Sometimes a movie scene is so scary that it haunts you for years to come. It could be a jump-scare that jolts your soul clean out of your body; an image so incomprehensible that your brain can never truly hope to resolve it; an atmospheric nightmare that fills you with palpable dread from head to toe. That’s the power of a great horror movie – the right shot, or sound, or cut feels like it could completely change your body chemistry. For some filmgoers, it’s a reason to never watch a scary film ever again; for others, it’s the exact reason they watch them in the first place.
With Halloween approaching, allow the minds of the Empire team to share the movie scenes that have scared them more than any other – horrifying endings, deeply dark childhood frights, emotionally-devastating delights, and ghouls simply saying, ‘Boo!’ Read it with the lights out.
Night #21 – Paranormal Activity (2009)
Chosen by Sophie Butcher
It’s 2009. I’m 17, and sat far closer to the cinema screen than you ever want to be whilst watching a found-footage horror movie. I’ve had my fists clenched for 80 minutes, as Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity has gradually sunk its claws further and further into my psyche, the lo-fi camcorder format and deep rumbling score creating a tangible sense of fear and paranoia. Prior to spawning a whole new horror franchise, Paranormal Activity was a contained story – in which couple Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloan) try to document evidence of a supernatural presence that has haunted Katie since childhood. After many a swinging lampshade and creepily-closing door, things come to a bleak, violent end when, on night #21 (the return of that wide night-vision bedroom shot never fails to fill me with dread), Katie rises from bed and watches Micah sleep, then lures him downstairs with a blood-curdling scream that is impossible to forget. Silence. The thud of footsteps. Then the mother of all jump-scares – Micah’s body is launched from the darkness towards the camera, a blood-spattered Katie stumbling in after him before looking the audience right in the eye, her twisted smile turning into something altogether more frightening. It’s spine-chilling, still, 14 years on.
The Hunchback fight – Kill List (2011)
Chosen by John Nugent
With a title like Kill List, you don’t expect sunshine and daisies. Even so, Ben Wheatley’s second film is easily his darkest, his scuzziest, his most disturbing. The bad omens in this hitman folk horror build slowly: a dead rabbit here, an odd pagan symbol there, a doctor offering terrible medical advice (“The past is gone, the future not yet here...”), a woman waving at a Travelodge window. It all builds up to a bloody denouement, where a mysterious straw-masked cult finally catches up with troubled ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell), forcing him into a ritualistic knife fight with a ‘hunchback’. It’s a battle he wins, but – without spoiling anything – that victory is brutally, distressingly Pyrrhic. I’m not easily spooked, but the first time I watched Kill List – at home, by myself, on a gloomy and windswept autumn evening – that brutally nihilist ending made me feel totally unmoored, unsettled to my very core, more than any film I can think of, before or since. Craving any kind of familiarity and comfort and colour, I found myself immediately loading up Mario Kart and bathing in the warm many-hued glow of Rainbow Road, just so I could feel something, anything other than total, all-consuming dread. If you haven't yet experienced Kill List’s dark delights, make sure you have Princess Peach on hand, just in case.
Meet the Wheelers – Return To Oz (1985)
Chosen by Beth Webb
Right from its opening act when Dorothy is – checks notes – in a sanatorium awaiting electrotherapy with a sidekick chicken called Billina (we’re definitely not in Kansas now, Toto!), Return To Oz is loaded with moments of pure, lasting terror. For some people, it’s the collection of screaming heads in Princess Mombi’s castle that ruined their childhoods, for others the Nome King’s stony minions. For this former ten-year-old, who watched the film for the first time on terrestrial TV and lost a week of sleep afterwards, it’s Dorothy’s first brush with The Wheelers, Mombi’s gang of gnarled, punky henchmen with wheels instead of hands and feet. Perhaps it’s the way they move on all fours, with their backs hunched over. Perhaps it’s the mocking, grotesque helmets they wear that serve as menacing masks while they’re in-motion. Maybe it’s their maniacal laughs or the way they communicate in screeches. But I’m confident that those Wheelers will be the last thing I see before I shift off this mortal coil.
Stand in the corner – The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Chosen by Alex Godfrey
Despite an entire youth soaking up horror films and for years considering myself unflappable, witnessing The Blair Witch Project – most significantly its grubby denouement – in my mid-20s turned me into a withering husk. It still does. As amateur documentarians Heather (Heather Donahue) and Mike (Michael Williams) finally find cinema’s creepiest cabin in the woods, they enter the belly of the beast, in a sequence that can only be described as fucking terrifying. Having been searching for answers about a local witch, and now desperately trying to find for their lost friend Josh (Joshua Leonard), they break into the decrepit house once belonging to child abductor Rustin Parr. It’s hell. Shaky-cams trembling, they make their way through the dark, through the rubble, frantically following the sound of screams. Mike whimpers for Josh until he’s abruptly brought to a stop. Then Heather finds Mike, standing in a corner, facing a wall, unresponsive as she screams for him. For her life. It’s a deceptively simple, mystifyingly horrific image. Which is precisely the point: it’s scary because you have no idea what’s going on. You just know that whatever it is, it’s the worst. The best horror poses questions, not answers. And this is absolutely bloodcurdling. It makes me sob.
The demon jump-scare – House (1986)
Chosen by James Dyer
A number of carefully-selected VHS tapes enjoyed repeat rentals from me during my formative years – among them, this unapologetically silly horror from Friday The 13th Part 2 (and III) director Steve Miner. It's a hoary old tale in which author Roger Cobb (William Katt, the bellend boyfriend from De Palma's Carrie) inherits his aunt's creaky Victorian house, only to discover that its various amenities include sentient garden tools, an ornery mounted Marlin (think Big Mouth Billy Bass if he wanted to eat your soul), and a shadowy spirit world hidden inside the bathroom cabinet (the Upside Down, if made for the price of a Chicken McSpicy). None of these gave me the proverbial wiggins, however – rather, it was a seemingly innocuous scene involving Cobb's estranged wife Sandy (Kay Lenz). Popping over to check on her husband's rapidly-fraying mental state, she stoops to pick something up. When she re-emerges from under the hallway table, she’s transformed into a bloated, hag-like demon – complete with smeared red lipstick and a lilac silk evening dress. It is not, by any reasonable standard, particularly horrific. But it comes completely out of nowhere, just when you think you're in a lull between scares and briefly let your guard down. For 12-year-old me, the shock was enough to indelibly sear the image into that corner of the brain that only comes to life late at night.
The Evil Spirit – The Care Bears Movie (1985)
Chosen by Nick de Semlyen
I had strict parents, who wouldn’t let me within a severed-head’s throw of a horror movie. Accordingly, even the mildest of screen-scares got me severely shook up. Ghostbusters’ zombie taxi driver haunted my dreams. The snake-infested VHS-box art for Raiders Of The Lost Ark gave me chills. But for some reason the movie that blasted my pre-adolescent brain like a dynamite stick of pure terror was The Care Bears Movie. Specifically, the villain. I’m not sure what it was about this glowy-green face that set a chord of fear quivering within my soul. Whatever it was, it led to a spate of nightmares that eventually, mercifully faded away, replaced by a vague sense of Care Bear-based anxiety that has accompanied me into adulthood. When this article was mooted, I decided it was time to re-face my fear, rent the film, and see if this emerald imp still exerted its dread power. Short answer: it didn’t. Looking like a sketchier version of Snow White’s Magic Mirror, it intones its toadstool-mould-based threats in a female voice of Downton Abbey plumminess. Its verdant glow is menacing, I’ll give it that, but this time around I found it a lot less distressing than the film’s terrible songs. Not to mention the supposed heroes, the Care Bears, who exude big cult energy, with their horrifying line-dancing and incessant positivity. And don’t get me started on Secret Bear’s zipper-mouth. Wait a second, I think I feel a new nightmare brewing…
The final frames – Lake Mungo (2008)
Chosen by Ben Travis
Conundrum: if you’ve seen Lake Mungo, you’ll know how devastatingly spine-chilling its ending is. If you haven’t seen Lake Mungo, I really don’t want to spoil that ending for you. As a hardened horror nut, it takes a lot to scare me. But come the credits on this melancholic Australian mock-doc – about a suburban family slowly accepting the Laura Palmer-esque death of their secretive teen daughter Alice, and experiencing possible paranormal activity in the process – I don’t think a movie has paralyzed me more in my adult life. Get thee to Shudder immediately, or brace yourself for the most major of spoilers. SPOILER TIME. Through the course of the film, we learn that the ghostly goings-on in the house aren’t Alice – son Mathew (Martin Sharpe) has been hoaxing it all, part of his grieving process. The family ultimately decide to leave their home and start a new chapter. And then comes the kicker: Alice actually has been haunting them this whole time – she’s in all of Mathew’s doctored photos, just not where you think. And as her family prepares to move on, we see her spirit trapped in the house, set to forever haunt their old home. It is, frankly, absolutely crushing. The feeling it left me with – of something ghostly hovering just on the periphery – seeped into my bones. Watching it at home, alone, was a terrible (or, brilliant) mistake.