13 of Cinema's Most Terrifying Meals
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
We are halfway through spooky season, and I have been going hard at watching a new horror movie every evening until Halloween. As I watched new films and revisited some favorites, often while planning my meals for the week, I got to thinking about just how much food, consumption, and horror are interrelated in the horror genre. Vampires feed on human blood. Werewolves pass their disease through biting their victims. Imbibed potions have the power to transform the body into something terrifying, ala Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Zombies eat brains.
Sometimes the food itself is the site of horror. Nefarious actors sneak potions and poisons into seemingly innocuous treats. Not eating is often a sign that something is wrong...ghosts and vampires don't eat "real" food—their bodies are suspect. Cannibalism is a frequent trope. "Soylent Green is people." "Meatloaf again." You get the idea.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of my favorite eating and dining scenes in horror cinema history. I also included a few films where food is critical to the plot without a dining scene per-se. Some are classics, others less so. Very few are legitimately scary. All of them are worth watching.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Why not kick off the list with one of the most disturbing meals in cinema history? In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, food is used as a signifier for bodily horror and the uncanny. There is something suspicious about the sausages in Drayton "the Cook" Sawyer's gas station. The Sawyer family is not quite right. They aren't just murderers with creepy furniture—they are cannibals. The terrifying reveal quickly moves into the realm of the absurd at the family dinner scene when they bring their dead (or undead?) grandfather to the table. They are the bourgeois family gone wrong. It's pretty great.
2. Theater of Blood (1973)
I must admit that I am a sucker for a revenge fantasy film, especially when the victims are harsh reviewers who clearly do not appreciate good art. In this camp wonder Theater of Blood, Vincent Price plays a slightly unhinged ham of a Shakespeare actor who goes on an elaborate murder spree of his critics. Each murder is based on a scene from the Shakespeare play that the critic panned. This one is Titus Andronicus.
3. Rosemary's Baby
Though there is no one scene of dining horror in Rosemary's Baby, food plays a critical role in hinting that Minnie (Ruth Gordon) may not be the sweet, grandmotherly figure she seems to be. She is always bringing food to Rosemary or inviting the young couple to dinner. She gives Rosemary medicinal herbs to help with her pregnancy pain, but it seems that they make her worse. Food has mystical, magical, and potentially harmful powers.
4. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Another excellent Vincent Price film, loosely based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In this interpretation, the prince is a Satanist, and some pretty wild stuff happens at the banquet preceding the masquerade ball.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man is another film where food plays a central role in the plot. Summerisle is a British isle known for its incredible produce and unusual biodiversity for the location. The people who live there practice pre-Christian pagan religions. A British police officer arrives to look into the disappearance of a young girl from the island. He learns that the harvest failed the previous year and suspects the worst. The film plays with the symbolic connection between fruit and female sexuality most excellently. Christopher Lee plays Lord Summerisle. And it's a musical. It may just be the perfect film.
6. Hausu/House (1977)
This Japanese surrealist comedy horror haunted house movie is incredible. School girls die in mysterious, psychedelic ways. There is a giant cat. Watermelons play an important role.
7. Eraserhead (1977)
I do not think it would be possible to talk about horrifying meals of film without referencing this scene from Eraserhead. David Lynch does an incredible job of externalizing the horrors of early adulthood, bourgeois family relationships, and bland white people food. Just don't plan to eat any Cornish game hens for a while.
8. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Arsenic and Old Lace is one of my all-time favorite Halloween movies. It is a bit of slapstick dark comedy, completely appropriate for the entire family. Two adorable old ladies invite lonely old men into their homes for a glass of homemade elderberry wine, laced with arsenic. Their nephew, played by Cary Grant, realizes his aunties are murderers and has no idea what to do about it. Meanwhile, his psychopathic criminal brother (played by Raymond Massey) and his doctor/sidekick (played by Peter Lorre) seek refuge at the house while fleeing murder charges. Dead bodies and madness abound.
9. The Velvet Vampire (1971)
I really wanted to post a picture from this film of vampiress Diane LeFanu eating a raw chicken liver, but no such film still was available—you'll have to settle for this image of her drinking wine and eating steak tartare. The film in unusual in its location—a Spanish-style hacienda home in the Joshua Tree desert rather than a gothic old mansion. Diane LeFanu is an intriguing lead character who lures a rather boring young couple of the Brad/Janet ilk to her lair to seduce and feed on them. Unlike many vampires, who cannot eat anything at all, Diane serves raw meat so that she can eat with her guests and sustain short periods without human sustenance. Steak tartare is about sex and sensuality—Susan, the wife, does not like the raw meat, nor does she like her husband's sexual interest in Diane. She is a bit evil, manipulative, and reliant on human blood to survive, but she is also very lonely, almost sympathetic. And incredibly fashionable.
10. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
This Czech New Wave gothic horror/fantasy coming of age story is one of my all-time favorite films even outside the spooky season. Dreamlike and surreal, at its core it seems to be portraying the horror of being/becoming a young woman. There are demons of all sorts with the qualities of witches and ghosts and vampires. There is a whole confusing incest thing. The church is not flatteringly portrayed. And never have I seen quite so unsettling of a springtime picnic.
11. Troll 2 (1990)
Just to get the question out of the way—this film was marketed as a sequel to the 1986 film Troll, but is actually about goblins and has nothing to do with it. Troll 2 is one of those so-bad-it's-good kitsch films in the vein of The Room, but it was always intended as a comedy, and I actually think it is pretty enjoyable. The cast and language are American but director and crew were Italian, so there are some very odd things that resulted through the language barrier. The acting is of course terrible. Goblins use green food to turn victims into plants. That is the plot.
12. Vampire Circus (1972)
Okay...this one is a bit of a stretch, but I really wanted to include a Hammer Horror vampire movie because the whole blood sucking/eating thing is portrayed in all its sensual glory. It's no restrained simple bite on the neck, victim faints, two small tooth marks type of thing. No, you get the full pleasure of a bloody meal. Vampire Circus in one of my favorite Hammer Horror vampire movies, and they eat a lot of people in it. Tasty.
13. The Love Witch (2016)
Anna Biller has a unique sensibility, similar to art exploitation horror movies of the 1970s. They feel almost otherworldly, a bit wooden and dated, but in a way that I really appreciate. The Love Witch has all these delightful horror elements—a witch, a spooky old house, death, satanism...but this cutesy high tea shop is one of the most horrifying settings, full of sad women enacting boring femininity. The aesthetic is very 1970s-y, but it takes place in the contemporary moment. Biller designs all of the costumes, which are my favorite of her films.