Large Marge -- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
For a few months in the mid 1980s, my parents had HBO. My dad bought a VCR and recorded tons and tons of movies during our free premium cable trial period, two or three of them on each six hour tape. Those were the movies I watched over and over again as I grew up, and it was always more jarring when horror crept into an otherwise not-scary story.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is one of the movies I watched again and again. It’s a picaresque journey (as if you don’t already know this) of an iconoclastic man-child’s road trip to recover his lost bicycle. In the end, he finds the bike (spoiler alert!) and invites all of his newfound friends to the drive-in to watch a Hollywood adaptation of his journey. But there’s one person he encounters on the road who isn’t in that final scene, even though she drives her own big rig.
You know who I’m talking about. You know the story. It started on this very night, ten years ago, on this same stretch of road…
After meeting Large Marge, Pee-Wee gets out of her truck and continues his journey. Plot-wise, you could clip this scene out of the picture and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. But it introduces an underlying feeling of discomfort and dread that’s impossible to shake.
“U Really Got A Hold On Me” -- Sesame Street
Speaking of impossible to shake, Sesame Street is probably the source for more half-remembered, fever dream moments than any other television show in America -- I still can’t make a grocery list without wanting to add a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter -- but there are few muppets more terrifying than the one that just would not leave Smokey Robinson alone.
The quiet persistence, the crazy eyes, the black background. Is Smokey trapped in Limbo? Purgatory? Is he still there today? It all adds up to a barely-anthropomorphized letter U that will not take no for an answer.
Tami & David -- The Real World: Los Angeles
The second season of MTV’s The Real World aired in 1993, and while the first season wasn’t all flowers and sunshine, the Los Angeles cast took the “stop being polite” part of the show’s intro pretty seriously. There was a lot more bickering and a lot more unspoken tension, which peaked in episode six when stand-up comedian David forcibly pulled a blanket off of singer and AIDS care specialist Tami, ultimately resulting in David being evicted from the house.
Trigger Warning: this is an actual scene between actual people, and it’s not pleasant to watch. The video quality isn’t great, and the audio is worse -- there’s a constant clicking that will drive your blood pressure up. There’s screaming, there’s laughing, and it’s intercut with confessionals of the other housemates saying things like, “It started out as a joke… When she was laying on the floor, she didn’t have time to think about all that. When she was in the bathroom, trying to find something to put on, I think she really had time to think about how much it bothered her.”
This is scary to watch, even 20+ years later, because it’s a moment of raw emotion and confusion. Most of the other housemates are seen standing and walking around Tami and David as the event unfolds, with most of them doing nothing except smile awkwardly. David winds up hiding in a closet afterward, and housemate Irene, who was a Los Angeles County Deputy Marshall, said, “It sounded like they were messing around, then it sounded serious, then it sounded like they were messing around.”
Maybe worst of all, there was no real resolution or cathartic moment here. David was asked to leave, and he did. It remains a hard scene to watch. It’s scariest because it’s hard to understand, what would I have done if I were there? Would I have understood that this wasn’t a joke?
Michael Skupin Falls in the Fire -- Survivor: The Australian Outback
What do you do in the moment when things turn from normal to scary? In Survivor’s second season in 2001, Michael Skupin was airlifted from the game after he passed out and fell into his tribe’s campfire, burning his hands. The actual fall isn’t seen on camera, but a tensely edited scene reveals the accident’s confusing aftermath.
We see a shot of a bird. We hear Skupin’s wordless screams as he holds his hands in front of him. We see him run for the water. He starts to talk -- he starts to babble -- “Look at these things -- I can’t decide if I should keep trying to bend them or not. It keeps intensifying -- they’re stiffening up.”
His tribemates comfort and talk to him, but we also hear Roger whisper to himself, “His hands are bad,” all underscored by a persistent didgeridoo, the creepiest of all … woodwinds?
Skupin was evacuated and eventually recovered, and he even returned to play again more than ten years later. But I feel like his screams of pain and confusion are still echoing across the Outback.
Pink Elephants on Parade -- Dumbo
How do you make elephants scary in an animated movie about elephants? It’s all about the eyeballs.
Disney animators in their heyday were masters of warning against the effects of intoxication. Here, Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse have accidentally gotten drunk on champagne, resulting in black-eyed, rubber-faced elephants that dance, transform, and hypnotize. Horror sequences are a trademark of the classic Disney period, and this list could be basically be taken over outright by creepy Disney sequences, but what makes Pink Elephants a standout is that Dumbo is purely an innocent, and he’s already suffering from low self-esteem.
Mrs. Brisby Meets the Great Owl -- The Secret of NIMH
Scary doesn’t always mean horror and dread. It can be terrifying to take the first step into a larger world, as Mrs. Brisby (Frisby, if you’re a book-stickler) learns when she meets the Great Owl…
... WHOSE HEAD IS UPSIDE-DOWN. Yes, there are shadows and spooky music and spiders, but sweet lord in heaven, his head is upside down and he turns it rightside up before he says hello. All Mrs. Brisby wants to do is move into a new house, and this is the cray-cray she has to deal with.
The Air Conditioner’s End -- The Brave Little Toaster
Death is a tricky thing to deal with in children’s fiction. It’s sad when Bambi’s mother dies (spoiler alert!), but it sends Bambi off on his own adventure of growing up. In The Brave Little Toaster, the Toaster and his appliance friends are faced with feelings of abandonment when their family moves away. The various appliances still believe “The Master” -- a little boy named Rob -- will still come home one day, but the Air Conditioner has a more cynical point of view.
Okay … I mean … holy smokes, guys.
There’s probably a half dozen reasons why this scene is scarier than most slasher movies put together. Fire. Possible suicide. Hope is lost. But maybe worst of all? The Air Conditioner, a very normal and helpful appliance, turns on his friends and blows himself up.
David’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day -- Six Feet Under
Normal things going awry is a major source for terror and tension. HBO’s Six Feet Under, for being a show about death, drying, and grief, isn’t very scary -- but then there’s the season four episode “That’s My Dog.” David offers to give a stranger a ride, and it becomes a hinge point in his personal story -- and his life.
Personally, I binge-watched Six Feet Under after moving, alone, to a new city, so I watched this incredibly stress-inducing episode some lazy Sunday morning, on my iPad, unwilling to get out of bed, unaware that I was getting myself into one of the tensest hours of television I’ve ever seen.
Perhaps endearingly, there are a lot of scenes floating around YouTube of David and his boyfriend Keith, but there aren’t many out-of-context clips of David’s trip through the rabbit hole with Jake, his tormentor. The entire episode is available for purchase, but you’re better off -- as with anything in this list, really -- experiencing “That’s My Dog” as one part of its whole.
Clark Kent Beats Up A Guy -- Superman II
Most of the things on this list are intended to be scary or unsettling. This scene, on the other hand, is intended to be a celebratory moment of comeuppance for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
Early in 1980’s Superman II, Superman gives up his powers. It’s an overly complicated plot device, but it does result in an interesting scene where Clark Kent -- for the first time -- gets bullied in a diner and he can’t do anything about it. Clark really is the helpless weakling he’s always assumed to be.
But by the end of the movie, the status quo is re-established and he’s Superman again! He is Kal-El, Last Son of Krypton, indisputably the most powerful being on the planet. So what does he do?
He goes back to the diner where he was pushed around and, as Clark Kent, thoroughly trashes the bully who pushed him around. He smashes property and shows off his invulnerability. We’re intended to think, Yeah! Take that, bully! But I remember being kind of creeped out watching this as a kid, and not really knowing why. Seeing it as an adult, I can put a finer point on it: Superman’s not supposed to act this way. He’s supposed to turn the other cheek and lead by example, not exact petty vengeance on (admittedly deserving) jerks.
It’s not exactly out of character -- Superman has a well documented history of dickery -- but it’s still kind of scary.
I’ll Show You the Life of the Mind -- Barton Fink
“Tell us where the heads are.” The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink is ostensibly the story of a struggling screenwriter in the early days of Hollywood. But more than that, it’s a heat-filled, spring-loaded film of wonderfully increasing tension. Described on YouTube as “Barton Fink -- The Key Scene,” this is where the spring comes unspring, the heat ignites into hellfire, and the dread becomes terror.
What makes the scene (and much of the film’s increasing dread) is Charlie, played with rapturous terror by John Goodman. Goodman is capable of playing sweetly adorable, but what’s more terrifying than such a bear racing down a long, burning hallway, demanding that you Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!
Fear comes from many different directions, but at its core, something scares us because it reinforces what we’re already worried about. Death, loneliness, the unknown -- it’s all that much worse when it comes from an unexpected source, or the guise of a beloved character facing an unexpected doom, like that time Garfield was left to die, alone and starving, in an abandoned house.
So this Halloween -- or any time you want to feel a cold chill run up your spine -- don’t just turn to the ghosts and goblins you know are there. Think about at the times you’ve really felt scared. Real terror comes when you least expect it.
(Oh, and one last SPOILER ALERT, for real this time -- if you want to give yourself goosebumps, try reading about the Pixar Theory. The most beloved movie studio/series of films in recent years might actually be telling a story about the end of the world.)