Scary movies can be chilling works of cinematic art (see Hitchcock) or cheesy, clichéd teen exploitation flicks (the Friday the 13th series and many, many more). Either way, most share a few similar techniques, using music, lighting, and camera angles to build tension. And directors know that the quickest way to the audience’s gag reflex is through its stomach.
Here are a few of the most notable food scenes in the history of the genre:
1. Nosferatu (1922) So begins one of the most enduring horror movie themes: humans (or, in this case, human blood) as food. This vampire movie, a silent film, is more likely to make you chuckle at its awkward editing and melodramatic acting than cringe in terror, but this Dracula is truly hideous-looking, with sunken eyes and pointy, oversized ears. This is what vampires are supposed to look like, not the teen idols of the Twilight series or HBO’s True Blood.
2. Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock used food, like every other detail, to advance the plot or reveal character. There are so many great Hitchcock food scenes that two French women even wrote a cookbook based on them (available only in French, it appears). One typical scene is in Psycho, when Janet Leigh’s character, Marion, pecks uneasily at her toast—perhaps sensing the meal will be her last—as she converses with the creepy young motel keeper Norman Bates in his room full of stuffed birds.
3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) If you’re ever tempted to complain about your sibling, just watch this classic psychological thriller by Robert Aldrich. Bette Davis is deliciously wicked—and wickedly loony—as Jane, the has-been actress who torments her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche, played by Joan Crawford. One of the most unforgettable scenes is when Jane brings Blanche lunch on a covered tray, casually mentioning that she’s discovered rats in the basement. Blanche—and the audience—knows exactly what she’ll find under the tray, but she can’t help seeing for herself.
4. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) What’s better than a B-movie about castaways on a desert island who turn into giant killer fungi? A B-movie about castaways on a desert island who turn into giant killer fungi that’s dubbed from Japanese. Be sure to watch the hilarious trailer to the end for a view of the fearsome mushroom people.
5. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Technically, this is a comedy spoof of cheesy disaster flicks, but it still gives me flashbacks of a traumatic experience I had with a cherry tomato that exploded on me in preschool. The horror. The horror.
6. Alien (1979) The crew members of a space ship are eating together. As soon as John Hurt’s character says that the first thing he’s going to do when he gets back to Earth is get some decent food, you know that he’s a goner. Moments later, he starts gagging and writhing in pain. At first his crew mates think it’s bad indigestion—that is, until an alien baby bursts from his stomach. I sometimes feel like this when I eat too much. (Watching the video requires sign-in and age verification)
7. Poltergeist (1982) I was 11 when this movie came out, and it left me with two lasting effects. One was a fear of clowns. The other, I suspect, was the seed of what turned me into a vegetarian a few years later. The latter was due to the following scene, in which a young parapsychologist goes to the kitchen for a late-night snack while investigating the strange occurrences in a suburban house. He munches on a chicken drumstick and pulls a raw steak out of the fridge, which proceeds to crawl across the counter and then vomit its insides. The investigator drops the drumstick, which he then realizes is crawling with maggots. Warning: Watch this clip only if you have an iron stomach. I had to stop it because it made me gag.
8. The Stuff (1985) Another entry in the more-ridiculous-than-scary genre, this cult classic about a mysterious gooey dessert that turns people into zombies includes cameos by Paul Sorvino and Danny Aiello, and stars Saturday Night Live alumnus Garrett Morris as “Chocolate Chip.” Tagline: Are you eating it…or is it eating you?
9. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) I could do a whole list of just cannibalism scenes in horror movies, but I’ll let Hannibal Lecter’s chilling description of eating a census taker’s liver represent them all. It’s not a graphic depiction (unlike the sequel, Hannibal, in which Lecter feeds Ray Liotta pieces of his own brain), but it probably introduced more Americans to fava beans than any cooking show.
10. Se7en (1995) Trying to cure your cravings for carbs? Just watch this scene from the movie about a serial killer who tortures and kills people according to the seven deadly sins they represent. The gluttony target is force-fed spaghetti until his stomach explodes. The ultimate victim will be your appetite. In fact, I’ll spare you the clip. If you want to see it that bad, you can look it up yourself.
What’s your favorite horror movie food scene?