One of my favourite sites is the Retro Crush Top 100 Scariest Movie scenes. Granted, I usually have a hard time falling asleep at night after I’ve visited the site, but masochist that I am I enjoy it anyway. The site is a fun read and a great inspiration if you’re ever going to host a horror flick slumber party or a Halloween party or the like.
Also, as a blogger, I’m in awe at the thought of all the work Robert Berry, the author of the list, must have gone through…! Not just watching the horror movies, but also finding an individual place for each scary scene on a scale of 1 to 100. And I have to admire his short descriptions, efficiently coupled with excellent movie stills. There are a lot of the movies that he mentions that I’ve never seen, but his great eye for horror has helped him pick out some gruelling stills that I find truly haunting, even without knowing the context of the movie. Very well done.
I’ve been wanting for some time to do a list of Scariest Movie Scenes of my own. But as I sat down to brainstorm for the list, I discovered something peculiar: None of the movie scenes that had scared me the most were from actual horror movies! Retrocrush lists a few non-horror movie scenes as well, but they don’t take up his entire Top 5 the way they do for me.
I thought that was interesting. Does it mean that I haven’t watched enough horror flicks in my time? Or is it simply that it is easier to be scared by scary scenes in a non-horror movie, because the horror comes unexpectedly? I don’t know, but after I was consoled by this fine youtube video with the knowledge that it’s normal to be scared of non-horror movie scenes, I thought I’d present you with my list nevertheless. So here goes:
5. The Dead Baby Crawls Across the Ceiling During Renton’s Trip-Out in Trainspotting
I regret that my memory is somewhat foggy when it comes to Trainspotting on the whole; I watched it in English class in high school ten years ago and I haven’t seen it since. But still, this one scene stands out to me very vividly as one of the scariest movie scenes I’ve ever seen.
It’s the scene where the main character, Renton (Ewan McGregor) is in bed after having gone off drugs cold turkey and is having a series of terrifying hallucinations as the drugs leave his system. His terror culminates as he stares up at the ceiling to find that Dawn, his friend Allison’s baby girl who has died in an earlier scene, is crawling towards him across the ceiling, upside down. As the baby is just above him it stops and spins its head around to look at him.
You can see the scene here:
I don’t think it’s as scary out of context as it was when I watched the movie in its entirety, though. Most of the horror does not stem from the images of the scene in themselves, but from the scene earlier on when Renton and his friends find that the baby has died (supposedly from neglect) while they’ve been out of their minds on drugs.
I was sleepless for a night after my teacher showed us the movie at school. I remember my teacher looking very pale and white the next day and apologizing to us that she didn’t know that the movie was going to be that intense, and I wondered if she’d been insomniac, too.
4. Bringing in the Frozen Fishermen: Pelle the Conqueror
When I was a kid in the 80s, Pelle the Conqueror was all the rage in Denmark. Made by Danish director Bille August, it won both the “Golden Palms” award at Cannes and the Academy Award in the category “Best Foreign Language Movie” in 1989, and the whole thing really tickled the Danish pride and Pelle the Conqueror became a Danish must-see. Indeed, Pelle the Conqueror is a great movie, depicting brutally and heart-wrenchingly the early life of young boy Swedish Pelle and his old father Lasse (ever amazing Max von Sydow) who immegrate to the Danish island Bornholm after the death of Pelle’s mother.
Despite its young protagonist the film is not, however, a kids’ movie, and I still think it was a really bad idea of my parents to let me watch the movie with them when I was about six years old. The drama features several incredibly scary scenes, including children being whipped, infanticide, and a man screaming in agony after having been castrated by his wife (!).
However, the scene that stands out to me as the most scary is the scene where Pelle witnesses three dead fishermen being recovered from the icy sea after having supposedly frozen to death in their boats.
(the scene starts at 7:28 in the below video)
The cameo of the three frozen bodies is actually pretty easy to miss: The main focus of the scene is Pelle who is being bullied by his school mates, and the bodies are not even mentioned by anyone. But as it often goes with horror in movies, the suggestion of something terrible is far mor startling than explicit gore, and the discrete image of the frozen bodies scared the living daylights out of me when I first watched this movie and had my imagination working overtime: Who were those fishermen? What were they even doing out there on sea? Were they really in a position where they had to go fishing, even when the sea was frozen?
It’s a brilliant move on director August’s part, in that it subtly hints at the hardships of the poor people that are Pelle the Conqueror‘s main characters and the brutality of Nature which is a major theme in the movie. Furthermore, the frozen bodies present the icy sea to us as a freezing killer, thus setting the scene perfectly for the shock when Pelle jumps into the water, eager to prove his worth to the bullying boys. And take care to note the excellent effect of the soundtrack: As soon as we catch the first glimpse of the bodies, a shrill note from a string starts up, at the same time creating an icy, bone-chilling atmosphere around the macabre recovery and building up the tension between Pelle and the boys, releasing it only after Pelle’s near-fatal jump.
Still, I’m not sure I’ll ever completely forgive Bille August for the chilling scare he gave my six-year-old self.
3. “Guess again!”: The Nazi Guy Picks the Wrong Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When I was a kid I liked Indiana Jones a lot. I watched Temple of Doom several times during my childhood and while I was grossed out by some elements (like the eye-soup/monkey brain thing), I mostly found the adventure movie entertaining and enjoyable. I guess that was probably why my parents figured it would be OK for me to watch the third movie, The Last Crusade when it came on when I was about nine or ten.
That proved to be a mistake, though. Not that I didn’t like it; I loved it, especially the depiction of Indy’s relationship to his father. But there was one scene that simply proved too much for my young self to take: the Wrong Grail scene.
Indiana Jones has made it to the temple that is supposed to house the Holy Grail, and Indy is desperate to find the grail because his father Henry (the one and only Sean Connery. *Le sigh*.) has been fatally wounded and only the holiness of the Grail may cure him. Unfortunately, Indy’s followed by evil Nazis Donovan and Elsa who want to get their greedy hands on the grail, too, and when the knight that guards the grail asks them to identify the true grail among a selection of false cups, Elsa picks the most flashy-looking cup and offers it to Donovan. Donovan drinks from it, despite the knight’s warning that the false cup may take his life, and this is when things get scary: Immediately after drinking from the grail, Donovan starts aging rapidly! He grabs a screaming Elsa’s shoulder and stammeringly asks her what’s happening, all the while his cheeks hollow, his hair grows, his skin wrinkles and cracks, his eyes pop out, and finally his skeleton falls to the ground.
Watching this as a child, I was horrified. I duck down under a blanket I had wrapped around me, and didn’t come out until the movie had ended. And even so, I couldn’t sleep that night, and I was deeply traumatized and I have never really gotten over it. My brother still enjoys grabbing my shoulder and grunting “What’s… happening… to me…??!!” just to freak me out.
And it still does freak me out. People keep telling me that if I just watch the scene again, I would realize how poorly the scene was done, that the whole thing looks like clamation, and then I wouldn’t be scared of it anymore. But again; horror is often less about great and gory special effects and more about suggestion. The suggestion of a situation where a man ages a decade and dies in a matter of seconds is gruesome to me, and the fact that he is conscious during the process and (at least vaguely) aware of what is happening just tops it. Brrrr.
Brutally scary, and I’ll never, ever watch the scene again. I may re-watch the movie, but I’ll cover my eyes and ears during that scene. In fact I didn’t even re-watch it while writing this post. So if I didn’t recount the scene correctly I apologize, but I’m not going to set myself straight.
2. “What do I look like, a jack-ass??” The Donkey Metamorphosis Scene in Pinocchio
Surprisingly, this one is not a scene that freaked me out as a kid. You see, when I was a little girl I had a weird fixation on metamorphoses, and I loved the idea of being turned into an animal. I’m not sure why, but I did. And so I actually thought it was pretty cool when the little boys in Pinocchio were turned into donkeys, and even rather envied them.
Much has changed since then, however, and when I re-watched Pinocchio a couple of years ago, I couldn’t believe that I’d ever enjoyed that particular scene. Truly this is the most inappropriate and disturbing scene ever to be found in a Disney movie. Retrocrush’s list includes the Pink Elephant Trip-out Scene in Dumbo, but to me that one is not even close to being as scary as the horrors that are found in Pinnochio.
The scene takes place as Pinocchio, along with dozens of other pre-adolescent boys, has been lured off to Pleasure Island where they get to drink beer, smoke cigars, ride merry-go-rounds, play billiards and do nothing useful all day. What they don’t know, however, is that this pleasance comes with a terrible price…
Gaah! Dude! The dramaturgy of the scene where Lampwick slowly but surely realizes that he’s turning into a donkey and pleads Pinocchio for help is ridiculously scary. I’m especially freaked out by the shot of Lampwick lifting up his hands helplessly, only to see them turned into donkey’s hooves. And of course the juxtaposition of Jiminy’s witnessing the poor donkeys getting shipped off in boxes like merchandise (supposedly to be used for hard labour) only adds to the horror as it shows us Pinnochio’s and Lampwick’s prospects after their transformation. Not to mention: What exactly happened to poor kids like little Alexander who were still human enough to be able to speak??
Truly a scarred-for-life moment. And regardless of my fascination with this scene as a kid, I don’t think I’ll ever let any kid of my own watch this movie.
1. Cardboard Ted Danson Stands by the Window in Three Men and a Baby
Yes, yes, go ahead and mock me. The scariest scene I’ve ever seen is from 1987 comedy Three Men and a Baby. I really, really wish I were kidding about this, but I’m not. It’s true.
But how did an innocent comedy about three men who are charged with the responsibility of taking care of an infant scare me? Well, the thing is that I believed the urban legend that surfaced in 1990, according to which a ghost boy makes an appearance in one of the movie’s scenes. In the scene where Ted Danson has invited his mother over and is trying to convince her to take care of baby Mary (whom he unwittingly fathered), a strange figure, looking rather like a boy of about 10 years, may be seen in the background, standing by the window, contemplating the two thespians and the baby.
The eerie apparation wasn’t noticed until the movie was released on video tape, but then it got a lot of attention. It was even made subject of a Danish prime-time talk show which was how I found out about it. I refused to sleep in my own bed for two nights afterwards, convinced that if I looked towards the window, I’d find the ghost boy standing there, staring back at me. I never really got over it, and I found it hard to shrug off my fears the way I’d usually do if I’d been scared by a movie. Because what made this scene so scary was that if the rumours were true, the scare factor had nothing to do with a director wanting to scare his audience by making a effectively constructing a scary scene (as the scene was clearly directed to be a humourous one) and everything to do with the miserable, restless soul of a dead boy. And even worse, if the rumours were true, then the scene was possibly proof that unhappy dead people like that boy were all around us, sadly contemplating us.
Of course it turned out that it was simply a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson’s likeness, a prop that had been left in the scene by mistake. I know this now. And yet – when I tried to watch this scene again recently, I found that I was pretty much every bit I freaked out as I was as a seven-year-old. I guess there’ll always be that small part of me that wonders if that wasn’t really a ghost.
Or possibly I just have an irrational fear of cardboard representations of Ted Danson that I don’t know about. Could be.