120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 5: Dreams and Hallucinations
Dreams and hallucinations can be the broadest of horror staples. Throw in some weird imagery, maybe a few jarring cuts, and you have an instant scare. But an effective dream sequence is more than technique, it’s a filmmaker capturing a specific type of fear: losing control, having your life shattered, or meeting a manifestation of your guilt. The dream or the hallucination is the character’s psyche putting the pieces together or falling apart completely. Of course, dreams don’t always require messages. Sometimes, they’re just damn scary.
Aliens (1986)- Ripley’s nightmare
Aliens is the perfect sequel for many reasons. It follows in the footsteps of the original 1979 classic while existing as its own entity and delivering new characters that are just as memorable as the first’s. What’s more, it favors high-tension action scenes over more traditional horror-centric scenes, demonstrating the malleability of the series.
James Cameron starts toying with audience expectations very early in the film, shortly after Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued from space hibernation by a Weyland-Yutani corporation space shuttle. In the safety of a space station, she is put under the care of nurses and under the watchful eye of corporate suit Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). While resting in bed, Ripley suddenly suffers from abdominal convulsions. Panicked, she looks down at her belly and discovers a small protrusion stretching her skin. Something is inside her, trying to get out…an alien chestburster! The music rises in a brilliant crescendo, the tension of the scene reaching its apex when…Ripley awakens from her nightmare. It’s an excellent scene that not only plays with Ripley’s post-traumatic stress but with the viewer’s gullibility in receiving a sequel seven years later. After all, Alien concludes with a surprise attack from the titular beast. If the creature made it as far as the capsule shuttle, perhaps a face hugger could have as well? How long could it have remained hidden? When did it snuggle up to Ripley for incubation? Dear lord, is Ripley about to die?
Of course not, silly. It’s just a bad dream. (Edgar Chaput)
American Werewolf in London (1981)- Family time interrupted
Directed by the brilliant John Landis and made well before the advent of CGI, An American Werewolf in London features not only the greatest werewolf transformation ever put to screen but one of the most memorable dream sequences as well.
As his nightmare begins, David (David Naughton) is back home with his family watching Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog debate the merits of violence in art on The Muppet Show. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. When David’s dad answers he is shot to death by what appears to be a group of mutilated Nazi zombies. They proceed to butcher David’s siblings, burn down the house, and slit David’s throat.
An American Werewolf in London is also credited as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. The Nazi uniforms surely carry weight for Landis, being Jewish and born just after the end of World War II. Apart from David and his Jewish family being slaughtered in his dream, the menorah, one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith, is also destroyed by the Nazi attackers. Of all the horror David experiences throughout the film, his “nightmare within a nightmare” reflects his biggest fear in life and ironically the horror unfolds in the safest of places–the family living room. (Ricky D)
Black Swan (2010) – From beautiful duckling to ugly swan
Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers hallucinates a fair amount in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a psychosexual thriller about an up-and-coming, albeit troubled dancing starlet.
These hallucinations are a byproduct of her relentless pursuit of perfection–“losing herself,” as her director (Vincent Cassel) suggests. While her initial hallucinations are more on the verge of the surreal, they slowly become more horrifying as she falls further into her nightmarish spiral. The night before the show opens, Nina arrives home after an upsetting encounter with Beth (Winona Ryder), her director’s original selection for the Swan Queen role. She believes she has seen Beth in her kitchen and is then directed to the noises of her mother’s paintings, moving and speaking. Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) tries to console her hysteric daughter, who pushes her out of her room and slams the door on her fingers.
The frantic pacing gives the viewer a proper idea of just how far into the abyss Nina has fallen. A bloody Beth in her vanity mirror is an image of guilt, the voices of the paintings are reflections of her mother’s pressure on her, and the shock of feathers underneath her skin and her legs violently breaking inward like a bird are the final steps to “losing herself.” With each vision, she is a vision of perfection, no matter how dark. (William Penix)
Donnie Darko (2001)- Donnie meets Frank
If you think Donnie Darko is like Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, think again. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a severely quiet teen who makes an effort to keep the hallucinations of his scary new rabbit friend, Frank, a secret. The brilliance behind Donnie Darko is that it sets up Donnie as being crazy, then slowly builds his lunacy to exceeding heights. His unsettling visions of wormholes become a psychological nightmare. His visit with his psychologist (Katharine Ross) becomes eerily sex-induced and awkward. As these visions spell the worst for him, our fear for Donnie progresses. It’s a psychological trip from beginning to end that all starts with Frank the Rabbit. A faint figure on a dark night. A menacing smile from the half-asleep Donnie. The whisper of “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.” From the get-go, there is much to be confused about. There is much to be afraid of. It all seems like one big looming dream with only one way of waking up. Richard Kelly’s cult classic isn’t quite horror or a psychological thriller, which makes it more distinctive and refreshing some fourteen years after its theatrical release. (Christopher Clemente)
The Exorcist (1973) – Father Karras’ dream
Horror movie dream sequences often deliver more shock than character insight. But The Exorcist isn’t a standard horror movie. After his first encounter with the demon inside young Regan McNeill, Father Karras (Jason Miller) returns to his tiny seminary apartment, shares his troubles with his college president friend, and goes to bed. The next 30 seconds prove that the most troubling events are nothing compared to what our own subconscious can deliver. Karras’ mind uses the dream to sort through feelings over his mother’s recent death as well as his own slipping faith in light of what he’s just seen. He sees his mother on a New York City sidewalk, mouthing “help me,” but he’s unable to reach her before she descends out of sight into a subway. A shot of her medallion dropping slowly to the floor symbolizes his diminishing faith. We also get the first flash of the demon’s face that adds a “did I just see that?” bit of jumpy tension to the surrealism (Friedkin would overexposure the shocking white visage when he revisited the film in 2000). The dream sequence confirms for the audience that The Exorcist is truly Father Karras’ story, a chronicle of his crisis of faith in the face of an unspeakable evil. It works with the logic of real dreams; we’ve all experienced our own versions of it (although, one hopes, without the demon face). In the end, that’s what makes it work. It’s more than an opportunity to barrage the audience with ghastly images; it’s a beautifully effective narrative device. (M. Robert Grunwald)
The Grey (2012)- Daddy says goodbye
Joe Carnahan’s best film follows a group of oil workers (led by Liam Neeson’s John Ottway) trying to traverse the Alaskan wilderness after a devastating plane crash. On their tail is a pack of highly aggressive wolves. After some deadly encounters, the group attempts to cross a deep chasm that could lead them to safety. One by one they make it to the treeline on an improvised rope line. Dermot Mulroney’s Talget is that last to go. His grip slips, he falls and bounces off tree branches with a force that would make John Rambo wince. As he lays on the ground, bleeding and immobile, he sees his young daughter above him. “I love you, Daddy,” she says before the growl of a wolf jump cuts to his character being viciously torn apart.
Dreams and hallucinations–badly out of place in otherwise excellent films like James Cameron’s Aliens, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers–are tired clichés in horror cinema. Usually employed to set up cheap jump scares or over-explain a character’s state of mind, Carnahan turns his hallucination sequence into a rare horror cinema moment of savage poetry. The Grey ultimately transcends the “nature’s revenge” subgenre and becomes a thoughtful meditation on life and death. (Terek Puckett)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)- Dance with a demon
For all of its influence on modern-day horror–Silent Hill to name a big one–Jacob’s Ladder is a master class in adding emotional depth underneath horrific scenes. Filled with equal parts dread and sadness, Adrian Lynn’s cult classic reminds us that to endure the horrific would be exhausting and depressing. Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is the poor soul coping with his brutal stint in Vietnam twenty years prior. When he sees a homeless man’s tail curl up under his jacket, he knows something is broken. But purging himself of his literal and figurative demons isn’t easy, especially when the peculiar sightings become full-on hallucinations. It all comes to a head when he and his girlfriend, Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena), go to a party. She wants to dance to the hot sounds of James Brown’s “My Thang.” He would rather nurse the wall. So she blows him off and finds a new partner–a writhing, winged demon that ravages her from behind. Lynn, editor Tom Rolfe, and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball all work in unison to deliver a lesson in fevered direction, edgy cross-cutting, and tense strobe lighting. Jacob rightfully freaks out and collapses to the floor, much to the bewilderment of Jezzy and the leering crowd. It’s the breaking point in the film where the distance between Jacob and his visions narrows for good. For us, it’s the moment he gets our full sympathies and we get a lesson in terror. (Shane Ramirez)
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)- War trauma
Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is as much concerned with paranoia and hallucination as John Frankenheimer’s, but the paranoia now exists within our contemporary political atmosphere. Concerning war heroes and fabrications, Demme’s iteration drips with cynicism not merely for politics and war, but humanity as a whole.
The most terrifying images of Bennett Marco’s (Denzel Washington) flashbacks to the Gulf War are about masculinity, heroism, and redemption. Marco has a dream the night of Vice Presidential nominee Raymond Shaw’s (Liev Shreiber) speech. A television exposé on his former comrade integrates itself into an expressionistic representation of their service together…which involved mind control and torture.
A nightmarish collage of faces, sounds, and explosions fill Marco’s mind, including a tattooed woman in a burka holding a brain in her hands as she expounds on “the revolutionary science of biogenetics.” Later in the film, these images are the primary trigger for Marco’s doubts about Shaw’s heroism and for his journey toward redemption.
That redemption doesn’t exist without this dream sequence, which grounds itself in the precariousness of how masculinity is defined. The dream reveals a vulnerability and honesty about how these characters have viewed their manhood, whether in a physical sense or a political sense. Demme’s employment of rapid editing and an experimental soundscape allows the audience to experience the same trauma as Marco and his fellow soldiers. In ripples and flashes, this dream is like the deadly chokehold Shaw uses against a fellow soldier. It has an indomitable grip over Marco, making the possibility of being saved far more frightening than remaining under control. (Kyle Turner)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)- “I had a dream about this place.”
A man is telling his friend about a dream he has had about a diner–the very diner that they are eating in at that moment. He is sitting in the booth, and he is scared. His friend is there too, of course, and he is scared as well. It’s not day or night but “half-night,” as he describes it. And he can see through the wall at a man behind the diner. “I hope I never see that face ever outside of a dream.” That’s the setup for the crown jewel of David Lynch’s career. No scene has ever distilled his style into such crystalline details: the hovering camera, the disquieting room noise, the nervous–and sometimes almost giddy–smiles of the man (ubiquitous character actor Patrick Fischler). Once the man and his friend leave the diner, things start to eerily parallel the dream, as if each step has been preordained. They reach the alleyway corner and out pops the figure from his dream–some type of vagabond “human” that lives behind the diner. The man collapses in fright and dies. It’s the basic fear of things that go bump in the night. In this case, things that bump in broad daylight. Mulholland Dr. seeps into the brain like a lost memory, striking the mood of a hazy Sunday evening that so perfectly embodies the sunny dispassion of Los Angeles. Lynch has always been a master of blending mundane reality with offbeat horror, but this seems like his most blatant attempt to scare his audience. It’s a brilliant filmmaker propping up a genre, not bringing himself down to fit the idea of what a horror scene should be. For anyone who has ever feared turning the wrong corner, David Lynch is there to make sure you never have a good day’s sleep ever again. (Shane Ramirez)
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)- Glen wets the bed
Like so many films of the horror genre, A Nightmare On Elm Street‘s artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody set-pieces and visual effects (during production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used in two scenes alone). Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death, which features her thrashing across the ceiling, is the first memorable kill in the film. The set would slowly spin around to allow her to roll into position, while a camera was bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair that turned in tandem with the room. FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing this ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room, and he used it again later for the film’s–and Johnny Depp’s–most famous on screen demise. Depp is Glen, a teen that is literally sucked into his bed by Freddy Krueger and then spewed out as a vortex of blood. For the “blood geyser” sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director, and actor were all fixed in place, while the room would spin upside down. This allowed the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would appear to gush, erupt, and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Wes Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” In the Nightmare on Elm Street gruesome kill battle, Glen’s death edges out Tina’s by a few drops of blood. (Ricky D)
The Shining (1980)- Room 237
Stephen King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Kubrick made the film overly ambiguous to the point where it inspired the documentary, Room 237, about film theorists that claim its surreal horror hides coded messages about everything from Native American genocide to Kubrick faking the moon landings. The Shining continues to be one of the most acclaimed horror movies of all time precisely because there is no easy explanation for the supernatural activity or Jack Torrance’s descent into madness.
In the most unsettling scene, Jack visits Room 237 to investigate his son’s claim that a woman attacked him there. As Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s sinister score screeches in the background, it doesn’t become apparent we are seeing a POV shot until Jack’s hand comes into the frame to push the hotel bathroom door open. The woman of room 237 reveals herself from behind a shower curtain. As she approaches Jack naked, his perverted smile becomes almost predatory. But his naughtiness soon wears off once he realizes that he’s making out with the decaying corpse of an old woman.
Kubrick is masterful at building tension through the mundane, pacing the scene as if it is being guided by one of the Overlook Hotel’s many supernatural entities. It also suggests another theory about The Shining; that it is a satire on the disillusionment of married men and how they can descend into madness while trying to break free from the very commitment keeping them sane. (Alistair Ryder)
Take Shelter (2011)- Child snatchers
Take Shelter would hardly be categorized as a horror film if not for its dreams sequences, which are just as frightening as anything in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nights have been sleepless of late for Curtis (Michael Shannon). Dwelling inside his dreams aren’t monsters, but inescapable storms and faceless people that linger threateningly. Each night, he awakens short of breath and covered in sweat. More distressing is the fact that he can’t seem to separate his dreamscape from his reality. Not even daylight can keep the nightmares at bay.
His most significant dream tears at his psyche by turning a mundane day into a fight for survival. A drive to take his daughter home seems normal save for some harder than usual rain. A person in the road causes Curtis to swerve and crash. They are shaken up but okay…until a horde of thrashing arms busts through his windows and pulls Hannah from her seat.
Jeff Nichols seamlessly blends the horrors of Curtis’ nightmares with the minutiae of domesticity, so we’re never fully sure exactly which world we’re in and when the next “attack” will come. The score by David Wingo is reminiscent of wind chimes blowing in the breeze, gently signaling a future storm. It’s a sound so intrinsically linked with Curtis’s nightmares that a mere hint of it is shiver-inducing.
That Jeff Nichols never outright answers whether Curtis is going mad only adds to the story’s inherent tragedy. Curtis is well aware that his mother was diagnosed with mental illness at a similar age, so he could be suffering from the same affliction. The bridge between dreams and reality is often just as thin as the bridge between the sane and insane. (Colin Biggs)