Horror is a cathartic, revelatory art form. But at the end of the day, there's really no denying that we love a good death scene. Is it going to be a gore-fest? Is it a dark comedy? Are you going to be crying for the next hour and a half? Nothing sets the tone in a horror film quite like the first kill.
From heartbreaking losses, to jaw-dropping effects, to subverted expectations, here are eight of the most iconic first kills in horror movies.
WARNING: The following listicle includes spoilers and graphic imagery.
It (2017)—Georgie Denbrough
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, It follows a group of misfit kids who set out to kill the shape-shifting monster eating children in their small town of Derry, Maine. In the opening scene, viewers are treated to Pennywise's (Bill Skarsgård) first kill, which is as devastating as it is terrifying. Little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is out innocently playing on a rainy day when the evil clown sinks his teeth into him.
It's rare to see a horror movie that so graphically depicts harm to a child, and even rarer for such a young actor to deliver as powerful of a performance. By refusing to pull punches, this first kill sets the tone for the movie, promising nothing is safe. It also gives Georgie's brother, Bill (Jaeden Martell) the impetus to face the otherworldly terrors hidden in the sewers.
Beyond being an iconic first kill, this is probably the most iconic scene of all time—referenced time and time again across all forms of pop culture. Psycho, adapted from the Robert Bloch novel of the same name, is centered on the eerie events that take place in the ramshackle Bates Motel, run by the meek Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives under the harsh thumb of his mother. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) checks into the motel after fleeing Phoenix with stolen cash, only to quickly find herself stabbed to death in the shower.
Part of what makes this scene so powerful is that the viewers have been led to believe that Marion is going to be the film's main protagonist. This, on top of the naked vulnerability of the shower, removes all security from an audience standpoint. With the quick cuts and varied angles, the chaos of the scene heightens Marion's defenselessness, as the harried strings scoring the scene racket up the tension.
Based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, this 1975 film takes place in a beautiful beach community off Cape Cod, as a vicious shark terrorizes the vacationers that dare dip a toe into the water. In an opening scene rife with suffocating tension, flirtatious partygoer Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) decides to have a bit of saucy fun by shedding her clothes and skinny dipping in the ocean. Unfortunately, the temptation she offers catches the eye of a great white.
Another film known for its iconic film score, this scene is also incredibly impactful for what it doesn't show. In the terrible isolation and defenselessness of the sea, all audiences see is the violent thrashing of Chrissie's body. A powerful force attacks her from below, but depriving viewers of that first glimpse contributes to the looming, overwhelming terror of the unknown.
Scream (1996)—Casey Becker (and Steve Orth)
Launching a franchise that's still alive and well, the 1996 film Scream carved out a brand new niche of meta horror while paying homage to all our favorite slashers. In this movie, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her friends fight for their lives against Ghostface, a masked killer prone to playing deadly games. In a captivating opening sequence, the iconic Drew Barrymore plays unsuspecting teen murder victim Casey Becker. And sure, technically her boyfriend, Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls) dies first, but it's part of the same terrifying sequence.
The Scream franchise has become famous for its opening fake out, putting beloved actresses in the film only to kill them off before the ball even really gets rolling. While viewers don't get much time to get to know Casey, they certainly know (and love!) Barrymore, making the loss absolutely heartbreaking. And the long, drawn out game of cat-and-mouse really pulls the tension taut.
In a movie that is so constantly stress-inducing and terrifying, delivering a good first kill is essential. Alien doesn't even come close to disappointing. The film follows Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her crew aboard their commercial spacecraft. After receiving a strange transmission, their investigation has them crossing paths with a deadly species. In the midst of a friendly dinner, Kane (John Hurt) is the first to succumb to the terrible end the Xenomorphs offer, with a small creature violently bursting forth from his chest cavity.
This film employs incredible practical effects, making the horror of this death all the more visceral. The loss of Kane hits audience harder, however, as they'd been given a dose of false hope. It seemed as though Kane was a goner under the grip of the facehugger, but when the creature unlatched, the man had practically recovered to normal. That he died in the midst of the crew having a second to relax after the initial scare set the tone for the domino effect of horror.
A masterpiece of horror and tension, many have trouble watching Hereditary a second time. Following an absolutely devastating loss, the Graham family finds themselves plagued by disturbing occurrences. Unless you count unlucky animals, young Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is the death that kicks off the unsettling action of this film. While her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff) rushes her to the hospital for help with an allergic reaction, Charlie pops her head out of the window for some air. The panic and chaos of the moment sees Charlie colliding with a telephone pole, and ensures the Graham family will never be the same.
This is another film that doesn't shy away from depicting children in a gruesome turn of events. Complete with imagery that will haunt viewers for many nights to come, this first kill also has an incredible impact, as the grief this moment spawns lingers over every beat of the rest of the movie. While most horror flicks barrel on ahead, leaving the gravity of death behind, Hereditary traps us in a state of mourning for two hours.
In Barbarian, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb, and quickly discovers her stay is going to be like nothing she hoped. For starters, the house has been doubled booked, and Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already there. And as tension mounts and mounts, she discovers there's someone else living underneath it. When Keith goes down into the basement to investigate the strange tunnel, a feral, deformed woman beats him to death.
This first kill is an artful flipping of expectation. What woman wouldn't be wary of staying somewhere with a man she's never met before? And the film does a nuanced job of making Keith look like he's setting a trap. Depriving the audience of a death until a fair amount of time into the film also creates undeniable tension.
Jennifer's Body—Jennifer Check
The logistics of calling this a first kill are a little hand-wavy, but for the incredible impact this death has, let's suspend our criticisms for the sake of it. Jennifer's Body is a cult classic that is just now starting to get the appreciation it deserved back in 2009. After Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) is turned into a boy-eating succubus, her best friend, Needy Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried), must try and save her classmates by bringing an end to the remorseless sex demon. While the fire raging on in the local dive bar definitely claimed some lives first, the death that lead to every subsequent loss was that of Jennifer herself. Brought into the woods by an indie rock band, Jennifer is stabbed to death as a virgin sacrifice to Satan in exchange for fame. Unfortunately for the locals, Jennifer was nothing close to a virgin...
The murder of Jennifer in this movie is actually based on a real-life killing, making the cruelty displayed in the scene all the more uncomfortable to endure. As the bandmates joke around and taunt a terrified Jennifer, audiences get insight into just how casual the world has become with violent misogyny. This scene shows how people have become desensitized with suffering, and, honestly, makes it really hard to consider Jennifer a clear-cut villain in the grand scheme of things.