Horror has always been a genre that lends itself to superlatives.
Every year, a handful of movies comes around claiming to be the “scariest” or “bloodiest” or “craziest” thing since the last scariest, bloodiest, craziest thing. And whether those proclamations hold up or not—and let’s be honest, they usually don’t—they undeniably build excitement for certain viewers, and they often sell more tickets overall.
But nothing puts butts in seats quite like a good old-fashioned curse.
That’s not exactly the intended takeaway from Shudder’s new Cursed Films documentary series—to their credit, it’s more a genuine exploration and investigation than a cynical takedown—but it’s right there beneath the surface in the first three episodes.
Horror fans are probably familiar with some of the tales. The Exorcist, covered in the series’ first episode, experienced an eerie set fire as well as deaths and injuries to multiple cast and crew. Likewise for Poltergeist and The Omen, the next two featured films, whose curses involve clowns, skeletons, bombs, baboons, car wrecks, kidney failure, and two planes being struck by lightning.
Cursed Films presents much more than a laundry list of things gone wrong on these particular movie sets. In fact, these recitations only take up the first four or five minutes of each half-hour episode. The rest of the runtime is spent analyzing and investigating how horror fans (and in some cases the public at large) interpret them and react to them.
Part of each episode is devoted to a somewhat sincere defense of these films’ supernatural implications. A real-life exorcist is brought in for the episode on The Exorcist. Black magicians and witches are consulted for the episode on The Omen. And some of the talking heads interviewed for the whole series are bigger believers than others.
Those interviews make for great entertainment, even if they invite raised eyebrows or the occasional chuckle from viewers. But the series really hits its stride when it’s breaking down audience psychology—how moviegoers respond to troubling news from a film’s production, and how that intrigue can be used in advertising.
This is most prominently featured in the case of The Exorcist, which capitalized on the word-of-mouth that people were fainting or becoming sick during screenings. And while circumstances like the deaths and injuries of people involved weren’t explicitly exploited for PR purposes, it’s inevitable human nature that events like these create awareness of the films, if not curiosity.
The proof is right there in the numbers. All three films were in the box office top ten of their respective years (The Exorcist second, The Omen fifth, Poltergeist eighth). And while some of these films’ cursed events didn’t occur until after the original film’s release, it should be noted that each of these films spawned at least three sequels and/or remakes to date.
(It should also be noted that The Crow and The Twilight Zone Movie, covered in the fourth and fifth episodes, deal with much more tragic circumstances and were not comparable box office hits. These two episodes of Cursed Films were not available for review.)
Granted, the examples featured in Cursed Films are outliers. In fact, one of the interview subjects breaks down the genre (and the films outside it) to emphasize the coincidental nature of it all. And it’s a point that’s hard to ignore; thousands of horror movies are made about demons and ghosts and Satan himself, and the vast majority don’t experience hardships of this nature or to this degree.
Alas, that’s what makes these films intriguing, and what ultimately makes Cursed Films a worthwhile watch. Our fascination isn’t just with the films themselves (though these three happen to be very good) and the harrowing circumstances surrounding them. It’s how we react to them, and how the sadness or shock drawn from tragic headlines can evolve into an allure that sparks big box office returns and potential genre canonization.
It’s called “morbid curiosity” for a reason. And it’s a phenomenon that’ll always be invoked—and exploited—when it comes to horror movies.
Cursed Films Episodes 1-3 are now streaming exclusively on Shudder.