We’ve all had a movie that’s scared us to death. You may hate horror films, but chances are you had to watch at least one to discover you dislike them, and chances are also that the reason you dislike them is because that film terrified you. The io9 staff is no different—and these are the movies that taught us to be afraid of the dark, ghosts, spiders, aliens, and more.
Specifically, the point in the movie where the women are already fully scared and freaking out because they’re lost in a cave deep underground, and nobody on the outside knows where they are. What could possibly be worse? How about the horrifying realization that they’re not alone down there? The moment the crawler appears (in close-up, without a sound or any kind of warning) has got to be one of the greatest jump scares of all time—the tension is sky-high, the creature looks menacing as hell even though it’s just lurking there, and the image is captured through one of the character’s video-camera viewfinders, so it’s shot in otherworldly green night vision. Even if you know there’s going to be a monster in the movie, you still can’t anticipate how or where it’ll pop up, and the reveal is just so perfectly timed. That’s the last time I fully screamed in a movie theater and I’m not ashamed to admit it! In fact I wish that happened more often!
I have a medical condition where I pass out from seeing too much blood or gore, so naturally I tend to avoid scary movies. The worst of it happened about a decade ago. I went on a first date to see Pan’s Labyrinth in theaters. I knew nothing about Guillermo del Toro, and had heard it was a modern fairy tale. What could go wrong, right? Turns out, a lot. I was in terror during just about the entire film (what I saw of it, anyway)—whether it was during the gorgeous but hauntingly freaky fantasy sequences or, more prominently, when it took place in the real world. About two-thirds in, when a woman stabbed an officer in the back, pulling the knife down, I couldn’t take any more. I fainted in my seat, had a mild seizure, and then threw up in a trash can. Needless to say, we never had a second date. But it was for the best—I later saw him wearing a pink fedora.
I am notoriously easy to scare. I’ve somehow managed to be scared by everything from claymation ghouls of The Trap Door as a kid to the opening of Metroid Prime. (I scanned a space monster I thought was dead. It was decidedly not dead. I did not care for the scenario that ensued.) So scary movies aren’t exactly my cup of tea, even now, but I can tell you about the most petrifying experience I’ve had in a movie theater, which was seeing the second Hobbit movie in 3D and getting to the bit where Bilbo and crew encountered the Spiders of Mirkwood forest.
A card carrying arachnophobe, I’d spent the film up until that point anticipating the scene with dread—I’d read the book and known it was coming for ages—but didn’t realize how bad it would get until the giant, chittering monsters actually appeared. In an attempt to stop freaking out, I took the 3D glasses (and my own) off to try and use my own short-sightedness to not make it too bad to see. Turns out you can still hear giant spiders scurrying about through booming cinema speakers even if you can’t see them all that well. And that’s actually much scarier.
I hate being scared and I hate blood and gore, as a result I avoid every movie that looks like it could be horror unless assured by others that it’s either too good to miss or too bad to be actually scary. As a kid, I avoided Rocky Horror Picture Show under the mistaken impression that it was, in fact, a scary movie. But the one that sticks out is The Haunting. No, not the classic movie from 1963, the shitty remake from 1999; the one with Liam Neeson and where Owen Wilson is decapitated. See, every summer my family would head up to a ski resort town for a week. Again, in the summer. There wasn’t a lot to do, so we ended up seeing a lot of movies. Eventually, when I was 11, we ran out of movies and ended up seeing The Haunting, because boredom trumped my fear of scary. Unfortunately, I then had to go spend the windy night in a house surrounded by trees, thinking the walls were breathing because of the shadows of the branches on the walls.
The first film to ever really terrify me as a kid was the reboot of 13 Ghosts starring Tony Shalhoub and Shannon Elizabeth. The basic premise of the movie is that a widower, his two kids, and their live-in nanny move into a house that Shalhoub inherits from his uncle, a psychic and ghost hunter. Unbeknownst to Shalhoub and his family, their new house is actually a machine meant to open a portal to hell that’s powered by malevolent spirits the dead uncle captured.
There’s one scene in particular involving the Angry Princess, one of the ghosts trapped in the house, who’s forever trapped in a psychic loop of the way she died: suicide in a bathtub. As soon as Shalhoub’s family first moves into the house, Shannon Elizabeth excitedly runs to the bathroom, eager to have a space of her own for the first time in months, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Angry Princess is in the process of reenacting her suicide again. As Shannon Elizabeth’s washing her face, the scene repeatedly shows the ghost mimicking her in a bathroom covered in spectral blood and seeing that shit at 11-years-old freaked me out so much that I was too afraid to use my own bathroom at night for about a year or so.
The other story’s way more garden variety and basically boils down to seeing the rebooted Dawn of the Dead and being so freaked out by the concept of fast-moving zombies that I kind of disassociated in the movie theater. I was so scared that I remember mentally shutting down and sort of slipping into this weird headspace that made it possible to block most of the movie’s dialogue out and when we left the theater, I immediately passed out on the drive home and slept for hours. Weirdly enough, zombies don’t really scare me at all anymore but that film freaked me the hell out.
I‘ve told this story before, and I’ll tell it again. Right now, in fact. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial scared the shit out of me as a kid, and I hate it to this day. It doesn’t have anything to do with how E.T. himself looks like a giant, waddling nutsack with a horribly misshapen, yet still erectable penis for a head, although that definitely doesn’t help. It’s that I was scared to death of aliens and the fear of being abducted by them. I know E.T. and Elliott became friends in the movie, but that somehow terrified me more; that E.T. would come to me and be unable to tell I was horrified and disgusted by him, and he—being an alien—would mistake my terror for enthusiasm and he’d unknowingly kidnap me and take me to his home planet. Although evil aliens also scared me, I did appreciate that I knew where I stood with them.
Finally, there’s me. I’ve always said that only three movies ever scared me. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloweens are the first two. But those stories suck; the third one is the interesting one.
In 1999 I was going to New York University and we got wind of a screening of this new indie movie. If you went to the website, which was a relatively new thing at that time for a movie, it basically made it seem like the movie was a snuff film, like the filmmakers found this footage of three missing kids and the film would explain what happened.
Of course, the movie was The Blair Witch Project, but at the time no one knew what it would become. We didn’t know anything, really. So I sat down in the theater and for 90 minutes was uncomfortable, confused, transfixed and, at the end, terrified. The movie was scary throughout but the ending, where Michael is standing in the corner, got me bad.
But was the witch real? Was the movie real? I didn’t think so but, not being schooled in the ways of viral marketing at the time, I couldn’t say definitively. So I went back to my dorm room. My roommate wasn’t there. It was dark and all I could keep thinking was “He was standing in the corner. He was standing in the corner. He was standing in the corner.”
It seems silly now when, obviously, it was a low-budget found footage movie but everything about it was unique at the time. Especially in the spring of that year, months before the film opened wide or caught the pop culture zeitgeist. And though my friends laughed at the film months later, that night in Greenwich Village, I was truly scared.
Happy Halloween, y’all.