Top 20 Scariest Movie Dream Sequences Ever
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Thomas O'Connor
Don't fall asleep. For this list, we'll be looking at the cinema's most terrifying dreams, daydreams, nightmares, visions and hallucinations. Our countdown includes "Jacob's Ladder", "The Burbs", "Dumbo", "Trainspotting", "A Nightmare on Elm Street", and more!
Top 20 Scariest Dream Sequences in Movies
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Scariest Dream Sequences in Movies
For this list, we’ll be looking at the cinema’s most terrifying dreams, daydreams, nightmares, visions and hallucinations.
What’s your scariest nightmare? Does it stack up to the entries on our list? Let us know in the comments section down below.
#20: Nightmare Hospital
"Jacob's Ladder" (1990)
This classic 90s horror/thriller follows a man plagued by terrifying visions and a seemingly shattered grip on reality, making for some truly horrific sequences. Without a doubt though, the film’s strongest scene is this part of his hallucination sequence, in which our hero finds himself in an appropriately nightmarish hospital. Filthy, blood splattered and echoing with the screams of the damned, the locale is like something out of a “Silent Hill” game, littered with corpses and archaic medical equipment operated by unspeaking nurses. We weren’t afraid of hospitals before we watched this, but we sure are now.
#19: A Message from the Future
"Prince of Darkness" (1987)
A classic entry from horror icon John Carpenter, this film follows a group of academics investigating a strange, glowing artifact in the basement of a monastery. The artifact seemingly belonged to a cult that believed they could communicate through dreams, and the investigators begin to have strange dreams themselves after the contents of the artifact begin to escape. The dream itself is strange and hazy, showing a dark figure coming out of the church. Meanwhile, a distorted voice states that this is not a dream, but a message sent to the dreamer from the future, or at least the future of the year “one nine nine nine”. Hey, it was the future at the time!
#18: Nuclear Apocalypse
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)
Dreams about the end of the world are fairly common, with anxieties over nuclear conflict in particular becoming widespread following the Second World War. Numerous films have tackled these anxieties, but few are more harrowing than this dream sequence from the second “Terminator” film. In an iconic dream sequence, series protagonist Sarah Connor has a vision of the mythical “Judgment Day”, when a nuclear armageddon is carried out by a ruthless AI. As she looks on in terror, a powerless Sarah watches as she and her son are killed by the blast, before dying herself. The sequence’s effects hold up even today, presenting a chilling and harrowing depiction of a day we pray will never come.
#17: The Dead Behind the Walls
"Day of the Dead" (1985)
George A. Romero’s third installment in the iconic “Night of the Living Dead” franchise contains some of his most striking imagery, including the dream sequence that opens the film. In the scene, protagonist Sarah finds herself in an empty room with no doors or windows. After approaching a calendar depicting a fall scene, the hands of the living dead burst from the walls and shock the real Sarah awake. The scene presages the claustrophobia of the film, which takes place almost entirely in an underground facility. Given that she’s trapped in what’s basically a neon tomb, forced to work with raving lunatics and just a few walls away from the hordes of the undead, we’re not surprised Sarah isn’t sleeping great.
"The ‘Burbs" (1989)
While a bit more comedic than most of our entries, this sequence is nonetheless no slouch when it comes to scare-factor. Protagonist Ray Peterson, played by the great Tom Hanks, is getting increasingly worried about his strange new neighbors, whose spooky old house emits strange lights and noises at night. One night, Ray’s anxieties boil over after he watches “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, prompting a dream where he’s menaced by his neighbors and served up as the main course in a neighborhood cook-out. The sequence is gleefully over the top, with revving chainsaws and dry ice fumes everywhere. As silly as it is, we’d definitely wake up screaming too.
#15: Jason Returns
"Friday the 13th" (1980)
Boy, do we ever feel for poor Alice. She just wanted to do her job as a counsellor at Camp Crystal Lake, but life had other plans. After her fellow counsellors are picked off by an unseen assailant one by one, Alice eventually comes face to face with the killer. It’s the seemingly kindly Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, the cook whose son Jason died due to negligent counsellors. Alice is seemingly out of danger when she deals with Pamela and escapes onto the lake on a boat, only for Jason to come back for revenge. Alice later awakens to learn it was all a dream… or was it?
#14: The Woman Appears
“The Woman in Black” (1989)
Most horror audiences might know “The Woman in Black” thanks to Daniel Radcliffe’s 2012 film. But this 1989 British TV version, produced for the ITV Network, petrified a whole generation of late-‘80s viewers. Following the same story originally found in Susan Hill’s novel, young solicitor Arthur Kidd is tormented by a spirit who haunts the grounds of a widow’s estate he’s taking care of, following her recent death. Arthur goes to bed still trying to make sense of a toy soldier he finds. Mysteriously, he’s woken up by childlike ghostly whispers, quickly followed by the shocking floating body of the woman in black. The lady’s nails-on-a-chalkboard scream makes this nightmare that much more terrifying.
#13: Pink Elephants on Parade
Just because it’s made for children, and a classic Disney flick at that, doesn’t preclude a movie from being totally terrifying. In this iconic scene from the fantasy feature, titular elephant Dumbo gets drunk after champagne is spilled in his water, causing him to have this freaky hallucination. In front of Dumbo’s very eyes, elephants of all shapes, sizes and colors caper and contort in tune with the music.While stunning and brilliantly animated, we can’t deny there’s something very, very unsettling about the scene, which definitely crosses over into the psychedelic. What was even in that champagne? Are we sure that’s what it was?
"Pet Sematary" (1989)
Stephen King knows how to invoke everyone’s deepest darkest secrets or regrets, turning them into monsters that keep us up at night. This film brings these fears effectively to life, as we follow the terrifying ordeal of the Creed family and the local pet cemetery that can bring dead things back to life… kinda. While patriarch Louis is dealing with the consequences of reviving the dead, wife and mother Rachel has her own nightmares haunting her. Living with the trauma of watching her older sister slowly wither away from spinal meningitis, Rachel’s nightmares of the sickly Zelda are a gruesome reminder that the greatest terror does not need to stem from an unknown monster.
#11: Karras’ Dream
"The Exorcist" (1976)
Another famous character whose regrets manifest as nightmarish dreams, Father Karras has to deal with his inner demons before beginning his epic battle with the all-too-real demon, Pazuzu - which now seems to inhabit the body of a young Regan MacNeil. Guilt-ridden over his belief that he didn’t do enough to help his elderly mother, who was sent to a nursing home against his better judgment, Karras is completely distraught to hear about her death. He bitterly and drunkenly falls asleep, only to be tormented by visions of her calling for help. Short but sweet, this dream’s bizarre editing, jarring pacing and subliminal demon flashes make us want to hide under the bed. Not Regan’s bed, though.
#10: The Nun
"The Conjuring 2" (2016)
Ed and Lorraine Warren are two of the most famous real-life ghost hunters and demonologists in the world. In the sequel to “The Conjuring,” we find them tackling even more terrifying demonic forces. Lorraine, played once again by Vera Farmiga, was always known to have visions of things to come, and seeing her husband being killed in one these visions during a séance understandably puts her on edge… especially since the death is always accompanied but a monstrous demonic nun. In one such dream, as she sleeps on her couch, she – and all of us – receives quite a pants-soiling scare, as the gruesome nun jumps out of a painting and makes her plans very clear: she wants Ed Warren.
#9: On Ayahuasca
"Altered States" (1980)
This cult classic from director Ken Russell follows a man’s exploration of alternate states of consciousness, which is a fancy way of saying getting high out of his mind. In this evocative scene, our hero takes some Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic brew used by an indigenous tribe in Mexico. The brew causes him to have an intense vision featuring fireworks, tribal figures, snakes, celestial beings and possibly a nuclear explosion, all cut together in a dizzying mishmash of sights and sounds. The imagery is probably laced with double meaning and subtext, but it’s still an intensely trippy scene even if you don’t feel like analyzing every frame.
#8: Lots of Bugs
"Drag Me to Hell" (2009)
It’s sometimes hard to know you’re in a nightmare, or in a scary scene for that matter. Like, when everything seems peaceful and you’re lying in bed with your loved one. In this scene, however, the creepy music and a pestering fly let us know that things are not okay, as we witness Christine swallowing the bug in her sleep. Just when we think that this will wake her up, director Sam Raimi decides to up the cringe-factor, and we watch in agony as the evil gypsy woman attacks Christine, only to baptize her with a swarm of bugs that fall right into her open mouth. If you’ve got a fear of insects, you may want to fast-forward through this one.
"The Fly" (1986)
Watching your brilliant scientist boyfriend experiment on himself and slowly transform into a monstrous fly-creature is a fantastic example of a living nightmare. It’s also a fantastic example of a David Cronenberg movie. Veronica comes to the terrifying realization that she’s pregnant, and that her mutated baby-daddy is only getting worse. Honestly, it’s too terrifying to imagine what kind of horror that would elicit. This movie pulls no punches, though, and gives us a visceral depiction of Veronica’s literal worst nightmare: giving birth to a fly. And you can tell that Cronenberg is the master and orchestrator of wild nightmares come to life, ‘cause that’s him pulling the creature out of Veronica.
"Dead Ringers" (1988)
Separation can be a terrifying thing – yup, this movie’s tagline couldn’t be more accurate. This is a movie about creepy twin gynaecologists, once again directed by David Cronenberg, so we’ll try to answer the question we know you’re dying to ask: yes, “Dead Ringers” goes there, and beyond. The twins certainly have a weird symbiotic, dependent relationship, and are not above secretly sharing women. When Beverly falls for their client Claire, the result goes beyond a bizarre incestuous love triangle. In an extremely painful, disturbing and way-too-symbolic dream, Beverly finds himself in bed with Claire and his brother, but is in fact literally attached at the hip to Elliott. Let’s just say he, and Claire’s teeth, make clear what needs to happen to this relationship.
Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to craft one of the most iconic and frightening sequences on our list. The master of terror’s 1958 classic is frequently held up as one of the greatest films of his legendary career, and this sequence in particular is one of the most iconic sequences in his body of work. A former police detective haunted by a fear of heights, James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson is plagued by nightmares, giving viewers a glimpse into his tortured mind. And what a glimpse it is. Mixing live-action footage and animation, as well as vibrant technicolor lighting, the scene is a kaleidoscope of color and imagery. Hitchcock knew his way around a good dream sequence, and you can check out “Spellbound” for even more proof. *xref
#4: Beyond the Grave
Many nightmares stem from traumatic events whose distressing effect we can’t shake. Poor Sue seems to be the only survivor of Carrie White’s prom night massacre, where she used her telekinetic powers to get the ultimate revenge. The ethereal and dream-like atmosphere in the final scene, as Sue brings flowers to Carrie’s final resting place, should be a sign to audiences that something’s up. Notice the red car going backwards? But surely the carnage is now over? Nope! We’re jolted back to reality just as Sue is jolted out of her sleep in one of the most shocking horror endings. Seeing Carrie’s arm rise out of her grave is sure to give Sue, and us, years of recurring nightmares.
#3: Baby on the Ceiling
If there was ever a movie scene that should convince you to really, really, never do drugs, it’s this one. After realizing his lifestyle isn’t going to lead him to a happy life, drug addict Mark Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, vows to get clean. But going through heroin withdrawal is no laughing matter, and Mark is plunged into a living nightmare. By far the most shocking moment of this sequence is the sequence where Mark sees his friend’s baby, who tragically died, crawling along the ceiling. It’s just one of many hallucinations he endures while the drugs work their way out of his system. For real, kids: don’t do drugs.
In 1986, James Cameron had insanely huge shoes to fill while making the sequel to one of the most successful, beloved, and terrifying science-fiction films ever made. Although he took a more action-heavy approach, “Aliens” was not lacking in thrills, and became a huge success itself. One of its most surprising scenes not only pays tribute to the original’s most famous sequence, but also taps into the audience’s fear of the evil that lurks inside. Heroine Ripley wakes up in a hospital bed, only to find an unfriendly and unwelcome visitor trying to exit her body. The audience shares Ripley’s relief that this was just a dream, since we cannot fathom this badass icon succumbing to this terrible fate.
#1: Classroom Nightmare
"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984)
Topping our list is none other than the granddaddy of them all, the king of nightmares: Freddy Krueger. Placing him at #1 was a no-brainer; the hard part was narrowing down Freddy’s ultimate nightmare from two decades-worth of terrifying sequences. Freddy is the personification of the nightmare, and the dream master knows exactly what to conjure up to make you sweat. The best example has to be Nancy’s torturous dream when she falls asleep in English class. Freddy uses her recently deceased friend’s corpse to lure her outside and deeper into her dream, chasing her into his industrial lair. It is nevertheless an iconic turning point in Nancy’s struggle, as she realizes it’s only a dream that she can eventually control.