Warning – This article contains spoilers for The Cabin In The Woods, The Twilight Zone, Black Swan, and The Red Shoes.
Ballet is not natural. Dancers perform exhausting routines with legs and feet turned out to bizarre angles, arms held just to the point where they really start to hurt (that’s when you know you’re doing it right), backs bending to angles of 90° and more, limbs held stock still while balancing on their toes, in bodies mathematically maintained in a state that contains absolutely not an ounce of fat but can sustain two or three hours of jumping and running around.
And then the female dancers add to all this by putting their entire weight on the points of their toes, feet bruising and bleeding, nails cracking, and the male dancers add to all the jumping by lifting the women around and throwing them in the air and catching them again. All that pain, all that blood, sweat and tears, is poured into producing an art form designed to look graceful. It’s unearthly, and the whole thing is inherently creepy.
The potential for tense drama is only increased by the love ballet dancers have for their profession, which necessarily occupies most of their waking moments from their early teens. The dangers that accompany any career which requires one’s body to be in peak condition at all times also offer plenty of scope for ramping up dramatic tension, which is why films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Adjustment Bureau make their heroes’ love interests ballet dancers, causing the audience to bite their nails in anticipation of any kind of accident. Ballet can produce terrific highs from the adrenalin rush that accompanies live performance, alongside the crushing lows that accompany any injury; put it all together and you have the perfect recipe for an eerie sense of heightened reality.
Somehow, for some reason, at some point in time, many people started to associate ballet with young girls wearing pink, possibly pink tutus. People started to think it was cute, and to encourage little girls to dream of being ballerinas, because apparently everyone wants their daughter to embark on a physically demanding career that will take over her life until her early 30s, at which point she will probably need to retire and rest her broken body. (But not their sons. It’s no wonder ballet is so female-dominated, since you have to train from a very young age, and young boys are often mocked into quitting before being old enough to consider it seriously). Why this happened is a mystery, but the overall effect is only to increase the spooky potential of the dance, because, as horror fans are well aware, if there’s one thing guaranteed to bring the creep factor, it’s little girls doing weird or unnatural things.
Even adult ballet dancers are predominantly in their 20s and the majority of the corps de ballet are usually women, so the potential for stories of tragic, ethereally beautiful and eternally young heroines is increased exponentially. This is possibly why many famous ballets themselves lean towards the eerie, the tragic or the fantastic, from ghost lovers (Giselle), enchanted comas (Sleeping Beauty), and teen suicide (Romeo and Juliet) to women transformed into swans by evil magicians (Swan Lake). Even the lighter stories are about lovers being manipulated by capricious fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or young women running away with magically animated wooden dolls and living sweets (The Nutcracker).
All of which is a long way of saying – if you want to bring the creep factor, throw in a ballet dancer or two. Here, we celebrate twelve of the spookiest stories from film and TV featuring ballet or ballet dancers.
12. Buffy The Vampire Slayer – Once More With Feeling
The set-up: Someone has summoned a demon who forces everyone to behave as if they were in a musical until some dance themselves to death; thinking it was Buffy’s sister Dawn, the demon has her kidnapped.
Ballet: A short routine in which Dawn tries to escape the grotesque demons through the medium of contemporary ballet.
Spook factor: Some of us find the dream ballet sequences of 1940s and 1950s musicals that inspired this scene fairly spooky in themselves, but this one is actually designed to be so, with the over-sized heads on the demons adding to their menace as they throw Dawn about between them. It’s easy to forget about Dawn’s ballet among the many great songs from Buffy’s musical episode, but it amps up the sense of menace from the demon Sweet and his minions far more than, say, Xander and Anya’s screwball romantic comedy song and dance.
Not suitable for little girls: Those demon heads are not for the faint-hearted. More to the point, as Dawn tries to explain to Sweet, his plan to carry her off to his “kingdom below” and marry her is illegal for a number of reasons, among them the fact she’s only fifteen years old.
11. Angelina Ballerina, Angelina and Roquefort’s Rhythmic ghost
The set-up: In the thirteenth episode of the fourth series, a mysterious but remarkably rhythmic tapping sound has Angelina and her friends convinced they’re in a dance off with a ghost.
Ballet: Actually none, this episode is about tap and hip-hop. But two of the girls are wearing tutus anyway.
Spook factor: Frankly, I find Angelina Ballerina supremely creepy on any occasion. A mouse in a pink tutu, doing ballet in CGI with a healthy dose of the uncanny valley is not our idea of relaxing television. But the mysterious knocking sound is reasonably creepy in its own right (and actually still a bit spooky even when it is revealed to be a woodpecker).
Not suitable for little girls: Little girls are the target audience in this case, and probably less creeped out by the whole show than we are.
10. Doctor Who, Asylum Of The Daleks
The set-up: Forced to go into an asylum for Daleks, Amy loses her protection against a nanogene cloud that will slowly convert her into a Dalek to serve its systems, as it has many before her.
Ballet: Generic twirling.
Spook factor: Amy sees a disparate group of people in a room, including a young girl in a white ballet costume, pirouetting at the back of the group. On a hostile alien planet in an alien asylum, this is spooky enough, but it gets even spookier when the Doctor reveals that the conversion process is making Amy see things and all these people are, in fact, insane Daleks – at which point the camera reveals the room full of Daleks, with a small white one quietly spinning at the back.
Not suitable for little girls: What’s scarier than a Dalek? An insane Dalek. In an asylum full of insane Daleks. What’s even scarier than that? An insane Dalek that thinks it’s a young ballet dancer, twirling manically in the background of a scene.
9. The Cabin In The Woods
The set-up: The Cabin In The Woods could have been a very different film. It could have been about a killer clown, or vampires, or a mummy, or witches, or any number of monsters, if the teenage heroes hadn’t chosen the zombie redneck torture family. As the kids explore the cabin’s basement, playing around with various knick-knacks, Holden opens up a traditional music box with a twirling ballerina in it. If he hadn’t been interrupted by Dana reading from Anna Buckner’s diary, the film would have focused on unique monster the Sugarplum Fairy’s attempts to kill them all.
Ballet: It’s mostly turning around and menacing, but we see the Fairy dancing some generic steps during the denouement.
Spook factor: The Sugarplum Fairy is a young ballet dancer in a pink tutu, first seen from behind. As Marty approaches her, she turns around and reveals a huge lamprey-type mouth in place of a face. The Sugarplum Fairy is one of the first monsters Dana and Marty find as they descend in the elevator and start to understand what’s been happening, and her horrific appearance ramps up the tension and fear level leading into the movie’s big reveal, as the camera pulls back from hundreds and hundreds of trapped monsters even scarier than her.
Not suitable for little girls: None of the film is, but the Sugarplum Fairy might make them particularly reluctant to go to ballet class.
8. The Twilight Zone, Five Characters In Search Of An Exit
The set-up: A Major finds himself at the bottom of a mysterious and apparently inescapable metallic room with high walls, accompanied by a clown, a homeless man, a bagpiper and a ballet dancer.
Ballet: A few ballet poses towards the beginning, though the only bit of sustained dancing is actually a Scottish jig.
Spook factor: The whole set-up in the mysterious room is fairly spooky, but to create added chills, throw in a clown (everybody hates a clown), the screeching sound of bagpipes warming up, and a ballet dancer.
Not suitable for little girls: On the sliding scale of stories about toys coming to life and how likely they are to traumatise your children, this probably falls somewhere between Toy Story and Child’s Play. Nothing really terrible happens, it just depends whether the young girl in question is likely to be affected by the existential horror of it all.
The set-up: In this surreal 2004 French drama, young girls arrive at school in a coffin and are prevented from escaping, but as soon as they hit puberty they are released out into the world of boys and clothing in colours other than white. In between, they look after animals and do a lot of ballet.
Ballet: A short contemporary sequence in which the girls dance out the life cycle of a butterfly.
Spook factor: It’s hard to say what’s creepier in this film; the school as a whole, Marion Cotillard’s ballet teacher who refuses to be separated from her ballet cardigan even at DIY cremation ceremonies, or the girls themselves. When we eventually discover where the older girls go at night, the reveal is both less horrible and somehow spookier than we might have anticipated, as low camera angles filmed mostly from behind the dancers and looking out into the audience reveal that they are entertaining paying customers with their recital every night, in symbolic butterfly costumes.
Not suitable for little girls: Most of the film would probably go over children’s heads without bothering them. On the other hand, the scene in which several girls dance for a mysterious woman who then inspects their bodies from neck to arms to teeth and ‘chooses’ one of them, while possibly inspired by the physical examinations that form part of the selection process at some ballet schools, is also distinctly reminiscent of scenes like the slave-buying scene at the beginning of Kubrick’s Spartacus, and is likely to send a chill down adult spines.
The set-up: New student Susan arrives at a famous ballet school in Germany which turns out to be surprisingly difficult to get out of alive.
Ballet: The film is really more about the occult and the menacing atmosphere created by drenching everything in the colour red than about ballet, as is made very clear when Susan turns up without shoes, and is told to borrow a pair from someone who has two pairs – female professional classical ballet dancers would always own at least two pairs of their own shoes, because there’s a distinct difference between pointe shoes and soft shoes that the film seems unaware of. They’re unlikely to walk around in the sort of high heels Susan wears regularly outside of class either. However, we do see some generic ballet steps danced in the practice room.
Spook factor: Taken as a complete product, this film is one of the spookiest things on this list, being a classic horror which is only enhanced by 1970s Italian cinema’s habit of post-synching all the dialogue slightly imperfectly, so no one’s lip movements quite match their speech. The few ballet scenes are among the less spooky parts, which is why it’s lower down on the list, but there is one memorable scene in which Susan, having been adversely affected by a strange old woman in the hallway, faints and starts haemorrhaging from the mouth and nose during an ordinary rehearsal.
Not suitable for little girls: The film is definitely not, though having said that, the ballet scene itself isn’t too bad (especially since the ‘blood’ looks quite a lot like orange paint…).
5. Supernatural, Out With The Old
The set-up: Among a number of cursed objects being sold off by their former owner’s son is a pair of pink pointe shoes. No real professional ballet dancer would buy second hand pointe shoes, but since these are magic shoes that call out irresistibly to the wearer and adjust to fit them perfectly, this just about works.
Ballet: The music in the cold open is from Swan Lake, so presumably this is what the ballerina is rehearsing.
Spook factor: In a direct combination of Black Swan and The Red Shoes (in the original Hans Christian Anderson story the dancer has her feet amputated), to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s most dramatic music for Swan Lake, an unfortunate ballet dancer dances herself into such a frenzy that she completely destroys her feet. She appears to die on the spot, presumably from either shock-induced heart attack or severe blood loss.
Not suitable for little girls: The scene in which the ballerina is discovered is pretty gruesome in an artistic and graceful way, with blood absolutely everywhere. Later the shoes call out and entrap a young girl, who is then jerked about in an alarming and rather frightening manner – luckily, that scene ends rather better as Sam and Dean are able to get rescue her in time, all while the shoes are kicking them and the poor child keeps yelling, “Sorry!” If only we’d actually seen Dean trying to Prince Siegfried himself to death before Sam put the shoes away once and for all…
4. Angel, Waiting In The Wings
The set-up: Angel has tickets to the ballet, but realises he’s seen the same troupe perform the same ballet before. Fred thinks it’s impossible that this is same troupe he saw in 1990, and when corrected – it was 1890 – is forced to acknowledge that’s even more impossible.
Spook factor: Giselle is about a group of ghostly women, including spurned lover Giselle herself, who dance men to death, so most of the scenes we see from that ballet are fairly spooky anyway. Once we start seeing dancers disappear as they exit into the wings or emerge from nothing onto the stage and Summer Glau’s ballerina explains that she has been trapped, not dancing, but echoing the same performance, for a century, the spook factor goes up way past eleven.
Not suitable for little girls: The story of the ballerina, her lover and her controlling director, ripped straight from The Red Shoes, is spooky without being too gory or unpleasant. Angel and Cordelia’s experience while possessed by the ballerina and her lover, Stefan, on the other hand, is definitely written with grown-ups in mind.
3. Black Swan
The set-up: Nina Sayers is thrilled to win the part of Odette in Swan Lake, but struggles with Odette’s darker counterpart, Odile, the Black Swan. As she becomes increasingly stressed, strange things seem to start happening to her body, and looking in mirrors becomes an increasingly unnerving experience…
Ballet: Swan Lake, though with a slightly altered ending.
Spook factor: Black Swan is a psychological horror including numerous scary sequences, culminating in the centrepiece “night of terror”. In terms of spooky dancing scenes, though, the stand out has to be the climactic Black Swan sequence, in which Nina, thinking she has killed her rival, finally gives in completely to her dark side, and ends up sprouting huge shadowy black wings.
Not suitable for little girls: The entire film is one long sequence of sexual harassment, eating disorders, body horror, sex scenes and self-mutilation. Do not show it to your ten-year-old who wants to be a ballet dancer.
2. Fringe, Marionette
The set-up: Roland, an older man obsessed with a young ballet dancer from his depression support group who committed suicide, becomes determined to put her dead body back together and make it live and dance again.
Ballet: Something intended to resemble generic ballet steps, though it barely achieves that, to the music for ‘Death of Juliet’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
Spook factor: Although there’s not much ballet in this episode, and no proper dancing at all, it makes #2 on this list for one supremely creepy sequence that must be one of the most unsettling things Fringe ever did. When Roland hooks dancer Amanda’s body, mouth held shut with ribbon, up to a mechanical device and manipulates it to perform a facsimile of ballet, the result, thanks to the music, direction, effects and props and Anja Savcic’s uncanny performance, is even more horribly unnerving that the above description makes it sound.
Not suitable for little girls: Anyone not already horrified by the central plot of the episode (which also involves the removal of organs from still-living organ donation recipients) certainly will be by the time it reaches the ‘dance’ sequence.
1. The Red Shoes
The set-up: Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece tells the story of Vicky, a young ballet dancer torn between her lover, composer Julian Craster, and her obsessive director Lermontov.
Ballet: Swan Lake and later The Red Shoes, a 15-minute ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson short story and created for the film.
Spook factor: The spectacular central performance of The Red Shoes is spooky enough in itself, a surreal masterpiece encapsulating the sense of passion and destructive obsession that fuels the film and including many elements not really possible on stage, such as the moment Vicky’s character leaps into the titular shoes. But none of that compares to the only moment in the film in which fantasy actually enters into the plot. Unable to choose between dancing and her husband, Vicky rises up en pointe, an ecstatic expression on her face and, apparently possessed by the red pointe shoes she’s wearing, runs to the balcony and throws herself in front of the train Julian is about to board.
Not suitable for little girls: Although we don’t see much, Vicky’s bruised and bloodied feet, seen as Julian removes the red shoes after her fatal fall and meeting with an oncoming train, speak to a grisly fate of which we are, for the most part, spared the details. The film isn’t completely unsuitable for younger viewers, but adults are perhaps more likely to appreciate its themes and surreal tone.