8. Oculus (2013)
The concept of a cursed inanimate object may seem underwhelming at first. However, in 2013, writer/director Mike Flanagan forever changed the way we look at antique mirrors. The film features a mirror of unknown origins possessed by a supernatural force. Anyone exposed to it is subject to hallucinations, antisocial tendencies, and occasionally, manic, violent behavior. The mirror gets inside the heads of its owners, The Russell Family, turning them against one another.
Ultimately, this culminates in the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Russell—a tragedy that’s blamed on domestic violence. The children know that it was, in fact, the mirror that was responsible for their parent’s demise. At one point, they try to smash the glass with golf clubs. Against their will, they end up smashing through the plaster walls on either side of the mirror. This is one of many examples that show just how “trippy” and psychologically unsettling Oculus can be.
Having the film take place in two different times (the present, and 11 years earlier) allows the narrative to take sudden twists and turns. This creates an effect similar to a jump scare, only the “jump” is found in the unveiling of new, shocking information. One scene, for example, has a grown up Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan)—the daughter of the now deceased Russell parents—biting into an apple.
Seconds later, it’s revealed that the mirror has tricked Kaylie into taking a bite out of a light bulb. The sickening crunch noises and flashes of Kaylie spitting out bloody glass adds to the horror. The very idea that an inanimate object could be the cause of self-destructive behavior is unsettling. This theme sinks its way into the back of the viewer’s mind throughout the film’s duration.
7. The Omen (1976)
What if your adopted child was the biological son of The Devil? This is the idea behind The Omen, a film concerning a couple whose baby is tragically lost at birth. Filled with grief, Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) decides to adopt a baby without family, and whose mother has died in childbirth. As the adopted child—Damien (Harvey Stephens)—grows up, strange phenomena begin taking place around him. First, the boy’s nanny commits suicide at an outdoor event, hanging herself for all to see.
Later on, Damien “accidentally” knocks his mother—Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick)—off of a stepladder. She falls from the second floor to the first, breaks bones, and is hospitalized. When taken near a church, Damien screams in terror and refuses to enter. Eventually, these strange events are pieced together by Robert Thorn, leading him to the horrifying conclusion that his son is the embodiment of the antichrist.
Strong character dynamics keep The Omen feeling believable and fantastical at the same time. Patrick Troughton does an excellent job as Father Brennan, a priest who senses Damien’s evil presence early on. Eventually, he takes Robert aside and tells him that Damien must die. Naturally, Robert is defensive, and declares the Priest insane.
Evidence pointing to the contrary builds up slowly, and is made all the more terrifying because it was so realistically and appropriately dismissed earlier on. Atmospherically, the film stands the test of time. Damien’s outer veneer of innocence is betrayed by the disturbing events to which his ill will and secret, satanic agenda are ultimately linked.
6. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, this film explores the supernatural phenomena linked to the famed Belasco House, aka “Hell House.” The house has quite a colorful history, including reports of hauntings, possessions, poltergeist activity, and occultist rituals. Sent to live there and research the paranormal are a team of two psychics, a physicist specializing in the study of unexplained phenomena, and his wife.
The physicist, Dr. Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), insists that his machine, The Reversor, will rid the house of electromagnetic radiation, thus dispelling the house’s supernatural forces by depleting their source of energy. Dr. Barrett’s strictly scientific approach to the matter is juxtaposed to that of the two psychic mediums—Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and Roddy McDowall (Benjamin Fischer).
Florence believes that she can communicate with the dead, and that the spirits of Hell House may only be put to rest by employing psychic techniques, such as séances and one-on-one communication. She even goes as far as attempting to destroy Barrett’s machine, insisting that its activation will harm the spirits, some of whom she believes are innocent.
The story of Hell House is driven by the animosity between characters of very different backgrounds, values, and beliefs. This element of conflict is exploited by the evil forces that inhabit the house. Viewers are made to question who is the real culprit behind the paranormal phenomena. The frightening evidence builds steadily, and by the end of the film, viewers are jumping at every little shadow and off-screen noise.
5. The Haunting (1963)
Shirley Jackson’s classic novel is brought to life in one of most frightening films ever made. The story concerns Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a scientist staying at Hill House to perform research and prove true his theories on the existence of paranormal phenomena. Dr. Markway invites two women—Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom)—to help him record his findings.
Unexplained events occur during the first night of their stay, when both women hear tremendous banging noises coming from outside their bedroom door. Despite being nearby, Dr. Markway and Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) insist they heard nothing. This plays with the viewer’s mind, and sets the tone for things to come later on.
In true classic horror film style, Hill House relies on what the audience doesn’t see to initiate scares. In one scene, Eleanor hears disturbing noises in the dark. She believes she’s still in bed with her roommate, Theodora, and takes her hand for comfort. Throughout the ordeal, Eleanor feels as if her hand is being crushed.
Eventually, the noises cease, and Eleanor’s hand is released. The women turn on the lights, only to discover that they’ve been sleeping across the room from one another. This begs the question: who—or what—was holding Eleanor’s hand? It’s moments like this that pump up the film’s fear factor, getting inside the audience’s heads and staying there long after the end credits have rolled.
4. The Amityville Horror (1979)
This film, based on the novel by Jay Anson, was once claimed to be a true story. The claim has since been proven false, yet this does nothing to diminish the film’s chilling reputation. The plot concerns George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder) who purchase a spacious dream house off in the countryside. An evil presence exists within the house, turning its occupants against one another.
In one scene, the babysitter of the Lutz’s daughter, Amy (Natasha Ryan), gets locked in a closet when the door mysteriously slams shut. She panics, screams and begs to be let out, but Amy never lifts a finger to help her. When the rest of the family arrive home, Amy insists that her imaginary friend, “Jodie,” wouldn’t let her offer any help because the babysitter “didn’t say please.” The creepy and sadistic nature of this scene is made worse by the fact that a child is used, her behavior manipulated and her morals warped by an unseen force.
The Amityville Horror’s most unsettling quality is found in the mental unravelling of the two parent characters, George and Kathy Lutz. Shortly after they move in, Brolin becomes sullen, withdrawn and eerily obsessed with chopping logs to stoke the fireplace. This alludes to the “cold spots” felt by the family throughout various rooms of the house, for no apparent, logical reason.
The unexplained events take a turn for the worse when a vertical sliding window falls down on the hand of one of their two sons, crushing it. These happenings compound until the family reaches their breaking point. It truly feels as if the Lutz’s are being led their doom, marched along like puppets on strings.
3. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter was such a huge fan of The Thing from Another World (1951) that in 1982, he filmed a remake. The story, setting and atmosphere remain largely true to the source material. In Antarctica, Norwegians are chasing after an Alaskan malamute in a helicopter, trying to shoot it with a rifle. To escape, the dog runs to an American science research outpost.
The Norwegians fail to kill it, they perish, and their helicopter ends up destroyed. The malamute is put with the other station sled dogs, where it metamorphoses into an alien creature and attacks viciously. After killing the mutated creature, the Americans find travel records in the Norwegian’s destroyed helicopter. This leads them to an alien spaceship hidden in the ice.
They discover that the alien can imitate any form of life, altering its genetic makeup and cellular structure. It’s thus revealed that the transforming dog is in fact still alive on the cellular level. In an attempt to contain the organism, the station is put under lockdown. “The Thing” could be anyone who’s had contact with the dog. Tension and paranoia mount, and chaos ensues.
The Thing’s greatest strength is found in the lingering unknown fear behind the premise. Anyone could be the alien, and this pits the characters against one another in a game of all-out war. Kurt Russell does an excellent job of leading the famous “blood torching” scene, where samples of the crew are burned with a hot coil.
Since the cells of The Thing are alive and sentient, its blood will literally shriek and jump in the air if exposed to heat. The test is carried out slowly and methodically, creating unrivalled dramatic tension, and keeping the viewer nervous and guessing.
2. The Shining (1980)
Based on the novel by Stephen King, The Shining was a polarizing work between fans of film and literature. The story concerns a father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) who gets a job as the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, off in the snowy mountains of Colorado. His wife, Wendy (Shelley Duval), and five-year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) are to live with him in the building through the offseason. Once the family is left alone and winter sets in, the hotel comes alive with spirits.
Danny is first to notice that something is off. He shares a unique gift (dubbed “The Shining”) with the hotel cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). Both Dick and Danny can hear people’s thoughts through their “shine,” and both are attuned to the presence of the dead, felt abundantly within The Overlook’s walls. Meanwhile, Jack—once an abusive alcoholic—develops cabin fever and begins envisioning the ghosts of the hotel.
He orders imaginary drinks from a bartender spectre, giving into his addiction through giddy hallucination. Slowly but surely, the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Eventually, Jack goes mad and turns against his family.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s love of strange imagery and subliminal messaging translates into a bizarre, hauntingly beautiful film atmosphere. With the use of vibrant colors, slow motion, and clever low-angle shots, many scenes possess an otherworldly quality.
Stellar performances are given by the cast, with Jack Nicholson’s stark-raving lunacy standing out as both horrifying and unforgettable. Famous scenes, such as Jack’s encounter with the bathroom ghost, are sure to keep impressionable young viewers wide awake at night.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Finally, we reach number one. The Exorcist is the mother of all demon possession stories. It has set the template for every supernatural horror film to follow in its wake. To this day, its cultural impact and horrifying legacy have yet to be surpassed. The plot involves a mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), whose daughter, Reagan (Linda Blair), begins exhibiting symptoms of intense physical and mental illness.
The audience is made to feel empathy for Reagan, because her character is so well developed early on. Prior to the onset of her ailments, we see a young girl who is innocent, carefree, and adjusting to the lifestyles of her mother—an actress living on location.
Only after playing with an Ouija board does Reagan start to behave erratically, making inhuman noises, cussing viciously, and displaying animalistic rage and strength. Eventually, it’s revealed that she’s been possessed by a demon known as Pazuzu. With the help of two Priests, Chris fights to win back her daughter’s soul.
The film is chock full of unforgettable scenes and images. At one point, Reagan crabwalks down the stairs backwards and vomits up a sick mixture of blood and bile. Meanwhile, Chris is forced to watch her daughter’s condition slowly degrade over time. Doctors and psychiatrists assure her that physically, Reagan is fine, and insist there is nothing they can do. Chris turns to the help of Catholic priests out of desperation, begging them to perform an exorcism on her daughter.
As a mother, Chris’ character is dramatically transformed by the onset of demented behavior in her little girl. She truly believes that Reagan is still alive somewhere deep inside. This horrifying concept has formed the basis for what is arguably the best supernatural horror film ever made.
To conclude and summarize, the supernatural horror subgenre is far from dead. As with any industry, commercial trends in film have always been around. Although the influence of bandwagons may appear suffocating at times, their existence has yet to impact the horror genre as a whole. For every “slasher craze” or “found footage boom” of recycled, tired clichés, there are a handful of films that rise to the top. Years from now, the motion pictures that had the deepest emotional impact on audiences will be the ones that are remembered. Those that were made only to rake in a quick buck will be, inevitably, forgotten.
Let us enjoy what the future of horror cinema will bring, and draw inspiration from the great works of the past. The possibilities are endless. After all, who can say what horrid visions and unearthly constructs might be lurking in the minds of the tomorrow’s John Carpenter or Wes Craven? Only time will tell.
Author Bio: Tom Blicq is a fourth year student at the University of Winnipeg. He is completing a BSc in Biology, with a minor in English literature and creative writing. When not writing horror stories, poetry or articles, he enjoys watching films by directors like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg.