Everyone expects to be scared by a horror movie. But when you sit down for a comedy, fantasy, or adventure movie, that’s a whole other beast. You aren’t expecting to jump out of your seat or tremble with tension in a movie that’s not generally scary. History has shown us, though, that some scares defy genre and that’s why they stick with us.
What follows is a list of our favorite scary scenes from non-horror movies. Also, non-thrillers. Basically if a movie is overall designed to be scary or threatening in any large proportion, we disqualified it. What’s left are scenes probably best known for traumatizing us as kids simply because we didn’t see them coming.
We’re starting with maybe the grandmother of them all. At least for me. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was one of those movies I watched a lot growing up, not quite sure what the heck was going on, but when Pee-wee gets startled by a truck driver with an unforgettable face, it’s so out of left field, you almost can’t believe it happened.
Each of the three original Indiana Jones films have at least one big scare in them, and instead of make you click through even more pages, we’re just gonna do them all right here.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s the Nazi face-melt moment when the ark is opened. In Temple of Doom, it’s when Mola Ram rips out a man’s heart (not as scary as you get older but let me tell you—as a kid, freaking horrifying). And in Last Crusade, it’s Indy sleeping with the same woman after his father did. I’m kidding. It’s the ultra fast aging that happens after Donovan drinks from the false grail. All three are out of the blue pops of gross we love to be scared by.
One of the many, many reasons ET is such a classic is it takes a concept that Hollywood usually treats as scary (alien invasion) and makes it sweet. So after all this time falling for this lovable alien, to see him deathly sick and wailing like a siren is a shocking, unforgettable moment.
This is almost a two-fer. First of all, the animation of Judge Doom atop the performance of Christopher Lloyd adds just the right amount of unexpected horror to the ending of the whodunit. Second, the scene involves him submerging a toon in Dip, basically acid for toons, which is tantamount to a Disney torture scene.
The death of Atreyu’s beloved horse in the accurately named “Swamps of Sadness” wrecked many a childhood, but in terms of sheer terror ladled out by this 1984 fantasy film, it’s hard to beat the Gmork—a massive black wolf as articulate as he is toothy and malevolent—calmly threatening to literally wipe out all of humanity’s hopes and dreams because “people who have no hope are easy to control, and whoever has the control has the power.” That declaration of doom is so scary even the fight to the death that immediately follows feels anticlimactic. – Cheryl Eddy
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains a classic because of its perfect tone. It’s mostly upbeat until Charlie and the kids get to the factory and meet Wonka. From there, there’s this acutely uneasy feeling—a sense things could go horribly wrong at any second. And the worst they get is the chaotic tunnel ride on Wonka’s boat, which combines visuals, performance, and sound to create a moment that almost lives on its own because it’s so much scarier than the rest of the film.
The wampa attack is also a strong contender but that scene is at least meant to be a bit of a jump scare. When Luke Skywalker goes into a cave on Dagobah, you know something is going to be in there and you know the one thing it can’t be is Darth Vader. But then it is Vader. And Luke isn’t ready. And we’re worried he’s going to lose. Until he doesn’t. It’s a short but powerful bit of tension in the middle of the dynamic adventure. (Star Wars has some great scary scenes overall. Check out this list.)
Toy Story 3 is unique on this list because many of us saw it as adults. It wasn’t released in the 1970s or 1980s, it was out in 2010. And yet, I will never forget the moment where I 100% thought all the toys were going to burn in a fire and it wrecked me. How? Why? Just because Pixar’s filmmaking is that damned good. Of course they weren’t going to die! But the scene just works in this heartbreaking, gut-wrenching way.
Hal, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a formidable villain because the audience isn’t sure what he’s capable of. How far does his reach extend? Are the humans ever safe? Those questions are answered in the brilliantly shot scene right before intermission of 2001, where the astronauts hide to speak about Hal, and we realize he can read their lips and knows everything that’s about to go down. In the theater, it’s even worse because you then have to sit with the knowledge things are going to go very wrong for the astronauts until the rest of the movie begins.
Hands! Everywhere! Hands that form themselves into faces and taunt you while they threaten to drop you to depths unknown! It’s a brief scene, and the creativity that went into planning out the choreography of the hand movements is definitely impressive. Still, this is grade-A nightmare material, no question. – Cheryl Eddy
Spiders are, by nature, scary. And sure the Lord of the Rings movies have a few truly scary parts: creepy Bilbo, the Balrog, etc. But the way Peter Jackson films spiders, especially ones who stick hobbits in the chest and spin them up with webs, just takes this scene to a whole other level.
Star Trek has long had a history of creepy aliens and as much body horror it could get away with on primetime ‘60s TV, but Wrath of Khan’s slimy interrogation scene—where Khan seeks to torture Chekov and Captain Terrell with the spawn of a sinister Ceti Eel—is one of the series’ earliest and most unnerving moments of terror. The close-ups on the eel and its children as Khan calmly collects them, pulling into the intense close up shots of the eels glued to Chekov and Terrell’s faces… it’s a moment of gross out horror, for sure. But what makes it truly horrifying is how quick and immediate it all is: Chekov and Terrell are screaming, pleading with Khan to stop, wailing in agony as the eels slither into their ears—and then there’s nothing but silence, and Khan has his way. One of the most chilling moments from one of Trek’s all time classic villains. – James Whitbrook
There’s scary stuff aplenty in the OG Wizard of Oz, but its 1985 follow-up bests even those goddamn flying monkeys with the Wheelers—kind of Oz’s version of a terrifying biker gang, with overly long limbs that end in screeching wheels and masks that cover their faces but do nothing to muffle their nightmarish cackles. The “Beware the Wheelers” graffiti is this film’s equivalent of “Surrender Dorothy” and you’ll wish a tornado would appear rather than strand you in a back alley with these guys. – Cheryl Eddy
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