Stabbings. Stranglings. Ghastly dolls. Anxiety-fueled phone calls. Bludgeonings. Chases. Unseen terrors. There’s no single recipe to cook up a horrifying opening scene. Some tease you with scares before blasting you with the horror. Others gut punch you with the horror right away. The greatest opening scenes do have one thing in common. They make a promise to the viewer. This is what you can expect for the next 90 minutes.
In this list of the most horrifying opening scenes, the terror kicks off immediately. You don’t ease in. You don’t even dive in. You’re thrown in.
Night of the Living Dead
This is a groundbreaking movie. It originated one of the most beloved sub-genres of horror, featured a black take-charge and take-no-shit lead star, and had one of the earliest scary opening scenes in film history. In 1968, I imagine many filmgoers thought they knew what they were getting into. They were just a few handfuls of buttery popcorn deep when Johnny childishly taunted his sister, “They’re coming to get your Barbra.” The popcorn chomping stops when that cemetery visitor, who you kind of noticed in the background, suddenly attacks Barbra. Johnny tries to save her, but is bludgeoned and knocked out. Now she’s alone as a gruesome-faced man relentlessly shambles after her. Unlike those voodoo zombies people were used to, this undead walker is fast and smart, going for car door handles and using a rock to smash through a window. Barbra barely escapes, but there’s no looking back as she is launched into a night of terror, leaving little time over the next 90 minutes to even think about another handful of popcorn.
This is Wes Craven’s masterpiece opening scene, and one of two in this list. It starts with a big star, Drew Barrymore. This movie is about her, right? I mean, she was front and center in the poster. She has to live, right? Craven used our trained understanding of the horror genre to set us up. He subverted our expectations by dissecting horror tropes, and its big star. It’s basically what Hitchcock did in Psycho, but in the first 10 minutes. It started with a phone call, as many great horror movies do. The call is flirty at first. It turns tense. Her boyfriend dies. She gets chased. Her parents are nearly home. She’s about to escape. She’s murdered. It’s a tense and scary scene that lets you know that no one on the big screen is safe. And that comforting blanket of knowledge you’ve developed over the years watching horror? Wes Craven ripped that off your shoulders, leaving you shivering in the dark theater for 90 more minutes.
When I first saw the opening of the movie, I felt like my mom watching football (sorry mom!). Something is happening; I’m just not sure what. That is what’s great about this opening scene. It gives us the perspective of those in the movie who don’t know the rules of the curse. All they see is someone acting irrationally. In the scene, a panicked teenager runs out of her house, wearing nothing but a nightie and heels. She runs in a circle, pausing enough for an adult to ask if she’s okay. Clearly she’s not, but she can’t tell the adult the source of her fear. I’m sure you can draw up a few allegories from that description, but let’s stick to the topic. This scene is terrifying because you can see something scary happening, but you don’t know why it’s happening. The last minute is bleak. She sits isolated on a deserted beach at night. She says bye to her dad and apologizes. The camera suddenly cuts to her impossibly broken body on the beach the next morning. This intense three minute scene briefly shines a light on what to expect, but shuts it off right before you can get a good look. Your confusion, her anxiety, her acceptance, her tearful regret, and the unknown horror that bent her body — all make for a terrifying opening scene.
This is about as crisp and clean of a scary moving opening as you will find. It’s a dark, rainy night. Two teenage girls are alone in a large, unlit home. And, of course, there’s a scary phone call. You won’t find any gore here, just subtle uses of the camera and sound effects until the end of the scene. Amber Tamblyn’s performance really pays off here. Her terrified reaction to the ringing phone forces empathy from you. You know that she knows she is about to suffer. Her friend reads her face, which is proof enough that there really is a cursed tape, and she really did get a phone call seven days ago telling her she’s going to die. There’s a nice slow burn as they creep to the phone, which turns out to be her mom. Her friend inexplicably goes off somewhere, but it leaves her alone and vulnerable. The TV turns on, blaring white noise, much like the TV at the cabin where she watched the tape. We all have TV’s in our homes, which makes the scare relatable, even if it is a bit of a trope. Upstairs she sees water dripping from her doorknob, showing us the supernatural entity can manipulate the physical world, letting her know she’s in for more than a scare. The scene ends with another great part: The camera jarringly zooms away from a well on the screen into her face, which is immediately disfigured. One thing I liked, aside from the scares, is that the scene establishes rules which the movie never strays from, unlike It Follows.
I love this opening scene because it establishes a shared universe, in which monsters are real. It’s a world that includes something as horrifying as Annabelle. The doll is the reason this opening is so effectively scary. James Wan said this movie was his ode to Poltergeist. You may notice Annabelle bears a striking resemblance to the Poltergeist clown that haunted many of our childhoods. Now imagine that clown had a backstory that goes far beyond the movie. It helps give texture to the world, and does it in terrifying ways. The movie starts with two young women describing their terrible interactions with the doll as the camera slowly pulls away from Annabelle’s expressive but lifeless face. When the demon that possesses her begins to stalk the girls, it’s chilling. The ‘Miss me?’ note. The bright red wall scribbling. The banging on the door late at night. And all of this as Joshep Bishara’s screeching score tweaks your nerves. Then relief. We meet the Warrens, who are going to make everything all better. They take Annabelle and place her in a keepsake room, where they house all of their demon-possessed objects. While this moment is not on-the-screen scary, it is unsettling to know that the world has so many demons. Just as the scene is about to end, the Warrens’ daughter peeks into the room to get a glimpse of Annabelle, which gets her a sharp reprieve from dad. That little moment lets us know that maybe this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her.
This is not a full, traditional scene. It’s more of a cold open teaser. It’s also one of the most provocative on the list. It’s an authentic-looking, and sounding, film strip that shows a family standing under a tree, with burlap sacks on their heads, and nooses around their necks. They’re not struggling, but are clearly alive. A series of ropes lead up the tree. A saw cuts through a branch until it collapses. The ropes slowly pull the family into the air. Their legs kick as they now start to struggle. The slow motion almost makes it feel as though they’re drowning. In seconds those kicks stop and their bodies go limp. What makes this so effective is its flippant nature. Some unseen force nonchalantly kills a family, recording it on film so the world can bear witness to its awfulness.
The 1990 TV miniseries opened with Tim Curry lurking behind gently rippling laundry before killing a young girl. It’s very TV safe for the genre. Definitely not worthy of this list, but worth mentioning because of the 2018 movie. It starts a little differently, with an emotional setup that makes you care about Georgie and Bill. That setup makes the sewer scene especially painful. It starts with Pennywise lurking from the shadows of the sewer, his eyes and teeth glowing like some evil Cheshire Cat. Pennywise teases Georgie, his voice hopping deftly between a manic, yet bubbly clown and fervid child killer, hungry for his next victim. When Georgie reaches in to get his boat back, you want to reach out and grab him, but you pull your hand back as Pennywise’s jaw full of teeth opens impossibly wide. There’s blood and screaming and a terrifying arm that stretches out to Georgie, pulling him into the sewer. The menacing and violent opening scene had a message for moviegoers: This is not the made for TV movie.
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
This is an iconic opening scene for a reason. When a Stranger Calls was based on a 22-minute short film called The Sitter that is basically the same story, also directed by Fred Walton, but made on the cheap. It’s a slow burner, building in tension as a mystery caller harasses frightened babysitter Jill Johnson. The kids are in bed. Police won’t come out unless there’s a crime. The kids’ dad is not yet home from dinner. It’s just Jill and the caller. He tells her that he isn’t calling to scare her. He wants to bathe in her blood. She hangs up. The next call is police saying they traced the call to… inside the house! It’s a cliché now, but the tension the director builds up to this moment makes it effective. Jill frantically tries to escape the home. A shadow appears at the top of the stairs. She finally opens the door and screams at a man standing there. It turns out he’s a cop there to help her. But that doesn’t matter. Anything that happens afterward doesn’t matter. Just watch the opening scene. It holds up 39 years later.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This is one of the great cold opens in horror history. We get a peek at Freddy Krueger creating his razor gloves. Our viewing area is set in a small box on the screen. It looks like a home movie projected on the wall at a madman’s house, giving it a creepy authenticity. That transitions into young Tina Gray being chased through her school’s boiler room. We don’t see Freddy yet, just a shadow on the ground and his mocking laughter. As Freddy stalks her, he’s clearly not out just to kill her. He wants to play with her fears, give her nightmares. The seeming senselessness of his actions make it all that much scarier. This entire scene is gritty, rusty, and filthy — which, paired with Charles Bernstein’s haunting synth score, establish a nightmarish atmosphere that makes the first movie stand out in the series.
A Quiet Place
This opening scene made my wife cry. To be fair, we have a one-year-old which made it so personal for us. We understand the dangers of our world, and do our best to protect our daughter. A Quite Place quickly establishes the world that the Abbott family is forced to live in. Death is lurking at every moment, day and night, and if you break those rules, you will die. Most of the entire opening act is done in silence. It’s unsettling. Then you see events unfolding that the parents know nothing about. You want to yell, but don’t dare break the silence of the theater. The pressure of the silence builds to an unbearable climax as you watch the son play with a newly-found, battery-powered toy. When the toy finally breaks the silence, you can see the sheer horror on the faces of the parents. Ultimately, there was nothing they could do. In their world, they aren’t the ones who dole out punishment for kids making noise. It’s a harsh, and in some cases tear-jerking, lesson for the audience that hits you within minutes of the opening shot.
Saving Private Ryan
This is the most scared I have ever been watching the opening of a movie. I’m not sure how a first time viewing translates to the small screen. But I remember sitting in the theater at age 19, witnessing this horror, and silently wishing I never had to face something like it. What hit me so hard, was the knowledge that other people, who were just like me, were forced to march into this bloodbath for the good of mankind. It started with bullets ripping through infantry. Explosions tore apart bodies. One solider wandered, in a daze, searching for his dismembered arm. The constant barrage of bullets and explosives indiscriminately killed. I was so moved by the film, I saw it again with my dad, who served on the ground in Vietnam, and worked in Army intelligence in Germany in the 1970’s. He didn’t make a sound, and remained silent through the movie. Afterward, as we walked to the car, he said, “I imagine that’s exactly what it felt like to be there that day.” He’s right. Director Steven Spielberg used a real incident, a moment of history just a half-century in the past, to create the most horrifying opening scene in the history of cinema. If somehow you get a chance to see a rerelease in theaters, do so. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to one of the most terrible and heroic moments in our nation’s history.