Why I Don’t Agree That The “Head Spin” Scene In “The Exorcist” Is The Scariest Of Them All

A poll conducted with a general UK adult demographic set out to discover what horror movie scenes scared audiences the most. Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens runs down the top 10 to reveal how much he agrees or disagrees with the findings…

Conducted by OnePoll for retailer HMV, 2,000 people were asked about the scariest scenes they’d ever seen from films released since Psycho in 1960. Unsurprisingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic shower scene made the top 10 but did not manage top spot. That went to horror movie classic The Exorcist.

Below I run down the top 10 suggesting why I AGREE or DISAGREE with the polling results.

10. Woman in Black (Watkins, 2012) 9.10% (AGREE)

The rocking chair

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?Not sure how this film made the top 10 but the sequence with the rocking chair is definitely terrifying and the best moment of the film. It isn’t as much the rocking chair moving by itself but what happens next that works so well. As Daniel Radcliffe is preoccupied with the self-moving furniture, a ghost appears in the darkness on the periphery of his vision. We think he’ll see it and perhaps run but he doesn’t have a chance as the ghost attacks him, the entity seemingly gliding through the air. It’s a brilliant scene from this glossy modern horror film.

9. Saw (Wan, 2004) 9.95% (DISAGREE)

Man cutting off foot

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?There’s nothing scary about someone cutting off their own foot in a fiction film. It’s gratuitous, gory and a surefire way for my lunch to see the light of day again. Don’t get me wrong, Saw is an excellent film and has some wonderfully scary bits but subtlety is better for really frightening an audience. See The Exorcist higher up this list.

8. Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) 10.05% (DISAGREE)

Night vision scene

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?The night vision scene in Silence of the Lambs is another wonderful sequence in a wonderful film but it isn’t the scariest scene. The most unsettling sequence in Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece is the moment the security team learns it has lost contact with those guards tasked with watching Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter. The scene begins as an elevator descends from the floor on which Lecter is imprisoned. It’s an impossibility unless something has gone horribly wrong up there. A large, heavily-armed team is assembled and they move on the room where Lecter is supposedly locked up. As they enter, Demme has lit the scene like some sort of macabre gothic horror film. Lecter’s cage is backlit with a disemboweled body hanging from it, the dead guard’s body placed as if a Satanic sacrifice has taken place.

7. The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) 11.45% (AGREE)

The children being attacked

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?It’s probably the scariest scene in a film that really isn’t very scary. For that, I agree with the scene but there’s far scarier horror films than Hitchcock’s The Birds.

6. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) 12.80% (AGREE)

Grady twins in the corridor

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?Based on familiarity, which is a tendency with these sorts of polls, you’d think Jack breaking through a door with his axe would top the poll when it came to The Shining but I love that people highlighted the Grady Twins in the corridor. Kubrick wonderfully sets up the scene as we follow Danny on his tricycle before the ghosts of the girls tell Danny to “come play with us”.

5. Alien (Scott, 1979) 14.10% (AGREE)

Chest burst scene

Alien, Dinner Table Scene, Kane (John Hurt) - Top 10 FilmsA scarier scene than the chest-burster in Alien? It’s hard to disagree with the poll. It’s definitely the most memorable moment. I’ve said in the past that it’s the scariest scene in Alien but hindsight’s a wonderful thing to have. Like The Exorcist, the total is much more effective than the parts and Alien has some very frightening moments that challenge its iconic scene for title of “scariest bit”. The moment when Kane gets a facehugger jumping onto his helmet during the initial alien ship investigation is ultimately more unnerving. I also think Parker’s death is more effective because director Ridley Scott introduces us to the creature in its larger, mature form.

4. The Ring (Verbinksi, 2002) 14.90% (AGREE)

Girl coming out of the TV

Top 10 Remakes That Are Better Than The Original MovieI don’t think there’s a scarier scene in The Ring than the moment the dead girl emerges from the TV. It’s the thing of your worst nightmares – you say to yourself “it’s only a movie” but when the monsters begin to crawl out of the screen you start questioning your own safety.

3. Carrie (De Palma, 1976) 15.10% (AGREE)

The hand grabbing the arm

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?Definitely agree with this inclusion. De Palma sets it up beautifully because the audience has gone through a lot at this point and is finally beginning to relax believing the horror show is over. But it isn’t.

2. Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) 16.85% (AGREE)

The shower scene

Pscyho, Norman Bates' Mother, Shower Scene, Top 10 Films,Definitely agree with this one. There are other scenes in Psycho that give it a run for its money – Norman Bates in mother’s clothes and wig coming out of a bedroom door or the reveal of the corpse, but nothing beats this iconic moment.

1. The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) – 17.95% (DISAGREE)

The head spin

Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist, William Friedkin, Top 10 Films,Interestingly, the scariest scene people said they’d witnessed was the head spin sequence in The Exorcist despite it being the one part of William Friedkin’s masterpiece that contemporary audiences often cite as laughable. Is that because people are actually terrified and use laughter as an antidote to the terror or is it perhaps simply the scene most people remember. To make the poll easier to answer, scene’s were listed for people to choose from which reveals why it, and not one of the film’s far scarier scenes, was the outright winner. For me, the scene isn’t particularly scary but it is undoubtedly memorable.

What scenes in The Exorcist are “scarier” than the head spin? Some of the film’s best moments are its most subtle – a mother wearing sunglasses to hide a black-eye tells a priest she thinks her daughter is possessed by an evil entity, for example. Equally chilling is Father Merrin’s arrival at the house in the scene where the taxi pulls up at the house, Friedkin having lit it so that a shaft of light emanates from the possessed girl’s bedroom. It’s deeply unsettling. Both scenes are fundamentally scary because in each case they are precursors to something more explicitly horrific (ie. the aforementioned head spin, the levitation, throwing up pea soup, and for those that watched the extended cut, the spider walk).

But for me, the scariest scene in the film, which pips both the moment Ellen Burstyn is in the loft and the candle suddenly flames and the scene when she’s left bloodied by her possessed daughter who spits foul language at her with an unnaturally deep voice, is when she hears a commotion in the girl’s bedroom and dashes upstairs. It’s the anticipation of something terrible that gets the adrenaline going before we see the bed jumping up and down and her daughter Regan being thrown about uncontrollably. That is my scariest scene. This is punctuated by Bursytn’s reaction, a look of complete, helpless shock.

Great Horror Film Scenes That Nearly Made The Top 10

Scream, Drew Barrymore, Film, Wes CravenOf those film scenes mentioned in the poll, there’s some excellent sequences that missed the top 10. The following are all film scenes I would consider scary: the opening scene in It Follows; Drew Barrymore’s battle with the caller in Scream; the man against the wall at the end of The Blair Witch Project; the An American Werewolf in London transformation scene; the nanny’s death in The Omen; and the mention of his “father’s eyes” at the end of Rosemary’s Baby.

Four Horror Film Scenes That Weren’t Options On The Poll But Should Have Been

4.35% of those polled said “another horror scene” scared them more than those listed options. Here I consider four scenes that they may have been thinking of.

Tent is attacked by unseen hands – The Blair Witch Project (Myrick/Sánchez, 1999)

The Blair Witch Project, Top 10 Films, Found Footage HorrorAlways liked this seen because it’s so simple yet terrifyingly effective. While our lost documentary-makers are holed up in the woods for the night, what seems like lots of dead children start pressing their hands against the tent. Chilling.

Chief Brody gets a surprise / Hooper gets a surprise – Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

Jaws, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Stephens, You're gonna need a bigger boat - Top 10 FilmsIncredibly, Jaws wasn’t a listed option so neither the shark reveal when Brody is throwing fish into the water or Hooper’s “run-in” with the dead fisherman while investigating a hole in a boat made the list. Both scenes are terrifying. Both scenes are some of the scariest ever committed to celuloid.

Beware the moors – An American Werewolf In London (Landis, 1981)

An American Werewolf In London, John Landis, Film, 1980s,The transfortmation scene is great horror cinema but the scariest scene in the film for me is the initial werewolf attack. Landis punctuates it with ear-piercing screams and quick cuts to briefly instill bloody fangs and tearing flesh in the audience’s mind.

Red-coated “munchkin” killer – Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973)

A UK Poll Reveals The Top 10 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes - Do We Agree?For 90-or-so minutes director Nicolas Roeg has been building the suspense and unsettling his audience through supernatural mystery and parental grief. The scene when Donald Sutherland meets the red-coated killer is shocking.

What Else Does The Poll Reveal?

The 1970s – the decade that brought us strikes, recession and Thatcher – was deemed the scariest decade overall, with horror movie scenes from that period accounting for 27% of all votes across more than 50 different films included in the poll. Titles from the 2000s had the second-highest share of the vote at 18%, closely followed by 1980s horror with 17%. Despite Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho and The Birds making the top 10, the 1960s, famous for its hippy spirit and free love philosophy, emerged as the least creepy decade, with films from that era making up just 11% of all votes.

People were asked to describe what makes a great horror film. The top themes included a strong story, a well-crafted soundtrack, and plenty of shocks and surprises along the way. And as one person suggested, perhaps the key to a great horror is simply “Jack Nicholson’s face”.

Ian Hunter, Professor of Film Studies at De Montfort University, offered some insight on how the genre has evolved: “Traditionally horror films were either about supernatural and primal fears or monsters that transgress what seem to be natural boundaries (the dead who live, humans who are also animals, and so on). Today, while such films still exist, the most frightening are perhaps about the terrors of everyday life and the worst monsters are versions of ordinary people – psychopaths, serial killers – who threaten our sense of rationality.”

Richard Hand, Professor of Media Practice at the University of East Anglia, also offered his thoughts on the inner-workings of great horror cinema: “A masterpiece like Psycho may be (in)famous for its shower scene, but the genius of the film is established long before that scene happens, in the slow tightening of its suspense, gradually unnerving the viewer with a simple but compelling narrative, a genuine ‘composition’ of excellent performances, editing, design and, perhaps most importantly of all, soundtrack. Indeed, it is often the sound of horror that can haunt us most thoroughly, worming its way deep beneath our skin and haunting our nightmares even when we turn away or cover our eyes.”

How People Stop Feeling Scared…

51% of people said they feel “fearful” after watching a scary film or TV show.

Suggestions for how to stop feeling scared after watching a scary movie:

Switch all the lights on 45.94%

Watch a comedy show on telly 41.78%

Go to bed 18.71%

Read a book 18.61%

Watch another film 17.13%

Words by Dan Stephens

The survey was carried out by OnePoll on behalf of hmv.com. There were 2,000 respondents – a demographically representative sample of UK adults.

Over to you: what are your scariest horror movie scenes…

Discover More: Top 10 Scariest Horror Film Scenes

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Callum Reply

    Can’t pinpoint a single scene. It’s her voice, her face, everything in The Exorcist.

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