The eternal horror of the maze

Why is the maze such a good way of thrilling the senses and conveying suspense in film? Claire Packer joins Top 10 Films’ 31 Days of Horror to find out.

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“They have taken the bridge and the second hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes, drums… drums in the deep. We cannot get out. A shadow lurks in the dark. We cannot get out… they are coming.”

The fight-or-flight response is one of the basic human reactions. But, what happens when we can’t take flight? What happens when you’re trapped, with no means of escape?

As readers of my blog will tell you, my favourite genre is fantasy and my favourite franchise is The Lord of the Rings, which is where the quote is taken from. The lines are spoken by a character reading from a tattered book – a sort-of journal – about the final moments of a group of dwarves when their mine is attacked.

A mine is, in many ways, like a maze: a myriad tunnels linking together. If you don’t know where you are going, adrenaline will flood your veins as panic takes over and you become more and more anxious: will you be able to get out? When faced with the unknown, your mind believes that threats lurk around every corner, whether natural or something more sinister.

It’s unsurprising, therefore, that mazes have featured in horror films. They have crept their way into other genres, too. Who can forget Harry’s experience within the large, magical, hedge maze in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? In the book, Harry’s race to find the Triwizard Cup in the centre of the maze meant overcoming a host of magical creatures, including a sphinx. I don’t know about you, but being trapped in a maze only then to encounter a giant spider or a Blast-Ended Skrewt is not my idea of a fun day out…

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One of the most famous uses of a maze in a horror film is in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the final scene of the film, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) follows his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), into the hotel’s hedge maze. To mislead Jack, Danny covers his footprints with snow, which Jack had been following. It’s quick thinking on Danny’s part, but I can only imagine what the poor kid would have been feeling. His life depended on being able to escape the maze, as well as evading his pursuer. If he were to forget the way out, his short life would surely have been over.

Another use of a hedge maze was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. In the film, Lucy (Sadie Frost) sleepwalks in to the maze at the Hillingham Estate. It is there that Dracula (Gary Oldman), in wolfman form, rapes and bites her. She is found by Mina (Winona Ryder) and, in confusion, says: “My soul seemed to leave my body. There was this agonizing feeling and, when it came back to me, I saw you shaking me.”

Last, but not least, is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Though not strictly in the horror genre, it is quite a dark film. Its young protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is led into an ancient labyrinth where she meets a faun. He believes her to be Princess Moanna, whose father is the king of the underworld. A beautiful story which weaves together the ‘real’ world and a fantasy world, the labyrinth itself is most prominent in the final scene. Unlike many other films where a maze is a thing of terror, for Ofelia the labyrinth is a place of safety and she runs into the labyrinth to evade her attacker.

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PS. No mention of mazes and labyrinths would be complete without Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, of course. In the film, Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) sets Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) a challenge: she has until midnight to rescue her baby brother from his castle in the centre of a labyrinth. While accompanied by a killer soundtrack – Labyrinth is my go-to film if I need cheering up – Sarah encounters many strange animals including Sir Didymus, a fox-like creature that is riding a dog. While the animals are somewhat less scary than the ones Harry encountered in the Triwizard Tournament, the labyrinth is no less treacherous. Sarah is warned that “nothing is as it seems” and, sure enough, the labyrinth has many hidden surprises for her…

Written by Claire Packer. Claire blogs about movies at her site Cinematic Delights

About the Author
As well as writing and designing, Claire loves going to the cinema, seeing live music, travelling and driving.

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    Colleeng Reply

    Wow! I’ve seen all of those films, maybe I’m drawn to mazes without realizing it. So I can’t steer you toward any you may have missed. Ah, Dracula. That had the best opening sequence and then fell apart. Such high hopes for that one.

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    ruth Reply

    What an astute observation, Claire. I’ve seen some of those movies and not realize the maze in them. The Triwizard Tournament is not terrifying but quite tragic considering what happens to Cedric 🙁

  3. Avatar
    Claire Reply

    Colleen: When it comes to horror films, I like them to be full of suspense, not out and out gore. What could be more suspenseful than a maze? You never know what’s around the corner…

    I watched FFC’s Dracula many years ago and just wasn’t impressed, which is a shame. For me, FFC and Oldman just didn’t deliver.

    Thanks for commenting 🙂

    Ruth: I agree about HP, it is very tragic. The scene when Harry returns with Cedric gets me every time. I think that JK had the right idea setting the final task in a maze. Visually, it looked stunning. Especially when the mist starts gathering in and the hedges start trembling in the wind.

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    Dan Reply

    You’d never get me in one of those mazes. I find them very strange places which is probably why they are so effective when featured in horror films.

    …I think Labyrinth is one of the best uses of a maze in film. I also think the film is fantastically scary – especially for children (but in a fun way). And the maze plays a huge part in that claustrophobic sense of fighting a losing battle.

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    Sir Phobos Reply

    I’d say out of the ones you mentioned, the one in The Shining is the scariest. That is pretty cool, though, that in Pan’s Labyrinth, she uses it as a place of safety.

    I would throw Cube on the list. That’s one messed up maze.

    I’m sure there are plenty of movies that have cornfields, too. If you’re being chased in one, it pretty much sucks.

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