Within the first 20 minutes of a horror movie, nothing hits the spot better than immediately needing to lunge for that light switch in the living room. This 20-minute time frame is what will either set the tone or make you check your watch as you head into the meat of the story. On this list are the 10 movies that forced viewers’ eyes to be glued to the screen (or behind the palms of their hands) during the opening scene better than any others. Plus, a few facts about some of their creations and why they happened the way they did.
Please proceed with caution and a blanket ready to cover your eyes—spoilers ahead!
10 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
What is more terrifying than a killer you can run from? A killer that you can’t. This is what has made Freddy Krueger, along with his ability to speak, stand out among his mute and wake-state counterparts.
In the opening scene of Wes Craven’s original film, the audience is introduced to Tina, who we are assuming will be the main protagonist of the film (you will see this effective trope repeated a few times in the list) and the glove-welding Krueger in 13 minutes of suspense. From the screaming goat (which admittedly still seems odd to me but makes me jump, nonetheless), Freddy extending his arms, Tina taking off his face, and the climax of Rod’s screams as Tina falls from the ceiling leaves viewers wondering what they just got themselves into.
9 Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Three years after Halloween and a year after the original Friday the 13th, the slasher genre was hitting its stride. After the success of Friday the 13th, it was assumed that Alice would be the Laurie Strode of this franchise. Alice was a powerful character, and if she could take on Mrs. Voorhees, she could take on anyone. Originally, she was supposed to take on anyone and, by anyone, I mean Jason.
That all changed when Alice actress, Adrianne King, was harassed by a stalker following the original film’s release. She was not interested in returning for the sequel as the lead but agreed to have a minor role. This real-life terror led to one of the best jump-scares in a slasher film as Alice opens the refrigerator and finds the head of the woman who chanted, “Kill her, Mommy. Kill her,” to her not so long ago.
8 It (2017)
The 1990 miniseries will always hold a special place in the hearts of horror fans. Arguably, the death of Georgie Denbrough may be one of the only scenes that still holds up 30 years later (Fun fact: It 2017 was released 27 years after the miniseries, which is how long Pennywise rests—how cool is that?). But, with the Tim Curry scene being so iconic, the 2017 film had a tall order.
They needed to use the almost same scene since it is so relevant to the overall story but still make it unique enough to not take the viewer out of the movie with their prior knowledge. The movie took advantage of different dialogue and added shock, an intense musical score, and differentiated the scene enough to stand on its own and serve as a superior moment that “eats up” all of its R-rating. Poor Georgie, it really was a nice boat.
7 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Granted, the opening to this terrifying movie is not a scene at all. It is just text on a screen and John Larroquette’s voice in his first role in Hollywood. The words themselves and the delivery of Larroquette let you know exactly the grimy, rough, and dirty world you are about to enter for the next 90 minutes.
This opening crawl (sorry, Star Wars) makes the group’s road trip feel uncomfortable enough until the hitchhiker is added to the mix, and, well, he is able to carry on with the uncomfortable feeling all on his own from there. The opening text is so ingrained with the series that you cannot say the title of the film without saying it in his voice. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. See? You did it too.
6 Ghost Ship (2002)
This may be the worst movie on this list, but it does not make that opening scene any less effective. The opening gives off feelings of the ballroom scene in The Shining from the types of laughter, musical choices, and overall feeling of the room.
You just are not too sure what is going to happen and what that string’s purpose is…and then that wire cuts across the room, and we are forced to see the carnage from the perspective of the little girl. As said earlier, this scene did not lead to a great film, but it definitely got us ready for one.
5 Scream (1996)
Maybe what makes this scene so iconic is not the writing and directing, but the fact that Drew Barrymore asked to be cast as Casey Becker because everyone was expecting her to play the final girl. It is probably an awesome combination of both.
With those factors, this scene is able to move from feeling like the audience has nothing to worry about and enjoying some of the meta-humor of discussing other horror movies (Craven bashing all the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels is always a good time), to slight fear, to immense panic—which is exactly what Casey Becker felt. Now that is some powerful stuff.
4 Sinister (2012)
The film that has recently been scientifically proven to be the scariest film ever made from a blood pressure study has to give much credit to the “home films” used in it. This, of course, brings us to the opening of the movie and the tree-hanging home movie.
The eerie music composition, the cracking on the screen, and no prior reference to what is happening make you hold your breath throughout. When that tree branch falls, so does your jaw. Of course, it is great on re-watches to find Bagul lurking in the background.
3 The Ring (2002)
From Candyman to Bloody Mary and everything in between, there is a fear-induced thrill of urban legends. What makes The Ring so scary is the opposite of what scared us about A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Ring’s monster, Samara, was so avoidable. Just do not put the tape in the player!
Yet, when Katie tells the story of the tape, it feels less cheesy than it should. There’s something effective about it. Then we see the static TV, that voice saying “seven days” over the phone, leading to the water leaking under the door. Then, brilliantly, the audience has to wait. The scare is stuck in your throat. The funeral scene proceeds and, when you are not ready for it, you are given the shot of Katie in the closet, and a scream echoes through the theater.
2 Jaws (1975)
It is said that Jaws is the movie that made the world afraid of sharks, but I contest it is just the opening scene that made the world afraid of sharks. The shark created for the film did not exactly go according to plan, so Speilberg had to improvise—and we are all the better for it.
What makes the shark in Jaws so terrifying is that you don’t see it for so long, and your imagination needs to take over. Initially, the music starts to build as we see the camera pan up toward Chrissie, and then that John Williams score has a sudden break in the piano as Chrissie is jerked around then submerged. It really makes you so excited for that next trip to Sea World.
1 Halloween (1978)
The night He came home. Was there ever any doubt? With the jack-o-lantern in frame as the opening credits roll to the first person point of view shot as we close in on the Myers house, the audience knows they are in for something. Seeing Judith and her boyfriend being spied upon leaves the viewer to grip the arms of their chair. Hearts pound with a walk through the kitchen to grab a knife.
Our view next enters Judith’s room, and we learn through her screams that the killer is named Michael. Then the final shock happens as Michael’s father takes off his mask, and we realize the murder was committed by a 6-year-old boy in a clown costume. Perhaps the scariest part is looking into Michael’s black eyes while it appears he’s surrounded by your typical “little boxes” family. He has a suburban home, parents who go out to dinner, and a teenage sister with a boyfriend. Michael has no visible trauma, no rhyme or reason, just pure evil. It is just as Dr. Loomis said. That’s right, Rob Zombie, I’m looking at you.