My Top 4 Underrated Inanimate Horror Movie Monsters
Horror movie monsters come in a variety of entertaining and terrifying tropes, but one of my favorites is the monstrous inanimate object. There’s a special additional thrill that comes from learning that the creature causing all the death and chaos shouldn’t even be sentient, let alone capable of wreaking havoc on humanity. Just look at the House on Ash Street in House of Leaves or the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings. To throw back to some even older classics, look at the Overwatch Hotel in The Shining or the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine. You could even argue that the concept of death, the overarching monster of the Final Destination series, is even less than inanimate – it’s not even corporeal. And what about AIs like the Red Queen in Resident Evil or GLaDOS from Portal? No matter how sophisticated they get, computers aren’t supposed to have that kind of agency!
There’s just something so delightfully chilling about inanimate objects terrorizing us, and I live for that goosebump-inducing moment in a horror movie when either you or the characters realize the innocuous object you’ve overlooked was the threat the whole time. Maybe it speaks to our buried instincts from the days of being hunter/gatherers; after all, if literally anything can secretly be out to harm us, then how do we watch out for predators? How do we know when we’re safe? Are we ever safe? Or perhaps it’s an offshoot of the Uncanny Valley and what terrifies us is the idea that an inanimate object, something which lacks everything we view as necessary to being “human”, can operate in very human ways. Maybe it’s easier to face a random human serial killer than the inhuman inscrutability of an object.
Either way, this trope rocks and I therefore want to give a shoutout to 4 of my favorite underrated inanimate horror movie monsters. Be forewarned, however; spoilers abound in the lines below! Also a lot of curse words because I’m very passionate about horror movies.
The Virus – Ringu
Anyone who knows me even moderately well probably knows that I watched The Ring as a young kid and it fucked me up for life. However, The Ring is also hands-down one of the best horror movies to ever come out of the US, especially so in terms of object horror, and if you get me started I can talk about this movie for hours. Horror fans will already be aware that The Ring is a remake of the Japanese film Ringu, of equally terrifying nature, but fewer may know that Ringu is based on a book of the same name by Koji Suzuki. If you’ve ever wondered why having someone else watch the video tape within 7 days will save you from Samara/Sadako’s terrorizing, read Ringu. Or just read the next paragraph, because… [SPOILER ALERT] you’re about to find out.
See, in Ringu our antagonist is Sadako, a young woman who carries two burdens at the time of her violent murder – her technopathic powers, from which the infamous tape is born, and the smallpox virus with which she has just been infected. The rage she experiences in her final moments causes the two to merge, and the recording of a videotape in the cabin built over her grave sets the resulting curse free. The reason, therefore, that showing the tape to another person will save you from a truly grim fate is that by doing so you are propagating the curse, and self-propagation is a virus’ main purpose. This “charm” is even included at the end of the tape – the dumbass teenagers who originally taped the terrifying video actually deleted that portion as a prank (but joke’s on them ’cause they didn’t make a copy of the video and they fuckin’ DIED). So in a way, all of the events in the Ringu universe stem not from a vengeful spirit but from the virus which bonded to that spirit’s powers, forming a unique curse with more intelligence and agency than most.
Y’know, in case you needed another reason to fear smallpox, a virus that could very easily be weaponized and used to wipe out large swathes of humanity. Seriously, it’s like Suzuki read The Demon in the Freezer and thought, “What if this… but SENTIENT AND PARANORMAL?”. Anyway, I think the virus explanation makes the whole thing so much cooler and creepier, so Ringu definitely gets a spot on this list.
The Body – The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The Autopsy of Jane Doe contains two of my favorite horror tropes – the inanimate horror monster (in this case the body dubbed ‘Jane Doe’) and the trope where every single thing that happens makes you as the viewer go “NOPE NOPE NOPE I’D BE OUTTA THERE” and yet the characters just keep moving ahead like nothing weird is happening. I like this trope both because you get to yell at the TV and you feel superior knowing you’d never make the same obvious mistakes. But in the case of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, I must admit that things start out… somewhat normally. An older couple is brutally killed in their home; during the investigation of the crime scene, a police officer finds the body of a young woman half-buried in the house’s unfinished basement. Weird, but not out of the realm of possibility, right? The body is taken to the local mortuary for an autopsy by the father and son team who run the place… [SPOILER ALERT]
And that’s when shit gets WEIRD. First, the body itself doesn’t make sense. Its opaque corneas suggest she’s been dead for a few days but rigor mortis hasn’t set in and when they cut into her she bleeds like the freshly dead. She also shows no signs of insect activity or other forms of decay, nor does her body show any evidence of the manner of death. So that’s weird, sure, but not scary weird. What’s scary weird is the stuff they find over the course of the autopsy, including…
1) A fresh white flower in her stomach which turns out to be jimsonweed, a plant with paralyzing properties which isn’t native to the area.
2) Her wrists and ankle bones are shattered (but again, no visible bruising), her lungs have been blackened as if she’s suffered 3rd degree burns, her tongue has been cut out, and many of her internal organs show massive scarring.
3) She’s missing a molar, but no worries! They find it in her stomach, wrapped in a cloth that contains a bunch of creepy symbols (which they also find on the inside of her skin, which is definitely where I keep my sigils too) and text that refers to Leviticus 20:27 and the year of the Salem Witch Trials.
4) Active brain cells. Like, her brain is totally functioning while her body is cold, drained of blood, and cut open. I’m no forensic pathologist or whatever but I’m pretty fucking sure that’s not how that works.
If all this wasn’t enough to make you go “NOPE” and get the fuck out, which our father and son autopsy team don’t, there’s also the fact that Jane Doe does not like anyone messing with her body. Every time they try to advance the autopsy weird shit happens, starting small with your usual creepy-old-timey-song-starts-playing-on-the-radio and escalating to full on apparitions, hallucinations, physical attacks, and just about everything else the paranormal can throw at you. For a corpse that literally never moves throughout the entire movie, not even for a cheesy jump-scare, this bitch can wreck shit up. And though I do feel bad about the dad dying, because Dad Stuff, I do very much enjoy watching this witch get revenge from the comfort of her morgue table.
The Plants – The Ruins
Google couldn’t decide if plants count as inanimate objects but there aren’t any plants on Earth that are as animate as the plants in The Ruins, so I’m including it either way. The Ruins is both a novel and movie about a group of American tourists who decide to visit a hidden and off-limits Mayan ruin while on vacation in Mexico (yes, they’re white, how’d you guess?). Despite being warned repeatedly by a local tribe, the group tramps all over the ruins and is then dismayed when this same tribe now won’t let them leave. Why not? Well… [SPOILER ALERT] the ruins are covered in a species of plant which is not only exceedingly dangerous, it can also grow on just about any surface if a few motes of its spore have touched it. The tourists are all covered in this spore and can’t be allowed to spread it into the jungle; if they do, the entire world could be doomed.
So what’s up with that, huh? They’re just plants, right? OHOHO. WRONG. These are the worst motherfucking plants around. Over the course of the book/movie we learn just how intelligent, dangerous, and downright cruel these leafy little fuckers can be. Because I love these plants so much, let’s break down some of their best features:
1) Acid sap: These plants may look harmless, but they’re actually filled with a highly acidic sap. They enjoy using this feature to melt the flesh of their victims, absorbing muscle and organs alike until only bones remain. Oh, and they rarely wait until you’re fully dead to do this. You just have to be immobile.
2) Spores and tendrils: Those spores I mentioned before? They get on everything and once they do, they start growing. And they grow FAST. In just a day or two you can have whole colonies of tiny baby plants growing on the tattered remains of your shirt or even in the crevices of your own skin. Oh, and did I mention the plants can also burrow into your flesh and grow equally well in there? They’re squirmy little fuckers, too, and move around when you try to cut them out.
3) Mimicry: The first shock twist in The Ruins comes as our doomed heroes are trying to find a cell phone that keeps ringing at the bottom of a mine shaft in the center of the ruins. They go through hell just to get down into the mine and after pushing through a dark, plant-filled side shaft they find the source of the ringing: a cracked, obviously dead cell phone clutched in the hands of a gruesome (and rather fresh) skeleton. Wait, if the phone’s not doing the ringing, then what is? You guessed it – THE PLANTS. These crafty little assholes can mimic any sound they hear. They use this ability to pit the tourists against each other and in the book they even mimic the sound of birds shrieking to warn the tribesmen that the tourists are trying to escape.
4) Planning: Even if somehow all of this seemed within the realm of possibility for a plant, their intelligence certainly isn’t. These plants are smart, if not smarter, than humans. They lay traps, disable survival supplies and tear down help messages, and have no problem playing the long game. For example, they selectively secrete their acidic sap so the rope the tourists use to drop into the mine shaft snaps, sending one man falling 30+ feet and resulting in him breaking his back. In addition to their uncanny mimicry, they also have the ability to learn human languages. As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of chaos as they mimic different people’s voices. The plants also aren’t above a little psychological warfare; they enjoy taunting the tourists with the ringing phone sound, even after its revealed the phone was a trap, and they torment a character who’s brother has also gone missing by saying, “Where is your brother? Your brother is here; your brother is dead,” in his native German.
This entry got kinda long but it’s because these plants are SO COOL and SO TERRIFYING and I love them. I have such a vivid memory of the first time I read the book and the moment I realized the plants were not only intelligent, but straight up evil – that’s some Goosebumps shit right there! Both the movie and book are definitely worth your time… as long as you have a strong stomach. This is horror at its bloodiest.
The Lasser Glass – Oculus
I should be honest with you: I came up with this entire article idea just so I could write about Oculus. Y’all, I LOVE Oculus. In the pantheon of inanimate objects that will fuck you up for fun and profit, Oculus reigns supreme. The movie starts with the reunion of a brother and sister who have been separated for years after the violent deaths of their parents. The sister remains convinced the true cause of their father’s murderous rampage was an antique mirror the family purchased several months before; her brother, however, has gone through extensive therapy and believes they both made up the mirror story as a way for their young minds to cope with the trauma of watching their father murder their mother. Well good news! They both get to test their theories because sis has hunted down the mirror, known as the Lasser Glass, and finagled it into the auction house where she works. Even better, the family home still sits empty, so she takes the mirror there to ensure the experiment’s repetition is exact. What could possibly go wrong?
Oculus does a good job of threading us along for a bit, with both siblings making good arguments for why their version of events is correct, but [SPOILER ALERT] when the healthy plants placed around the hungry mirror suddenly shrivel we know shit is about to go down. Sis is kind enough to enumerate the various grisly ends the Lasser Glass’ previous owners met, including their parents’, and it’s pretty damn clear the mirror likes to toy with its prey. While the mirror can’t physically run around to cause shenanigans (this isn’t Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), its power comes from twisting the perceived reality of those within its reach. With enough energy, gained by draining the lifeforce of living beings nearby, the Lasser Glass can manipulate all 5 human senses to do things like…
1) Trick you into starving or dehydrating yourself to death, along with messing with your perceptions of time in other ways.
2) Block your perception of pain so you don’t know you’re, say, smashing your own bones with a hammer, chewing through live power lines, or yanking out your teeth with pliers. Think you’re taking a stroll in the garden? WRONG. You’re walking into traffic.
3) Cause you to attack someone you love because you think they’re someone or something else. Oops, now your fiancé is dead. :(
4) Impersonate friends, family, or strangers, both in person and on the phone. How do you explain to your marriage counselor that you semi-cheated on your wife with a dead woman who came out of your ornate antique mirror?
5) Prevent you from damaging or otherwise disabling the mirror, or even just documenting the mirror’s abilities.
Let’s talk about that last point. One of the most chilling scenes in Oculus comes right after an intense argument between the siblings about whether or not the mirror is actually evil. This discussion takes place in another part of the house, away from the Lasser Glass. After it’s over, brother and sister head back to the room where the mirror has been hung. However, when they near the room they find the once healthy plants set out to measure the mirror’s reach have all been drained dry. Good thing sis was smart enough to set up an intricate surveillance system in the room holding the mirror to ensure any paranormal activity would be captured on tape! When they enter the room they see that the system has been completely disabled, the cameras turned to face one another. Aha! she thinks. We’ll just review the tapes to see what moved everything. Gonna catch this sneaky bitch in the act once and for all!
NOPE. The video shows the siblings dismantling the surveillance system themselves, including turning the cameras around, all while they have the argument they both could have sworn took place on the other side of the house. Surprise! The Lasser Glass ain’t messing around. This scene gives us our first true taste of the mirror’s strength; from this point onward neither the characters nor the viewer can ever be sure what’s real and what’s fabrication. Think you’re biting into a nice red apple? PSYCH, you just cut your mouth open biting into a lightbulb. OH WAIT, no, it was actually an apple all along. But if you had cut your mouth open, calling an ambulance wouldn’t be an option because the person on the other end of the phone is definitely not real. #SorryNotSorry
As far as we the viewer know, the Lasser Glass isn’t haunted by a dead orphan, cursed by an ancient mummy, or possessed by the Devil; it’s just a shiny bitch that loves fucking with people before it murders them. That’s possibly my favorite villain trope ever, which is probably why I love this movie so much. Like, it’s a pretty dark movie with a pretty bleak ending, but fuck if I don’t have such a good time watching that mirror terrorize people. The Lasser Glass has killed at least 11 other people on at least 8 other occasions in the past, ranging all the way back to 1754, and I would absolutely watch 8 more movies about those incidents. This trope just doesn’t get old!
So what do you think? Which of these way-too-animate inanimate horrors would you prefer to face? Which one gets the highest “NOPE” vote from you?