Everyone has that memory. That time you were sitting in front of a TV or curled up with a book when, out of nowhere, the hairs on your arms began to raise. You began to question your own safety and the fear set in. Horror movies, TV shows, and more all try to be scary but, most of the time, they aren’t. They might be gory or creepy but there’s a difference between that and legitimate fear. Maybe it just happens for a second but when it does, you’ll never forget it.
A few weeks ago, most of us shared scenes that scared us from films that weren’t in the horror genre. Now, we’re revealing which bits of media purposefully made to scare us actually did.
I wasn’t alive when John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween was released and helped popularize the slasher niche of horror. By the time I saw the film I was way more familiar with Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger than Michael Myers. So when I finally did sit down to watch Halloween it did something all the Nightmares and Fridays never did: it scared the shit out of me. But it wasn’t the stabbing and strangling that got me. It was the stalking. After Michael escapes, he spends several scenes driving around Haddonfield, staring at people. He appears behind a bush, then disappears. He simply stares up into a window. Those were the scenes that really sunk in because we had an idea of what he might be capable of and, unlike Freddy or Jason, it felt perfectly plausible. If a psycho was going to kill you, this is what they’d do. And that grounding terrified me.
James Wan and Ingrid Bisu’s newest horror movie Malignant is either one of the best things you’ve seen this year or a complete mess. Whatever you think about Wan’s return to horror depends on whether or not you can groove with its baddie Gabriel. For most of the movie, he’s just a dude with a wicked knife who walks weirdly and has surprisingly good parkour skills, taking sick joy in ruining Madison’s (Annabelle Wallis) life—all while Ray Chase voices him with gleeful wickedness. [SPOILERS INCOMING] Following the big twist, that he’s Madison’s conjoined twin and has been hijacking her body to pull off his kills, the movie goes for broke in spectacular fashion. In body horror glory, Maddie peels the back of her head so Gabriel can make himself known, and then do what’s scientifically known as “flip his shit.” Watching him carve a bloody path through the police station to get his coat and knife back is frightening on his own, but then he decimates the cops inside without breaking a sweat, throwing a chair at two survivors just to be petty. Who knows if this is a franchise in the making, but Wan’s direction and contortionist Marina Mazepa made Gabriel a villain that’ll be hard to forget.
Although it inspired a two-season TV series remake in 2009, the original V miniseries isn’t exactly a major fixture in the science fiction pantheon. But I will never forget it, as it has been scarred into my psyche. The original V only consisted of two TV movies that aired in 1983, chronicling the arrival of (seemingly) benevolent, (seemingly) humans from outer space who came to Earth to help and share their technology with our struggling world. Only a few people are willing to look this gift horse in the mouth, and what they find is that beneath their synthetic skin are lizard people who plan to turn humanity into to-go meals.
There are several reasons V scared me so much. First, it involved aliens and those that know me know my childhood fear of aliens. Second, I was watching it in the dark with my little brother, who had long since fallen asleep, and the only adult in the vicinity was my emotionally distant, chain-smoking grandmother, who wasn’t concerned enough about my welfare to prevent me from watching V, a show in which a woman detaches her jaw and eats a living guinea pig when I was—and this is the third reason—only six years old. I was already paralyzed with terror when the first alien ripped off his face to reveal the hideous alien underneath, and that was that. I was immediately certain my grandmother and my parents were all secretly lizard aliens, as if NBC had aired a stunning news exposé instead of a cheesy sci-fi miniseries. I also became convinced that the only way to survive was to pretend I didn’t know they were lizard people and live with them in silent terror so they wouldn’t need to kill me to keep their existence a secret. I’m not sure how long that lasted, but it was certainly far, far longer than was necessary or I would have preferred.
I’ve never intentionally watched a horror movie or TV show in my 29 years of life, and the needle pit scene from Saw II is partially to blame. To be clear, I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is. The circumstances in which I saw this scene did not help. There was no cell phone service. My friend’s house, and the cold basement where my high school volleyball team congregated, was deep, deep in the woods of the Northwest corner of Connecticut. There were no parents to be found for miles. It was also freezing. I spent most of the evening inside my sleeping bag praying to the horror movie gods for this to be the shortest film ever made. One of the few times I peeked out to acquire air and some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to promptly retreat back to the safety of my makeshift cave and the warmth of my iPod Touch, I saw a distressed woman get thrown into a pit of needles. It was horrible, it was VILE, and still, decades later is holding strong as truly offensive to my physical body. I still can’t look when I get a shot. Mind you, this is the only scene in Saw II I actually saw... so I can’t vouch for the rest of the movie or the franchise itself. I will enjoy all horror content vicariously through io9 for the rest of my life (Gizmodo forever).
I, like Autumn before me, and perhaps even more so considering she has seen at least A Horror Movie, am an absolute little baby when it comes to even the mildest of spooks (I get my Halloween excitement from The Simpsons, and always have, thank you). So imagine my surprise last year when I not only found myself compelled by HBO’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country but willing to stick around week by week, even as the show quickly started with wild, gross jump scare action and just got wilder and creepier as it went on.
The first time I contemplated completely nope-ing my way out of this endeavor came with episode three of the series, “Holy Ghost” which is full of distressing, nightmarish imagery and jump scare ghouls. Jurnee Smollet’s Leti finds the house she purchased is occupied by some very traumatized spirits. But nothing got me quite like the moment where one of her trapped neighbors finds themselves trying to get out via the building’s elevator... only for a ghost to activate the elevator at rapid speed, instantaneously obliterating the man’s head for all to see, the camera lingering on the iridescent red stump where a person’s face used to be enough to have me losing my mind and contemplating losing what was still inside my stomach. It did not help that this damn show simulcast in the UK at like, 3 a.m. You know how hard it is to stop yourself screaming at three in the morning to not wake your neighbors up with the sound of your apparent murder?
I watched tons of horror as a kid, a pursuit that led me to write my master’s thesis on horror movies when I was in my 20s, and now, as I approach the age of Norman Bates’ mother at the end of Psycho (not really, but it feels like it some days), I am still completely horror obsessed. So I am perhaps slightly harder to scare than a less maniacal viewer. However, I do still get squeamish from time to time; exploding heads are one of my favorite special effects, and that skin-ripping-off-the-skull scene in Poltergeist made a huge impression on me back in the day. But sometimes, certain other effects involving internal organs will take me by surprise. The most vivid example of this that I can recall is Park Chan-wook’s excellent 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance—which is much more of a thriller than horror—but contains a scene in which a character wakes up in agony after a tense meeting with black-market organ dealers and realizes he’s down a kidney. I almost had to leave the theater for fear of my lunch leaving my body.
Scream was released just four days after my 14 birthday; I was a baby freshman and still fairly new to going out on the town without adult supervision. I was very sheltered from violence on TV or in movies growing up—yes, they covered my eyes during the face-melting sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark—so I’d definitely never seen a slasher. I can’t say I remember the marketing for Wes Craven’s film but I do know it was the talk of the high school. “Oh my god, this is going to be so good!” “Yeah, it’s from dude who did A Nightmare on Elm Street, you know it.” Everyone was going to see it opening weekend so I had to too.
To be fair, I also wanted to. The marketing worked: the cast were ostensibly my peers but looked nothing like me or the kids I hung out with, but they were all attractive people and the soundtrack promised to be rad. Now that I’m thinking back on this night, I don’t actually know how I got in to see the movie. It was a very small local theater and they were usually very strict about R-rated films. Speaking of which, this was only my second R film—the first watched at a friend’s house just a year earlier (Speed)—so I wasn’t anywhere prepared for the kind of stuff you could show audiences. Damn, did Wes earn that rating.
The whole movie was tremendous but it was the emotionally fraught opening scene that really did me in. We’re introduced to Casey Becker, a high schooler (remember, just like me!) who was home alone and got a scary phone call. Then another. And another. She was played by Drew Barrymore and never in a million years did I think she’d be killed off (oh, sweet summer child). But it was the way she was killed that really scared me. I immediately put myself in Casey’s shoes; what would I do if I was home alone and got such a call, would it be like this even if I had neighbors nearby, who would do this to me? Before I had time to follow all those implications through, Casey’s boyfriend had been gutted right outside her house and she’d been stabbed multiple times. She even has time to see her parents return home but can barely call out to them as she’s bleeding out. Her mother listened to her last, gasping breaths from another phone in the house after trying to call for help... her parents got home too late, but just in time to see their baby girl hanging from a tree in their front yard, her insides now on her outside. Boom. Back to regular, quiet suburban life for Sidney Prescott, the star of the film. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen, my body was completely tense. I honestly didn’t know if I could handle more but I also knew I was hooked. That Wes Craven guy knew a thing or two about horror, huh?
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