Movie scenes too scary to watch more than once

Sometimes all it takes is one moment. One perfectly structured scene can make a film terrifying and unforgettable. And some of the most frightening scenes in film history are infinitely revisitable, be it due to tremendous writing like that of the opening scene of Scream, or encapsulating everything great about filmmaking ("We're gonna need a bigger boat" in Jaws). But what about the others? What about the scenes that almost seem to do their job too well? These are some of the most horrifying scenes in film history, ones that viewers might not be so eager to revisit as others. 

It all goes to hell in The House of the Devil (2009)

Ti West's modern horror masterpiece is a quiet, tense film—right up until its infamous ending. Samantha Hughes, a babysitter who finds herself in over her head (don't they all?), thinks she's in for a quiet, if not somewhat strange night when the couple she's agreed to babysit for reveal that they don't have a child, but the opposite. Samantha will be staying in their house to keep an eye on the old couple's mother, who is bedridden. The couple promises she won't be any trouble, and Samantha reluctantly agrees to stay.

It may come as a shock, but the night doesn't quite go as planned. While the film, as a whole, is quiet, suspenseful, and masterful in its building of tension without resorting to cheap tricks, it's the finale that makes it all pay off. The House of the Devil's grand finale is a spectacularly terrifying satanic ritual and chase scene featuring blood, guts, murder, and the reveal of a  horrifically deformed grandmother, the matriarch of a devil-worshipping cult.

The film is fun, but the end is relentless. It hits the viewer like a freight train and doesn't slow its momentum for a second. You'll be out of breath by the time it's over and likely not anxious to revisit it any time soon.

A very close shave in Cabin Fever (2002)

Eli Roth tends to excel at nausea-inducing moments, largely involving gore and mutilation. He's made his entire career on it, even going so far as to popularize an entire sub-genre centering on it. And while his filmography is chock-full of gut-churning nastiness, there's something about the brutal simplicity of a particular scene in his debut film, Cabin Fever, that is so simultaneously repulsive and enthralling that watching it, you can't look away—despite the fact that afterwards you'll probably never want to watch it again.

The scene in question involves one of the characters shaving her legs. The catch? Well, the plot of the movie revolves around some 20-somethings in the woods who are exposed to a flesh-eating virus. So as she shaves her legs, her flesh is peeling from the bone, piece by piece.

A great horror moment often comes down to simplicity. And Cabin Fever's leg-shaving scene is what so many torture porn movies strayed away from as the genre declined: simple. There's no elaborate trap or series of increasingly sadistic mutilations. There's just a girl performing an ordinary activity with a slight twist that makes it horrific to behold.

Mike discovers the tapes in Session 9 (2001)

The role of sound in creating effective horror is often under-appreciated. Whether a great soundtrack or a perfectly-executed sound cue in a jump-scare, sound is crucial to an effective moment in horror. Few scary movies have utilized it as well as the psychological horror juggernaut Session 9.

The film takes place in an abandoned mental asylum and shows how the lingering spirits, both literal and metaphorical, affect a group of men there to prepare it for refurbishing as a library. One of the men, Mike, discovers a cache of tape recordings of therapy sessions with a patient suffering from dissociative identity disorder (who also might be possessed) and murdered her brother on Christmas. These tapes play throughout the film and form a sort of exterior narrative, tying the events of the present day to the asylum's past. But it's that first scene in which Mike finds the tapes that stands out as the film's creepiest moment. 

The squeal of the tape rolling back, the moment the voices appear, everything about it is masterfully executed in terms of sound design. As soon as the voices start, the viewer knows something is wrong— something bad is going to happen at the end of these tapes, as the sessions move closer and closer to the titular session nine. The scene doesn't jump out at you. It doesn't feature a gory dismemberment. But it's creepy to the point that viewers will want to avoid it upon any future revisiting of the film.

Sloth in Se7en (1995)

David Fincher's horror turn Se7en features a number of gruesome mutilations, but choosing its standout is an easy call. It doesn't feature dismemberment or decapitation. It simply features a man left to rot.

The film's villain chained him to his bed a year before the events of the film and simply never let him move. He did just enough to keep him alive for a long enough time to allow his body to atrophy and waste away. The makeup is horrifying, creating an image of a man who looks like something other than human despite having clearly once been. The sunken cheeks, the open sores, it all creates the image of rot incarnate. 

It's a nauseating sight to behold, which is exactly what it should be. And it's all capped off with the reveal that the victim has not died yet. He's still alive. And something as deadened as him should not be. In a film full of horrific imagery and dark plot turns, the Sloth victim is the hardest moment to endure more than once. It doesn't have the tense narrative turns of the film's grim ending. It doesn't need to. It's horrifying enough on premise alone.

Clap clap in The Conjuring (2013)

Jump-scares get a bad rap when discussing horror. Many horror films rely too heavily on them and use jump-scares to cover up a film's lack of any real scare factor. But when done right, jump-scares can be not only incredibly effective, but incredibly memorable in their own right. And no modern horror director has mastered the art of the jump-scare like James Wan, director of The Conjuring, which features one of the most terrifying of all time.

Early on in the film, the children in the Perron family are shown playing a variation of hide-and-seek in which the players hiding clap twice to give the seeker hints. Later on that night, their mother Carolyn hears clapping throughout the house. It leads her to the basement, where she's quickly trapped by the spirit haunting her home. She lights a match, breaking through the pitch-black darkness, and right as this happens a pair of disembodied hands appears behind her and claps.

Wan's filmography is filled with killer jump-scare moments (Insidious has great ones in spades) but the clap scene in The Conjuring may be his most terrifying. It perverts an innocent game played by children and it sets up its payoff perfectly. It's structured and timed impeccably, with no fake-outs or cheap tricks. And the simplicity of its final shot is beautifully effective. Good luck watching it more than once to study its structure, though. It's the kind of scene that will have you watching while covering your eyes every time.

Night vision in The Descent (2005)

Some horror films are full of great scares but ultimately want the viewer to have fun while watching them. The films of James Wan and the original Friday the 13th are great examples of this. But on the other side of the spectrum there's the unrelenting terror of The Descent. It doesn't come up nearly as often as it should in the discussion of the canon, and while the whole movie is a brutal affair, one scene stands out among the rest as the single most terrifying.

The film features a group of friends on a caving trip who find themselves hunted by a group of cave-dwelling mutants. The film does a great job of keeping the creatures hidden until the perfect moment. Already thriving on claustrophobia and fear of the dark, the film switches to the point of view of one of the women as she dons night-vision goggles. Her gaze jolts back and forth between her friends, when suddenly one of the creatures is visible in plain sight behind one of them. 

It's a perfect jump-scare and ratchets the fear present in the film exponentially. We only see the creature for a moment before it bolts past the girls and into the labyrinth, but it's just long enough to confirm that something unnatural is going on. The film itself is hard enough to get through more than once, but viewers are likely to find the night-vision scene near impossible to watch without turning away.

The home invasion in It Follows (2014)

Few horror movies of the 2010's have been as acclaimed as It Follows, a tense, lean film about a girl being relentlessly pursued by a creature that takes the form of other humans. As it hunts her, she and her friends learn more and more about what it is and how it functions. It's a brilliantly simple premise for a horror film and it works extremely well under the direction of David Robert Mitchell. And the home invasion sequence is easily the film's standout moment.

The creature, which can only be seen by protagonist Jay, arrives at Jay's house, where she and her friends are posted up in hopes of capitalizing on strength in numbers. As the creature appears, she springs into a panic, locking herself in her room, only to soon be joined by her friends…and an unusually tall man behind them. It's found her. And the image it takes this time, of the tall man with no eyes, is one of the most disturbing forms it takes in the film. 

Once the creature is spotted, the audience gets the feeling that it could show up at any second. It can't be kept away, no matter how hard Jay tries. And now it has her caught in tight quarters, functionally defenseless. It's a violation of any semblance of safety and privacy Jay has left, and everything a terrifying horror movie scene should be, right down to being nearly impossible to watch twice.

'We all float down here' in It (1990)

Before it was the unstoppable box office force of 2017, It was a lower-budget affair showcasing a tour-de-force performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Don't get us wrong, the remake is an exceptional piece of horror cinema, but when comparing how each film adapted the most iconic moment from the novel they're both based on, the original is head and shoulders above the new version.

It comes down to Curry's performance. He takes Pennywise's demeanor in a direction that somehow feels even fresher today than it did in 1990. Rather than an interpretation somewhere in the ballpark of flamboyant, Curry's take on Pennywise feels like a New York carnival barker. It's jarring the first time we hear him speak, and the same can be said for the entire setup of the scene. That's the point, really. Everything happening feels so surreally out of place that the audience can't help but feel creeped out. It's all tied together with the infamous final shot of Pennywise's true form seeping through, yellowed fangs and inhuman eyes. It created a generation of kids who are still afraid of clowns to this day, and this scene is what started it all. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone willing to sit down and watch it again without flinching away. 

The Shining - All work and no play ... (1980)

There's no shortage of terrifying moments in The Shining—those creepy twins, the horrors of Room 237, "Heeeeeere's Johnny!"—but there's a slightly more understated scare in the film that doesn't get its due, and because of that, it's all the more shocking when you see it for the first time. 

Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance is a struggling writer, and spends much of his downtime as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel pounding away at his typewriter, trying to find his next story. We see him working at it constantly, though it's never clear what his story is about. When we finally discover what he's been writing, via his wife Wendy, it's chilling.

Rather than a novel, Jack has simply been typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over again. It's frightening on two levels—one, it's clear that the malevolence of the hotel has infected his mind, and there's no disguising it from his family any longer. The cat's out of the bag. They know. But the other, and possibly more frightening, level reveals itself as Wendy reveals more and more pages bearing the phrase. The slow realization sets in that this has been brewing for ages—and that Jack was touched by evil from the moment he entered the Overlook.

Insidious - The baby monitor (2010)

Director James Wan is a jump-scare creator extraordinaire, and his best is the first big one in his mega-hit Insidious. The film, a classic haunted house story with a twist, is packed with beautifully executed scares—and none are as terrifying as the baby monitor scene.

It's almost elegant in its simplicity. Tension builds as Rose Byrne's character hears sinister voices on the other end of her newborn's baby monitor. The voices build and become more coherent, the volume slowly rising, almost as though they're getting closer. All of a sudden, one of the voices shouts "I want it…NOW!" It's terrifying, and the implication that a child's safety is in danger only makes it scarier. It's not the flashiest moment in the movie, but it leaves a heck of an impression the first time you see it—and when you rewatch Insidious, it's the first moment that'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up—a chilling warning of what's to come.

A Nightmare on Elm Street - The sleepover (1984)

Freddy Krueger is an undisputed icon of the horror genre, and while he became something of a comedian in the franchise's later entries, in the original, he was a sinister force to be reckoned with. Krueger is the ultimate boogeyman, and there's no finer example of his slasher prowess than the film's sleepover sequence.

The sleepover sees Krueger make his true debut the night the film's protagonists spend the night at their friend Tina's house. When the four teens fall asleep, Krueger strikes, stalking Tina through her neighborhood in her dream. The sequence is loaded with iconic imagery, from Krueger walking down the street with elongated arms to the real-world moment in which his visage appears in the wall above protagonist Nancy's bed. The sleepover marks the moment the world met Freddy Krueger in all his glory, and it's still an absolute nightmare today.

The Changeling - The red ball (1980)

Sometimes it's the simple scares that prove most effective, and you need look no further than The Changeling for proof. The film, already a tremendously effective, haunting tale, manages to create one of the most memorable and frightening scares of all time with nothing more than some good lighting, a staircase, and a little red ball.

George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer living alone who finds that his new home may house the spirit of a boy who died there long ago. The scene in question is, again, beautiful in its simplicity. A red ball falls down the house's main staircase. Russell, already unsettled by his encounters with the supernatural in the house, drives to a bridge and tosses it into a river. He arrives home later that evening and as he walks to his study, the same ball falls down the stairs again. It's the sort of thing you know is going to happen but still aren't fully prepared for when it finally does.

Salem's Lot - The window (1979)

A great visual can go a long, long way, and it does just that in Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot. The film tells the story of a writer who returns to his hometown for the first time in years, only to find that around the same time he arrived, so did an ancient vampire. As the townspeople are slowly turned, he bands together with a small crew of friends to make a last stand against the evil that has infected their home. Hooper's film is filled with solid scares, perhaps none more memorable than the scene in which a vampire child floats outside a window.

A young boy named Ralphie Glick is one of the first victims of the vampire, and he soon returns to turn his brother Danny into one of the living dead. He comes at night, floating eerily through a smoky haze outside Danny's bedroom window, and psychically compels his brother to let him into the house. The image of a tiny vampire child hovering menacingly outside the window is immensely memorable. The scene is staged perfectly and, when paired with its eerie score, becomes the sort of moment you'll never want to sit through again—not that you'll need to. That image will stay seared in your mind for years.

The Silence of the Lambs - Night vision (1991)

Found footage horror films provide a unique sort of terror by capitalizing on one of the ground rules of horror: unlike in other genres, in which the most important thing is what you see onscreen, the most important thing in horror is what you can't see. It's the malevolent presence lingering in the darkness just out of sight. Found footage, and horror footage shot through a camera manned by a protagonist, is scary because it limits our point of view to what the character can see. Horror classic The Silence of the Lambs, however, employs a terrifying reversal.

Jodie Foster's Clarice finds herself trapped in the lair of serial killer Buffalo Bill with no source of light to help her find her way to safety. Rather than limit our perspective to Clarice in this scene, we instead follow Bill's point of view as he dons night-vision goggles. He can now see everything Clarice can't. Rather than keep us in the dark, the camera brings everything Clarice can't see to light, and we follow Bill as he stalks her through his labyrinth. Part of you will want to watch the scene over and over again to prolong your awe of its masterful craft; another part, however, will want to get as far away from the movie as possible. 

The Thing - Blood test (1982)

John Carpenter can lay claim to having made multiple genre-defining films. Years after Halloween, he filmed The Thing, a sci-fi/horror masterpiece steeped in Cold War paranoia and claustrophobia that focuses on a group of men in a research base in the Arctic who find themselves trapped with a shapeshifting alien. While the film features many killer set pieces, the standout sequence in terms of terror is the blood test scene. 

Upon realizing that each cell of the alien functions as an individual creature with survival instincts of its own, de facto leader RJ McReady (Kurt Russell) administers a test amongst his cohorts to discover who is, in that moment, still human. The test involves taking blood samples and sticking a hot needle in each sample, with the presumption being that if anyone has been infected, the blood will react differently.

As soon as McReady shares his idea, the viewer knows one of the blood tests will fail—we just don't know which one. It becomes an excruciatingly tense waiting game as the needle is lowered into each sample, a dull hiss indicating safety and providing a moment of relief that vanishes as soon as the next test is prepared. It stretches out and takes its time, and when the proverbial (and literal) needle finally drops, it pays massively frightening dividends.

The Blair Witch Project - The ending (1999)

Decades after it triggered the found-footage craze, it's easy to forget how remarkably tense and subtle The Blair Witch Project really is. It never overplays its hand and makes excellent use of the medium, and in no moment is this better exemplified than the film's chilling finale.

Paralleling the story the audience has been told about the Blair Witch—that she would kill one kidnapped child in the center of the room while another stood facing a corner—Heather stumbles into the basement of a mysterious house. Lost and terrified, she turns to see her friend Mike … standing facing a corner. There's silence for a moment, and then an unseen force attacks her. She drops the camera, the shot holds for a moment, and the film ends. It's a genuinely perfect ending and remains frightening beyond belief. That we never see what happens forces us to imagine, and the places your mind will take you aren't pleasant. We still have trouble sitting through this one without squirming away from the screen.

Halloween - Michael appears behind Laurie (1978)

Few would dispute that John Carpenter's Halloween is anything short of a masterpiece that's still shaping the horror genre to this day. Picking a single too-scary-to-watch-twice scene from the movie is a challenge, but if Mike Myers had a knife to our backs and made us choose, we'd have to go with the moment Myers' face appears behind Laurie Strode.

A lot of what makes this scene so scary just comes down to timing and lighting. Laurie is backed against a well-lit wall with a small patch of darkness behind her. She thinks she's safe for a moment—and the audience does too. But slowly, Myers' sheet-white visage begins to appear in the darkness behind her. More observant viewers will notice it earlier on, but the sooner you realize he's there, the more instantaneously frightening the moment becomes. It's a classic, "TURN AROUND, HE'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!" scene—maybe the best there is. The timing of the reveal and the way it's lit, forcing the viewer to really look for Myers behind Laurie, is impeccable, and creates a scene so tense, it's almost impossible to sit through twice.

Don't Look Now - The truth comes out (1973)

For much of Don't Look Now's surreal runtime, Donald Sutherland's John experiences what he believes to be premonitions of his recently deceased daughter Christine. Paired with advice from a pair of psychics, he and his wife Laura begin to believe their daughter is trying to contact them from beyond the grave. Sightings of a small figure in a red coat resembling one Christine wore leave John convinced he's seeing his daughter. In addition, he and Laura receive warnings from the psychics that something bad is coming for them. It's not until the film's ending that the horrifying truth becomes clear.

John finally confronts what he believes to be the ghost of his daughter, only to realize that it's not his daughter at all—it's a tiny older woman who proceeds to slash his throat and leave him for dead, as a surreal, hallucinogenic montage conveys John's realization of the truth. It's terrifying to watch, as you realize that the sense of foreboding, the foreshadowing, the premonitions throughout the film—they all had nothing to do with Christine, and everything to do with John's impending murder. It's bleak, hopeless, and tragic on every level, not to mention scary enough to stop you from ever wanting to sit through it a second time.