October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article looking at the best and most egregious scenes of eyeball horror is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
This will be remembered as the year everyone got to know the unusual sensation of having a cue-tip rammed up your nose. It’s nothing to – ahem – sneeze at, for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to having something get in your eye, an image horror movies love to indulge in.
Even when it is as relatively harmless as sand, watching something violent happen to a character’s eye in a film makes our bodies cringe in a uniquely somatic way. We’ve all got something in our eyes at one point, but our knee-jerk squeamishness to abject eyeball horror is triggered by our deeply ingrained ommetaphobia, the fear of anything involving eyes.
Why do our bodies react so viscerally to seeing someone get their eyes poked out? You can blame that cold sweat on mirror neurons. These neurons help our minds develop as children, but it’s also what makes us wince when we see anything that looks remotely painful.
Think of it like this: when you carve a pumpkin, mirror neurons fire off, but they also fire when you see someone else carve a pumpkin. This means that when we observe an action, we are able to understand, to a degree, the physical sensation of the action.
If you apply that concept to watching a big ol’ splinter pierce into someone’s eyeball, we respond as if it’s actually happening to us. Why else do you think we instinctively reach for our face when we watch someone get their eye plucked out? Mirror neurons, baby!
This physical reaction to art is a prime example of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, adapted and updated to the sensibility of the 21st-century gorehound. Ocular trauma in horror affects us in a way that intellectual efforts simply cannot, and that’s exactly why these gimmicky scenes are so praiseworthy and, dare I say, eye-catching.
Get ready for a full-body cringe with Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself as we run down the ten queasiest moments of eyeball horror.
10. Re-Animator (1985)
So your friend finally bullied you into watching Re-Animator. First of all: congratulations; you have good friends. Second: brace yourself for the best goddamn cold open in horror history. Am I exaggerating? Shut up. A good cold open kicks the door down and says: “THIS IS WHAT SIGHTS I HAVE IN STORE FOR YOU.”
Did someone say sights? Well, well, well. How convenient, because Re-Animator’s big door kick happens to be all about sight. Or rather, the fact that Herr Doctor Hans Gruber (yep) isn’t going to be seeing much of anything thanks to the pulsating flesh sacks where his eyes should be.
Did I mention they pop horribly as the doctor frantically grasps his steadily exploding face? Because they do. Guess the dosage on Herbert West’s re-agent needs some finagling. Then again, West didn’t kill him, he gave him life! Queue the kick drum. (Meg Shields)
9. Demonia (1990)
To a cat, we’re all gigantic hairless cats. Why else do you think they nip and nibble at us like we’re one of their own, playfully chomping our ankles or pecking at our chins? Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s lovingly, but sometimes a cat is just being a cat: which is to say a little bit of an asshole who won’t bat an eye at eating you if you ever die alone in your house.
Unfortunately for the cat lady (Carla Cassola) in Lucio Fulci’s tale of demon nuns, Demonia, she didn’t die before her herd of mini-carnivores decided to devour her face whole. Part of the fun of Fulci’s optical horror moments is watching the less-than-believable special effects work; quickly cutting from the actor’s face to what’s clearly a rubber cast primed to be destroyed, or noticing the hand of a puppeteer scratching the camera with a stuffed cat’s faux-paw.
As wave on wave of fake kittens is hurled at the cat lady, they use their phony little paws to claw at the rubber mask until her eye is pulled completely out of the socket in a glorious moment of eyeball horror excess. It’s wholly unrealistic, but it doesn’t really matter. This is so ludicrous that it transcends realism into unadulterated mondo art. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Event Horizon (1997)
Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see. In this audacious sci-fi schlock-fest, eyes are found to be unnecessary when it comes to staring into the void and embracing all that the violent, trippy hellscape of space has to offer.
Seven years after the titular ship vanished into the vastness of the universe, it begins to send out a distress signal, and a group of astronauts is sent to investigate. One of the astronauts is William Weir (Sam Neill), designer of the Event Horizon and a man eager to uncover the secrets of its journey.
As Weir’s own sanity unravels, so too does his need for vision, leading him to gouge his own eyes out. The film loses points for this happening off-screen, but it gets those points back for the terrifying and daring way that shit hits the fan following said gouging. Final score: 10/10, or, rather, 20/20. (Anna Swanson)
7. 28 Days Later (2002)
If we think too hard about our own eyeballs, we suddenly become aware of them as one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. There’s an inherent squeamishness that comes with eye-related horror because nobody likes to think about the fact that one’s vision could be lost in a squishy, disgusting instant.
That being said, let’s get this over with before I throw up. There’s a part during the climax of 28 Days Later when Cillian Murphy’s character shoves his fingers through a guy’s eyes. This sequence of eyeball horror is extra awful because we don’t see it right away, just hear the shrill screams of agony, and when we finally get the money shot, he’s full-on knuckles-deep in this dude’s peepers.
In a movie that’s filled to the brim with fast-zombie carnage, this moment of human-on-human violence is a horrifying standout. Anyway, if you need me, I’ll be in the corner wearing safety goggles. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
6. Final Destination 5 (2011)
A lot of the ocular trauma moments on this list would never happen. Undead arms aren’t bursting through walls ready to pop your peepers out of their sockets, and hordes of cats aren’t sharpening their claws set to scratch you blind. But the same can’t be said for this moment in Final Destination 5.
People regularly have eye surgery, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you too could one day find yourself with your head clamped in place as Kubrickian lid locks keep your eyes open. The Grim Reaper maybe isn’t hunting you down, but having all of that medical equipment up in your grill would make anyone’s blood run cold.
As a laser run amok begins burning and tearing into Olivia’s (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood) cornea, we have a sick fascination that forces us to not look away. There’s no other explanation for the top comment on a YouTube clip of this scene to be, “I am doing Lasik in five hours. Why am I here..?”
Indulging in fears can make us overcome our own phobias, but sometimes it’s like picking at a scab: we just can’t help ourselves, no matter how much it hurts to watch. (Jacob Trussell)