The Evil Dead (1981) is an undisputed horror classic. Whether it’s actually scary, however, is another topic. Of course, what makes a movie scary is subjective. Keeping that in mind, I will focus on some basic tenets of successful horror, inspired by Tim Waggoner’s writing craft book Writing in the Dark: Dread, Terror, Horror, Shock, and Disgust. Waggoner likens these emotional states to the primary colors of an artist’s palette in that they all have their place and benefit from being blended together. But what do all these capitalized terms mean?
I’ll explain each state very briefly. Dread is the feeling of an unknown threat building and building, getting closer and closer. Terror is “the emotional and intellectual reaction to a threat,” which is a bit more complex than Horror. Horror is the immediate reaction to an awful realization. One can think of Terror as dealing with the future implications of a conflict while Horror is the kneejerk reaction. Shock is a malicious surprise to the characters, and hopefully to the audience as well. Lastly, Disgust is a physical feeling sparked by something gross and usually visceral. Now that we have the five emotional tenets of successful scares laid out, we can move onto their places in The Evil Dead.
The first fifty seconds or so of The Evil Dead is from the point of view of an unseen force racing above a body of water. There are unidentifiable sounds. There is quite a bit of fog. We see something bubbling under the water. Then we cut to a close shot of a car containing five young friends, two of them happily singing. But this view only lasts for a couple seconds before we see a different angle, this one watching the car from the woods. We get another tracking shot of the unseen force, which is now racing through the trees. Before we’re even two minutes into the film, a threat is established. The friends are expecting a fun weekend, we’re expecting a series of malicious scenes.
Dread is built further by the “DANGEROUS BRIDGE” sign, leading to the car barely making it over the wooden beams, and the long tracking shot on the way to the cabin. The score becomes high-pitched and eerie, punctuated by a thudding beat later revealed to be a porch swing banging into the house, as we follow the car to the cabin. Suspense rises. We soon see Cheryl’s hand, apparently possessed, drawing a book with a face, followed by her vision of the hatch to the basement rattling and thumping. Later, when the friends play the mysterious tape and learn that the book brought up from the basement was “bound in human flesh and inked in human blood,” our suspicions that something is wrong with the cabin are escalated.
Ash seems to have the most perspective of the situation and its potential aftermath, by embodying the state of Terror. When Shelly is possessed and attacks Scott and Ash, Ash is frozen in fear. Scott, meanwhile, shows little hesitance throwing his girlfriend into the fire, slicing her wrist, plunging a knife into her back, and yelling at Ash to “Hit her! Hit her! Hit it!” After Shelly is hacked into pieces, courtesy of Scott, Ash asks, “What are we gonna do?” and his friend deadpan replies “We’ll bury her.” Ash mumbles that “we can’t bury Shelly. She’s-she’ a friend of ours.” He clearly realizes the implications of the situation but doesn’t want to accept them, while Scott barrels onward.
The end of the movie is another example of Terror. The sun rises, Linda is headless, Cheryl and Scott have disintegrated, and Ash is alive. He walks out of the cabin, drenched in blood, to the sounds of a victorious score and birds chirping. The horrific events are in the past, in the night, we think . . . until that unseen force from the beginning reappears. It courses through the cabin and rams into Ash. The Terror is not over.
Going back to Scott, the way he takes control of the situation with Shelly is indicative of Horror. He realizes that his girlfriend is dangerous and acts to stop her by whatever means necessary. He doesn’t stop to think of the repercussions of chopping his girlfriend into pieces. He only thinks of his survival in the present. His decision to leave the cabin and brave the woods alone also shows a lack of foresight. Since this is a horror movie, Scott pays for his feelings of Horror with his life.
Shock is easy to detect in film, usually in the form of jump scares. An excellent jump scare in The Evil Dead is seen when Linda and Cheryl seem to recover from their possessed states and Ash goes to let Cheryl out of the basement. The background music stops, leaving only the sound of crickets. Ash leans down, key in hand, slowly reaching to unlock the hatch, when Cheryl’s hands burst through the floorboards to seize his neck. Just when we think the danger has abated, it comes back in full force. Another scene that elicits Shock comes much earlier in the film. This scene is notorious, and many members of the cast and crew have expressed remorse for keeping it in the final cut. I am speaking, of course, about the tree rape. We could very well understand that the woods harmed her without seeing branches forcing her into a helpless position and entering her. “It was the woods themselves,” Cheryl cries. “They’re alive, Ashley!” Thank goodness for shadows is all I have to say.
Perhaps the most easily recognizable state in The Evil Dead is Disgust. The plentiful gore did lead to an X rating in the US and the film’s status as a “video nasty” in the UK, after all. Cheryl stabs Linda’s ankle with a pencil, Shelly chews off her hand, Ash decapitates Linda with a shovel, Ash gouges Scott’s eyes, cockroaches feast on the decaying bodies, etc. I’d say that tree rape also qualifies for Disgust. Think of the splinters!
Of course, as an artist may use all the colors on their palette but still produce a less than mediocre painting, we must ask if The Evil Dead is successful in its goal of scaring the viewer. The dialogue of the movie is less than stellar. Just look at the opening scene in the car:
CHERYL: You mean nobody’s seen this place yet?
SCOTT: Well, not yet.
ASHLEY: Well, it might not be that bad.
ASHLEY: Actually, it might be kind of nice.
Not only is this snippet poorly written, but it also sounds stilted when performed.
There’s also a rather nonsensical sequence of Ash in the basement. He needs to reenter the basement for the box of shells for the gun, so at least there’s a reason why he goes back down there. However, what is gained by a pipe full of blood bursting in his face? Or more blood spilling out of electrical sockets and the walls? Or even more blood collecting in a lightbulb? Or a gramophone playing a Charleston record of its own accord? Or a projector running blank film? Separately, these details are farcical, but together, they show the chaos that is Ash’s night. The cinematography of this scene is a thrill to watch, though, in my opinion, the Charleston undermines the scary aspects. Unlike The Shining (1980), which used a recording “Midnight, the Stars, and You” from 1934 in the final scene for a chilling effect, The Evil Dead’s use of the Charleston comes off as silly. This could be because the tempo of the Charleston is so giddy, while “Midnight, the Stars, and You” has a stronger feeling of sentimentality, especially with its crooning vocals by Al Bowlly.
The Evil Dead has a fair share of both traditional horror aspects and those belonging to traditional comedy. The five emotional states of horror laid out by Tim Waggoner are certainly evident in the film, and although I’d say that the film leans toward horror, I do understand why some people put it firmly in the horror-comedy class. When I first watched it, I was unsettled and scared. With multiple viewings, I saw more of the comedic traits. There’s a great balance of the two, even though the team was most likely going for straight horror. With Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, it is clear that they embraced the comedic aspects of the first attempt and strove for a true horror-comedy.
Why the Willy Wonka Boat Scene is Still the Scariest Thing You’ve Ever Seen
“There’s no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going…”
If those words don’t immediately strike fear into your very heart, then someone was very good to you as a child. You were somehow spared the experience of being set in front of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), blissfully unaware of what you were about to get yourself into. And look, it’s not like the boat scene comes out of nowhere. There’s already a bit of murder and mayhem going on in the first act before the boat scene. Hell, mere minutes before we reach the boat scene, we have consigned Augustus Gloop to a fate of being slowly asphyxiated as his lungs fill with molten chocolate, like the world’s most delicious case of pneumonia.
But the boat scene. Nothing quite matches its raw power, even more than five decades later. Here it is, if you need a refresher:
Willy Wonka, Why Are You Like This?
There are a lot of different reasons that this scene exists. For one, Roald Dahl (who was also the film’s screenwriter, though he eventually disowned the film over some uncredited rewrites) was never afraid of including material that would rattle his audience a bit. Ever heard of The Chokey?
Dahl was in tune with the fact that children’s stories, largely being parables of one kind or another, do typically feature some kind of unsettling or downright horrifying element to help teach their lessons. This is a tradition that dates back to fairy tales and early folklore. Listen to your elders, or you’ll turn into sea foam trying to get a human prince to notice you. Don’t wander by the river at night, or La Llorona will drown you. And here’s a personal favorite: Make sure to sweep the floor, otherwise the Sweepings Demon Ahalmez and the Stabbing Demon Ahaltocob will lurk in those unswept areas and stab you to death.
That’s why the darker elements of Willy Wonka are present in the first place. However, the boat scene stands out among the rest because it is so brilliantly put together. The base layer of the footage playing out on the tunnel walls is creepy enough. There’s a sinister, unpredictable arbitrariness to what images are chosen and why. However, pair that with Gene Wilder’s outstanding performance as Willy Wonka and you’ve got pure magic. Wonka was never designed to be understood, and the way his eerie, partly sung monologue builds to a climax caught somewhere between abject terror and orgiastic delight is deliciously opaque and disturbing.
Not only is this downright terrifying to witness in the first place, it taps into the way that children’s fates lie in the hands of adults pretty much all of the time. This scene is an immaculate exaggeration of how, when you’re a child, the adults in your life are driven by motives that are murky to you at best, and trusting that they have your best interests at heart isn’t always an easy thing to do.
The Willy Wonka Boat Scene in a Broader Context
On top of all the stuff the Willy Wonka boat scene is doing on purpose, there’s something about the fact that this scene was put together in the early 1970s that helps lend it its undying potency. If you need proof of this, check out the same scene from Tim Burton’s 2005 re-adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s just not the same, sending Charlie and his pals down a CGI-laden log flume that’s so unmemorable I had to look up if the movie even had a boat scene.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came to cinemas at a time that horror filmmaking was reaching a new creative peak, just three years after Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby showed what horror masterpieces could look like on opposite ends of the spectrum, offering up infinite possibilities in between. Things were really cooking at this time, as grindhouse cinemas churned out grotty horror outings (like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1970 gross-out flick The Wizard of Gore) en route to a true explosion of exploitation cinema.
Willy Wonka’s boat scene is born from the same primordial ooze that gave us 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave. It’s gross to look at, deeply disturbing, and feels genuinely unsafe.
Even though the way the images are projected behind the passengers doesn’t necessarily look real, it nevertheless looks tactile, grungy, and gross. This is thanks to the quality of film stock used to make these kinds of movies at the time. It has a tactility to it that digital cinema doesn’t possess, leaving you feeling like if you were to reach out and touch it, it would either abrade your hand or leave behind a trail of slime, something that enhances the viscerally repulsive sight of images that were already designed to poke at your lizard-brain fears.
Because all of this is found within the context of what is ostensibly a children’s movie, the juxtaposition of genres makes it even more powerful to witness. The Willy Wonka boat scene is well-made, well-timed, and well-suited to making your skin crawl, no matter what age you are when you encounter it, or how many times you may have seen it before.
My Final Girls Support Group: How Horror Helps Me Grieve
This article discusses topics that may be distressing or triggering to some readers. If you find such content uncomfortable, you may choose to proceed with caution or refrain from reading. Your well-being is important, if you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, there is help.
Sidney: I’ve seen this movie before.
Ghostface: Not this movie, Sidney.
Sidney: You really need some new material.
Ghostface: I got you here, didn’t I?
Sidney: You might actually be the most derivative one of all. I mean, Christ, the same house?
Ghostface: Maybe so. But you forgot the first rule of surviving a Stab movie. Never answer the—
Sidney (hanging up): I’m bored.
Seeing a Final Girl Come Full Circle
Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott hanging up on Ghostface is maybe one of my favorite moments from the entirety of the Scream franchise. She’s come so far since the first movie, and after 25+ years, she deserves to be able to hang up on her trauma.
On July 6th, 2023, I sat in my mom’s dark hospital room alongside my aunt, dad, and brother as we watched my mom take her last breath. On July 6th, 2015, I walked into my roommate’s room, who was also one of my best friends, to find him dead in his bed.
So, unfortunately, Sidney’s whole conversation with Ghostface in Scream (2022) right before hanging up on him has become quite relatable to me. It was a scene I could never shut up about, even before it became so painfully relevant. It’s a scene I’ve rewatched a lot since my mom’s passing. It’s a moment I want to be able to recreate someday—me, more annoyed than anything else when my trauma starts resurfacing.
The week after finding my friend dead, I found myself watching both parts of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 finale, “Becoming“—found myself crying every time I watched Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Summers slow motion run to help her friends, knowing she’d already failed and when she caught the blade of the sword her evil ex hurled at her, hitting him with the hilt before kicking every inch of his ass. After my mom’s passing, I found myself revisiting the end of Buffy’s season 5, where she’s grieving the loss of her mom but still having to deal with the current apocalypse—even saying, “I just wish my mom was here,” before going into battle in the finale.
An Outlet Via Horror
It’s moments like these that draw me to horror, especially when I’m grieving. I am more drawn to slasher-type movies when grieving than horror movies dealing with grief. I love Hereditary and The Babadoook, but those movies don’t make me feel the way I do watching Sidney hang up on her trauma, aka Ghostface, or watching Buffy beat the shit out of her evil ex-boyfriend. I want to be Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers telling Ghostface, “fuck you” even when she thinks she’s about to die in Scream VI. I want to be strong, I want to be able to survive—and also be witty about it. Watching final girls not only survive but be able to move on with their lives is something I find incredibly empowering—and inspirational.
I went to horror author Grady Hendrix’s book tour for his novel Final Girls Support Group. He did a full-on presentation before the actual signing and gave a history of horror that ended with him saying something like, “We don’t watch horror to watch people die but to watch them survive.” That notion has stuck with me ever since I saw it because it’s why I watch horror. The younger guy I was on a date with found it corny—I found it beautiful. I want to watch people survive odds that feel insurmountable—and not in a Hallmark movie way.
We’ve all seen the supercut of Jamie Lee Curtis saying, “It’s about trauma” at every single stop on her press tour for David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy. It became a meme-able moment, but also it’s true—I’m always interested in what the final girl or group of survivors from a horror movie do after they’ve survived. They would all clearly carry their trauma with them, not unlike me, but they’re still surviving. It’s why I hate any horror franchise bringing back a final girl just to kill her (I’m looking at you, Friday the 13th Part 2 and Final Destination 2). I’d rather never see her again than have her come back to die because that feels just too cruel and unfair—which, sure, life is unfair, but fictional stories don’t have to be.
In Halloween: H20, JLC’s Laurie Strode is shown to have had trouble moving on after the events of the second movie. But by the movie’s end, she’s saved her son (heartthrob Josh Hartnett) and his pals and goes to find Michael Myers for a final showdown—screaming his name while yielding an axe, no less! After defeating him, she makes sure he’s dead by chopping his head off (no, we won’t acknowledge Halloween: Resurrection). It’s why that movie stays my favorite in the Halloween franchise. It’s something I didn’t love about the newer trilogy, where they retconned all but the first movie and showed Laurie a total mess, prepping for an apocalypse with a zillion guns and living in the woods. But even that gave us a gratifying ending with Laurie, in front of the entire town of Haddonfield, throwing Michael into a trash compactor. I would love to crush my trauma into tiny little pieces that I leave in the bottom of a dumpster.
I often try to imagine what my gratifying horror moment would be. My trauma comes from real life—I have no monster to chop the head off of. No one is calling to scare me and telling me they’ll gut me like a fish. My horror movie is way more slow-moving with zero chase scenes. My horror movie is a boring one. But still, I find these women all empowering because, ya know, metaphors.
Finding Hope Through Horror
In Ready or Not, our final girl fights for her life against a family trying to kill her—only for her to survive long enough to watch them all explode due to a deal with the devil. In You’re Next, our final girl wields an axe and takes out the folks trying to take her out. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, our final girl tells her boyfriend, “I’m into survival” when he finds her reading a book on booby traps. These characters aren’t going down without a fight. In my life, I have yet to make it to the end of my horror movie—but when I do, I hope I can still be a badass final girl about it.
Having two of the biggest losses in my life happen on the same day really feels like a joke. The writers of my horror movie really do need to get new material. But seeing these final girls on their 89th movie and still not getting got—it gives me hope.
I want to not only outlast but go on in the ways folks like Sidney Prescott, Laurie Strode, Gale Weathers, and Buffy Summers do.
Sam: Are you going to be all right?
Sidney: I’ll survive. I always do.
For more on how horror can help us cope with tragedy, read here.