True phobias—paralyzing, crippling fears, sometimes irrational—can make movie-watching an awkward or potentially horrifying experience for some people. There’s a difference between being “afraid” of a scenario and having a true phobia. I, for example, don’t like the thought of swimming in the open ocean, where god-knows-what is swimming around below me. But do I love watching Jaws? Sure. No problem. I don’t particularly like heights either, but it’s not like I have a problem with Vertigo.
But some people do react violently to even the images of their phobias. I knew a guy in college who wasn’t just afraid of spiders—he was petrified of spiders. He was so disturbed by them that the few times we happened to be watching a movie with spiders in it, he’d have to leave the room. I learned this while we were watching the MST3k film The Giant Spider Invasion. Suffice to say, he was out of the room more often than he was in it. It’s the same way for someone with say, ornithophobia (fear of our feathered friends), when they watch Hitchcock’s The Birds.
With Halloween approaching, though, perhaps this is the rare time of year when the phobic will want to willingly confront one of their fears in film. That, or maybe their friends just want to make them squirm a bit. Perhaps this will simply be valuable as a list of films to avoid. If so, by all means employ our phobia film guide, arranging 25 common (and uncommon) phobias from A-Z and a corresponding bit of nightmare fuel. They run the gamut from classics to cheesy crowd-pleasers to pretty terrible flicks.
(And please note, I’m not advocating that you force any friend to watch something that will upset them. Please have some courtesy, folks.)
Definition: The fear of heights
Film: Cliffhanger, 1993
Most of these are going to be true horror films, but you’d be surprised to know that there really aren’t any horror flicks with “heights” as the primary villain. Cliffhanger, on the other hand, almost fetishizes heights and climbing, so for an acrophobic, it’s terrifying. I know—I remember watching this as a kid and being thoroughly traumatized by the opening sequence when Stallone is unable to save a fellow ranger who plummets to her death.
Definition: The fear of open spaces
Film: Open Water, 2003
Open Water is one of the most terrifying premises I can imagine, phobia or no—a pair of divers are left behind by their guide boat and stranded in the open ocean, with no idea of what direction they should even head. That’s true powerlessness, and once fatigue begins to set in (and the sharks begin to circle), it’s hard to imagine not completely turning to despair. The open ocean is the ultimate terror for an agoraphobic when one realizes the sheer scale of the space UNDERNEATH you—and there could be (and is) anything down there.
Definition: The fear of spiders
Film: Kingdom of the Spiders, 1977
The obvious choice is to use the film Arachnophobia, as it’s named after the phobia itself, but that’s too easy. Kingdom of the Spiders also features tons and tons of real spiders, which is a huge plus—seriously, there’s tons of scenes of people being covered in tarantulas from head to toe. The spiders attack en masse thanks to human ecological meddling, as you might expect. As a bonus, William Shatner is there, Shatnering it up.
Definition: The fear of numbers
Film: The Number 23, 2007
A fairly stupid movie, but perfect to spook your conspiracy theorist or numerology-interested friends. The film features Jim Carrey losing his mind as he discovers a book on the so-called “23 enigma; which posits that all important events in history (and indeed the universe) apparently have something to do with the number 23. This is the sort of film that someone involved in a “truther” movement could probably appreciate in a thoroughly non-ironic way.
Definition: The fear of books
Film: In the Mouth of Madness, 1995
This might have been John Carpenter’s last good horror movie, and that’s mostly because of the creativity of its premise: That an insane author is warping the fabric of reality through his writings. Sam Neill gives the same sort of over-the-top demented performance he later gave in 1997’s Event Horizon. An underappreciated horror flick about the power of books and authors on society.
Definition: The fear of plants
Film: The Ruins, 2008
If you’re afraid of plants, a movie about carnivorous blood-sucking vines is pretty high-octane nightmare fuel. You’d probably be too busy being terrified to notice how much the rest of it sucks. The Day of the Triffids would also be classic, but it’s not likely to freak out a phobic in the same way that modern CGI would—one of the rare times you’ll ever see me advocating for CGI over practical effects.
Definition: The fear of ugliness
Film: Eyes Without a Face, 1960
Hey, a great film snuck its way onto the phobia list, how about that? Eyes Without a Face is a French-Italian classic that not nearly enough people have seen. Edith Scob gives an incredible performance as Christiane, a woman terribly disfigured in an auto accident, kept as a prisoner and forced to wear a mask to hide her ugliness. As we can’t see her face, Scob’s eyes tell the whole story in what turned out to be a subtly influential film on the psychological horror genre. The classic “Eye of the Beholder” episode of The Twilight Zone echoes many of the same themes.
Definition: The fear of mirrors
Film: Oculus, 2013
Mirrors are a constant presence in horror movies, with the mirror scare as one of the most commonly abused cliches, but few films are actually ABOUT evil mirrors. If you harbor an irrational fear of them, though, then a movie like Oculus was created specifically to seed your sleep with nightmares. This cursed mirror completely destroys a family’s life, turning normal people into psychotics and projecting horrific visions upon them. It’s hard to imagine another movie that better fits the phobia.
Definition: The fear of enclosed spaces
Film: Buried, 2010
A film that spends its entire 95-minute runtime with a central protagonist who has been buried alive? Yeah, that’ll activate some triggers with the claustrophobics in the audience. Ryan Reynolds plays a man trapped in a fairly hopeless situation in this thriller, abducted and buried alive by terrorists seeking a ransom. Its cinematography gets creative in keeping an audience engaged for an hour and a half of a man trapped inside a small wooden box.
Definition: The fear of clowns
Film: Stephen King’s IT, 1990
You knew what it would be. There are tons of killer clown movies out there, but none of them have ever freaked out more of the clown-averse than Tim Curry’s incredible portrayal of Pennywise in the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s IT. His malevolence as a monster in clown’s skin is off the charts, and that defining performance is one of the main reasons it will be difficult to ever do another film version of IT. It’s hard to believe that anyone else could ever compare.
Definition: The fear of dogs
Film: The Pack, 1977
Cujo is probably the most famous of this genre, but there are some other good killer dog movies out there. The Pack is particularly disturbing for lovers of man’s best friend because it depicts beasts driven mad not by rabies but by the negligence of man. When a group of dogs are abandoned on an island and left to fend for themselves, they quickly turn feral and barbaric. When other humans show up, the former pets view them not as masters, but as meat.
Definition: The fear of computers/automation
Film: Eagle Eye, 2008
The fear of computers is the fear of losing control, and that’s exactly the concern at the heart of the Shia LaBeouf thriller Eagle Eye. Say what you will of him, but it’s an intriguing concept; a rogue governmental A.I. that begins acting on its own interpretations of the Constitution to remove decision-making from the executive branch in order to “safeguard” the American public. To someone who’s afraid of the coming computer singularity, it’s a scary thought.
Definition: The fear of trees
Film: The Evil Dead, 1981
Two words: Tree rape. Pretty much impossible to top that. To recap: Tree rape.
Definition: The fear of insects
Film: Black Swarm, 2007
This movie is terrible, make no doubt about it. But still—if someone has entomophobia, there’s probably some stuff here that they’d find suitably disturbing. In particular, the fact that you have wasps crawling into people’s ear canals and into their brains personally gives me the heebie jeebies—I hate both wasps and bees to an irrational degree. You’re not going to find good films in this “Syfy Original Movie” tier, but you’ll still find effective ones to target certain phobias.
Definition: Fear of marriage/commitment
Film: Night of the Hunter, 1955
Now here’s a true masterpiece, the only film ever directed by a misunderstood Charles Laughton, who took his cues from German expressionist movies that nobody in Hollywood had ever bothered to watch. Night of the Hunter follows Robert Mitchum’s chilling character, “Reverend” Harry Powell as he marries women and then murders them. After learning of a hidden fortune while serving a prison stint, he tracks down a convict’s widow and works his way into her life before brutally murdering her after the wedding. Watching Night of the Hunter would make any woman question that “perfect man” she’s so excited about marrying.
Definition: The fear of blood
Film: Braindead/Dead Alive, 1992
Long before Peter Jackson was directing The Lord of the Rings, he was one of the undisputed masters of splatter horror, and Braindead was his masterpiece. Released in the U.S. as Dead Alive, this zombie horror/comedy may be one of the bloodiest, goriest films ever made. There’s just no describing it until you’ve seen it, but if you want to get an idea of what most of it is like, simply watch the iconic lawnmower zombie massacre scene.
Definition: The fear of germs/disease
Film: Cabin Fever, 2002
Cabin Fever is a darkly humorous story about a group of friends who head to an Evil Dead-style cabin in the woods and face not a slasher or demons, but a killer too small and invasive to avoid: A flesh-eating virus. It is, to describe in a single word: icky. People with phobias about communicable disease, especially in the wake of current Ebola panic, will find this movie especially horrifying, especially once peoples’ faces start falling off.
Definition: Fear of the dark
Film: The Descent, 2005
The Descent would also be an excellent choice for the “claustrophobia” entry, but if you’re afraid of the dark, there are few places worse to be than deep underground, where sunlight is never seen. It’s the story of a spelunking group of women who get trapped in a life-and-death situation battling both each other and a clan of troglodyte monsters after losing their way in an uncharted cave. It’s extremely effective in building tension and an oppressive atmosphere before things really get going in the second half.
Definition: The fear of snakes
Film: Rattlers, 1976
Not wanting to use a tongue-in-cheek flick like Snakes on a Plane or cheesy CGI such as the Anaconda series, this one actually proved surprisingly difficult. I settled on the little-known Rattlers, about a horde of overly aggressive rattlesnakes that threaten a southwestern town, mostly because they use quite a lot of real snakes as the primary mode of thrilling the viewer. When in doubt, real animals are always going to be more frightening to a phobic than shoddy or mediocre CGI.
Definition: The fear of children
Film: Village of the Damned, 1960
The most classic film in the “creepy kids” canon, the original Village of the Damned still holds up very well today. It’s a genuinely creepy concept: A group of children is mysteriously born at the same time and share a set of incredible mental powers. But what is their true agenda, and where do they get their orders? People who feel uncomfortable around little kids will be absolutely chilled by the uniformity and lifeless delivery of these child actors.
Definition: The fear of flying
Film: Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983
It’s only one segment in an anthology film, but “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just too classic to pass up. It’s a toss-up which is better, the original with William Shatner or the movie version with John Lithgow, but the film has a much more frightening gremlin. The true fear for the plane-averse, though, is the pervasive worry that there’s something wrong with the plane … and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why the gremlin on the wing is frightening; he’s an outside force that nobody is willing to acknowledge, let alone deal with.
Definition: Fear of fire
Film: Firestarter, 1984
If you’re afraid of fire, then the idea of people with pyrokinesis walking around is pretty much the ultimate nightmare. Now imagine that the god-like power of creating fire with your mind has been put into the hands of a small child with no sense of right and wrong, and you don’t need to be pyrophobic to find the thought rather troubling.
Definition: The fear of sleep
Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984
There’s a decent number of horror movies about sleep or dreaming, but the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is certainly the foundational classic. People who haven’t actually seen the original don’t realize what a disturbing and genuinely frightening movie this can be. There’s a good deal of powerlessness in the fear of sleep, because it’s something that literally all of us have to do at some point. You can only resist for so long, and then Freddy’s coming after you.
Definition: The fear of needles/injections
Film: Antiviral, 2012
Antiviral is a disturbing film, period, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from the son of David Cronenberg. It presents a twisted near-future where celebrity-chasers can acquire their favorite star’s diseases through direct injections of those “designer” illnesses, and begins with a really gross sequence of mouth injection shots. Seriously, needles are all over this movie. Now, if you want the best case of a needle being used as a weapon in a horror movie, then you have to watch the classic needle in the eye from 1981’s Dead & Buried.
Definition: The fear of beautiful women
Film: Audition, 1999
It’s hard to believe that any guy who’s ever taken a strange woman home from the bar would do so again after watching Audition. In it, an older man meets a sweet, seemingly innocent young woman who eventually drugs him and acts out some extremely graphic depictions of torture. It will certainly make you ask a few more questions before meeting up with your next Tinder date.