Film is one of the most successful mediums at feeding in to our greatest fears, and playing on them. Whatever your fear may be, there is bound to be a film that has you running from the room/hiding behind a cushion/quaking in your boots. But fear is a big seller in Hollywood, and audiences love to be scared.
Claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces. But a film does not have to be shot in an enclosed setting to be able to invoke the feeling of claustrophobia in the audience. Many films play on the fear of enclosed spaces by using elements that trigger that overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. This can include a feeling of being trapped or shut in, being somewhere where you cannot leave or escape, or being hunted down or in mortal danger. All of those feelings mimic the fear of being in an enclosed space, and so play successfully into conjuring up feelings of claustrophobia.
The following films successfully manage to play on the above fears and make the audience feel claustrophobic.
10. As Above So Below (2014)
Trapped in: The catacombs beneath Paris.
Scarlett Marlowe, a young archaeologist and alchemy scholar, has devoted her life to searching for the philosopher’s stone. When she discovers that the stone is hidden beneath the streets of Paris, she enlists a team of people to help her locate the stone and to document her journey. However, by entering the forbidden catacombs, Scarlett and her team have no idea that they have entering their own version of hell.
Set primarily in the catacombs of Paris, As Above So Below makes effective use of its main location to establish an environment of claustrophobia and fear. As Scarlett and her team enter the off-limits catacombs, they are forced to escape from the police and they quickly become cut off by a cave in. Now trapped in a network of creepy underground tunnels, they find themselves forced to travel further and further underground.
Human bones line the walls, the ceilings are low, the tunnels are narrow and the only light source is their headtorches. These elements are already enough to make the audience feel trapped, but the added aspect of the film using a found footage approach means that the sense of claustrophobia is even more overwhelming.
The shots are closer, more intimate and at times distorted and frenzied, meaning that we can never escape from feeling intimately involved and caught up in the horror.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Trapped in: An underground bunker.
The second instalment in the Cloverfield franchise. Michelle has a car accident, and awakens to find herself chained to a wall in an underground bunker. A man named Howard tells her that there has been a massive chemical attack and that the surface of Earth is now uninhabitable. Despite the home comforts of the bunker, Michelle begins to feel more and more uneasy about her situation and makes plans to escape.
10 Cloverfield Lane plays on a number of fears and phobias. There is the fear of waking up in an unknown place, the fear of being held against your will, the fear of being trapped in a small space and the fear of not knowing what is going on in the outside world. Whether you have one of these fears or all of them, they effectively make the feeling of claustrophobia even more prominent.
Consequently, when Michelle attempts to escape, the panic and desperation that she feels is echoed in the audience’s feelings. The environment of the underground bunker is deceiving in that it is equipped with home comforts and food, yet these elements ultimately make it an even more oppressive – Michelle is effectively being well looked after but there is always the underlying feeling that something about the situation is not right. By the time the film is reaching its climax, escaping from the bunker has become necessary for Michelle and the audience.
8. Exam (2009)
Trapped in: An examination room.
Eight candidates arrive for what appears to be an employment assessment for a highly sought-after job with a prestigious company. However, once they are taken into the examination room, they realise that the odds are stacked against them and that they must work out what is being asked of them before the time runs out.
Job interviews and taking exams are situations in which we are almost pre-programmed to be anxious. Often these situations do take place in a single room and are highly stressful. Exam takes the premise of both these things and then adds an extra element of desperation. Each of the eight candidates is desperate to secure the job for reasons which vary, but their sense of desperation is what enforces the sense of claustrophobia.
The candidates are not stuck in the traditional sense – they have the option to walk away. But walking away means losing out, and none of them is prepared to do that. Inside the room a timer shows time is running out, another element which adds to the overall sense of feeling trapped. When you are up against a time limit, you are inevitably under pressure. Combining this with the anxiety of an exam situation, the pressure to perform and the desperation to succeed, means that Exam successfully gives the feeling of there being nowhere to escape to.
7. Buried (2010)
Trapped in: A coffin.
Paul Conroy (played by Ryan Reynolds) awakes trapped in a coffin after falling victim to a group of insurgents, whilst working as a civilian truck driver in Iraq. With only a small number of items at his disposal and a dwindling oxygen supply, Paul must fight against his ever-increasing panic as he awaits a rescue that might never come.
Buried is perhaps the epitome of a claustrophobic film, and may also be a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. Buried takes place in a coffin buried under the ground. This not only plays on the fear of claustrophobia at its strongest, it also plays on the fear of having to face your own mortality, both in terms of the deadly situation that Paul has found himself in but also in being made to lie in a coffin.
The visual restraints of the setting lend to the atmosphere, and give way to a tightly shot, highly tense film. As Paul deals with his ever-increasing sense of panic and anxiety, the audience is right there with him. When Paul feels short of breath as the air is getting thinner, you can almost feel yourself gasping for air too. By the time the film reaches its climax, the audience has been overloaded and overwhelmed with a sense of utter confinement and claustrophobia.
6. 47 Meters Down (2017)
Trapped in: A shark cage.
Sisters Lisa and Kate are holidaying in Mexico where they are invited to cage dive and see sharks in the wild. When the cage breaks away from the boat, they are sent plummeting to the ocean floor. With their limited oxygen supplies and great whites circling them, they are faced with an impossible situation in which survival looks bleak.
The murky depths of the darkest reaches of the vast ocean makes for a surprisingly claustrophobic setting in this film which turns a nightmare into reality – imagine going cage diving and then becoming trapped in the cage. The ocean may be the main setting, but the majority of the film’s action takes place inside the shark cage.
The addition of the shark cage adds a serious dilemma for the characters. If they stay inside of the relative safety of the cage, they will run out of oxygen and drown. If they leave the cage, then they are at the mercy of the circling great white sharks. Both of these imminent threats give an ever-present feeling of threat and claustrophobia that keeps the audience on edge throughout.