It's a question horror film directors hate as much as musicians dislike being asked, "What are your influences?"
In fact, years ago I wanted to interview one of the top horror directors of all time, and one of his minions said, "Please don't ask what scares him, he's been asked that a million times."
Yet it can be an interesting question if you ask the right filmmaker in the terror game, and not all horror filmmakers are driven by fear, though certainly some of the best exorcised their fears through their work.
Horror stories put us at a safe remove from the horrors of real life, and coming up with a crazier scenario is an easier way to deal with our fears of mortality.
Like Jospeh Stefano, the late screenwriter of Psycho, once explained to me, in a horror movie, you go in, you're scared for a brief period of time, then you're free from being scared, unlike real life, where a bad event can hit us at any time, and can stay with us forever. (Wes Craven also put it well to Playboy when he said people don't go to horror movies to be scared, they're already scared).
So Time and The New York Times recently rounded up some masters of horror and asked what scared them. The scariest moment in movies for Stephen King was seeing the French classic Les Diabolique, which inspired Psycho, and is indeed still damn scary after all this time.
We've seen the twist ending many times, and you can probably guess it pretty early into the film, but the way it's done is genuinely terrifying. (Joe King, Stephen's son and accomplished author in his own right, said, "AutoCorrect. AutoCorrect is the first phase in the war between the machines and mankind.")
Frank Darabont? The Exorcist? Guillermo Del Toro? When the phantom's mask is ripped off in the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. Amy Bruni, star of Syfy's Ghost Hunters? Relationships. "Those are scarier than ghosts," she said. "I'm more afraid of people than anything."
Max Brooks, author of World War Z? "The follower. That's the monster of society, the person who doesn't think, they just do what they're told."
For the New York Times, several people mentioned John Carpenter's The Thing as the scariest movie they'd ever seen, The Shining came up several times as well, The Exorcist of course, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to which John Waters said, "No film can come near [its] snuff-like power to horrify. Just saying that title out loud should give even real serial killers the creeps."
Martin Scorsese also weighed in at The Daily Beast, and his top list of fright includes the original Haunting directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), The Entity, Dead of Night (a horror anthonology with an absolutely frightening ventriloquist dummy segment), The Exorcist and The Shining again, and Psycho.
"The shower... the relationship between mother and son - it's extremely disturbing on so many levels," Scorsese wrote of Hitchcock's best known film. "It's also a great work of art."