Steven Spielberg is not traditionally known as a horror director. Yet, in several of his movies, there are moments that completely freaked us out when we watched them as kids. Of course, it’s not like the director has never made a horror movie in his life. He directed Jaws and the made-for-TV Duel. He produced Gremlins and he wrote, produced and possibly co-directed Poltergeist.
Because of the fact that Tobe Hooper is credited as director on that one, Poltergeist won’t count for this list, nor will Duel because we’re strictly looking at theatrical features. Most of Spielberg’s movies pre-Oscar fell into the realm of family films. They were made to entertain kids, something they could watch with their parents and everyone could get equal enjoyment out of it.
Yet in these features there are moments that are downright terrifying, even now. They scared the hell out of us when we were kids. Most people can probably draw them to mind immediately, but if you need a refresher course, just keep reading below.
The face melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones’ first big on-screen adventure was mostly an adventure tale. Most of the horrific moments were saved for Temple of Doom. Sure, things get tense, but it’s all done in a high-fantasy, adventure tone. Until we get to the end and the Nazis actually open the Ark. Then we’re subjected to horror FX that could make even Stuart Gordon fans squeamish as the Nazis faces begin to melt into a bloody mess.
E.T. the Extraterrestrial is Spielberg’s most famous, most beloved family movie. It’s something every parent shows their kids… and it usually scares the crap out of them. Yes, it’s cute, but there are a lot of dark moments in it as well, along with some genuine scare scenes. The first of them comes when Elliot walks out into the cornfield, and comes face to face with E.T., who lets out a hellish scream before running off.
The heart removal in Temple of Doom
Like I said, most of the horrific moments in the Indy saga were saved for Temple of Doom and the best example of them would be this scene in which Indy witnesses a ritual that involves a priest reaching into a person’s chest and pulling out their still beating heart. It’s a graphic scene that the MPAA would have huge problems with if it was in, say, Jason Lives and not Indiana Jones.
The abduction of the children in Hook
There’s no reason for this scene to be set up in this way unless you’re deliberately trying to scare the pants off of children. Hook is the lightest of any Spielberg family movie—for the most part. But then you have this scene where Hook and his pirates come and take Peter’s children from their beds in the middle of the night. We see barely any of it happen, we don’t see Hook at all, all we see is a glowing fog. It’s almost like the kids were taken by the ghost ship from The Fog instead of the pirates of Neverland. Peter and his wife return to a damaged house and a frantic nanny repeating “the children were screaming!” over and over again. The Hell, Spielberg?
The Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park
I know there were other moments in Jurassic Park that are widely considered scarier, be they the raptors in the kitchen or the introduction of the T-Rex. But this scene scared the living hell out of me when I saw it in theaters at the tender age of four. I hid under my seat. Because this scene comes out of nowhere. With the kitchen and the T-Rex, you know something very dangerous is coming. But this dinosaur starts out chirping and pleasant.
The arrival of the government agents in E.T.
Again we have a scene that was deliberately designed to feel like a horror movie. Everything about this feels weirdly supernatural and ethereal. Once this scene starts, with the people in space suits for no reason, it doesn’t feel like the movie is set in reality anymore. It feels like a nightmare operating on nightmare logic.
The opening scene of Jaws
Of course, the scariest scene has to come from Spielberg’s actual horror movie, Jaws. This scene changed everything. Because of this opening for this one film, a whole generation became terrified of the water. This feature pretty much created the modern blockbuster and a lot of that energy and legacy comes from this incredible opening sequence.