Modern Horror: A Deep Dive Into the Genre

Horror fans everywhere have something to be excited about.  It’s the year of highly anticipated sophomore horror features.

Earlier this year we were treated to Jordan Peele’s excellent follow up film, Us. A24 has two highly anticipated films coming and are hoping to build off the success of their most recent release, Hereditary. Robert Eggers is following up his debut, the modern horror masterpiece The Witch, with The Lighthouse that stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Ari Aster is back with Midsommar. Jennifer Kent is also back, after a brief hiatus, with The Nightingale.

In honor of being spoiled this year, something that’s been on my mind lately is the recent trends that have been taking over the genre. With the rise of A24 and Blumhouse, indie and arthouse aesthetics have seeped their way into the genre and have created more personal and visceral horror than we’ve ever seen before.

Film is arguably one of the most intimate and personal art forms, and, in my opinion, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t agree that horror is the most personal genre of filmmaking. Horror has consistently reflected the times we live in and the fears that we not only have inside us, but the fears of society as a whole.

To better understand what this recent renaissance of horror movies exactly meana, we have to take a look at the significance of the genre throughout cinema’s history.

Take German Expressionism, for example, brilliant but disturbingly weird horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, which took cues from the social and economic fallout in post-World War I Germany. Frequently sympathetic monsters, expressionist sets, high key lighting and dream like weirdness are all seen throughout these films.

Skip ahead to 1950s America. Post World War II America came with Americana and the nuclear family ideals, but also with a dark and destructive twist.

With the invention and eventual use of the Atomic bombs in Japan, the world lived in fear as the two global superpowers of the world, the US and Russia, descended into a contest with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. This led to fear of a global nuclear holocaust, and in turn gave birth to the horror movies that focused on paranoia and fear of technology, nuclear fallout and space (the recently deemed space race with Russia affected this.)

Most of these films at the time were dismissed as B-movies that were marketed towards teens (which they were and most of them still are), but now we have films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Fly and The Thing from Another Planet.

I could go on and on until someone rips me from my keyboard, but horror sub-genre trends have more often than not coincided with a generation connected to fear.

The ‘70s gory, exploitation horror films reflected the horrors of the Vietnam War and the teen slasher movies of the ‘80s reflected Reagan’s America and suppression of teenage sexual freedom and drug use.

Where is this going? I think you know. There’s no other reason why you would click the link. It’s no secret that we’re currently living in a great time for horror. Companies like A24 and Blumhouse produce and distribute phenomenal new horror classics each year with no sings of slowing down.

What’s not so great about the times we’re living in is that we’re living in a time of serious political and social unrest. From issues like police brutality, women’s rights, immigration, gun control and of course economic inequality all being major points of contention in the country.

Using the same theory that’s been applied to these other important eras in horror, how is it reflected in today’s world?

SEXUALITY

Take movies like The Witch, It Follows and the Persian language, but American produced, vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (seriously underrated). It Follows is explicitly sex related in it’s theme, the other two are strongly implied to be sexual in nature.

The Witch takes place in a 1600s Puritan colony, where they’re—well—Puritan. Tomasin’s (Anya Taylor Joy) family leaves the colony because they’re not religious enough. Her brother is on the cusp of adolescence and is constantly eyeing her inappropriately. Her mother seems to think she has an Oedipal-type relationship with her father.

It Follows is a commentary on double standards in female sexuality and cleverly takes known horror tropes and uses them to the best of their ability. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is about a female vampire who preys on men who abuse women.

Take a look at what’s happening in the news right now. Women’s rights are being threatened and religion (mostly Christianity and Catholicism) has made it’s way into politics and is specifically targeting of women. Sexual assault against women is way too prevalent and the unfair wage gap between genders is finally coming to light. Misogyny is more prominent then ever.

MENTAL ILLNESS

Another topic that has plagued the world consistently for a millennia, and the world in turn has handled rather poorly, is the subject of mental illness.

Recently in America, mass shootings have been an all too common occurrence. Suicide rates are climbing year by year. Depression and anxiety amongst Americans are steadily increasing, with no healthcare to cover the cost.  It’s a constant issue amongst people, and no one seems to be talking about it.

That’s where another popular form of modern horror movies like The Babadook, Hereditary, The Invitation, Mandy and Split come in. In all, save for Split, the characters confront the horrors of grief and death in their own, unique ways.

In The Babadook and Hereditary it comes in the form of a mental snap of the family matriarch in each respective film. The mothers cannot cope with the stresses of the traumas and grief, and in turn, become the monsters.

Hereditary has a more explicit message of mental illness as it is passed down from generation to generation. For example, Toni Collette’s character loses most of her immediate family to suicide. The Babadook is more heartbreaking in its message of learning to live and accept grief.

The Invitation and Mandy both deal with the death of a child and the different forms of depression and grief that comes with such an impactful loss. Split deals with another topic altogether. There’s a vast majority of Americans who don’t even believe in mental illness as an issue, much less ones like multiple personality disorder.

RACE

Last, but certainly not least. As I alluded to earlier, race and wealth inequality has played a huge part in today’s America. With the Black Lives Matter movement and the issue of illegal immigration, to the whitewashing of actors in Hollywood, there’s no shortage of racial injustice in America.

This has been portrayed before in horror like in The Night of the Living Dead and Candyman, but with the recent films by Blumhouse, including Get Out and The Purge films, social issues like these have never been more prevalent.

The recent great horror film of 2019, Us, explores a post-Obama America. The idealistic one where everyone was supposed to be equal and racism was supposed to be over, holding hands around the world, with a dark underbelly always lingering beneath both society and (aptly) us.

Get Out more explicitly shows modern racism in the subtextual racist lingo of upper middle class white people, which unveils itself to be a sinister plot to take over black bodies for various reasons. Cultural appropriation is a major theme in this film.

The Purge franchise has continually become more vociferous in their political messages and more critical of class and racial disparity. Viewers seem to want to go to the movie to search for answers more than ever before.

Before, movies were a means of escape, but now a constant criticism of films are that they aren’t “real” enough or aren’t “grounded.” Socially leaning horror films like these have seemed to miss those criticisms for the most part, The Purge being an example.

IN CONCLUSION

Horror films have been a staple in pop culture since the invention of narrative cinema. It’s a genre that has changed and adapted like no other. With the saturation of the studio output being more geared towards big budget action, mid budget to low budget horror have been relegated to independent films with a few exceptions (The Conjuring and A Quiet Place are excellent examples) which has changed the landscape of the genre.

More arthouse and experimental aesthetics have found their way in and more personal character studies are taking the genre by storm. The fears and turmoil of society at any given time has always influenced art but is especially reflected in the horror genre.

Are we in the “Golden Age of Horror”? I hate the term “the golden age”, mostly because it limits the coming generations of filmmakers who will constantly be in the shadow of “the golden age.” Also, there are always other movements that are usually just as good, if not better. 

However, now more than ever, horror has terrified us and held up a mirror to our faces and said “if you’re not scared now, you should be.”

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