12 Critics Choose the Movie Scenes from Childhood that Scarred Them For Life

From Poltergeist to Return to Oz to The Shining, critics re-visit the terrifying moments of a movie fanatic childhood.

by | October 29, 2019 | Comments

When you’re a kid, every movie is a transporting experience, like peeking in a keyhole to some new reality beyond. You feel the fun, the joy, the wonder. And sometimes the shattering terror. The monsters you had imagined creeping the corners of your mind or darkened bedrooms prowled in full horror on the screen. The awful, awe-inspiring power of witnessing something frightening can reverberate for decades. So in the spirit of Halloween, we asked 12 Tomatometer-approved critics to tell us about the movie scenes they watched as children that scarred them for life. Here are their answers.

What movie scenes scared the s–t out of you as a kid? Tell us in the comments. 

Stranger in the House (1974) 71%

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

The scene: The killer gives our final girl the evil eye
The scare: The climactic scare in this groundbreaking slasher is really the culmination of a series of scares that assault the senses, beginning with the panicky moment when the police call college student Jess to reveal that the shrieking, barely human obscene phone calls to her sorority house have been COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! Then, there’s her nerve-wracking decision to employ “horror victim logic” and venture upstairs to check on her sleeping (read: dead) friends rather than heading out the front door. And when she enters the bedroom to find her deceased sorority sisters, the sight of the killer’s rabid, maniacal eyeball peering through the crack in the door as he whispers to her “Don’t you tell what we did!” is the stuff of nightmares. This was one of the first horror movies that drew me into the genre as a kid and made me appreciate the power of fright, and after seeing it, I understood why people would want to dream of a white Christmas. – Mark H. Harris,

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 99%

(Photo by Universal)

The scene: E.T. is dying
The scare: Easily the most horrific visual I’ve had seared into my brain involves E.T. when he’s sick. He’s scary enough as-is, and once his skin turns papery white and blotchy, he looks like a diseased liver stretched over a child-sized nightmare. I’ll take Sadako, It, or Chucky over E.T. any day, yikes. – Li Lai, Mediaversity Reviews

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) 44%

(Photo by Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection)

The scene: In the barn
The scare: I was 11 when The Exorcism of Emily Rose was released in September 2005. I remember a friend of mine talking about it, mentioning how she had seen it in theaters that weekend. My exposure to the horror genre was pretty much non-existent at that point, so perhaps Emily Rose was the first of the genre I had ever seen. Needless to say, it ruined my life. Now scared of sleeping in the darkness of my own bedroom, I slept on the floor of my mom’s. This lasted for quite some time, maybe a year, which resulted in me having to see a therapist. The scene that scarred me the most is definitely the barn scene. I remember it vividly. Emily, possessed, is growling, screaming in tongues, flailing her arms, and looking upon Father Moore with blackened eyes. Father Moore is commanding the demon inside Emily to say its name, but there isn’t just one demon: there are six. “We are the ones who dwell within,” they say, as they begin to state their names, with actress Jennifer Carpenter using a different tone and language for each: Cain, Nero, Judas, Legion, Belial, and Lucifer. When she says “Lucifer,” it’s particularly frightening, as a faint light flickers in her eyes. The eyes of an animal peering at you through the dark. – Sara Clements, @mildredsfierce

Ghostbusters (1984) 97%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures)

The scene: Quiet in the library
The scare: Ghostbusters might be a definitive comedy classic, but the ghostly librarian is the stuff of nightmares. At least it was for me as a child. The dark, maze-like rows of bookshelves and eerie quiet was atmospheric enough. Even more so when the books and index cards moved on their own accord. But there was no mentally preparing for the ghastly wrath of the librarian. I screamed along with Peter, Ray, and Egon. Still to this day, I’m petrified to make even a peep when stepping foot inside a library. – Meagan Navarro, @HauntedMeg

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) 80%

(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures)

The scene: Fidget kidnaps Olivia
The scare: An animated Sherlock Holmes-esque detective story starring a mouse is not something that instantly screams “horror.” But The Great Mouse Detective knows how to build a mystery and a tense atmosphere, culminating in the terrifying scene where tiny little Olivia (also a mouse) finds herself drawn to a toy baby crib. As ominous yet playful music builds up to a big reveal, Olivia approaches the crib and pulls on the cover to reveal an evil and scary bat that takes her for a hostage just as the music changes to resemble the screeches from the shower scene from Psycho. – Rafael Motamayor, @rafaelmotamayor

Jaws (1975) 98%

(Photo by Universal)

The scene: The head in the boat
The scare: The day I saw Jaws on VHS in my dad’s basement, I had spent the previous week convincing myself I would be terrified. All the stories from its theatrical run talked about audiences fainting, and I was sure I would freak out. Well, the self-hypnotism worked: When Hooper goes underwater and the head pokes out from the bite in the boat, I remember practically vomiting in fear. For a month afterwards I was terrified of any water, even my morning shower. I was convinced the shark would come out of the spout to attack me! Summer vacations in the East Coast of Canada where I learned to swim had the same murky salt water as Amity Island, and I’d look out convinced I’d see the dorsal coming my way. – Jason Gorber, @filmfest_ca

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) 52%

(Photo by New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

The scene: Joey’s aquatic demise
The scare: My first experience with the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was flipping through channels on TV and landing upon this scene. I was too young to watch a Nightmare film but also old enough to be fascinated by the mystique and terror surrounding them. Watching Freddy manipulate Joey and then burst through the bed had an indelible effect on me. It was my first experience with a horror movie and the terror it elicited was the foundation upon which my love of the genre was built. 1…2… Freddy’s coming for you… – Jonathan Barkan, @JonathanBarkan

The Others (2001) 84%

(Photo by Dimension Films/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The scene: The face behind the veil
The scare: The scene where Grace (Nicole Kidman) interrupts her daughter Anne playing with toys while her head is obscured by a veil, only for Grace to then see a withered elderly face staring back at her from beneath the sheet, left me traumatized for nights afterward. I didn’t look at curtains or any kind of hanging fabric in the same way for a while after that. The mixture of youthful innocence with the complete opposite end of the human life cycle was such an unsettling union for me and it still is. – Lewis Knight, @ThatsOurLewis

Pet Sematary (1989) 53%

(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

The scene: A tendon moment
The scare: Pet Sematary confronts death and explores grief in ways I just wasn’t used to given my identity in a culture that isn’t necessarily afraid of it. But while there are many scenes that make that film an annual rewatch for me, the Achilles tendon scene is in fact THE scene that affected me the most as a child. Hiding under the bed, a reanimated Gage slices Jud’s Achilles tendon as he approaches. You can see the deep wound and Jud’s ankle split in detail as he falls. That one scene made me long -ump to the bed for months. And after rewatches, it still makes me shiver as I get ready to go to sleep. – Kate Sanchez, @ohmymithrandir

Poltergeist (1982) 87%

(Photo by MGM/courtesy Everett Collection)

The scene: Suburban invasions
The scare: The Freeling family always reminded me a bit of my own – the suburban surroundings, the copious amounts of Star Wars toys that littered their home – and that made Poltergeist, despite all of the supernatural shenanigans, all too real for me. When that tree attacks Bobby, or when the skeletons emerge from their pool, as a young man, I felt like any of that could happen to me. Just the mere mention of the film’s title was enough to send shivers down my spine until I was a teenager. To this day, if I have it on too late at night, I have second thoughts about heading down to the basement. – Mike Vanderbilt, Daily Grindhouse

Return to Oz (1985) 54%

(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures)

The scene: A hallway of heads
The scare: The unofficial sequel to MGM’s Wizard of Oz, Walter Murch’s Return is a far cry from the brightly-colored 1939 musical. Not only does it have a much darker and fantastical narrative, this scene perfectly encapsulates why the film is the stuff of nightmares. In a bid to avoid being decapitated, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) has to steal the Powder of Life from Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh) to escape. Unfortunately, she has to walk almost silently through a hallway of sleeping heads – and in full view of them – to get the powder. For extra pressure, it is placed inconveniently next to Mombi’s (real) head. Combined with David Shire’s powerful score, the slow-brewing tension from Dorothy’s delicate approach is blown apart by the ensuing screeching of multiple heads, not to mention being chased by a headless body. The whole sequence is terrifying as an adult but it’s horrifyingly out of place in a kid’s film – which is why it scars you for life. – Katie Smith-Wong, @guitargalchina

The Shining (1980) 85%

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

The scene: The woman in the bathroom
The scare: I refused to take a bath for a week. When I was seven, my father – much to the protestations of my mother – let me watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. When Jack Nicholson walks into that lime-green bathroom only to find the decrepit, rotting ghoul of an elderly woman cackling at him after he danced with and kissed her younger specter, I leapt as high as her laugh, and haven’t come down since. – Robert Daniels, @812filmreviews

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