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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Scary Emotions: The 10 Most Potent Horror Movies About Grief, Mourning, and Loss

This sure has been a year, right?

Even with a little light at the end of the tunnel, we’re not entirely out of it yet. Some of us have lost relatives, friends, and jobs, but we’ve also suffered a collective emotional trauma. We’re all grieving and going to do it in different ways, and eventually—hopefully—we’ll all come out of it.

It feels only fitting that we cap the year off with a dive into horror’s 10 best examples of dealing with grief, mourning and loss. 

It Follows

Trauma begets grief. Most flicks on this list, well, actually all but one, focus on dealing with the latter and offer brief glimpses of the former. It Follows deserves a spot because it dives into trauma headfirst. But with a surprisingly subtle touch not generally associated with a genre known for splattering blood, guts, and everything in-between. 

How do we process the traumatic thing that’s happened to us? How do we accept the event before we can move on to the next step in healing? And what is the real cost of that acceptance? It Follows wrestles with these questions but doesn’t forget to keep the audience entertained in the process. The things that follow in It Follows are not just metaphors for guilt, STDs, or a loss of innocence. They’re a constant reminder of suffocating trauma. 

We Are Still Here

Shocker, a ghost story on a list of movies dealing with grief and trauma. Who would’ve thought? We Are Still Here shares one major thing in common with several films on this list: parents coping with a child’s death. Death is always tragic but burying someone you brought into this world has to hit harder. The couple in We Are Still Here do their best to keep it together, which is to say Scotch tape and bubble gum would do a better job. 

The movie explores how it feels to long for a loved one who isn’t returning and how painful it is coming to grips with that fact. On top of that, it has some very dope scares, a small-town conspiracy, Barbara Crampton, and ends with emotional closure. Can’t do much better than that. 

Pet Sematary 

We Are Still Here examines acceptance when it comes to losing a loved one. Pet Sematary is a gigantic flashing sign for those who can’t accept and will do anything to bring someone back from the dead. There’s no need to single either adaptation out since both do a good job illustrating how grief can pull a family apart or push them together. Even if said push comes from a morbid and weird place. 

At the center of both the original 1983 flick and the 2019 version is a character drowning in desperation. The emotionally torn father is willing to do anything to make his family whole and keep his marriage together. Grieving over a loved one sucks, and if we could bring them back, we probably would. But there’s always a cost for playing God, and Pet Sematary believes it’s a hefty ransom. Sacrificing one’s own soul is one thing, but the soul of a loved one? That’s heavy. “Sometimes dead is better” isn’t just a catchy, joyful line of dialogue; it’s a damn good summary of the story’s big idea.  

The Exorcist 

A lot is out there about William Friedkin’s classic, but not much is said about Father Karras’ bout with grief for a massive chunk of its runtime. Karras is going through it after his mother dies and walks around ensconced in guilt because she was alone. Oh, and by the way, part of the reason she died alone in a hospital is that Karras couldn’t afford to pay the rent for her apartment anymore. That’s a lot to heap onto anyone’s shoulder. Even if they’re a priest turned psychiatrist. 

Karras believes this is something he can’t quite atone for. Survivor’s guilt is real and is probably experienced by people we know more often than we think. Blaming ourselves for what happened and wondering what more we could’ve done is natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The Exorcist has an affirming message for anyone suffering loss: it’s okay, and it’s not your fault. 

The Babadook  

Speaking of looking for blame in all the wrong places, along comes Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film about a widow and her son. The Babadook turns grief into an actual monster that feeds off a child’s fears and the negative energy of a mom at her wit’s end. It’s hard being a single parent but blaming your kid for your spouse’s death has to make it more than a tad harder. 

Kent’s movie cranks the tension by marrying it to the mom’s frustration and anger. The worse she feels, the more threatening the Babadook gets. And the bigger the threat the Babadook poses, the more her son freaks out. It’s a neat metaphor for grief, and how, if left unchecked, it can become all-encompassing for us and those around us. 

Doctor Sleep

Danny Torrance is in the throes of grief the first second he shows up on the screen. He carries it with him into adulthood and is struggling with moving on. Doctor Sleep is about being in your own way, and the fear of confronting grief. Danny is his own worst enemy. Watching him put the pieces back together and mentor someone with the same gifts is one of the movie’s most moving aspects. 

Doctor Sleep is a rarity in horror because Danny not only processes his grief, but he gets closure with the ghosts of his past as well. But none of it is easy. We see Danny truly work to better himself and be a positive influence on those around him. We see him flirt with ignoring his responsibility to Abra only to realize he can’t. The film affirms that we can make it through the other side when bad things happen. Yes, even when those bad things involve seeing murderous twin girl ghosts, a parent threatening us with an ax, and then said parent freezing to death at the creepiest hotel ever. 


On the other end of the spectrum is Hereditary, a film soaked in pain, sorrow, and pure unpleasantness. And there’s not a single therapist around. Ari Aster’s debut may be the best film dealing with the grief of the last decade, horror or otherwise. Bad things pile on the shoulders of the main characters until their legs buckle under the pressure. Before they can begin to process the inciting tragedy, they get another one that is even more devastating. We’re still human, and there’s only but so much we can handle. 

Hereditary understands better than most films, just how uncomfortable the process is. Feelings are messy, and when they start to fly in this flick, it feels just as violent as a knife to the ribs. This family has a tiny circle from what we’re shown, meaning there aren’t many outlets for what they’re dealing with. We see them dance around the obvious and harbor ill feelings towards one another for days that feel more like years. When everything erupts, it’s nasty, but even then, nothing is truly settled. Even when it’s over, and we realize the truth, we’re still left with a mess on our hands. 

Don’t Look Now

Don’t Look Now is another movie about the struggle of letting go. Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 flick, like Pet Sematary, shows how far we’re willing to stretch our beliefs to fill a void. And just like that movie, the results are less than ideal. After losing their daughter in a drowning accident, a married couple goes to Venice to get away from it all. Then the weird things start, and the husband wonders whether their daughter is trying to communicate from the great beyond. 

What separates this from other movies on the list is how it taps into the obsession to make things whole. Sure, there’s some guilt too, but compulsion drives the film forward and is behind every decision Donald Sutherland’s character makes or chooses not to make. He needs to believe everything will be okay and refuses to hear an opposing point of view. He’s obsessed with righting a wrong and, through that misguided action, thinks he’ll find peace. That’s not quite what happens, but he gets an A for effort.  

The Descent

Even before the “scary” stuff starts in The Descent, the film is already a nightmare. A woman is the lone survivor of a horrific car crash that included her husband and daughter. One year later, she goes on a spelunking trip with her friends in an attempt to find some normalcy. Trekking through a dark cave isn’t my idea of fun, but hey, who am I to judge? Anyway, that’s when the fun begins. The Descent is, well, a descent into madness wrought by inconsolable grief. There’s rage, anger, hate, frustration, and any other feeling one can attribute to the dark side of the force. Neil Marshall’s movie is an exercise in catharsis, and the monsters are in no way the scariest aspects.

The Descent’s main character puts on a happy face for her friends because the truth is complicated and messy. She wants to move on and starts to believe she’s okay when in reality, she’s a mess. The deeper they get into the cave, the more honest she is with herself and those around her. Even before blood is sprayed and bones jut out of the skin; it’s a torturous movie. But the grieving process is anything but neat.  

The Changeling

The Changeling does what every movie on this list does but does it better. Tragic inciting incident? Check. Grieving widower/parent? Double-check. Ghosts? Triple Check. And it even has a main character obsessed with solving a mystery as part of his catharsis. For a 40-year-old movie, it never once feels dated, and that’s because it’s rooted in genuine emotion from the first frame till the final credit. 

A man loses his wife and daughter, moves into an old mansion, and experiences plenty of paranormal activity. He’s haunted by memories of his loved ones and by a spirit who needs his help. Both beings are looking for closure and trying to understand why bad things happen to innocent people. The main character, played by George C. Scott, has the look of a man who is just beaten down but is too tough to tell anyone. So when he does let it all out, it makes the film more potent and the emotion palpable.  


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