Movie scenes that traumatized fans

We go to the movies for a lot of reasons, but most of them can be boiled down to our desire to feel or experience something that we wouldn't be able to otherwise. We enjoy horror films because they allow us to be scared without putting us in physical danger; superhero movies can put us in the shoes of relatable characters with impossible abilities; rom-coms can take us through the ups and downs of a romantic relationship without actually having to go through them. The best filmmakers can put us directly in touch with these emotions and sensations, and it can be pretty great.

It can also be pretty seriously distressing when a skilled filmmaker uses his gifts to punch us straight in the gut, particularly when that punch is unexpected. These are films that promised us a rollicking good time, and they delivered — but along with the thrills and chills came moments of pure, unadulterated trauma which lingered long after the credits rolled.

Han's last stand

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens was generally seen as a satisfying return to form for the series after the plodding lows of the oft-maligned prequel films. While the story it told was criticized in some quarters as being not much more than a rehashing of the 1977 original, the film also gave us memorable new characters like the malevolent Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Force-sensitive scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) — plus the welcome return of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher) after an absence of more than 30 years.

Ford's older-and-wiser Han was a highlight of the film, and the revelation that Kylo Ren had been born Ben Solo to Han and Leia raised the film's dramatic stakes considerably. The scene in which Han goes to confront his son on a bridge spanning a seemingly bottomless abyss as Rey, Finn, and Chewbacca look on is fraught with tension, and for a moment, Han appears to be getting through to his son — until Ren does the unthinkable, igniting his lightsaber and killing his father. It has been speculated by fans that Han may have gone to his death willingly, in order to help his son transition fully to the dark side so he can successfully infiltrate and bring down the First Order — but even if this turns out to be the case, it doesn't make this scene any less shocking, abrupt, or upsetting.

Kate's Santa Claus speech

Joe Dante's 1984 film Gremlins has become a classic by way of being singularly weird. Set during the Christmas season but released during the summer, the film walks perhaps the finest line ever drawn between horror and comedy; Chris Columbus' original script was famously put through a ton of revisions before the horror was toned down enough to earn the film a PG rating. The film doles out laughs and shocks with a nearly perfect balance, but its most upsetting moment occurs midway through the movie, when its frantic pace slows to a crawl long enough for the character of Kate (Phoebe Cates) to deliver one of the most heartbreaking monologues ever put to film.

In it, Kate describes the tragedy that occurred when, as a little girl, her father tried to liven up the family's routine one Christmas. Dressing up as Santa, he attempted to surprise the family by coming down the chimney — but got stuck. You can probably guess where the story goes from there, but Cates' dewy-eyed delivery along with the reactions of Billy (Zach Galligan) and even the animatronic Gizmo push what could have been an absurd story into the realm of pure tragedy. Kate wraps up her monologue with a line guaranteed to leave even the most stoic viewer holding back the tears: "And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus."

Indiana Jones and the infamous heart rip

Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark became an instant classic upon its 1981 release, and there was never any doubt that audiences would get much, much more of the adventures of Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. The climax of that film was quite a bit traumatizing in its own right, what with the angry spirits and nazi face-melting, but the 1984 sequel/prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom promised to go quite a bit darker. It was the film for which the PG-13 rating was invented, which was largely due to one unexpected, jaw-droppingly violent scene.

It comes fairly early in the film, as Jones and sidekicks Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) surreptitiously observe a sacrificial ritual being performed by the villainous Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) and his Thuggee cult. As Jones and his shocked cohorts look on, Ram rips the beating heart from his victim's chest, holding the organ aloft as the still-living sacrifice is plunged into a chamber of fire to be burned alive. The scene was far more violent than any in Spielberg's work thus far, and even though Temple of Doom has come to be recognized as a worthy entry in the Indiana Jones series, it was criticized heavily by some observers upon its release for traumatizing a generation of young Indy fans.

I'll be right here

Steven Spielberg has never been unwilling to toy with the feelings of his audience. Even when giving his characters the happiest of endings, he's skilled at drawing performances out of his actors — particularly child actors — that have the ring of genuine human emotion. His 1982 masterpiece E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster — sometimes suspenseful, sometimes full of pulse-pounding action, sometimes hilarious — and its climactic scene, in which young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends evade federal agents in order to help E.T. rendezvous with his ride home, manages to be all three at once. But it's not until the threat is over and E.T. is about to return safely home that the waterworks start.

The alien tells Elliott's young sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, only seven years old at the time) to "be good" before pulling Elliott in for a hug and telling him, "I'll be right here." It's not so much the delivery of the animatronic alien as it is the absolutely heart-crushing reaction shots of Thomas, Barrymore (crying her eyes out) and Dee Wallace (as Elliott's mom), literally falling to her knees with emotion. Even bullying big brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) appears to be holding back the tears, and for many young viewers, the scene would have represented their first exposure to genuine heartbreak and loss. 

More traumatizing than you can possibly imagine

When Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (then titled simply Star Wars) was released to theaters in 1977, nobody had ever seen anything even remotely like it. We all know about the monolithic cultural juggernaut it became, but it's impossible to overstate what an insane blast of filmmaking ingenuity it represented at the time. The project was literally almost shelved pre-release due to its budget and perceived lack of marketability, meaning that even 20th Century Fox executives and George Lucas himself were utterly shocked by its rapturous reception. Lucas can probably at least be given credit for failing to realize just how many young moviegoers he would be traumatizing during the film's most heart-rending moment — the murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi by Darth Vader.

Kenobi (Alec Guinness) gives ample warning by taunting Vader during the battle, saying, "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." But audiences were still left with their jaws on the floor when the Jedi Master lowered his defenses as Luke Skywalker looked on. Luke's reaction mirrored the audience's, and even the Rebels' eventual triumph at the Battle of Yavin during the film's conclusion wasn't entirely enough to wipe away the sting of Kenobi's seemingly senseless death.

Georgie meets Pennywise

Stephen King's voluminous novel It is like a catalog of pure, unadulterated terror, and widely considered one of his finest works. The book had already received an acceptable live-action adaptation in the form of the 1990 TV miniseries, featuring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, perhaps King's most terrifying creation; as such, director Andres Muschietti's 2017 theatrical adaptation was viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism. Fortunately, Muschietti and his cast and crew delivered not only a ferocious new vision of King's work, but one of the very best horror films of the last decade, thanks in no small part to Bill Skarsgard's absolutely masterful portrayal of Pennywise.

Even viewers already familiar with the novel or miniseries — that is to say, those who knew what was coming — couldn't help being shocked to their cores by the character's introduction. Young Georgie Denbrough loses his paper boat in a storm drain, only to see the clown's predatory eyes peering at him from out of the drain's darkness; over the course of their conversation, innocent on its surface but pulsing with tension underneath, the clown convinces the boy to reach on in and grab his boat. It's the last decision Georgie will ever make, and the graphic nature of his demise makes the scene land with a punch that no television adaptation could ever match.

Spider-Man doesn't feel so good

Marvel fans were thrilled when the studio reached a deal with Sony in 2015, allowing for joint custody of Marvel's flagship character: Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man. They were even more excited when the MCU incarnation of Spidey (portrayed by young British actor Tom Holland) lived up to any expectation they possibly could have had. Holland's insecure, teenage, endlessly wisecracking version of the wall-crawler hit the sweet spot with fans that had been left somewhat cold by Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and Marc Webb's reboot series, and news of Holland's six-picture contract meant that we would be treated to Spidey's adventures in the MCU for years to come.

Then we were given Avengers: Infinity War, the lead-up to the end of MCU's first three-phase mega-arc involving Thanos and the Infinity Stones. We all knew there would be blood; Thanos' wanton murder of Loki and Heimdall in the picture's first five minutes confirmed that the Mad Titan was a threat unlike any the Avengers had yet faced. But few expected the carnage of the film's climax, in which Thanos actually manages to succeed in wiping out half of all life in the universe with one snap of his fingers. Watching fan favorites like Doctor Strange and Black Panther crumble to dust was bad enough, but Spidey's demise — lying in the arms of Tony Stark, pleading that he doesn't want to go — was utterly crushing. Of course, he'll be back — but in that moment, it didn't matter.

One long and brutal Night

George A. Romero's seminal 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was released during a grey area for film ratings. The Hays Code of days past had fallen out of favor, and the MPAA's current rating system wouldn't be implemented until 1970; as an independent release, Night picked up steam by playing in smaller, regional movie houses, often on double bills with far more benign sci-fi and action pictures. 

The great Roger Ebert described the problem with this in his original 1969 review. "There were maybe two dozen people in the audience who were over 16 years old," he wrote. "The rest were kids, the kind you expect at a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee." Anyone familiar with the film can probably guess how this went, as its shocking imagery of the undead feasting on the flesh of the living and little zombie girls killing their mothers slowly but surely reduced the young patrons to quivering blobs of fear. None more so than the brutal, abrupt ending, in which the intrepid hero and lone survivor of the film's events is mistaken for a zombie and unceremoniously shot dead by a citizen patrol. 

"The kids in the audience were stunned," Ebert remembered. "There was almost complete silence… There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying." Romero's work would go on to leave an indelible mark on pop culture, but for many of its initial audiences, it was uncut nightmare fuel.

Dumbledore's final ploy

Part of the genius of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and its faithful film adaptations lies in how its themes become more mature as its characters do. For each year Harry, Ron, and Hermione put under their belts, Lord Voldemort's looming threat grows ever closer and more urgent, and by the final entries in the series, the stakes are high enough that we wonder how these teenagers can even attempt to face their destiny without crumbling. The pivotal event in 2009's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was expected by anyone who had read the novel, but it didn't make seeing it onscreen any less upsetting. Severus Snape, seemingly aligned with the Dark Lord, finally tips over to full-blown evil as he utters two words — "Avada Kedavra!" and murders beloved school headmaster Albus Dumbledore in front of Harry.

Of course, we later learned that Snape was the ultimate double agent, allied with Dumbledore all along, and that his own death had always been part of the headmaster's plan. But watching him appear to plead for his life (although he's actually pleading with Snape to get on with it) as Snape levels his wand and utters the Killing Curse is perhaps the most difficult moment of the entire series to sit through.

Wash is a leaf on the wind

The Fox TV series Firefly aired for only one season in 2002, but all these years later, its imprint on pop culture stubbornly refuses to fade. The story of an intergalactic band of ne'er-do-wells on the run from the monolithic galactic Alliance introduced us to the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, including sardonic Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), his second-in-command Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), and her husband Hoban "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk), the ship's wisecracking pilot. After the series' abrupt cancellation, creator Joss Whedon gave fans a proper sendoff with the 2005 theatrical release Serenity — but also saw fit to give them a healthy dose of heartbreak while he was at it.

Late in the film, the crew succeeds in provoking the Alliance into a battle with the animalistic Reavers, and Wash manages to pilot the damaged Serenity through the melee, landing on the surface of the planet over which the battle is taking place. Just at the moment all appears safe, Wash utters his final words — "I'm a leaf on the wind; watch how –" — before being impaled by a Reaver spear, dying instantly in front of his horrified wife and Captain. Whedon is well-known for bestowing cruel fates upon beloved characters, but the death of Wash is one that even his most ardent fans have a hard time forgiving him for — to the point where even today, some try to use science to prove that it couldn't have happened.