Most are familiar with the famous cinematic dance sequences — your Risky Businesses, your Footlooses, your Do the Right Things —that are prone to get people jiggy with nostalgia. But it turns out there’s also a rich history of film dances that’ll make you get jiggy with fear.
Pina Bausch once famously said, “I’m not interested in how people move but what moves them,” and though she was most likely referring to moments and images that elucidate some ineffable aspect of the human condition, she could also, for all we know, have been talking about demonic possession. In some of the best dances onscreen, participants are not moving themselves, but are rather being moved, by ghosts, witches’ curses, Darren Aronofskys, etc. The dance, these scenes show, can underscore the wonders and durability of the human body — and thus show the superior strength of the dark, supernatural forces that control, exploit, or violently halt the dance.
So instead of standing in front of YouTube trying to learn to reenact that scene from goddamn Dirty Dancing, this Halloween, try turning to these more sinister dances. Don’t worry, most are doable even in the skimpiest Sexy “Hotline Bling” Meme or Sexy Seamless Ad or Sexy Donald Trump costumes.
“I Put a Spell on You,” Hocus Pocus (dir. Kenny Ortega)
When people look back at Hocus Pocus to assert that it’s the best film of the last few decades, it is typically the “I Put a Spell on You” dance scene that they’ll mention. Nowhere else in film history will you find a gay icon, a successful NYC sex columnist… who’s also a gay icon, and the always hilarious Kathy Najimy singing people into “dancing until they die.” It is therefore also the scene people bring up when they assert that it’s the scariest film of the last few decades (the runners up: The Ring, It Follows). For what gets straight to the core of our fears more than the notion of not being in control of our own bodies? Indeed, the idea of Bette Midler playing God with your bod raises dizzying questions such as: Can God exist in simultaneity with Midler in bucktooth dentures?
The Angry Bird, Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Some thought Black Swan was a good film. Others thought it was a ridiculous film. Others, caught somewhere between the critical binary (which isn’t too dissimilar to the swan binary established in the film!), thought it was both good and ridiculous. But no matter how you feel about it, there’s no denying the entertainment value of the movie’s climactic scene, in which Natalie Portman performs Swan Lake, flailing towards the camera and revealing, with her horrifically reddened eyes: conjunctivitis, feather allergies, or pure darkness of the soul. This dance, as Portman’s character experiences, may not be the easiest to learn, but as her character also reveals, practice makes perfect — and horrific.
The Vaudeville Act, Young Frankenstein (dir. Mel Brooks)
Young Frankenstein’s comic brilliance is on full display in this scene in which Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein shows off his creation — attempting to prove how innocuous he is through the pacifying art of vaudeville and the jaunty joys of tap shoes. Yet the monster (played by Peter Boyle) can only sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in his untrained falsetto, and things ultimately descend into chaos.
“I’d Fuck Me,” Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme)
This famous scene from Silence of the Lambs sees Buffalo Bill dancing to “Goodbye Horses,” juxtaposed with footage of his victim, Catherine Martin, stuck in a hole. As he nonchalantly applies makeup and seduces himself in front of the mirror, time seems to split into two speeds: there’s the desperate immediacy for his victim, and as she screams for help (heard only by Bill and a poodle), Buffalo Bill gets deeper and deeper into his languid dance, an exertion of total emotional power over his victim.
The Jealousy Jitterbug, Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch)
It’s hard to take dance numbers — even in horror movies that were initially meant to be serious — seriously. But Mulholland Drive is a different beast entirely. It’s a horrific film that has little in common with your typical “horror film” — and one of the abstract sources of fear it unleashes on the viewer happens right in its opening moments: the jitterbug. Sure, the jitterbug doesn’t sound particularly threatening, but this is a Lynchian jitterbug, in which the dancers eerily weave through cutouts of other dancers, and over which Naomi Watts’ character, Betty, suddenly appears with the elderly couple we’ll later discover are demonic and live in a tiny blue box. Though this jitters-inducing jitterbug seems a standalone vision, Betty mentions early on that she came to the West Coast following her victory in a jitterbug contest — thus implying that her plunge into Hollywood’s hellish, vain, and jealousy-steeped subconscious (or her own, or someone else’s, who the hell knows) was set in motion by an urge provoked by the manifold and mysterious powers of the dance.
The Crustacean Calypso, Beetlejuice (dir. Tim Burton)
With Beetlejuice, Tim Burton made a pioneering effort to conjoin dance, the supernatural, and shrimp cocktail. It is yet another example of how the dance — typically a statement of superlative physical control — can be truly horrific when the performer is no longer the master of their body, but must still dance the dance “till de morning come.” (It also suggests a not-easily-achieved solution to any stuffy dinner party: have your dead roommates turn it up by possessing everyone, playing Harry Belafonte, and shaking off their upper-crustiness with shrimp claws.) So, should you find yourself dejected by the prospect of another insipid Halloween party, take a cue from this number and try to purchase shrimp that’s also a demon arm.
The Time Warp, Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman)
The “Time Warp” is one of many stages of initiation Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick) undergo in order to become a part of (and eventually be left, literally, in the dirt by) the sexually fluid alien world of Dr. Frank N. Furter, Riff Raff, and Magenta in Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is a dance many people will already be performing — at midnight screenings across the country — this Halloween. But this exuberant number is also tinged with melancholy. Though it purports to be able to warp time, the film itself goes on to prove that its grand claims can never really be achieved: no matter how fervently audiences do the time warp, they still find themselves subjected to the far less iconic, and increasingly listless, second half of the movie following “Sweet Transvestite.”
All of 1987’s Stage Fright (dir. Michele Soavi) and Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento)
Stage Fright — if it weren’t clear from the title — is a horror film about musical theater. (Some might argue this is a redundancy.) Thus, the whole film is something of a distended exploration of the implicit spookiness of the dance, in which we see a retired actor-turned-madman/murderer sneak into a late-night rehearsal, sport an owl costume, and murder a troupe of actors who are locked in the theater. Similarly, the more iconic Italian horror film Suspiria (which Stage Fright director Michele Soavi actually worked on) doesn’t bear one particular standout dance scene, per se, but the whole film is about a coven that also happens to be a prestigious ballet academy. So while you may not come away from these films with a specific spooky dance to learn, you will still feel immersed in the dance, and its highlighting of the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human body as a vehicle for horror.
Willow’s Dance, The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy)
The NSFW dance in The Wicker Man — which features the famous “Willow’s Song” — draws on the dangerously beguiling nature of the Summerisle lifestyle in The Wicker Man, set against the protagonist’s asceticism. Here, Sergeant Howie is seduced through a wall by Willow, the daughter of the landlord of the Green Man Inn, where he’s staying. Though he ultimately resists this particular seduction, it is his continued curiosity about the island that’ll ultimately lead to his demise.
The Nasty Nilbog, Troll 2 (dir. Claudio Fragasso)
Holly’s just your average American teenager, navigating the scary terrain of budding sexuality while innocently preparing for a vacation where she’ll end up having to navigate the scary terrain of… goblins. (Poor, unfortunate souls who didn’t catch that the town “Nilbog” is “Goblin” spelled backwards until it was too late!) In order to make us care about the people vegetarian goblins attempt to turn into plants so they could eat them (in a wonderfully roundabout dietary premise), writer/director Claudio Fragasso has to immerse us in their emotional lives. In this scene, Holly dances in front of her mirror to gear herself up to confront her boyfriend about how he prefers his male friends (“lovely little boys”) to her (“the beautiful Holly Waits”). As seen in the shifting lighting, which indicates the horrors to come, there are many worse things — like goblins — than a potentially gay boyfriend.
The Sex Machina, Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
In Ex Machina, one of the things that makes Oscar Isaac’s Nathan so imposing and horrifying is his casual and jocularly bro-ish nature. Though his words to Domnhall Gleeson’s character Caleb are often friendly, it is clear that he uses his amiable veneer as a means of control — the subtext of every joke or shared brewski is a threat. Thus, when Nathan leaps into a particularly goofy dance routine, his control also becomes physical, as his sexualized servant Kyoko seems to robotically join in as though aware that her failure to do so could lead to peril. His dance isn’t an attempt to show Caleb that he can be silly, but rather a demonstration of his power to be silly. Bopping his butt through the room, he seems to be marking his territory. It’s hilarious and incredibly tense.
The Crispin Glover, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (dir. Joseph Zito)
In Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Crispin Glover’s unbridled flailing illustrates the frenetic possibility and indecision of youth (while also allowing Crispin Glover to let the true Crispin Glover out from beneath his cookie-cutter teen character). Of course, there isn’t infinite possibility for the youths in Friday the 13th, as Glover’s character Jimmy himself will soon have Jason Voorhees shove a meat cleaver into his face.