Math is scary. It’s meant to make sense and yet makes no sense at all. Every year when Pi Day (March 14th) rolls around, a feeling of dread returns. We’re still haunted by symbols and numbers scrawled on high school assignments alongside questions asking us to compute diameters, radiuses, and even cubic feet. We slink back into the shadows, praying we’re not asked how long it takes to drive 264 miles at 67 miles per hour when we stop for 10- and 15-minute breaks. “The limit does not exist,” we whisper, hoping the terror soon fades.
The circumference of our fears is calculated in numerous horror films about equations, problem-solving, and shapes. Prepare for the upcoming and traditionally blood-soaked Pi Day with the following movies about the dark side of math and geometry. Add popcorn and whiskey; the probability you’ll be entertained is the square root of yes, absolutely.
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film, Pi, stars Sean Gullette as Max Cohen, a mathematician trying to use numbers and equations to understand the world around him, unlock patterns, and solve life’s mysteries. Pi is a tale of obsession, paranoia, and mental illness, wrapped in a thrilling and strangely plausible story.
Director Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 film, Cube, is perhaps the mother of all geometry horror. Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint, and David Hewlett star as strangers who find themselves caught in a cube within a larger geometric maze… of more cubes. They must navigate horrific, deadly traps that escalate, cube after cube, utilizing obscure skills and mathematical knowledge to try to escape.
Evoking the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle and the inherent terror of geometry, writer-director Christopher Smith’s 2009 film, Triangle, stars Melissa George as Jess, an exhausted single mother who goes sailing with a group of friends (the cast includes Liam Hemsworth, Rachel Carpani, Michael Dorman, and Henry Nixon). When the boat capsizes, the group boards a nearby ocean liner that appears out of nowhere and is strangely unoccupied. Mysterious circumstances abound in this violent, twisty thriller.
Just when you thought math movies couldn’t get any more nuanced, Andrez Sekula brings us Cube²: Hypercube, the 2002 sequel to the aforementioned Cube, starring Kari Matchett, Geraint Wyn Davies, and Grace Lynn Kung. Strangers find themselves stuck inside another geometric maze. This time the cube isn’t just a cube but its evil, four-dimensional cousin: a tesseract. Simple rules of time, space, and gravity, no longer apply in this unreal dungeon of death traps and geometry.
The Night House
In a subtle yet haunting take on horror and mathematics, David Bruckner’s 2020 film, The Night House, stars Rebecca Hall as Beth, a widow who is picking up the pieces of her life after her architect husband, Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) death. Realizing that Owen constructed a house across the lake that perfectly mirrors theirs, Beth must navigate the eerie side of geometry and architecture in this horrifying and emotional story.
Come for the haunted house setup, stay for the satanic math in Brendan Mudowney’s 2022 film, The Cellar. This one centers on a family that’s just bought an old house for an exceptionally low price. When the teenage daughter, Elli (Abby Fitz), goes missing in the house, the mom (Elisha Cuthbert), discovers weird math problems carved into the cellar stairs. She seeks the help of a genius mathematician to unravel the mystery. Fans of Poltergeist and algebra will be pleased with this haunting tale of math and demonology.
Surreal geometry abounds in Barry Levinson’s 1998 film, Sphere, based on the book by Michael Crichton. This film stars Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson in a sci-fi horror epic about the discovery of a spherical spaceship deep at the bottom of the ocean. A suspected extraterrestrial presence has a dark, unsettling impact as explorers go on a harrowing deep-sea journey.
It’s a classic math-or-die scenario in Director Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeñna’s 2007 film, Fermat’s Room, which tells of a group of mathematicians and an inventor (starring Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán, and Lluís Homa) brought together and forced to solve a series of math puzzles. These individuals must adopt pseudonyms based on famous mathematicians and find answers in time to avoid certain death.
Ernie Barbarash’s 2004 Cube Zero brings it home with the third installment of everyone’s favorite geometry-horror series. This time the perspective is not from those trapped within the cube, but from those without. Starring Zachary Bennett, Stephanie Moore, and Martin Roach, Cube Zero centers on a programmer running the trapped-in-cubes situation who develops a conscience about the atrocities happening in the deathly maze.
The Laplace's Demon
Giordano Giulivi’s 2017 movie, The Laplace’s Demon, is a stylish, black-and-white Italian film about a team of researchers using math to predict the future. A mad scientist invites them to his hilltop mansion on a remote island. Soon our heroes are trapped in a terrifying math-based experiment. Starring Silvano Bertolin, Ferdinando D’Urbano, Duccio Giulivi, and Carlotta Mazzoncini, The Laplace’s Demon highlights the perils of too much calculation.
The Oxford Murders
Alex de la Iglesia’s 2008 film, The Oxford Murders, is adapted from mathematician and writer Guillermo Martinez’s book by the same name. Starring Elija Wood as a grad student and John Hurt as his professor, the two men attempt to use their knowledge of mathematical symbols to solve a series of murders.
Life of Pi
Special mention goes to Life of Pi (2012), Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Yang Martel’s novel by the same name. This one is an adventure story about a young man named Pi who is stuck in a lifeboat at sea with a Bengal tiger. While this film might not be about math, it is about Pi.