Some horror films get under your skin; others make it hard for you to breathe. Then there are those films that shatter your sense of what’s real and leave you breathless, feeling like you cannot escape their grip. For me, the more claustrophobic a horror movie is, the better. Make me feel like I’ve been buried alive, trapped in a tightly enclosed space, or backed into a tight corner by a menacing presence. These suffocating films change the way the world works—and then shatter those perceptions too.
If you’re looking for inescapable claustrophobic horror movies, look no further than the following titles.
This unassuming slice of horror sneaked past most horror fanatics when it was initially released in 2001. Since then, viewers have luckily come around and turned it into a cult classic. The film is a perfect balance of real-world financial (and familial) desperation, about a group of contractors specializing in asbestos abatement that take a potentially lucrative job cleaning up an abandoned asylum. Gordon Fleming, the owner of the company, manages to land the gig for a lowball, quick turnaround offer. It doesn’t take long to see that Gordon and his crew are fueled by financial despair, each working the risky gig in hopes of managing to pay their bills.
If that wasn’t claustrophobic enough, the asylum itself reveals its dark depths through found audio recordings, or sessions, of a mental patient that, with every tape, releases the demonic terrors of the asylum’s past. Session 9 does something that’s rare in horror: the claustrophobia comes mostly from the characters’ own horrible financial situations, their motivations all dealing with a dwindling thread of hope. Expect to come out of viewing the film thinking about your own debt.
We’ve all been dragged to a dinner party when we weren’t in the mood to socialize, or worse, a dinner party where people we don’t quite want to see are in attendance. The Invitation is about a new couple, Will and Kira, as they drive into the rich and affluent Hollywood Hills, to the home of his ex, Eden, who is the one hosting the party. They haven’t seen each other since a tragic accident resulted in the death of their son Ty. Eden seems fine and moved on to David, a former record producer who seems so very happy to see Will (and Kira).
The party is brimming with old friends that haven’t seen each other in ages, yet as the wine is poured, and a few unexpected guests show up, the party quickly becomes, well, odd. That’s where the claustrophobia kicks in, this feeling of being unable to escape a social situation, to the point where the judgment of others makes you twist and squirm. And that ending, it’s worth the viewing alone.
Remember the buried alive movie, Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds as he spends an hour and a half fighting to escape the situation of… being buried alive? Well, 2021’s Oxygen continues in the same vein. However, instead of being buried alive, a woman is encased in an airtight cryogenic coffin whose oxygen levels are dwindling rapidly. Suffering from memory loss, and with only MILO, an AI, to accompany her, every minute of the movie is a steady increase in sincere claustrophobia. Of course, as the details and reasons surrounding her capture are revealed, the film masterfully maintains that suffocating, claustrophobic effect, never letting go, not even when we reach the end.
This one snuck up on me back in the day and it still remains one of those films that’s unlikely to get a lot of attention yet what it sets out to do—cause sheer discomfort in its viewers—it does so with complete ease. The film begins with Liz, bloodied and traumatized, running to the authorities, claiming to have been trapped in a fallout bunker due to a friend, Martin, locking her and three friends down there for days. Of course, Liz’s story seems outrageous and the truth to what went down while being trapped in a tiny shelter with their hormones raging and with a societal rift between Liz and the others, the film manages to surprise viewers multiple times while also exploring the toxicity of bullying.
The Hole is a lot like The Invitation in that it manages to create a truly palpable sense of claustrophobia due to the social angle. Imagine being stuck in a fallout shelter with the popular kids, with someone you are crushing over, but they want nothing to do with you? The Hole digs deep and leaves you feeling dirty and gross.
Released by Netflix during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Korean horror film #Alive is a refreshingly new take on the post-apocalyptic zombie story. Oh Joon-woo is a reclusive teen disconnected from outside society, preferring to stream and play video games. Meanwhile outside a zombie outbreak is transpiring. He doesn’t notice until a zombie barges into the apartment. Oh Joon-woo blockades himself in the apartment and resorts to using social media and his balcony to keep tabs on the outside world.
The refreshing angle to this literally claustrophobic film is how Oh Joon-woo spends the entire film either in his apartment or the building at large. His use of social media and increasingly inventive techniques to survive borders on dark comedy, but it’s in #Alive’s use of the confined apartment that we get vibes of Rear Window and Disturbia, that feeling of watching and being watched. #Alive proved that there was still something left to be drawn from the tired zombie trope.
Of all the films on this list, The Vanishing is the most unassuming. It makes sense, given how the very thing that makes it so memorable, horrific, and tense, is how it treats the central disappearance of the film. The Vanishing begins with a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, embarking on a roadtrip. Things seem completely fine until they run out of gas and when they stop the car at a rest area, Saskia goes missing. She is simply there and then she isn’t… and the entire film deals with that sudden disappearance.
The Vanishing gets under your skin so well—and I have to believe it’s because it never vacillates from this life-altering event. Even when the mystery is solved, by film’s end, the viewer, like Rex, are left with no final exhale, no solace, no means of letting go. And when it comes to grief that can never wash away, there’s nothing more claustrophobic than that. Oh—and watch the 1988 version, not the American remake that was released in 1993.
Featured image from "Session 9" via USA Films.