Films and TV series about disappearances become so popular because they present a scenario more haunting than death. At the core of each story of a disappearance is the question of whether to “disappear” is to die, if it’s to be reborn, or if it means being stuck in the mercurial limbo of other peoples’ imaginations. For, the characters who are left behind grapple obsessively with the question of whether their vanished beloved is “out there, somewhere,” or entirely “gone.” Ghosts, aliens and giant lizards be damned: the most frightening presence is the lack of a presence. A person’s shift from a physical being to mere idea is the most terrifying, and most intriguing, of horror stories. Here are the best of them.
The Vanishing (dir. George Sluizer)
The Vanishing is one of the most existentially unsettling movies ever made: without giving away exactly what horrors befall a vacationing Dutch couple, I’ll say that as the husband searches for his missing wife, he has a recurring dream of two golden eggs floating in space. And while that sounds like a psychedelic rendering of a Willy Wonka motif, it becomes, for those who’ve seen this film, an image that’ll haunt every benedict, hard boiled, deviled and even toad in a hole henceforth.
Top of the Lake (created by Jane Campion)
In Top of the Lake — arguably the best missing persons show in the sea of recent, related releases — a young, pregnant teen goes missing. The show does an inimitably thorough job of falsely filling in her character through the projections of the Elisabeth Moss’ character, the detective overseeing her case. As time passes, the hole this person left exposes both the ancient wounds and latent brutality beneath the surface of a New Zealand small town’s social climate.
L’Avventura (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)
After a businessman’s somewhat neglected girlfriend Anna goes missing on an island, amid a slew of suspicions and accusations, he and his girlfriend’s friend begin an affair. The specter of Anna both looms over and fuels their newfangled romance, provoking unsettling questions about the expendability of human bonds, and the simultaneous thrill of their ephemerality.
Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn manipulates the damsel-in-distress (or simply dead damsel) narrative that has pervaded missing persons stories. Often, female characters in these plots are reduced to symbols of disappearance — evanescing (or, you know, getting killed) before they ever get a chance to prove to audiences that they actually existed — Gone Girl’s Amy is acutely aware of this, and manipulates this trope to her advantage. She takes our cultural tendency to want to see women as victims and subverts it to her perverse advantage.
Brick (dir. Rian Johnson)
Brick resets the noir mystery in a high school movie setting, whose drama, at least within film, we typically affiliate with gossip, light bullying and the series of bases two people might or might not get to at a house party — as opposed to hard drugs and murder. This confluence of genre films — noir and high school movie — becomes especially strange when we hear the protagonist’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt’s) plan to take news of the disappearance/murder of his girlfriend to the Vice Principal.
The Missing (created by Harry and Jack Williams)
Despite France not seeming like a particularly threatening place, The Vanishing, Taken (which is not otherwise on this list) and The Missing all begin with a kidnapping that occurs when happy families vacation in France — collectively, these narratives seem to suggest this is the inevitable consequence for fetishizing macarons, rooftops and fungally-fun dairy products. The Missing, the critically acclaimed British anthology series (which, from its title alone, naturally belonged on this missing persons film/TV list), does this while examining both the productive and emotionally detrimental effects of hope.
Fargo (dir. The Coen Brothers)
Fargo offers yet another spin on the missing persons plot — here, a man is not searching for his wife, but rather planning her kidnapping (in a purportedly controlled fashion), and there are no unknowns. It’s when this control quickly dissolves that the unknowns start popping up: now, everyone who crosses the path of this formerly controlled kidnapping risks falling victim to the nihilism this tundra-traversing crime represents.
Winter’s Bone (dir. Debra Granik)
In Winter’s Bone, we’re not so much worried about the protagonist’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s) missing father as we are for Lawrence’s character herself. Her father, who disappeared after serving time for meth production, doesn’t seem, to put it lightly, a particularly good role model, and is less victimized by his disappearance (and possible death) than the family his lifestyle choices have left struggling to survive. This film is more about the dangers and mysteries of the search than the mystery of the disappearance.
Oldboy (dir. Chan-wook Park)
While typically the missing person is a character we hardly get to know, Oldboy’s protagonist actually is the disappeared. Locked in a box underground for 15 years, with selected news-clips — revealing him to be his wife’s suspected murderer — as his only source of knowledge about the outside world, Oh Dae-su’s case provides an alternative to the existential horror of the “missing person” plot. Normally, the unknowns of a disappearance threaten to poke holes in the existential fabric of the lives of those left behind. Here, the disappearance is an equal source of unknowns — underground, Oh Dae-su has ceased to exist, as far as the world above him is concerned. But we, the audience, are trapped in the hell of his consciousness of being at once a person and a buried object — of being alive while occupying the same space as the dead.
Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch)
If it’s been a long time since you saw Blue Velvet, the two images you likely remember are a severed ear covered in ants atop a prim suburban lawn and Isabella Rossellini wearing two lakes of eye-shadow and spilling husky-voiced melancholy in a sinister nightclub. But these images, if you’ve forgotten, are entirely intertwined. As the movie’s first motif, the ear both invites us to listen to the film’s sick soundtrack of despair and, with its putrescence and ant-infestation, warning us about its very invitation. The ear is also a synecdoche for the whole twisted plot behind Rosellini’s nightclub performance: her continued singing of the song “Blue Velvet” is the one thing that might save her captive son from suffering the fame fate as the ear’s (former) owner.