Editorial: 20 Greatest Moments in Horror Movies

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[Editor’s Note: I’m happy to welcome Stephen Graham Jones back to Shock. If you recall, he whipped up a terrific Special Feature for us called Dear Final Girls… which you can read right here. Today, he weighs in with his favorite horror movie moments, but I think as you’ll soon catch on…there’s a twist.]

The other day I stumbled onto Roger Ebert’s “100 Greatest Moments in Film,” which turned out to be cap you screw off the rabbit hole. About ten lists and a couple hundred movies later, I started to feel something amiss with the force: while there were plenty of lists of greatest horror scenes, there weren’t any lists of the best horror “moments.”

So, I set out to see what I could do to address this—though, for sanity’s sake, I had to limit myself to 20. However, I completely suspect that’s the number Ebert started out at as well.

Just, making these lists, you keep thinking of one more, and then one more, and pretty soon you’re riding the snowball downhill, completely out of control.

And then of course there’s the fact that none of these lists are ever really complete. The good ones, though, the ones that aren’t just clickbait, they do start a discussion. And, while they’re never the exact same ones you would have picked, still, there’s probably one or two on that list you give the grudging nod.

So, fully aware that 20 is not enough, and that one butterfly flapping its wings can change the whole list, here’s what I come up with:

  1. That second time the phone rings in the first minute of Scream, and Casey stops in her tracks, zeroes back in on it like the threat it now is.
  2. How Casey, this second time she hangs up on this ‘wrong caller,’ instead of saying “Take it easy” as she did the first call, she says “See ya.” And she will.
  3. When Casey draws a knife from the block to punctuate her Halloween answer to what her favorite scary movie is, and that knife makes that metal-on-metal sound Michael’s knife makes every time he even so much as twitches it by his leg.
  4. That popcorn’s foil dome rising with pressure right along with the escalating danger of this phone call Casey should never have let get this far.
  5. When the caller ‘slips’ and says he wants to know Casey’s name so he can know who he’s looking at, immediately putting us in mind of When a Stranger Calls—which is to say the movie is the reference, while ‘this,’ the house Casey is walking through, at least in relation to the reference, it’s our world.
  6. How the cordless phone rings in Casey’s hand like this caller is already stalking her, is already right there every time she turns around.
  7. “Blondie.”
  8. That escalation from a phone ringing to a doorbell being pushed, and how, with a single intimate sound, it erases all the comfortable distance we associate with phone calls.
  9. How the caller’s “I’m getting scared” and “I’m shaking in my boots” don’t actually track, coming from the same caller (see also “Fraid not/no way,” actually in different voices)—cueing us in even this early that there may be two callers in this single voice…
  10. When the ‘boyfriend’ Casey seemingly made up turns out to be real and killable, meaning she was lying earlier, she was flirting—but not so ‘innocently,’ as it turns out: what she’s doing is opening up a cycle of justice, which the horror movie is specifically built to close, and with much prejudice.
  11. How the audio gore of Steve getting ‘gutted like a fish’ from Casey’s wrong answer precedes the visual gore, such that we’re already cringing by the time we see what’s been done to him.
  12. That when the caller says “Hey! We’re not finished yet!” he’s not talking about the conversation he and Casey are having. He’s talking about the game the “we” out there are playing, and he’s promising that Casey is only the beginning.
  13. When the caller asks “What door am I at?” and we, like Casey, don’t allow that the answer might actually be “Both.”
  14. How Wes Craven keeps the killer off-screen for a deliciously agonizing nine minutes and thirteen seconds.
  15. That, when Casey hits this killer with her phone, it—unlike with Jason and Michael and Freddy—actually hurts him, telling us right there that this isn’t the slasher we think we know so well.
  16. How the killer, in slow motion, has to lean over Casey’s right shoulder to stab her high in the chest on her left side, a very specific point, as if aiming for a blood squib, or actually trying to miss the heart, so as to prolong her death.
  17. That, when Casey removes the killer’s mask, there’s a moment of recognition: she now knows the secret of this movie, and, judging by the expression on her face, it’s a very, very good secret.
  18. That Casey’s dad says for his wife to go down to the Mackenzie’s, call the police—nearly word-for-word what Laurie Strode tells her babysitting charges in Halloween.
  19. That it’s Drew Barrymore who dies as the blood sacrifice that starts this ritual. If even she can Janet Leigh’d, then anything can happen, right?
  20. The realization that we’re only thirteen minutes into this experience.

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of The Last Final Girlwhich is now available via Amazon right here.

The Last Final Girl book