The weekend before Halloween (which falls on Monday) is when most people binge horror movies in preparation and celebration of this autumn holiday. Part of selecting which horror stories to watch includes finding the best ones to scare the pants off viewers, so it’s time for a list of the top 10 scariest moments in horror movies.
I already gave you lists for the top 10 best horror movies of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as well as a companion list of the top 10 best horror movies of the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s. So be sure to check out those lists when making your selections for Halloween viewing.
Today’s list was especially difficult to narrow down, because once again there’s just so much excellent horror content to choose from. But in the end, there were several obvious choices and a few that won hard-fought battles for their spot on the list. I think this is pound for pound the best collection of horror scares to watch if you want to make yourself second-guessing shutting off the lights at bedtime this Halloween.
Remember, since I’m talking about the scariest moments from these films, I inevitably need to give you a big spoiler warning here. Presumably, though, you aren’t seeking out a list of the scariest moments in horror movies if you’re worried about having any surprises revealed, but just in case — consider yourself spoiler-warned!
So without further ado, let’s get to it — here in no particular order are the top 10 scariest moments of all time in horror movie history! Enjoy, and be sure to check under your bed and in the closet before you drift off to sleep…
ALIEN — The chestburster scene is among the most well-known in horror history, and for good reason. It’s so unexpected and comes in the middle of a normal, jokey moment between the ensemble of characters, a sudden realistic eruption of violence and bloody gore revealing yet another monster to torment our heroes.
THE EXORCIST — Regan’s backward head-spin is in the context of a scene that’s already horrible and scary, because it’s the big reveal of the demon in full possession of Regan. It’s a shocking scene of raw terror in a child’s bedroom in an otherwise ordinary home, and then comes the bone-crunching vision of her head twisting around with a grin that will haunt your nightmares forever.
POLTERGEIST — The scene of the clown doll coming to life is a childhood fear we can all relate to. The slow burn as the boy and the audience realize the doll is missing from its chair and the deathly silence as the boy steels himself to check under the bed makes us hold our breath, but nothing is there and we breathe a sigh of relief just as the possessed clown toy pops up to attack.
JAWS — When we really see the shark for first time, it’s one of the most iconic jump-scares in history. We’ve already witnessed the destruction left in its wake, but this is the first full shot we get of the massive great white as it lunges from the otherwise calm seas on what we think is another lazy afternoon on the boat, catching the characters and audience completely off-guard.
HALLOWEEN (2018) — The opening institution sequence of the Blumhouse revival film culminating in patients losing control while the podcaster screams, “Say something!” is a master class in building tension and fear without any overt “horror” reveals. Homicidal maniac Michael Myers barely even moves his head, but the presence of the mask and sense of dread will make your hair stand on end.
PSYCHO — The infamous shower scene is one of the most memorable moments of any movie in any genre. The seeming star of the movie is at her most vulnerable, and then the entire story turns on a dime with the arrival of the creepy shadow through the shower curtain, followed by the heart-stopping reveal of the raised knife and that iconic theme music. All of these years later, it still hasn’t lost any of its intensity.
THE EXORCIST III — The scissors scene is among the best jump-scares ever put on screen. The tense buildup and static camera position as we wait for… well, we don’t know what we’re waiting for, we have no idea what to expect in this sterile clinical setting and silent mundane work, we just know something is coming. The quickness of the shot and the fact we don’t actually see the end result — just the vivid portrayal of the means, enough to let our imaginations do the work — makes it even worse.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — The final shot with a point and a scream will chill you to the bone. We’ve grown close to these characters and invested in the belief they’re survivors who are smart enough to find their way through to the end. So what should be a final moment of triumph and reunion instead becomes a vicious betrayal subverting our faith and revealing the deep terror of the idea our trusted loved ones could turn against us.
HALLOWEEN (1978) — The revelation that Michael is gone at the end tops all of the other frightening scenes in this iconic horror entry. We’ve been through plenty of scares and murderous moments already, but it’s in the final moment of stillness and false victory that we suddenly realize the evil is still out there, and rather than an overt scary image it’s the absence of anything at all that can be the most terrifying thing to behold.
THE EXORCIST — The medical procedure scene has a special kind of horror to it. In a story filled with so much demonic menace, the eerie matter-of-fact realism and painful depiction of the doctors and nurses at work, juxtaposed with Regan’s childlike fear and agony, somehow transforms a straightforward hospital setting into one of the most disturbing and shocking moments of the entire film.
And there you have it, dear readers, the absolute scariest moments of all time in horror cinema history. If there are any you haven’t seen before, be sure to check them out — you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve already seen them, hopefully you will revisit a few again for the sheer thrill of it.
I still have some more Halloween content to share with you this season, so be sure to check back for my interview with horror producer extraordinaire Peter Phoke as we discuss his career, his filmmaking with Ti West, what he has in store for us in the future, and much more.
And as always, be safe out there and have a happy, fun Halloween — and don’t forget to mask up, this is the perfect holiday for it!