Written by Alyssa Hiarker.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
We all know the horror movie experience: a darkened theatre, ominous music to set the mood, screams followed by a collective breath of laughter, strangers turned to friends as the tension builds with each new scare. There’s more to horror movies than just the moments of abject terror that come with jump scares; they reflect the fears of a society, projecting the horrors of everyday life onto a screen to bring a sense of comfort with the fears that they present.
During the Cold War, the American public, terrified of nuclear war and the disastrous aftershocks that accompanied the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, flocked to watch horror movies that reflected that fear. Movies like The Fly (1958) and Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) showcased the horror of unintended consequences in scientific discovery: the scientist in The Fly devolves into a gruesome fly and the scientists in Creature of the Black Lagoon cause their own demise by unearthing “Gill-man.” Conversely, in other forms of media like comic books, the fear of nuclear war manifested itself into a different story to encourage people to hold out hope for the future, as legions of superheroes (including Spiderman and The Hulk) were born out of their exposure to nuclear radiation.
In the 70s and 80s, as women’s sexual liberation became more and more culturally relevant, the fear of what would occur if women were sexually liberated resulted in the development of the “final girl trope”—a trope that refers to the lone survivor of a slasher movie who confronts the horror movie’s killer. The final girl, such as Laurie Strode in Halloween, succeeded not because of her prowess or strength, but because of her status as morally superior to both the serial killer and the other victims. Throughout the movie, Laurie is exemplified by the ways that she is different from and better than her friends who don’t make it out. While they are rebellious partiers prone to shirk off their responsibilities in favor of fun, Laurie is shy, demure, and trust-worthy; she alone is deemed “worthy” of survival.
For those reflecting back in the future, the fears we immortalized on screen in the 2010s will be rife with dramatic irony, as the movies focus almost entirely on the abject fear of infectious diseases in a globalized world. Zombie movies flooded the market and permeated other mediums, with video games like Resident Evil and Plague Inc. The genre arose after viruses such as SARS, the swine flu, and Ebola gripped the world and people began to worry just what a global outbreak would look like (by 2020, we know the answer to that question).
Zombie movies were quickly replaced with what could be considered the “modern day” horror genre: psychological thrillers. Often focused on interpersonal relationships and the damage that we can bring to each other, these movies hone in on the gut-wrenching terror that comes with no longer being in control. This new style of movie indicates a new cultural fear: a fear of the pain and hurt that accompanies being manipulated, the power that other people have over us whether it was given to them or not, and the way that we can drive each other to death by our actions. Hereditary (2018), a movie about a family torn apart by the demon-worshipping cult that their grandmother once led, showcases the tragedy in that predestined horror, as the family members struggle against unseen forces and slowly break down on screen until all that’s left is the empty vessel of the eldest son. The choices that the family make aren’t done out of their own free will, but rather, as the puppet masters of the story manipulate the events of the family member’s lives, the finality of their destruction is unavoidable.
Hereditary also reflects another aspect of what the psychological horror genre reveals: a fear of ourselves. The film focuses on the family through the genetic link to the family’s grandmother—an allegory for mental illness sweeping into a family’s genes and portraying the fear that darkness can reside within the recesses of your mind for no greater reason than your DNA. Similarly, The Babadook (2014), a horror movie that uses a monster to personify mental illness, elicits fear through both standard horror devices and by exemplifying the fear that sometimes the biggest danger doesn’t come from external influences, but from within yourself.
Throughout time and across continents, a trope has ingrained itself as a cornerstone in horror, regardless of medium: the ghost story. In an effort to make things “scary”, many horror stories forgo the intrinsic part of humanity that ghost stories rely on despite it being the very thing that makes the stories horrifying. Humans have turned to ghost stories as a salve for one of the truest fears humans can experience, greater than the fear of death itself: the fear of loss. In The Haunting of Hill House (based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 book The Haunting) and the subsequent series The Haunting of Bly Manor (based on Henry Jackson’s The Turn of the Screw), grief is portrayed as the simultaneous mixture of mourning those you’ve lost and praising the life that they lived. The dread that builds throughout both of the series—as the characters are haunted by ghosts of their past, the people that they have lost, and in some cases, themselves—spreads the idea of the ghosts that trail behind all of those that have experienced loss. The messages are clear: whether it’s because we feel the weight of their absence or because we exalt their life after, people who are haunted have never had the pleasure of not believing in ghosts and the dead never truly leave us.
As a society, we utilize horror movies in an attempt to make sense of what we’re feeling and to externalize them in a way that brings comfort and security.
At the end of a horror movie, you can stand up, chase away any lingering fears by turning on a light—something you can’t do when the fears live solely inside of you. For a moment during a horror movie, when the entire audience is holding its breath or jumps back in fear, you’re allowed to take solace in the fact that you are not alone with these fears, that you’re not the only ones plagued by the fear of one’s self, of loss, or of the people you’re surrounded by.
While watching a horror movie, we might be scared, but we’re never scared alone.
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