Even as a young child, I preferred horror movies above every other movie genre. This is the nice way of saying that I liked to watch people die violently, or try not to.
So begins Aaron Orbey’s article from The New Yorker. Entitled “Mourning Through Horror Movies,” the piece explores the idea that horror movies are not counter to emotional healing but may actually help soothe people by reflecting the anxieties of the time back at them.
I hate to feel overly like I’m latching onto the idea, but I wholeheartedly agree with it. I made a point of discussing this exact idea in the mid-00s by melding together The Global War on Terror and torture porn. Movies like Saw, both Hostels, and Turistas are clearly some kind of reaction to American anxieties about the world at large.
You could do the same thing with all subgenres of horror films, as Mr. Orbey discusses in his New Yorker article:
John Carpenter’s Halloween, the pioneering slasher film, punished sexually forward women at the hands of a knife-wielding stalker, leaving only the virgin alive. Screenwriters in the eighties transformed a rising divorce rate into fodder for films like The Lost Boys, in which mom’s new suitor is a vampire. In the aughts, The Ring and One Missed Call mocked technology fanatics, characters too latched to electronics to avoid the curses they contain.
The Fifties reflected our fears about nuclear war, and so the movies themselves ended up with giant bugs and thermonuclear people. This is the era of science fiction. Horror movies existed, but they were very often freakish in nature.
The Sixties very often latched onto the idea of social and political upheaval, and so you got flicks like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which is not just a great exploration of the changing status of race in the United States but a then-modern take on humanity’s relative value.
The Seventies saw the rise of the slasher film, and though the decade was itself a quite turbulent time, several of the movies in this time period reflected our changing attitudes about sex. Okay, and though John Carpenter’s Halloween unintentionally set THE CODE for how sex and death would be intertwined for, well, decades to come. In fact, it appears that the Eighties would extend the metaphor about virginity and survival in horror movies. It’s where we get the idea of the Final Girl, even though that term wouldn’t come to be used for some time.
As the Reagan Era dragged on, however, people’s fears expanded beyond the merely personal and became societal in nature. Many more directors latched onto the ideas expressed in Romero’s more political films, and so the late Eighties saw a rise in overtly satirical horror flicks. Movies like They Live (from the master himself, John Carpenter) skewered consumerism as Dawn of the Dead had a decade before. It was not just a way to frighten moviegoers, but a way for Carpenter himself to have a cathartic experience with Reagan’s less-than-populist policies.
The late Reagan years also saw the beginning of the sardonic and self-referential horror movie. Horrifying as it might be to contemplate, movies like Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes to Hell paved the way for movies like Scream. I mean, let’s be honest: Scream would have happened with or without those latter two Jason flicks, but this was the opening for the floodgates. Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson were only a few years down the road, after all.
Which brings us inevitably to today. It’s hard to get a sense of what THE INDUSTRY as a whole is doing, because film production and distribution is super weird. However, in thinking about the best horror movies of the last few years, I’d have to say I think the struggle horror movies are contending with right now is humanity. Period. Filmmakers are openly and aggressively what makes us human and how diversions from the norm transform us. Movies like You’re Next, The Battery, and A Serbian Film all contend with the definition of the human experience.
Even the spate of big budget paranormal haunting films seem to ponder that idea. I mean, it is addition by subtraction, right? If humans are this and ghosts are this, then the area in between has everything to do with humanity…I think. It’s kind of confusing, but think of it this way: when we go see the Conjuring movies, aren’t we seeing how people deal with forces beyond their knowledge and control? Doesn’t that say something about them, and by extension, us? Ditto for Ouija, Lights Out, and every other zombie movie. (Go ahead and lump The Walking Dead into this whole thought experiment of mine, as well.)
I’d also drag found footage movies into that whole humanity thing, as well. See, the way people act on camera when they think they don’t have an actual audience — or at least that’s the point of found footage — it strips them of the artifices of acting. Or some such shit. But it holds that these movies, either explicitly or implicitly, are helping to define, in some way, humanity and what it means to be human. Take all of the Paranormal Activity movies. They seem to have an underlying message about the secret dealings of both families. This is one of the most intimate invasions we, as the audience, can initiate. And unlike, say, The Exorcist, which I would argue is still pretty invasive, found footage films are really less about story and mostly about characters / humans.
I imagine we will be seeing this sort of thing over the next four years, what with the current state of our political situation. I, for one, am horrified about the election but look forward to how artists will be able to interpret our existential fears about the world. Maybe we’ll see a weird blending of genres. Maybe we’ll see a mixture of horror and politics in a way we haven’t seen before. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll just see a shit-ton of Purge also-rans.
What to do Now? Respond to this article. Comment below with some movies you think fit into or completely destroy my theory in the above article. I’d love to have a discussion with you about it.