With Halloween coming up and our October print issue focusing on all things culinary, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to merge my devotion to the horror genre with my love of food.
Horror and food have a long been bedfellows, and I won’t deny that I’m surprised by my stomach’s sturdy temperament when faced with their shared history. I know what Norman Bates is up to but for some reason that pre-slice’n’dice sandwich he serves Marion Crane looks mighty appetising each time I watch Psycho; John Hurt’s ribcage woes in Alien never put me off pasta; I can watch The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal and still feel a gut grumble; and I’ll put my hands up and say that I can sit through that Oldboy scene and still crave pulpo.
However, there are certain films that have managed to spoil my appetite.
For this list, I’m ruling out livestock and food industry critiques, killer tomatoes, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (because chilled monkey brains aren’t much of a delicacy around these parts), as well as any form of cannibalism, as I’m hoping that the majority of readers don’t feast on human flesh on the regular. This is more focused on how certain films – horror and horror adjacent – have managed to transform perfectly ordinary and initially tasty foodstuffs into something significantly more sinister.
Without further ado, Abendessen ist fertig and best to watch these on an empty stomach. And stick around for post-list dessert if you’re looking for some possible explanations…
Weirder weirder, chicken dinner…
Few things can be more lovely but also potentially awkward than dinner parties (more on them later), especially dinner with a partner’s folks. David Lynch elevated this social encounter to a troubling art when the in-law dinner in his debut film Eraserhead featured small chickens that gush blood when carved – with their little legs kicking away, naturally.
The batshitery of this moment isn’t helped one bit by the sound design and the mother starting to wiggle her tongue as if in some sort of distressing trance.
Our bequiffed protagonist (Jack Nance) subsequently learns that his girlfriend has given birth to their child, so the squirty poultry (I apologise unreservedly for that description) becomes a metaphorical preface that ties in nicely to the film’s main theme: the crippling fear of parenthood.
The chicken wing and steak scene in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is enough to make anyone rethink their carnivorous ways.
Parapsychologist Marty (Martin Casella)’s midnight snack is ruined when the cartoonishly fresh-looking raw meat starts crawling away on the countertop and tumorous growths erupt from the steak. As if that wasn’t enough to make you lose your lunch, maggots emerge from the drumstick he’s been munching on. He then starts to hallucinate that his face is peeling off, thereby establishing an interesting parallel: like the meat, his flesh is rotting from the inside, making human flesh indiscernible from the other. This not only foreshadows the bodies that are buried beneath the house, but reinforces that we’re all just meat sacks that will eventually decay.
Existential dread aside, this is the sort of scene that tests your gag reflex and would be an ideal Exhibit A in the case for vegetarianism.
If you’re anything like me and were scarred by the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as a child, then this entry shouldn’t come as a surprise. Beyond ruining clowns for generations of viewers, fortune cookies also took a dark turn…
The 1990 iteration sees the grown-up Loser’s Club reuniting at a Chinese restaurant. The jovial atmosphere is broken when the fortune cookies make an appearance: the complimentary crunchy treats don’t yield words of wisdom but instead start to bleed, birth cockroaches, pop an eyeball, sprout spider legs and reveal a dying bird foetus.
It’s a neat reminder that no matter how much you try to avoid the demonic clown in the room, the protagonists can’t escape the stranglehold Pennywise has on their lives, even after 27 years apart, and how they are bound by their childhood trauma and yet isolated by their individual fears. Andy Muschietti’s recent two-part remake kept this infamous scene, but it somehow failed to provoke the same jolt as the practical effects used in the TV original.
One is the
loneliest grossest number…
While the dinner scene in Alien never put me off pasta, this one came the closest to making me swear off carbs for good.
The first of the seven deadly sins murders that Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) discover is the Gluttony crime scene. The scene pulses with tension as the camera slowly rotates around the body, inspecting the scene and lingering on the details surrounding the homicide, including tied wrists and a vomit bucket under the table. It slowly leads to the facial reveal of an overweight man who was forced to eat to death and suffocate in a plate of saucy spaghetti.
Despite the actual killing happening off screen, it leaves a lasting impression, especially due to the moody lighting and the grimy production design, which make it a scene you can smell…and wish you couldn’t. So, thank you David Fincher – Bolognese has never been the same since.
EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO (PAN’S LABYRINTH) (2006)
Finding your raisin d’être…
If a Faun and some eager fairies tell you not to touch the food, don’t touch the food. It’s a simple rule, but one poor Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), like Hansel and Gretel before her, had to learn the hard way when she picked up a few grapes off a sumptuous banquet table.
I could write pages and pages about the infamous Pale Man scene in Guillermo Del Toro’s beautiful dark fantasy: the Greek and Christian mythology hints on the frescoes, the purposeful nod to concentration camps, the colour symbolism of the food, how the Pale Man sits at the head of the table and mirrors an earlier scene, revealing the monster to be the fantastical counterpart to Ofelia’s evil stepfather… But I’ll stick to the grapes. Despite warnings, Ofelia gobbles two of them, which awakens the dormant monster, who proceeds to chomp down on two fairies, one per grape.
The choice of fruit isn’t innocent: it not only harks back to the expulsion from Eden but represents a temptation that leads to a psychosexual loss of innocence and the beginning of womanhood, the grapes interpretable as ovarian stand-ins. On a wider level, Del Toro here uses food as a way to comment on how fascism punishes any act of defiance and how institutional evil, represented by the Pale Man, destroys the innocent. To this day, every time I pop a grape, I can’t deny my mind rushes to the awakening of the anaemic ghoul. And the fact he looks like Mitch McConnell. Now that’s scary.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Surprise surprise: turns out that gypsy curses and food don’t play well together. Sam Raimi made sure to remind us in his horror-comedy Drag Me To Hell, which has frequently been read as a metaphor for eating disorders.
Our doomed protagonist Christine (Alison Lohman) gets served her final course, a slice of Harvest Cake which, much like IT’s fortune cookies, starts wriggling and blinking at her. She stabs the eyeball, which begins to pus and bleed all over the table. It’s enough to make anyone pass on the strudel, and considering she’s the only one to see the anthropomorphic dessert, the scene yet again supports the theory that Christine isn’t actually haunted by a supernatural plague but experiencing a psychotic break brought on by her bulimia.
And if you don’t subscribe to that theory, there’s still a lesson to be learned: don’t play with your food. Unless it starts a game of “eye spy”. Then it’s fair game.
THE INVITATION (2015)
From Arsenic and Old Lace to The Princess Bride via From Russia With Love, poisoned wine isn’t a new device on the big screen. It’s a canny-but-old-as-balls trope that ramps up tension and paranoia, and often leads to a character / plot twist. However, director Karyn Kusama’s taut and devilishly effective chamber piece The Invitation utilises it in a wonderfully sparing-yet-efficient way. She constantly makes you wonder whether something is up with the hospitality of the hosts at a dinner party, and, by extension, whether the food and drink they’re serving is kosher. These elements aren’t front and centre, but the more doubt seeps in, the more you begin to notice the details that have been there all along: regularly topped-up glasses of expensive wine, a big meal the guests are all preparing for… Red herrings or bona fide harbingers?
Kusama uses misdirection so brilliantly here and, through the food and drink, captures what makes certain social situations so unbearable while commenting on the pitfalls of societally-accepted politeness.
GRAVE (RAW) (2016)
Raw by name, raw by nature…
From blood-gushing roasts to decaying drumsticks, this appetite-destroying entry takes things back to basics… And yes, Raw does feature cannibalism, but this inclusion isn’t specifically about human flesh.
Julia Ducournau’s debut feature is a modern metamorphosis story, a fantastic coming-of-age film, a nuanced parable about acceptance through unconditional familial love, and one of my absolute favourite films of the past decade. It sees lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) follow in her parents’ footsteps by entering a veterinary college where her sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is also studying. The virginal fresh(wo)man is pressured into eating meat – raw rabbit kidney – for the first time during a series of vicious hazing rituals. This catalyst triggers a nasty full-body rash, which transforms into a craving for meat and awakens within her some uncontrollable yearnings. For starters, however, she sniffs a piece of raw chicken straight from the fridge and starts to gnaw on it.
It may seem like a throwaway scene in the grand scheme of the film, but it represents quite how brilliantly Ducournau brings a frequently nauseating tactility to every corner of her work. Prior to the chicken, Justine shoves a moist burger steak in her lab coat pocket, and even that minor moment had an all-too-distinct palpability to it. Before some of the film’s more extreme moments, both the hamburger and the uncooked poultry beats really stuck with me, and, even armed with the knowledge that the chicken breast was actually a sugar-based prop, the skin-crawling audio mix is enough to make me swear off fowl…and candy…and possibly getting into a relationship with a burgeoning cannibal. Possibly.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)
“Everyone eats spaghetti the exact same way… The exact same way…”
Another spaghetti-centric entry, this time courtesy of the great Yorgos Lanthimos.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees a family of four begin to succumb to an undiagnosable illness, which starts with paralysis and loss of appetite… No spoilers here in case you haven’t seen it (you really should), but the memorable scene in which creepy marriage-troubler and child kidnapper Martin (Barry Keoghan) eats his spaghetti is deeply unsettling.
The way he ravenously shovels forkfuls of carbs in front a mother (Nicole Kidman) pleading with him to spare her family is impressively malicious, borderline evil. The fact that the pasta is covered in red sauce only makes things worse, buttressing a sense of menace and reminding you that lives are at stake. His stoic munching can reflect the banality of evil and refers to the title: Martin is truly the Artemis figure who forced Agamemnon to make an impossible choice when the king killed the goddess’ sacred stag.
Plus, he’s eating in boxers and wearing an all-too-stain-friendly white t-shirt. Oh, the humanity.
GET OUT (2017)
A (seemingly) throwaway moment at the end of Jordan Peele’s satirically potent Get Out sees Rose (Alison Williams) conduct an online search for her next victim while snacking on dry cereal – Fruit Loops, I believe – that never make contact with the milk she’s sipping on.
Sure, there isn’t initially much that’s disgusting about this – just a psychopathic way of enjoying a cornerstone of every nutritious breakfast. However, within the context of the film, where every detail is steeped in symbolism, there’s something deeply chilling about this. The racial implications aren’t hard to discern: Rose literally segregates the coloured food from the white milk, showing to what extent her family’s sinister plans extend to eating habits. *Shudder*
I couldn’t find a clip of the scene in question, so you’ll have to make do with the trailer:
There we have it. We can deduce from all this that a savvy filmmaker knows how to utilise gag reflexes to complement mood and enrich a film’s themes, and not just for the immediate gross-out factor. And while drugs and promiscuity are usually death sentences in the horror genre, eating is also something of a red flag.
Why? Maybe because the act of eating is key to remaining alive, a reminder that we’re essentially quite basic vessels in need of fuel. Making this crucial component of our survival – let alone one which can often bring much joy – something repulsive or dangerous reflects our helplessness and inherent vulnerability. Perhaps the reason why so many filmmakers inject food with an ominous quality is because it represents a significant part of our life force, which, if perverted, taints our humanity itself.
Or no point in splitting
spaghetti hairs – maybe some filmmakers just get a kick out of putting viewers’ stomachs to the test. Your call.
If you’re still hungry for more, check out my piece on how cinematic asparagus is always a harbinger of doom, and feel free to let me know in the comments below which food moment in horror has traumatised you and your appetite.