There are many theories as to why Friday the 13th has become synonymous with bad luck, but we don’t want to jinx ourselves by pondering the reasons. Instead, we’re looking at ten films that play on our superstitious beliefs revolving around urban legends and other cringe-worthy folklore — and there’s no genre that does it better than horror. Each film forces upon its protagonists a gateway to their nightmarish anxieties, usually by way of something like a book, a name, or a sound. Once the dark harbingers grab hold, all the four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, and number sevens in the world can’t help them. Feel lucky this Friday the 13th by checking out our unfortunate bunch past the break.
Apparently Virginia Madsen didn’t get the memo about the age-old Bloody Mary game, which requires its players to bravely call the name of the supernatural entity several times while gazing into a mirror in a darkened room. Madsen does just that in 1992’s Candyman. Trading the tale of a baby-murderer for an urban anxiety legend about a woman in a public housing project that couldn’t get 911 to come to her rescue, Bernard Rose’s film twists the terrifying myth onto his leading lady. Eventually Madsen’s character finds herself evading a dream-like figure while her life transforms into an uncanny version of the frightening story.
Taking the myth of Pandora’s Box to a demonic dimension is Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, a film that references ideas about society’s moral superstition and paranoia — particularly alluding to biblical sin (all seven of them). Kirsty summons the guardians of an unholy order when she finds a mysterious puzzle box discarded by her sleazy uncle Frank. The Cenobites — not to be confused with Jean Paul Gaultier’s worst (or best) nightmare — were once human, but their insatiable, hedonistic appetites led them to open the box in a former life. Now they seek similar souls to trap them in an endless cycle of torture and pain, leaving us to be forever superstitious of our Rubik’s Cube’s nefarious plans.
Japanese culture is deeply rooted in superstition. While American audiences may not be able to immediately connect to the culture’s centuries-old folkloric tales that usually relate various moral lessons, they can certainly appreciate the skill with which Japanese horror offerings manipulate with psychological terror and tension. Ringu toys with this, by using 20th century technology that everyone can relate to — a video cassette (that promises to kill you in seven days if you watch it) — and infuses the film with superstitions about a traditional Japanese mythological figure: a vengeful female spirit (yūrei). Even if you aren’t schooled on the history of the yūrei, you can still appreciate Ringu as a creepy ghost story.
The entire Friday the 13th franchise, obviously
The posters for Joss Whedon’s upcoming Cabin in the Woods alluded to post-modern horror fans’ knowledge about the rules of slasher films. “If you hear a strange sound outside … have sex,” one poster reads with a knowing wink. Before the Buffy creator and movies like Scream delighted audiences with a sense of self-aware entertainment, Friday the 13th was one of the earliest fright features that set the ground rules for how its kids and killers interacted (and repeated the formula for 12 movies). Postcoital death was a sure thing if you were a teenager in a Friday the 13th film — or any 80’s slasher movie. Using drugs, drinking, making out were all tickets to your own funeral, something that contemporary movies have poked at in references, superstitiously.
Wes Craven’s Scream pushed slasher movie conventions and superstitions to never-before-seen satirical heights when it first hit theaters in 1996. The film about a group of high school students and a masked killer (duh) made the unofficial rules of slashers a “thing.” Characters throughout the Scream series would announce the rules that horror movies tend to follow (never say, “I’ll be right back,” never assume the killer is really dead, and anyone can die, were just a few), which sometimes allowed their friends to stay alive. Sometimes.
Imbued with a bit of Greek tragedy and old world superstition, Universal’s 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man is almost single-handedly responsible for establishing the werewolf mythology we see in our movies today. As the gypsy tells Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This superstition about wolves dates back centuries, and relates to a moral and social panic about a “curse” with grave repercussions. Of course, we’re talking about a time when war and widespread death was more common, people thought all women were witches, and lycanthropy was sometimes considered a divine punishment.
The 2001 monster-slasher Jeepers Creepers uses the 1938 jazz standard of the same name for unnerving, superstitious effect when it warns its young protagonists that if they hear the song playing, they’ll be one foot in the grave. We wouldn’t question lyrics like, “Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those peepers? Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?” in a spooky movie. The killer demonstrates why in the film.
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village plays upon one thing prevalent in all horror cinema: fear of the unknown. The residents of a 19th century village certainly understand a thing or two about being scared. They live under the superstition that bloodthirsty creatures surround their community, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. No one’s really seen a monster it seems, but they know better than to venture deep into the woods. The film recalls folkloric superstitions that were often founded on misinformation and rampant hysteria when faced with things that can’t easily be explained.