It’s Enchantment Under the Sea month at Nightmare on Film Street, a combo of water-based horror and teen dance horror. We’ve got plenty of articles about the horrors that lurk beneath the waves, but lets not forget about the frights on the surface. That’s right me mateys, pirates! Specifically, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. When you think of pirates, your first thought likely isn’t horror. Unless, of course, it makes you think of cheap Halloween costumes. Alright so pirates aren’t the scariest things out on the waves, but the way in which the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise employs horror elements make them the perfect mix of horror and adventure.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean primarily follows a notorious pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow portrayed by Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) in what is easily one of his most famous roles. The films feature several recurring roles by big Hollywood stars such as Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings) and Keira Knightly (Pride and Prejudice), but the through-line plot revolves mostly around Jack Sparrow and his ship, the cursed Black Pearl. The films themselves are based on the renowned Disney parks attraction by the same name and therein begins the inextricable link between Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and horror.
“Davy Jones’ cursed ship the Flying Dutchman has got to be the most terrifying ship in film history (sorry Ghost Ship!).”
The ride itself is a “dark ride” in which visitors board small boats that transport them through various scenes usually in dark tunnels. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride begins innocently enough with a Louisiana bayou scene, but the tone shifts when the ride passes by skeletal pirates drinking rum and playing chess. From then on out, the ride features terrifying naval battles and the ghostly voice of Davy Jones! It’s clear the inspiration for the films already had the dark and spooky tone that the films feature so heavily.
With that in mind, the first film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) serves as almost a thesis statement for the rest of the franchise. The film follows Jack Sparrow, down on his luck, in search of a crew to take back Black Pearl. But the Pearl has since been cursed after its mutinous new captain, Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), pillages a cursed Aztec treasure. Unable to die but also unable to enjoy earthly pleasures, the crew of the Black Pearl now seeks to break the curse by any means necessary. Aside from the fact that the premise itself is ripped straight from a nautical ghost story, the visual effects and scares are an obvious homage to the franchise’s “dark ride” roots.
Having established itself as a dark, but still whimsical property, its sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) ups the horror ante! Sure there was a supernatural curse and some undead pirates in the first film, but in Dead Man’s Chest, Jack and the crew of the Black Pearl come face to face with scourge of the deep, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) himself. This film sports a vast improvement in special effects from its predecessor even winning the visual effects team an Academy Award! The Oscar is well deserved as Davy Jones’ cursed ship the Flying Dutchman has got to be the most terrifying ship in film history (sorry Ghost Ship!). The ethereal ghost-like nature of the ship and its ability to dive beneath the waves evoke an unnatural and uncomfortable fear. Aboard the ship, the frights continue as it is crewed by some of the most horrific human-fish hybrid creatures. Everything from crabs to sharks is represented in the cursed crew with Davy Jones‘ Cthulhu inspired tentacles being perhaps the most horrific.
The film itself is a race to obtain the “Dead Man’s Chest” which holds Davy Jone’s still-beating heart (queue Edgar Allen Poe) as he who controls the Dead Man’s Chest controls Davy Jones and consequently the monstrous and otherworldly Kraken. Meanwhile, Jack is dealing with his own curse and his previous bargain with Jones to raise the Black Pearl from the ocean depths comes due. The film is a bit convoluted when it comes to the backstabbing and bargains, but ultimately, Jack must pay his due of which Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) makes sure.
It’s in the third film that the films drop the dark tone somewhat and focus instead on the fantasy/adventure aspects. That’s not to say there are no horror elements present. In fact, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) pays homage to the most basic maritime horror, lost souls. In a scene in which Jack’s crew travels to Davy Jones’ Locker to rescue him, the crew finds themselves surrounded by the souls of the dead. It is later revealed that it was Jones’ responsibility to ferry these souls into the afterlife, but he became corrupt, leading to his monstrous form. The Charon and River Styx analogy is unmistakable, but once again the special effects are what truly bring home the dreadful tone of these scenes.
Looking beyond the obvious horror elements of cursed undead, mutated pirates, and ghosts, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise carries with it a sense of dark adventure where fantasy meets the dangers and horrors of the ocean. Despite the later films being a bit of a departure from the overtly dark tone of the early films, the horror is never far off. Whether it be murderous mermaids or treacherous triangles, the franchise carries its “dark ride” roots throughout every film, not just by employing the same characters or motifs, but by evoking the same emotion. Though not touched upon previously, the score should also be commended in this regard as the slow organ themes from the Dutchman and the Pearl contrast with the adventurous horn themes of the rest of the film.
“Wonder tinged with just a bit of fear is exactly the emotion the Pirates of the Caribbean films evoke. Is that not what we as horror fans seek?“
The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction opened in Disney Land in Anaheim, California on March 18, 1967. Yes, it is a Disney parks ride targeted towards children, and so are the films. But imagine, being a child going through that ride, hearing the disembodied voice of Davy Jones as a skeletal pirate becomes flesh and blood before your eyes. That wonder tinged with just a bit of fear is exactly the emotion the Pirates of the Caribbean films evoke. Is that not what we as horror fans seek? Wonder and a fair share of fear.
What do you think of the Pirates franchise? Is it scary enough for you? Or maybe you know of another pirate horror movie you’d like to recommend. Let us know on Twitter, Reddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!