Why Hands Belong to Horror
Why is it that a lone hand with a mind of its own has just as much of a horrifying impact, if not more, than that of a decapitated head which is able to speak? Cinema has heavily influenced our infatuation with hands. Nosferatu’s shadow, Kate Winslet’s handprint on the steamy car window in Titanic, the fluidity of Martin LaSalle’s hand movements in Pickpocket. Nail technician Sylvie Macmillan pays homage to the silhouette and form of the hand.
There’s the conscious side of our hands that causes them to do specific actions for us, like picking your nose. The subconscious creates the tension in our hands that makes them move authentically, like when they are sweating and shaking while you watch Saw III.
Horror films often warp and blur the lines of the conscious and subconscious hands. Hands are the most destructive part of our body, so if they have authority over the mind… is there anything more terrifying? The hand with full autonomy is a common storyline in horror, “Thing” from The Addams Family being an iconic example of this.
Jodorowky’s considered use of hands throughout the film sees them switch between moments of deep tenderness and pure darkness. This delicate choreography is beautiful, but completely anxiety inducing due to its unpredictability.
My favourite hand storyline from any film (it just so happens to be the best horror of all time too) is in Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989) where a vengeful mother whose arms have been severed, uses her son’s hands to fulfil her vindictive needs. Her domination over his fingers is symbolised by the long red manicure he wears. Jodorowky’s considered use of hands throughout the film sees them switch between moments of deep tenderness and pure darkness. This delicate choreography is beautiful, but completely anxiety inducing due to its unpredictability.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a manicurist that I put so much importance on hands. But I think that the most exceptional on-screen performances are those by actors with the correct tension in their fingertips.
Count Orlok played by Max Schreck in the silent film Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) is a perfect example of this use of tension. Schreck’s embodiment of the character, married with Murnau’s genius use of lighting created one of cinema’s most memorable shadows, and proof that an indirect shot of a character can be far more terrifying than witnessing the character itself. The prosthetics used to make Count Orlok’s fingers and nails longer, combined with the angle of harsh lighting against the wall is evidence of how simple visual effects and correct tension can be merged to horrify us.
Horror uses our intrigue of unimaginable forces of power to keep us on the edge of our seats. Power can come in the form of brutality, manipulation or intelligence… All traits found within our fingers.
Hands have been used to introduce a character, to represent their emotions, show their intentions and shock us with their actions. But one of the spookiest things a hand can do is leave its trace. The image of the bloody hand print can be found in many horror films (Sean of the Dead and The Blair Witch Project being noteworthy examples) however a particularly repulsive scene where hands have left evidence of life and death is in The Ring (Gore Verbindki, 2002). The storyline brings us to Rachel (played by Naomi Watts) at the bottom of a well where a girl had previously died after seven days of being trapped inside. As Rachel inspects the walls of the well with her flashlight, she plucks a lone fingernail out of the scratch marks left by the deceased child. The tissue beneath our fingernails is so sensitive. It’s one of the most squeamish experiences to endure seeing: when a nail detaches from a finger. The thought alone is excruciating, making this scene so utterly effective and relatable.
Horror uses our intrigue of unimaginable forces of power to keep us on the edge of our seats. Power can come in the form of brutality, manipulation or intelligence… All traits found within our fingers. It is no wonder that the horror genre has used its cast members’ extremities to demonstrate the scenarios of our worst nightmares.