Dream sequences and Horror movies go together like an offering of cookies and milk to dear ol’ Saint Nick. Dream sequences convey atmosphere, foreboding, tone, and aesthetic all with a few disorienting and ambiguous visuals that catapult our protagonists down their own version of Alice’s rabbit hole.
When done right, dream sequences are illuminating, terrifying, and offer some of the most memorable moments in film. This is especially true of horror – the power of dreams, of subliminal fear breaking to the surface – can lead to some truly shocking and powerful moments. Here are a few of our favorite picks for absolutely terrifying and unsettling dream sequences in film.
Warning: Spoilers abound!
10. Carrie (1976)
One of the most terrifying movie scenes of my childhood. After the dust has all settled in Carrie, we are left with poor Sue Snell (Amy Irving) returning to the plot of land that used to be Carrie‘s (Sissy Spacek’s) home. Everything about the scene seems normal from the get-go, and there is no indication that anything is amiss. Slowly, however, the strangeness starts to add up.
Sue moves almost like she’s floating, and she looks like she’s wearing a wedding dress. The camera moves seemingly at random, and is shot through an almost foggy filter. And then there’s THAT moment:
When Sue kneels to place flowers on the site of the former White home (the “For Sale” sign ominously vandalized with a spray-painted “Carrie White burns in Hell!“) a bloody arm shoots out of the ground and grabs hold of Sue. As she screams and tries to break free, she is awoken from her nightmare.
Sue will never shake the guilt and fear over what happened to Carrie. And audiences will need to go change their shorts.
9. The Fly (1986)
The Fly is really a remarkable work of film. Director David Cronenberg is out in full force, bringing his gross-out body horror to an all-star cast and terrifying concept. The film won an Oscar for its amazing make-up work, which would practically be unheard of in 1980s horror. The Fly has some of the ickiest scenes in nostalgic horror, but few can touch the nasty dream sequence where Ronnie (Geena Davis) gives birth.
Fun fact: that’s director David Cronenberg as the doctor delivering Ronnie‘s “baby.” Even knowing 100 percent what’s coming, this sequence in The Fly is still wonderfully effective – horror is at its best when it gets a visual response from the audience, and Geena Davis giving birth to a gigantic maggot never fails in the regard.
8. Aliens (1986)
Now that it’s so ingrained in our pop-culture history, it can be tough to realize just how shocking and disgusting the chestburster scene in the original Alien film really is. Obviously, director James Cameron would need to try to raise the stakes with his sequel, 1986’s Aliens. And what better way to do it than by killing off the main character?
Ripley‘s (Sigourney Weaver’s) dream in Aliens is shot with Cameron’s remarkable eye and timing – if it lasted any longer, you might start to suspect that it’s a trick. Instead, the audience completely goes along with it: they truly believe that Ripley is going to suffer through the same shocking death that we saw Kane (John Hurt) go through in Alien. Even when the sequence ends and we realize that it was only a nightmare, that sense of unease pervades the entire remainder of the film.
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7. The ‘Burbs (1989)
The ‘Burbs is an incredibly weird film and – like Carrie – it features one of those “burned in your memory” dream sequences that haunted my childhood. As Ray (Tom Hanks) starts to get more and more paranoid that his neighbors are up to no good, the audience’s sense of paranoia grows along with it. This paranoia is what makes the Ray‘s nightmare in The ‘Burbs work so well.
We’ve been waiting through the film’s entire runtime for Ray to be right, so when he goes to investigate the strange noises coming from downstairs, we feel like this might finally be his vindication. We realize it’s a dream sequence fairly quickly, but it still gives us one of the most memorable images from The ‘Burbs: Tom Hanks in his pajamas, chained down to an over-sized grill. Freaky.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Another James Cameron film – guess he sure knew how to direct a good dream sequence. Although Terminator 2 is not a horror film, Cameron has always had a good idea of when scaring his audience was a good idea. And it’s tough to look back on Terminator 2 and not remember Sarah Conner‘s (Linda Hamilton’s) nightmare about the apocalypse.
After Sarah and her son John (Edward Furlong) flee to Mexico to hopefully escape the threat of Skynet, she has a change of heart after experiencing an absolutely horrifying nightmare. She watches children playing games, frolicking on a playground, and loving their lives. She watches through a chain link fence, leaning forward and practically drinking in their joy. Then she sees a flash of light in the distance.
It isn’t long until we realize that she has seen a nuclear explosion in the distance, and the wave of destruction disintegrates the children she is watching before frying her as well. The image of her skin papering off in the shockwave as her fingers still grasp the fence is still a brutal and effective piece of filmmaking, and it’s fitting that it causes Sarah to change her mind and attempt to prevent Judgment Day.
5. Pet Sematary (1989)
Poor spelling aside, Pet Sematary still holds up remarkably well. It’s full of horrific scenes and imagery, as well as one of the most physically painful to watch death scenes ever put to film – I’m a grown-ass man and I still find myself getting into bed without getting my feet too close to the frame on occasion.
For me, however, the image Pet Sematary most successfully burned into my brain is that of Zelda. Played by Andrew Hubatsek, Zelda has two memorable scenes in the film. The first is rough, where she chokes down the gruel her sister is feeding her. But then comes that awful nightmare.
You either remember this scene vividly, or you’ve never seen it: Rachel (Denise Crosby) climbing the stairs, only to hear her name being called. She opens the bedroom door and sees Zelda huddled in the corner. Without warning, she rushes the camera, shoving her face right up to it and screaming: “You’ll never get out of bed again!” Seriously, that scene is pure nightmare fuel.
4. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
You could essentially put the entirety of Jacob’s Ladder on this list – it plays out as one gigantic fever dream. Director Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror classic does a terrific job of keeping the audience off-balance, and you never quite know if you’re seeing reality, dreams, or somewhere in between.
Much of what works in Jacob’s Ladder is the fear of the unknown. Information is deliberately withheld, horrors are just barely off camera, and we are constantly questioning what is going on. The nightmarish dance/party scene in particular stands out. Jacob (Tim Robbins) seems to be enjoying himself at first, people watching and letting loose a bit. Like they usually do in this film, things quickly start to fall apart.
He sees Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), living it up on the dance floor. But something isn’t right. The quick cuts start to get more and more outrageous, and he begins to see… something on the dance floor with Jezzie. As the scene intensifies and Jacob starts getting better looks at whatever is dancing with her, the audience begins to get even more repulsed by it. Like so much in Jacob’s Ladder, we want to see more – but we probably don’t.
3. Trainspotting (1996)
Oh God. That damn baby on the ceiling.
There are those that would argue that Trainspotting is not a horror film. They have not actually watched Trainspotting. Danny Boyle’s masterpiece is one of the scariest, most unsettling films of the ’90s. It captures all the highs (sorry) and lows of a heroin addict, all captured by Ewan McGregor’s turn as Renton. Ask anyone about Trainspotting, and they’ll probably remember the detox scene.
Whether it’s actually a “nightmare” is a decent debate, but the images Renton encounters as he goes through his heroin withdrawals, locked in his old childhood room – these are some seriously messed up images. Few strike a chord quite as much as the baby doll crawling across the ceiling, then rotating its head – Exorcist style – to lock eyes with the screaming junkie.
2. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
When most people recall images from the best werewolf flick ever made, they think of a few different lasting images. The transformation scene is absolutely amazing and, even watching it today, it remains one of those “movie magic” scenes that can make even the most jaded cinephile ask “How did they do that?” The gradually deteriorating Jack (Griffin Dunne) appearing to his friend David (David Naughton) as a ghost is also pretty classic.
Do you remember the dream from An American Werewolf in London? It’s seriously messed up.
David is sitting at home, watching television, when a knock echoes through the house. When the door opens, creatures that can only be described as Nazi demons ransack the house, butchering his whole family and slitting his throat. And then he wakes up in the hospital.
The scene is shocking, but that wouldn’t be enough to put it here. However, director John Landis pulls the old “double dream” trick. When David wakes up in the hospital, he starts flirting with the sexy nurse who is keeping an eye on him. She goes to the curtain, and the same Nazi demons jump out from behind it, again killing everyone in their path. When he wakes up for real, it leaves us (and him) even more disoriented, trying to figure out what exactly is real.
1. Dumbo (1941)
The less said about this scene the better. Old school Disney movies knew how to freak out children – Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty both did it, too – and Dumbo getting drunk and hallucinating the Pink Elephant Parade is absolutely terrifying.
It has some beautiful animation. But… nope. Still can’t do it. I hate those ghostly, stretched-out elephant faces.
What are your favorites?
We know that all our NOFS family members have more Dumbo dreams than visions of sugarplums during the holiday season. There were a lot we had to leave off the list: The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby… hell, we probably could have made an entire list out of Freddy Krueger‘s kills in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.