Claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, is perhaps the most universal anxiety; while it’s a condition that literally debilitates thousands of sufferers, everyone is claustrophobic to a certain degree. Admit it. Because claustrophobia is at the core of another fear that strikes terror like a plague—the fear of being buried alive: Taphophobia. As spaces tighten and movements are restricted, the sensation of suffocation becomes palpable.
Claustrophobia has been a component of horror cinema from the very beginning, just as it was a tenet of Gothic literature before it. Consider the works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and (of course) The Premature Burial are just a few examples of Poe tales that exasperate claustrophobia.
This list represents the best examples of horror movies that induce claustrophobia, films that could probably send sensitive viewers to the hospital. Just remember to remain calm—and breathe.
The Descent (2005)
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Neil Marshall
Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid |
The Descent, Neil Marshall’s spelunking nightmare, is generally considered one of the most effective horror movies of the 21st Century. The “Crawlers”, with their dead eyes, translucent skin, and bat-like features are scary as hell, but the cruelest and most merciless villain is the cave itself. When Sara has her panic attack right before the cave-in, I can feel my own chest tighten. My pulse quickens just thinking about it now!
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writers: André Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, 1 more credit »
Stars: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett |
Claustrophobia meets sci-fi and metaphysics in this spin on the typical Purgatory narrative. A group of stranger struggle for their lives, moving through a seemingly infinite number of identical cube-shaped rooms—some containing fatal obstacles. Tensions rise and psyches shatter in this riddle wrapped in an enigma. Surviving requires nerves of steel, Machiavellian social skills, and some serious brain power—not to mention containment of massive claustrophobia. While escape is clearly the goal, no one knows what (if anything) awaits them outside.
Grave Encounters (2011)
Directors: Colin Minihan, Stuart Ortiz, 1 more credit »
Writers: The Vicious Brothers, Stuart Ortiz, 1 more credit »
Stars: Ben Wilkinson, Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko |
Haunted House stories all rely on claustrophobia to ratchet up the tension, and Grave Encounters pushes fear of entrapment to crazy limits. When exits no longer lead outside the crew of a paranormal reality show are thrust into an endless night where the outside world no longer seems to exist. An abandoned mental hospital becomes a terrifying labyrinth of haunted operating rooms and subterranean service tunnels. When batteries begin to die and lights go out forever, the encroaching darkness feels as thick as fog, and as heavy as mud.
Fermat’s Room (2007)
Directors: Luis Piedrahita, Rodrigo Sopeña
Writers: Luis Piedrahita, Rodrigo Sopeña
Stars: Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Lluís Homar |
Imagine a 90 minute version of the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars. A group of mathematicians, all supposedly strangers, are invited to the remote estate of a man known only as “Fermat”. Dinner takes a claustrophobic turn when the walls, literally, begin closing in on them. Complex riddles and complex relationships are analyzed in a story that gives new meaning to the term: Thinking outside the box.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Dan O’Bannon (story), Ronald Shusett (story), 1 more credit »
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt |
It may be set in the future and in outer space, but Alien employs the same claustrophobia-stoking techniques that writers have been using for centuries, most notably in Gothic literature. Watching Dallas track the titular Alien through the ship’s dark and narrow service shafts is incredibly stressful and suspenseful. Throughout the film, Ripley is forced into tighter and tighter quarter, until she’s trapped in a closet. Outer space adds a whole new dimension of terror to claustrophobia, when a lifeless, freezing vacuum makes escaping tight confinement impossible.
The Divide (2011)
Director: Xavier Gens
Writers: Karl Mueller, Eron Sheean
Stars: Lauren German, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia |
Few films address the visceral realities of long-term confinement more effectively and unnervingly then French director Xavier Gens’ bomb-shelter horror movie The Divide. A nuclear event sends strangers scrambling underground as New York City crumbles. Trapped indefinitely, the survivors must endure horrors both mundane and extreme. You can almost smell the decomposing bodies and human waste in an explosive atmosphere drenched in psycho-sexual tensions. The only thing more terrifying then this claustrophobic nightmare is what remains of the world outside. Maybe those who died in the blast were lucky. Warning: This film is brutal—just what you’d expect from the King of extreme French cinema.
Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Writers: Clive Barker (based upon the short story “Dread”), Anthony DiBlasi (screenplay)
Stars: Jackson Rathbone, Hanne Steen, Laura Donnelly |
A group of college students decide to film their in-depth study of Fear itself. First they persuade subjects to admit their greatest anxieties—then arrange situations that bring them face to face with what they most dread. The experiment culminates in an event that will have claustrophobics clawing at the walls—and suppressing their gag reflexes. Dread is based on a story by Clive Barker, but it has none of the fantastic or supernatural trappings usually considered his hallmark. Instead, Barker delivers a bleak and gritty story drenched in perverse academia and intellectual sadism.
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: Brian Nelson (screenplay), M. Night Shyamalan (story)
Stars: Chris Messina, Caroline Dhavernas, Bokeem Woodbine |
Elevators can be a daily challenge for claustrophobics, and Devil, written by M. Night Shyamalan, will have you thinking twice about taking the stairs. Part Who-Done-It, part theological horror, it’s a supernatural murder mystery confined to an eight-by-eight elevator stuck between floors. If Shyamalan’s got his hand in it, you know there’s gotta be a twist. While nowhere near as glorious as The Sixth Sense, Devil is a bright spot on the writer’s extremely uneven resume.
As Above So Below (2014)
Writers: Drew Dowdle (screenplay), John Erick Dowdle (screenplay)
Stars: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge |
It’s not a perfect film, but As Above So Below is one of the most entertaining horror movies of the year—and definitely a nightmare for claustrophobics. Clearly influenced by The Da Vinci Code and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s also a modern reinterpretation of Dante’s Inferno. The film’s mantra, “The only way out is down”, flies in the face of basic self-preservation instincts, producing an atmosphere of extremely high anxieties. The “found-footage” presentation lends itself to the feeling of confinement. My biggest complaint is that the cave-in scene is almost identical to the one in The Descent.
The Hole (2001)
Director: Nick Hamm
Writers: Guy Burt (novel), Ben Court (screenplay), 1 more credit »
Stars: Thora Birch, Desmond Harrington, Daniel Brocklebank |
While it never got the attention it deserved, The Hole is brilliant psychological horror—and torture for claustrophobics. What begins as an extended game of hooky becomes a living hell for a group of prep-school kids in England when they find themselves trapped underground. Thora Birch is incredible as Liz, a manipulative sociopath skilled at playing the victim, like a teenage “Verbal” Kint/Keyser Söze with the powers of feminine persuasion. The Hole is, among other things, a morality tale about obsession taken to a terrifying depth. If you’re wondering why you never heard of this taut jaw-dropper, check out my recent op-ed: HERE.
Asylum Blackout (2011)
Director: Alexandre Courtès
Writers: S. Craig Zahler, Jérôme Fansten (additional dialogue and material)
Stars: Rupert Evans, Dave Legeno, Eric Godon |
The backstory is infamous: When Asylum Blackout premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 (under the title The Incident) two people in the audience passed out. If true, it’s an impressive feat indeed, reminiscent of the legendary initial screenings of The Exorcist in 1973. Criminally insane inmates take over when an electrical failure causes all the doors in the automated facility to unlock. The blue-collar kitchen staff is pushed from the cafeteria, to the kitchen, and into a pantry in this violent thriller that will leave claustrophobics gasping.
Twilight Zone: The Movie, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1983)
Directors: Joe Dante, John Landis, 2 more credits »
Writers: Rod Serling (television series The Twilight Zone), John Landis (prologue), 9 more credits »
Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow |
Nothing like hurtling through the atmosphere crammed into a cramped and crowded 6 ton death machine to exasperate a nasty case of claustrophobia. Add some bad weather, some sever turbulence, and a demonic Gremlin on the wing, and you’ve got a hellish nightmare scenario. John Lithgow’s portrayal of aviophobe John Valentine epitomizes extreme examples of anxieties associated with flying; the hysterical helplessness he emotes is absolutely palpable—and nearly enough to induce a panic attack by proxy.
What horror movies make you feel like the walls are closing in? Sound off in the comments!
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