Claustrophobia, Isolation and Survival: Trapped on Film

THE fear of being trapped is by no means irrational.  The desire to flee an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation is instinctive – built into our DNA.

On film, these fears are intensified and stretched to almost unthinkable boundaries. Characters are placed in situations of terrifying jeopardy and with no easy route to escape forced to fight for their lives.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (2004), the Bride (Uma Thurman) is buried alive by her nemesis Driver (Daryl Hannah). Trapped in this confined space with oxygen depleting and tons of dirt separating her from freedom, the Bride does all she can to find a way out.

Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried (2010) takes this claustrophobic concept and cleverly stretches it out for an entire film.  A truck driver, played by Ryan Reynolds, wakes up in a coffin not knowing how he arrived in this situation and must use the limited resources at his disposal to plot a near-impossible escape.

This mixture of being trapped and not knowing how you got there makes for a compelling premise – a combination of mystery and impending danger. Franck Vestiel utilises this in Eden Log (2007), as a cave explorer wakes up with amnesia – and next to a dead body.

Two oblivious strangers awaken to discover they are trapped in a room and part of a sadistic ‘game’ in James Wan’s Saw (2004). Torturous and gruesome challenges await them in captivity.


Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) also wakes up to find herself chained to a bed in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). After a car crash, her only reference point to why she is there is the cyclops-like figure Howard (John Goodman) and the equally unknowing Emmet (John Gallagher).

The threat of mysterious creatures and contagious outbreak can lead people to purposely cut themselves off from the outside world. In a shelter or bunker, especially with strangers, feelings of claustrophobia are heightened by a mistrust of those around you and a realisation that escape would likely result in death – not freedom.

In effect, you are trapped out of necessity. Such tensions are put to the test in films such as Quarantine (2008), Pontypool (2008), Blindness (2008), The Divide (2011), Hidden (2015) and The Mist (2007).

Isolation is a close cousin of claustrophobia. We can feel trapped, perhaps not as pressingly, when we are out of reach from the outside world.

In Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), the isolation of the Overlook Hotel gradually intensifies the growing madness inside Jack (Jack Nicholson).

Deep space can provide the ultimate isolation. Millions of miles away from help, this detachment can make perilous situations all the more difficult to survive – especially when a deadly alien force finds a way on-board.

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) imagines this in the most effective way, as an imposing predator stalks around the spaceship and picks off victims at will. There is no escape, unless of course you are Sigourney Weaver.

Similar themes are explored in John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing (1982). The fierce conditions of Antarctica and malfunctioning communications mean the outside world is a non-factor. This group of scientists are essentially trapped until the deadly alien force is destroyed – or until it destroys them.

Quentin Tarantino, injecting his typically engulfing dialogue, borrows largely from Carpenter in The Hateful Eight (2015). Hauled up in a blizzard, a dangerous group of strangers must find a way to survive each other as mistrust builds. In these instances, enforced close proximity acts as an incubator for tension.

Some of cinema’s most evil figures, such as Jigsaw from Saw, like to trap people as pawns in a vile game. In films Cube (1997), Maze Runner (2014) and Breathing Room, characters participate in horrific ‘games’ which they must win to survive.

Colin Farrell’s character, Stu, is held hostage in plain sight through the duration of Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002). With a sniper on the end of the call, Stu is made to stay by the booth while he owns up to his past mistakes, including adultery. Like Saw, the anonymous perpetuator is largely motivated by moral accountability – trapping people, punishing them and forcing repentance.

In Killing Room (2009), it is the government – not a sadistic moral arbiter – that traps people for evil experimental intentions. Four individuals fight for their lives in a film that plays upon governmental and secret agency mistrust that has been prevalent since Watergate – and has intensified after Bush’s extraordinary renditions came to light.

An experiment of a different kind sees eight job candidates locked in a room with one question to answer in Exam (2009). Desperation, selfishness and paranoia make it a deadly interviewing process.

Meanwhile tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaacs) invites employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his secluded home to help experiment on his extraordinary A.I creation – Ava (Alicia Vikander) – in Alex Garland’s exceptional Ex Machina (2014). Although Caleb has every reason to feel suspicious, he is confronted with Ava’s desire to escape and taste human freedom.

Hostage narratives are a regular feature in cinema – Split (2016), Misery (1990), Green Room (2015), Rec (2007), Victim (2010), Prisoners (2014), Cellular (2004), Silent House (2011), Funny Games (2007) and The Purge (2013).

Dramatic variations of the hostage situation include An American Crime (2007) and Oscar-winning Room (2015). Set in middle America they place less emphasis on violence and more on the psychological impact of being held against your will.

In David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) must play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with home invaders. Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016) turns the tables and traps the home invaders – unwillingly – in the blind victim’s house.

Away from the home, planes (Snakes on a Plane, Red Eye), trains (Snowpiercer, Train) and boats (Lifeboat, All is Lost, Poseidon, Life of Pi) all provide difficult, if not impossible, settings to escape.

In Snakes on a Plane (2006), this means fighting off killer snakes which are slithering out of the toilet and air vents. In Life of Pi (2012) the pressing concern is keeping a Bengal tiger happy on a tiny boat until land is found.

Survival, by any means, is ultimately the name of the game. That is the primary selling point of films such as Frozen (2013) and 127 Hours (2010). Equally incredible feats of human grit in unimaginably trapped situations include World Trade Centre (2006) and The 33 (2015).

Cinema-goers love to watch characters deal with being trapped. It, ironically, makes for reliable big-screen escapism. It is a seam film directors will continue to mine. Unlike the real thing (coal), its seams remain deep and rich.

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