TOP 10: Most Traumatic Stephen King Moments

The killer clown that feeds on fear. Cursed ancient Indian burial grounds. A vengeful telekinetic teen. The ’58 Plymouth Fury that thirsts for blood. Just a few examples of the demons that gleefully traverse our nightmares, etched into our shared cultural fabric. So join Moving Pictures Film Club as we count down the top ten most traumatic moments in Stephen King’s film adaptations… 

10. MISERY (1990) – Annie the Stan

Despite being released over thirty years ago, Misery has never been updated. The reason for this is that its relevance to pop culture and society continues to grow exponentially with each passing year: Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) is the ultimate toxic fan. If she existed today she’d have her own YouTube channel, have been blocked on Twitter and be hosting countless Reddit boards extolling her obsession.

Whilst holding author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) captive, Annie tasks him with writing the next instalment to her favourite book series. She’s a tough critic however, and after reading the first chapter berates Sheldon on how the story should unfold. Recalling her experience at a local cinema and the depths of her disappointment when the serial didn’t match her expectations, Bates delivers a powerful monologue that simultaneously exposes Annie’s history of mental illness and her spontaneous, volcanic aggression. You dirty bird.

09. CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) – The Raft Death Scene

Of all the horror sub-genres King has delved into, body horror may not be one most synonymous with the master of the macabre. And yet a segment in anthology film Creepshow 2 allowed King to express his Cronenberg-ian impulses. It’s the perfect Eighties Horror set up: two jocks and their girlfriends head to a lake where they plan to do all the stuff that gets you killed in a horror film. Arriving at the seemingly picturesque pool they swim out to a pontoon where what can only be described as a flesh-eating bin liner picks them off one by one.

Despite a troubling sexual assault scene, what sets this vignette aside from the other entries is the work of SFX legend Greg Nicotero who designed each grotesque death. Making contact with the killer sludge causes hair to fuse with flesh, limbs to melt together and victims to sink helplessly into the gunk.

08. GERALD’S GAME (2017) – Off the Cuff

The set-up is simple: a married couple attempt to spice up their marriage by bringing some amateur bondage to the bedroom. After her husband dies unexpectedly however Jessie (Carla Gugino) has to escape before she loses her mind – or her life.

Hour upon hour passes and an air of inevitability starts to gather, but when the moment comes for Jessie to cut herself free its one that evoked audible gags from even the most seasoned of horror fans. A scene so graphic that part of the marketing campaign was a trailer depicting Netflix employees reacting to that “degloving” moment, its a useful reminder – if you’re going to play with cuffs, always keep the key “handy”.

07. CARRIE (1976) – Carrie’s Coronation

It should have been a magical night, full of romance and innocent fun. A night when Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) was finally accepted by her peers and at peace with the person she is. Prom Night at Bates High (a not so subtle nod to Norman) instead becomes an evening of cruelty, shame and ultimately violence. But it’s the events leading up to the dance floor massacre that really linger.

Carrie, unaware that her date with Tommy is a kindly (if misguided) gesture from the contrite Sue, encounters real tenderness from another human being for the first time: Tommy makes her laugh, compliments her and attempts to calm her almost debilitating anxiety. When the ballot papers arrive for Prom King and Queen, Tommy encourages her to indulge herself this one time. Spacek’s performance is so imbued with innocence, naivety and vulnerability that when that tear rolls down her cheek as she’s crowned its almost too much to bear, especially when moments later her head’s anointed again, this time with pig’s blood. Luckily for the audience Carrie’s vengeance is swift, and allows for the ultimate catharsis.   

06. DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) – The Killing of Bradley Trevor

Being a child actor in a Mike Flanagan joint is tough: a whole generation of junior stars have been tormented by ghouls, demons and serial killers. Flanagan’s adaptation of The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep is no different as Jacob Tremblay meets cannibalistic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who feasts upon the lifeforce of fellow gifted individuals. Young Bradley is abducted walking home from a baseball game before being brutally murdered, Rose’s crew feeding on his cries of agony.

Flanagan commented that Tremblay put in a performance of such heartbreaking terror and innocence that members of the crew were left stricken, and although after shooting the youngster jumped up, gave his dad a high-five and went off in search of snacks, “the rest of us [were] shell-shocked and traumatised.” Same, Mike. Same.

05. THE SHINING (1980) – Wendy interrupts Jack

The Shining, much like the Overlook Hotel, holds countless moments of pervasive terror; visuals that repulse as well as unnerve and make one cling to their sanity with all of their might. The inhabitants that roam the corridors of the once grandiose hotel are all worthy of a mention on this list, however it is a much more subtle, sinister but harmful interaction between husband and wife that burrows into the psyche and resurfaces when least desired.

It starts as a disagreement that many couples have experienced, especially since working from home has become the norm. Jack (Jack Nicholson) is “writing” when Wendy (Shelley Duvall) enters and announces that the snow is upon them, a throwaway comment that triggers Jack into a storm of condescension, abuse and aggression. It’s a scene which ponders where the “real” abusive Jack ends and the possessed Overlook Jack begins. What makes it all the more disturbing is the clear psychological torment on Wendy’s face: as Jack berates her she apologises and retreats, a glimpse perhaps of the survival strategies Wendy has learned to employ to endure a marriage to a monster. 

04. GERALD’S GAME (2017) – Eclipse

Mike Flanagan’s first flirtation with King is his adaptation of the high concept situational thriller Gerald’s Game. Seemingly unfilmable, the book depends heavily on inner monologues, dizzying leaps back and forth through time and a plot that involves serial killers, BDSM and rabid dogs. Still, Flanagan handles the book with sensitivity and produces moments of genuine terror and repulsion, no more so than the scenes from Jessie’s childhood which slowly reveal her abusive relationship with her father (Henry Thomas). The events that take place during a solar eclipse scar Jessie for a lifetime and, although Flanagan’s film is far more restrained than its source material, it still makes for bleak and excruciating viewing. 

03. THE GREEN MILE (1999) – The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix

It’s fair to say that King has a thing for bullies that revel in the pain and discomfort of others. And there is no worse bully in the King-verse than Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a prison guard who delights in belittling and tormenting the inmates of “the green mile” death row wing at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, even unto the grave.

When the time comes for Edward Delacroix (Michael Jeter) to “walk the mile”, Percy intentionally neglects to wet the sponge which would ensure his quick departure. What the audience witnesses – both inside the execution chamber and the cinema – is one of the most harrowing deaths ever put to screen. King (a vocal anti-capital punishment campaigner) reportedly researched “executions gone wrong” in old prison reports to inspire a scene which now has a life sentence inside film-lovers memories everywhere. 

02. PET SEMATARY (1989) – Sisterly Love

Pet Sematary is a book so traumatic and filled with horrifying tragedy that even its creator locked the manuscript away in a cabinet. When King did decide to share it with the world a film adaptation inevitably followed, only King couldn’t completely let it go, making this the only feature on this list that the author himself adapted into a screenplay (and has a memorable cameo in).

Whilst Mary Lambert’s film swings wildly between camp melodrama and straight horror, there is one moment which is universally agreed as absolute nightmare fuel: Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) recounting the details of her sister Zelda’s death. Bedridden with spinal meningitis, Zelda (actually played by male performer Andrew Hubatsek) was locked in a back room where a young Rachel was forced to feed her, at other times calling to her sister downstairs in mocking agony until her demise. But as we know in Pet Sematary the dead don’t stay that way, and Zelda returns one night to make sure that Rachel “never gets out of bed again”.

01. THE MIST (2007) – Unhappily Ever After

The Mist’s conclusion has become iconic as one of the most downbeat, jaw-droppingly depressing endings of all time, delivering a one-two punch which left audiences shaking their heads in stunned disbelief.

Following the super-market siege when the titular fog – and the beasties within – rolled into town, a rag tag bunch of survivors squash into car to make a break for it, before finally running out of gas. As they observe one of the giant creatures trample through the landscape they realise all is lost. Silently, they agree to take their own lives. David (a career best performance from Thomas Jane) counts the bullets remaining. They are one short, but – following a final look at his little boy – the toughest of decisions has to be made. Four gunshots break the silence, and David is left utterly alone, distraught and despairing, stepping out into the mist to await his own death.

It’s a completely traumatic scene, but just when audiences thought it couldn’t get any worse… the cavalry arrives. The mist clears and the Hollywood ending that should have been turns up – five minutes too late. David falls to his knees, howling in agony as the futility and hopelessness of the situation overwhelms him.

Interestingly King’s novella concludes differently, on a note of hope – the survivors pressing on into the unknown together – and it was director Frank Darabont who flipped the script. King approved however, and the result is one of the most devastating denouements ever committed to screen.

Alex Kronenburg

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