Most films, especially horror films, are usually only remembered for one or two scenes—the moments that really impacted us, whether by making us crack up, sob ourselves dry, or scare the wits out of us.
In horror, the scariest scenes are the ones that make us hide behind our fingers, jump out of our seats, and make our skin crawl whenever we think back on those scenes later.
Scary scenes linger in our psyche because they successfully touched on something unsettling, terrifying, or disturbing.
Here are my picks for the scariest horror movie scenes of all time. These are the ones that pop in our minds whenever we wake up in the night.
10. Annie's Possession in Hereditary (2018)
Director Ari Aster has become one of the biggest names in the modern horror genre. Part of the reason why is the stunning climax of his directorial feature film debut: Hereditary.
After Peter (played by Alex Wolff) wakes up at home, he goes looking for his parents—only to find his father's charred corpse downstairs. Then his mother appears, chasing him. What follows is just spine-chilling.
Hereditary has a dreadful build to its heart-pounding final sequence, the kind that will make every hair on your body stand on end.
9. Leatherface Appears in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Leatherface's first appearance in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still one of the most effective villain introductions in cinema history. From this, he became instantly iconic.
When Kirk (played by William Vail) goes into an isolated house in hopes of buying gas, he encounters a man wearing a mask of human flesh. Stunned in his tracks, he's unable to evade the hammer that comes crashing down on his head.
As Leatherface carries him off and closes the steel door behind him, the abruptness of the scene shocks us to the core and stays with us well after the film concludes.
8. The Blood Test in The Thing (1982)
The crew in Antarctica haven't slept. They don't trust each other and they're at their wits' end. Fortunately, they've finally devised a means by which they can detect the thing that hides among them: a blood test.
Tensions are palpably high and we all suspect that the monster is going to pop up at any moment. But just when we suspect someone, the blood of a peripheral character reacts to the test and chaos ensues.
Directed by John Carpenter, this scene from The Thing downright terrifying, largely due to the special effects work of Rob Bottin.
7. The Chestburster in Alien (1979)
Of all the scary scenes on this list, it's Alien that has the slowest and longest build-up. However, all of that build-up is necessary to make full impact as this scene kicks things up several gears.
The crew of the Nostromo have just sat down to eat some food. They're all delighted that Kane (played by John Hurt) is feeling better after the weird parasite from outer space detached itself from his face.
By all accounts, he looks totally fine.
But then he starts to choke. His crewmates initially joke that it's just the bad food, only to realize that it's serious—and they eventually see that he isn't choking on food at all. There's something inside.
This moment is still one of the most iconic sci-fi movie scenes of all time, making it well worth a watch if you haven't seen it already.
6.The Truth About Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960)
The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock petrifies us with the climactic scene in his most iconic work: Psycho.
As Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles) investigates the basement of Norman Bates's house, she thinks she might be lucky in finding her sister Marion (played by Janet Leigh).
Unfortunately, she discovers something she couldn't possibly have anticipated: the skeleton of Norman's mother.
As she shrieks, terrified, she turns and sees Norman Bates wielding a knife behind her, dressed in his mother's clothes. It's easily one of the most gut-wrenching sequences in horror cinema.
5. The Sacrifice in The Wicker Man (1973)
Modern folk horror cinema wouldn't be where it is today without the influence of Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man from 1973.
Sergeant Howie (played by Edward Woodward) has been sent to a small island off the coast of Britain to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Unfortunately for him, he's walking right into a trap.
The islanders are all part of a cult, waiting for him to drop his guard. However, it's only when Howie realizes what they intend to do with him that the real horror finds its way into the scene: a pagan human sacrifice.
Woodward's reaction makes the scene all the more terrifying. (It's clear where Ari Aster got his inspiration when he made Midsommar!)
4. The Levitation in The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist was so scary upon release that people threw up and even fainted when watching it. The Catholic Church condemned the film, critics reviled it, and it was forbidden from being shown in public to anyone under 18 years old.
Of all the scenes in The Exorcist, the scariest will always be the levitation sequence. It's downright legendary.
As two priests try to drive out the evil demon that's inhabiting a teenage girl's body, things begin to fly all over the room as the demon resists. And when the bindings around her wrists are freed, she begins to levitate.
While that might not sound very harrowing in this day and age, the reactions from the two priests (played by Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) are chilling as they realize they're in the presence of an extremely powerful—and extremely evil—spirit.
3. "Bring Me the Boy" in The Babadook (2014)
The Babadook remains a massively underrated film given that it's one of the best metaphorical dramatizations of grief.
This scene in question actually finds our protagonist meeting with the object of her trauma: the manifestation of her dead husband. As they embrace, he tells her that they can be together forever: "All you have to do is bring me the boy."
The words send chills down our spine as we watch. We come to realize that this woman is being tempted into killing her own son. What's worse is that, given her instability, we aren't entirely sure how she'll respond to this supernatural entity...
2. The Basement in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most terrifying movies to not rely on jump scares, and this scene is strong evidence of that.
As Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) tracks down the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, she follows him down into a basement where the pitch black envelops her.
Soon, it becomes apparent that there's someone else in the room with her—and they're wearing night vision goggles.
As he reaches out his hands to grab her, we close our eyes hoping that the unbearable tension will come to an end.
1. The Bathroom in The Shining (1980)
There are a lot of scary scenes in The Shining to choose from: the elevator scene, the sequence with Jack Torrance approaching his wife menacingly on the stairs, or the entire ending of the film for that matter.
However, the sequence that I maintain is the scariest in The Shining is the bathroom scene. Everything about this sequence between Jack and Grady is the epitome of unsettling horror.
The strange, red bathroom establishes a sense of unease before their conversation even starts: the isolated setting and the unassuming demeanor of the former caretaker, right before the insidious change. Something is definitely, unmistakably wrong here.
Then Delbert Grady (expertly portrayed by Philip Stone) increases the creep factor all the way up to eleven. Grady convinces Jack that his boy should be punished for his transgression, for trying to make Jack lose his job. As Jack muses on this, his facial expression grows sinister.
And that's why this relatively quiet scene ranks for me as the scariest horror scene of all time: in the paranoid, deranged, and violent mind of our protagonist, we witness the moment he decides to kill his own family.
Jack arrives to that decision before our very eyes, with Jack Nicholson's stellar portrayal of a man influenced by demonic spirits so good that we can't help but believe all of what's taking place.