[ed. note: This post originally ran in 2009. I still like the nightmare-moment idea, so here is an update!]
In celebration of our spookiest holiday, I’m going to share what really gives me the creeps. I’ve always thought that the best horror movies are the ones that stay with you long after the movie is over. And no experience stays with you quite like the ones that lurk in your subconscious. With that in mind, here is a list of movies that have given me nightmares. Keep in mind that these movies aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, or even the best. What unites them is that the dreams they inspire come from a single, disturbing movie moment, and they all attack my primal fears.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.
Bob Flanagan (who you may recognize from Nine Inch Nails’ Happiness in Slavery video) lived with cystic fibrosis, a debilitating disease that left him in constant pain. As you probably guessed from the title, Bob was also a masochist, and his bizarre self-mutilations were a transgressive form of therapy. Kirby Dick’s insightful documentary follows Bob final years, and juxtaposes disturbing scenes with much-needed moments of wit.
Nightmare inducing moment: In an uninterrupted take, Bob nails his penis to a wooden board.
Nightmare: Some unknowable force tortures me… down there.
Primal fear: Losing my manhood? I don’t like thinking about it (as of this sentence, I’ve inadvertently crossed my legs).
The first part of Three… Extremes, a collection of three short films from Asia’s best horror directors, is also the most shocking. Without giving too much way, let’s just say Dumplings is about a woman who will go to any length to maintain her youth and beauty.
Nightmare-inducing moment: The last image, which “is depraved on a scale that might have shocked the surrealists.”
Nightmare: I’m eaten alive, and have the lucidity to grasp every grisly detail.
Primal Fear: Death.
Like most genres, the execution of a horror film is more important than its concept. Here is a classic example where the concept (mutant cows terrorize Irish scientists) fails to suggest how scary this movie actually gets.
Nightmare-inducing moment: A scientist reaches into a cow’s womb and something inside bites off part of her finger.
Nightmare: It is imperative I reach for something in the darkness, and I have the feeling a creature is lurking nearby.
Primal Fear: The unknown.
John Hillcoat’s haunting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, in which a father and son struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Nightmare-inducing moment(s): There are actually two for this one, but they’re similar in impact. The first occurs when the man’s wife, played by Charlize Theron, gives up on life. Without proper clothes or protection, she invites death by wandering into the darkness. The second occurs when the thief (Michael K. Williams) is left without clothes on the road, and reacts by pouting frightfully.
Nightmare: Being engulfed by darkness.
Primal fear: Helplessness, the dark.
James Cameron directed this sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Cameron took the “bigger is better” approach to sequel-making. The last 45 minutes of this movie are an intense white-knuckle hell ride.
Back story: Being responsible adults, my parents let me watch Aliens when I was six. It gave me horrible dreams for about a decade. Now it’s one of my favorites.
Nightmare-inducing moment: This is a tie. The first moment is when Ripley discovers a still-breathing colonist who promptly has an alien burst from her chest. The scene is tame now, but for a kid who had no understanding of fatalistic suicide, the phrase “Kill me” leaves psychic trauma. The second moment happens when the queen rips Bishop in half. His robot insides are gross.
Nightmare: Aliens pop out of my chest. The queen rips me in half. Repeatedly.
Primal fear: Being destroyed from the inside.
Back story: Being a responsible adult, my 9th grade science teacher showed us Dante’s Peak in class. She claimed the movie’s science was accurate. That may have very well been true, but it still doesn’t excuse my teacher’s wanton laziness.
Nightmare-inducing moment: The plucky family and the badass scientist are stuck on a boat. Through the miracle of science, the volcano turns the lake into a vat of boiling acid. Sweet Old Granny does everyone a solid by jumping into the acid, and pulling the boat to shore. Granny dies.
Nightmare: I turn on the shower, and boiling acid comes out. It burns off my skin.
Primal fear: Distrust of the familiar.
Nightmare-inducing moment: Faceless doctors try to operate on Jacob. They keep telling him that he’s dead.
Nightmare: All my friends are faceless monsters.
Primal Fear: Helplessness, again.
Touching the Void.
This documentary is about a mountain climber who shatters his kneecap and falls into a crevasse. Amazingly, he survives.
Nightmare-inducing moment(s): The mountain climber is hanging off the edge of a crevasse. He cannot see the bottom, and is tethered to his climbing partner. They cannot communicate. Left with no other option, the partner cuts the rope. The climber falls.
Nightmare: Falling endlessly, usually accompanied by a hypnagogic jerk.
Primal Fear: Heights – duh.
An awkward-but-sexy girl tries to make friends. Her relationships don’t work out, so she decides to “make” a friend of her own. Dismemberment ensues.
Back story: I have a strange compulsion to show this movie to friends. They always scream in horror at least once. It usually occurs when blind toddlers crawl over broken glass.
Nightmare-inducing moment: In an unbroken shot, May shoves a long pair of scissors into her eyeball (see above).
Nightmare: Compulsively blinding self.
Primal Fear: Loss of control.
Nightmare: I’m Dustin Hoffman in that scene. Just thinking about it makes my teeth ache.
Primal Fear: Helplessness, again.
Thus concludes my chronicle of what movies keep me up at night. After re-reading all the nightmares, I’ve come to three conclusions: (1) the scariest movie anybody sees is the first one they shouldn’t see as a kid, (2) I don’t like going to the doctor or dentist, and (3) I’m absolutely terrified of losing control of my body.
Writing this post has certainly piqued my curiosity: what movies give you nightmares?