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  • Eerie Eyes

    Author: Aubrey Minshew, Museum Specialist, Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye® 

    As October rolls around again, we are exploring a medium where fictional eyes and eye medicine turn up surprisingly often: scary movies. Eyes turn up in film titles, such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and on film posters, such as Silence of the Lambs (1991), and having something strange or violent happen to someone’s eyes is one of the quickest and easiest ways to make an audience uneasy or frightened. With that in mind, let’s look at three of our favorite eye tropes, references and clichés that you may have seen in your Halloween film rotation.

    1. The Ludovico Technique/Lid Specula

    Perhaps one the best-known and frightening eye-related film images comes from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971). In the film, narrator Alex DeLarge is arrested after many acts of “ultra-violence” and is subjected to a fictional form of aversion therapy called “the Ludovico Technique.” During the procedure, Alex is strapped to a chair and has his eyelids held open by metal clamps, forcing him to watch violent images on a TV screen while listening to Beethoven. While this “technique” is a frightening piece of fiction, the metal clamps are real surgical tools called lid specula. During delicate procedures and surgeries, an ophthalmologist uses lid specula to retract the eyelids, allowing for greater access to the cornea and sclera. They also keep the eyelids from interfering with the procedure. Many examples of lid specula can be found in the museum’s collection.

    A young white man looks distressed while having his eyes held open by metal clamps. He has his head held to a chair by a black leather strap, and has many red clamps attached to his hair and scalp.

    The Ludovico Technique. A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros., 1972

    Thanks to A Clockwork Orange, the idea of using lid specula to hold the eyes open for brainwashing or punishment is now a very common film and TV reference. For instance, in the Marvel television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013–2020), the evil organization HYDRA calls their brainwashing technique “the Faustus Method,” but it is almost a direct copy of the lid specula and television screen aversion therapy featured in A Clockwork Orange. Also, this trope extends into the world of comedy cartoons and can be found in episodes of shows like Family Guy (1999–present), Robot Chicken, (2005–2022), and in multiple outings of The Simpsons’ (1989–present) long-running Halloween anthology, “Treehouse of Horror.”

    A cartoon of a man with yellow skin and gray hair watching a white circular television. The man has a brown leather strap around his forehead and has his eyes held open by clamps. A caption underneath the glowing television reads: Tonight on Fox!

    Bartender Moe Szyslak has his eyes held open by specula while being forced to watch Fox (The Simpsons’ home network). The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror XXV,” dir. Matt Groening, Fox, 2014

    2. Borrowed Biometric Bypass/Transplants

    The idea of a whole eye transplant can be a pretty creepy idea to many people. So, naturally, it’s an excellent trope to use in scary films. Often, an eye removal or eye transplant is used as an ocular twist on the “borrowed biometric bypass” trope (e.g., a character uses a knocked-out guard’s hand on a fingerprint-scanning lock). In the action film Minority Report (2002), Tom Cruise’s character Precrime Chief Anderton has his eyes completely replaced to foil a retinal scanner in a gruesome on-screen sequence. While it isn’t shown on screen, a retinal transplant is a plot point in the unofficial James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983), where a henchman has undergone a procedure to match his retina to that of the U.S. President’s in order to steal nuclear weapons. In all of these examples, the films are referring to the replacement of a complete human eye or retina — procedures which are completely fictional.

    A white man with dark hair and dark beard stubble looks straight at the camera with shining, silver, mechanical eyes.

    Tom Cruise’s new eyes. Minority Report, dir. Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox, 2002

    While full eye transplantation is a thing of fiction, a diseased or injured cornea can certainly be replaced with healthy corneal tissue from an organ donor (learn more here). Surprisingly, this real medical procedure is the jumping-off point for both the Hong Kong–Singaporean horror film “The Eye” (2002) and its Hollywood remake with Jessica Alba (2008). Both films begin with a blind violinist receiving a realistic corneal transplant, but they soon veer into spooky fiction as the protagonist begins to see violent visions. After tracking down the deceased corneal donor, it is revealed that the main character is seeing the deceased donor’s psychic premonitions of a terrible explosion.  It’s certainly a unique twist on another classic horror trope: “I see dead people.”

    A young woman with long hair looks out of a window with raindrops running down it. Her eyes are white and glazed-over, and she is reaching out and touching the window glass wistfully.

    Jessica Alba, The Eye, dir. David Moreau, Lionsgate, 2008.

    3. Eye Color Change / Numerous Iris Conditions or Injuries
    While it’s mostly a cosmetic question, visitors to the museum often ask us if it is possible to change their eye color. There are no medically endorsed or approved procedures to change the color of the iris, but sometimes eye color can change naturally (learn more here). Iris color can also change due to disease or injury. For instance, it is common for some babies born with blue eyes to have their eyes darken as they age. Other color changes can occur from sun exposure, inflammation such as from uveitis, or other medical conditions, such as Wilson’s Disease (learn more here).

    In scary movies, a sudden change in eye color usually indicates a dramatic change in character. In many films, when eye color changes into something unnatural (yellow, red, black, etc.), it indicates demonic possession. In the classic film The Exorcist (1973), the young girl Regan becomes possessed by a demon called Pazuzu. In the early stages of the film, she retains her normal eye color and speaks in her own voice. However, when she becomes fully possessed, her irises dramatically change to a sickly yellow color and she begins to speak in the deep, gravelly voice of the demon. Here, the eye color change clearly indicates the loss of self. This visual cue also exists in the Star Wars universe (1977–present), where the evil Sith Lords’ eyes become glowing and yellow when they are angry, violent or not in control of their emotions.

    A young girl covered in cuts, lesions, and green pea-soup colored liquid lays in a bed. She has long, sandy-blonde hair, white mottled skin, and angry yellow eyes.

    Regan/Pazuzu. The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin, Warner Bros., 1973.

    A dramatic shift in eye color can also be part of a transformation into a mythical creature such as a vampire or a werewolf.  In the music video for the 1982 Michael Jackson single, “Thriller,” the main character’s eyes change to yellow and take on the vertical, slitted pupils of a cat to indicate when he is in his monstrous state. This effect was directly inspired by the film An American Werewolf in London (1981), where the titular werewolf’s eyes turn yellow during a gruesome, extended transformation sequence. This was no coincidence, though — because Michael Jackson was so inspired by this effect, he hired the same director (John Landis) and make-up artist (Rick Baker) to work on “Thriller.” The eye color change trope here clearly equates yellow, cat-like eyes with werewolves, which continues to be used in many modern werewolf films.

    A young man in a red and black leather jacket has his arm around the shoulders of a young woman. They are both Black, with short, dark, curly hair. The woman is looking away from the camera, while the young man has turned his head to look behind him, towards the camera. His eyes are a striking yellow, with slit pupils like a cat.

    Michael Jackson’s yellow eyes. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, dir. John Landis, Epic Records, 1983.

    Happy Halloween from the Museum of the Eye! Did we miss any of your favorite examples of these tropes? Are there any other eye clichés we didn’t feature? Reach out to us through our social media channels at @museumoftheeye on Facebook, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter).