Andreas Bernard, author of Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, calls the elevator a kind of "secular confessional".
The moment where people get stuck in an elevator together is always a moment of truth. Let's say a couple who has hidden secrets gets stuck together - they confess it. The room, which is so narrow and which is so close, is like a real confessional - a space where you're forced to say the truth.
That push towards truth is just one reason elevators have played so many pivotal roles in film and television. Whether cramped or quiet, large or small, slow or altogether stuck, elevators have served as makeshift matchmakers, provocateurs, and architectural comedians. Here are a a few of our favorite elevator scenes from film.
1. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Okay, so this isn't technically an elevator, but we couldn't possibly not mention it. As Wonka himself put it, the Great Glass Wonkavator can go "sideways and slantways and longways and backways and squareways and any other ways that you can think of."
Now that's a feat of engineering.
2. The Shining (1980)
It's an elevator filled with blood. In other words, THE CREEPIEST. THING. EVER.
3. The Depah-ted (2006)
We're not going to show you a screenshot from this iconic elevator scene, partly because we don't want to spoil the surprise if you've never seen it, and partly because it's just too darn graphic for a public radio website. I can safely give away this much: the elevator in this scene is going down.
4. Elf (2003)
Okay, here's one with a PG rating. In this scene a manchild from the North Pole, played expertly by Will Ferrell, presses all the buttons on a moving elevator. The guy riding in the cabin with him takes it surprisingly well.
5. Drive (2011)
Okay, so this is admittedly turning out to be a somewhat violent list. My bad. I was thinking there might a few more love stories included, no? As far as impact on viewers though, this is one of the most powerful (and alarming) elevator sequences in film history. No Ryan Gosling "Hey, Girl" memes came out of this one. I'll hold the screenshot for those who haven't had the pleasure - it's not for the faint of heart.
6. Being John Malkovich (1999)
The look on John Cusack's face when he steps onto this elevator in search of the 7th-and-a-half floor is priceless. You've got to love the crowbar that casually rests in the corner of the cabin.
7. Inception (2010)
There is more than one elevator scene in this surreal film, which may be intentional - the elevator could serve as a symbol for the different levels of dreaming. Notably, the protagonist (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) rides a dream elevator through an assorted collection of his own haunting memories. Later, Joseph Gordon-Levitt navigates an elevator in zero gravity in a scene which probably has less symbolic significance, but is nevertheless way cool.
8. You've Got Mail (1998)
C'mon, I had to include at least one romance-related elevator scene. This is pretty much the quintessential elevator scene, as described by author Andreas Bernard.
There are way too many great elevator scenes to mention here, so we invite you to add your own on our Facebook page.
To learn more about the role the elevator played in creating our modern city landscape, and why it seems to have such an oversized role in pop culture, check out our interview with Andreas Bernard, author of Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator.