The Most Intense Nightmare Scenes in Movies, Ranked


Even in horror films, nightmare sequences can often be considered superfluous. Sometimes they’re eye-rollingly obvious, and other times they may just seem to add unnecessary scares to a picture that’s indeed already quite scary enough. Even in non-horror movies, nightmare scenes might be the ones we turn away from in fear, or decide to take a quick bathroom break during. However, nightmare sequences in film often play a critical role in revealing a character’s psychological state along with their deepest fears. Sure, we might not need to know those deepest fears when we’re watching Superbad, but sometimes they’re good to be familiar with. The most accomplished nightmare sequences can also serve as a surreal gateway into worlds unfamiliar to our own. At least partly, that’s what movies are all about, right? Remembering some of our favorite, most horrifying nightmares, here are our picks for the most intense nightmare sequences in film, ranked.


7/7 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)Jacob's Ladder

This Tim Robbins-led psychological horror film is basically a nightmare in its entirety. Following a Vietnam veteran suffering severe hallucinations after returning from the war, there’s not a moment throughout the feature where audiences don’t question whether what’s going on is “real” or not. However, the nightmare scene truly takes the cake as far as brutality goes, as well as showing us how Jacob has reached a point of no return. In it, he is wheeled around on a gurney through a lurid hospital wing, with people bashing their heads against the walls all around him, until an eyeless surgeon plunges a needle into Jacob’s skull. It’s uncanny and unforgettable, revealing just how giftedly versatile Robbins as an actor can be.

6/7 Aliens (1986)aliens.birth

Although it might be the chestburster scene from the first film that’s the most talked-about, Ripley’s nightmare in Aliens is no less shocking. We start out unsuspecting in a hospital bed, until Ripley’s reality slowly begins to fade from her. The scene is executed in a pretty different fashion from the first film – that is, we hear a heartbeat to signify the presence of the alien, and there are no snapping ribs or shots of blood. Overall, the scene is plagued with a far eerier feeling than the raw gruesomeness of the first “chestburster,” and it’s just as scary in its own unique way.

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5/7 The Exorcist (1973)

Father Karras’s nightmare is bleary, elusive, and quick – but, out of all the nightmares on this list, it might be the one that most accurately mimics what nightmares are really like. In this twisted dream, following a night of heavy drinking, we see Karras call out to his elderly mother emerging from a subway station. The chilling face of the demon Pazuzu appears, and there’s an impending dread that something all-too-powerful exists below, to swallow Karras’s mother up. What’s most potent about this nightmare is not only the demonic picture imprinted into our brains, but also the utter helplessness that it inscribes in both Karras and the viewers.

4/7 Trainspotting (1996)

The “worst toilet in Scotland” scene might have acquired the most infamy over the years, but Renton’s nightmare visions are the ones to make our skin crawl. To get him off of heroin once and for all, his parents have imposed a cold-turkey strategy on him, locking Renton in his room to fester away until the habit’s kicked. Not only do we witness this truly terrifying image of a distorted baby climbing on the ceiling, ultimately to “fall” on top of Renton, but it’s also inter-spliced with surreal game show footage and a distant techno track that blares over all. After watching this scene, it would feel impossible to argue that Trainspotting glorifies drug use. This sequence shows just how mind-altering and alienating the state of withdraw can really be.

3/7 Pet Sematary (1989)Zelda.petsematary

In this intensely creepy scene, we are first introduced to Zelda, Rachel’s sister, who died of spinal meningitis long ago. Rachel feels lingering guilt over Zelda’s death, but also a sense of riddance. In the horrifying nightmare that follows, Rachel hears Zelda tromping in the bedroom. Audiences then see her contort in acutely horrifying ways, as she delivers one of the most haunting threats ever put to screen to Rachel – “I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again!” If there’s ever a scene to make us reconsider how we treat our siblings, it’s this one.

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2/7 An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis’s gloriously graphic horror comedy is chock-full of scary moments, but it’s this gruesome nightmare scene that is perhaps the most bone-chilling. What makes the scene so terrifying is that it essentially comes out of nowhere and ends almost as quickly as it started. We see protagonist David sitting happily with his family, only for a gang of Nazi-dressed gargoyles to come barging in and massacre everyone in the room, burn down the house, and slit David’s throat. Of course, the poison cherry on top is that David doesn’t actually “wake up” when he wakes up; one of the gargoyles comes bursting through the window and tries to kill his nurse. The scene is so unnerving not just for the all-out pandemonium that it depicts, but also for what it reveals about David and how he’s starting to lose it.

1/7 A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Sliding its way into the number-one slot is the cream of the crop of terror, the nightmare to inspire all nightmares. Although the franchise has given us nearly two decades worth of material to work with, it’s Nancy’s original English class dream that to this day remains the most haunting. It’s the first time we ever get to witness the infamous Mr. Krueger, but, moreover, the way that he lures Nancy out of the classroom using the corpse of her deceased friend is unnerving beyond imagination. Having not yet been introduced to how Freddy really operates, there’s a palpable concern for Nancy in the chase that follows. We never quite know if she’s going to make it out alive – and that’s perhaps the scariest part.

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