A-List: Confinement Horror

By Sean Collier

October 10, 2008

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All horror, in one way or another, deals with being trapped. There's something after us, and we can't get away from it. The mind, the environment, circumstance, or simply the sheer tenacity of the predator can provide the chains. It's a simple facet of the genre – if we can simply get away from it, it must not be that scary.

Some of the most visceral and engaging horror films take this paradigm a step further. When confronted with a predator and physically unable to escape – trapped not by weakness or choice, but by space and time – fear is much more intense. Every moment is a threat; there is no relief. Our most primal choice, the binary of flight or fight, is reduced to one terrible option.

These films enable some of the most tense, thrilling scenes in horror. John Carpenter, in particular, was a master of creating a guaranteed heart attack scenario: the moment when the hero wants nothing more than to run, but realizes that not only is escape impossible, but fight is a necessity. Think of the reluctance in Jamie Lee Curtis' face as Michael Myers burst through the closet door, and she not only had to remain there, but actually attempt to fight him off with no more than a coat hanger.

Terrifying as well: the gallows face when a protagonist realizes that the fight is over but the suffering is not. It's in Robert Shaw's face as he continues to strike at Jaws, even after he's been bit in half; it's in James Caan's hopeless protestations as Kathy Bates explains just why she's about to break his legs with a sledgehammer.


For this A-List, I'm choosing to narrow the focus not just to films where escape is difficult (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the aforementioned Jaws and Halloween, for example,) but to films where the majority of the running time finds the protagonist either utterly confined or failing to get away. With hope that Quarantine lives up to its intimidating premise, The-A List presents the best of confinement horror.


The tagline referred to the vastness of space, but the problem aboard the Nostromo was a lack of it. When confronted with the most terrifying parasitic beast ever imagined, most of us would want to go very, very far away as quickly as possible. With no way to escape and no chance of getting to earth anytime soon, however, Sigourney and company had no choice but to face a ferocious, invincible beast. A big component of Alien's effectiveness was the film's constant tendency to offer the viewer a bit of hope for escape, only to dash it spectacularly – and take a crewmember or two in the process.

The Thing

See, there are just some places where you don't want things to go horribly wrong. Antarctica is one of them. John Carpenter's '80s masterpiece sees his favorite antihero, Kurt Russell, leading a team of frigid scientists in battle against a...well, a thing. From space. That's turning them into horrible monsters and killing them in unfathomably gruesome ways. So, kind of a bad situation, there. For bonus points, the creature can take over the bodies of humans, so The Thing piles on the really intimidating horror situations – the which-one-is-the-killer trope on top of being utterly trapped with a relentless monster.

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