I'm a fan of the show "Movie Fights" on Screen Junkies. In their latest episode Elijah Wood, Kevin Smith, and Dan Murrell had to debate what they felt the "Scariest movie scene of all time" was. Here's their debate:
I'd like to make a case for a scene that terrifies me. Have you ever been to Alcatraz? Did you walk the narrow hallways of a prison that's been decommissioned for the better part of a century? Did you feel claustrophobic? Did you sense the a charge in the air of unrest and malevolence? Have you ever been in an active prison? A mental hospital? I have. Those experiences are pretty far up there in the list of terrifying things I've experienced.
Now imagine yourself entering a narrow hallway, more dungeon than modern prison. The hall is filled with four known violent and insane offenders. The staff politely refuses to escort you down it. Your destination is at the end of the hall. When you get there, you will meet the a man spoken of in hushed tones, even among his neighboring creatures.
You're a cadet at the FBI. You're not even out of training. You're not sure if you're even ready or qualified for the job yet. Regardless, Barney slams the barred door behind you and wishes you luck. You're terrified, but you're determined to rise to the occasion. You take each step deliberately, trying not to look at the monsters. The first calls out to you, a grin on his face like a child who's received a birthday present. It seems permanently fixed, but you can't spare him more than a glance. You focus on your breathing. Each breath triggers a step forward and a test of your resolve.
The second room has a man slouched over, his face cloaked in shadow. You can feel his eyes on you through his glower. The third man is manic, he literally climbs the walls of his cell and croaks "I can smell your cunt" through coffee grayed teeth.
You reach the end of the hallway. This cell is different. There are no bars. The entry is framed with thick steel that holds three panes of three inch thick glass. Inside, a man, still as a statue, stares at you with reptilian eyes. His eyes follow you like a painting. He sees through you and speaks like a particularly well educated snake. He paints his face with a pleasant, well rehearsed smile and says "Good Morning."
You swallow your fear and put on an air of confidence. You will treat this man with respect, get your questions answered, and flee. "Doctor Lecter, my name is Clarice Starling, may I speak with you?"
"You're one of Jack Crawford's, aren't you?"
He wasn't supposed to know that. Your confidence is cracked. He's locked inside a cell, and he has you at a disadvantage. You answer in the affirmative. "May I see your credentials?" he oozes. You hold up your credentials. He sees your fear. "Closer, please." he beckons. You extend your arm. "Closer," he taunts. You take a two measured steps forward. He stalks up to the barrier, his eyes locked on yours. The Plexiglas that separates you feels like plastic wrap. Every muscle in your body is begging you to run. He blinks and glances at your badge.
"That expires in one week," he says with a wink, "You're not real FBI are you?" Again, he's made you. You've stood in front of this man for five seconds and he has completely disassembled your careful presentation.
You tell him you're still in training. His eyes light up like a wolf who's spotted a wounded sheep. "Jack Crawford sent a trainee... to me?" You see calculations behind his eyes, as if he were playing a game of chess with Jack, and you realize that makes you a sacrificial pawn. As you present your case your voice wavers and cracks. Lecter spots this, deduces you realize your role in the situation, and a twinkle of respect forms in his eye. Like the respect a hunter has for worthy sport.
Lecter makes you repeat what his neighbor, Miggs, said to you moments before. Your cheeks flush and you stumble over the word "cunt." This earns you a little favor with Lecter - the man in the cell has you attempting to earn his favor. You realize you're out of your element.
You quickly attempt to get your task done. Lecter swats your attempt away and dives in to Jack Crawford's case. You don't realize it, but Lecter has just uncovered Crawford's motive in sending you here.
Lecter looks at the questionnaire you brought, then verbally cuts you down. He describes your life remarkably well, with brutal cruelty that you cannot rebuke. You aren't sure why his opinion of you matters, but it does. Despite the clear wound he's dealt, you challenge him to look inward. He's clearly upset by your jab, and slams the questionnaire back through his meal slot.
"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. You fly back to school now, little starling."
Feeling defeated you gather your things and begin to walk back. Miggs is laying naked on the bunk, screaming. "I bit my wrist so I could dieeee-he-he." You turn your to face him. "Look at the blood!" he shouts as he flings his seaman through the bars and into your hair. So lost in your conversation with Lecter, you forgot the dangers of your environment. You realize quickly that you've been sexually assaulted as you cringe away in disgust. The other inmates begin to go wild.
Lecter calls you back. "I would not have had that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me." There's no pity in his voice, you doubt Lecter even knows what pity feels like.
You quickly gather your wits amid the chaos in the hall. "Then do this test for me!"
"No, but I will make you happy. I'll give you a chance for what you love most."
"And what is that, doctor?"
"Advancement, of course." He continues on with vague clues that you don't have time to digest.Every single element of this scene from the first 20 minutes of Silence of the Lambs is terrifying to me. Walking as prey among predictors. Being thrust into a game you didn't realize you were playing until too late. The sexual assault. Hannibal Lecter's ability to dissect so much of Clarice history in a few moments, and his willingness to use that ability to destroy someone. Finally, there's the realization that even though Clarice demonstrates no uncanny mental ability, she still comes out of the situation better than I would have. And I'd argue her results were mixed at best. It paints a picture of a believable world that I would be completely unable to function in.
All of this amounts to a feeling of dread that hits me on a primal level. I must have watched this movie a dozen times, and that scene haunts me for hours after to this day.