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Unknown Horrors: Films with Unsettling Subplots You Might’ve Missed

Estimated reading time — 3 minutes

Horror films often have layers of complexity that go unnoticed on initial viewings. While the main plotlines tend to get all the attention, some of the most chilling and thought-provoking moments are hidden in the shadows of subplots. When you start digging deeper into a horror movie, you may find that the most disturbing elements aren’t part of the primary narrative at all.

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is remembered mostly for its shocking depiction of demonic possession. However, one of the film’s most unsettling aspects is the subplot following the archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. The amulets and figurines they uncover, combined with talk of “something down there,” create an ominous tone from the very beginning. The archaeological findings subtly hint that something ancient and evil is beginning to stir, setting the stage for the possession of Regan MacNeil. While audiences focus on the disturbing visuals of Regan’s transformation, the dig provides crucial context about the demon Pazuzu and implies that the events unfolding are part of a larger supernatural struggle.

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining primarily focuses on Jack Torrance’s psychological breakdown while staying at the remote Overlook Hotel. But the film contains other subtler and creepier elements that enhance its sense of foreboding. There are recurring images of Native American artwork around the hotel, suggesting it was built on sacred burial grounds. Strange scenes hint at the hotel’s dark past like party-goers in animal costumes drinking champagne. And then there’s the mysterious figure lurking in a bear suit. These details never fully connect or get explained, leaving an unsettling ambiguity that makes The Overlook hotel feel like a character itself, one with many layers the viewer can never fully grasp.


21 (2008)

21 is based on the true story of the MIT students who systematically won millions from casinos by counting cards. While it’s not a classic horror film, the high-stakes world of blackjack contains its own sinister elements. As their winnings stack up, so does the suspicion and anger from ruthless casino enforcers. Scenes of the students being threatened, chased and beaten are hard to watch and realizing these events took place in real life makes it all the more unsettling. Most people don’t consider the dark side of casino culture but this subplot offers a tense glimpse behind the curtain.

Get Out (2017) 

On the surface, Get Out appears to be about the danger Chris faces spending time with his white girlfriend’s family. But the social commentary goes much deeper through its use of subplots. We get glimpses into the lives of others who have fallen victim to the same horrific brain transplantation procedure Chris narrowly avoids. These threads reveal more about Dean Armitage’s operation while also humanizing the victims. Each subplot adds a new dimension to the film’s exploration of modern racism and realizing that many African-American people have suffered this fate for the benefit of elite whites adds an extra layer of underlying terror.


Hereditary (2018)

Ari Aster’s film Hereditary utilizes subplots to provide unsettling context about the cult manipulating the Graham family. While the main narrative focuses on how the family is haunted after their grandmother’s death, there are ominous clues sprinkled throughout, about the cult’s power. The necklaces, the séances and the references to King Paimon: all these details foreshadow the ending and imply a conspiracy operating behind the scenes. Learning more about the grandmother’s connections adds an extra sinister layer as it becomes clear she was a devotee of King Paimon, setting up the final sacrifice. The audience then can realize the tragedies befalling the Grahams are part of a grand and utterly horrific design.

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