Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Reprise » In Tight Places


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 φόβοςphóbos, “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.

ba_dvd_headerBuried 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.

dallas plan

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.

serpent and the rainboxThe 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.

Cobra Event

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!

Are there any films or books out there that have driven you to the edge of panic? Now, I’m going outside for a walk…away from this subject.

17 Responses to “Reprise » In Tight Places”

    • le0pard13

      I have ‘Buried’ in my video stack to screen, in fact. One of these days I will watch it. If I can get through Brake, I can get through this. I think. 😉

      Thanks very much, Chris.


  1. jackdeth72

    Hi, Michael:

    Das Boot seethes with claustrophobia.

    Great catches on The Descent and The Vanishing !

    Honorable mentions could include George A. Romero’s original Night of The Living Dead from 1968. And a neat little deep space Sci~Fi flick, Pandorum . Which entails collapsar (Worm Hole) jumps and memory loss of the abbreviated, revived crew.


    • le0pard13

      Great film in DAS BOOT, for sure. And it should, being in a sub, bother me. Much like Boris Vaslov in ‘Ice Station Zebra’. For some reason, none of the submarine-based films I’ve watched through the years has gotten to me like those I’ve listed. Come to think about it, save for one:

      Love George A. Romero’s original Night of The Living Dead and Pandorum, Kevin. They certainly do have their claustrophobic moments. Many thanks, my friend.


  2. cindybruchman

    Fun post, Michael. I’m right with you on this one! Not fun for me in elevators or center airplane seats or surrounded by students. Your examples are good ones. Never heard of the Dutch, The Vanishing. Well, any coffin movie is good. Kill Bill 2 is one of my favs just because of the coffin scene. There was a horror movie that came out in 2005 I was forced to watch but its staying power hit a nerve because of the cramped quarters: The Descent. Speaking of caves, 127 Hours was bad enough for me, that is, getting stuck in close quarters.


    • le0pard13

      There once was a building on campus, now long gone post-Northridge earthquake, that had the tiniest of elevators. Two people barely fit. HATED that thing!

      I remain a big KILL BILL (any volume) fan. As much as I feel uncomfortable about that scene, it’s a triumph when The Bride gets out. 🙂 Agreed about 127 Hours. Thanks so much, Cindy!


  3. Steven Hart

    There was a made-for-TV version of Ray Bradbury’s “The Screaming Woman,” about a kid who hears a woman trying to get out of a coffin. I watch a lot of horror movies and I can usually shake them off, but The Vanishing knocked me for a loop. So allow me to share what I’ve been told is the only way to escape a premature burial. Pull your shirt up over your head and try to tie it up top. This is to keep dirt out of your nose and mouth. Then kick upward with your knees in the middle of the wooden lid. (If it’s a metal coffin, you’re done.) The lid is where the greatest weight of dirt is pressing down, so by adding to the stress you might be able to splinter an opening. Then push your way up through the dirt, which should still be relatively loose after having just been shoveled in. Then find a diner or luncheonette and ask for a glass of water.


    • le0pard13

      Isn’t THE VANISHING something!?! Seen it only once, and I’m fine with that. BTW, I’ve committed to memory the coffin extraction method for premature burial you’ve noted. One glass of water, please. 😉 Thanks, Steven!


  4. ruth

    I’m slightly claustrophobic so I don’t think I’d do well w/ these movies. Now, if I HAD to be trapped in a trunk like J-Lo in Out of Sight though, I don’t think I’d mind so much if say, Richard Armitage or Tom Hiddleston were trapped along w/ me, ahahaha!


  5. John DuMond

    That scene in Die Hard gave us the classic line, “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.”

    What do you think the cutoff age for getting that joke is?


  6. Morgan R. Lewis

    I sympathize with you on the MRI. I’m not claustrophobic in most situations. As a kid I would explore cramped quarters like attics and alcoves, and I still occasionally go under the house to run some wires with only the physical discomfort of how it affects my knees. Went into the lava tubes in Eastern Oregon on a class field trip once in high school and had no trouble in those caves (and was apparently deemed reliable enough to act as an escort out by a classmate who decided she was too claustrophobic to be in there.) But when I had an MRI to investigate my first cluster headache, I discovered there’s a slight difference between being in tight quarters and having your shoulders pinned down. That bothered me.

    Still, movies about claustrophobia generally elicit only sympathetic fear (i.e., fear for the character) from me rather than a personal sense of fear. My main phobia is heights. Most films are “flat” enough that they aren’t a problem, but ones that are well-shot (Vertigo, naturally enough) or which have high drops in 3D can affect me a bit.

    Oh, I’m also (embarrassing as it is to admit it) afraid of small, fast animals. I’m not a wimp, but the sudden discovery of a mouse can make me jump ten feet. It’s mostly because of my inability to track the little bastards; if it’s a tame animal (and therefore not running too fast to see) or if it’s on screen it doesn’t bother me.


    • le0pard13

      I envy your ability to easily work in enclosed spaces, Morgan. But yeah, having your shoulders pinned down is a trigger for me, as well — Lee Child described so well in that Jack Reacher book. My son suffers from the same phobia of heights. We discovered that when walking down the outside stairway of the Griffith Park Observatory. No fun for him. He didn’t seem bothered during Mission: IMPOSSIBLE Ghost Protocol’s sequence using the Burj Khalifa building, though, as I thought he would. Good call on ‘Vertigo’ and its cinematography using heights.

      I’m with you on rodents, of all sizes! Thank you very much for sharing and commenting, my friend. 🙂


  7. Dan

    The discussion of the medical tests (tests I have yet to endure, and hope I never have to) are enough to send shivers up my spine. I have a few irrational phobias that I legitimize as VERY rational such as vertigo and, yes, claustrophobia. I think the film The Vanishing – the original French/Dutch film – uses this sense of enclosure particularly well but discussing said film would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. However, I suffered similar fears watching the likes of The Descent. It’s funny that so many terrific thrillers/horror films utilize our sense of claustrophobia to their collective advantage but unsurprising because when featured so acutely as in those films mentioned above, it’s a devastatingly effective device.


    • le0pard13

      The Vanishing is certainly that. Great point, Dan. The Descent did the same for me. Many thanks for the wonderful comment, my friend. 🙂



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