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From 'Psycho' to 'Scream': The 35 most memorable kill scenes from horror movies
It's about to get really bloody in here.
Horror fans talk a lot about movies with "good kills." Not that we ever want anyone to die in real life, but in the realm of a fictional scarefest, how a movie carries out its death scenes is often the most important thing about it. A good kill scene can do several things at once, from establishing how frightening a villain is to raising the emotional stakes of a story to simply setting the tone for the carnage to come. Sometimes, a good kill scene can even change the course of horror cinema as we know it.
There are, of course, many, many great death scenes from throughout horror history, but some are always going to rank (severed) head and shoulders above the rest. From an early Universal Monsters demise to the meta-slashers of the modern era, these are some of the greatest kills in horror movie history.
Note: The scenes below are placed in chronological order, so we don't have to try and play favorites. The clips below also contain GRAPHIC CONTENT from various horror films, so if you're squeamish, maybe don't press play while you're scrolling.
1. The Drowning Girl - Frankenstein (1931)
It's still a little shocking that James Whale's Frankenstein was able to get quite this explicit with the death of a little girl at the hands of the creature in this 1931 Universal horror classic. It's not nearly as graphic as the other death scenes on this list, but watching her flail in the water, and watching the aftermath, all the while knowing that the creature didn't really understand what he was doing, makes it an unforgettable piece of horror history. It's still capable of shaking audiences to their core.
2. The Shower - Psycho (1960)
Arguably the most-discussed and most-studied death scene in all of cinema, the first kill in Alfred Hitchcock's proto-slasher masterpiece still ranks as one of the greatest horror movie moments ever. We remember it because it shocked audiences by coming so early in the film, killing off the supposed protagonist, but also because of its extraordinary sense of craft. From the building of tension to the editing, it's a remarkable exercise in reeling an audience in and then grabbing them.
3. The Ending - Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero certainly got more gruesome with other death scenes in his film career, but never again did he make a move quite so chilling as the death of Ben at the end of Night of the Living Dead. After fighting to survive a horrific night of slaughter, our hero stepped out the front door of the farmhouse only to be shot in the head by a mob of white men convinced he was just another monster. It's still hard to watch, even when you know it's coming.
4. The Burning - The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man succeeds not through graphic violence, but through building a sense of tension that builds throughout the film, an overwhelming dread that's bound to culminate in something. Then, in the final minutes, you learn what that something is, as Sgt. Howie finds himself trapped inside the titular burning effigy. It's still brilliant, and still terrifying, almost 50 years later.
5. The Mallet - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Leatherface does a lot of rough stuff to the unsuspecting kids in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it never gets more disturbing than the moment he simply clubs poor Kirk in the head, then drags his trembling body down into his slaughterhouse. It's a hell of a tone-setter.
6. The Plastic Bag - Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas uses a POV camera to put us behind the eyes of its killer to great effect, and it's especially shocking in the moment when we see him viciously smother Clare in the attic of the sorority house with a plastic bag. It's memorable not just for the disturbing kill itself, but for the way in which Clare's body lingers, sitting the attic window, for the entire film.
7. The Opening - Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg famously obscured the shark for much of the runtime of Jaws, partly out of necessity as the mechanical beast kept breaking down. The minimalism still has an alarming effect, and nowhere is it more evident than in the opening scene, as a poor skinny dipping girl is dragged under the water by a thing we can't see, but can definitely feel. Watching Chrissie beg for her life before disappearing under the water is still chilling.
8. The Decapitation - The Omen (1976)
The Omen is interesting because its villain never kills with his own hands, and sometimes doesn't even seem aware that a kill is coming. Director Richard Donner orchestrates a series of elaborate "accidents" for the film's various death scenes, and while all of them are interesting, the most memorable is the moment when a poor photographer on the trailer of Damien's supernatural nature is violently beheaded by a sheet of glass. It's so unlikely — and yet so cinematic — that it works.
9. The Opening - Suspiria (1977)
Dario Argento rose up out of the Italian giallo tradition with a knack for orchestrating elaborate death scenes via mysterious, shadowy killers. He's crafted a lot of memorable kills, but the first death in his masterpiece Suspiria is arguably the greatest. It begins with a dark shape outside a window, then escalates into operatic violence, culminating in one of the wildest hanging deaths in cinema history.
10. The One-Take Kill - Halloween (1978)
Before Michael Myers was a mask-wearing man walking through Haddonfield stabbing teenagers, he was a mask-wearing boy walking through Haddonfield stabbing teenagers. Every death in John Carpenter and Debra Hill's original classic is memorable, but the decision to start the film with a single Steadicam shot from the point-of-view of what's ultimately revealed to be a little boy who murders his sister remains the most creative.
11. The Orb - Phantasm (1979)
Phantasm is a wild mashup of genres and ideas, a blend of sci-fi and horror all centered on Angus Scrimm's The Tall Man and the tools of his trade. One of those tools, the silver orbs that fly at The Tall Man's victims, makes an incredible entrance in Don Coscarelli's original film. Giving us a flying sphere with blades is cool by itself, but adding a drill that creates a fountain of blood is icing on the horrifying cake.
12. The Eye - Zombi 2 (1979)
Lucio "Godfather of Gore" Fulci was bound to make it on this list somewhere, and we're going with this particular tense kill from his unofficial sequel to Dawn of the Dead. We don't generally think of zombies as killing with anything but their teeth, but in this instance, we have to watch a woman named Paola get dragged through a hole in a wooden door until her eye is impaled on a splinter. It's a standout moment in the subgenre, and one of Fulci's nastiest death scenes.
13. The Chest Burster - Alien (1979)
We'd seen aliens kill humans on film many times by 1979, but Alien made it all much more intimate and terrifying with a single scene. We all know the scene now, but imagine what it must have been like for theatrical audiences to see Kane's torso ripped open for the first time. It remains, pun very much intended, a stomach churning sci-fi horror moment.
14. The Exploding Head - Scanners (1981)
You know exactly the scene we're talking about, even if you haven't seen the movie. The image of a poor telepath's head popping like a grape under the psychic strain of Michael Ironside's Revok is one of the most enduring in all of horror, and it still lives rent free in a lot of heads.
15. The Defibrillator - The Thing (1982)
Here's another one of those scenes you've probably witnessed at some point even if you've never seen the whole movie. Copper brings the defibrillator paddles down on Norris's chest, and Norris's chest opens up into a gaping, tooth-filled maw that bites Copper's arms off. It's an amazing piece of visual effects work by Rob Bottin, and it only gets wilder after the actual death scene.
16. Tina's Death - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
When you introduce a villain with supernatural powers, it's important to establish what those powers can do, and Wes Craven does that almost right away with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy Krueger's first kill is unforgettable, as we have to watch poor Tina dragged across her ceiling in real life as she's put through the boiler room from hell in the dream world. It's a fantastic introduction to one of horror's greatest villains.
17. Rhodes Feast - Day of the Dead (1985)
George A. Romero's Dead films all come to a head in the final act when everything goes wrong and the zombies break in. That means people die, and few characters have ever died as spectacularly as the hard-edged Captain Rhodes. After yelling at everyone else through the whole movie, he screams his way through his own demise as we watch a host of ghouls devour him alive. It's enough to take away your appetite for days on end.
18. Ripped Apart - The Hitcher (1986)
The Hitcher is an extraordinary exercise in intimate tension, and that's clearer than ever in its most memorable scene of violence. With Jennifer Jason Leigh's Nash tied up between a trailer and a truck, Rutger Hauer's title villain forces everyone around him to try and make an impossible choice. When they can't, he does. We don't actually see Nash ripped in half, but we do feel it, sometimes for days afterwards.
19. Frank's Second Death - Hellraiser (1987)
Clive Barker's Hellraiser introduced some extremely creative BDSM-inspired violence into the '80s slasher scene, and it reached its zenith with the finale of the original film, in which the villainous Frank is finally dragged back to hell by the Cenobites. Before he can be dragged though, he has to be ripped apart. It's a moment no one who's ever seen even a still photo of it can ever forget.
20. The TV - A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Even with the creativity of the first film in mind, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was able to keep coming up with elaborate ways for Freddy Krueger to kill people. That's especially true of Dream Warriors, the third installment in the series which features Freddy transforming into a television creature long enough to deliver a quip, and slam a poor girl's face right into the screen. It's not the grossest kill in the series, or even in this film, but it's still a great visual.
21. The Sleeping Bag - Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
He's best known for his work with a machete, but Jason Voorhees has killed people in dozens of ways over the years, and one of his best and most efficient deaths involves a screaming woman, a sleeping bag, and a tree. As Friday the 13th deaths go, it's one of the quickest and least bloody, but watching Jason kill someone with a piece of camping gear in a franchise about doomed campers remains morbid fun.
22. The Shotgun - Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Halloween 4 remains an undervalued sequel in part because of the lack of John Carpenter's involvement, but there's a lot to love here, including the increased creativity in Michael's death scenes. Sure, he could keep stabbing people with knives for the whole movie, but where's the fun in that? So, he stabs a sheriff's deputy through the torso with his own shotgun, because in Michael's world you don't need bullets.
23. The Shears - The Exorcist III (1990)
Perhaps because its predecessor was regarded as underwhelming sequel, audiences still tend to underestimate The Exorcist III. That's a shame, because the film is packed with moments of effective horror, including the scene in which an unsuspecting nurse is chased down by a shrouded figure wielding a pair of shears. It happens so quickly, in the middle of a quiet hospital hallway, that it also still works as one of horror's great jump scares.
24. Casey's Death - Scream (1996)
Scream is a film that picks apart and pays homage to the entire slasher genre, and it needed to make a good first impression. So, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven gave us Casey Becker's horrific final minutes as she tries and fails to escape Ghostface. It's a wonderful exercise in tension, all building to a devastating final moment.
25. Liquid Nitrogen - Jason X (2001)
Jason X is not a great horror film, but it is one of the most fun slasher rides of the 21st century, in part because it understands exactly the kind of movie it needs to be. That's clear in just about every moment, but especially in this one, when Jason freezes poor Adrienne's face in a vat of liquid nitrogen. Then, almost as an amusing afterthought, like he didn't know such a thing would happen, he smashes her icy head on the counter. It's over-the-top, it's darkly funny, and it's unforgettable.
26. The Bookcase - High Tension (2003)
The film that introduced many American audiences to New French Extremity horror, High Tension is packed with moments of intense brutality, but the first move the killer makes upon entering the house might be the most creative. He could have just kept carving Daniel up with his razor. Instead, he jams the guy's head in the railing of a banister, then pops it off with one shove of a bookcase. Even if you watched the less graphic R-rated version, it's enough to send you out of the room to catch your breath.
27. The Pile-up - Final Destination 2 (2003)
Films about Death stalking a group of unwitting friends are bound to develop some creative, and effective, means of death, and the Final Destination films are full of great death scenes. In terms of sheer chaos that never seems to end, though, it's hard to top the opening crash of Final Destination 2. It starts with a premonition version of the crash, then gives us the crash itself, then gives us the aftermath, when Kimberly gets out of her car just in time to watch all over her friends die in a fiery new collision.
28. The Reverse Bear Trap - Saw: The Final Chapter (2010)
The reverse bear-trap contraption has been a part of Saw lore since the second film, but it's never been used as gruesomely as it was at the end of The Final Chapter. Up until this point, the trap was best known for who escaped from it, but John Kramer's Jigsaw disciple, Mark Hoffman, changed that with one last play against Jigsaw's ex-wife Jill. That it happens is bad enough, but seeing the aftermath might just make you throw your popcorn away.
29. The Lawnmower - Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill crafted an unforgettable descent into darkness with Sinister, but of all the memorable ways they found to kill people in the film, one still stands out. In one of the film's home movie sequences, we see a lawnmower start, and watch from above as it tracks across an ordinary lawn. Then a face appears in the dim light, only to disappear again under the mower's blades. It remains perhaps the greatest jump scare of the century so far.
30. The Chainsaw - Evil Dead (2013)
Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead reboot is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, but even with that divisiveness in mind, it's hard to ignore that sheer power of its finale. You've got a chainsaw, you've got a young woman pushed to the brink as she fights to survive, and perhaps most important, you've got a literal rain of blood. It's an astonishing setpiece that culminates in a very brutal kill, as Mia reclaims her identity from the Abomination.
31. The Beginning - It Follows (2014)
There's a little bit of a cheat here, because we don't actually see Annie, the first character we meet in It Follows, get killed. What we see instead is the build-up, as she flees from an unseen presence, horrified by what's coming for her, only to then make peace with it on a distant beach. A few moments later, we see the aftermath, and it's very clear from the opening minutes of the film that we're about to deal with something intense. It's a wonderfully chilling opening gambit.
32. Chris and Rose - Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele's Get Out builds slowly, laying out its themes and key threads of tension until the final, inevitable descent into chaos, as Daniel Kaluuya's Chris fights to escape his girlfriend's family. It all culminates on the road, where Chris's girlfriend Rose is shot by one of the men her family subjugated, then strangled by Chris, then left to bleed out. It's all capped off by that final reveal that the flashing lights aren't a cop coming to arrest Chris, but his best friend arriving to save him. It's a sigh of cathartic relief for the audience, and a death rattle for Rose.
33. The Pole - Hereditary (2018)
A lot of wild stuff happens in Ari Aster's Hereditary, including some very gruesome deaths later in the film, but they never get more devastating than what happens to poor Charlie. She's doing nothing but gasping for air when the car swerves, and the next second her head is on the side of the road. It's a catalyst for much of the carnage in the rest of the film, and an gut-wrenching moment even among seasoned horror fans.
34. The Tylers - Us (2019)
Jordan Peele took the knack for violence he displayed in Get Out to new heights with his second feature, and it reached elegant levels of savagery with this scene in Us. By this point in the film, the Wilsons have managed to escape their Tethered doubles, but the Tylers aren't so lucky. The violence happens fast, much of it in a wide shot that allows us to see the coordinated moves of the Tethered. Then the final moments build to, of all things, an N.W.A. joke, because Jordan Peele's timing is always impeccable.
35. The Bread Slicer - Fear Street Part One: 1994 (2021)
The first phase of Netflix's Fear Street trilogy is a slasher homage that draws on R.L. Stine's entire teen horror series and the entire history of slasher films up to the 1990s. That means a lot of winks and nods to the genre, and some very interesting kills. The whole film is an inventive teen horror adventure, but in terms of death scenes, it never gets better than the moment Kate's head goes through a supermarket bread slicer, something a lot of us had never seen in a horror film before.