With Season 7 of Game of Thrones just around the corner, I thought that I’d get all of my fellow horror nerds in the spirit with this countdown of the thirteen scariest moments in the show so far.
Keep in mind for this list, I’m putting no limits on what scary means or what the moments can consist of. My top picks will include the suspenseful, the gory, the abstract – anything so long as it is haunting and holds up to multiple viewings. As for moments it could be scenes, lines, or even bits of mythology, so long as they have made an impression after my dozen times watching the series.
Spoiler Alert: This list is intended only for people who have watched through the six current seasons of Game of Thrones. I’ll be talking about some major plot points right up through the end.
13. Prologue: The White Walkers
“I’ve never seen a thing like this, not ever in my life.”
What better way to start this countdown than with the chilling opening sequence from the pilot episode of the show? Before we know where the story takes place or what’s going on, the show opens on a Night’s Watch raiding party learning that the white walkers are not just legends. Seeing the icy blue eyes of a child who had been dead just moments before made an impression that instantly sucked the viewer into the world of Westeros and gave us nightmares. The scene was beautifully shot, spared no gore, and let us know right off the bat what sort of thing we were getting ourselves into.
12. The Vale of Arryn
“We have no executioner here in The Eyrie. Life is more elegant here.”
This almost didn’t make my list because it was a lot less frightening in the show than it was in the books, and this is a Game of Thrones list, not A Song of Ice and Fire list. After repeat viewings however, I decided that the Eyrie has earned its spot in my countdown for being the scariest setting in the show.
While it’s not immediately scary, there is something deeply unsettling about a castle that prides itself on being a pinnacle of elegance and sophistication while still housing its share of horrors.
Prisoners are kept in sky cells, rooms that are open on one side so that the captured can see just how many hundreds of feet there are between them and the ground. This is made worse by the fact that the floors tilt ever so slightly toward the fall and the prisoners are looked after by the brutish and abusive Mord.
After we get to see Tyrion in one of the sky cells, his demand for justice shows us just a little bit of how people are tried in The Vale of Arryn – they can choose between making their case to a breast-feeding child obsessed with “watching men fly” or a trial by combat, during which the moon door is opened. In either scenario, anyone found guilty is dropped out the moon door nearly a thousand feet to their death.
The setting was incredibly well chosen, playing on a common fear of heights to create something sinister masquerading as something beautiful.
11. Ice Spiders
“The swept through cities and kingdoms riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds.”
The spiders are a unique list item, as they haven’t actually been on the show yet. With any luck, we’ll never see these monsters depicted at all – but there has been more than a little bit of foreshadowing that they might make an appearance. They started making references to these creatures as early as season one.
Although we actually see White Walkers riding reanimated horse corpses, in the legends, the army of the dead used to ride into battle on “ice spiders as big as hounds.”
If Old Nan was the only one to mention them, I’d feel a little better, but the spiders are also mentioned by a wildling elder north of the wall in the episode entitled “Hardhome.”
These haven’t made an appearance in the show yet, but they didn’t need to be shown to earn a spot on this list. The idea that they might show up is more than enough, and I for one will feel a lot safer if we never have to see them on screen.
“There are old stories about ice spiders as big as hounds.”
“And with the things we’ve seen, don’t you believe them?”
10. The Ironborn
“What is dead may never die.”
Through the hostage highborn Theon Greyjoy’s dialogue, we get glimpses into how harsh the Iron Islands are even in the early seasons. We know they reave and rape, taking what they want by killing those who have it, or “paying the iron price.” Their lords have taken the words “we do not sow” as their House motto. They execute people by staking their limbs to the beach so they watch helplessly as the tide comes into claim their lives. They worship a deity called The Drowned God.
What earned them the spot on this list however is their coronation custom, which we finally get to see toward the end of season six. For years we had observed the common phrase on the Iron Islands; “what is dead may never die.”
After the Ironborn have selected a new king they immediately drown him. “Let the fish eat the scales off his eyes.” Once his lungs are full of water they put him on the beach where he is resurrected by the stare of a priest. We learn then then that there is a second part of the phrase; “but rises again harder and stronger.”
Seeing that the Ironborn customs are just as tough on highborn gives us a new appreciation for just how twisted the native iron-islanders are.
9. Lord Petyr Baelish
“A man with no motives is a man no one suspects. Always keep your foes confused. If they don’t know who you are or what you want, they can’t know what you plan to do next.”
How do I even begin to describe the dangerous enigma that is Littlefinger? We begin to suspect that he only has his best interest in mind when he betrays Eddard Stark at the end of season one, ultimately leading to Ned’s execution. The point is further hammered in when he informs on the Tyrells and stops their plot to marry Sansa to Loras and gives one of his employees to Joffrey to abuse and murder after learning she’s been informing on him.
“She was a bad investment on my part.”
When we find out he was the one who conspired with Olena Tyrell to poison Joffrey at his own wedding, despite all the power and wealth that the Lannisters have given him, he gives a speech to Sansa about how to always keep enemies confused to avoid suspicion. Not only are his foes confused, but so are we.
The final shock is not when he kills his wife Lady Lysa Arryn after confessing his undying love for her sister, but actually when Lysa reveals that she actually murdered Jon Arryn for Petyr. That’s right, Littlefinger is actually the one who started the war of the five kings, blaming it on the Lannisters to make the lions and wolves fight each other so he could play both sides to his advantage. It made us reconsider everything we thought we know about the show, and lets us know that Petyr was scheming and murdering before we ever knew him. I guess we shouldn’t have been so surprised after his little speech in season three.
“Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
He puts on a playful, smiling facade but we know that there’s more going on in his mind than will probably ever be revealed, and that’s what makes him so terrifying. We don’t ever know for sure what he’s after or what all he’s capable of doing to get there. He makes us question everything we think we know time and time again, and even if you aren’t afraid of him, there’s no denying he adds a deep layer of tension to the show.
8. The Sons of Stannis Baratheon
“Oh my sweet boys. Petyr, Tommard, Edric.”
When I say “sons” I mean it in the loosest sense of the word. All the male children born to Stannis are, well, not exactly good heirs to his throne.
His wife bears him three stillborn sons. We know there are three of them, because at one point we get to see where Lady Selyse keeps them preserved in jars – something that’s much more disturbing than the children themselves.
I think it’s safe to say however that his worst “child” is the shadow demon Stannis manages to put in Melisendre. Watching her birth that thing is still as uncomfortable as I have ever been watching the show, and man was I relieved when she denied him a second one.
7. The Silent Mountain
“You should know, the process may change him somewhat.”
Gregor Clegane was a pretty terrifying guy anyway – between his size and inclination toward violence, I can’t think of anyone who would want to meet this guy in a dark alley.
He can decapitate a horse with one swing, is willing to murder a knight in cold blood right front of the entire court, held his own brother’s face in the fire for playing with the wrong toy, crushed in a man’s skull with his bare hands, and that’s all before he gets turned into a monster.
After he’s poisoned by Oberyn Martell during a trial by combat, Maester Pycell says that he can’t be saved. Qyburn has an idea though, and after nearly an entire season of glimpses into the process, Gregor made his return to the screen in the season five finale, bigger and scarier than ever.
He has “taken a vow of silence until all the queen’s enemies are defeated” but he doesn’t need to talk to haunt our nightmares, especially not with the bits of purple skin and red eyes that we can see underneath the full body armor that he wears all the time.
6. Caches of Wildfire
“Burn them all.”
Jaime Lannister starts the show with his most memorable moment being pushing a child out of a window after he gets caught having sex with his twin sister – so we really didn’t expect to like him as much as we do now. Perhaps his most redeemable moment is a chilling one, where he explains why he killed The Mad King.
King Aerys Targaryen had hidden caches of wildfire all around the city. His final order was to burn the entirety of Kings Landing down, along with the half a million residents, himself and Jaime included. The Mad King thought he would be reborn in the flames as a dragon after King’s Landing was destroyed, and for the last few hours of his life he had just been repeating the phrase “burn them all.”
At the point when Jaime tells this story, we have already seen a little bit of what Wildfire can do thanks to the Battle of Blackwater bay, where we learn that the substance is highly volatile and can burn on water – so it gives us a disturbing idea about what that much of the stuff can do.
Unfortunately, it’s a level of destruction we later get to see for ourselves in the season six finale. Cersei uses the caches of wildfire to burn down the Sept, the Tyrells, and all followers of The High Sparrow.
5. The Lord of Light
“Septons speak of seven gods. There are but two. A god of love and light and joy, and a god of darkness, evil and fear. Eternally at war.”
Melisendre is pretty much bad news. She burns nonbelievers alive to appease her fire god, she leads a man into a war he cannot win because she believes him to be the lord’s chosen, she burns blood relations to her king for the power found in king’s blood. She does this to serve one of two gods, but believe it or not, she does it in the name of the god who is supposed to be the better alternative.
While there is something terrifying about fanaticism and devotion to harsh deities in any case, what makes Melisendre and her Lord of Light so concerning is that she does have power through her belief – raising the question of her god possibly being the real, bloodthirsty deal.
Whether he is the one true god and whether or not Melisendre is ever right about who his champion is, the things she has done in his name are chilling enough on their own.
“For the night is dark, and full of terrors.”
4. The Hall of Faces
“Here we served the Many-Faced God. To serve well, a girl must become no one.”
Although there is no shortage of creepy religions depicted in the show, this is perhaps the most chilling. The theory is that no matter what god you believe in or how you pray to him, he is all the same person. He goes by the name “The Many-Faced God” though we know who he truly is thanks to Syrio Forel in season one.
“There is only one God, and his name is death.”
In season two Arya meets a man with the ability to change his face and kill anyone in the world, so long as he has their name. At the end of season four she sets sail to Braavos to learn how to change her own face. There she joins the temple of the Many-Faced God, also known as The House of Black and White.
If you’re not sold on nameless assassin shapeshifters killing people to appease a god of death, the Hall of Faces will probably help. This is a room in the temple were faces of sacrifices and servants hang on the walls for use by the higher ups in the organization.
3. Ramsay Bolton
“You think he’s going to fall into your trap, he won’t. He’s the one who lays traps.”
You guys had to know he was coming, right?
Before we dig into what makes Ramsay Bolton one of the most terrifying characters in any show ever, let’s just be fair and admit he didn’t ever have a shot at being normal. House Bolton was messed up long before he was even born.
With the House words “our knives are sharp” and the graphically flayed man who adorns their banner, you know right away these guys mean business.
Roose Bolton, Ramsay’s father, gives us a little bit of insight both into the history of the banner and Ramsay’s presumably horrific childhood; “A tortured man has few secrets. A flayed man has none.”
Like Petyr Baelish, he’s unpredictable, but unlike Petyr his goal isn’t power. He doesn’t do terrible things to get what he wants, he does terrible things because he enjoys doing them. He does more than his fair share of flaying, and it doesn’t stop there.
He psychologically and physically abuses his partners, gets help from his hounds hunting down his ex-girlfriends, plays elaborate mindgames with people he’s never met to see how they react, and he just looks so happy doing it.
It may seem like he’s pretty high on my list considering that he’s only human, but I think that’s what makes Ramsay so terrifying; he’s human. He’s not cursed and the madness in him isn’t part of a dark fantasy world, it’s part of reality. There really could be and are men like Ramsay, and the reality of this makes his character all the more terrifying.
It’s also worth nothing that he’s the only thing in Game of Thrones that scared me more in the show than in the books.
A large part of this is thanks to his marriage to Sansa Stark. In the book, he marries her friend Jeyne Pool (while she’s pretending to be Arya Stark) and while we still feel bad for the horrible abuses we know she’s suffering behind the scenes, we’re not as attached to her as we are to Sansa. We’ve seen Sansa grow up, so it hurts and disturbs us much more to see how she suffers at the hands of her husband.
“He already hurts me every night.”
From the overly-graphic depiction of their wedding night to the bruises we see covering her the next day, it’s all too clear what she’s experiencing, and it was something that was definitely shaking to audiences.
“I’ve seen what it does.”
Plagues are scary, and short of Captain Trips I can’t think of any fictional epidemics scarier than Grayscale, which caused the Doom of Valyria.
Aside from bringing down one of the greatest empires, there are a lot of reasons to fear grayscale. It’s highly contagious, it’s aesthetically very frightening, there’s no known cure, and it doesn’t actually kill you. Once the disease spreads enough it takes over your body completely, turning you into one of the “stone men.”
Fast, violent, and beyond all humanity, the stone men are intent on destroying others and spreading this plague. In the ruins of Old Valyria there is actually an island filled entirely with these bloodthirsty creatures.
In season five we see Tyrion and Jorah sail past the island, where they recite from a poem about “The Doom.”
“They held each other close and turned their backs upon the end.
The hills that split asunder and the black that ate the skies.”
Shireen Baratheon is one of the only people ever known to have the disease “cured” but even then it leaves her face incredibly disfigured. There’s also a disturbing story in the show about how she contracted grayscale, and we’re given a hint as to just how contagious the plague is, as she gets it from a doll rather than a person.
1. The Battle of Hardhome
“We’re leaving too many behind.”
I did not give the number one slot of this list out lightly, but this particular scene was brimming with nightmare fuel from start to finish, and it easily stands out as the all-time scariest scene in Game of Thrones history.
While you could argue that there are things scarier in premise than this fight with the White Walkers, who we’ve known about since literally the first scene in the show, there’s little denying that the scale for this battle was epic and terrifying – and it worked so excellently in a visual format. The design, the effects, and the cinematography worked together to make this scene a truly memorable one in the show. Hardhome let us see the White Walkers at their worst, and it took the scariest creature in the show and amped them way up.
I don’t even know where to start with this scene.
The directing was spot on, and there was no lack of emotion. When the order is given to close the gates trapping thousands of wildlings on the wrong side of the defensive perimeter, it was absolutely heart-wrenching. Hearing their cries for help and seeing the gate shudder as desperate people pound on it to evade their approaching deaths was terrible. It goes from emotional to downright chilling in a single instant when all the noise from behind the gate suddenly stops.
A single Thenn investigates by slowly approaching a hole in the gate. He presses his eye to peer through in a moment so full of tension as to put some of the greatest horror directors to shame. Then there is the shocking reveal that every single life that was just snuffed out is already another soldier added to the army of the dead, initiating one of the most epic battle scenes in television to this day.
Unlike many of the other epic battles ever to grace our screens, Hardhome is filled with cinematic horrors all the way through. The gorgeous cinematography captures not only the scale of the fighting, but the haunting design for the individual White Walkers themselves. Arguably one of the creepiest un-named characters in television history is the emaciated, gray child seen in this scene. His ribs are showing through his mottled flesh and there are empty, sunken holes where his eyes should be.
We thought the scares had ended as we watched the final boat sail away with our hero, Jon Snow, but the White Walkers had one more trick up their sleeve. A the Night King raises his arms slowly we see the bodies of the fallen Wildlings and Night’s Watch men alike start to twitch eerily right before their eyes snap open. This was a chilling throwback to the show’s first scare in the pilot, but on a scale previously un-imagined. There is no music or dialogue to end the show on, and the episode ends to the sounds of howling winds and a feeling of helplessness as the camera pans out to show the army at its full force.
This is one scene of the show that was genuinely horrifying, and the more you watch it the scarier it seems to get.