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5 Horror Movies Starring Inanimate Objects

The soul of a horror movie lies in the strength of the monster. Freddy Krueger, Hannibal Lecter—these icons endure because they got under our skin and stayed there long after the lights went up. But what happens when your movie monster has no soul? What if it can't talk, move, growl, bare teeth or intimidate in any way? What if your monster couldn't do anything except wait for clumsy victims to fall into its deadly, not remotely scary, grasp?

You get these movies.

1. The Lift

The Monster: an elevator (or what the British call a “lift”)
Why It Isn’t Scary: Successful horror movies select an antagonist that people already naturally fear: spiders; sharks; mute, unstoppable hockey enthusiasts. So somewhere along inception, the idea for The Lift must have been inspired by the writer’s fear of elevators. A fear born of…standing close to strangers? B.O.? Really, I don’t know. Escalators are much scarier; I would pay money to see a murder mystery that takes place exclusively on an escalator.

For whatever reason, someone out there is deathly afraid of elevators and they were able to utterly fail at translating that fear to the screen.

The film’s tagline, which reads, “Take the stairs, take the stairs…for god's sake take the stairs!!” sure makes a good point. After just one guy got decapitated (re: Haunted!) by the elevator, you would think people might say, “I could use the exercise.” Instead, fools keep feeding themselves to the demonic lift. If we as a species are so lazy we’d rather take the possessed elevator than huff our way up a couple flights of stairs, maybe we deserve to die.

Nonetheless, The Lift got a remake for American sensibilities with the much more innuendo-y title The Shaft. It even nabbed Naomi Watts in a role she hoped you’d never discover.

2. The Refrigerator

The Monster: A refrigerator (truth in advertising!)
Why It Isn’t Scary: Some monsters get the short end of the stick. There are only so many scares you can get out of filming a Frigidaire with a smoke machine and a sultry red light.

The pitch meeting for The Refrigerator went exactly like this:

Scene: Some Dude’s Dumpy Studio Apt.
Guy: Let’s make a horror movie! How much money do we have in the budget?
Guy 2: Uh, twelve dollars.
Guy: Ugg, we can’t even afford to film outside this apartment.
Guy 3: (looking in refrigerator) Man, do you ever clean this out?! Moldy cheese, ancient Chinese food—this refrigerator is a nightmare!
Guy: EUREKA!

But how does one make a big box that keeps food cold scary? The fridge contains a portal to hell, you say? Of course it does, what else? It could kill you by…letting the milk go bad, I guess. Also, the refrigerator mind controls the husband in the story because it’s an evil fridge and that’s what evil fridges do.

After all this mind control and menacing motionlessness, the couple living with the disturbed fridge get help from a plumber who visits our young couple’s apartment to explain the whole “your fridge is a portal to hell” thing. Mr. Plumber tells the couple the Devil himself is in control of the refrigerator, proving the Devil needs to start dating again because he has way too much time on his hands if he’s manipulating evil refrigerators on Saturday night.

We'll give them this: the tagline is totally rad. “No Survivors. Only Leftovers.” At least we know the tagline writer earned his paycheck.

3. Death Bed...The Bed That Eats! (actual full title)

The Monster: A bed
Why It Isn’t Scary: Oh Death Bed, such surprises you hold in store! While any of us can imagine a movie about a bed that eats people (pretty pedestrian, really), no one could possibly imagine a film as tediously dull and sluggish as you.

Now if you were a Death Bed, how would you lure your prey? By sitting in a creepy, abandoned castle where horny teens inexplicably keep going to rut, in spite of that pungent death smell—that’s how. It’s very romantic. How would those dumb kids ever notice they’re being very slowly digested? Love is blind after all, especially blind to DEATH BEDS! And when you can’t get a couple crazy kids to make out on your face, you could always spurt out some yellow foam that moves at the speed of honey, seeking new victims.

After Jaws, everyone was afraid to go back in the water, and what Jaws did for the ocean, Death Bed does for yellow foam. You’ll never be able to wash the dishes the same way again.

4. The Mangler

The Monster: A shirt-folding machine

Why It Isn’t Scary: Now what you have right here is just an effective PSA for workplace safety. The only way a possessed shirt-folding machine can kill you is if you literally feed yourself to said shirt folding machine. That’s just common sense. By my count, the Mangler only takes out a few pointless lives. That’s a better safety record than many real world workplaces. Far more scary industrial machines exist in the real world, like metal presses and lumber claws. Did you know 118 lumberjacks per 100,000 die every year? And lumberjacking equipment isn't even demonically possessed.

5. Maximum Overdrive

The Monster: A vending machine
Why It Isn’t Scary: This is a bit of a cheat; in Maximum Overdrive, every mechanical object comes to life with homicidal blood lust. While the movie is ridiculous as a whole, the vending machine scene is the apex, because “death by blunt crotch trauma” is just too great. How would a vending machine with a vendetta take someone out? By launching soda cans with hypersonic speed at your groin, obviously.

Interesting Note: Maximum Overdrive was Stephen King’s first and only trip in the director’s chair. See, Stephen King doesn’t like how many of his movies get made, as he outlines rather explicitly in this exquisitely bad trailer for the movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqz2rejJS6M

Still gripping undying disdain for Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, King proclaimed to make a horror movie himself to show the world how you really make a scary film. The scariest element of Maximum Overdrive is all the lady mullets.

Follow @ColeGamble on Twitter.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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