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Film Feature: The 10 Scariest Scenes in Film History

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CHICAGO – A truly scary movie doesn’t release you from its grip when the end credits begin to roll. It doesn’t evaporate from your mind like a pleasurable yet disposable piece of escapist entertainment. It burrows itself within your subconscious and follows you like a malevolent shadow until night falls.

Waiting to pounce, the horrors of your imagination hover at your bedside. Every sound, every movement and every gust of wind whistling against your window becomes intensified. Above all, the two things that continue to keep you awake are your rapidly beating heart and the fear of what nightmares await you as your mind fades to black.

This is the effect a supremely frightening film can have on the mind and soul. Of course, everyone has their own distinctive idea of what constitutes as cinematically scary. Some moviegoers are giddily susceptible to the knee-jerk jolts often consisting merely of a loud noise on the soundtrack, and the sudden entry of an alarming presence. Other viewers, such as myself, are more prone to being unnerved by psychological terrors lurking just beyond the frame, which are oftentimes more chilling than anything that could be adequately visualized. Consider the horrified expression on Mia Farrow’s face as she glances at her new bundle of demonic joy in “Rosemary’s Baby,” or the sound of Michael Myers’ rhythmic breathing echoing through the sleepy suburb inhabited by his victims in the final moments of “Halloween.” These moments are far scarier than any copious quantity of blood and guts. To get you in the mood for All Hallows’ Eve, here are the top ten scariest movie moments guaranteed to haunt your dreams…

10. “Paranormal Activity”

Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity
Photo credit: Paramount

This micro-budget thriller could’ve easily been just another picture boosted by Internet buzz before vanishing into obscurity. Yet there’s a very good reason why this $11,000 picture grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. First-time filmmaker Peli proved a master at exploiting the most fundamental fears of audiences, particularly young couples just starting to live together. The film centers on one such couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who place a camera at the foot of their bed to record the supernatural events they suspect to be occurring during their slumber. The footage inspires many questions familiar to couples adjusting to a new house: “What’s making that noise downstairs? What’s that shadow on the floor?” Yet the most unsettling mystery of all is, “What’s going on in the head of the person sleeping next to me in bed?” The scariest image in the film is that of Katie crawling out of bed in the middle of the night, and standing completely still, while looking down at her sleeping lover for hours, as the time code in the camera speeds up, mirroring the viewer’s rapid pulse.

9. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Photo credit: Disney

Sometimes we encounter the most memorable scary movie moments of our lives when we are still children. The greatest fairy tales are unafraid of exploring darkness, and “Snow White” is certainly no exception. Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated masterpiece includes several inventively spooky sequences that strikingly contrast with its lighter elements. White’s squeaky-voiced naiveté is so maddening that one almost delights in her torturous trip through the haunted woods, as fearsomely jagged trees threaten to tear her to shreds. Yet the most unforgettable moments in the film involve the Wicked Queen, brilliantly played by the unjustly forgotten stage actress Lucille La Verne. The scene in which she transforms herself from an icy beauty to a hideous old crone is a tour de force of terror. La Verne’s seductively cruel voice morphs into a startling cackle, as the camera swirls around her. After downing of brew of mummy dust and thunderbolts, the Queen reveals her shocking new face with ghoulish delight. It caused my mother, at an early age, to accidentally eat one of her own crayons. If that’s not a good review, I don’t know what is.

8. “Jaws”

Photo credit: Universal

The king of commercial shockers, Spielberg’s timeless entertainment literally scared audiences out of the water back in ’75, but it wasn’t just because of its malevolent shark. There’s one scare in the film that was so enticing for its young director, that he self-financed a reshoot just so he’d be able to put it in the picture. The scene takes place underwater, as scruffy ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) investigates the remains of a sunken fishing boat. Seemingly out of nowhere, the disembodied head of Ben Gardner, the ship’s late fisherman, emerges from the depths of the boat’s hull, with only one eye intact. Of course, this sequence could easily be viewed as a mere cheap shock tactic. But the editing by Verna Fields, who volunteered her own swimming pool for the scene’s location, allows viewers to discover the gory sight at the same instant as Hooper, thus sharing in his abrupt terror. The resulting moment delivers a jolt that, when viewed in a theater, reverberates throughout the entire audience, eliciting screams followed by breathless laughter. “Jaws” proves that scary moments can also be a lot of fun.

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