To be scared is one thing. It can be fleeting, a flash of fear that leaves your system as quickly as adrenaline, and that can even make the process satisfying. There’s catharsis to fear. To be disturbed is something altogether more complicated. The disturbing lingers, it festers and rots into your brain, hanging overhead and inside you long after it’s stopped being nourishing. Fear can make you too jumpy to sleep with the lights off for a night; being disturbed will make you never want to sleep again.
It can be hard to distinguish between the two emotions, both so prone to mythologizing and each equally difficult to deal with, especially in childhood. Like the kids in Stand By Me after they finally see the dead body they’ve giddily been trekking into the woods to gawk at, the reality of being disturbed is one that sticks with you and can change you irrevocably. This all sounds supremely doom and gloom, and moments of truly disturbing pop culture can elicit emotions beyond that sinking feeling in your gut that keeps you awake at night, but I think it’s important to differentiate between being scared of a horror movie and being truly unnerved to the point of ceaseless dread at, say, the sewer orgy in IT. Sometimes, the most disturbing things in film, TV and beyond aren’t immediately recognisable as such, while other times it’s almost inevitable that they’ll ruin your life.
As someone constantly torn between loving very strange and bleak pop culture and being a big honking coward, I often find the thrill of the disturbing more enticing than that of pure fear. You have to dig deeper to find it and get over a hell of a lot more panic to appreciate it, but its potency is undeniable. So I present to you four of the film (and one TV) moments that, to this day, leave me weighed down by dread and hopelessness. You know, the fun stuff!
Narrowing down the sheer plethora of moments in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s masterpiece that left me scurrying to lock my doors and haunted by inescapable spectres would be a thesis unto itself. It’s the TV show that often hurts the most to watch, even as it stands as one of my all time favourites, simply because its disturbing effect on me is so compelling. The two moments that still upset me the most to watch in full are, as you probably guessed, Bob related. First, the couch scene. It’s a masterful moment of timing and anticipation, one that comes after a relatively innocent and cringe-worthy musical performance that ends with a lover’s tiff. Maddy, the cousin of the late Laura Palmer who was played by the same actress (Sheryl Lee), sits quietly on the floor in third wheel mode. The shot then cuts to the empty couch and waits for a few seconds. You know something is coming, but it doesn’t prepare you for the bone-shuddering sight of Bob, grinning in malice as he crawls across the couch towards the camera, his eyes always on you. It may be as defining a moment for the show as Laura wrapped in plastic or Dale enjoying his morning coffee. Yet it doesn’t hold a candle to the death of Maddy, a truly upsetting scene wherein Leland Palmer, possessed by Bob, stares at his possessor in the mirror before killing Maddy in a moment that plays like a dance gone terribly wrong. The show, for all its quirks and oddities, had never been truly violent in the way this scene is. Maddy bleeds from her face as Leland rams her into a wall, she screams and cries and the pain is impossible to ignore. Many viewers may have come to Twin Peaks for its alluring whimsy, but this was the reminder of the show’s true bleakness.
Really, it’s my own fault that I even ended up watching Martyrs and having my life be vaguely spoiled as a result. I knew enough about the French horror to understand that having it on in the background while I worked was one of my stupider ideas. I love the genre but I have little patience for intensely realistic and near pornographic violence, much less the stomach for such things. Still, there it was and of course I ended up putting aside my work, using it only to shield my eyes from the endless brutality enacted on its protagonist. The moment that tipped it over the edge and had me literally gasping was when I realised that Anna, the woman who has survived this sick group’s ritual of forced martyrdom for the longest, is flayed alive. That she also survives this agonizing pain just made me lose it.
Requiem for a Dream
True story, this was the first certificate 18 DVD I ever bought myself. Granted, I was 15 at the time and had to lie to the beleaguered retail woman on the till that I’d left my ID in my car, but it was still a formative moment of burgeoning adulthood. Too bad I was nowhere near emotionally equipped to handle the film itself. Darren Aronofsky has a particular talent for crafting sensory agony, and he’s never put it to use so effectively as with Requiem for a Dream. One cannot simply picky one moment in the film that left me staring into the darkness of my bedroom TV for a solid hour after the film ended: There’s the electro-shock therapy, the grinding of Ellen Burstyn’s teeth as she’s hopped up on ‘diet pills’, the needle into the gangrenous vein, the evil fridge, and of course, the ‘ass to ass’ moment, which wasn’t something I thought people physically did until seeing that film. Any of these things in a typical movie probably wouldn’t have affected me as much if they’d been shot like your bog-standard grim drama. It’s all in the way Aronofsky puts it together, so precise and delicately engineered to drill right into your brain.
The day I bought Requiem for a Dream on DVD was also the day I bought Lars Von Trier’s bleaker than bleak 3-hour long experimental drama Dogville, mostly because it was cheap, because I liked Nicole Kidman and because people kept telling me this Von Trier guy was worth checking out. To call the guy who made Breaking the Waves nihilistic is an insult to the great nihilists of our time. Von Trier is also too morbidly entertained by his own disdain for humanity to fully warrant the title. Dogville is especially tough to watch, even by his standards: 3 hours of action on a sound stage with lines drawn on the ground theatre-style to mimic the boundaries of homes, streets and gathering places, all acting as the backdrop to a story of abuse, manipulation, and how little influence it takes to turn a ‘good’ town so very bad. Nicole Kidman is put through the wringer as the town’s fugitive who becomes their prisoner, no better than the local dog who we hear but never see. There’s no singular moment that disturbs: Rather, it’s the piece as a whole. You can’t underestimate the mental and emotional stabbing that takes place over such a long film, where glimmers of hope appear only to be stamped out for no reason other than because these characters can. By the end, you too are cheering on this town’s massacre because you believe like Kidman does that the world is better off without it. Once David Bowie’s Young Americans starts playing over the end credits, it feels like the cruellest of jokes. By Von Trier’s own standards, Dogville is probably one of his tamer efforts - Dancer in the Dark may be even more vicious - but it was this one that hit the hardest, that first punch you’re never prepared for.
Eyes Without a Face
You expect certain things from old horror movies. These films are the way they are because of the time they were made, and that carries with it certain sensibilities and rules. I always knew that I could watch the original Universal Monster movies with the appropriate chills and thrills and be safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t see anything too visceral. After all, the Hayes code demanded it. So you can imagine my shock at watching the classic French film, Eyes Without a Face and having that rule be solidly shattered. It’s a stunning film, poetic and just bonkers enough, but it’s the surgery scene that sticks out in my mind. You watch as Dr. Génessier prepares for the surgical removal of a young woman’s face so that he may help his scarred daughter Christiane, and you assume that it’ll cut to black soon because there’s no way they’ll actually show you a face being removed. Not in a 1960 French film where blood effects and prosthetics aren’t quite up to scratch. But then the scene keeps going, and it goes on in silence. He marks the face where he’ll make the incision and you think it’ll cut to black soon. Then the scalpel goes in, and you’re clutching the chair and still thinking, hoping, that it’ll cut to the next scene. And then the entire face is lifted up. Even in its rudimentary form, it remains one of horror cinema’s most disturbing moments.
So what pop culture moment disturbed you the most? What book or film or TV show haunted you long after you put it down? What still lingers in your mind? Let us know in the comments.