Horror films exploit the things we fear not only by the use of the horrifying creatures of our imaginations, but also at the most basic levels. Everyday occurrences that we often see as meaningless activities are quickly turned into something only our nightmares would think to torture us with. JAWS made us fear the beach and PSYCHO made us fear showering. Tapping into our psyches with the things we not only enjoy, but require for survival and twisting them into horrific scenarios tend to be some of the most memorable.
Arguably, one of the most well known examples is the way horror films have dealt with food. Where romantic comedies have an instant connection to flowers and chocolates, horror movies seem to have an instant connection to blood and breasts. While it is undoubtedly a fact that horror films contain a plethora of mammaries and vein goo, one of the more common factors of our beloved genre is located a little lower than our spurting arteries. The quickest way to a horror fan’s heart isn’t with a blade…it’s with a feast.
One of the more obvious ways horror has haunted our dietary dreams is with altering what was actually IN our food. Charlton Heston’s famous discovery of the ingredients of SOYLENT GREEN made freaky food horror films a staple in science fiction films. What made the film so scary wasn’t the events that took place or the suspicious activity by those involved it was the reveal of what Soylent Green contained. To discover that the only something that could keep you alive contained the remains of your loved ones is quite possibly one of the most horrifying discoveries in science fiction history and therefore brought to light our fear of being fed the unknown.
Larry Cohen has always been a strange bird when it came to his directing choices, and THE STUFF was no different. As an ice cream aficionado, THE STUFF has always been a difficult story to swallow. Differing from SOYLENT GREEN which was used for civilians to survive, “The Stuff” was a luxury food item, a new product without calories that was as sweet and creamy as ice cream. In a world where we’re constantly being shelled out new food fads one after the other, films like THE STUFF completely tap into the fear that what we’re eating…very well may be eating us. See also: KILLER TOMATOES FROM OUTER SPACE.
To take it a step further and more in your face, leave it up to Lloyd Kaufman to deliver the freaky food flick POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD. More of a satire on the fast food industry through the eyes of a horror film, POULTRYGEIST used the American’s addiction to fast food to show the horrifying side effects that SUPER SIZE ME never got a chance to experience. If the health centers and their war on obesity want to really strike some fear into us carnivores, they should really take the Troma approach because I have honestly been a little weary of any sort of fast food chicken since seeing the film. I’m serious, it’s that tromatizing. (I’m not apologizing for that pun. You are welcome.)
In many instances, the food itself isn’t what scares us, it’s the idea of being eaten. Dating all the way back to Nosferatu and Count Dracula, vampires were really the first to experience eating people in a sense with their blood lust. The vampire bite is arguably one of the most recognizable wounds in horror history and although they may not be “eating” us, they are drinking us, which is equally as horrifying. Hannibal Lecter may not have been the first cannibal, but he easily became the staple of man eating anti-heroes, leading inspiration to films like WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. Cannibalism is pretty self explanatory when it comes to why it’s scary, so I’m not going to waste any more time insulting your intelligence trying to explain why you’d be freaked out if someone on bath salts came bum rushing after you in the nude. On that same coin, I’m not going to go on and on about why zombies are important because they feed on human flesh.
Not only is Hitchcock one of the most respected directors in film history regardless of genre, but he was a genius when it came to using food as a plot device in his films. Hitchcock used food as a tool so many times in his films, two French women compiled a cookbook centered around all of the meals in his films. My personal favorite (and I’m sure one of yours) is in PSYCHO when Janet Leigh barely touches her toast as Norman expresses his relationship with his mother and his thoughts about the meaning of life in his room of taxidermy. For two solid minutes she holds a piece of toast and never moves it lower than it’s initial placement other than to her lips. The tension the audience develops between her uneasiness with her final meal while listening to the banter of Norman Bates.
The scratching of plates, the sounds of swallowing, and the echos of bodies digesting food is a critical tool used to set the tone and mood of the situation. The silent dinner is a commonly used scenario, but it’s when a happy and joyous dining experience is interrupted that catches the audience off guard and helps generate a more powerful scare. Look no further than the infamous “chestburster” scene from ALIEN. The gang seems to be laughing along before the choking sounds and bodily convulsions interrupt the happiness only to have dessert be a giant tray of squeaking alien baby. One of the more unsettling scenes in POLTERGEIST is when dinner is being prepared like any other day and the slab of meat begins to move on its own. If those aren’t ways to destroy an appetite, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s the idea of intentionally being fed food that is meant for our demise. The set up is always the same whether it’s THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 2001 MANIACS, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, or even SERIAL MOM. An unsuspecting individual is given a meal on a silver platter beneath a beautifully polished cloche only to be removed and a disgusting or terrifying dish is laying underneath. Sometimes we’re delivered the heads of our loved ones or sometimes we’re delivered rats by our insane sisters, but there’s something about not being able to see underneath the cloche that only adds to the suspense of figuring out just what the hell we’re being served up for dinner. It’s a classic horror freak out and even if there’s nothing scary underneath it, the audience almost always develops a sense of nervousness as the character’s hand slowly lifts the top off of the tray.
The lack of food, or starvation is another fear many of us will hopefully never have to endure, but something that is very, very real. While horror movies aren’t going to start focusing on our poverty crisis anytime soon, they have found many ways to give us the heebie jeebies at the thought of losing one of our most basic needs. In the film DREAD, a vegetarian character is locked in a room with raw meat simply to see how long it will take her before she finally cracks and eats it. Watching the poor girl hide in the corners from the meat until her carnal instincts to feed take over was one of the more gut wrenching scenes and it was a very realistic portrayal of the human’s response to hunger.
On the other hand, overeating is also an easy go-too for freak outs in films. One of the more obvious examples is the victim of Gluttony in deadly sin crime-thriller SE7EN. The poor bastard went all Orson Welles and ate himself to death. The same way we all waited for Violet Bauregaurde to pop in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, we were all filled with the same sensation after watching Brenda fill up with alien baby slugs in SLITHER. From the second we were shown her gargantuan body, every single person was eagerly awaiting her inevitable pop…and boy was it ever a blow out.
Food has always played a vital role in Life’s rituals. The breaking of the bread, the last meal of the condemned man, and this meal. However informal it might appear, you can be sure that there was to be little, bonhommie. -THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW|
*Header Photo: ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) 20th Century Fox