October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the most claustrophobic horror movies is part of our ongoing 31 Days of Horror Lists series.
Claustrophobia is no joke. If you have a touch of it, these films will ignite a tantalizing thrill. If you’ve got a heavy dose of it, it’s probably best to avoid them at all costs and not even bother to read any further. Horror movies are safe places where we can confront our anxieties and dread. They provide simulation, and sometimes the test can be healing. Other times, the emotional trial can devastate and cause a serious setback.
Know your limits. Horror will always help you with that education. These claustrophobic cinematic jaunts will shape an understanding of yourself. One or two films in, you’ll know your relationship with claustrophobia and whether the simulated experience is a fun time. Or not.
Thankfully, our Boo Crew (Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and myself) loves tight spaces. We snuggled up with each other, locked all the doors, and bashed out the top ten list below. It’s a triggering selection, so be warned. If you feel the walls closing around you, make for the hills and frolic through the fields as an antidote.
10. Final Prayer/The Borderlands (2013)
Beware all ye who enter: there be spoilers here. That’s because it’ll be difficult to talk about this claustrophobic moment without blowing its Grand Guignol finale. Take my word for it: if you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop here, watch it, and come back and agree with me. With that out of the way, the conclusion of Final Prayer (also called The Borderlands) catches us completely by surprise. Up until the final moments of the film, we thought we were watching a supernatural found footage movie centered on a pair of men investigating paranormal activity in a church. Not quite. As our hapless heroes follow the thread of a pagan mystery deep into a series of caverns beneath the church, they find themselves squeezing through tighter and tighter tunnels, unaware that they’ve just been ensnared in a trap. The trap in question? The belly of a gigantic creature that our heroes have unintentionally crawled into. What transpires next is a claustrophobic moment of gut-churning gore that I’d argue inspired a similarly grueling scene in Jordan Peele’s Nope. (Jacob Trussell)
9. Bug (2006)
When the tinfoil goes up, and the bug zappers light the room, Bug enters into an unrelenting terror. The inescapable blue burns into your eyes. You start to feel as crazy as the characters trapped in the motel. You start to think you’re trapped in there with them. And unless you cry “uncle” and smash the stop button, you most certainly are. Director William Friedkin puts his audience in a stranglehold. Like Ashley Judd‘s Agnes, you start to believe the crazy blurting from Michael Shannon‘s Peter. You see what he sees, feel what he feels. The bug-zapper glare wears ya down. Before you know it, there’s a squirming under your seat. The ants in your kitchen mean a little more than what they did before. That itch on the back of your hand is no longer just an itch. Ya gotta take care of it. Maybe it’s time to press off on this movie. (Brad Gullickson)
8. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Before watching Gerald‘s Game, I would have thought the novel impossible to adapt. Stephen King‘s story is so painfully interior. How could you possibly recreate Jessie’s chained experience? Since the film’s release, we’ve learned not to doubt director Mike Flanagan. Few understand cinematic translation as well as he does. He puts us right there on the bed with Carla Gugino. We’re locked up with her, and when she finally manages her release, we’re screaming alongside her in what must be one of the most brutal and visceral gore sequences crafted this century. If you have the story and the actors capable of pulling it off, horror needs but four walls to elicit a severe reaction. (Brad Gullickson)
7. The Thing (1982)
Because I’ve never worked on a remote polar research base, I can’t speak personally to the psychological warfare. But my younger sister has. And let me tell you: she sat in the wrong seat in the mess hall one time, and a guy cut her phone line. The residents of the remote American outpost in John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic might have more elbow room than some of their peers on this list. But the only thing separating the cast of The Thing from Alien’s is that they’re surrounded by snow instead of stardust. The boys, clad in their ratty wool longjohns, are squirming restlessly around like rats in a cage long before the metamorphosing alien enters the picture. Having a body-snatching intergalactic flesh pile creeping through the halls just calls a spade a spade: they’re all trapped in here with each other. Only now, some of those “others” happen to be Lovecraftian doppelgängers. (Meg Shields)
6. Cube (1997)
Cube is a goddamn delight. Five strangers awake in a mysterious room. None know how they got there or why they’re there. It’s a puzzle box, and they can find their way out, but it only leads to another room. They must tread carefully, or they’ll trigger a booby trap and wind up like the nice, diced man from the prologue. As would happen to all of us if we were suddenly cornered in a small box with various weirdos, the Cube group turns on each other. Alliances are formed, but only for as long as they’re beneficial. Cube succeeds on the backs of its actors and the mounting anxiety perpetrated by the neverending slog through similar rooms. The audience is aware of the runtime but not the poor dopes trapped within it. The joy occurs in the very human viciousness the situation creates. (Brad Gullickson)
5. The Vanishing (1988)
Rex has to know. What happened to Saskia? His doggedness eventually brings him to Raymond, the man who took her. However, despite his threats and rage, Rex can’t get the truth from the psycho. Raymond believes in showing, not telling. He offers Rex a cuppa drugged coffee and tells him he’ll learn what happened to Saskia if he drinks it. Unable to move on, Rex accepts the bargain and awakens inside a box buried underground somewhere. The Vanishing lets you sit with Rex for a bit as the truth snuffs him out. His final moments are agonizing and apparently too much for an American audience. The remake gives him relief, but no such luck for the originator. Poor, stubborn bastard. (Brad Gullickson)
4. As Above So Below (2014)
I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely fantasized about exploring the catacombs below Paris. Or, I did before watching As Above So Below. Like Harry Potter, Scarlett wants in on those Philosopher’s Stone rumors. It’s the mysterious substance that will supposedly turn crappy metals into gold. She believes it’s somewhere underneath Paris and convinces a guide and a few others to join her off the grid, away from the usual tours. As Above So Below has a little more fun than most claustrophobic horrors. The further Scarlett ventures, the more whacky the movie becomes, embracing supernatural elements as well as the more relatable, tightening fears. The climax is far more insane than you might have imagined when the film started, but it’s emotionally satisfying and cured my curiosity about going below the city of lights. (Brad Gullickson)
3. Barbarian (2022)
I hope you’ve already seen Barbarian. Its presence on this list is a spoiler, and I’m eternally grateful not to have known this movie’s deal until I was sitting in the theater. We’ve all had dark thoughts while Airbnb’ing. You’re in a stranger’s home. Using a stranger’s bed. Hearing a stranger’s creaks and groans of their home. It’s inherently creepy. Barbarian just delivers what we’ve all been thinking. BUT! Not in the way you think it’s going to when it initially pops off. Barbarian goes deep into your fears, delivering a darkness you’d rather not acknowledge. It’s absurd as hell and kinda fun as a result, but damn, when you’re in those long, earthy hallways, what goes peekaboo around the corners stays with you for a while. (Brad Gullickson)
2. Alien (1979)
In space, no one can hear you scream. No one can hear you scream — has there ever been a more perfect tagline to describe the claustrophobic nature of a movie? Ridley Scott‘s landmark film follows the crew of a commercial spaceship that accidentally brings a small alien creature aboard. The alien quickly grows, leaving the crew trapped in their spacecraft with a bloodthirsty killing machine. Oops. I can think of few scenarios worse than what Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the crew of Nostromo are forced to endure. The alien gets most of the credit for making the situation so dire, and I get it, but if I’m being honest, even without the unwanted guest, the situation seems pretty grim. Stuck, on a spaceship, with the same small group of people, with nowhere to go? No, thank you. (Chris Coffel)
1 . The Descent (2005)
As this list makes evident, the feeling of claustrophobia can come in all manner of environments. A coffin, a motel room, a mysterious cube – but at the end of the day, small caverns and even smaller crevices help turn Neil Marshall’s The Descent into a masterpiece of claustrophobic terror. What starts in a large-mouthed cavern shifts into rock tunnels too small to do anything but crawl through. Add in darkness, the growing sense that you’ll never see the sun again, and a personal grudge simmering between you and a fellow spelunker, and you have the makings of a tight, mean little thriller where you can almost feel the oxygen supply getting lower and lower. Oh, and the cannibalistic, humanoid, underground dwellers who’ve spent their entire lives in the dark and are eagerly stalking your meaty behind throughout the caves certainly don’t help matters either. (Rob Hunter)
Find some sunshine, stay away from claustrophobic horror, and stay above ground for our 31 Days of Horror Lists!