It’s Enchantment Under the Sea season here at Nightmare on Film Street, which means it’s time to grab your prom date and hit the dance floor. Dancing and horror might seem like a strange combination at first, but dancing has been tied to horror since humans began thinking up new ways to scare themselves. From the countless folktales featuring people dancing themselves to death, to the danse macabre of medieval art, and the wild dancing of legendary witches’ sabbaths, dance has always had a spooky side. It’s no wonder that horror films have often featured dance sequences, sometimes as a fun break meant to give us a false sense of security, or as a sequence of terror in motion. So put on your dancing shoes and get into the groove of the ten best dance sequences in horror!
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
The 1985 sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street has moved beyond its original negative reception to become a queer horror cult classic. And while it’s better known for its not so subtle themes of the struggles of being a closeted teen, it also features a pretty wonderfully cheesy and quintessentially 80s dance sequence. In the scene, Jesse (Mark Patton) our “final boy,” transforms his teen angst into joy as he unpacks and moves into his room. Jesse loads “Touch Me (All Night Long)” by Fonda Rae into his boom box and embarks on an extremely awkward dance where he dons various outrageous sunglasses, closes his drawers with his…erm…booty shaking, and air humps on his bed. The sequence is no doubt supposed to convey the embarrassment that Jesse will experience as he’s eventually interrupted by his crush, Lisa (Kim Myers). It’s a clearly intentional hint at Jesse’s struggles with his sexuality and his fear of discovery, but it’s also just a quintessential 80s dance montage. The scene is unique in that it calls to mind the classic 80s montage, many of which featured queer subtext *cough* Flashdance *cough,* though not as deliberately as David Chaskin’s horror sequel.
9. Haxan (1922)
The influential silent “documentary” Haxan also features some of the most memorable dancing in silent horror! Haxan is Swedish filmmaker Benjamin Christenson’s examination of the history of witchcraft and witch hysteria, but its innovative special effects and stunning reenactments ended up laying the groundwork for folk horror as we now know it. The centerpiece of Haxan is its Witches’ Sabbath sequence, where we are transported to Brocken in Germany to witness the legendary Walpurgis Night Witches Sabbath said to take place there. In the detailed and bawdy recreation, we see demons playing flutes and drums with joy while witches dance in rounds and spin in individual circles. The scene is intercut with witches sacrificing infants and being initiated into the coven, but among all the horrors, Christenson always returns to wild, joyful dancing. Dancing witches have always been a cornerstone of witch folklore, and Haxan brings it to believable visual life, cementing how witches’ sabbaths would be depicted in folk horror ever since.
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Among the many horrifying sequences of the brilliant The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill is a constant theme. The legendary serial killer film is so effective because of the two complex, terrifying, and opposing killers at its center — Hannibal Lector and the skin wearing Bill. Bill’s scenes tend to be masterful works of suspense since we know it’s only a matter of time before he murders the kidnapped woman that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is racing to save. The scene where Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), attempts to lure Bill’s dog into the pit where she’s imprisoned for life-saving leverage, is a brilliant example of how dance can be used as a tool to build suspense. As Catherine desperately tries to draw Precious into the pit, we cut back to Bill (Ted Levine), complete with a skinned head of hair on his head, dressing up and dancing for himself in the mirror. It’s an iconic scene not only because it offers a glimpse into the psyche of a serial killer when he is by himself, and also because the cross-cutting between Catherine’s desperation and Bill’s dance puts the viewer in a state of suspense and horror.
7. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
For a lighter change of pace, at number four we have Jimmy (Crispin Glover) cutting a rug to AC/DC at the requisite (and doomed) teen party in the fourth Friday the 13th film. Glover channels Jimmy’s awkwardness in a way only he could, with a dance that is far more…avant-garde than awkward. It’s a hilarious respite from all of Jason’s slashing and stabbing, and it showcases Glover’s legendary, strange take on physical acting. It’s a temporary distraction from the looming threat of one Jason Vorhees. But an occasional false sense of securities is just as vital to effective horror as nail-biting tension!
6. The House of the Devil (2009)
Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant masterclass in how to build tension with very little. Case in point, the scene where Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), “babysitting” a yet unseen old woman in a foreboding victorian house, lets her guard down and dances joyously with her walkman and headphones. Eliot Rockett’s moody cinematography, which places the viewer in the unnerving position of an unseen voyeur, tracks Samantha around the empty house. Her exuberant dancing and the upbeat music evoke fun dance montages from the 80s films that The House of the Devil perfectly homages. But it has the opposite of a calming effect. Instead, we’re terrified for Samantha, now more vulnerable and distracted, as we frantically scan every dark corner of the frames for the threats we know she must be missing. The dance is finally halted when she accidentally breaks a lamp, a more mundane conclusion than we expected. But the dance sequence is a prime example of the powerful slow-burn terror of The House of the Devil at work.
5. Prom Night (1980)
This list would be a poor excuse for a prom theme celebration without the 1980 slasher classic Prom Night! The film is an uneven attempt to replicate the success of Halloween, Carrie, and Saturday Night Fever all in one, but it’s considered a slasher classic because Jamie Lee Curtis earns her scream queen and prom queen status throughout. The central dance sequence at the doomed prom night of the title is a wild disco duet between Curtis’ popular girl Kim and her date Nick (Casey Stevens). While one of the film’s famous original disco songs blasts, the duo perform a Studio 54 worthy routine that was likely never seen in any actual high school gym, but hey, it’s a movie. The dance is given all the attention of a full-blown musical number, as Curtis shows off that she’s more than just a scream queen, she’s a dancing queen! It’s all pretty ridiculous, but it’s so sincere and emblematic of the time that it’s quickly become an iconic moment in the early slasher golden age.
4. Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is a horror film about dance as body horror and performance as psychological horror. By focusing on the real toll of professional dance on the body and the taxing mental demands of perfectionism and behind the curtain competition, Black Swan is in many ways the pinnacle of dance horror. It features countless dance sequences worthy of this list, some of which are dreams in the fractured mind of Nina (Natalie Portman), or a mixture of hallucination and “reality.” The number that made it to this list is a mix of both, as Nina finally takes the stage as Odile, the evil “Black Swan” double of Odette in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The innocent Nina has struggled to embody the seductive, powerful energy of Odile, and her drive to be “perfect” has fractured her mind in a string of frightening and violent ways. After Nina believes she has murdered her rival Lily (Mila Kunis), she takes the stage as the Black Swan and gives a tour de force performance. As she dances, her eyes appear to glow blood read, she sees her skin sprout feathers, and she finally sprouts a pair of jet black wings. It’s the moment that Nina gives into her delusions and allows her evil double to take hold. It also happens to be the moment when she reaches artistic heights that she couldn’t before. The themes of the film, and the ballet on which it’s based, come together in a sublime duet between dance and horror.
3. Midsommar (2019)
The maypole sequence at the center of Ari Aster’s Midsommar has already achieved classic status in the short time since the film’s release. And it’s easy to see why! Aster’s sun-drenched folk horror is most effective when it leans into the character development of Dani (Florence Pugh) as she begins to find the family and love she has lacked among a Swedish pagan cult. The maypole sequence is the pivotal moment when Dani is fully transported from the cold reality of her previous life into a life of agency, love, and the violent clearing away of a toxic relationship. The dance is filmed from Dani’s hallucinatory point of view, and it feels like an initiation. As the competition progresses and the dancers are narrowed down the music and cinematography blur, and Dani inexplicably begins to speak Swedish, and finally, as the last girl standing, she is crowned May Queen. It’s the most powerful depiction of pagan dance in folk horror and a powerful moment of character growth in one, earning Midsommar a high spot on this list.
2. Suspiria (2018)
Despite being set in a ballet academy, the original Suspiria (1977) featured very little dancing. Luca Gaudignino’s 2018 reimagining puts dance front and center, with dance as the centerpiece and source of the witchcraft practiced by its corrupt coven. The film is a powerful exploration of how older generations exploit the young, in the arts as well as society at large, and its horrifying dance scenes are numerous. There’s the stomach-turning scene where Olga (Elena Fokina) is telepathically forced into a dance that breaks her bones and destroys her body, and the bloody, surreal dancing of the climactic witches sabbath. But the sequence where the students perform Volk, the signature piece of the academy, epitomizes the new Suspiria’s take on dance horror. As the students, with Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson) at the center, perform the untamed, modernist choreography, we cross cut to the agonized screams of Sara (Mia Goth), who’s leg has been snapped nearly in two after she dared to investigate the witches who run the school. The dance features blood-red, dripping costumes and minimal music, with mostly the breath of the dancers, and Sara’s screams, as the soundtrack. The movements of ecstasy and pain, the red of costumes and gore, and the juxtaposition of the different bodies in various extremes is powerful. It’s the heart of dance, art, and horror at the center of Suspiria.
1. Climax (2018)
Gaspar Noe’s Climax is a marriage of dance cinema and horror film that will likely never be topped, and for that, it earns the top spot on this list! The long take dominated, nonprofessional actor populated, and mostly improvised film is a tour de force of dance and movement as horror. It’s nearly impossible to single out a dance scene from the film since so much of the film is shot in unbroken takes and filled throughout with dance. The only choreographed scene in the film is the opening number, a twelve-minute uninterrupted take that wasn’t rehearsed by the cast until filming. The number shows off the raw talent of the dancers, their genuine enthusiasm for the craft, and the starting point of humanity from which they will all slowly descend as the events of the film progress. It’s a powerful starting point for the themes of Climax, as well as a brilliant showcase of the talent, cinematic vision, and themes that will play out through the film. As a 96-minute showcase of movement as a window into human nature, Climax is the horror dance number as a feature film, and its opening scene is only the first act.
That rounds out our countdown of the best dance sequences in horror! This list of films only goes to show that dance has a natural home in horror as an art film that pushes the body to extremes, engages emotions, removes inhibitions, and even puts humans into moments of self-examination and vulnerability. And when it’s not a part of the horror, dance also just a fun break from all the scares! What are your favorite dance scenes in horror? Weigh in on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club Facebook Group.