Back in the ’90s, when it was still socially appropriate to scare the pants off your kids and their friends on Halloween, many of us remember attending a party or two with a “Dead Man’s Body” buffet: In the popular party game, we were encouraged by adults to stick our hands into bowls of increasingly gross-feeling stuff for a spooky sensory experience. There were the peeled grapes meant to feel like eyeballs, the dried apricots passed off as dismembered ears, and most terrifying, the bowls of cold, limp spaghetti tinted with food coloring to look like bloody guts.
And perhaps it’s that root, the squick imprinted on our brains as we touch that clammy pasta, that makes spaghetti the scariest food. Or at least the scariest-looking food. Sure, one could say that other dishes, like those dead birds on a plate that were trending at fancy restaurants in 2019, have more intrinsic appeal for terror, but none have the same universality as spaghetti. We’ve all eaten it, we’ve all felt it, and because of that familiarity, noodles are often used in horror movies to make the audience feel a range of emotions, from nausea to outright fear.
In 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the deranged villain, Martin, messily eats a plate of saucy spaghetti while wearing a white T-shirt; he shoves it into his mouth while methodically and calmly talking about his plot to kill someone in an act of revenge. The horror genre often interrogates social norms, as both an opportunity for social commentary and as a character-building device. Eating messily and getting food all over your clothes are socially unacceptable, and in spaghetti, Martin finds a more innocuous-seeming vehicle to convey his inner depravity. The smudges of sauce on his face convey an inner sinisterness despite the seemingly mundane setting, and they do so to terrifying effect.
In the 1995 film Se7en, spaghetti is used as a murder weapon as Kevin Spacey’s character kills his victims in keeping with the Bible’s seven deadly sins. His first, the glutton, is tied to a chair in his disgusting, roach-infested apartment and force-fed so much spaghetti that his stomach literally ruptures. Here, spaghetti reveals another classic horror device: the more quotidian something is, the more jarring it is when those with menacing goals weaponize it against you.
Using spaghetti to create fear on film is a move that makes real sense. When coated in sauce (or you’re blindfolded and eight years old at a Halloween party), it’s easy to make spaghetti noodles look like bloody entrails or disembodied veins. They can also seem eerily alive thanks to their wriggly, tangled look, as in that creepy scene in The Lost Boys, where a mulleted Kiefer Sutherland uses his vampire magic to turn a box of lo mein noodles into a nauseating box of wriggling earthworms. Even though it’s just magic, the noodles are still actual noodles, and for me, even thinking of pasta as a writhing mass of dirty worms is enough to turn my stomach.
That aesthetic — and the gross-out power of decay — is also much more effective if you’re looking at something that’s extremely familiar. Most of us haven’t been chased by a murderous killer, but we’ve all seen a bowl of spaghetti. According to the film’s director, the dank, disgusting vibe of Se7en’s gluttony scene was totally real, with moldy spaghetti sauce that had been sitting out for “weeks” until shooting began. The scene was so gross, in fact, that it inspired a “long sigh of disgust” from Se7en co-star Morgan Freeman.
Of course, the fact that I am endlessly repulsed by seeing spaghetti used as a vehicle in horror movies does not stop me from enjoying spaghetti in real life — and it shouldn’t stop anyone else. It’s that love, the comfort associated with a food like spaghetti, that makes it feel so creepy when used in sinister ways.