This article contains spoilers
Long before horror got truly meta, the ’80s were dishing up a constant supply of movies to feed the demand of an audience who just couldn’t get enough, and the VHS boom provided video stores with a way to make some serious money out of the exploding genre, pulling in punters with over-the-top cover art that promised incredible scenes of monsters, gore, and killers galore.
These days, we groan when a character goes to check out a mysterious noise from down in the basement or in the woods, but this kinda standard stuff was often the bread and butter of the genre back then. Still, it’s not always a loud music sting or a brutal slashing that’s the most effective at getting under your skin, and the ’80s really understood that. It was a decade where the right kind of terrifying scene could even make its way into a kids movie. No blood, no guts, just pure fear. Of course, there was always blood and guts to be found in some of the more adult fare!
Let’s take a look at some of the scariest movie scenes of the 1980s.
Room 237 (The Shining)
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) thinks it might be a great idea to take a winter caretaker position with his wife and young son at the remote Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Since it will be closed for the season he can get on with writing that great American novel! Just a few small issues: the previous caretaker did a murder-suicide on his family and the whole place is maybe haunted and also his son is having horrific visions and was attacked by a ghost in room 237. But this doesn’t really worry Jack, and he slumps off angrily to do a casual inspection of the room.
When he gets there, he sees a sexy woman bathing naked and thinks all his Christmases have come at once, until he happens to glance in the mirror and see that the woman he’s pawing is actually a rotting, cackling ghost. And she’s not even sexy anymore! So inconsiderate.
Headless Mombi (Return to Oz)
Return to Oz is packed with terrifying moments that messed up a generation of kids. The deranged Wheelers, the stop-motion elements of the Deadly Desert, the Nome King, and the disturbing electroshock therapy scenes are all extremely creepy in this unofficial dark fantasy sequel, but the film truly peaks in teeth-rattling fear when Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) travels to Princess Mombi’s castle to try and find out where the Scarecrow has gone. Once she arrives, the initially sweet Mombi reveals a collection of decapitated, wearable heads like she’s showing off her sneakers on MTV Cribs, and then locks the frightened child in a tower.
Dorothy realizes she’ll not only need to acquire a key to escape her imprisonment, but she’ll have to do it without waking any of the heads in the display room. This doesn’t go according to plan, and all the heads wake up and start screaming at Dorothy while a headless Mombi rises from her slumber and begins her pursuit. Shudder.
Mask On (Halloween III: Season of the Witch)
The scariest scene in the Halloween films has nothing to do with Michael Myers. In the third installment of the franchise, Season of the Witch, writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace takes us on what will become a very brief segue into horror anthology territory, disposing of the masked killer in the previous two films and pitting the legendary Tom Atkins against Silver Shamrock Novelties, a Halloween mask-making company that has installed evil microchips in their wares. These contain fragments of Stonehenge for reasons that are best left underdeveloped.
When the Silver Shamrock commercial plays on Halloween night, the microchips in the masks will activate and brain damage the people wearing them (largely children) while releasing a swarm of insects and snakes that straight up kill anyone in the vicinity. Atkins’ Dr. Dan Challis only partially succeeds in preventing this horrifying scheme from playing out, but the most disturbing scene happens a little earlier in the film when the power of the masks is demonstrated on an unsuspecting family in a testing area. It’s a smorgasbord of horror themes crammed into a three-minute sequence as Wallace shows us most of our worst fears in one brutal wave, from losing a child to the threat of mass human sacrifice and beyond.
Blood Test (The Thing)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is basically a perfect movie, unappreciated upon release but then deeply beloved when people truly found it. These days it has an army of fans who might struggle to pick the most terrifying bit of the film, as there are a fair few few to choose from. But the suspense and climax of the blood test scene, in which R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) systematically taps a red hot wire against petri dishes filled with blood samples from his research station colleagues, would surely get a big chunk of their votes.
Tied to a couch, the Antarctic posse are cleared of being alien imposters by MacReady one by one. The stillness of the scene is massively unsettling, as is the unclear outcome. We don’t know what will happen if the wire touches contaminated blood, but we assume it will be bad. Somehow, it’s even worse than we imagine, as the screeching blood attacks upwards and the imposter is suddenly unmasked just as the tension has eased and we’re letting our guard down. Not content to go gentle into that good night, the creature will do its utmost to take more victims. And yet we can’t quite forget the way MacReady so offhandedly acknowledges he killed an innocent man during his quest to manage the situation. Masterful stuff.
The Dip (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)
The setup for 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is fairly simple (though drastically different from the book it is based on) given the wackiness of its characters. Cartoons are real entities and exist in our “live action” world. Most of them reside in a place called Toontown. Detective Eddie Valiant (the late Bob Hoskins) hates them because a cartoon killed his brother, but he’s dragged into helping one who is accused of murder. The villain of the piece is that same sibling-murdering cartoon, disguised as a real person called Judge Doom, who puts fear in the hearts of other toons (and us) as a sinister superior court judge.
Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of Judge Doom will make you forget the iconic, scatty kindness of his Back to the Future character Doc Brown in about three seconds flat, because in the scene where we first meet him he decides to demonstrate his method for killing toons by picking up a shaking, terrified shoe and dunking the cute little blighter into “The Dip”, a chemical soup that completely dissolves it. Harmless and innocent, the shoe did nothing to deserve this treatment, but we are forced to watch it suffer an agonizing death nonetheless. James Gunn, eat your heart out.
Medusa (Clash of the Titans)
Using stop motion animation for movie creature effects may be a dying art now, but they were much more than the CG of their time, and the leading name associated with the best of the best was Ray Harryhausen. 1981’s fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans, featuring Harryhausen’s final work, was an entertaining story that grabbed a bunch of Greek myths and hammed them up for Hollywood, and at least one scene is still pretty scary for kids today – Perseus’ encounter with the gorgon Medusa, who by all accounts did nothing wrong and just wanted to be left in peace to comb her snakes and shoot arrows at stuff.
Intending to use Medusa’s decapitated head to turn the Kraken to stone before the monster devours his fair Princess Andromeda, Perseus ventures into her lair and tries to get that bag without becoming a statue himself. As others fall victim to her blinding stare, Perseus inches closer to claiming his prize, realizing that reflections are his ally. It’s a tense, scary scene that even with old school effects has the intended impact. The way its lit and its acute sense of space add an important dimension to the fear.
Jason Lives (Friday the 13th)
“Okay, answer this question, you live. Who was the killer in Friday the 13th?” “Jason! It was Jason!” “Nope.” “Yes it was! I’ve seen that movie 20 goddam times!” “Then you should know that the killer was Mrs. Voorhees, Jason never appeared until the sequel!”
So goes the “gotcha” moment between Ghostface and Drew Barrymore’s Casey in Wes Craven’s genre-breaking Scream, and while it’s technically true, we do get an eyeful of young Jason in Friday the 13th – it just happens in an unforgettable dream sequence at the end of the movie. When final girl Alice takes care of the homicidal Mrs. Voorhees, she climbs into a canoe and falls asleep on Crystal Lake, only to be dragged under by Jason’s decomposing corpse. Alice wakes up in a hospital mere seconds later and immediately asks the local police about Jason. When they say they didn’t find a boy at Camp Crystal Lake, Alice ominously says “Then he’s still there.” Rest assured, that mf will be back. Many, many times. Many.
Spirit Book (The Care Bears Movie)
Ah, The Care Bears Movie. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore! Mainly because, y’know, no one under the age of 40 gives a single kentucky fried fuck about Care Bears, and even then it’s slim pickings. But back in the mid-80s, American Greetings and CPG Products were hyped to keep the popular Care Bears train chuffing along with a movie version of the cuddly critters’ escapades. And their efforts paid off, with this feature becoming the highest-grossing animated film made outside the Disney market.
What’s harder to explain is how unnecessarily scary the movie is for kids fully expecting nothing but fluffy Care Bear shenanigans. I mean, those definitely happen, but much of the plot of the film revolves around an amusement park apprentice called Nicholas, who stumbles upon the Care Bears equivalent of the Necronomicon and decides the best thing to do is to help the book’s evil spirit stop people from caring. A seemingly innocuous scene with the Spirit Book occurs fairly early on when Nicholas casts a spell on his boss, the Great Fettucini. He has no idea what the spell will do to the old man, and neither do we. The few seconds after the unseen Fettucini slurs to a halt outside the door but before Nicholas reveals his fate are nail-biting.
Larvae Birth (The Fly)
This scene was originally supposed to be one final fakeout shock in The Fly, but thanks to director David Cronenberg’s rewrite, it occurs earlier in the movie. Having forged a romantic and sexual relationship with eccentric scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), journalist Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis) finds out she’s pregnant, which is less of a joyous occasion than you’d expect because a) Seth is turning into a fly monster, and b) hey, it’s a David Cronenberg movie.
Ronnie is so anxious about all the weird-ass stuff Seth is going through (bits of him are falling off at this point) that after she finds out she’s expecting his child, she has a nightmare about giving birth to a giant maggot. The scene where the doctor holds up the oversized, writhing larva, which is covered in blood, could be unintentionally hilarious, but in the hands of Cronenberg it is genuinely scary and definitely not the B-movie, popcorn-throwing moment it could have been.
Life Essence (The Dark Crystal)
Everything about the villainous Skeksis in The Dark Crystal is repellent, but their quest to attain immortality despite looking like dirty old bags of sticks is right at the top of reasons they deserve to be punted into the sun. In the movie’s universe, every living being has a life force called Essence, and during the Age of Division, the Skeksis decided to drain the Gelfling of theirs to stay alive and appear younger. This only hastened the Darkening, and eventually led to the collapse of the Alliance of the Crystal.
After the Gelfling were all but exterminated, the Skeksis turned to the Podlings for their fix, and in the 1982 film we are “treated” to a sequence where one of the poor wee buggers is restrained while their essence is completely drained by the powerful beam of the crystal. The podling is left with no more willpower or energy; essentially completely lobotomized. Its milky face and empty eyes are just too much to bear. Great movie, y’know, for kids!
Sometimes They Come Back (The Fog)
Like countless other horror movies, The Fog snatches away our palpable relief during its conclusion, after the remaining key residents of Antonio Bay have managed to live through a relentless attack from the vengeful ghosts of leprous mariners who were killed in a shipwreck there a century ago. The six founders of the bay had deliberately wrecked the clipper ship the Elizabeth Dane so that those aboard wouldn’t establish a leper colony nearby, and they had stolen gold from the ship to found the town. Having been warned that their descendents must pay the price, the horrifying ghosts set about taking six lives as a fog bank rolls in to mask and disorientate.
When the ghosts are gone and the fog has dissipated, Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook) wonders why he was spared, as he notes there have only been five deaths. The hairs on the back of your neck prickle as the ghosts suddenly return in full force and decapitate Malone. The screen cuts to black, leaving you positive that you will never steal gold from a leprous mariner.
Honorable mention: every other scene in the movie.
Junk Lady (Labyrinth)
Let’s be real: almost everything Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was involved with outside of Sesame Street in the 80s was inherently creepy as hell, but when Henson decided to follow up The Dark Crystal with Labyrinth in 1986, he still wasn’t interested in building a world entirely full of felt muppets. His David Bowie-starring musical fantasy is full of nightmare fuel, from the goblins to the fierys, and even friggin Hoggle.
The movie has a scene quite late on, where Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) falls into a junkyard outside the Goblin City and encounters an old Junk Lady who wants to brainwash her into believing that material possessions are the only things that matter, and it’s still super effective at putting the shits up you. Sarah’s slow-dawning realization that she is drowning in crap she doesn’t really need by the anti-Marie Kondo can induce a panic spring clean to this day.
Jesus Wept (Hellraiser)
With leading horror writer Clive Barker directing an adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart, you’d expect some gloriously messed up stuff from Hellraiser, 1987’s foray into supernatural BDSM and gore – and you absolutely get it! Barker continues pulling no punches throughout the film’s running time while setting the murderous Uncle Frank up for his just desserts. We’re guided to this scene via one retch-inducing scenario after another, and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s little else that could top them.
When young Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is finally chased up to the attic, the scene of a string of murders, Uncle Frank is dead set on killing her. Since Frank is currently very proud of wearing her father’s skin as a suit, the leather and PVC-clad Cenobites appear, satisfied that he is the one who previously escaped them. Chains and hooks lash out at Frank, piercing him all over his face and body before ripping him to pieces, while Kirsty looks on in horror. It’s super gross, and the nine(!) sequels and reboot of the film have never quite managed to top its scares. Jesus wept, indeed.
Daddy’s Santa Corpse (Gremlins)
Six years before the disgusting puppet creatures became full-on comedy fodder in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the original Gremlins did a fine job of making them scary by absolutely ruining Christmas, a time when everything is supposed to be charming and lovely. Joe Dante’s black comedy-horror movie shows you various scenes of gremlin-related carnage, most of which were pretty horrifying back in the day but have invariably aged in silliness in the decades since; so much so that you’d probably be happy to pop the film on for some kiddies while you get absolutely yulepilled this year.
There’s a specific point in Gremlins that you’ll immediately realize your weans aren’t quite ready for it – one the movie completely brakes for – and that’s Kate Beringer’s (Phoebe Cates) monologue about the Christmas her dad disappeared, having wanted to surprise the family by dressing up as Santa and sliding down the chimney. Kate slowly reveals how her dad was eventually found days later, having slipped and broken his neck, and how she was the one who cracked the case by trying to light a fire to warm her freezing family. “And that’s when I noticed the smell” will stay with you, tapping into the childhood fear of losing a parent and proving that it’s often what you don’t see in a horror movie that can seal the deal.
The Transformation (An American Werewolf in London)
The less said about the writer-director of An American Werewolf in London (and his son) the better, but he is largely responsible for creating one of the best horror-comedies of the 1980s. It truly was a decade that understood some of the best scares come with laughs.
The movie plonks two jokey American backpackers in the moors of Yorkshire and quickly has one of them slaughtered by a werewolf. As David (David Naughton) mourns his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne), he slowly heals from own injuries and begins a relationship with a pretty nurse (Jenny Agutter). An undead Jack shows up and tells him that he needs to kill himself before he too turns into a werewolf and kills innocent people. We know and like David, and we don’t want him to die, but yeah, we kinda want to see him turn. Rick Baker’s incredible make-up effects don’t disappoint when the moment comes, setting a really high bar for all future werewolf transformation scenes. But it’s Naughton’s performance that really sells the scares; he genuinely seems to be in agony.
No doubt there are scenes missing from this list that would get your vote. Let us know your scariest scene from the movies of the 1980s in the comments!