Dearest readers, I have a confession to make. I didn’t play Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a child—I didn’t own it—so I was in college when I finally got my hands on a copy and played to the end.
Dead Hand still scared the hell out of me.
If you haven’t played Ocarina of Time, let me explain. Dead Hand is a mini-boss who appears in the Shadow Temple, one of the five main dungeons that you visit throughout the game. Each temple has a theme: Forest, Fire, Water, Spirit, and Shadow. The Shadow Temple is the creepiest—no contest. It’s hidden behind a graveyard, full of undead aberrations, and covered in skull-shaped carvings that pay homage to the kingdom’s bloody history of warfare.
Oh, and it’s also dimly lit and full of illusions, so you can’t trust your eyes.
Now that I’ve set the scene, allow me a brief aside to explain something else about the game. Part of it takes place when our hero, Link, is a child, but later on he gains the ability to travel back and forth in time by seven years. (Just go with it, okay?) Adult Link is considerably stronger. By the time you reach the Shadow Temple, you’ve become used to playing as an adult and using all of the power-ups you’ve collected.
However, if you approach the Shadow Temple as an adult, you can’t get inside. Not at first.
The full explanation involves a bunch of cutscenes we’re going to button-mash past. The short version? In order to open the path to the Shadow Temple, you have to visit an area only accessible to Young Link.
In a small and pleasant town there is a well. At the bottom of the well is a bloodstained cavern full of skeletons.
This is where you meet Dead Hand.
As a child.
Now, that’s already pretty traumatizing—and psychologically fascinating—but it gets better. By which I mean worse. But also more interesting.
Dead Hand is a strange creature. It’s gray and flabby with a wobbly, glacial way of moving around. Its head is skull-like, with small dark eyes and an enormous jaw. Blood stains its skin. Its thin arms end in sharp, red points.
But its most interesting—and frightening—feature is the ring of disembodied hands that surrounds it. Red claws wait at the end of their long arms. When you first arrive in the room, Dead Hand’s main body is nowhere to be seen.
There is nothing but a ring of grotesque arms and a growing sense of dread.
You can’t leave the room until you defeat the boss. You might try attacking the arms with your ranged weapons, but as a child, all you have is a slingshot. Nothing seems to hurt them.
Finally, you run out of options. You have no choice but what you’ve feared you would have to do all along. You step into an arm’s reach.
You let it grab you.
It lashes out—in the blink of an eye, you’re a captive. Dead Hand’s body rises from the ground and starts towards you.
It moves so slowly, and while that’s what makes this fight possible—what gives you time to escape—it’s also creepy as hell. I talked a little about how gradual, halting movement creeps us out in my post on Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Pale Man, but there’s a little more to it. Dead Hand takes a long time to get to you, but that time doesn’t feel slow because you’re mashing buttons going oh god oh holy shit get me out of here die die die creepy arm die! His slow pace gives your fear time to build. By the time it gets to you, you’re freaking out.
At least, I was, okay?
Look… the first time I fought Dead Hand, I didn’t take any damage. Like hell was I letting that thing anywhere near me. I was honestly disappointed when it later got a hit in on me and I realized that its attacks didn’t do very much damage.
Like many monsters, it’s a lot scarier as a looming threat than it is when it actually gets to you. It’s like that recurring dream a lot of us have where we’re running away from something. It’s often scarier not knowing what will happen when you get caught.
So even when Dead Hand never gets a hit in on you—especially when it doesn’t—it’s pretty creepy.
What makes it so disturbing? There are several layers to it, but it all goes back to one thing:
This is what fascinates me so much about Dead Hand. First, you have to return to your childhood persona. You’re physically smaller, less experienced, and—because it’s late in the game—you’ve gotten used to being stronger. That was a deliberate design choice to make the player feel weak. Vulnerable. Scared.
Plus, there’s a strong connection between childhood and fear. Kids are scared of everything. They’re even scared of the underside of their beds. Imagine how terrified you would have been if you had found out there really was a monster under there.
The second layer is in the way you confront Dead Hand. It’s hidden when you walk in. You can’t use ranged attacks. You can’t even see it.
You have to surrender yourself to the monster. The only way to fight your fear is to walk straight into it.
That is terrifying.
Terrifying and poetic.
Maybe—in between covering our eyes and button-mashing our way out of its terrible grasp—we can all learn a little something from Dead Hand, after all.
Prompt: Write about something that is scary because you can’t see it, but you know that it is there. For example, student debt.
Thoughts on Dead Hand? Want to vent your disappointment at how anticlimactic the actual Shadow Temple boss was after that creepy-ass mini-boss? (Hey, you’re not even the creepiest disembodied hand I’ve seen today!) Just want to nerd out about Zelda? Jump in the comments!
(Want to go on about how, “Um, actually once you have the Lens of Truth in the second fight you can use it to see Dead Hand’s hiding spot and scare it out with a bomb”? Vamoosh! Just because you can do that doesn’t mean you should because it thematically undercuts the whole situation’s source of horror. GOSH, YOU PLEEB.)