WARNING: THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE IS SPOILER-ISH.
When I talk about shocking moments in horror, I don’t mean startling revelations of the Bruce-Willis-is-a-Ghost variety, rather instances that produce a strong physical, visceral reaction. Some of the best shocking moments come late in the First Act or the beginning of Act Two, usually preceding a significant shift in tone and intensity. One of the best examples from horror history is the infamous scene in The Exorcist where young Regan (how shall I put this)… loses her virginity to a crucifix; sure the movie was already scary as hell, but this moment took things to a whole new level of terror.
Occasionally, a truly shocking moment is delivered in tandem with a plot reveal, like the scene in Psycho where we discover that Norman Bates’ mother is a corpse. But even when extreme moments are independent of a reveal, there is something spoiler-ish about discussing horror’s most shocking scenes. Most of these films are so well know that the cat’s been out of the bag for years. But if you haven’t seen some or any of the movies on this list, and you’re the kind of aficionado that loves a good surprise, make a mental note of these titles while skipping over the commentary.
Whatever your opinion of these films as a whole, these moments constitute some of the most shocking moments in horror ever committed to celluloid. Hang on to your hats and glasses, ‘cause it’s gunna be a wild ride!
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Scene: Angela is not what she appears to be.
When The Crying Game was blowing people’s minds with a shocking gender reveal in 1992, horror fans of a certain age were, like, “Been there, done that.” Part of what made Angela’s true identity so stunning was that issues of trans-sexuality were almost never discussed openly when Sleepaway Camp was released in 1983. For adolescent male viewers, this moment was perplexing and disturbing, not only for its reveal, but for what it implied about puberty and gender identity. The idea that the shy, mousey girl you have a crush on might not be a girl at all was, for many viewers, terrifying.
Cabin Fever (2002)
Scene: Marcy shaves her legs.
In a movie filled with disgusting moments, the scene in Cabin Fever where Marcy (Cerina Vincent) shaves her legs takes the cake. It’s not merely that she pulls away layers of dissolving flesh with each stroke of the razor, it’s that she doesn’t even seem to notice. In this moment, the film sheds most of its comic trappings in favor of unsettling dread, as viewers begin to suspect that this weekend in the woods won’t turn out well for anyone; it’s the moment when the characters and viewers must come to terms with the fact that all is lost.
Scene: Marty at the mirror.
Poltergeist may have been directed by Tobe Hooper (the man who helmed the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but it’s a film littered with the hallmark trappings of script co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg. In retrospect, Poltergeist feels more akin to PG films like The Goonies and Inner Space than an actual horror movie—except for one particular scene. It’s a moment that has Hooper’s sensibilities all over it, and it’s one of the most shocking moments in horror ever filmed. Proceeded by a gag-inducing moment involving cold meat and maggots, Marty (Martin Casello) stands before a bathroom mirror—and rips his face off.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Scene: Rachel’s sister Zelda.
The subplot in Pet Sematary detailing Rachel’s experiences growing up with a debilitated and clinically insane older sister is almost scarier than the main storyline. It’s a scene that traps viewers in a state of childhood terror, creating an unsettling moment of rare intensity. Zelda’s twisted body, waxy skin with sunken eyes, and witch-like cackle combine to produce an uncommon sense of claustrophobic dread. While it’s not necessarily obvious that Zelda is played by a man (Andrew Hubatsek) it no doubt adds subconscious layers of terror, intensifying the sensation that there is something sinister and otherworldly about her.
Hard Candy (2005)
Scene: Jeff’s “castration”.
Castration and emasculation are hardly new tropes in horror, as almost nothing fills a man’s heart with more fear than the thought of losing his member and/or jewels. But what Jeff endures at the hands of a supposedly sweet and innocent teenager is a whole new ballgame (yes, pun intended). It’s not just the way actor Patrick Wilson commits to the scene, emoting terror with extreme intensity, it’s the calm, merciless way Hayley Stark (played chillingly by Ellen Page) conducts the operation: A mix of cold, procedural science with just a hint of child-like curiosity. True, turns out it was all a ruse, but by the time we find out, both Jeff and the male members of the audience have been severely psychologically traumatized.
Scene: Gremlin in the microwave.
Up until this moment in Act Two, Gremlins is a fun and festive romp with just a hint of something wicked. Everything changes when Billy’s Mom comes face to scaly-face with the newly transformed mogwai, who prove themselves to be more than simply mischievous—but downright murderous! And while the tone of the film shifts quickly from the moment the Gremlins “hatch”, the scene where one unlucky creature gets nuked in a microwave is nothing short of shocking. The way it explodes into goop is nauseating, and the connection to an urban legend about a woman drying off her pet poodle combines to create a moment of rare intensity. This is the instant in the film when all of the parents in the audience wondered if they had made a mistake bringing their children; it’s also a moment that may have inspired a new generation of horror fans.
Twilight Zone: The Movie, It’s a Good Life (1983)
Scene: Sara doesn’t have a mouth.
A scene doesn’t have to be bloody or over-the-top to be shocking as hell; sometimes something seemingly subtle can elicit a serious visceral reaction. When young Anthony (Jeremy Licht) tells his houseguest Helen (Kathleen Quinlan) that his sister Sara (Cherie Currie) can’t speak because “she was in an accident”, his words are both ominous and chilling. The truth or her predicament, however, is much more terrifying: Sara doesn’t have a mouth. No, I don’t mean her mouth is sewn shut, I mean her face has no freakin’ mouth! The impossibility of her affliction and Sara’s wild eyes focused intently on television cartoons is utterly alarming. The mental image is giving me shivers now just thinking about it!
The Fly (1986)
Scene: Brundlefly “eats”.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly is unnerving from the get go, with its dark sets and gothic atmosphere. But what really makes this film a heavyweight is the gore and body horror associated with the transformation of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). He loses teeth and fingernails, his hair starts to thin, and a thick exoskeleton begins to form over his skin—and it’s all just awful. But nothing is quite as shocking or disgusting as when we see how he eats. Not only is the sudden expulsion of green, acidic vomit startling, it hints at even more shocking changes to come. The fact that Veronica (Geena Davis) hugs Brundlefly close, smearing his vomit all over herself in the process, is enough to send squeamish viewers running for the exits.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Scene: Lizard violates a new mother.
The 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes is the first English language film from French director Alexandre Aja—one of the pioneers of New French Extremity. Know for his fearless filmmaking, Aja wanted to do more than simply redo Wes Craven’s 1977 original, he wanted to take the relentless torment and torture of the Carter family to terrifying new depth. The mutants’ initial attack is a cacophony of sadism that involves setting the family patriarch ablaze before descending on the females. Yes, there is rape, which is shocking and difficult to watch, but it’s another violation that really takes things to a new level of depravity. When Lizard (Robert Joy), the cleft-lipped mutant, notices that Lynn Carter (Vinessa Shaw) has an infant child, he suddenly craves her motherly nourishment. The look of helpless panic and dismay on Lynn’s face as Lizard suckles her is gut wrenching.
Scene: The “Chestburster” emerges.
The scene in Alien where the Xenomorph larva explodes out of a crew member’s chest is perhaps the most shocking moment in the entirety of horror. This violent “birth” and the gore it produces still floors many horror fans today. Director Ridley Scott used real blood and entrails from a butcher shop for this scene, and even kept the cast in the dark regarding just how powerfully disgusting he intended it to be—thereby producing genuinely shocked reactions for the camera. Rumor has it that Veronica Cartwright, the actress who plays crew-member Lambert, was so stunned by the eruption of viscera that she fainted on the spot.
What do you believe are some of the most shocking moments in horror? Let me know in the comments section.
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