10 strange and unnerving paranormal powers in the movies

From remote typing to making giraffes run around in a zoo, here's Ryan's pick of 10 strange and unnerving paranormal powers in cinema...

Telekinesis. Mind over matter. Distant mental influence. Whatever you care to call the paranormal ability to move chairs, bend spoons and cook ready meals with the power of thought, such phenomena are a common presence in popular culture.

This list is devoted to a few of the weird and sometimes unsettling use of paranormal abilities in movies. These are the unlikely and surprising uses of powers, and some of them could be quite useful in everyday life, if we were lucky enough to possess them – who wouldn’t like to be able to do a day’s typing without even having to get out of bed? If there are any scientists reading this (who just happen to be working in the field of psychokinetic research), do let us know if you have any breakthroughs in this area.

In the meantime, here’s our selection of unnerving powers in the movies – the paranormal abilities that would give that compass-bothering necromancer Uri Geller a moment’s pause…

Glowing eyes of manipulation: Village Of The Damned (1960)

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“Beware the stare” warned the trailer for this 60s sci-fi classic, adapted from John Wyndham’s equally eerie novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. A few days after the population of Midwich suddenly falls asleep, its womenfolk find themselves mysteriously pregnant. Within three years, these unexpected babies have grown – with uncanny speed – into a gang of almost identical blonde-haired kids with paranormal powers.

Fiercely intelligent and apparently emotionless, these Midwich cuckoos begin wrecking havoc among the community: they read minds, cause an aeroplane to fall from the sky, drown a child, force a car into a wall, and coax a man into shooting himself. In spite of their violent abilities, these aren’t the most unnerving of the children’s powers – rather, it’s those horrible glowing  eyes, which still pierce the screen over half a century later. The special effect was so powerful that British censors refused to allow the film’s makers to use it in the British release; the glowing eyes only appeared on a later American print.

John Carpenter’s 1995 remake had some effective moments – including a great shot of people lying unconscious among a field full of pumpkins – but all the gourds in the world couldn’t hold a candle to the economical, black-and-white brilliance of the 1960 version, and those penetrating eyes. “You’re thinking of… a brick wall!”

The glower that intimidates animals: The Omen (1976)

If there’s one thing worse than discovering that your child’s actually an Aryan invader from space, it’s probably realising that he’s the spawn of Satan. Unfortunately, it takes Gregory Peck and Lee Remick’s well-to-do parents far too long to realise the true identity of their son, Damien, and naively assume that the child’s Richard Dawkins-like aversion to churchgoing is simply a normal toddler’s tantrum.

To be fair, Damien’s ability to manipulate and kill those around him is more subtle than the brats in Village Of The Damned. Rather than staring at them until they die, Damien’s victims simply meet various accidents, whether it’s falling from a great height while tidying up round the house, or being impaled by a falling lightning rod while running through a cemetery.

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Damien’s best – and most direct – party trick, though, is surely his ability to frighten animals at his local zoo. First, he scowls at a herd of giraffes, causing the poor creatures to flee in terror. Then, with little more than a grin from his wicked little face, Damien succeeds in whipping up a group of baboons into a screeching frenzy. Lee Remick looks slightly baffled throughout the ordeal; she probably thought the baboons had taken exception to her Datsun Cherry estate car.

(Geeky aside: note how the car Damien and his mother are in changes colour between shots – blue from a distance, white in close-ups.)

The Omen‘s message is obvious: if you’re at Windsor safari park, and a car’s being attacked by baboons, keep on driving – the Antichrist’s up to his old tricks with the local wildlife again.

Causing knives to fly about: Carrie (1976)

While Damien was provoking groups of baboons into wrecking his mother’s Datsun in The Omen, luckless teenager Carrie was terrorising her school friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Brian De Palma’s low-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was distinguished by the director’s eye for violent set-pieces, and some fabulous acting from Sissy Spacek in the title role and Piper Laurie as her flame-haired, Bible-bashing mother Margaret.

It’s the battle of wits between mother and daughter which, for us, is the film’s most compelling aspect, which is why we’ve included their final showdown here. Carrie’s righteous fury after her humiliation at the school prom was wonderful, of course (and you can sense De Palma’s glee here, after almost an hour of restraint) but it’s surely her ability to send kitchen knives flying through the air that really gets under the audience’s skin – not to mention her mother’s.

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As Margaret’s penetrated by no fewer than seven knives (the same number required to slay Damien Thorn, interestingly), she undergoes an almost ecstatic, moan-filled death, as though years of sexual frustration have finally been released in her own kitchen. This is as amusing and as unsettling as it sounds.

Choking underlings: Star Wars (1977)

The ability to choke a man to death by pinching the fingers together would be enough to cool the atmosphere in any boardroom meeting, as Darth Vader proves in Star Wars. “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes,” sneers the late, great Richard LaParmentier’s General Motti, “or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels’ hidden fortres…” With his deadly force choke, Vader cuts Motti off before he has a chance to utter the name of an influential Akira Kurosawa movie.

When Vader kills Admiral Ozzel for his repeated incompetence in The Empire Strikes Back, meanwhile, he reveals the true level of his powers: Vader doesn’t even have to be in the same room as his victim for the force choke trick to work (Ozzel was on the bridge, Darth in his meditation chamber).

In 21st century terms, this means that a Sith Lord could easily kill you via Skype. If that isn’t an unnerving paranormal power, I don’t know what is.

Blowing up John Cassavetes: The Fury (1978)

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Two years after Sissy Spacek brought the house down in Carrie, Brian De Palma returned with another supernatural movie called The Fury. Although less commonly discussed than Carrie, The Fury’s still full of exciting paranormal set-pieces, and may have been a partial inspiration for David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981).

This time, it’s Amy Irving who plays a teenager with powers of telekinesis, including the ability to operate a toy train with her mind. In a thriller full of double-crosses, manipulation and intrigue, sinister government type Ben Childress (played by actor and influential filmmaker John Cassavetes) emerges as the villain, and even the strong jaw and towering virility of Kirk Douglas can’t put a stop to his murderous antics.

Instead, Amy Irving gets the job done, and in a spectacular finale, uses all her supernatural powers to blow Childress’s body into a million gore-splattered pieces. De Palma, never missing an opportunity to milk a horrifying situation for all it’s worth, captures every convulsion and quiver in glorious slow-motion, before the body explode several times from different angles – including one where Cassavetes’ head spirals directly up to the camera.  

We can only assume that Amy Irving really, really hated indie film directors.

Remote typing: Patrick (1978)

Meanwhile, in Australia, yet another troubled superbeing lies prostrate and apparently unconscious in a hospital bed. Three years after he killed his mother and her lover, 20-something Patrick (Robert Thompson) remains in a weird sort of coma, which involves staring straight ahead and occasionally spitting at passing nurses. Far more conscious than the flippant Dr Roget (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Robert Helpmann) realises, Patrick is secretly in love with newly-appointed carer Kathy (Susan Penhaligon), and also happens to be able to control objects with his mind.

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It takes a long, long time for director Richard Franklin’s movie to get going, but when it does, it’s campily effective. Patrick responds to the doctor’s prodding of a needle by shorting out an electric fire, causes a horrible nurse’s paperweight to move skittishly across her desk, and best of all, operates a typewriter without touching the keys.

In a hilarious scene, Nurse Kathy’s typing a letter while Patrick lies staring in the background. Then, all of a sudden, the typewriter begins to operate itself – and one particularly saucy line reads: “Well mum, must go, Patrick’s waiting for his hand job…”

“Patrick, I didn’t type this, did I?” Kathy says, with a mixture of indignation, anger and confusion. “Patrick, did you wreck my flat?”

And so begins Patrick’s odd relationship with his nurse, and the next stage of his psychic rampage. Love rivals are trapped in lifts, and the door to his hospital bedroom is kept shut with an invisible barrier (the bit where Dr Roget tries and fails to smash his way in with a rubber axe is priceless).

Patrick’s a slow, odd little movie, which meanders awkwardly to a very funny jump-scare climax. A very rude and unrelated sequel was made in Italy in 1980 (Patrick Still Lives). Back in the Antipodes, filmmaker Mark Hartley’s currently putting the finishing touches to the original, which we hope brings the technology seen in the 1978 Patrick right up to date – we can’t wait to see what sort of trolling comments the catatonic anti-hero leaves on Twitter and Facebook…

Computer hacking: Scanners (1981)

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The exploding heads and ruptured veins were the most obviously unnerving things about David Cronenberg’s Scanners, but since we already covered a similar set of visceral powers in The Fury, we thought we’d focus on a less obvious ability from this 1981 sci-fi horror.

In a near future where science has inadvertently created a new breed of telekinetic, telepathic humans called Scanners, supernatural terrorist Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is making life hell for shadowy weapons company, ConSec. To stop him, fellow Scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is sent into the fray, and a vein-bursting battle ensues.

At one point, Vale displays an ability that’s on a  par with Vader’s Force choke. From an ordinary 80s payphone, Vale rings up Consec’s computer system, and manages to not only establish a psychic link to it, but also hack it remotely and rewrite its security software. “Somebody not only threw away the key, they plugged the keyhole,” a computer boffin in a lab coat and glasses explains, rather unscientifically.

Enraged, duplicitous security head Keller (Lawrence Dane) has the boffin initiate a self-destruct sequence, which he hopes will fry Cameron’s brain as well as ConSec’s computers. The Scanner’s subsequent efforts to break the psychic link are illustrated with some fantastic pyrotechnics: burning circuit boards, a melting telephone handset, and an exploding petrol station.

“See? No fireworks!” a ConSec technician says, before the entire computer room explodes in a spectacular shower of sparks and grey plastic.

To put this in 21st century terms, if Cameron Vale kept dying all the time in a Black Ops 2 deathmatch, he’d be able to blow up everyone’s PlayStations in a fit of Scanner rage. Beat that, LulzSec.

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Summoning forth insects: Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s incredibly strange Phenomena featured yet another psychic teenager, this time played by Jennifer Connelly (in one of her first screen appearances). She finds herself in a creepy girls’ school somewhere in Switzerland, where a series of gruesome murders are taking place. In tandem with the various slayings (which, in typical Argento style, are excessive), there’s Donald Pleasance, who plays a wheelchair-bound scientist with a chimpanzee sidekick, and the apparently detachable plot point that Connelly has a psychic link with insects (“It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic,” Pleasance says, sagely).

In one of the film’s highlights, classroom teasing prompts Connelly to summon forth a buzzing swarm of insects, which proceed to cover the entire school like a black shroud. As the other girls look on in horror, Connelly smiles beatifically. “I love you,” she says, like the creepiest Miss World winner ever, “I love you all…”

If we could choose just one paranormal ability, summoning insects would be fairly low down the list, alongside being able to remotely flush toilets or melt Mars bars with our eyes. But Jennifer eventually finds quite a good use for it, as she employs an army of blue bottles to protect her from the school’s true predator.

The lingering question, though, is whether Donald Pleasance was right. Is it perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic? If so, you’d think they’d have figured out how patio doors work by now.

Communicating via giant illusory stuffed toys: Akira (1988)

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The widespread destruction in Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated classic Akira is such that it contains a wealth of unnerving paranormal powers to choose from. Anti-hero Tetsuo has the ability to send the bodies of soldiers splattering up walls in black streaks, tear huge bridges apart, fly into space to destroy an orbiting laser satellite, and even grow a new arm from bits of wire and scrap metal.

For us, the scariest powers on display come not from Tetsuo, but the young espers Takashi, Kiyoko and Masaku. The ghostly results of earlier military experiments, these three child test subjects have psychic abilities of their own, but also eerily wrinkled, blue faces as unfortunate side-effects. In a standout moment, the three appear to Tetsuo as a series of toys come to life – cute and gambolling at first, then monstrous and fierce.

It’s a beautifully animated sequence. The toys (a bear, a rabbit, a car) are beguiling in one instant, terrifying the next, before an unexpected glimpse of blood causes the children to revert back to their true forms.

In reality, being able to take on the appearance of a stuffed bear could prove useful. You could make lucrative appearances at children’s birthday parties, confound Jehovah’s Witnesses or door-to-door salesmen, or at a push, coax Seth MacFarlane into casting you in Ted 2.

Killing spiders: Chronicle (2012)

Like a found-footage, modern American take on Akira, Carrie and most of the other films on this list, Chronicle is all about troubled teens and what happens when telekinetic powers are thrown in with the usual maelstrom of acne, exams and raging hormones. In the case of Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan, in a superb performance), his newfound abilities provide him with a vent for years of pent-up anger, mostly directed at his bullying father Richard (Michael Kelly). But as his powers grow, so his ability to control them slips away, and that deterioration is illustrated in a perfectly simple scene where he toys with a spider and then cold-bloodedly tears its legs off – all with the use of his mind.

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At one point in Chronicle’s production, the scene would have had a potentially gory pay-off, where an enraged Andrew subjects his father to the same limb-rending fate – unfortunately, the scene was considered too excessive, and dropped. With Dane DeHaan set to appear in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s probably watching a clip of Andrew’s arachnid torture on YouTube and shuddering inwardly.

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