This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
As graceful and ethereal as it may appear, there’s something inherently eerie about ballet. Dancers must adapt to grueling physical conditions, twisting their bodies into unnatural positions and enduring bleeding feet to make their poise look effortless. Like any competitive art or sport, there’s an obsessive mentality that allows someone to pursue something so strenuous.
Thanks to the dance form’s universal popularity, it’s no wonder that it’s featured in countless films. But, with its high stakes and genre-driven origins, ballet has also carved out its own space in horror. Given that archetypal ballets such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are based on fairytales and 19th-century gothic stories, an unsettling sense of surrealism pervades the performances themselves.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of ballet-horror being molded from such stories is Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name, the film follows a young ballerina named Vicky (Moira Shearer), whose passion for dance is thrown into disarray amongst the demands of her controlling choreographer (Anton Walbrook) and composer-turned-lover (Marius Goring). The Red Shoes is technically more of a drama, but the centerpiece dance sequence — in which dance’s control over Vicky leads to her death — segues into horror.
Since she is performing a ballet version of Anderson’s story, in which a girl with bewitched shoes must dance to death, there’s an ominous meta-commentary on the psychological trials that Vicky goes through. She ultimately becomes a sacrificial lamb, given over as an offering to the art to which she was so dedicated.
Themes of control are particularly prevalent in dance-horror: both the self-control that it takes to learn the craft and the high expectations that domineering choreographers and instructors place upon young ballerinas. Dario Argento’s phantasmagoric Suspiria (1977) equates the demands of ballet with ritualistic witchcraft, as newcomer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) joins a German dance academy that turns out to be a witch coven. The ballerinas of Suspiria are carefully indoctrinated into a tight-knit community, only to be brutally murdered whenever one of the school matriarchs demands a sacrifice.
Ballet is also frightening not only because of the intense dedication it requires but because of the physical and mental vulnerability that a dancer must express while performing. In the psycho-sexual horror film Black Swan (2010), New York Ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) begins to lose her grip on reality when she is tapped to play the dual-lead role of the white and black swans in the company’s production of Swan Lake.
In the midst of demands of her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and artistic director (Vincent Cassel), threats from rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), and her own self-destructive scratching of her body, she hallucinates an evil doppelgänger stalking her throughout rehearsals. Her own life bleeds more and more into the nightmarish world of the evil black swan she struggles to inhabit, until, on opening night, full-on horror images of bloody feathers and red eyes accompany her onstage. Like Vicky of The Red Shoes, the film ends with its main character literally dancing herself to death in pursuit of perfectly embodying her art. “I was perfect,” Nina whispers triumphantly before she expires.
More recently, there has been a glut of horrifying dance films. Luca Guadagnino’s technicolor-less remake of Suspiria (2018) has the same basic elements of the original, as Susie (now played by Dakota Johnson) uncovers the dark underbelly of her German dance school. But in this version, ballet has mutated into a much more modern style. Members of the company contort their bodies in brutal, primal shapes, ditching extravagant dance costumes for severe black and white face paint, and intricately tied red rope. Unlike earlier dance-centric movies, though, the violence and manipulation of young dancers isn’t an element of the horror — it’s the main focus.
This is best displayed in an early scene, where Susie volunteers to dance the lead part in rehearsals after hysterical company member Olga (Elena Fokina) quits and accuses her teachers of witchcraft. Artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) incites a magical link between Susie and Olga, conjoining their hands and feet. Olga then has no choice but to mirror Susie’s movements, and since only their extremities are linked, her body is grotesquely torn apart. As her jaw unhinges and back cracks in the room of mirrors in which she’s being kept prisoner, the reflections make it impossible to turn away from the image of the ideal dancer’s body, destroyed.
It quickly becomes clear that Susie has been chosen to become a literal vessel for the elderly school matriarch, Helena Markos (also Swinton). The ritual through which Markos hopes to use her for immortality involves the entire company linking arms and legs, hypnotized witnesses to the teachers’ exploitation. But in this version of Suspiria, Susie reveals that she is the ancient witch Mother Suspiriorum. In a gory climax, she annihilates Markos’ supporters and puts an end to the other Mothers’ ritualistic practice. The dance company of the film remains, but the torturous horror tropes inflicted upon its dancers have been bloodily extinguished.
Some horror films choose to tap into darker elements of the dance form at crucial moments, such as in the climax of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). After spending a night fighting off murderous red-clad doppelgängers, protagonist Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) finally confronts the person responsible for orchestrating these attacks — her own double, Red. Red explains that the other “Tethered,” who were forced to copy their counterparts’ actions underground without being able to speak, discovered that Red was different when she was able to mirror a younger Adelaide’s performance in The Nutcracker.
As the two women fight to the death in the tunnels that Red has called home, Us pivots between the present and flashbacks of Adelaide and her doppelgänger’s childhood dance. Adelaide’s solo contains choreography from both the male and female parts of the ballet’s famous Sugar Plum Waltz, once again mirroring the film’s themes of duality. Red’s performance of the same dance is much rougher; it’s like she’s literally being puppeteered by the girl whose life she’s been forced to copy.
Other films, such as Madeline’s Madeline (2018) and Climax (2018), expand beyond ballet to diversify the dance-horror films that now come to theaters. Climax, which follows a group of street dancers who perform nightmarish movements after drinking LSD-laced sangria, features dancers of many races and sexualities, unlike the often-white, upper-class ballet world. In Madeline’s Madeline, the titular character (Helena Howard) is fiercely dedicated to her physical theater troupe. But the ways in which her bipolar disorder and anxiety are manipulated into how she can best serve her director’s (Molly Parker) artistic vision are explicitly commented upon. When Madeline is pushed to her breaking point, the exorcism-like interpretative dance that she stages to oust her mentor — complete with wildly flailing limbs and pig masks — rival the unease of any ballet sequence.
There’s no telling how dance will unnerve filmgoers next, but given the trope’s growth in the past few years, giving oneself over to the dance has never been more exciting to watch.