One of my first jobs out of university involved giving live organ dissections and demonstrations for visitors to a science centre. People would gather around a table while I guided their gloved fingers through valves into the ventricles of pig hearts or pointed out different regions in a slice of a sheep’s brain (which mostly looks like brownish grey mush and whitish mush if you haven’t had to spend a year being quizzed by a lab T.A. to be able to point them out on command). My favourite demonstration, and the toughest sell to everyone else, was the cow eye dissection. Hearts, lungs, brains or stomachs? No problem. But pull out an eyeball and people start cringing, gagging, and backing away.
You might have noticed the same squeamishness towards eyeballs translate to the screen. I know I see it. We all have different tolerances for gore and body horror, but seeing eyeballs pierced, punctured or plucked out of their sockets tends to be where a lot of people find themselves squeezing their own eyes shut. But being vulnerably squishable vision-orbs filled with gelatinous goo (that’s technically called vitreous humor), eye horror is making constant appearances in genre. And even if it’s not featured in the movie itself, eyes have become synonymous enough with horror to grace all sorts of horror film posters. I remember being super uncomfortable with the glowing eyes in the art for 1995’s Village of the Damned — in my defense, I was 7 and the video store had a huge cardboard cutout out on the floor for weeks.
Other honourable mentions to scar me as a child are the bee crawling all over an eye for Candyman (1992)’s poster, the pop-eyed skull staring through a woman’s stretched lips on the cover of Braindead (AKA Dead Alive)(1992), and a poster of eye injuries that my childhood optometrist kept in his office. As an adult, I find myself scrolling a little faster when the art for Would You Rather? (2012) or The Strain (2014) appears on my feed. I can’t say I’ve brought myself to sit through a Fulci flick yet, and I’ve probably been subconsciously avoiding this director thanks to his infamy for eye trauma scenes.
I’m fascinated: what is it about eyes that’s just so inherently creepy?
“[…] eyes have become synonymous enough with horror to grace all sorts of horror film posters.”
When it comes to the people who can’t handle an eyeball dissection, I have a theory that the discomfort stems from the fact that eyes are intrinsically more personal, familiar organs. You don’t see your liver in the mirror every morning while you’re brushing your teeth. Hopefully you don’t take selfies with your small intestine hanging out front and centre. Our guts and gore live on the inside, and while it’s impressive when we see them splattered on-screen in a slasher, it doesn’t feel all that intimate to your actual organs.
The external nature of eyeballs makes it easier to imagine having needles pushed into them while watching the same thing happen to Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) while you’re watching Audition (1999), or having thumbs pressing them deep into your sockets like in 28 Days Later (2002) or having them sliced with a straight razor like in Un Chien Andalou (1929). I know I squirmed and felt my own eyes water the first time I watched Alex (Malcolm McDowell)’s eyes being propped open for aversion therapy in A Clockwork Orange (1971), even if his character’s eyes technically come out unscathed. And then I squirmed some more when I later read that, despite safety precautions, Malcolm McDowell’s cornea got sliced on one of those eye clamps anyway.
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I’ve known enough people who are squicked out by the idea of touching their eyeball to put in contact lenses, and enough other people who have had to deal with scratched corneas or even the surprising amount of discomfort that comes from getting an eyelash stuck under your eyelid. It’s not hard to extrapolate to a sympathetic reaction to seeing an eyeball getting speared or slashed. Seeing eyeballs get ruined so easily in movies is a painful reminder of how fragile and unprotected eyes are.
After all, most of us rely on our eyes to give us information about the world. When we sense something threatening might be around, one of our first impulses is to freeze (a precursor move to fight-or-flight) and our pupils dilate to try and take in as much as we visually can. One of the reasons why darkness makes many of us nervous is that human eyeballs kind of suck at seeing in the dark and picking out attackers that might be lurking in the shadows. We haven’t evolved to have the shiny layer behind our retinas (called the tapetum lucidum) that reflects light, grants better nightvision. You’ve seen the tapetum in action if you’ve ever seen the greenish-yellow reflection of light in the eyes of deer or raccoons caught in car headlights, or if you’ve tried to take a photo of your cat with the flash on. Weirdly, if you ever get to do an eyeball dissection and there’s a tapetum lucidum present, you’ll notice that you can peel it off the inside of the eye like a piece of Scotch tape.
But I digress.
“The eyes are windows into the soul, and in horror, this is true even when the soul has been corrupted.”
Humans have evolved eyes that not only work to seek out threats, but that also act as social tools to signal emotions, such as fear, to others. In a great video essay for Screened, Moises & Sergio Velasquez break down the many ways in which eyes are used as effective tools in horror. Fear, among other emotions, is telegraphed by the eyes. Usually you can’t see the whites (the sclera) around the iris because the upper and lower eyelids tend to hug the iris pretty closely. If you see the sclera as a full ring around the iris, way more white than you’re used to seeing, you’d probably guess that the person who owns those eyes is expressing shock or fear, even if the rest of the face is hidden from view. The ability to read another person’s fear can be a way to signal you to a threat that you may not have otherwise perceived. If this cue is tampered with, such as by masking the sclera or changing its colour, we lose this advantage, and the eye becomes not only unfamiliar, but unreadable. This is probably one of the reasons why extreme eye changes have become signals of threats in horror, a sort of shorthand for demonic possession, zombie infection, or some other evil that is inhabiting a body. The eyes are windows into the soul, and in horror, this is true even when the soul has been corrupted.
Since I suspected that I wasn’t the only one with images of eye horror burned into my brain, I asked some of my colleagues at Nightmare on Film Street to share scenes of eye trauma that have stuck with them. Check out these suggestions if you’re looking to have more eye horror in your life:
- In his ongoing campaign to convince me to play the Dead Space (2008) game franchise, Devils in the Details columnist Julio Ibarra offers a scene from Dead Space 2 (2011) where you have to carefully control a Noontech Diagnostic Machine, which works by sticking a needle through a character’s pupil. You can definitely fail, and fail horrifically.
- Senior Contributor Bryce Gibson suggests the memorable laser eye surgery scene from Final Destination 5 (2011) as well as some eye trauma from The Hunt (2020) that I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it yet.
- Gut the Punks columnist Chris Aitkens suggests the oft-overlooked Black Christmas (2006), where almost every single kill (and there are many. To quote Kim Morrison below, “That film clearly had a good fake eye budget.”) involve eye trauma in some way. The part burned into Chris’s brain? The moment moment when villain Billy Lenz (Robert Mann) treats himself to an eyeball snack.
- Senior Contributor Mac Jones recommends Zombie (AKA Zombi 2)(1979) for that “gnarly eyeball scene” (his words) where Paola (Olga Karlatos) gets a giant splinter (if you can call it a splinter when it’s that huge) to her eyeball.
- Kim Morrison‘s favourite eye trauma scene is from Evil Dead (2013) when Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) has to pull a hypodermic needle out of his face, right under his eye.
- Will Mom Like This? columnist Riley Cassidy suggests the scene from Would You Rather? (2012) where Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) has 30 seconds to cut his own eye with a razor blade (the very same scene that has me scrolling past this film’s poster art every time). Or, if you’re feeling more eye gouge-y than slice-y, Riley also recommends The Descent (2005) for some solid thumb-versus-eyeball action.
As for me, I dig scenes where women decide to pluck their own [technologically violated] eye out, like Kayla (Airlie Dodd) in The Furies (2019) or Rachel Duncan (Tatiana Maslany) in Orphan Black (2013). The idea of consciously ripping out your own eye, regardless the reason, is appalling and completely absorbing to me.
I don’t think watching an eye get destroyed on film will ever not make me squeamish, even if I can handle cutting up animal eyeballs in real life. I love and appreciate eye horror’s lasting power to get under people’s skin.