Superhero movies are an obvious delivery system for epic CG spectacle and heroic action sequences. But, sometimes, they also serve as a means to provide the occasional scary scene or three.
While it's expected for a vigilante like Batman, who uses fear to prey on the fearful, to traffic in tropes usually reserved for horror movies, some of his fellow DC heroes — along with some of Marvel’s — also venture into stories that may cause every hair on the back of your neck to stand up. As another Halloween creeps up on us, here are 20 of the scariest moments in superhero movie history (in order of theatrical release).
Warning: You might wanna read this with the lights on — and be aware of possible spoilers, the scariest thing of all.
Superman loses his powers in Superman II (1981)
Superman II is one of the best comic book movies ever, full of iconic moments (“Kneel before Zod!”) and some of the genre’s best action scenes. But the theatrical cut also features one of the creepiest and most unnerving moments in DC movie history: Superman’s powers literally being stripped away from him.
While at his Fortress of Solitude, Christopher Reeve’s Kal-El enters a crystal chamber to make himself human for the love of his life, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane. The de-powering process unfolds with a Cronenberg-level of body horror, as viewers get an X-Ray view inside Superman’s face to watch his Kryptonian biology drain away on the cellular level. *shudder*
An A.I. possession in Superman III (1983)
Come for Superman III’s Atari-level video game graphics depicting Superman out-flying a barrage of missiles, stay for the unsettling transformation of the film’s No. 2 baddie into some type of murder bot.
This Christopher Reeve-starring guilty pleasure pits Superman against super-hacker Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) and his villainous boss, businessman Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and his sister, Vera Webster (Annie Ross). It’s the latter who gets literally sucked into Gus and Webster’s sentient super-computer that gives us our scary scene, when she emerges from the bowels of the machine as a metal-faced, white-eyed android. Tonally, this bit of techno body horror feels like an outlier in the film. But it is one of the most memorable (and infamous) scenes in all of Superman’s big-screen history.
Alicia’s disfigurement in Batman (1989)
Director Tim Burton’s gothic-noir blockbuster pitted Michael Keaton’s black-on-black Dark Knight against Jack Nicholson’s gleefully-murderous Joker in ways that seemingly scratched every creepy itch Burton’s macabre sensibilities had, especially when it came to Joker and his mistress.
Before she was Jack Napier’s moll, Alicia was involved with Gotham crime boss Carl Grissom (a scene-chewing Jack Palance). Once Joker took Grissom out of the picture, he decided to turn Alicia (Jerry Hall) into a “living work of art” by scarring her Vogue cover-model face. The reveal of her deformity is only for a few frames, but it speaks to the depravity of its villain and begs the question how something this disturbing made it into a four-quadrant film aimed at selling tons of merch to kids.
Catwoman’s bloody origin in Batman Returns (1992)
Some 28 years after its theatrical release, Batman Returns has developed a fierce and passionate fanbase, thanks to Tim Burton’s “all-in” psychological take on the rogues plaguing Batman and Gotham City: The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Selina Kyle’s creepy AF origin story into the almost-supernatural Catwoman is one of the most frightening and iconic scenes in Burton’s filmography.
After being pushed out a window by her depraved boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Selina crashes through awning after awning before landing sprawled-out on snowy pavement. Dead. Until street cats slowly gather and swarm Selina’s body, nibbling on her bloody fingers until her fluttering eyes snap in jump scare fashion. But — that’s arguably not the scariest part of Selina’s resurrection. Pale faced and haunted, she returns to her apartment, trashes the joint, and somewhere between madness and conviction, stitches together her skin-tight costume to become a “thorn” in Batman’s side. The end result is one of the most haunting and tragic villains ever made for the big screen.
The blood bath scene from Blade (1998)
Blade, Marvel’s first mainstream box office success, is a near-perfect mix of horror and action as Wesley Snipes’ Daywalker stalks and kills vampires. Blade’s first scene is one of the most memorable character intros in all of Marvel’s canon; it encapsulates his epic slayer skills while establishing the R-rated bloody horror the movie has in store. By ambushing a secret “Blood Bath” club home to dozens of goth-y suckheads, where ceiling sprinklers rain blood on thirsty patrons, Blade unleashes inventive fisticuffs and an impressive arsenal that balances scares with satisfying, fist-pumping set pieces. It’s action-packed, yes, but also terrifying — a tricky balance tonally to pull off, but one that director Stephen Norrington and writer David S. Goyer execute effortlessly.
BBQ’d vampire resurrection in Blade (1998)
In the world of Blade, sunlight and fire can ruin a vampire’s day — the latter turning snarky vamp Quinn (Donal Logue) into an extra crispy member of the undead.
While being examined on a slab by medical professionals played by N’Bushe Wright and Tim Guinee, theatergoers soon found themselves white-knuckling their arm rests as Quinn’s blackened corpse lurches back to life and feasts on the nearest jugular he can find. A worthy nominee for the Jump Scare Hall of Fame.
Meet the reaper in Blade II (2002)
The best compliment we can give director Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II is that we wish we made it — especially that terrifying opening scene.
The slow-burn intro to the film’s intense villain, Nomak (Luke Goss), is classic GDT: An amber-colored blood bank in Eastern Europe doubling as a place for vampires to turn unsuspecting donors into CapriSuns. Nomak, clad in a hoodie, wanders in and turns the tables on his captors as a genetically-modified vampire known as a Reaper. Nomak feasts on the staff as his chin splits down the middle to reveal an expanded mandible full of slithering fang-tongues that whip out before the movie cuts to opening titles. It’s a creepy tone-setter that promises a deeper dive into a more frightening, Lovecraftian take on the world of Blade.
The House of Pain sequence in Blade II (2002)
Forced to team up with his enemies — an elite squad of vampires charged with hunting the vampire hunter — Blade infiltrates a vampire den of debauchery while searching for Nomak and his crew of Reapers. And what we see are that which nightmares come from: Vampires flaying the skin on their backs, inflicting sadistic things on fellow immortals who don’t feel much at all. It’s as weird and creepy as it is mesmerizing — and it all goes to hell when the Reapers show up and start slither-climbing up and over the walls. Watch this sequence with the lights on.
Norman Osborne talks to himself in Spider-Man (2002)
If there’s anything better than a hammy/creepy Willem Dafoe talking to his split personality, we don’t wanna know about it.
Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie embraced its comic book movie sensibilities and literally double-downed on villain monologuing as Dafoe’s Norman Osborn fractured id snarls and yells at his less-damaged self in a mirror as he inches closer to becoming the Green Goblin. Honestly, every scene with Goblin gives us a case of the goosebumps, but it’s this early look into his warring psyche that truly leaves a mark.
Doc Ock’s tentacle attack in Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Everything Rami learned from making three Evil Dead movies is on display in Spider-Man 2’s show-stopping sequence that feels more at home in a straight-up horror flick than a comic book movie.
While unconscious on a slab, a surgical team attempts to sever Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) from the metal tentacles fused to his body. But the appendages have other plans. They spring to life, toying with and killing every doctor in the room in PG-13-friendly ways, sure, but the scene nonetheless packs a terrifying punch. From cutting to the tentacles’ POV cams during their killing spree, to making exceptional use of in-camera practical effects, Raimi and his fellow filmmakers’ work here is an all-timer.
The Bat Demon in Batman Begins (2005)
Villain Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) gets a strong dose of his own fear toxin in Christopher Nolan’s landmark Batman Begins, in a scene that makes Batman truly scary for the first time ever on the big screen. Through Crane’s intoxicated POV, Christian Bale’s Dark Knight takes on a demonic visage — eyes and mouth leaking a black ooze as the walking nightmare growls at a petrified Scarecrow. The only thing scarier in Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films is…
Joker’s video interrogation in The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor was well deserved, as his Joker upended Batman and Gotham with a singular chaotic bent. His crime spree claimed many victims, but among his most traumatizing assaults has to be the shakey-cam interrogation (and off-screen murder) of a wannabe vigilante in Batman-ized hockey pads. The almost inhuman way Joker hoarsely bellows “LOOK AT ME!!!” at his victim, shortly before his dizzying video feed cuts out, takes the film dangerously close to Seven-level disturbing. And audiences are left shaken and in a constant state of worry, for their hero has truly met his match.
Hulk vs. Black Widow in The Avengers (2012)
“Your life?!” Hulk growls, just before rampaging after Black Widow through the darkened bowels of the Helicarrier. This scene from The Avengers is underrated among the Marvel blockbuster’s wall-to-wall set pieces. It’s a mini-horror movie hiding in the middle of a Hollywood history-making summer hit, and it’s as tautly executed and chilling as anything you’d find in a Blumhouse film. While subsequent Avengers movies failed to explore this specific aspect of Hulk further, at least we have this monster movie-esque take on the Big Guy to appreciate.
Tony Stark’s PTSD attack in Iron Man 3 (2013)
Iron Man 3 is a direct sequel to Tony Stark’s Avengers arc, further exploring his emotional trauma following his near-death experience during the Battle of New York against Loki’s alien army. It manifests in an intentionally-disorienting scene at a Malibu eatery in broad daylight, as a young boy pesters Stark and, in doing so, triggers his PTSD in a way that evokes ‘80s horror.
Logan’s nightmare in The Wolverine (2013)
James Mangold’s first movie starring Wolverine is an uneven but satisfying summer blockbuster, one unafraid to push the almost-immortal mutant into uncharted emotional territory. The Wolverine explores the psychological toll of Wolverine’s exploits as a member of the X-Men, especially in regards to how he was forced to kill the woman he loves, Jean Grey (Famke Jansen), to save the world. Her ethereal visage appears to him in a dream, which quickly, frighteningly, becomes a bloody nightmare.
Avenger nightmares in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Avengers: Age of Ultron wields the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) as a tool of psychological warfare to plague Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. She literally gets inside their heads and brings their fears and doubts to chilling reality, especially for Tony, Thor, and Natasha.
After Tony glimpses a (no pun intended) endgame concerning his fellow Avengers piled up dead, Thor gets a peek of Asgard’s pending Ragnarok with the help of a blind, white-eye’d Heimdal (Idris Elba). But Black Widow’s vision is the stuff of day terrors, for her past literally comes back to haunt her as she is forced to revisit moments from her assassin training — including a weird faceless little girl and jerky, frame-skipping wheels on a rickety medical gurney. Ultron’s detour into horror movie territory doesn’t quite shake hands with the rest of the film, but it will damage your calm.
Charles Xavier’s murder in Logan (2017)
Logan is the Wolverine movie fans need and deserve. Director James Mangold makes it pathologically impossible for audiences to not be invested in the interior lives of these iconic characters, pushed to their end points, which makes the death of a senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) all the more a gut punch-y moment delivered with horror movie menace.
Thinking his killer is Wolverine and not his evil clone, X-24, Xavier gives a poignant monologue of self-reflection before a jump scare ends his life with the “snikt” of adamantium claws. Blood blossoms from Charles’ chest wounds as his stone-cold killer looks on and X-23 (Dafne Keen) screams as she is taken from the house that is now home to a homicide. The X-Men films have racked up quite the PG-13 body count, but this chilling R-rated death cuts the deepest.
The trench in Aquaman (2018)
It’s no surprise that The Conjuring director James Wan used Aquaman to explore the depths of underwater horror, even if just for a brief scene.
In what is the best, most focused sequence in this bumpy blockbuster, Aquaman (Jason Momoa) dives off a boat into a tumultuous sea to evade The Trench monsters that want to turn him into a Snack Pack. We still get night sweats just thinking about that perfect shot in profile of their flare-lit descent into the dark depths.
Zombie Iron Man in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Thanks to Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s endless supply of illusions and holographic tricks, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man embarks on a trippy tour of his worst fears and insecurities post-Avengers: Endgame. Top on the list of his creepiest encounters? A zombified Iron Man armor stalking toward him like an extra in the "Thriller" music video.
The boardroom slaughter in Shazam! (2019)
Shazam! features one of the scariest scenes in a PG-13, family-friendly DC movie. The Seven Deadly Sins, summoned by Mark Strong’s Sivana, lay waste to the boardroom occupants in the skyscraper owned by Sivana’s father. The scene’s goal was to capture a Spielberg-y, Amblin-esque sense of unease and terror — which was amped up in reshoots to make the scene scarier. Well, it worked.