Why do I count 7?” all combined to scare the living beejevus out of us, though not necessarily each one of us.

JULIANNE: It’s tragic how many great moments we’re leaving out.  The Pale Man in Pans Labryinth, the creepy, evil twins in Kubrick’s The Shining…

KELLY:   All moments which didn’t scare me one iota.

JULIANNE: What?  You mean the creepy man with eyes in his hands in Pans Labryinth didn’t scare you?

KELLY:  Nope.

JULIANNE: I don’t accept that.  You can’t be seriously telling me that this:

did not scare you a little?

KELLY: I just thought it looked cool, and couldn’t help but wonder what those days on set were like for the guy playing the creature with eyes in his hands.

JULIANNE: Ugh, you are a cylon.  You disgust me.

KELLY: Stay classy, Julianne Ramsey.

What are your favorite scary movie moments?  How old were you when you first saw a scary movie?  Are you secretly an enemy of our’s who now knows just how to scare us?  If so, well played, well played indeed, but for the rest of you leave a comment.


    1. I’ve seen a lot of people mention The Sixth Sense for this kind of thing, specifically the sequence with the ghost of the little girl (a pre-OC Mischa Barton) vomiting under the bed sheets. Psycho and Jaws are classics of course, and my friend Julianne was freaked out by The Ring. It’s cool that The Babadook made your list considering how new it is.

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