The following article contains images of graphic violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
In art, and especially cinema, eyes and eyeballs have a long history of being used in various ways, both physically and symbolically. This is especially true in the horror and thriller genres. Eyes have such a high status that they can even be the basis of movies.
Eyes even can be the star of a film in a metaphoric sense, as in Kubrick's classic, Eyes Wide Shut, in which people see things that they shouldn't and don't see things that they should.
There aren't very many other body parts that have such a high level of interest and importance — brains and hands and genitals are the only ones I can think of, but even those are a level below the significance of eyes. And I suspect we will never see a horror film about an elbow or a shoulder.
There are also many examples of movies that aren't about eyeballs, but their posters are:
Why Are Eyeballs So Profound, Almost On An Archetypal Level?
There's a famous saying that eyes are the windows to the soul. Looking into somebody's eyes gives us a sensation that we don't feel at any other time.
Additionally, we instinctively react when our eyes are threatened in real life. This reaction naturally translates to cinematic eyeballs, as well. Many horror, thriller, and gore films contain a scene that specifically involves an eyeball doing something or being somewhere that it shouldn't. It's an easy way to make the audience squirm, and has been part of cinema almost since movies were invented, such as this infamous scene from Luis Buñuel's 1929 short surrealist film Un Chien Andalou:
After watching many movies, I have been able to classify eyeball scenes into several categories, each with a different, but disturbing, effect on the audience. Let's look at some of the ways in which eyes are so important in films, and how they create feelings of repulsion, horror, and even fascination for viewers.
1. They Just Don't Look Right
If eyes are the windows to soul, then some people need to keep the curtains closed. When eyeballs start looking weird, you know something bad is going to happen, such as in The Exorcist.
The 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, based on an old folktale, also gives an example of this type of eyeball. If you her look at you like this, you're toast. Just give up.
2. You Can't Close Your Eyes
There are some movies that depict characters being unable to move or look away from some horrible things. The sight of eyeballs being exposed and unable to close is upsetting on deep levels.
One chilling example is the process to cure Alex's antisocial behavior in A Clockwork Orange.
The alien abduction cult classic Fire in the Sky was not the most exciting movie, but the last part, which depicts what happens to the main character on the ship, traumatized me.
3. They Can Be Eaten
In exotic places with edible delicacies, you may discover special soup, as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
Cannibal movies love eyeballs. One of the most well known, Cannibal Ferox, reminds us that eyeballs don't need to be cooked to be eaten — they can be enjoyed right off the face.
4. They Don't Stay In Your Head
These scenes always get an audience reaction. If you can show an eyeball popping out of somebody's head, you've got cinematic gold.
In Friday the 13th Part 3, the movie was shown in 3D, so this scene was especially nice. Pay no attention to the wire that the eyeball is sliding along.
The heavily censored 1981 Italian film The Beyond (which was part of director Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell" trilogy) is famous for its gore — including gushy eyeballs and optic nerves.
Beetlejuice showed us that if you're already dead, you can rip off your face, and the eyeballs will take care of themselves. Although they may not take care of the unwanted people in your house.
And of course, Sam Raimi's Deadite epic Evil Dead 2 just had to take it one step further. It shows us the possible consequences of an eyeball popping out of a head. I gagged the first time I saw this scene:
5. They Can Be Punctured
Almost nothing gets people going like the threat of having their eyeball popped. They just seem so juicy.
The 2015 Irish creature feature The Hallow was about ancient beings in the woods with poisonous fingernails. This wonderfully executed scene made you want to squint your eyes.
The infamous Guinea Pig series from Japan was basically a catalog of ways you can violate the human body. The second movie, called The Devil's Experiment, is known (in part) for piercing an eyeball with a needle.
One of the Italian zombie classics, Zombi 2 (actually this movie has a lot of names) is famous for a long, slow sequence of an eye being impaled on a splinter of wood. It seems to last forever.
When fighting, a good way to take your enemy out is by using the old thumb-in-the-eye technique, as demonstrated in Night of the Demons.
6. They Can Be Sliced
Ah yes. Eyeballs and razors. Razors and eyeballs. Razors are themselves weapons that bother people. But bring one to an eye, and you have a masterful combination that can make you literally hide your eyes in your hands.
I already showed you the scene from Un Chien Andalou above. Let's refresh our memories:
In the 1982 giallo film The New York Ripper, the eyeball was cut vertically instead of horizontally. I'm not sure if putting it color is more effective than black-and-white.
By the way, doctors say that if you happen to cut your eye with a razor, you need to try not to vomit, because the pressure can push the insides of your eyeball outside of it. Seriously.
7. They Can Be Scooped Out
I already mentioned the Guinea Pig series above. In the 1985 entry Flowers of Flesh and Blood, we are treated to the process of using a spoon to remove the eye from its socket:
Worse than that, if you find yourself in one of Jigsaw's traps, as in Saw II, you may have to scoop your own eye out to find a key to unlock a mask of nails ready to slam shut on your face. Not many people would be able to do that. He couldn't:
8. You Have To Cut Them Off By Yourself
One of the most famous (and gut-wrenching) scenes from Hostel is when Paxton rescues Kana, but must take care of the fact that her eye has been burned with a blowtorch.
9. They're Just Missing
Even after seeing those ways to damage your eyes, we must remember that not having them at all is also pretty upsetting.
Birds can peck your eyes out and leave. Alfred Hitchcock recognized this in his 1963 thriller, The Birds.
Gutterballs, a 2008 sex-slasher film (noteworthy for how many times it uses the word "fuck" and "fag"), brilliantly thought of putting used condoms in empty eye sockets.
So there you have my classifications of various methods of torturing audiences with scenes of eyeballs. With the instinctive effectiveness of such scenes, we can be sure that we will never stop seeing these images in our movies — or our nightmares.