120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 2: Violations
It’s the most uncomfortable type of horror scene, but if done correctly, can pack a gut punch. The violation scene is the moment when the character’s vulnerability is betrayed and our empathy immerses us deeper into their dreadful ordeal. The young child possessed by an evil spirit. The unlucky bystander assaulted in a tunnel. The crazed woman submitting to a creature of non-human origin. The violation scene can be emotional or it can be exploitative, but it’s almost always guaranteed to get us talking.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)- Cesare abducting Jane
Even though it was one of the originators of German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often regarded as the pinnacle for the movement. Two of the movement’s basic tenets were distorted lines and shapes and overly theatrical movements from the actors, and both are well on display in this creepy scene. The scene begins with a deep focus wide shot of Jane peacefully sleeping in the foreground with her large, unsettling room windows in the background. We cut to an alley outside of her home, where Cesare the Somnambulist lurks in the shadows towards Jane’s room, after Dr. Caligari has instructed him to kill her.
The Expressionist set design is more than apparent in Jane’s room and the alleyway – as it is throughout the film’s entirety – but what makes this scene stand out is Conrad Veidt’s lithe performance as the ghostly Cesare. Sticking closely to the alley wall like a serpent, Veidt extends his right arm all the way up, keeps a dagger close in his left hand, and slinks his way toward the stairs leading up to Jane’s room. Getting to the room, he slowly rises up and peers inside, identifying the sleeping Jane. Entering the room, he stiffly walks forward to Jane’s bed, a stark contrast from how he arrived at her window.
Just as Cesare raises his dagger to kill Jane, he stops himself, perhaps struck by Jane’s beauty. When he goes in to touch her (with a creepy smile on his face no less), Jane awakes startled and scared, writhing in terror in a medium close-up. A scene that began with mostly long takes becomes more frantically edited as Cesare carries Jane from her room into the distant city. Between the ominous set design, low-key lighting, and especially Veidt’s balancing of theatrical and minimal physicality, this remains one of the creepier scenes from horror cinema history. (William Penix)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)- A taste of his own medicine
There is no way in making a violation scene feel justified. The mere concept of a character being forced against their own free will is horrific enough by just thinking about it. Using this technique as a horror staple has been effective, simply because its emotions are usually wrapped around the innocent. A young girl embodied by a demon in The Exorcist. A woman brutally beaten and raped by a pimp in Irreversible. A whole town consumed and brainwashed by unknown aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Our emotions run wild because there is nothing more terrifying than violence acted out on the helpless. An exception to this rule comes from Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, particularly in the famous violation scene where Alex is imprisoned and therapists perform the “Ludovico” technique on him.
Strapped into a chair with his eyes pride open and conditioned to associate visuals of grotesque violence with the audio queue of his beloved Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it’s hard not to feel that this sadistic rapist is getting a dose of his own medicine. Yet Kubrick does the impossible by inviting us to sympathize with our antagonist. Marketed as “…a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven,” there is something surprisingly tender knowing that our principal character is being stripped away from his only guiltless virtue: love of classical music.
Sure, the catch is that a violent beast is being tamed and assimilated into society, but the film still plays on the audience’s compassion for freewill. Although brief, we get a realization that an utterly distinct individual is sheepishly becoming a number in the crowd. That’s the brilliance of the violation scene in Clockwork. Despite what we think of as a villain, our expectations are turned upside down and against the grain. Luckily it’s only for a brief moment. Once the ending scene unravels, and Alex proclaims “I was cured all right”–after having vivid thoughts of himself raping a woman in the snow–our conscience becomes cleared and the stripping of his free will seems just once again. That’s the magic of Kubrick. He’s always keeping us on our toes. (Christopher Clemente)
Demon Seed (1977)- Mecha-molestation
An artificial intelligence called Proteus (voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn) goes rogue and sets its sights on its creator’s wife, Susan (Julie Christie), in Donald Cammell’s adaptation of the Dean R. Koontz novel. Once it takes over her house and isolates her, the A.I.’s obsession becomes all the more disturbing by its desire to use her to create a child. It’s an unsettling premise to be sure, but no scene in the film is more disconcerting than when Susan submits to impregnation in what can best be described as a semi-psychedelic, mechanical rape scene. As one might expect from an American studio film from the 1970s, the scene is not graphic. That doesn’t make seeing Susan’s legs parted by a mechanical arm and implicitly probed by what is obviously a metallic penis any more pleasant.
A character becoming the parent of an evil entity was at the core of the demonic horror film boom of the late ’60s early ’70s (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and Richard Donner’s The Omen to name a few). Demon Seed applied the concept of penetrating evil to the malevolent artificial intelligence of science fiction, melding two very high concept fears. Proteus certainly deserves mention alongside more high-profile entities like H.A.L. 9000. If nothing else, he’s responsible for one of the most unusual and underrated murder scenes in horror film history: Gerrit Graham’s character meeting a deadly-and unexpectedly mobile-mechanical incarnation of Proteus when he attempts to break into the house controlled by the A.I. (Terek Puckett)
The Entity (1982)- Bedroom intruder
In a way, all haunted house movies represent a violation–that of the spirit world into our safest places. But what happens when the phantasm takes things a step further? What if it doesn’t want your home…but your body? Sexual violation has long been a common trope in literature, but it had seldom been shown on screen and never so graphically or to such chilling effect as in The Entity. The film opens with banal shots of single mother Carla Moran (a credible Barbara Hershey) wrapping up a hectic day at the office and returning home after dark, where she checks on her sleeping kids. As she prepares for bed, something, without warning, smacks her across the face hard enough to draw blood. Whatever it is then hurls Carla onto her bed and forces a pillow over her face, preventing her from breaking free. The bed’s rhythmic shaking conveys the horrifying truth: the phantom visitor is raping Carla. The savagery is accompanied by an unexpected but curiously effective percussive pounding in the score that will become the unseen demon’s leitmotif. While the film has plenty of shocks in store, the initial assault happens so early in the film and with such force amidst routine activity that it catches the audience off guard. Carla has no clue what to tell her children, who are awakened by her screams. She pleads with her teenage son to check the room for an intruder she knows must be there. Whether the attack will prove to be the result of Carla’s imagination or a genuine poltergeist, the film’s first jolt is enough to make a believer out of the staunchest skeptic. (M. Robert Grunwald)
The Exorcist (1973)– How not to use a crucifix
Few horror films are as powerful as William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece. Even fewer remain as haunting 40 years later. Chris Macneil (Ellen Burstyn) doesn’t recognize her sweet daughter anymore. Regan’s (Linda Blair) odd behavior is initially blamed on brain lesions, but even renowned doctors can’t explain what’s wrong. Chris’ darker fears are confirmed by the Catholic Church: young Regan is possessed by an unholy demon. To say her violation by the hands of her inhibitor is vulgar is quite understated. Friedkin played on quite a few social mores when he took the young, pure Linda Blair and turned her into a demon’s plaything. Most unforgettable is her “masturbation” by crucifix and her taunting of her horrified mother by pushing her face into her bloody crotch. Regan’s suffering is twofold: the corruption of her pubescent body and the corruption of her innocent soul. The foreign invasion borders on unbearable for the audience, and even more so for Chris, who feels complicit in the violator’s actions because of her inability to make a decision earlier in the film. When the wretched ordeal is finally over, and Regan is released from her possessor, the catharsis feels earned. It is not enough to simply be scared by a horror film, the audience must feel, and Friedkin made something profoundly moving. (Colin Biggs)
Galaxy of Terror (1981) – No more happy days
Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror was one of the last productions from producer Roger Corman’s New World and is sadly an underappreciated gem. Amid the host of films released attempting to exploit the success of Alien (1979), Galaxy of Terror is one of the more interesting ones because it also acts as a precursor to later day sci-fi horror (Event Horizon, for example). The film follows a lone spaceship which crash-lands on the planet Morganthus during a rescue mission. As the crew explores their options for survival, each one of them is killed in bizarre situations manifested from their own fears and imagination.
There are several standout moments to be found in this underrated cult classic, including one in which actor Sid Haig has a shard of metal plunged through his body, forcing him to cut off his own arm. If Galaxy of Terror is remembered for anything, it is for the scene in which Taaffe O’Connell’s Dameia gets physically assaulted then murdered by an oversized libidinous space maggot. Moran’s happy days come to an end in a suitably sickening manner, one which the MPAA wasn’t too happy about it. Nicknamed Maggie the Maggot, this monstrous creation was originally meant to consume Dameia whole, but Bruce D. Clark was forced to tone down the violence in order to ensure a rating. Several frames from the infamous worm rape scene showing the creature’s thrusting movements and the victim’s face in ecstasy were cut out along with some bone-crushing sound effects. Legend has it that the actress was nearly crushed by the one-ton giant worm during filming (Fun fact: Unit Director James Cameron got maggots to wriggle on a severed arm by passing an electric current through it, impressing a couple of producers and earning him his first directorial gig). The creature effects are pretty awesome given the skimpy budget, as are the sumptuous synchronized score by Barry Schrader and the stylish cinematography by Jacques Haitkin. Make no mistake; this film is well worth seeing. (Ricky D)
The Innocents (1960)- Ms. Giddens frees Miles
Repression can be a great impetus for classical and contemporary horror. Desire can only be seated so deep before it manifests itself in new and terrifying ways. Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is the basis for Jack Clayton’s understated tale of terror, adapted by Truman Capote no less, which finds the matronly Ms. Giddens (Deborah Kerr in a brilliantly tense performance) taking over as governess for the Bry estate. At the film’s end, Ms. Giddens is determined to reveal the true nature of Miles (Martin Stephens, whose oversized features make him look like a miniature adult). Has he been possessed by the estate’s deceased caretaker, Peter Quint? Or is he simply a mischievous scamp who has matured way too quickly? It’s a lethal conundrum for her, whose devout demeanor demands that she help a person “even if it hurts them.” Freddie Francis’ moody black and white cinematography bathes the estate in deep shadow at night but also an earthy glow. Giddens, with her wide-eyed visage, is so convinced of her righteousness that she forgets that she is deliriously abusing a child. “Say his name!” she cries before he collapses. Did the evil caretaker’s spirit leave his body or did the poor boy die of fright? It matters little to the governess, who gives the child a firm kiss on the lips, as if to say goodbye to childhood innocence, lost forever to the lurid manipulations and misunderstandings of adults. (Shane Ramirez)
Irreversible (2002)- Tunnel of Hell
A woman has a fight with her boyfriend. She storms out of the club and into the street. To get home safer, she avoids the busy roadway and takes the underpass. A man harassing a prostitute approaches her with a knife. She tries to flee but is unable to. Then the most unimaginable horror visits her. That’s all you need to know about the most infamous rape scene in cinema history. But enfant terrible Gasper Noe’s bold non-linear experiment refuses to work on one level. Shock, revulsion, even titillation, it’s all there in an unbroken nine minute shot. Actress Monica Bellucci gives the performance of her career portraying Alex, the woman who seems almost predestined to end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Surrounded by red walls no less and with no one to rescue her (save a bystander who passes in the background), this is one of the most Earthly visions of Hell on celluloid, a reminder that for all of cinema’s monsters, no beast can surpass the cruelty of man. (Shane Ramirez)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)- A lover scorned
David Lynch’s iconic Mulholland Dr. is many things: puzzle box, neo-noir, horror, romance. It’s when those latter two genres collide that the film ascends to masterpiece. Often perceived as Lynch’s “double film” or “persona film,” with mirror images and doppelgängers throughout, there is duality even to its depiction of sex.
The first encounter between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring is passionate, the culmination of sexual and romantic tension between them. Writer Lauren Carroll Harris notes that the relationship between Watts and Harring is “straightforwardly adoring,” and true, there is a tenderness about this scene that’s unique in comparison to the unbridled passion of Lynch’s Wild at Heart or the reticent disgust of his Blue Velvet.
It’s the second scene that matters though, after the identity switch of Watts and Harring’s characters (now Diane and Camilla, respectively). What was once tender is now salaciously sexy, even in a lascivious sense. There’s force and aggression here that wasn’t present before. Diane gets on top of Camilla, who lies on the couch submissively with a “come hither” look on her face. As Diane leans in for a second kiss, Camilla says, “We shouldn’t be doing this anymore.” Rage starts to wash over Diane’s face as she lets her hand wander forcibly between Camilla’s legs, and we come to understand how heartbroken, jilted, and alone she really is.
The first two hours of the film have just been a fantasy where Diane is the naïve Betty and Camilla is the amnesia-suffering Rita, and the two fall in love. This poisoned love letter to Hollywood, and maybe life in general, has an astute understanding of the masochism involved in being unable and unwilling to get over the one who got away. Heartbreak underlines every movement, frame, and sound. (Kyle Turner)
Possession (1981)- Subway seizure
For many audiences, there is nothing less scary than trying to justify the narrative of a horror movie by contextualizing it. Its why the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels are unsuccessful due to their gradual explanation of Leatherface, defueling the scares as well as any interest. Yet one of the most frighteningly surreal sequences in European horror cinema is one that is actually contextualized. Director Andrzej Żuławski wrote this arthouse suspense drama in the wake of a “messy divorce,” effectively casting Isabelle Adjani as Anna, the surrogate for his own ex-wife. Anna appears to be having a nervous breakdown as well as a burgeoning, sexually-active relationship with a tentacle monster.
In the movie’s stand-out sequence in the Berlin subway, Anna’s violent and sudden miscarriage is instead played like a demon is trying to seize control of her body. A violation of the human body is made starkly literal, almost entirely divorced from the raw pain and emotion that any other film would ground this scene in. Adjani gives one of the most terrifying performances in any horror movie, justifying her Cannes Film Festival Best Actress win. In three uninterrupted minutes, she goes from laughing to covering herself in milk to rolling around on the dirty ground and screaming. It would be hysterical were it not so terrifying. The threat of an otherworldly entity is ever-present in Possession, undercutting any pretensions the film has towards being taken seriously as a domestic drama. The subway represents the point of no return; the moment when it becomes obvious that Possession isn’t going to offer simple human tragedy. (Alistair Ryder)
Possession (1981)- To love a tentacle monster
Offering a synopsis of Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror-drama Possession is much easier said than done, primarily due to the fact that it plays its cards extremely close to the vest for a surprisingly long time. In essence, the film follows the marital hellhole Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) have found themselves in. Mark is a spy working for the West and has just returned from a secretive mission, an assignment way easier than trying to repair a broken marriage. He and Anna’s volatile relationship lapses into hysterics on the regular. Their tenuous exchanges and the tension this wreaks on their lives outside of the home dominates the first half of the picture until it is revealed that Anna has a second apartment elsewhere in West Berlin…where she is nursing a slimy, bloody, nearly indecipherable tentacle monster that kills whoever dares intrude on its privacy.
The initial shock of seeing whatever the heck it is Anna has stowed away in her second home is trumped when, later on, director Zulawksi takes things up another notch by showing Anna and her pet project’s very graphic sexual relationship. Here, Anna is deep in the throes of passion underneath the adopted monster, penetrated by this mass of muscle and blood. Every time the creature is revisited, it takes on a slightly more recognizable form, almost human-like. Just who possesses who in this dumbfounding relationship is not made clear until the film’s final minutes. In the long line of horror movies in which characters are seduced by dangerous beings or caught in naughty playtime under dangerous circumstances, Anna’s revolting, stomach-turning fornication with the ‘thing’ in her bedroom stands tall. (Edgar Chaput)
Society (1989)- Dinner party orgy
After the suspicious death of his sister’s ex-boyfriend, a teenage boy discovers the shocking reality behind the society that surrounds him. Directed by Bryan Yuzna and starring Billy Warlock, Society is a warped, mind-bending, and clever satire about paranoia, social outcasts, and the relationship between the upper and lower class. The inventive, over-the-top, and utterly shocking final act–with moments of incest, insane orgies, rabid cannibalism, and more–must be seen to be believed. The scene finds Billy at a large, formal party where the upper-class guests engage in shunting and begin to physically deform into a writhing, liquefied mass of flesh. These rich literally feed on the poor, sucking their poor victims free of nutrients. The last ten minutes–crammed full of Screaming Mad George’s special effects–have become famous in the annals of low-budget horror. When the truth is finally revealed, Society takes body horror to an extreme level of insanity so perversely grotesque that it’s no wonder the film was shelved for years. It’s a scene you’re sure to never forget, although you may wish you could. (Ricky D)