A pedestrian approach to horror

Posted on August 28, 2009


Pleasant dreams.

Pleasant dreams.

As a kid, I wasn’t overly sensitive to horror movies.

Sure, I could be frightened, but the cause was generally benign. After watching The Dick Van Dyke episode in which Rob Petrie dreams his hair has been replaced by a head of cabbage, I spent the night being chased by a shaggy, horned beast called “The Mohair.” A short documentary on the making of paper (not a subject from which most parents would try to shield their children) gave me a truly terrifying dream in which I had to feed cardboard to cars so they wouldn’t attack me. And while the radio news reports about the Cuban Missile Crisis may have held their own terrors for grownups, in my dreams they somehow translated into a house-breaking gorilla whom I managed to subdue by opening the freezer door and turning him to ice.

(The connection between the cause of my dreams, and their content, wasn’t always entirely clear.)

Real horror themes, on the other hand, tended to be invigorating. Ghost stories filled me with excitement at the thought of having someone who could stay up all night and talk. As an aficionado of ancient civilizations, I would have loved to spend time asking questions of The Mummy. And while it’s true that Frankenstein’s monster gave me the creeps, that was mostly because he reminded me of Raymond, the six-foot tall kid in my Grade Four class who amused himself at recess by coming up behind kids and shoving them onto the ground.

But one horror movie, about a murderous, disembodied hand, gave me many sleepless nights. I can no longer remember the plot (if it had one) nor the title. It was probably called something like, The Disembodied Hand, or The Hand That Wouldn’t Die, or maybe, The Hand That Keeps Touching Me: Make it Stop, Mommy.

In any event, that night I lay awake until the very wee hours of the morning with one question playing over and over again in my mind:

Why were disembodied hands scary, but not disembodied feet?

I mean, all on its own, a hand is pretty powerless. It may be able to strangle you if it can reach your neck, but it’s got a wicked hard struggle to get there. All those people in the movie could easily have survived if they’d spent less time standing around screaming, and more time swatting the hand away — or putting it in a hamster cage. It could have spent the rest of its unnatural life running on the little wheel and tearing up paper for bedding.

And it’s not like hands have a monopoly on terror: other body parts can instill their share of fear. There are horror movies about disembodied heads, arms, and eyes. Even a limbless torso can be spooky, providing it doesn’t move around too much, of course. Then it tends to look like one of those little Fisher Price people (and while they’re a bit disconcerting, they’re not really scary). Internal organs may not be featured too often in classic horror — I can’t imagine The Disembodied Spleen will be appearing in theatres any time soon — but we can’t ignore the power of Poe’s “Telltale Heart” beating its condemnatory tattoo under the floorboards.

Aside from the foot, about the only extremity that hasn’t been the subject of a horror film is the penis, and that could go either way. There’s unquestionably the potential for inadvertent humour; however, in the right hands (so to speak), it could be kind of scary. There’s the whole Bobbit story, but that’s a different kind of horror. Still, if you doubt that a giant prick could inspire terror, consider Osama Bin Laden.

But feet?

They’re just not scary.

I’m sure if we saw a dismembered foot lying on the floor in real life it would make us uncomfortable, but in the context of a horror film, feet are more likely to inspire laughter than shudders of fear. Even the sight of a giant, flying foot fails to provoke terror, judging by our collective reaction to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The sound of feet? Sure. Late at night in an empty house? Definitely. Footsteps can be terrifying. But what if the victim were to open the door only to find two disembodied feet standing there?

“Did you find out what’s making that sound?”
“Uh…it’s feet, dear.”
“Whose feet?”
“I can’t tell. There’s nobody attached to them.”
“Really? Let me see.”
“Do you recognise them?”
“No, and why are they jumping up and down?”
“I don’t know. I think they’re trying to look threatening.”
“Aww…isn’t that cute? I’m getting my nail polish.”
“Okay. Do we still have the hamster cage?”

In some stories, the horror doesn’t come from an appendage being disembodied, but from it being attached to the wrong person. A man loses his hand in an accident and has it replaced with that of a murderer; a transplant operation places the heart of a devil worshipper into the chest of a kindly doctor. Any such scenario can serve as an effective gimmick in a horror plot — unless it involves feet.

What’s an evil foot going to make you do? Step on the wrong toes at work?

About the closest we’ve come to foot-horror is the scene in Stephen King’s book Misery where Annie chops off her captive’s feet to keep him from escaping. Even then, however, once they’ve been detached, the feet are disposed of and forgotten. They don’t stub against furniture in darkened rooms; they don’t stick our too far and trip anyone; they don’t even scatter toenail clippings all over the bathroom floor. They just disappear, never to be heard from again.

If Stephen King can’t make feet scary, there’s no hope for anyone else — and he once wrote a story about a finger coming out of drain and killing a man.

A killer finger? Yes.

A killer foot? No.

It may not be fair, but when it comes to horror, feet just can’t get a toehold.