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School of the Seven Bells

The Bell as a Threshold in Horror

Thresholds are sacred places in horror. They involve change, revelation, wrenching transition, the move from safety into danger, from light into the dark, from the known to the greater unknown. Sometimes, in rarer cases, they signal the reverse, a return to normalcy.

A film uses lighting, staging, or special effects as visual representations of the threshold, something as simple as the front door of a haunted house or the choking pink light from the other side in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond. But the use of sound to mark that liminal space is prevalent as well, and often as not, that aural demarcation takes the form of bells.

No horror fan can ever forget Father Merrin standing in the fog outside Regan’s window in the final act of The Exorcist. I’m also betting that, even for those fans that have watched the movie ad nauseum, his image is accompanied by the haunting sounds of the “Tubular Bells” theme. In reality, it’s featured in only one scene of the movie and a brief reprise in the credits, but its power as a marker of the film has far exceeded its actual presence. Of course, part of that is due to the acuity of the director and part is due to the evocative power of the music, but for our purposes, it bears stating that a piece of its power comes from the psychological power bells have over human beings.

Historically, bells have been used to mark out sacred space. The Bayeux Tapestry, possibly from as far back as 1077 and one of the earliest examples of human sequential art, a sort of proto-film, includes an example of the use of “dead bells” in its funeral procession scene, a tradition of handbells rung around death and funerals. The art of crafting church bells, a critical function in medieval cities, involved blessing and anointing them with holy oil before installation. Often they were inscribed with phrases of warding, verses from the Bible.

Ringing the bells transmitted the holy words as far as their sound could reach. It was believed that all the land within their echo would be cleansed of demonic influence during church services. It cleansed the air of the devil, the prince of the powers of the air. Using the same logic, vis-à-vis bells and demons, clutches of blessed bells were often used during exorcisms. Another testament to the appropriateness of the use of “Tubular Bells.”

This article is certainly not meant as an exhaustive history of the use of bells in horror films. I’ll cover several occasions of their use but am forced by space and memory to leave out many more. The point is to simply ask the reader to engage with an often-overlooked workhorse of the horror genre. To simultaneously broaden and focus the already encyclopedic attention of horror fans into even more esoteric corners of the movies we love.

I.

Hear the sledges with the bells —

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

Edgar Allen Poe, “The Bells”

Often, the tiniest of bells paradoxically spark the most fear in film. Fear adequately explained by Ray Stantz in Ghostbusters who reacts in shock to the appearance of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man:  “I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood, something that could never, ever possibly destroy us….” And there’s the trick, we don’t want to be scared of a tiny bell, usually heard in a vacuum of sound on the screen. So quiet, surely there can’t be danger, but… but, there’s that little tinkling somewhere out there in the dark. We dread to know who or what is making the tiny clapper of that tiny bell move.

Smart use of the tinkling bell occurred in the 2016 film The Autopsy of Jane Doe. In the film, the dad-coroner explains to son-coroner’s girlfriend that they carried on the tradition of tying bells on the dead in case they were not dead but simply comatose. There is a close up of the bell tied delicately to the gray toe of a cadaver. If you need an example of the power of such a small sound in the dark, watch the scene where that same very-dead corpse makes its way slowly and unseen down a darkened hallway.

A classic example is seen in the 1982 film Poltergeist. I’d like to know how many readers’ minds flashed to that damn clown-doll in the chair at the foot of Robbie’s bed. The lack of movement in its dead, smiling face is contrasted by the silver, tinkling bells on the tips of its cap that only seem to jingle when Robbie closes his eyes until he opens them and the clown has disappeared.

My favorite example is also the most unusual and humorous. About midway through the 1991 film 976-Evil II is a scene where the final girl and her best friend sit down to watch the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene starts in color but quickly turns black and white as the best friend is zapped into the TV screen and into the Christmas movie itself, which seems to go as usual until we hear the bell on the Christmas tree jingle. Zuzu turns to her dad, played by Jimmy Stewart, and remarks: “Look, Daddy! Every time you hear a bell, a zombie takes a soul to hell.” Stewart’s George Bailey emphatically agrees but we cut to the best friend who confusedly disagrees at which point she is dropped into the middle of a zombie film. The tinkle of the bell and Zuzu’s response to its call has thrust her into a new and horrific world.

II.

Hear the mellow wedding bells—

Golden bells!

What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!

Errementari (2017) is that rare Carlist war era, Basque language, Catholic-Satanic-horror. It features a sub-plot about a search for lost royal gold, which at the end is revealed to have been hidden inside the local church bell, cast in gold and coated in a thin layer of iron the blacksmith removes with a heavy stroke of his hammer. Through the film, the sound of bells causes demons, who are designed to resemble a Bosch painting come to life, crippling agony. The final scene has the recently deceased blacksmith using the enormous gold bell to open the very gates of hell, allowing him to cross the threshold to look for a loved one previously damned to hell.

The Omen (1976) is another film which, in my memory, has a heavy presence of bells. Heavier by far than their actual existence in the movie. One scene does heavily rely on their presence and on their use as the demarcation between Thorn’s last true hold on comfortable reality and his slide into a world where his son is the Antichrist. Tracing a priest from a fire at the orphanage where Damien was adopted to a monastery near Rome, the desperate father angrily confronts the burned and deformed cleric. As soon as Thorn shouts “Answer me!” the bells of the church begin to boom, drowning him out. As they toll the priest grabs some chalk and scratches out the name of an ancient cemetery, where Thorn will find the buried bones of a jackal and a murdered infant. The sound of the bells marked the border into the terror of the truth.

III.

Hear the loud alarum bells —

Brazen bells!

What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!

I never really thought about the way an elevator “dings” until an elevator in my building stopped making one when it opened and I kept missing it. It’s an older building from the ’70s, pre-digital, so the sound, my super explained, is made by an actual bell sitting in the mechanical housing behind the arrows showing up or down. He pulled out the casing and showed me the physical bell inside, the same bell that rings when you pull the ‘emergency stop’ knob.

In a similar way I’d never considered ‘elevator horror’ as a subgenre, but looking through the lists and catalogs, it’s a deep field of movies. A group of people is trapped in an elevator. The power goes on and off. The car lurches up and down. The buttons light up in nonsense patterns. People appear and disappear, die, or transform in the dark spaces between the blinks of the fluorescent lights. But always, always, at the beginning of the movie, at some point, someone pulls or pushes or slaps at the emergency stop, triggering the alarm bell.

We’re conditioned from a young age, from “The Boy who Cried Wolf” to yelling fire in a crowded theater, never to sound the alarm when it’s not warranted. The act of pushing that bell becomes the dividing line between normal life and the body of the horror film. The character acknowledges that something has now, officially, gone wrong. And in elevator-horror, that threshold is marked with a ringing bell.

Nothing scared my wife, who spent a lot of years as a professional nanny, more than movies like When a Stranger Calls (1979). The horror begins with the ringing phone. Beyond the illusion of locked windows and closed curtains, picking up the phone opens the metaphorical door and invites the evil across the threshold (well, it was already “inside the house!” in Stranger, but the metaphor holds).

Characters choose to pick up the phone and the bell serves as the Harbinger, warning and commanding them. Whether it’s Carol Kane in Stranger, Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas, Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Drew Barrymore in Scream, a ringing phone in a horror movie, like any other example of a bell in horror, is a moment of import, pseudo-morality, and transformation.

IV.

Hear the tolling of the bells —

Iron Bells!

What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

In the silence of the night,

How we shiver with affright

At the melancholy menace of their tone!

In Michele Soavi’s The Church, we’re treated to a very literal representation of the death bell. An elderly couple trapped in the church decide to flee to the bell tower to ring the bell out of the proper time to alert help to their plight. Their hopes are dashed when they reach the tower and realize there is nothing with which to ring the giant iron bell. The woman innocently mentions she has another idea and we cut to a discotheque where the young heroine is dancing the night away until she has a premonition of trouble at the church.

A little later she walks up to the locked front door in the rain and the bell starts to ring over her head. Once again, a horror director has used the ringing of a bell to mark the crossing of the hero over the threshold from safety to danger. The elderly woman’s idea worked and when we see her on the screen again, she’s bashing her husband’s decapitated head against the bell.

In the end, there’s not a more effective use of bells in horror than Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. From their first creation in The Hellbound Heart, the ringing of a funeral bell has been synonymous with the Cenobites. Through one novel, two novellas, two great movies, three good, and five mediocre-to-poor ones, the sorrowful ringing of the bells has always announced the rift that the Lament Configuration opens between the two worlds.

We learn in the most recent novel, The Scarlet Gospels, that these aren’t metaphorical bells on the film soundtrack. There is an actual bell that sits atop the monastery of the Cenobitical Order on a hill in Hell itself. The box and the bell have a connection, some sort of vibration between them that creates a door between the sinner and their hell.

This was just the briefest of articles on the presence and use of a single object in its multitudinous forms scattered through horror film history. It represents a type of fetishistic criticism in its obsession on a small part of the whole. Hopefully, the framework used and the scenes connected can generate, in a small way, new thinking about the films we all love.


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Written by Chad Hindman

Chad Hindman is a public defender and writer out of Nashville, TN. The constants in his life are his family, his books, and horror.

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