Horror Movies And Ballet: A Match Made In Hell
Dancing is inherently countercultural and almost revolutionary because, in its purest form, it's a free expression of self without rigid rules or, in the case of Latin Dances, a form of vertical foreplay. Both are things that conservatives don't believe in, which is why movies like Footloose or Dirty Dancing exist. They're based on society's fears about the seductive power of dance, though they ultimately celebrate it instead of denouncing it because they weren't made by the kind of neurotics who run around public parks screaming to stop pigeons from having sex.
But you might be saying: "Hold on, Cezary," because you still don't know how the internet works. This is why those Russian scammers keep tricking you, man. Anyway, you might be arguing that not all dancing is Horny Anarchy. "What about square dancing or ballet?" Well, to the former, I say: congrats on naming probably the only dance ever to be popularized because of anti-Semitism and racism. And to the latter: Thank you SO MUCH for bringing up ballet because that's what I really wanted to talk about. I owe you a beer.
So, yeah, horror and ballet. They're apparently a thing. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010)is probably the most famous example as it charts Natalie Portman's downfall as she tries to master the titular role in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Over time, her obsession drives her into madness, manifesting itself as hallucinations where she is transforming into a literal swan creature. She also fantasizes about sleeping with Mila Kunis, but I'd argue that not having those kinds of thoughts is proof of insanity.
The movie worked so well because ballet already deals so much with issues of transformation, from the performers having to be dance-actors to ballet plots, like how Swan Lake is all about humans being changed into animals. Horror similarly deals with transformations, but they are always frightening, whereas in ballet, they're magical and beautiful, and it was a blast seeing the juxtaposition of the two in Black Swan. But the movie is far from the only production that made ballet scary.
It all seems to have started with The Red Shoes (1948), which, though not outright horror, did feature possibly paranormal elements like the titular shoes, which might have driven a ballerina to suicide in the finale. But the movie was ultimately a story about the obsessive nature of ballet and how that obsession can destroy you in really weird ways, be they imaginary or real. Seriously, there's probably no other activity that leads to health ailments that sound like Latin spells for summoning spike-dicked demons: Morton's neuroma, Metatarsalgia, Cobolorum pedes, and Hallux rigidus are three real types of ballet-related feet injuries and one fake condition I just made up, and YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHICH ONE IT IS.
But, see, all of that isn't the reason why ballet has become a horror trope like with Cabin in the Woods and its Sugarplum Fairy, who looks like a ballerina with a Sarlacc where her face should be. In that movie, there's no real exploration of transformation or obsession or goblin feet ("Cobolorum pedes" in Latin, which is the term I made up earlier.) And yet, the ballet elements add to the horror. But why?
I think it actually goes back to what we established earlier: that ballet is NOT Horny Anarchy. It's full of tradition, strict rules, and is considered one of the few examples of "good" dancing by the conservative crowd. And that's what makes it such great horror fodder. Most great horror is all about the destruction of what is traditional, conservative, and middle-class. It's why classics like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street take place in peaceful, everyday suburbs. The fact that something so "wholesome" and "safe" could become a site of brutal death is terrifying. It's the very definition of grotesque. Ultimately, the thing that is actually scary is not ballet dancing itself but rather its distortion; its dark mirror image.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the 2018 version of Suspiria, a horror about a ballet school run by witches. During one scene in the movie, the dancing of one ballerina inflicts physical damage on another girl, mangling her body by making it mirror the movements of the first girl. In a room full of mirrors. Because Suspiria is a firm believer in the teachings of Garth Marenghi on subtext:
Follow Cezary on Twitter.
Top Image: Searchlight Pictures, Amazon Studio