The Films that Fill Me with Dread

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For me, winter break is a time to catch up on all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year. I had a second baby at the beginning of 2010 so “all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year” = “all of the movies released this year.” But don’t pity me, friends. My Netflix queue is pretty kick ass these days and I’ve really enjoyed playing catch up over the last few weeks.


Earlier this week my husband and I decided to watch a film that we had both been wanting to see for months, The Road (2009, John Hillcoat). We were at his parent’s house and had their TV all to ourselves, which is a rarity in a house where 8 people are staying. We were about 40 minutes in to the film when my husband’s sister and her boyfriend returned from a friend’s house. We chatted with them for about 15 minutes and when they headed upstairs I said to my husband “Okay, let’s finish the movie.” He replied, somewhat despondently,”Do we have to?”

Even Omar didn't want to finish watching THE ROAD.

You see, The Road is a real downer. It focuses on two characters, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — they are never given proper names — who spend the majority of the film wandering through a frigid, grey-toned, postapocalyptic wasteland. They are dirty, tired, and hungry. All plant and animal life has died, so food is almost non-existent. Things have gotten so bad that people have started to eat each other; in one scene the Man and the Boy happen upon a basement full of naked, emaciated human beings that are being held captive in a makeshift slaughterhouse. Good times.

The Man and the Boy do have a mission. They are heading “South” because the Man hopes that things will be “better” there. But this seems unlikely — the world is dying, after all. So their arduous, seemingly unending journey feels pointless. Yes, the Man tells his son that they must keep going because they have a “fire” inside of them, and they cannot let that fire go out. But why? Why subject your child to this living Hell? To what end? And why subject the viewer to this Hell? The Woman (the Boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron) had the right idea when she offed herself.

Not fun.

Despite the crushing depression we were experiencing, we did finish watching The Road. But it was difficult. My husband and I even resorted to using coping mechanisms — like heckling the film at moments of high drama — as a way to detach ourselves from the agony. For example, at one point in the film the Man has a breakdown and begins to sob. He is exhausted. His life and the life of his child are continually being threatened. He is dying of some unidentified lung ailment. The world is coming to an end for crying out loud! Right when the emotion of this scene became too much to bear — the Man is beginning to realize that soon he will be leaving his boy alone in this awful world — my husband yelled “Oh wahhhh! Poor me!” Normally I would be annoyed that someone had broken the spell of the film, but now I welcomed it. I needed to be detached from the pain and the agony on-screen. In fact, I was so unsettled by The Road (despite its optimisitic ending), that it took me several hours to fall asleep afterwards and I was plagued with dark and troubling dreams throughout the night.

The next morning I awoke exhausted and angry with myself: why did I decide to watch this movie? After all, a few years ago I made a vow to myself that I would no longer force myself to watch movies that are mentally traumatizing. I came to this decision after watching the English-language remake of Funny Games (2007, Michael Haneke).  For those who don’t know, Funny Games tells the story of a wealthy white family who heads out to their beautiful, idyllic lake house for a family vacation. They are soon taken hostage by two smiling sociopaths, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), who mentally torture them before [SPOILER ALERT] killing all three of them. I knew that these deaths were going to happen from the moment I spied Paul’s smiling face and yet I continued to watch. I watched as they tied up the couple’s young son and then killed him with a shotgun. I watched as the mother (Naomi Watts) wailed over the dead body of her only child.  I should have turned the film off then. But I didn’t. I kept watching because I like to finish what I start. I kept telling myself “It’s just a movie.” And then I didn’t sleep all night.

I like you so much better in BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

In the case of both The Road and Funny Games my sleeplessness and nightmares were not caused by fear. I wasn’t worried that a bomb would destroy the world as I slept nor did I fear that two smiling young men would break into the house and hold me and my family hostage. What kept me awake and haunted my dreams was the dread each film stirred inside of me. Both films tapped into my deepest fear — the thing that I dread more than anything else — which is a world in which I will be unable to protect my children from harm. These films exploit these feelings of dread, offering parent protagonists who try and fail to keep their children safe under extreme circumstances.

Every parent's nightmare.

When I watch a drama, I try to sympathize with its protagonists and see the world from their point of view. If I don’t do that, then I don’t feel like I am truly experiencing the story. The directors of Italian Neorealist films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) depended on this sympathy — without it their films would fail as calls to action. And in melodramas like Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) sympathy, and the tears that flow when we realize that Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) will never be able to tell her mother that she loves her, are central to the genre’s pleasures.

However, this sympathy becomes a liability when watching a film like The Road. For example, every morning the Man wakes up, gasps in terror, and places a frantic, searching hand on the Boy’s chest. He is making sure that the Boy is still there. This little detail filled me with dread. How does the Man even sleep? How could he lie down and rest, knowing that his boy could be stolen away by a band of cannibals? Contemplating such a life, even entertaining the possibility of such an existence, is mentally overwhelming to me. And this pervasive feeling of dread lingers for days, sometimes weeks, after the film is over. For this reason I think I need to stop watching any movie in which children are put in danger or are killed. I’ve already stopped watching zombie movies for similar reasons (they give me terrible nightmares).

But banning certain movies from my life makes me sad. I’ve devoted my life to the study of film so the idea of limiting what I watch doesn’t seem right. Now I know that Kelli Marshall refuses to watch movies with animals in them. And last spring Amanda Lotz wrote a piece for Antenna about how being a mother affected her reaction to a scene from Lost. So I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Who we are affects how we watch and what we watch. But sometimes I wish that it didn’t.

For you, Kelli.

In conclusion, my experience with The Road has led me to wonder: has parenthood limited my ability to watch certain films? Can personal experiences — like my early (and traumatic) exposure to zombie movies — profoundly alter our ability to watch certain types of films? Or do I just need to suck it up?

And what about you: what films fill you with dread and why? Has this kept you from watching them? Or do you enjoy this feeling of dread? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

19 thoughts on “The Films that Fill Me with Dread

    Joe said:
    January 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I sat through Funny Games. Twice. VERY disturbing film. Why I watched it twice, I’ve no idea. Because I’m not a parent? I think I watched it a 2nd time to figure out why Roth or Watts’s characters didn’t do more to prevent the tragedy. Or to pinpoint a spot where they actually could. Every moment of that film was excrutiating –even the opening scene, juxtaposing speed metal and opera. Crazy.

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

      Twice? Wow. You sir are a masochist!

    b said:
    January 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Like Kelli, I don’t watch animal movies either. I liken it to the parenting issue since my animals are my kids (I can’t/won’t have children). I’m a vegan and have worked with rescued farm animals, so much like people who are traumatized by animal movies because they simply love their pets, I have that plus all sorts of added baggage. There’s a lot of human-human violence I’d rather avoid, and as a sexual abuse survivor, I actively try to steer clear of sexual assault and sexual violence in films/on TV. But stuff with animals is at the top of my trigger list. I hope that it could perhaps inspire empathy in others, but I’m not gonna watch it. Not now, not ever.

      Kelli Marshall said:
      January 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

      Hello, Brittany. I like you already! At one point, I even put a parental control on Animal Planet so I wouldn’t accidentally land on one of those animal hospital or rescue shows while changing channels. (Yeah, I’m *that* serious and/or weird about it.) =)

    Roger Ebert said:
    January 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    I really disagree with your criticism of The Road. It was an achingly beautiful movie precisely because of the ugliness and dread it portrays. The Man’s love and protection of The Boy is transcendent and beautiful. Just offing The Boy and himself would skip a lot of suffering but it would also completely devalue human life and negate any love he had for him. “The Fire” is metaphorical for many many things, spiritual or otherwise–I wouldn’t be so quick to write it off. And there was happiness. When The Boy has a sip of soda and smiles, isn’t that true happiness and contentment?

    And also, the comment about him sleeping. It’s assumed that The Man didn’t sleep very well at all. Probably only for minutes at a time, hence why he looked so haggard.

    I can see why you wouldn’t want to subject yourself to movies that are mentally traumatizing. If you want traumatizing (especially as a parent!) see Antichrist that came out last year.

    And Funny Games sucked. Bad.

    Just my two cents

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 2, 2011 at 12:01 pm

      First let me say what an honor it is to have the great ROGER EBERT reading and commenting on my blog! How did you ever find the time in your busy schedule? : )

      Now, as for your comments: Let me clarify. I never said that THE ROAD was not a good movie. It was very well crafted: great acting by Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. Wonderfully detailed mise en scene. I loved the grey and black toned palette.

      BUT, I do wonder about the “point” of such a film. Some films portray misery and sadness and terror as a way to generate social consciousness (social problem films). Others do so because it is part of their affect (horror films). What to make of a film like THE ROAD? It’s not a social problem film. It’s not a horror film. It’s just 110 minutes of sadness and misery. Yes there were a few moments of lightness (such as the soda scene you cited). But for me, those scenes only highlighted the awfulness of the Boy’s life.

      I’m not saying that sad movies are pointless. But I do wonder about the point of this particular film. It left me feeling sad and empty and that sadness and emptiness felt pointless to me.

    Elana Levine said:
    January 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    I won’t watch anything in which “bad” things happen to kids. But I think you explain more specifically what exactly I am avoiding. Not sure if this began when I became a parent or not, just that I can’t do it, for much the reasons you described. Glad you have articulated my feelings, though your descriptions of the films alone have already made me really uneasy.

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Thanks Elana. I only noticed my aversion to these films AFTER I had my first child. It was like a switch was flipped in my brain. Of course, I have no problem seeing adults be killed in horrific ways. I guess I’m a monster?

    Roger Ebert said:
    January 1, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    But bad things *do* happen to kids. I’m not saying make a film that just exploits that fact (i. e. Saw VIII “The Kids Aren’t Alright), but why should cinema shy away from it? Being a child, for some, is the hardest thing in the world. Film as an artform should explore and challenge that.

    Mark said:
    January 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    This is the most recent nightmare-inducing thing I’ve watched:

    Seriously. Last night, I dreamed the cat people were prowling around our back yard trying to kill rabbits. (Shiver.)

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 5, 2011 at 10:10 am

      The most terrifying thing about that video is the dude in the dog costume. He’s like the DONNIE DARKO rabbit. Dread indeed!

    Jason Mittell said:
    January 5, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Nice post & interesting conversation. I’m wondering about how serials fit into this mode of dread-inducing viewing. Are ongoing narratives that dabble in sorrow similarly off-putting as stand-alone films? Specifically when they involve kids in peril? I’m thinking of The Wire first & foremost – seasons 4 and 5 both deliver their most gut-punching moments when kids are left broken & abandoned. But since “life goes on” is a core theme of any serial, does this dynamic chance?

      princesscowboy responded:
      January 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Hi Jason
      I’m glad you brought up THE WIRE. Season 4 was certainly dread-inducing. I became very emotionally invested in those children and was devastated by how some of their story arcs concluded. However, I continued to watch the series week after week because I felt that the misery I was watching had a “point.” THE WIRE is a carefully researched series and the stories it tells are based on incidents that are happening in American cities right now. As with the Italian Neorealists, Simon and his writers are attempting to generate awareness about social problems that are happening NOW (not in the past, not in some made up scifi future, etc). The problems we see in THE WIRE are not easily solved, but generating awareness about them is a crucial first step. So while it was painful to watch the show, I also felt like I *needed* to watch the show as a citizen of the world. It wasn’t agony for agony’s sake.

      By contrast, FUNNY GAMES depicts a highly unlikely (though obviously possible) scenario. I don’t think any viewer *needs* to endure that film, other than to “enjoy” that feeling of terror (or to learn a “lesson” about violence in the media, as Haneke claimed. Whatever, dude).

      Getting back to TV, a series like SIX FEET UNDER is an interesting example of emotionally devastating television. Its stories don’t serve the social purpose that THE WIRE’s do. Instead, I think SIX FEET UNDER is a show for people who enjoy a good cry (I was depressed–actually DEPRESSED–for several days after I finished the series on DVD).

        Jason Mittell said:
        January 5, 2011 at 11:13 am

        Six Feet Under is a good comparison. I loved the show, but watched all but the first season in its original weekly/seasonal release. Most people I know who’ve watched it compressed onto DVD find it overwhelmingly depressing and disheartening like you did, with one critic calling it “misery porn.” I do think there is a thematic “point” more than social commentary, exploring how we grieve and learn to live with (and through) death. But so much of the “rationale” for sadness/despair you identify seems subjective – Ebert clearly saw one where you did not in The Road, and many people don’t see it in 6FU.

        On a side note, let me plug my favorite scholarship on this topic: Robyn Warhol’s book Having a Good Cry. Virtually no other media scholars have read it, so I tout it wherever it’s relevant…

    princesscowboy responded:
    January 5, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I agree about SIX FEET UNDER. There is certainly the “misery porn” aspect to it. But it is also one of the few examples of visual media that effectively grapples with grieving and death and funerals. I really enjoyed the DVD commentary that came with the final set of discs–they interviewed funeral parlor directors who said that the show was very effective in addressing the mourning process.

    As for THE ROAD, I think the story has more value as a book rather than a film. In a book (I am assuming here, haven’t read it) The Man and the Boy can better stand for general concepts and the story can be an allegory about the persistence of human strength and love under horrifying circumstances. In the film version though, they become literal.

    Thank you for the book recommendation–I plan to order it!

    […] dress). When Ray dies at the end of Part Two (I won’t say much about this since, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I have difficulties watching and dealing with the death of children on film and television), we […]

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