The scariest movie moments from non-horror films

When you watch a horror movie, you're expecting to be scared. After all, you know a demon could lurch out of the darkness, or somebody might get hung up on a meat hook. But when you're watching a drama, a superhero movie, or a sci-fi flick, you're not prepared for something terrifying to come on-screen. Perhaps it's a shocking death, an out-of-nowhere plot twist, or a slow build of suspense you just can't bear to watch, but whatever the scene, you totally weren't ready for something so scary in a non-horror movie.

Miracle Mile (1989) – The wrong phone call

Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, Miracle Mile might be the greatest thriller you've never seen. This 1989 film kicks off when a young musician named Harry (Anthony Edwards) falls head-over-heels for a waitress named Julie (Mare Winningham). But this sweet romance takes a turn into apocalyptic territory when Harry winds up outside a Los Angeles diner at 4 a.m. and answers a ringing payphone.

The voice on the other end is frantic and claims there's only 70 minutes left until nuclear war obliterates the West Coast. Sure, this might be a prank phone call, but when the caller is seemingly murdered, Harry isn't sure what to believe anymore. When he finally reveals what happened to the other diners, they're divided, with some thinking Harry is pulling a joke and others worried fire is about to start falling from the sky.

Things only get weirder when a well-connected businesswoman (Denise Crosby) learns a lot of politicians have suddenly left the country. There's still no real proof at this point that the world's about to end — just a crazy phone call and some eerie coincidences. But there's a sense of dread creeping over the diner, a sense that something horrible is about to happen even if the odds are against World War III. With the timer counting down, the customers take off running, hoping to escape L.A. … all except for Harry who sets off to find Julie. Sure, maybe this is all a freaky fever dream, and everyone will feel stupid when the Sun finally rises. Or maybe Harry only has 70 minutes left to save his girlfriend from the end of the world.

The Matrix (1999) – Bugging Neo

When most people remember The Matrix, they talk about Neo dodging those bullets or his epic showdown with Agent Smith. They remember Trinity's flying kick and that show-stopping hallway shoot-out. But people often forget how unsettling this movie is. Everything in this dim, green world is slightly off, giving us a queasy, uneasy feeling. It's like living smack-dab in the middle of the uncanny valley, and that's if you ignore the all-knowing, ever-smiling Oracle, one of the creepiest old women in sci-fi.

But every so often, that ominous undercurrent gives way to straight-up horror, like when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is arrested by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his computerized colleagues. The agents want Neo to help capture Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a rebel with a thing for leather coats and Lewis Carroll. Instead of turning snitch, however, Neo gives Smith the finger and asks for a lawyer. But as the unflappable agent wisely points out, "What good is a phone call if you're unable to speak?"

Up until this point, the movie has been operating more-or-less in the "real world." Yeah, we know something awful is happening behind the scenes, but we haven't seen anything truly terrible yet. But as Smith sits back in his chair, grinning his cocky smile, Neo's mouth starts to melt. Soon, his lips and teeth are gone, and there's just a patch of skin in their place. That's when the agents pounce, holding Neo down as Smith readies a tracking device — a tentacled bug that wiggles its way into Neo's stomach. Our hero desperately tries to scream but can't. Viewers are doing all the screaming for him. There's nothing worse than body horror, especially when it involves parasites crawling into your belly button.

Spider-Man 2 (2004) – The surgery scene

The Sam Raimi Spider-Man films are basically tragic monster movies, at least where the villains are concerned. Take the story of Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), for example. Octavius is a genius hoping to revolutionize the world with a fusion power reactor, but as it turns out, playing God and creating your own energy source is never a good idea in a superhero movie. The experiment blows up in Octavius' face, killing his wife and turning the doctor into a tentacled creature. 

Oh, and in order to control the fusion reactor, Doc Ock created four metallic arms equipped with artificial intelligence. When the fusion reactor exploded, the force destroyed the inhibitor chip that kept the AI from taking control of his brain. Unfortunately, now the arms are fused to his spine, and they're the ones calling the shots, turning Octavius into a multi-armed monster.

Of course, the surgeons at the local hospital have no clue the tentacles are alive. All they know is that Doc Ock is unconscious and needs to have these arms removed from his back, stat. But before the operation can start, the arms come to life and wreak havoc in the ER. It feels like a scene from an Evil Dead movie as the tentacles chase after surgeons, drag them across the floor, and hurl them into walls. And in true Sam Raimi fashion, we get plenty of close-ups of screaming victims, seconds before the claws move in and do something terrible off-screen. Although the surgeons fight back with everything from knives to chainsaws, they're no match for these intelligent tentacles that turn the medical professionals into mincemeat.

No Country for Old Men (2007) – The coin toss

Played to bone-chilling perfection by Javier Bardem, Anton Chigurh is one of the scariest villains to ever blast his way across the silver screen. He's an unstoppable force of destruction — evil, death, time, fate, chance, or however you want to interpret him — who severs a deputy's artery with a pair of handcuffs, guns down a distraught Woody Harrelson, and corners Kelly MacDonald at the end of the film. (Sure, she stands up to the guy, but we're pretty sure her brains end up on the bad guy's boots.)

But really, if you're looking for tension so thick you could stun it with a cattle gun, look no further than the coin toss scene. The most famous moment in the movie, Chigurh has wandered into a Texas gas station where the elderly clerk (Gene Jones) tries to start a conversation. Big mistake. Suddenly laser-focused on the clerk, Chigurh begins asking aggressive questions about the man's personal life, even dropping some vague threats about coming paying the old man a late-night visit. When the clerk is completely confused, the assassin puts a quarter on the counter.

"What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?" Chigurh asks. At first, the clerk is baffled, especially when the evil Beatle insists he call heads or tails. But when Chigurh explains the old man stands to win "everything" by making the right call, it becomes clear what's about to go down. This coin, this clerk, and this killer have been hurtling toward each other their entire lives, and what happens next hinges on one lucky guess. Fortunately for the clerk, he calls it correctly, and Chigurh slips out the door wearing an eerie smile, headed for whatever fate puts in his path.

Zodiac (2007) – Going down into the basement

For a non-horror movie, Zodiac certainly delivers the scares. There's the horrifying sequence when a mother and her baby are picked up by a murderous motorist. There's the scene where a madman calls into a TV show and lets loose with a blood-curdling scream. And then there's the nightmare moment when a young couple is viciously attacked by a hooded serial killer. But the blood-spattered swatches and breathy phone calls can't compare to the scene where Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) descends into the creepiest basement in California.

It all kicks off when Graysmith — a cartoonist obsessed with the Zodiac case — visits a theater organist named Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer). Graysmith is looking for information on a film projectionist named Rick Marshall, a guy who could be the killer since his handwriting matches the lettering on several movie posters. And because Vaughn and Marshall worked at the same theater, our hero hopes Vaughn can offer some insight. Instead, Vaughn drops a horrifying bomb. 

"Mr. Graysmith," he says, "I do the posters myself."

Graysmith goes quiet when he realizes he could be talking to the Zodiac, and things get worse when Vaughn invites the cartoonist into his basement. Not many people in the San Francisco area have basements, after all, but in one of his infamous letters, the Zodiac mentioned that he totally does. But Graysmith is driven by unquenchable curiosity, so he follows Vaughn into the dark, dank cellar, only to freak out when he hears footsteps in the room above. Is someone else in the house? Director David Fincher draws out the suspense as long as he can, until Graysmith can't stand it anymore and takes off running … straight into a locked door. Thankfully, our hero escapes unharmed, but audiences are left psychologically traumatized, victims of Fincher's dangerous game.

The Hateful Eight (2015) – The Major's story

There aren't any ghosts or zombies in The Hateful Eight, but this Quentin Tarantino flick is far scarier than most horror movies. (In fact, some critics argue Hateful Eight actually is a horror movie.) The story feels like Agatha Christie watched The Thing and then wrote the goriest Western possible. A woman finds herself handcuffed to a corpse, a man's family jewels are blasted to smithereens, and one unlucky lawman loses his lunch and every drop of blood in his body thanks to a cupful of poison.

It's pretty grisly stuff, and although you can't beat the coffee scene when it comes to pure gore, the scariest part has got to be when Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) sits down for a heart-to-heart with General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). With a blizzard raging outside, Warren (a black Yankee) tells Smithers (a white Rebel) about what happened to the old man's long-lost son. Warren had run into the younger Smithers in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, and after learning of the man's infamous daddy — the general enjoyed killing black soldiers — Warren got to know his new friend a whole lot better.

With "Silent Night" playing in the background, Warren slowly reveals how he forced the general's son to strip and march through the freezing cold. As Smithers listens, completely horrified, Warren enjoys every second of building suspense, until he finally reveals that young Smithers was willing to do anything Warren wanted to get a blanket. And sure, Smithers and his son are racist murderers, but you can't help but shiver when Warren licks his lips and rear his back with laughter as he reveals what happened in those wintry Wyoming hills.

The Revenant (2015) – The bear attack

From a distance, bears are big cuddly creatures, but too close to an angry mama, and you'll find yourself faced with a 700-pound killing machine. That's what happens to Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Revenant. While wandering through the woods, the trapper stumbles across a young cub, and moments later, he winds up beneath a living buzz saw. Glass is completely at the mercy of this gargantuan grizzly, and she doesn't feel like showing any sympathy. The bear turns Glass into a rag doll, flinging him across the forest and using him as a scratching post.

After it's done cracking Glass into a million pieces, the bear steps on the mountain man's head. In a movie filled with visceral images, the image of DiCaprio's skull getting smashed into the ground is one of the most painful. After the bear wanders off, Glass makes the mistake of trying to get some revenge, but the gunshot just angers the beast even more. The grizzly comes back for another round — and then another — slashing the man's throat and ripping open his shoulder. In one particularly terrifying moment, the bear rolls Glass on his back, straddles him, and presses its snout against Glass' face. One wrong move and DiCaprio's good looks could become hamburger meat.

Finally, Glass is able to pull a knife and defeat his four-legged opponent, but his troubles are far from over. He's still got miles of snow-covered wilderness, angry locals, and a psychotic Tom Hardy to contend with before this film is done. If nothing else, The Revenant is a good reminder that everything in nature wants to kill you and that you should stay inside at all times.

Room (2015) – Jack's escape

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the story of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a mother and son locked inside a psycho's shed. Joy has been imprisoned for seven years, and Jack has never seen the outside world. In fact, he doesn't even know the outside world exists. He only knows their tiny cell — a place he affectionately calls "Room." But when Joy realizes time is running out for her and her son, she concocts a dangerous escape plan, one that first involves telling Jack there's an entire universe beyond their four walls.

The next step involves faking Jack's death and rolling him up inside a carpet. Then, when Joy's captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), puts the boy's "corpse" in the back of his truck, Jack is supposed to wiggle his way free and run for help. But this is a 5-year-old we're talking about, not some superhero. And he's a 5-year-old who didn't know there were any other people on the planet until just a few hours ago. The odds are seriously stacked against the kid, but this crazy scheme is the only chance the Newsomes have of escaping Old Nick.

So as the pickup truck speeds down the road, Jack rolls out of the carpet in a scene that's equal parts nail-biting suspense and wide-eyed wonder. If Jack makes one mistake, the plan will come crumbling down. When he crawls free from the rug, Jack sees the vast blue sky for the first time, and he's mesmerized. Fortunately, Jack works up the courage to leap out of the truck, escape from Old Nick, and help rescue his mother, allowing audiences to breathe a quick sigh of relief … which they sorely need before the movie goes from insanely suspenseful to emotionally devastating.

The Lobster (2016) - The steak knife

While The Lobster is technically a black comedy with sci-fi trappings, it feels like a horror film for anyone who's ever felt pressure about their relationship status. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the movie is set in a romantic dystopia where singles are forced inside a secluded hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal. Oh yeah, and the "guests" must find someone who shares a similar physical trait. So if you have a limp, lisp, or chronic nosebleed, you must find a matching partner.

Eventually, the pressure becomes too much for our bespectacled hero, David (Colin Farrell); he escapes into the woods and joins up with a bunch of super celibates who mutilate anyone who falls in love. So David has to be super careful when he meets a short-sighted woman played by Rachel Weisz. Since the two suffer from bad eyesight, they're a perfect match, until the leader of the celibates (Lea Seydoux) has the woman blinded. Without that common trait, David and the woman begin drifting apart, so they flee the cult and make their way to a restaurant where David prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Armed with a steak knife, David walks into the bathroom and stands at a mirror. He shoves paper towels down his throat to mask his screams, then holds the tip of the blade just centimeters from his eyeball. Maybe in some twisted universe, this is the ultimate gesture of love, but here, it's 30 seconds of pure body horror. You can't help but squirm as the knife hovers in front of David's pupil, but you never know for sure if David does the deed. Instead, the film cuts back to his blind partner sitting at a table and waiting … and waiting … and waiting.

Nocturnal Animals (2016) – Nighttime abduction

Planning on a roadtrip? Don't watch Nocturnal Animals before you go. If you do check out this Tom Ford film before setting out on the highway, you'll constantly be checking your rearview mirror and freaking out anytime you spot a car trying to pass. The movie's abduction scene is horror in its purest form, with a defenseless family stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of night, surrounded by real-life monsters.

This scary scene actually takes place in a novel read by Susan Morrows (Amy Adams), a woman with an art gallery and an estranged husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) who's just written a book called Nocturnal Animals. As Susan works through the first few pages, she's horrified to read the story of Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), a man driving through West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). But their little vacation is cut short when they're forced off the road by a psycho (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his redneck gang.

The true terror comes when the bad guys get out of their car and surround the Hastings family. They bully Tony and harass the women, taking a page from the sadistic playbook of Alex de Large. It's a touchy situation, made even worse when Tony realizes he has a flat tire. There's no cell service in the desert, and no way to escape. The tension builds until the bad guys kidnap Tony's family, driving into the darkness and leaving the devastated dad behind. It's a gut-punch of a scene, one that leaves both us and Susan Morrow in shambles.