THE INNOCENTS, Martin Stephens, Deborah Kerr, 1961, (c) 20th Century Fox

For MovieMaker‘s 2016 Guide to Making Horror Movies special edition, we set out to identify what makes some of the scariest scenes of all time quite so terrifying.

So we asked a few fright-meisters to share their personal picks for “scariest scene of all time,” and to explain why those moments were so effective. We’ll post one response every Friday in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Today, Joe Dante, director of horror classics like Gremlins, Piranha and The Howling, dredges up his deepest cinematic fears. Dante’s latest horror feature was this summer’s Burying the Ex, starring Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene and Alexandra Daddario.

Photo by Suzanne Tenner

Actor Anton Yelchin and director Joe Dante on the set of Burying the Ex. Photograph by Suzanne Tenner

Joe Dante: “There are lots of different kinds of scares, the most familiar of which is the jump scare, where something appears abruptly from the edge of the frame, often accompanied by a loud sound effect or crashing music cue. This is not hard to stage, and audiences never seem to tire of it, but its effect is ephemeral and transitory at best.

The real scares, for me, come more slowly from a build-up of mood and atmosphere. These moments can be exquisitely creepy and long-lasting. In The Exorcist, the real work was done before the special effects kicked in; all those unsettling scenes with the priest’s family guilt and the child’s graphic medical procedures. The audience was perpetually unsettled and on edge, making the suspension of disbelief all the easier when the demonic F/X took over.

My own preference is for the scary things you don’t see—that you’re forced to imagine. So the scariest scene would be the scene in The Innocents where the governess is kissed inappropriately by the little boy who, she realizes, has been possessed by the malignant ghost of the dead valet. Or is it all in her mind? That kind of ambiguity doesn’t fly today (it didn’t then, either) but it’s the kind of enhancement that doubles the chill factor for those who crave more than a roller coaster thrill ride. I wish I could say this approach has greatly influenced my own work, but opportunities to apply this sort of idea to modern subjects have been few and far between.” MM

Burying the Ex opened in theaters and VOD June 19, 2015, and is now available on DVD.