You bolt awake in bed, from a nightmare or something more sinister, and out of habit you glance over at your alarm clock. It’s 3:14 AM. You feel colder than usual. Your guts clench. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen those three glowing numbers on your clock. You know that something terrible and unexplainable is about to happen.
Horror movies make it abundantly clear that some times are flat-out more ominous than others. Many of the movies on this list feature characters who experience something unsettling, night after night, at a super-specific time. Others made the list because specific references are made to clocks and some flavour of “awakening” happens right on the tick of a significant hour.
Us (2019) – 11:11 PM
Jason (Evan Alex) points out the clock to his mother (Lupita Nyong’o) while she’s settling him into bed. At this point in the movie, the number 11 has already made a number of appearances, most obviously in the form of the Bible verse (Jeremiah 11:11) seen on the Boardwalk. If you want to stretch the significance of the time, seeing 11 repeated twice on the clock suggests a sort of twinning.
If we consider that this scene is followed by a reasonably long conversation between Adelaide and Gabe (Winston Duke), we can place the Tethered family’s first appearance as silhouettes in the driveway around midnight.
Poltergeist (1982) – Midnight
The very first scene of Poltergeist (1982) opens with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing on a television screen before the channel goes to static. Nowadays networks can fill a 24-hour cycle, but in the past stations would often sign off at midnight. Sign offs varied with decades, from the “Indian Head” test card that we know so well from The Amityville Horror, to rainbow test patterns, to “The Star-Spangled Banner”. So, we can say with quite a bit of confidence that Carol-Anne (Heather O’Rourke)’s “TV people” prefer to commune at midnight.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2015) – Midnight
An analog clock features prominently on the wall in the autopsy room where father-son team Austin (Emile Hirsch) and Tommy (Brian Cox) Tilden are examining the mysterious corpse that arrives after hours. Cutaways to the clock and to Austin’s phone screen give us a good timeline for the night: the autopsy begins at about 8:45 PM, it’s 10:49 PM when Austin and Tommy realize that they are trapped inside by the storm, and, although it’s too dark in the autopsy room by the end of the havoc to confirm what time it is, it is very likely midnight when Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) fully awakens to realize her revenge.
The Innocents (1961) – Midnight
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is probably too inexperienced to be a governess for precocious and creepy children, and definitely too skittish. After disturbing apparitions and noises move her to be on guard at Bly Manor every night around midnight, Miss Giddens comes to the most obvious and reasonable conclusion: that her wards are possessed by former Bly Manor staff who have died.
The eldest child Miles (Martin Stephens) admits to getting up at midnight specifically so he would get in trouble, but seeing as Miss Giddens finds a pigeon with a broken neck under his pillow immediately after the confession, she isn’t any less convinced that the children aren’t possessed.
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The Haunting of Hill House (2017) – 12:03 AM/3:02 AM
In the pilot episode of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House (“Steven Sees a Ghost”) shows an interesting scene where three of the four adult Crain siblings wake up gasping in their beds at the same time. We only see the time for the two eldest siblings, Steven (Michiel Huisman) at 12:03 AM, and Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) at 3:02 AM. The siblings live in different states, which accounts for the time differences, but the all-too specific timing shows just how connected the Crain siblings are to each other and to Hill House.
The Machinist (2005) – 1:30 AM/PM
Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) hasn’t slept in a year and the deprivation is taking a toll on his body and his mind. Since he can’t manage to doze off for more than the odd microsleep, Trevor isn’t waking up to a significant time. Rather, he keeps noticing clocks at exactly 1:30, most notably at the airport diner he hangs out at every night for coffee and comfort from the waitress Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón).
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) – 3:00 AM
The Exorcism of Emily Rose follows Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) as she takes on the case of a young woman whose death is linked to an attempted exorcism. As Erin starts to build her defense for Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter)’s death, she finds herself waking up at 3 AM to the smell of burnt toast. Rather than pointing to seizures, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) warns her that the smell of burning toast means that demons might be targeting her. In the courtroom, Father Moore describes having the same experience and remembering that Emily Rose described waking up in a similar manner, too.
The Conjuring (2013) – 3:07 AM
Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren make a living investigating paranormal occurrences. In the first installment of The Conjuring, they pay a visit to the Perron family, whose household is in the full grip of a haunting. The family has nearly nightly experiences waking up at 3:07 AM, and clocks get stuck at that time. As it turns out, 3:07 AM is the same time that a murder took place within the Perron family’s home.
Interestingly, the time that the real Perron family allegedly experienced heightened ghost activity in their home was around 5:15 AM every day. I may be biased, but the Hollywood switch to 3:07 AM was a good choice when it comes to spook factor.
The Amityville Horror (1979) – 3:15 AM
Young couple, George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) move their family into a home in Amityville, New York, were a family had been murdered not one year earlier. The house shows its evil nature almost immediately, refusing to be blessed and stirring up flies, voices, and sickness. The house takes an especially strong hold on George: he begins waking every night at 3:15 AM, obsessed with checking the boat house.
Unlike with The Conjuring, the timing wasn’t adapted for dramatic effect. The real murder that inspired The Amityville Horror was said to have occurred around 3 AM.
Eli (2019) – 3:17 AM
Eli (Charlie Shotwell) has a condition that requires him to place literal barriers between him and the world. His parents take him to an experimental treatment facility led by Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor), where the doctor’s methods immediately fall under suspicion. We see Eli wake up more than once at 3:17 AM to spooky disturbances. The number starts to haunt Eli more than the ghosts of Dr. Horn‘s former patients, in the form of a room numbered 317, inverted as the word LIE scratched into surfaces around the facility, and anagrammed into his own name.
If by now you’re suspecting a pattern, you’re exactly right. A few of the movies on this list use times with internal significance, like 1:30 in The Machinist as a constant callback to Trevor‘s guilt, but most of the other movies stick to times with culturally consistent spook-factor: midnight, and 3 AM. Midnight is spooky because it marks that liminal time between one day and the next.
The time that stretches between 3 and 4 am is what is popularly called The Witching Hour, The Devil’s Hour, or The Dead Hour, depending on who you ask. The Exorcism of Emily Rose suggests that this 3 AM holds power because it’s a mockery of the Holy Trinity and an inversion of 3 PM, the generally accepted time of Jesus’s death. Other myths also tie 3 AM to Western Christian belief, such as that the Catholic Church forbade any prayer or ritual between 3 and 4 AM as early as the 16th Century.
If you want to dig deeper into other witchy history, I highly recommend that you check out Julio Ibarra’s Devils in the Details retrospective of Häxan. Of course, in other parts of the world, other times would be more superstitious. In many Asian countries, 4 AM might be considered a much creepier time to see in a horror movie, since the number 4 is considered unlucky for its phonetic association with death.
Honourable Mention: Paranormal Activity (2009)
Paranormal Activity might have been one of the first films to come to mind for you — it did for me! After all, the entire premise of this found-footage staple is that Katie (Katie Featherston) has been experiencing nightly disturbances, and so she and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) decide to splurge on a camera and record every moment of their lives. Although a few timestamps do recur in the film (notably 3:15 AM), Katie‘s demonic experiences span roughly 1:30 AM – 4:30 AM, and sometimes their camera captures weird happenings at odd times throughout the day. While spooky as heck, Katie‘s demon just couldn’t stick to a schedule specific enough to make it onto this list.
Have you ever had a haunting experience take place during The Witching Hour? Give us your thoughts in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group as well as on Twitter, Instagram, and the official Nightmare on Film Street subreddit!