5 Films That Frightened Me

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

You might laugh at what frightens me. Everyone is built different; one person's fear is another's source of amusement. One evening a friend came over just as I was starting to watch The Shining on TV. My friend laughed as the foreboding music began to play, even before the titles appeared, and then he kept laughing during the opening credit sequence. It was annoying; I asked him what was so funny. "I laugh when I'm really, really scared," were his parting words as he hastily departed.

So consider this list a cinematic confessional: five films that, when I first watched them, shook me to my core, sometimes for reasons that I'm still reluctant to explore. Listed in reverse chronological order of first viewing:

5. Ringu (1998; d. Nakata Hideo)
After hearing about the movie for months, I bought an import DVD and watched it late one night, by myself, in my father's house. It was a traumatic period of time in my life, but I'd been watching a lot of Asian horror films and only one had really affected me. (See below.) I thought I was sufficiently hardened to ridicule anyone who might be scared by such a silly concept, and then I got wrapped up in the story and it started playing on my nerves and I became aware of the empty spaces in the house and I began hugging a pillow and rocking back and forth on the sofa. Later, I laughed at how the opening night audience reacted to the American remake.

kairo-pulse-photo-01.jpg4. Kairo (AKA Pulse) (2001; d. Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
Before I moved from Dallas back to Los Angeles temporarily to help my father, my addiction to Asian movies had taken hold and I was watching everything I could. As I recall, Kairo was only available on VCD at the time, so I bought it and slipped the first disc into the player. Near the end of it, there's a particular moment of silence, followed by a gasped word, then silence, then a gasped word, and that combination made the hair on the back of my neck stand up -- like it is as I type this -- and it took me quite a while that night to summon the nerve to watch the rest of the movie. Why did it unnerve me so? I have no idea.

dawn-of-the-dead-1978-photo-01.jpg3. Dawn of the Dead (1978; d. George Romero)
I can't even recall if I had seen Night of the Living Dead at this point, early in my solo theatrical moviegoing experience, but the local alternative weeklies in Los Angeles were raving about the movie and so I ventured to a cavernous older theater (most likely the long-closed Four Star Theatre) and was totally freaked out when a zombie takes a huge bloody bite out of somebody's shoulder. (Not as big as I remembered, but still ...) It wasn't a nibble, it was a chomp, and a chunk of flesh came off, and I flashed back to seeing a big open wound in my uncle's arm after he fell through a glass door, and I sat glued to my chair, my stomach churning, barely breathing throughout the movie. I've been afraid of an impending zombie attack ever since.

jaws-photo-01.jpg2. Jaws (1975; d. Steven Spielberg)
Having seen Duel on TV, I was doubly eager to see the hot new summer thriller. The sight of the bitten-off leg early on made me jump, just like everyone else in the packed theater, but it was the heroic final battle of Robert Shaw vs. the shark that frightened me the most, the idea that you could be a big strong man -- I was a weak slender teen -- and still get eaten alive, not just eaten alive, but bitten and chomped and ... oh, I was upset for weeks. The movie was the perfect storm of fears: my fear of the water (unreasonable for a Southern Californian) and my fear of being eaten alive by an animal. All that summer, I kept imagining that a shark would burst out from the bathroom sink and eat me.

darby-ogill-little-people-photo-01.jpg1. Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959; d. Robert Stevenson)
As a wee lad, my mother took me to see this inoffensive children's movie from Walt Disney. In my parents' view, the only safe and decent movies for a child had to have the Disney imprimateur, so when this movie (starring Sean Connery, pre-James Bond) was re-released, off we went. In one scene, a much-talked-about banshee finally appears, and its ethereal appearnce and spooky cry frightened me terribly; I'd never seen anything like it. And then I went home to the safety of my bedroom, where my parents left the window open on a hot night, and warm gusts of wind keep pushing the thin curtains hither and yon, looking for all the world like the horrible banshee, and I didn't sleep well for days.

Below I've embedded the opening credit sequence from The Shining; see if you can watch all three minutes without a shiver crawling down your spine. And feel free to share your own frightening experiences, if any, at the movies.

Around the Internet:
  • scs55

    the original "The Fog", with Adrianne Barbeau, Hal Holbrook, Jamie Lee Curtis. Watched it alone, late one foggy night.....years later, a heavy fog still makes me think of leprous corpses with gaff hooks. also the remake of "The Thing", with Kurt Russell .....hard to believe those were both before CGI, everything was modeled, stop motioned, etc.

  • ponchopanda

    Might I recommend the (youtube) series "Marble Hornets"

  • Mike

    Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the scariest movies I've ever seen.

  • FrankenPC .

    I thought Pulse was brilliant. There were scenes in that movie that still haunt me.

  • oh and that creepy noise poltergeist makes as carolanne walks down the stairs in the first few minutes

  • I'm not afriad of clowns mind you but the 2 scariest clowns ever have to be pennywise from it and (i will tell you I still to this day fast forward through this scene) that maniacal clown from poltergeist. The ring came out when I was 25 my boy friend and I were living together and he was ot of town I went to see it with a friend...I begged her to stay the night. she couldn't I slept with every light on in the house that night.

  • princessri

    Devil was pretty scary had me nervous to take elevators again ever

  • Alan Knight

    The Ring did not "terrify" me at all

  • Scott Wendt

    I will confess, the first time I saw Blade, the amount of blood in the opening Slaughterhouse Club scene caught me completely off guard and made me very queasy. The sudden change in from Dusk til Dawn also caught me completely by surprise. Not in a jerking out of my chair sort of way, but more of a WTF sort of way. In both cases, I had never heard of the films before a friend showed them to me. Pat, you got me good! Now I have been so desensitized to Mega-gore that I don't even bother with films like Saw, but I still, to this day have no desire to ever watch Deep Water. Of course, having been in the Navy that deep and hidden fear of being alone in the ocean stays with you.

  • Thing is, I love horror movies. However, the only way I can truly get into them, is if I watch them for the first time, when i'm alone. That way I truly get into the action; even though I don't truly get scared. One scene that did get me going (I actually got goosebumps) is the scene where the girl gets dragged down the stairs and into the basement in Paranormal Activity. Kudos to that franchise. I love it.

  • mustdisqus

    anything with Jack Nicholson in it. HE PLAYS HIMSELF

  • Croc

    Watch the Japanese movie series "gunie pig" then talk about fear....(shudder)....

  • Amina M.

    I think you are just a big baby :) None of the movies above were frightening to me. I think to me the highest credit I will ever give is to Exorcist (The original). Everything else falls short of it. Ring and all those movies are more funny. Especially the concept of the person coming out of a TV. First of all the thing displays water (a concept of if you have liquid seeping out of something electrical that could follow with a fire) which is what i was hoping would happen every time that funny looking girl stepped out of the tv. I kept on looking at my Television that sits high on top of my cupboard wondering if she came out of here, how badly would she fall and hurt herself and then combust into flames just with water coming out of my tv :) I would be laughing before i kicked it out of my window or hit it with the bat sitting next to my bed for intruders :) so in all cases i find those movies more funny than scary. I mean really???

  • allen

    the insidious the best!!

  • LLPR

    Greenskeeper http://www.imdb.com/name/nm114... frightenly funny Grace Baine the new green recycled green heroine

  • Disagree with this article except for Darby O Gill which actually is terrifying for a few minutes

  • lizzyfizzy

    The shining hasn't and never will scare me or creep me out. It's one of my favorite movies and doesn't scare me one bit. I love referencing it.

  • mom3critters

    That wasn't so bad. The movie that got me the most was Cujo. The perfect blend of sound & cinematography. When up late feeding baby, had to finally turn sound off to finish watching it to the end. Needless to say I don't watch movies made from King's books. Another movie was a made for TV called Gargoyles. I think it might have been the first movie with gargoyles as the monster. Anyway the looks & abilities were so different it scared the heck out of 6 high school girls. True horror films not the slasher-blood & guts that pass for horror now. Love to watch the old B movies. My favorite, always good for a laugh; Eight Legged Freaks.

  • xianikka melx

    THE SHUTTER, a Thai movie in 2004 is the most frightening for me. Made me stop watching asian horror movies for a while.

  • Jonnie123

    Yeah Shutter is up there. Also, Lake Mungo is good.

  • Rush

    Alright, Im going to straight up admit it - I was one of the idiots who believed Blair Witch Project was basically a snuff film. The promotion was so convincing (that damn documentary, especially!) that I believed every moment the first three times I saw it. The tent scene w the kids and the final 10 minutes still scare the bejebus out of me.

  • Razkul

    I saw both the movie The Exorcist and Stephen Kings IT at a really young age.The Exorcist scared me bad. Seeing another kid about my age haunted me. IT played on my already existing fear on clowns. It doesn't scare me today (how ironic pennywise could only prey on children) but the exorcist is a movie I still have to gain courage to revisit

  • Jupiter

    Well, the Shining intro didn't really scare me, but I felt really uneasy watching it. One thing that scared me was a few years ago my parents were watching a movie that I don't recall the name of. At one point someone was standing with a dog beside them and holding their own guts, telling someone to run. That terrified me.

  • Moses

    It's amazing how much music can affect your perception of a film. Someone re-cut a trailer for the Shining with happier music, with a brilliant effect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • marianna

    tailes of two sisters its a korean movie, Kairo of course!, rose red ( saw it when i was younger creeped me out!) and ringu!!

  • wing

    the original 1963, black and white "the haunting"! i had a hard time walking to my bedroom in the dark after watching it, even though you see almost *nothing* horror-wise, relying more on subtle light and not-so-subtle audio effects to twist you into a cowering ball of nerves. fantastic!

  • rtorso

    I have still never recovered from the man with the sheep's body in O LUCKY MAN.

  • I saw Darby O'Gill in the theatre when I was 10. That banshee has haunted me ever since. I'll have to watch it again, just to see how stupid it was. I hope.

  • Great article, Peter: My own confessional about JAWS is here (http://twitchfilm.com/2012/08/... ). I quite literally was afraid of any water for weeks, convinced that the Shark was somehow going to come out of the showerhead.

    What can I say, I had an active imagination.

    By the time I saw THE SHINING it didn't spook me out as much as enthrall me, just as JAWS now does. It was the first, and probably last film that completely shook me due to abject fear - it's why I didn't spend the 80s watching slasher horror movies, I was convinced (at the time) that they'd mess me up even more.

    I've not seen RINGU or KAIRO yet, nor even heard of DARBY O'GILL, so some fun things there to explore indeed!

  • i was afraid that it would come up through the drain in the tub.
    i remember the terror i felt! thankfully they made those other ones that were ridiculous,it lessened the effect the first one had on me!

    and Halloween and The Oman,i will not watch those movies as an adult!

  • When the Shining first came out, I couldn't even watch the commercials for it! The beginning music was enough to send me runiing from the room. Now it's one of my favorite scary movies to watch...

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Maleficent scared the crap out of me as a lttle kid when mommy took me to see Sleeping Beauty, especially when she turned into the dragon. Now I can't wait to see the upcoming Angelina Jolie live action film. Maleficent has always fascinated me.

  • When I first saw Pet Semetary in the theater...the scenes with the sister with spinal meningitis are the only scenes ever that made me look away or cover my eyes.

  • tang

    i never watch horror films (because i am easily frightened and besides i prefer other kind of sensations), i just ran accross your page and what i liked is ... your way of writing, really enjoyed it :)

  • Destination A Go-Go

    Two Disney films stand out in traumatizing me as a kid.
    - The "Heaven/Hell" ending sequence in "THE BLACK HOLE"
    - All of "SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES"

  • Another Japanese horror film that really manages to achieve unease:

    'Noroi: The Curse'

  • FrankenPC .

    I do not see that anywhere on Netflix. You sure the name is correct?

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    Noroi: The Curse haves to be the most frightening thing I saw in the last decade. It's just so creepy and scary.

  • [A]

    *writes down the name*

  • Sebo McPowers

    Kairo is great!

    I can also recommend the original Dark Water and A Tale of two Sisters!

  • (ah yes....forgot about that fall scene that comes out of nowhere. it all really adds up to a great sense of dread)

  • jedi4life2003

    I really want to see Kairo now, nothing's scared me for a long time now

  • S4lem

    It's not scary.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    Kairo is so creepy and depressing. Avoid the remake like the plague though since it lacks a lot of what made Kairo so creepy (It's meaning, it's much more than a film about ghosts and computers. It's about isolation. Something the remake removed).

  • yes Kairo.....that slow motion ghost sequence. and also the blackened-shadow-on-the-wall. and the library scene. terrifying. still, most of the time when I play it to people they seem bored instead of frightened

  • Craig Forshaw

    OMG. 'Darby O'Gill and the Little People' terrified me as a child, and I haven't been able to remember it since... even though it haunts me and my dreams all the time since!

  • Thank you for confirming that I am not alone on 'Darby'! Still gives me chills from time to time ...

  • Necro

    Good God that movie still to this day scares me a little (it's been like 20 years). I never have forgotten the sound of the damned Banshee!

  • Kairo has, in my opinion, the most effective and just flat out terrifying ghost sequence I've ever seen put on film. It WRECKED me the first time I saw it. The long fall shot is astounding, too.

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