Warning! There will be spoilers.
When people think of the scariest movies of all time, they think of movies like “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” “Psycho,” or even of “Get Out,” but while these movies are each scary, I believe that “Apocalypse Now” is the scariest movie of all time.
The reason why is simple. All the other scary movies are usually about someone being threatened by an outside threat. The horror comes from outside the person, but in “Apocalypse Now,” the horror comes from the main characters losing themselves in a world gone mad.
For those who haven’t seen Copolla’s masterpiece for themselves, during the Vietnam War, Captain Willard and a small team are sent into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among the local tribe. The deeper Willard goes into the jungle and the more horrors of war he must endure the more his mind descends into madness.
From here on, I will be discussing spoilers, so read on at your own risk.
To give some historical context, the Vietnam War was probably America’s most controversial war. Historically, it was a war fought for the United States government to fight communism, but this time, the enemies were not as black and white as they had been in World War II.
The situation was complicated, and I know I will not be able to explain it perfectly. So, please tell me if I make mistakes.
As far as I understand it, the North Vietnamese were fighting for independence against the French colonists and relying on communist allies to add their struggle. The South Vietnamese were fighting with anti-communist countries, and many would argue, for the French colonists. Because of the murky morality behind this war, many people believed and still believe this war was unjustified.
In addition, the war lasted from 1955 to 1975. In those 20 years, many young men were drafted to fight a war they didn’t want to be a part of. The trauma of the war, the atrocities committed on both sides, the violent government reaction to protesters, and the eventually uncovered dealings of President Nixon and the CIA were enough to embitter a generation.
This is the world we find Captain Willard in at the beginning of the film. As he waits in his hotel room, it’s clear that Willard has been traumatized because of the war. His personal life is a disaster and he realizes he is losing his mind, but he numbs himself since in his mind there’s nothing he can do and he’s too cynical to care.
Despite his apparent psychological stress, the higher-ups still send Captain Willard down the river into the jungle to hunt down the renegade colonel. From then on, he sees casualty after casualty and grows number.
After Captain Willard reaches the renegade colonel, he stops caring altogether. The renegade colonel doesn’t even bother to lock him up after a while. He simply sits and stares while his only surviving teammate assimilates into the local populace. There is no emotion left in Captain Willard or in anyone else for that matter. The colonel doesn’t even care about his own fate anymore. At the end, when Captain Willard does act, it feels as meaningless as he feels inside. He is only acting as a drone. The person inside is gone.
That is where true horror lies.
I have read a few books about this type of experience. I read about it in Night and in All Quiet on the Western Front. The experience can be called hopelessness or despair. It comes psychologically when the inner person has been so traumatized that they numb themselves, so they don’t have to deal with the pain of living anymore.
It is a dangerous place to be, because psychologically, at that point, people often resort to suicide rather than continue to endure the despair. It is treatable if taken seriously, but if not, a person will live to be a hollow shell of who they once were for the rest of their days.
That is what makes “Apocalypse Now” more horrifying than other scary movies because as I know from experience, living with despair is worse than death.