The Polar Express: A Chilling Masterpiece

By Diego Caceres, Staff Writer

For as long as I have been a moviegoer, no film has mentally disturbed me and so profoundly struck me like the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film The Polar Express. In all honesty, there are no words to describe how emotionally distraught and overwhelmed I was by the immense horror this film had to offer, a feeling long forgotten until now.


The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy who wants to believe in Christmas. He is whisked away on a magical death train called the Polar Express on a journey to the North Pole. The simple premise only amplifies the psychological horror underneath, putting up a false front to throw off the viewer.


This film unapologetically throws any sense out the window, drawing the viewer into a deranged world of thrilling excitement. The main character wakes up to the terrifying sight of a train outside his house on Christmas Eve, an ominous introduction to what could be a representation of a procession leading to the afterlife.


Onboard, he finds other stowaway kids all on their way to see Santa. Their solemn and lifeless faces are a representation of how mentally and emotionally lost they are. They are background characters with no dreams, aspirations, or life in general, an interesting choice by Zemeckis but effective in conveying his purgatory interpretation.


The main character forms a bond with a girl on the train. The conductor, played by Tom Hanks, interrupts their character development for an unusual song about hot chocolate. In an impressive display of animation, the waiters dance around while the conductor screams, “Hot chocolate!” As soon as the song began, an uneasiness took over me. I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” No other film has instilled such existential dread in me, something I would have never expected from The Polar Express.  


From here on, the film becomes a blur. Zemeckis defies genre expectations by having the next thirty minutes be filled with tension-filled scenes, creating the perfect atmosphere in preparation for the ending. This segment includes people almost falling off the train, a rollercoaster-like mountain, a creepy toy car, and a hairraising, near-death experience where the train traverses a sea of cracking ice. It is reminiscent of The Shining’s ax chase, a terrifying sequence filled with tension and subliminal horror carefully calculated to a tee.


Like The Shining, Hereditary, or The Witch, The Polar Express builds up a looming dread for the final payoff (all without a definite plot). 


After the high-speed thrill ride on the way to the North Pole, the actual city is barren. This startling juxtaposition creates an emptiness inside me, like being in an empty mall.


When they finally reach the center of the city, the entire square is filled with hideous elves waiting for their savior Jesus Christ….I mean Santa. In my favorite scene, they all start singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in a ritualistic chant. Truly horrifying.


Overall, The Polar Express gets a 10/10. It sits as one of the most memorable horror films of the 21st century.