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How Shudder determined 'The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time'

Shudder's new documentary series is a scary-good overview of some of the best horror movies ever made.

By James Grebey
Salem's Lot Still

It’s honestly kind of scary how many horror movies there are. Obviously, it’s scary because that’s the point of the genre, but it’s also daunting to try to comprehend the sheer number of horror movies out there. Which ones are essential viewing? What at the hidden gems? And, which ones are the best? Shudder’s new documentary series, The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, might be as close as horror-lovers will get to a “definitive” round-up of the best the genre has to offer, though executive producer Kurt Sayenga tells SYFY WIRE not to put too much stock in the rankings. Instead, the series, which premiered on Shudder on Sept. 7 with new episodes streaming every Wednesday, is a comprehensive horror collection. 

“It’s meant to include as many titles from around the world and as many different perspectives as we can get in there,” Sayenga explains. “Which is really hard, because it means dropping some things that maybe I wish had been in there, but at the same time, the goal is to expose people to things that they may not have seen or to surprise them with something.”

SYFY WIRE spoke with Sayenga about how the list of 101 scary movie moments came together, what differentiates this list from Bravo’s similar and popular series from the mid-’00s, and what movie didn’t make the cut because to spoil it would be “a crime against cinema.” 

How do you even begin to go about compiling a list of the 101 scariest movie moments out of all the moments from all the scary movies out there?

It was a daunting task. A lot of people are involved in it. I went through a lot of previous lists and also looked through lists that filmmakers have compiled in the past. And Shudder, of course, had quite a bit of input into it since it was their idea to do the series.

You mentioned looking at other lists, and I feel like this series seems like a spiritual sequel of sorts to the big list of scary movie moments that Bravo did a few years back. Are there ways in which that series influenced this one, or are there ways in which the Shudder is distinct from that previous collection?

I had not seen the series when Shudder asked me to come in on this. They had, and they certainly had the idea of like updating that concept in mind. When I did watch it... I mean, I think they did a great job, and they were able to get a lot of heavy hitters, many of whom are dead now, in that series, like George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and Stuart Gordon. But at the same time, they also mixed it in with, like, the Coors Light Twins and a lot of people who basically had nothing to do with the horror genre. It was, I would imagine, a network decision to try to make it more poppy, or whatever. That is not what I wanted to do with this. I was trying to keep it much more of a series for film lovers, for people who love horror films and also love cinema. 

Horror kind of occupies a unique space in cinema history. A lot of film techniques are explored first and developed in horror that then seep into the mainstream. And really the goal was to try to put horror films kind of in context — in some cases, just in cinema history. There are episodes, as the series goes on, that will tie things to films that you might not immediately first think of as being related like Like Brain De Palma’s Blow Out or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup

So, that's a big difference, but the real difference is that 20-something years have passed and the world is a different place than it was. This series has a much more diverse group of voices. You have a lot more women and a lot more people of color in this series too, representing different viewpoints that weren’t represented back then. That makes sense because horror has become much more international. It's always been international, but I think that's really through services like Shudder actually, which really represents the international nature of horror. It is a global phenomenon and there are unique kinds of horror cinema that come out of different cultures and they all kind of talk to each other. You get the Italian influence coming in and then obviously Asian horror has been huge, like both from Japan and South Korea. 

How do you approach getting a range of different types of horror movies into one coherent list? How do you compare or rank different sorts of horror movies? Like, The Phantom of the Opera maybe isn't objectively as scary as some other more recent movies, but it was scary for the time and is historically very important. 

Let me think of how to phrase this… I would not get too hung up on the rankings of these films. It's really a list that I think will be different for every single person who watches it because horror affects people differently, depending on your circumstances. Obviously, it's subjective. What scares you is subjective. I'm scared by very little, I've seen a lot of stuff in my life, personally and in the movies. Very few things move me that way. And yet my wife can't even watch, like, 90 of these movies, probably. It all differs. And of course, it differs where you are in time and space. Essentially, I was more concerned about mixing things in each episode so that there would be representation throughout time. So you get a scattering of things that have new films, and films from fairly recent, then going back. We go all the way back to, Nosferatu. It’s 100 years. It’s got a spread. 

The “ranking” probably only becomes more contentious when you get around the top 10 or 20 or so. That's certainly what there is the most discussion and debate about. I will say that my list would be actually very different than this list. If I was to personally order it, it would be a lot different. A lot of it all depends on, in some ways, on which films had the most effect at the time and have been the most influential through time — like they've set up a trope that has resonated forever. For instance, Michael Myers being “killed” by Lori Strode at the end of Halloween and then he suddenly sits up. That has been imitated just endlessly. 

Why is it a list of specific scary movie moments rather than just scary movies? Does highlighting one scene just give you a focal point to talk about?

It keeps it focused. When trying to make sense of something with this many films, that was essentially the way to do it. Instead of trying to like tell the entire story of the film, you can focus in on one moment.

In some cases, there were some films that were left off because the key moment is just such a massive spoiler because it's at the very end. Do I really wanna reveal that? Do I ruin that movie for everyone? When we talk about The Wicker Man in the series, we have Edgar Wright disclaiming — If you haven't seen this, don't watch. 

If this was the 102 Scariest Moments, what movie would’ve made the cut? Or, what’s your favorite movie that didn’t make the list? 

I left out Don't Look Now because I thought revealing the ending of don't look now is just a crime against cinema, basically. I nonetheless have managed to sneak in clips and mention of Don't Look Now at various places of the series, which is something I've done with many other movies too. 

What do you hope viewers will come away with from the series?

I hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for just the craft that goes into making these at all levels. Directing, special effects, acting, cinematography, score, set design — everything. Often, in a lot of cases of these films, there are people struggling with limitations, usually budget limitations, and still managing to pull off something... an effective scare or an iconic moment. 

If there's anything else that I hope people will get out of the series, it's just a curiosity about a bunch of films they haven't seen. So I'm hoping somebody will see this and go like, “Oh, Pulse, that looks cool or weird.” Pulse is like a Japanese version of Stalker, in a way. Stalker is a film that I probably personally would've put on the list as well. But, what is the key moment of Stalker? Well, it's probably the ending of Stalker, which is another thing you don't want to give away. 

101 Scariest Movie Moments

I know we just said it isn't really about rankings, but can you tease anything about what the No. 1 movie is? Is it unexpected? Is it one of the usual suspects?

I will say the No. 1 movie is a movie that weirdly did not come up as the number one movie in some of these shows or other people's lists. And yet, when we decided on it, it was the one movie that everybody agreed on. It was one of those things where you walk in the room and you don't see the most obvious thing in the room, then there it is. Perfect. It's a movie that I think is very difficult to argue with. There are other movies that you may like more, or whatever, but when you're looking at a movie that has everything horror has to offer and also had to really transformative effect, the No. 1 movie certainly qualifies.

New episodes of The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, an eight-episode series, are available to stream every Wednesday on Shudder.

Several movies on Shudder’s list of The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments, including Candyman and Dawn of the Dead, are streaming on Peacock, along with plenty of other horror movies.