Halloween Special: Haunting Images


Hallowe’en has reached a point where Americans might celebrate their holiday by dressing as Post Malone. Clearly we’ve come a long way from bedsheet ghosts and the Legend of Sleep Hollow. Films are now our main source of disturbing images, although the ‘clown in a drain’ thing doesn’t work in the UK, which doesn’t have drains like that. And what may haunt you as a child (the Yawning Man in ‘tom thumb’ did it for me) isn’t what affects you as an adult.

So here are a few haunting images that did bother me. There’s a moment in the French film ‘Dr Petiot’ that haunts, yet the film is little seen. It’s the true story of a respected family man, Dr. Marcel Petiot (Michel Serrault), who maintains a double life during World War II. At night he convinces Jews who are trying to get out of Germany to come to his clinic, promising to help them leave the country — then he poisons them, burns them in his furnace and steals their property. The image of the deranged doctor cycling with his cape billowing about him, on the way to or from yet another murder, stays in my mind.

We think of Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’ but it’s that subliminal frame in her nightmares which haunts – a split-second shot of the demon possessing her. And although the images in the Hammer films were cheesy by today’s standards, there’s one shot of Christopher Lee as Dracula that makes him appear insane. This shot has become iconic to the point where I was able to by a 3D rendering of it in the tiny gift shop at Castle Dracula (Bran) in Transylvania.

‘It Follows’ threw out a more unconventional image; one of a figure in the distance inexorably walking closer. This is the same image that appears in ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come For You’ by M R James. By taking the viewpoint of the victim we see a spectre as it would be seen, and this disturbs. Similarly, in ‘The Innocents’, the film version of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, we only see the ghosts at Bly from the viewpoint of Deborah Kerr, which makes us susceptible to the idea that she is the vulnerable, repressed one. In particular, the image of the dead Miss Jessel in the lake is highly effective because of the silence surrounding it and the distance of the apparition. Jack Clayton, the director, was decided about the film’s ambiguousness; he felt that evil was alive in the mind of the governess so that she more or less creates the situation.

Mundane scenes can have haunting power; the sunlit, crowded garage in ‘The Vanishing’ becomes something utterly terrifying because it represents something that has happened to all of us as children. We’ve lost a parent in the crowd and panic.

Visual representation of creepiness on film often undermines it, by making the unreal real. The real power of ‘The Exorcist’ lies in being outside of the door in dreaded anticipation, not inside with the possessed child – something reflected in the poster. Likewise, the veiled person sitting on the floor of ‘The Others’ and the child wearing a sack on its head in ‘The Orphanage’ both retain haunting power because they must be revealed to be seen.


But reveals can remove fear by calibrating the nightmare and downgrading it, providing us with a sense of relief. Possibly the only exception to this is the reveal at the end of ‘Don’t Look Now’, with that unknowable face staring back. ‘Kill List’ keeps its punchlined horror at a distance, providing us with a series of black-out moments visualising flight and fear. And while Dario Argento’s original ‘Suspiria’, with its sound and lurid visuals dialled up to eleven, still knocks your socks off, the remake’s Berlin-set Tanz dance academy and its occupants have a chilly power to them, even if the film isn’t scary.

‘Let The Right One In’ and ‘We Are What We Are’ (both versions) remain in the mind for their settings, familiarly urban yet strange, but probably the most haunting are those involving the human body; Rosemary looking as if something is devouring her from within in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and Christian Bale starving himself to death without camera trickery in ‘The Machinist’.

More suggestions for images with the power to haunt, please!





16 comments on “Halloween Special: Haunting Images”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    There was an old Hammer film about the descendant of someone who killed a witch and all her friends are the descendants of witches. The image that haunts me is the victims POV as her husband places the last stone over her face during a boarding.

  2. David Ronaldson says:

    I was, indeed still am, given the creeps in the Wicker Man, by people wearing innocent-looking animal masks – cats, rabbits, fish etc

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    The nun going mad and wearing makeup in Black Narcissus.

  4. Agatha Hamilton says:

    I may have missed a mention of this, but did you know, Admin, that you are the subject of a question in the Sunday Times General Knowledge Quiz, last Sunday, 21st? As in ‘Author of the Bryant & May detective stories. (11,6)?

  5. Jo W says:

    Ooh,ooh,please sir! I know the answer, (hands up,fingers twitching). Could it be our friend and Admin?
    Aaaah,fame at last,Christopher. 😉

  6. Ian Luck says:

    It has to be the deeply disturbing rattling ball of smoke and sparks that chases Dr. Holden (Dana Andrews) through the woods near Ludford Hall, in ‘Night Of The Demon’ (1957), for me. I live not far from lots of areas of woodland like that, and yes, you can imagine it happening. There are others, of course; The silhouette of Matthew Hopkins in the dusk, in ‘Witchfinder General’; In ‘Quatermass And The Pit’, the question:”Is anybody still down there?” is answered by the single word: “Breen”, and the shot cuts to the smoking husk of Colonel Breen’s body, which topples lifelessly forwards; The sound of shuffling footsteps approaching a door in a room that exists where no room should actually be, in the final segment of ‘From Beyond The Grave’. These are a few of my favourite things…

  7. Ian Luck says:

    It should be ‘LUFFORD’ Hall, as and file kno. Damn predictive text.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    A film note for Snowy. I got April & the Extraordinary World and certainly enjoyed it but I felt that there were too many people involved in the planning with the result that it tried to be too many things: the talking cat and the (at first) clumsy policeman for kids’ humour, the labs for the “mad scientist” crowd, the steam cars and overhead transport for the alternate history people and the lizard people for those who despair of humans. The plot lines became rather dense and the film would have been improved by a simplification, but I enjoyed it anyway. Thank you for leading me through my own library. (I found Alice’s Restaurant at the same time, by the way.)

  9. admin says:

    Ian, you picked a whole set of favourite images. The officer with the cut mouth in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the rotting hand in ‘The Shape of Water’ are equally memorable.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    As I sit here, looking out of the window, I find myself thinking of some more…
    Terry-Thomas, bled white, in ‘The Abominable Doctor Phibes’ ; the terrifying stare of ‘Cesare, The Somnambulist’, (the magnetic Conrad Veidt), in ‘The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari’, as he awakens in the sideshow. Conrad Veidt again, as Gwinplaine, in ‘The Man Who Laughs’ – not really a horror film, but dark and chilling nonetheless. Christopher Lee, in ‘The Wicker Man’, who appalls Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), by saying: “Ah, yes. Jesus Christ. The illegitimate son of a carpenter, fathered, I believe, by a ghost.” The shadow on the wall showing Boris Karloff’s character starting to be flayed alive by Bela Lugosi (unusually playing a dreadfully wronged good guy), in ‘The Black Cat’. The oxygen pipe in the Winnerden Flats factory, blocked by pulped humans, in ‘Quatermass II’. The sweet old professor being pushed down the stairwell, by Doctor Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing (and the crack as his head hits the floor) in ‘The Curse Of Frankenstein’ . Put-upon secretary Longbarrow (played by the great Michael Ripper), has an equally nasty defenestration, headfirst on to cobbles, at the hands of vengeful mummy, Prem, in ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’. Prem’s self-destruction is brilliantly disgusting, too. Not a movie, but cinematic, is the entry of Frankenstein’s first creature (Rory Kinnear), who tears his way, extremely messily, through Frankenstein’s second creature, in the TV show. ‘Penny Dreadful’. Finally, my favourite entrance of any movie character, ever, has to be that of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), in ‘The Prestige’, where he appears through a curtain of high voltage electrical arcs, as if it was nothing unusual (and for Tesla, it wouldn’t have been).

  11. Jan says:

    The really old black and white (1920s maybe) horror Dracula- when the monster has long, long fingers you see a shadow of the figure which accentuates the distortion of the hands.

    Now that’s what I call scary ……proper scary.

  12. snowy says:

    Jan, that would be ‘Nosferato, eine Symphonie des Grauens’, [had to look up the full title], they didn’t ask permission to use Stoker’s work, the heirs got a bit miffed and tried to have it destroyed. [It’s out of copyright so you could download a copy, conscience free, if you felt so inclined.]

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Jan and Snowy – Nosferatu (the German translates into ‘A symphony of shudders), is a masterpiece. Max Schreck (Schreck being German for ‘fear’) plays Graf Orlok, possibly the nastiest vampire ever. He is more rat like than bat, and it was put about that Schreck actually was a vampire, and he wasn’t under heavy make up. The excellent 2000 movie ‘Shadow Of The Vampire’, starring John Malkovitch and Willem Dafoe explores this. Nosferatu is one of the few horror movies to still retain the power to scare. A lot of the scenes are now pop culture icons – the shadow of him on the stairs; Orlok emerging talon-handed from a ship’s hatch; the eerie dissolve as the sun rises. The scene of his body springing up from from his coffin is still startling, even now. I’ve watched Nosferatu many, many times, and it still entertains. I have a couple of Graf Orlok action figures – one is about 7″ tall, and stands on a base that is teeming with scale rats. The other, is 3.75″ tall, and stands with my other figures of movie monsters. There. My weakness, since I can remember, is action figures. It’s worse now, as people are, at last, making the ones I wanted to play with in 1969.

  14. Jan says:

    Thanks Snowy and Ian.

    When I wrote the original comment I recalled the Dafoe film “Shadow of a The Vampire”which I don’t think I have ever seen.

    I think what contributes to the fear factor in Nosferatu (which I haven’t even watched all the way through I’m such a pleb) is how you are shown shadows of the scenes at times rather than the real layout and -maybe this is a hangover from childhood – that makes it scarier still.

  15. Jan says:

    Ian even thinking of the Vampires/Nosferatus face his rat like teeth his protruding eyes the way he moves maybe the hands as the rats claws yes I can really see it now. Rat like rather than bat

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Nosferatu’s Graf Orlok even moves like a rat – when he’s not sneaking around, he tends to scuttle about, hunched over. It’s really quite unsettling. And, of course, he was obviously the inspiration for the dark, and genuinely disturbing web animation ‘Salad Fingers’. It might sound funny, but it really, really isn’t. I guarantee that it will give you the creeps. No, really.

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