When it comes to one of the most paramount elements that has the ability to threaten every kind of person with polarizing fear, it’s being trapped underwater. There’s something about being subjected to the depths that makes everything much more scary. The deprivation of the senses and the lingering wonder of the unknown makes bodies of water one of horror’s most staple of settings for natural, and unnatural, terror. From the slow suffocation due to drowning to the dangerous creatures that lurk beneath, water is a unique source of both life… and death.
Filmmakers have applied the appeal of water to enhance the beauty of their scenes and to add a layer of menace, resulting in tremendous sequences that make for deeply creepy journeys. The Top 10 Scariest Underwater Sequences in Horror take the simple physicality of water and turn it into a major factor of dark force and, at times, the very veil used to disguise more nefarious beings. Jump right in, but tread carefully.
10. Shocked To Life in Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
This particular scene is scary for two reasons: one being that it shows the reanimation of one of horror’s most vicious villains, Jason Voorhees, of Rob Heden’s Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and two being that it is completely impossible. It’s one of the series’ more outlandish moments, but one that borders entertainment and, dare I say, underwater creativity? As Jason floats dormant in chains at the bottom of Camp Crystal Lake, one swift fall of an anchor zaps him back to brutal, bloody life which ignites one of the most inventive narrative installments. The live wire energizing Jason Voorhees from his water grave is pretty far-fetched, but its a pretty cool sequence as we watch one of our favorite slashers come back, reason be damned. Yes, most of the genre is impossible, but it’s scary to think that would be a logical part of the narrative, but it is and it only works to Friday The 13th’s quirky, kooky camp.
9. An Afternoon Dip in Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)
Underwater scenes don’t have to take the point-of-view of the characters under the surface of the water right? Maybe so, but one of the scariest scenes of John D. Hancock’s (Bang The Drum Slowly) psychological horror, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, is a noteworthy moment worth mentioning whenever any kind of cinematic water activity is discussed. As Jessica stands in the middle of a secluded lake and tension somehow fills a completely open space, in the middle of broad daylight, she notices something wading just below the surface. The body of a red-headed woman emerges slowly, which might not seem like the most climactic action, but the visuals and the slow, ominous intensity make it one spooky underwater bit. It is a beautifully haunting sequence that elevates the slow-burning grip that casual grows within its heavy tone. Is her mind playing tricks on her or was someone really there?
8. Full Belly in Anaconda (1997)
What’s worse than being submerged in water with no escape? Being submerged in water inside the stomach of a giant anaconda. There are a lot of gross-out scenes in Luis Lloa’s (The Specialist) modern creature feature, Anaconda, but the aftermath of sound technician Gary Dixon’s death is one of the worst. When the snake attacks the small documentary crew all hell breaks loose and Gary finds himself crushed to death by the anaconda, dragged into the water in its coil (still alive) and subsequently, swallowed whole to be slowly digested. Gross, yes, but it’s what they do. All of that happens above the surface and the snake retreats back underwater with his meal in tow. The scene that is so striking and appropriately grotesque is quick and almost unnoticeable, but it packs a punch if viewers are paying attention. The anaconda later glides below the boat with its long body stretched out to show the outline of Gary’s (hopefully deceased) body, face and all, inside its stomach. The short sequence is scary and just… ick.
7. Upturned in Hades in Antrum (2018)
Debut directors David Amito and Michael Laicini’s mock-cursed film Antrum initially carries a lot of intrigue as it is marketed as a mockumentary spliced with the actual subjective cursed film at its core. As Oralee and Nathan go on a mission to rescue the family dog’s soul from hell by completing sets of rituals out in the woods, it’s obvious that something more sinister is at play. After Nathan watches a naked woman being towed out into the darkness by a man believed to be the ferryman of Hades, the eerie tone is amplified and the lake is one place you hope the siblings avoid for the duration of the film. Unfortunately, in order to escape a couple of dangerous men, Oralee and Nathan find themselves in a boat on the lake making their way to shore. Of course they fall in and a dramatic underwater sequence of panic spans only a few minutes of what feels like eternity. Perspective plays a tremendous part in the scene as the entire sequence is disorienting and daunting, especially following Antrum’s initially grim content.
6. Swallowed Whole in Underwater (2020)
William Eubank’s (The Signal) sci-fi blockbuster, Underwater, can’t be ignored when it comes to horror happening below land because, obviously, every scene occurs underwater. The film has a lot of incredibly beautiful sequences, many playing on the vast space of the ocean where any kind of monster can hide. Each scene highlighting the darkness and nothingness of the ocean floor is worth mentioning, but it’s Price’s face-off with the mysterious monsters keeping her from entering a doorway to safety that really catches viewer attention. Between the depth of both brilliant color and sound, one of the scariest scenes sees Price being swallowed whole, protective suit and all, by one of the creatures. There are no cut-aways and the fight intensifies as you see the creature’s innards through Price’s helmet. While it’s usually an act stopped before it’s too late or too gross, Underwater lets it ride out in full effect. It’s engaging and really layers onto the deaths that often happened offscreen throughout the film. Price makes it out in one piece, so to speak, but that does not diminish the ick-factor of being partially eaten alive.
5. Revenge Best Served Wet in What Lies Beneath (2000)
Watching revenge play out on the screen feels good, that doesn’t mean it won’t be scary. Robert Zemeckis’ (Back To The Future) domestic ghost story, What Lies Beneath, is an underrated gem in its concept and application. The ghost of Dr. Norman Spencer’s infidelity has taken up residence in his home and disturbs his wife, Claire, on a daily basis. However, once the truth is revealed and Norman is seen for the man he really is, a slow watery conflict ensues. Norman traps Claire in the car that has been submerged in the lake, with the body of his mistress rising to the occasion from her hidden grave below. As the young woman’s corpse floats upward and starts to look at the face of her killer, it’s one of the scariest moments in the film and quite possibly one of the best of the horror genre released in the early millennium. The slow degradation of her body during her underwater vengeance and reversal once it is complete only add to the ending’s eerie revelation.
4. Death By Smart Shark in Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Renny Harlin’s (A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) sci-fi horror Deep Blue Sea is a lot of things and realistic is not exactly one of them. However, the genre leaves plenty of room for joy in unconventional events and Dr. Jim Whitlock’s death is one of them. After being dropped into the ocean from an emergency helicopter airlifting him to safety as his arms was torn off from a shark bite, an immediately ill fate is expected until his team in the underwater research facility watch on in horror as a shark swims their way. The poor doctor, still locked in a stretcher, is trapped in between the shark’s mouth and very much alive. It’s a dreadful minute as the super-intelligent shark drives itself toward the structure with Dr. Whitlock unable to do anything. Luckily it’s not too long after that he is shot into the enormous window (still alive) and is eventually killed from the water’s pressure on the glass which causes it to cave in. It is a pretty harsh sequence and always a brutal experience.
3. The Tourist Buffet in Piranha 3D (2010)
Sometimes the level of seriousness of a film does not determine its level of horror and directors Alexandre Aja (Crawl) and John Gulager’s (Feast) Piranha 3D is a prime example. While it’s a campy dark comedy for the most part, the moments of gore and carnage are excruciating and bloody in all the right ways. There are a couple of creative kills along the way, but the film’s best, and scariest, underwater sequence comes when the hungry fish make their way to a lake filled to the brim with delicious partying tourists. Above and below the water ensues a literal blood bath as people are devoured alive and the fish make a feast out of the unsuspecting humans trapped in the water. The fish’s relentless attack is captured below the floats and structures as they drag tourist after tourist into the water to feed on. While the piranhas themselves might bear the burden of heavy, but necessary, CGI, the effects are wildly heinous and grossly revolting.
2. The Ballroom Below in Inferno (1980)
This is a personal opinion here, but the underwater scene in Dario Argento’s follow up to Suspiria, Inferno, is one of the most unnerving scenes in the genre. Poet Rose happens across some mysterious writings which guide her to the cellar of her apartment building where a small hole in the floor leads to a ballroom… completely filled with water. Rose drops her keys in the water, because of course she does, and dives in to fetch them. Seeing the furniture and decor of the ballroom submerged underwater as she tries to navigate her way around the murky space heightens the claustrophobic feel and dreadful essence of the scene. The emergence of a rotten corpse really only provides a break of relief as Rose struggles to escape back to the surface. The entire sequence is surreal and dreamy but suspended in this horrific element of suffocation that has viewers holding their breath from start to finish.
1. “That’s Ben Gardner’s Boat…” in Jaws (1975)
One of the more interesting aspects about Steven Spielberg’s (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) legendary aquatic adventure, Jaws, is that most of the action takes place above the water. Happy accidents and corner-cutting have all contributed to the unique absence of one of horror’s most notorious underwater monsters. Relying on alternative means of fright, much is done to allude to the shark’s danger over outwardly showing it. The starling scene following Chief Brody and Matt Hooper’s discovery of local fisherman Ben Gardner’s boat is one of the scariest scenes in cinema. As Hooper combs the wreckage of the sunken boat late at night and the delicate build of wonder and terror builds, the biting reveal of Gardner’s head is a tremendous sting that still hits audience nerves. It would be poor to ignore the opening shark point of view set to John Williams’ brilliant score. Since I’m the mayor of the list, I’ll do what I want, so I will make this a two-for-the-price-of-one declaration and include it anyways. That mysterious, whimsical, predatory sequence is cinema at its finest and still channels fear in swimmers every summer season. Da-dum… da-dum…
What is your favorite underwater scene in horror? Which one of these sequences do you think is the scariest? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!