There’s something special about “that moment” in the horror genre. Whether it’s the scene from that movie that’s been burned into your head since childhood or the passage of that book you’ll always wish you couldn’t recite from heart, there are just times when horror is so perfectly distilled into a single moment that we often come to associate those genre masterpieces with that one scene.
Well, few horror moments are more memorable than the scariest sequences in gaming history. Horror gaming has always been elevated by the fact that you’re the one who has to navigate these nightmare scenarios, and that already intimidating arrangement tends to backfire on you whenever you encounter these shocking scenes that force you to ask whether you’re really brave enough to press on.
From swamp folk to needles in the eye, these are the scariest moments in horror gaming history.
20. The Night Folk – Red Dead Redemption 2
Wander around Red Dead Redemption 2’s swamps around 2:00 am, and you may stumble upon a woman crying next to a fire. If you make the mistake of trying to help her, she’ll attack you and summon a group of zombie-like hillbillies known simply as the “Night Folk.”
What I love about this scare is the way that it completely justifies that general sense of terror you feel when you walk through RDR 2’s swamps while also being so shocking and intimidating that there’s no way you can properly brace yourself for it.
19. Dinner With the Cannibals – The Walking Dead: Season One
After an explosive opening episode, The Walking Dead: Season One seemingly slows things down a bit by taking you to a dairy farm where your wounded party finally gets to enjoy a few moments of rest as well as some much-needed hot meals. Of course, the sanctity of that last offering is undone the moment you find one of your companions hacked into bits and realize your hosts are cannibals.
The inherent horror of this moment is amplified by the emotional attachment you feel to your party and the fact that this episode emphasizes the scarcity of resources. It’s such a shocking betrayal of your emotions as well as a genuinely disturbing twist.
18. Running From Mr. X – Resident Evil 2 Remake
There have been many great “stalker” moments in gaming history, but few come close to matching the sheer terror you feel when you first encounter Mr. X in Capcom’s brilliant remake of Resident Evil 2.
The best slashers and stalkers leave you feeling like escape is impossible, and that’s exactly what Mr. X does so well. That “Oh shit!” moment you’ll experience when you first see him is only eclipsed by the realization that escaping him will be as difficult as you feared.
17. Deleting All Your Saves – Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Eternal Darkness’ brilliant use of a “sanity meter” that causes your character to experience hallucinations is one of the best mechanics in horror game history. However, that already brilliant concept is never better than when one of Eternal Darkness’ sanity freakouts leads you to believe that the game is deleting all of your save files.
Even once you understand that the game is going to mess with you in these kinds of ways, nothing can quite prepare you for the genuine “meta” scare of believing that all of your hard work has just vanished. It’s the perfect realization of a fear that every gamer from a certain era has dealt with.
16. Discovering Deathclaw Sanctuary – Fallout 3
Fallout 3 is filled with genuinely terrifying moments, but few compare to discovering the Deathclaw Sanctuary. An entire part of the map filled with Deathclaws has to be one of the biggest “nopes” in video game history.
Whether you’re unfortunate enough to stumble into this place organically or you see it taunting you on the map after walking a bit too close to it, few open-world locations in gaming history loom quite as large as this one. It’s a brilliant example of the many ways simply wandering around Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland feels so intimidating.
15. Laura – The Evil Within
The Evil Within is a generally creepy game, but nothing in the title’s earlier moments quite prepares you for the horror of running into “Laura:” a spider-like creature with a human face who emerges from the floor like she was shot from a gore-filled cannon.
It’s that violent suddenness of Laura’s arrival that makes this moment so memorable. The game gives you no time to process what you’ve just seen before you have to start running from this thing that screams so loudly it can rock your room and rattle your soul.
14. The Matchmaker’s Lair – Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned: Criminal Origins is a generally underrated horror experience, but this brilliant little game reaches its apex when you’re tasked with hunting down a killer known as the matchmaker and discover that many of the mannequins that inhabit his lair are killers in disguise.
The various jumpscares are fantastic, but what really makes this sequence work is the way it constantly lures you in and out of a false sense of security as you grapple with the idea that these already creepy seemingly inanimate objects may also be out to kill you.
13. The Rat King – The Last of Us Part 2
The Last of Us doesn’t always get the love the franchise deserves for being a genuinely effective piece of horror, but the series’ scariest moment has to be this confrontation with an almost indescribable monstrosity in The Last of Us Part 2 known simply as The Rat King.
This mutated collection of terrors is so wildly different from everything else you’ve seen in this game up until this point that not even the hints that there could be something truly terrible lurking in this area’s depths are enough to properly prepare you for the reveal. It’s the moment this series goes full ‘80s gross-out horror, and it’s brilliant.
12. The Child’s Room – Layers of Fear
Around the time you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve seen it all in Layers of Fear, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a child’s room where a music box projects various innocent illustrations on the walls. The moment you interact with the music box is the moment you begin what could be described as a journey through Hell that leaves you dreading what the next rotation will reveal.
This scene is undeniably creepy, but the thing that really makes this moment special is the way this sequence brilliantly ties into the game’s lore and leaves you feeling exactly like the character feels in that moment: a helpless passenger through a guided tour of your worst fears.
11. The Ladder – F.E.A.R.
2005’s F.E.A.R. is an incredible blend of innovative FPS design and the kind of jump-scare horror that was especially popular in certain major movies at the time. Both of those concepts join forces in this wonderful moment when you begin a “climbing the ladder” animation only to see F.E.A.R.’s resident creepy child (Alma) standing right in front of you.
It’s the way that this scare so completely violates the sanctity of player perspective in video games that makes it truly great. The rare moment you’re forced to hand over control to the game is the moment it ambushes you with an unavoidable scare. You’ll never trust an FPS game again after this moment.
10. The Bear Trap – Until Dawn
I personally love Until Dawn’s collection of truly effective jump scares, but I understand why some players look down on that particular horror technique. However, even they may struggle to deny the effectiveness of this incredible scene that sees you get your fingers stuck in a bear trap and choose to either amputate them or try to free yourself before some mysterious apparent threat attacks you from the shadows.
This scene is made all the more effective by the fact that Until Dawn constantly threatens to kill off your current character if you make one little mistake. This game puts you in a nightmare scenario then ups the ante by leaving you with little time to wonder what the right move is.
9. The NoonTech Diagnostic Machine – Dead Space 2
Given just how scary the first two Dead Space games are, it’s quite telling that the general consensus among franchise fans is that the NoonTech Diagnostic Machine is the series’ most intimidating, frightening, and memorable sequence. Then again, how else would you describe a scene in which you’re forced to carefully stick a giant needle into your character’s eye?
Eye trauma has been one of the most effective horror devices since the genre’s earliest “on-screen” days, and Dead Space 2 manages to escalate an already disturbing experience by forcing you to be the one who sticks the needle in. Even the Dead Space developers wondered if this sequence was too much.
8. The Mirror – Silent Hill 3
You walk into a dirty room and find yourself facing a mirror. The nearby basin starts to bleed, but the blood in the reflection and the blood in the room soon start to behave differently. As the blood covers your reflection and creeps along the walls and floors, you start to wonder what is happening and how you will get out of this suddenly locked room.
I love when a game turns these visible scares into an actual threat, and this is one of the absolute best examples of that technique. The scene is scary enough on its own, but it’s when you realize that the blood is an actual threat and that you have to try to escape this room that you really start to feel the pressure of this incredible moment.
7. The Dog Jumping Through the Window – Resident Evil
I almost thought about leaving this classic horror gaming moment off the list for the sake of variety, but, when you really get down to it, the moment that the camera changes in that famous Resident Evil hallway just in time for you to see a dog jump through the foreground window really is a masterful scare.
This moment terrified a generation of gamers still grappling with the fact that games could be this scary, but it’s honestly still terrifying to this day. The way that the game uses that sudden camera change to establish a new threat that is both behind your character and directly in front of the player is just brilliant.
6. Pyramid Head’s Introduction – Silent Hill 2
The old “what the fuck is that?” scene has long been one of the most effective scares in horror. Well, few WTF scares in video game history have come close to topping the moment in Silent Hill 2 when we walk into a room and see the monster known as Pyramid Head violently assaulting mannequin creatures.
While the pure visual of this moment is enough to make your skin crawl, it’s what this scene signals in the scope of Silent Hill 2’s twisted narrative that makes it truly memorable. Silent Hill 2 excels at showing you the most disturbing thing you’ve ever seen and then making it worse once you learn more about what it means. This has to be considered the apex of that series’ approach to horror.
5. The Falling Woman -Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
This entire list could be filled with Fatal Frame moments if we wanted to go that route, but The Falling Woman from Fatal Frame 2 is one of the series’ absolute highlights. The Falling Woman is a mysterious figure who seemingly committed suicide and is forced to constantly relive her death. Even worse, the aftermath of her actions has left her with a twisted form that her spirit uses to chase you across the room.
Much like the Pyramid Head sequence, it’s that combination of visual shock and emotional horror that makes this scare stand out. Everything about it is just wrong, but the way this game leaves you feeling like you’d rather do anything but see what’s at the bottom of those stairs is simply masterful.
4. The Hiding Place Kill – Alien: Isolation
At some point in Alien: Isolation, you’re going to go back to your favorite hiding spot in order to avoid being detected by the Xenomorph. At that moment, the Xenomorph will tear that locker open and instantly kill your character as you do everything in your power to avoid screaming.
With this moment, Isolation subverted every expectation we had about the fairly recent (at that time) “hiding from the stalker” horror gaming trope in such a blunt and memorable way. There is no part of you that’s expecting the Xenomorph to be able to identify you so quickly, and the moment it does just that is the moment you question everything you thought you knew.
3. The Flooded Room – Amnesia: The Dark Descent
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Amnesia helped rewrite the horror game genre overnight, but this all-time classic’s best moment has to be this incredible sequence that sees you try to navigate a flooded hallway occupied by an invisible monster. Are you confident enough in your ability to spot its movements to make that bold leap into its potential path?
This moment is incredibly terrifying on a conceptual level alone, but what I really love about this sequence is that it also serves as an elaborate physics puzzle that makes an already daunting scenario feel that much more intimidating. Amnesia showed that the future of horror was going to revolve around making you feel like you’re truly a part of the fray, and this is the moment that proved how terrifying and impressive that approach could be.
2. The Groom – Outlast: Whistleblower
I’m honestly not sure how to describe this moment without potentially genuinely disturbing unsuspecting people. Let’s just say that “The Groom” is obsessed with trying to find a bride. The problem is that he’s surrounded by men. As such, he goes to…unspeakable lengths to try to turn the victims he can find into something that’s as close to his ideal bride as possible.
I’m generally not a huge fan of the torture porn/violent exploitation style of horror simply because there’s a point where you feel like you’re shooting fish in a barrel by simply showing people the most objectively disturbing thing they could ever imagine. However, this game takes that concept further than any I’ve played. It straps you into the biggest nightmare scenario imaginable and leaves you helpless to wonder how far it’s going to go.
1. Seeing Lisa in the Hallway – P.T.
While it’s incredibly difficult to pick just one scary moment from P.T. to highlight as the absolute scariest, I’m fairly comfortable awarding that honor to a scene we recently named one of the scariest images ever: the first time you see Lisa in the hallway.
There’s a degree to which the image above itself really tells you all you need to know about why this moment is scary, but there’s something to be said for the context of the moment as well. It’s one of the game’s earliest scares, and it immediately informs you that this thing you chose to submit yourself to is going to be so much worse than you likely ever anticipated.
To put it another way, P.T. is arguably the scariest game ever made, and this is the image that we most typically associate with this absolute nightmare of an experience.