The terrifying, skin-crawling work of horror writer Stephen King lends itself to dissection. In his novels, short stories, and even his nonfiction pieces, he builds suspense scene by scene, moment by moment, and, often at great length, word by word. As a reader, you're torn apart by the impulse to savor the experience, taking each passage apart carefully and methodically, and the desperate desire to rush to the end. When the adventure is over, only the most visceral moments linger.
The many, many movies adapted from his works operate in a similar way. Even the bad ones -- and, yes, there are more than a few disappointing takes on King out there -- have sequences and images that can be hard to shake, like the sight of a man being murdered by a malfunctioning soda machine in the King-directed killer-truck disaster Maximum Overdrive. With It: Chapter Two floating into theaters this weekend and Doctor Sleep arriving in November, we've compiled a list of some of our absolute favorite spooky King moments, the vivid and wild stuff that really keeps you up at night. Obviously, beware of spoilers (and disturbing material) ahead.
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The moment: Carrie takes a shower in the locker room There are plenty of supernatural horrors to come in Brian De Palma's adaptation of Carrie, but there's something uniquely terrifying about the opening. After all, nothing is scarier than a bunch of teenage girls being genuine assholes. The porny gaze (let's just say it) that first permeates the girls' locker room where Carrie White showers after being humiliated in gym class shatters when Carrie finds blood between her legs. It's her period, but given her upbringing, she doesn't know that. Frantic, she runs to her classmates who immediately turn on her, their smirks morphing to jeers as they lob tampons and maxi pads her way. We're embedding the safe-for-TV cut, which frankly doesn't have the same power. It's not just the luridness that makes the moment so striking, it's the vulnerability of Carrie's nudity that's exploited when the other women start their taunts. -- Esther Zuckerman
The Shining (1980)
The moment: Wendy reads the manuscript So many terrifying, gross, and bonkers things happen in The Shining that it's tricky to pick just one. The old bathtub woman reveal is certainly up there. Dick's gruesome death is another big one. You wouldn't be wrong to go with one of the "REDRUM" bits. But I'm going with the scene that disturbs me the most often. After finally deciding that Jack is probably crazy, Wendy sets off with a baseball bat to confront him and learns that he is actually, literally insane when she decides to take a peek at the manuscript he's been working on. With increasing terror, she discovers that Jack's entire novel consists only of a single sentence repeated countless times and with different formatting: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." The thing is: That sentence is pretty good and it's actually true! So maybe Wendy is the insane one, and that's my Room 237 theory. -- John Sellers
The moment:The car puts itself back together There is no love stronger than that between a dude and his car, especially if the car is also in possession of some kind of dark, obsessive sentience that causes it (her) to attach herself to her human for the rest of her unnatural life. The relationship between man and machine is so tense and electrifying that it's definitely kind of… sexy? Just watch the scene where, after being smashed to bits by a group of town bullies, poor dented Christine, at human boy Arnie's (Keith Gordon) command, slowly repairs herself, flattening out every ding and stretching out every bit of chrome and slick red paint. John Carpenter even slapped a sultry saxophone line over all of it to remind you that, yes, this is supposed to make you a teeny tiny bit horny. He got the effect by loading one of the Christine cars (there were 17 made just for the movie) with hydraulic clamps that would crumple the metal, filming that upside-down, and then playing it back in reverse. While not particularly scary, it's surely memorable, the kind of scene that sticks with you even if you don't remember the rest of the movie that well. -- Emma Stefansky
Pet Sematary (1989)
The moment:Zelda comes back to haunt her sister Director Mary Lambert's version of Pet Sematary, one of King's most physically grueling and emotional devastating '80s novels, is a curious study in tone, with some scenes nailing the dark psychology of the text and others veering into outright kitsch. It's perhaps inevitable when you're dealing with a story about a doctor, Dale Midkiff's Louis Creed, who moves into a Maine house with a burial ground capable of raising the dead in its backyard. (That cheesy-yet-sinister tension is captured in the fun theme song by the Ramones, one of King's favorite bands.) But one plot element, the childhood death of Louis's wife's bedridden sister Zelda and her subsequent return later in the movie, stands on its own as a uniquely unsettling piece of horror filmmaking. By casting the adult male actor Andrew Hubatsek to play a young sickly girl and filming the flashback with gauzy lighting, Lambert gives the Zelda scenes a surreal quality, which grows even more intense when Zelda reappears in the present, shouting "never get out of bed" as she zooms towards the camera. Terrifying. -- Dan Jackson
The moment:Annie swings her sledgehammer Listen, sometimes the most famous scene in a movie is the best scene. When Kathy Bates's super-fan caretaker Annie Wilkes straps James Caan's injured novelist Paul Sheldon to his bed, explains the "hobbling" procedure from the "early days of the Kimberley Diamond Mines," and proceeds to slam his ankles with a sledgehammer, it's hard not to cry out in pain. To use a cliché, Misery did for sledgehammers what Psycho did for knives. But what makes the scene so effective is the way Bates plays it, never dropping her calm and caring bedside manner as she commits her gruesome, violent act. There's no winking villainy on display here; she truly believes she's doing the right thing. Oddly enough, the scene is even more brutal in King's book, which features Annie chopping off Paul's foot and cauterizing the wound with a propane torch. According to screenwriter William Goldman, director Rob Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman were too squeamish to go through with King's bloodier version and came up with the hobbling as a middle ground. Still, not a fun way to wake up. -- DJ
The Mist (2007)
The moment: David uses up all his bullets After helming two more outwardly prestigious King adaptations, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption and 1999's The Green Mile, filmmaker Frank Darabont returned to his horror roots with this unnerving Twilight Zone-like parable about a small Maine town besieged by a creepy fog. Community members, like Thomas Jane's everyman painter David and Marcia Gay Harden's evangelical zealot, take refuge in a supermarket, where they start feuding with each other as unknowable Lovecraft-ian monsters gather outside. On a thematic, narrative, and visual level, it's one of the sturdiest King adaptations out there, elegantly building on a simple-yet-heavy premise. But, really, most people remember it for the total gut-punch of an ending where David kills the remaining survivors, including his own son, in a car to save them from being devoured by the creature they assume is closing in on them. With no bullets left, David gets out of the vehicle and screams "come on" at the void, hoping to be slaughtered and put out of his misery. Then, through the clouds, the military emerges. If he had only waited a few minutes, they would have all lived. It's just an all-time bummer ending, a bleak vision that only works because of Jane's completely committed portrayal of unfathomable grief. -- DJ
It Chapter One (2017)
The moment:Pennywise comes out of the projector I'm not a big screamer at horror movies, having learned how to prepare myself when I can tell a particular jump scare is coming, but I truly yelped in the theater when giant Pennywise suddenly leers out of the projector screen, gnashing his giant teeth at the shrieking Losers. The setup works so well: The kids are gathered around an old-timey projector studying Derry's sewer waterways, when the machine suddenly starts flipping slides on its own, showing the children home pictures of Bill Denbrough and his parents and little brother. It suddenly zooms in on an image of Bill's mother, and as her hair blows back from her face it turns into the clown's ugly mug, which is frightening enough. Then the lights start flickering (oh boy) and the projector stops (oh no) and Pennywise is suddenly RIGHT THERE IN THE GARAGE, CRAWLING ON HIS HANDS TOWARD EVERYONE. Not since Bilbo Baggins snarled at Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring have I seen anything that horrifying. -- ES