Many effective horror films invoke a fear of the mundane and ordinary. Think of how scary a tranquil suburban street becomes in a chiller like Halloween or It Follows. Sleep is the ultimate terror of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. And Psycho famously had people petrified at the prospect of taking a shower, lest a knife-wielding maniac burst through the curtain to slice them up.
Lately, though, it’s a different plumbing fixture that may give you pause upon entering a bathroom: the common toilet.
This past May, an independent filmmaker in England named Phil began a Facebook page dedicated to “toilets with threatening auras.” With its viral success, Twitter and Instagram accounts followed. Phil’s grandmother, apparently, was the inspiration for the brand. “I was having a night in with my nan and she started talking about her toilet and how she felt it was threatening,” he told Vice. “It just spiraled from there.” Originally, he was posting any creepy or cursed-looking latrines he could find online; soon enough, however, he had plenty of follower-submitted photos to keep the content, um, flowing. The upshot? Almost everybody has been haunted by one toilet or another in their life.
While toilets can disturb us for a host of reasons — they’re filthy and falling apart, located in alarming environs, host to strange objects and animals or just styled according to an ill-advised theme — I’d argue that the truly frightening commodes project an uncanny consciousness. As if they are truly alive… and waiting.
They remind us of how vulnerable we are each time we sit down to relieve ourselves, genitalia exposed to the upper end of a subterranean sewage system full of god-knows-what. Even if a snake doesn’t slither into the bowl and latch onto your dick, there’s always the risk — barely pushed out of mind — that the toilet itself will catastrophically malfunction.
Then there is the essence of the toilet as abyssal zone, a funnel of mystery. For while they may, in rare cases, eject the unspeakable, they are engineered to do the opposite: accept and consume it. The noisy suction of a flush has sent children running to a parent for protection, convinced the toilet will swallow them, too. I myself was deeply suspicious of the device until I watched a Mister Rogers segment that proved the swirling vortex wouldn’t pull me in. But decades later, I’m barely 80 percent sure of this. Considering the number of the Threatening Toilets that have a mouth motif, or resemble a portal to another dimension, I’m certain I am not alone in imagining toilets as “hungry.”
It’s a Freudian condition, to be sure: We try to wash away our piss and shit while worrying this repressed excreta will return to defile our sanitary spaces, and at the same time, we see ourselves as equivalent waste. We deserve to be disposed of and never seen again; we belong to the rivers of scat-choked sludge over which our cities are built. The toilet is asked to keep and eliminate our heinous ordure, to bury secrets. It has witnessed our bodies in total breakdown. It knows we are weak, that we decay.
It knows this, moreover, because we use it so often. Just as in a horror movies, its quotidian presence — its inevitability — enhances and accumulates the dread. That may explain why the most chilling toilets featured on these accounts hint at infernal rites, observations of religious import. For the secular world, a brief sojourn on the porcelain throne is tantamount to prayer: mandatory and reflexive. No wonder it’s upsetting to see urinals arranged as if for a Satanic conjuring, or chairs set in front of a toilet as if to seat a fascinated audience. These images lead us to reevaluate the material facts of digestion. We do not get rid of urine and feces — we create them.
Indeed, the armor against these reflections is the frequent necessity of visiting the bathroom. The bladder and colon, sending urgent signals, allow us to live in denial of what happens there — which is that we void into a machine, into a man-made labyrinth of tubes, contradicting all that is natural. Spend a few hours studying this artifice, however, and it begins to exude the sense of a sin rather than ingenuity. Are toilets evil? Of course not. As far as we know. Besides, what alternative do we have? Exactly.