This one has been tough to nail down. For one, anxiety is something that’s been chasing after me with a knife for most of my existence. It’s like Michael Myers, constantly there, watching from a distance, waiting for the chance to step in and stab me right in the heart. Also, there are actually very few horror movies that deal with anxiety, least of which in a nuanced and thoughtful way.
So, with that said we’re going to talk about movies that give the feeling of anxiety. There are plenty of movies out there that give you that sense of paranoia people feel when having a panic attack. That world ending feeling where everything seems out to get you, nothing in the world looks right, and all you want to do is curl up and die so it will be over with.
Oh, we’ll also be discussing a couple of video games and a book as well. Things that I’ve personally seen, played, and read that all gave me those same feelings as I have when my anxiety is at its highest.
First, just so everyone knows, anxiety is caused, like almost ALL OTHER MENTAL ILLNESSES by an imbalance of chemicals in your brain. People with anxiety aren’t being dramatic. We’re not getting worked up because we want something to worry about. We don’t want to be this way any more than you want to deal with our panic attacks. We have a tendency to overthink, to believe everyone is talking about us, hates us, thinking that the worst possible scenario is going to play out. It. Fucking. Sucks.
With that said, there are a few movies that can give you that sense of panic that I and so many others have felt when we have one of these panic attacks.Without further ado, a list!
Nightmare at Twenty Thousand Feet (Twilight Zone)
The best of these when it comes to showcasing what it’s like to have a panic attack is by far, Nightmare at Twenty Thousand Feet. Personally I recommend the original episode with William Shatner, but the remakes with John Lithgow and Adam Scott are both decent in their own right. The most recent one with Adam Scott even gives a different spin on it for a more modern age, which I liked.
For anyone that’s been under a rock since 1963 and for some reason haven’t seen this episode, the original is about a man coming home from a mental hospital after having a nervous breakdown. While on the plane, he starts seeing a creature on the wing outside his window that begins tearing the plane apart.
The realest thing about all this though, is that when he’s telling everyone about what’s happening and how scared he is, nobody gives a shit. They all think that he’s just overreacting or scared of flying. His fears are completely valid, and he knows what he sees and feels, but everyone else dismisses it as the ravings of a crazy person. This sums up having a panic attack as accurately as I’ve seen in any horror.
The others films, especially The Thing really drive home the panic and paranoia that an anxiety attack instills. While there’s constantly the sense of paranoia at who is The Thing and who is human in the film, nobody can know for sure, and everyone is paranoid that the person next to them could kill them. Paranoia is the biggest factor in every panic attack I’ve had. That fear of failure, danger, hatred… everything is out to get you, and in The Thing, everything very well might be.
The other two movies give that other anxious feeling of never knowing what’s out there, always after you, ready to take you at any moment. The Witch accomplishes the feeling through Thomasin’s guilt over her siblings disappearance and her family’s treatment of her, while It Follows shows the characters anxiety that anything coming toward them could be this creature, bent on mangling and murdering them due to the curse.
Now, almost any horror can deal with anxiety in some way or form. It’s the basis of the genre to make people feel fear over everything they see, after all. In other mediums though, it can become more effective thanks to the immersion.
House of Leaves is an anxiety attack in book form. The damn thing is huge, with overarching narratives framing three different storylines. One part is the Navidson Record, a documentary entailing a family moving into a new suburban home, and discovering that the house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. This spirals off into paranoia as they find rooms leading into the depths of the earth, a hallway that goes on for five and a half minutes, and other oddities that could never be seen from outside the home.
The other parts are the account of an old man that studied the film, and the young man that finds his notes after his death. Johnny Truant, the character we’re seeing all of this through, is unreliable as a narrator and even this is giving him more credit than he’s due. Johnny goes through the account of the Navidson Record that he’s found, never actually seeing the movie himself and wondering if it’s all the ramblings of a madman.
The book itself is set up to give anxiety and mirror Johnny’s mental state as he dives deeper into the notes and the story of the Navidson family., interjections from several people discussing the film, and Johnny’s own anecdotes. There are footnotes that have footnotes, odd page layouts, random words colored or highlighted… it induces panic by changing up the format without notice. Some pages have only one word while others have the text upside down or sideways. Everything comes at you with no warning, leaving the feeling of paranoia that comes with panic attacks.
Finally, what I recommend to everyone who wants to experience what a panic attack is like, the video game Alien: Isolation. I may be biased, as Alien is my favorite movie and (what I feel) the height of sci-fi/horror. The game puts you in the shoes of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, as she searches the Sevastepool Station for answers about her mothers disappearance.
What she doesn’t count on is that everything on the station has gone to shit. Xenomorphs have taken over the station on top of total anarchy by the humans and murderous droids that have been commanded to wipe out anything living. The game is an exercise in stealth and patience, as you have to sneak around the station trying not to alert anyone while attempting to find an escape route.
It’s a ten hour panic attack. Seriously, almost the entire time you’re playing you can hear the xenomorph crawling through the vents, stomping around nearby, or the hiss as it stalks you from the shadows. You can’t kill it. You can divert it for a short time, but it always comes back, ready to strike at you when you’re most vulnerable. Nothing else I’ve played, watched, or read has ever given me the sense of panic and desperation that I get during an anxiety attack, except for this game.
Panic, while natural to the horror genre, still needs a lot of work to be represented as it should. People suffering from anxiety are not crazy. They’re not being dramatic. The slightest deviation from their plans or expectations really do seem like a world ending, cataclysmic event. Take some care next time you see someone with anxiety, as they’re living in the most suspenseful horror movie, every day of their lives.
Recommendations for the subject:
Call of Cthulhu: The Game
Mr. Robot (not horror but deals with a range of mental illness fantastically.)
Blair Witch: The Game
IT (Pennywise preys on anxiety and fear)
Haunted by Poe (Companion album to House of Leaves. Poe is actually the sister of author Mark Danielewski, and they both made these respective projects in response to their fathers death.)