There are the things we are legitimately afraid of, the very real threats that populate our news headlines each and everyday. And then there are the things that go bump in the night, the things that we actually fear, even if only on a subconscious level. Nightmares — we all have them. As we have conversations about our nightmares, it becomes painfully obvious that on some innate level, somewhere deep inside of us, we all face the same fears.
The Horror film has made a name for itself, cashing in on these very base fears that we, as a society, share. These films chill us to the bone because they touch on experiences that have terrified us, time and time again, in our own beds. So whether its a natural disaster, being trapped in an unknown space or even drowning, Hollywood’s got us all covered. If filmmakers know anything, it’s Psych 101. Get ready to face your worst nightmares with these 9 ruthlessly scary movies.
9. No Way Out
Whether you suffer from claustrophobia or not, the idea of being trapped in some unfamiliar space is simply terrifying. Nightmares about these include a number of variants — the space may be small or endless/maze-like, may be too dark to navigate or perhaps, even too bright. One thing holds true, these nightmares leave us feeling helpless and desperate. Panicked, even. These dreams tend to mean the sleeper is feeling trapped in a particular situation, or burdened by the sense that one has run out of options.
In the Saw franchise which launched in 2004, the filmmakers played on exactly this. Characters would wake to find themselves in compromising scenarios, in an unknown location. The only way out was to make a choice. The characters were those who the killer perceived to be at a crossroads in their life, needing to make the ultimate choice of life or death. The series was a major success, spawning 6 sequels.
8. In Over Your Head
The dream of drowning most often amounts to feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Loss of control over the situation is expressed subconsciously in this dream. Commonly, such dreams evoke a sense of having nowhere to go, with only water as far as the eye can see. It might mean it’s time to take control. If lucid dreaming isn’t for you, at least try to get ahead of whatever is burdening you in your awake hours.
While most horror movies carrying water as a motif, are dealing with another deep-seeded fear (sharks), the Japanese picture Dark Water, and its American remake hone-in on the psychological aspects of drowning, as it relates to anxiety itself. In both cases, a newly-divorced woman struggles to find her footing as a single-mom while simultaneously attempting to deal with the anger and depression that has come from the loss of her marriage. When she and her young child settle into a crummy apartment, the leaky ceiling is the least of her problems. That is, until the water simply won’t stop, and until the flooding becomes an overwhelming force that threatens to take both her sanity and her life.
7. Communication Breakdown
At its most basic level, the nightmare in which your important phone calls go unanswered seems like a very minor (yet rational) fear about the level of reliance we have on our technologies. But the unanswered phone call means a lot more on a psychological level. Whether the numbers won’t dial, the battery is dead, or it simply won’t stop ringing, it all amounts to a failure to communicate. These nightmares can be our minds telling us that there is someone we are not reaching out to, or someone that we need to reconnect with. Problems of communication may seem minor, but they can certainly overtake us.
In You’re Next, a group of siblings and their significant others come together to celebrate their parents 35th wedding anniversary at their cottage in the woods. On the surface, it seems romantic and sweet, but just underneath the surface, everyone is waiting to explode. We quickly learn that all of their relationships are lacking in the communication department, and grudges rule the atmosphere. To make matters worse though, when a group of deranged killers begin to attack from the outside, they cannot find a way to communicate a plan effectively, leaving everyone vulnerable. Oh, and the phones don’t work, so help is NOT on the way.
6. When Disaster Strikes
Natural or manmade, disaster dreams throw you into a situation you are simply not prepared for. Fighting for your life without the skill-set or know-how is one of the most terrifying things anyone can face, awake or asleep. These night terrors can only mean one thing, you are ill-prepared for an upcoming event in your life (or at the very least, you fear you may be ill-prepared for it). Enter every apocalypse movie ever, from tornadoes to zombies.
A particularly eerie film of this sort is Blindness, which features an epidemic from unknown origins causing people to lose their eyesight in an instant. This disaster film also incorporates fear of the dark, since the characters find themselves literally unable to see what is approaching. While not strictly a horror film, this one does an amazing job at creating a Hell within the diegesis. As the epidemic spreads, people find that they are incapable of the simplest tasks and come to rely on one another, until they realize they can’t do that either. Out of the chaos springs more chaos, and violence.
5. Failing to Make the Grade
It is said that failing a test in a dream means the dreamer is having doubts about whether they have truly earned the things they have achieved in life. However, it can also point to the feeling that your achievements have been overlooked. Still, there is something inherently nightmarish about entering a room and realizing there is an important test in front of you. Test anxiety can be a very real thing, and the nightmares can really haunt. Perhaps the scariest thing about tests is the sensation that so much rides on this one moment. The pressure can easily overwhelm.
Taking the notion of pressure further, Exam follows a group of young hopefuls writing a test that will determine who gets the big corporate job. People might literally kill for it. Worse, in a dog-eat-dog economy, the suits are betting on it. The confusing exam throws all the participants into a panic, and once the gloves come off, things only get darker. It’s a kill or be killed world, and that’s all the test really wants to know is how far they’ll go for a passing grade.
4. The Crumbling Foundation
Nightmares about house loss or damage are very common. Of course, the loss or damage of a home is a waking nightmare as well. But when we have these dreams, it goes a little deeper. On some level, it seems we believe we are what we own. Losing what we own then can be interpreted as a reflection of ourselves coming undone. You might be harboring inner feelings of being broken, or mistreated in some way. Within the nightmare, we watch our lives essentially come undone. It’s nothing short of a terrible feeling.
Amityville Horror is more than a ghost story, it’s a living nightmare about losing your home, and yourself. The story follows a young family who, in an attempt to move up in the world, buy their dream-house — or rather, their dream fixer-upper. As they commence their work, everything seems to come together quite nicely, until George starts to change. He stops acting like himself, and while at first it seems it may be the stress of the new home and finances, at a certain point, it becomes clear that the house itself has changed him. Possessed, angry and violent, the Lutz family soon realizes that they have not only lost their house, but it has taken George with it. What they’re seeing is their very lives fall apart.
Many of us have nightmares about our cars not starting, or even malfunctioning in some way as we head straight for a crash. It gets the adrenaline pumping, and makes it pretty difficult to get back to sleep. So what’s going on? Powerlessness, of course. The concern that things are out of our control often come through in these types of dreams, and this can even lead into the nightmare of being lost or trapped, as our cars can no longer take us home or to other familiar places.
Horror movies often draw on this idea, having victims make it to their cars only to realize they (for whatever reason) cannot make the big escape. Without this control over where we can go, we are left completely vulnerable. In The Hills Have Eyes, car trouble turns out to be a huge problem for one family. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the family is left with nowhere to hide from the group of monsters who inhabit the area. A massacre ensues.
2. Nail in the Coffin
Despite the old adage that “if you die in your sleep you never wake up”, the truth is, people have death dreams all the time. Within a dream, the moment you realize you have died can be terrifying. Some have said that it may be signifying a desire to end one phase in your life and move into the next, which is actually rather positive. But that does not help with the morbidity of witnessing or having to come to terms with your own death, even if it is only a dream. After all, such nightmares can also point to our real fears about our safety and/or health.
SPOILER ALERT: In The Sixth Sense Dr. Crowe is in fact dead, unknowingly even to himself. This major twist sent a chill up the collective spine of audiences everywhere and continues to frighten, playing on that dreaded fear of having to face one’s own death. Ghost movies can really benefit from this kind of plot twist, because while viewers are already unease with the notion of death being so blatantly explored on-screen, realizing that their point-of-identification (a main character) has been dead all along, reminds us of the nightmarish fact that we too will face that mysterious day (whatever it holds). Discovering you are dead is probably just as terrifying as discovering you are dying — nightmare or not.
1. Preyed Upon
There is nothing cute about a cat-and-mouse chase. What it is, is a rather helpless victim being hunted and attacked by a far more dangerous predator. We use the phrase in a casual, colloquial manner, but at the end of the day, we do not want to have any part of it. Nightmares about being chased, hunted, attacked and so forth can be devastating. From sweats, to palpitations, to screaming, we’ve all had them, and we’ve all handled them poorly. That’s because being the victim is probably everyone’s number one fear. Freud believed that the ubiquitousness of the chase dream signalled the human flight-or-fight response to danger. In this case, stress causes the dream, but how you react in the dream is said to parallel how you handle your stress. What do you do in a tough situation (aside from have nightmares about being chased, of course)?
The entire slasher genre is playing on these very nightmares. The films are essentially a cat-and-mouse chase, in which the predator has a mask and a big scary weapon, and the victim is mostly tripping and screaming (also, her car won’t start). All of our nightmares get collected into one action-packed hour and a half, full of violence and terror, throughout which the chase is constant. Take Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a prime example. The scariest aspect of that film is the level of helplessness that overcomes Sally. Being Sally (or as incapable of Sally) is really our worst nightmare.