You won’t find them in the horror section on Netflix, but they can terrify in new and bloodless ways
Horror is a strange genre.
It is strange that to divert ourselves from life, we intentionally seek out images and sounds that make us cringe, jump and scream at death. When our dogs and cats are fed and free of danger, they curl up and go to sleep; human beings get bored and conjure their worst nightmares. When you stop and think about it, horror movies are just about as perverse and uniquely human as things get.
In search of that controlled thrill, horror films have become more and more extreme. There are two major strands of cinematic horror, and both have reached their limits. There is horror of the body: slasher, torture and monster movies that revolve around us being stalked, crushed, or eaten alive.
Then there is horror of the spirit: religious, supernatural and psychological horror movies that revolve around us being possessed, haunted and disturbed. Horror directors continue to push the envelope in either direction, sometimes landing on the far side of comic lunacy as a result.
Fortunately, there are other more philosophical fright-fests that go beyond this Cartesian split in horror. In the rich Catholic tradition behind Halloween (a.k.a. “All Hallows Eve”), natural and supernatural realities existed in “a relationship of communion or co-inherence.” At its best, philosophy grapples with human beings in the same way: as a single unity of body and mind, acting freely in and coping with the world as it is, not as we pretend it to be.
So here are five films exploring the dark side of the five branches of philosophy, and although you won’t find them in the horror section on Netflix, they give new meaning to the word “scary.” At first this may seem like tame terrain compared to the savagery of Saw or unpredictability of Paranormal Activity. But these films are still very much for mature audiences only; more importantly, they grapple with the very real goblins of our own knowledge, freedom and death, goblins that—to quote CS Lewis—can yield either “everlasting splendors or immortal horrors.”
Epistemological/Logical Horror: A Serious Man
“The uncertainty principle,” Dr. Gopnik announces in front of a massive chalkboard of calculations. “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” In the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, skepticism—the dark side of epistemology—is front and center. The film opens with a strange horror-like prologue where a woman stabs a man she says is a “dybbuk” (evil spirit). The man laughs but then wanders off into the night in pain. It’s never quite clear what that’s all about, but then the same is true of physics professor Larry Gopnik’s personal and professional life in 1960s Minnesota, which suddenly comes crashing down without warning or explanation. Paralleling the dark journey of Job, Dr. Gopnik consults three “thinking” elders, madly searching for some kind of foundational knowledge to rebuild his life on. He seeks but doesn’t find—that is until one final storm gathers …
Metaphysical/Phenomenological Horror: The Machinist
With nods to Dostoevsky peppered throughout, this English language film produced and filmed in Spain is a steady, unnerving psychological drama with a “body horror” element in the vein of Cronenberg. But it’s more than just a plunge into mutilation and alienation; things also take a sharp metaphysical turn when the lead character, an emaciated machine worker suffering from insomnia, begins to question the line between reality and unreality altogether. Is the world a cold, calculating machine that caught his hand, or the reflection of his own interior world—or both?
Ethical Horror: There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s father Ernie was a TV “horror host” who presented old horror flicks on late-night television. That might explain why the auteur titled and directed his epic American drama There Will Be Blood as a kind of horror film, with the lead character modeled off none other than Dracula. (“I just had it in my head, underneath it all, that we were making a horror film,” Anderson said.) Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows self-made businessman Daniel Plainview on a slow, steady descent into the pit of his own greed. Despite every heart-thumping turn where it looks for a second like Plainview will be pried opened by love and grace, the hardy misanthrope continues on his quest for capitalistic gain. In the final scenes we confront a creature in a brightly lit bowling alley that—because slowly, freely and irrevocably self-created—is more monstrous than any vampire.
Political Horror: Dr. Strangelove
Man, Aristotle wrote, is a political animal—but in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, we see the animal side of politics. Lines like “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here—this is the war room!” have given Dr. Strangelove a well-deserved reputation as a kind of comedy. But as one critic put it, it’s possibly the darkest comedy—or maybe the funniest horror movie—ever made. Recent headlines have given Kubrick’s satire about the razor’s edge of a cataclysmic nuclear war and the eternal recurrence of fascism new relevance, and it’s enough to haunt you all year round.
Aesthetic Horror: Eraserhead
David Lynch’s Eraserhead is the nightmare your nightmares have when they’re sleeping. The black-and-white cult classic is so creepy and disturbing that to actually sit through the entire thing is a herculean chore not unlike water torture. But it’s not the blood, radiator noises or disfigured characters that make this film horrific—though there is plenty of that; instead, it’s the disquieting anguish of it all, the drab and disordered atmosphere that feels so suffocating and inescapable. “In heaven, everything is fine,” one character sings over a blood-chilling organ—but clearly everything is not fine. Eraserhead gives us an upside-down world without any beauty, and so without any truth or goodness either. What could be scarier than that?