I don’t know at what age I realized it — nor what spurred or even caused it — but I suffer from the irrational fear of tight spaces. Claustrophobia. That is such a marvelous and terrible (19th century) term. It’s made up from the Latin claustrum “a shut in place” and the Greek φόβος, phóbos, “fear”. Wikipedia says one study estimates that “from 5–7% of the world population is affected by severe claustrophobia”.
I’m bad enough, but I sincerely hope I don’t ever qualify as ‘severe’.
Ever wonder if you’re claustrophobic? Two easy ways to find out. You’ll know it rather quickly if you ever have to go through an MRI of your head. Or have to lie flat with your arms over your head under a Gamma-ray Camera, by way of experiencing a Thallium Stress Test. Believe me on this… I’ve experienced both. And, if there’s one nightmare that will wake me up alert & sober every single time — and cause me to get out of bed to walk around the house in the middle of the night — it is dreaming of a cramped, confined place…
…with me in it.
So what brought this dread back to the surface? The springboard to get me to write about my fear was an elegant piece by Paige MacGregor, over at B-Sol’s very entertaining The Vault of Horror blog. A post about a thriller that came out late in the summer of 2010, called Buried, which starred Ryan Reynolds. Its poster alone was enough to disturb folks like me.
When I read it, it instantly triggered my memory to click off the sequences and/or situations I’ve come across over the years in film and books which got to me. In distinct ways, all those I’ll list managed to unsettle, and give rise to a little anxiety, when I came upon those kinds of moments in each. My examples are below — and some spoilers are ahead… so you’ve been warned.
Buried Alive – This was director Frank Darabont’s 1990 movie for cable that had a husband in desperate, and tight, straits when his wife and her lover decide to avoid divorce court and attorney fees. The situation he goes through, and even the reversal that comes from the subsequent revenge, had me uncomfortable for days after the initial viewing.
Alien – Being trapped inside a dark vessel, journeying through the coldness of space, with a creature that is labeled “A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality” (and has acid for blood) was bad enough. But then Capt. Dallas had to crawl through the ship’s ventilator shafts to root it out. Hudson said it best in the sequel:
“Oh yeah, sure! With those things runnin’ around? You can count me out.”
The Serpent and the Rainbow – That tagline of “Don’t bury… I’m not dead!” was never better used than in this 1988 film by Wes Craven. As one IMDB reviewer put it, “…nothing can compare, or condition you, to the horror of being unknowingly buried alive and not being able to scream in order to prevent that terrifying act from happening.”
The Vanishing – We’re talking about the 1988 Dutch original, also known as Spoorloos, by George Sluizer. Not the very lame American remake — what’s puzzlingly was the retread was also directed by the same guy. I won’t give this one away. But, by the time you reach the end, I guarantee you’ll agree with me that it very much belonged on this list!
Body Double – When director Brian De Palma identified his 1984 film’s protagonist (Jake Scully) as a known claustrophobic, you had to realize he was going to bring some real nasty situation into play by story’s end for the character. He didn’t disappoint…as claustrophobics desperately reached for a paper bag to breathe into.
Dante’s Peak – You know it was already thrilling enough in this disaster flick (thanks J.D. for the movie recommendation) before our plucky survivors drove into a mine shaft to escape the volcano’s overblast. To then need to recover the life-saving NASA transmitter, Bond #5 just had to crawl back into the vehicle as its being crushed and compacted by the shifting ground around it. Caused by a cave-in, of course.
Die Hard – John McClane barely crawling through that ventilation duct, with only a cigarette lighter… shudder.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 – This will be the last entry on my list involving a coffin and the convenient yet particularly unpleasant way to die. What made this so well done (i.e., absolutely terrifying), was Quentin Tarantino’s use of sound in this sequence. From The Bride’s, and the audience, perspective, listening to the nails being pounded in, the coffin being dragged down into place, and the shovelfuls of earth being thrown on top of us — amidst our panicked breathing — we heard the last sounds of the living slowly fade away… Lovely.
Poseidon – Okay, I’ll stipulate that the 2006 remake came nowhere near the 1972 disaster classic in quality or story. However, I’d argue the original did not put me into anywhere near the state of agitation that Wolfgang Petersen did when he stuck those survivors in a harrowing sequence. One featuring a narrow vertical shaft. Just killing time trying to open the sealed vent at the top…all the while as the shaft filled with water.
The Descent – What Spielberg did for those going into the ocean with Jaws, director Neil Marshall did to these intrepid women spelunkers (AKA monster fodder) in his 2005 movie. Granted, no matter what the characters found down there in that desolate cave, the scene where one of the characters manages to get herself wedged in a decidedly narrow crevice had me more than a little uncomfortable — and yelling at the people on the screen for going down there in the first place!
Out of Sight – If I have to be enclosed in an automobile’s trunk (been there, done that), this would be the only instance it could be somewhat tolerable. With Jennifer Lopez portraying Karen Sisco and me as Jack Foley in Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful 1998 film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same title. I think this is the only time I almost forgot the characters were in a locked luggage compartment. I did say, almost.
The Cobra Event (book) – Author Richard Preston made me edgy enough describing what it’d be like to catch a bio-hazard level 4 viral pathogen. Then, he made it worst by detailing where you, the dying patient, would live out your remaining life. In a biosafety container like this. To top it off, his protagonist near the climax of the tale, managed to get stuck underground… upside down. No thank you.
Die Trying (book) – As formidable a character as Jack Reacher is, author Lee Child still succeeded in bringing him (and me) to an alarmed state, in a very realistic manner. During a singular section in his second novel of the series, the large framed and imposing Reacher gets stuck in a dark, tight mountain tunnel. Child wrote it so well, describing the scene and the character’s fear so effectively, all I wanted was to close the book!