Writing by Isabella Yeo Frank. Illustration by Berenika Murray (@photograberry_)
How to diagnose the state of mainstream consciousness? Bizarrely, an answer can be found in the state of the horror genre for that era. Horror films do not exist in a vacuum; they reflect the fears, values and hopes of their time.
For a while, in the 2000s to early 2010s, it felt like horror films were in a dark age; trending towards gory, torture-centric, bordering-on-snuff CGI fests. Think Saw - 90 minutes of a patchwork of human suffering - or The Human Centipede - one of the most outrageous and invasive body horror films ever made. The focus was on shocking the viewer, and nothing was taboo - bloody displays of utter sadism was the goal.
These types of films, alongside the apocalyptic, empty wastelands of zombie movies and end-of-the-world flicks, made up the majority of horror films in mainstream throughout the decade.
Perhaps this was Hollywood reflecting the senseless, random violence and nihilism of the post-9/11 age. America had been rocked by an act of terrorism like it had never experienced before; its security blanket had been whipped away, revealing a simmering fear, a new vulnerability. Thus began a ‘decade of despair’. Horror documented this, capturing the bleakness, the hopelessness. It was overtly reflected in the popular tropes; There was no ‘final girl’ - everybody died and evil triumphed; an unknowable villain continuously evaded capture; American bodies were tortured by evil foreigners.
With all the despair saturating America in this decade, is it such a surprise that horror film makers also turned to nostalgia to process their experiences; to protect themselves from their present? Beloved, classic horror films were remade liberally - such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th - but unfortunately, they just weren’t very good. They were boring, neutered, uninteresting, familiar and predictable in a way that led them to be coined ‘comfort horror’. They skirted around the real fears of America’s social consciousness, while the torture porn movies quickly became stale as plain, lamenting displays of senseless violence.
It seemed like horror was on the decline; the genre was suffering, seemingly reaching a ceiling, running itself into a ground littered with amputated limbs and mutilated faces.
So where did the horror renaissance come from? How did it start?
The 2010s brought the rise of social media and technological advancements, opening up a whole new sandbox for horror to sift through; consider Black Mirror, which explores the fear of privacy invasion, of too-smart technology being the next great Unknown.
There’s a genuine loss of human connection that seems to stem from technology; a societal disconnect, a terrifying struggle to relate to one another. The Babadook turned into an overnight horror classic, made meaningful to its audience by its exploration of a family torn apart not by the trauma and grief of their past, but their inability to talk to each other and help each other through it.
There was also the rise of arthouse-directed horror movies that created some of the best horror seen in decades. Recent horror films are no longer formulaic and tropeful, but wildly experimental, genre-mixing, convention-defying. Consider Get Out; it’s not just about scares, but overtly invites the viewer to consider race relations in contemporary America. The director, Jordan Peele, alongside fellow powerhouse Ari Aster (Midsommar), have helped to cement the use of horror as a vehicle, for a message, for social justice, for change.
Horror has begun to carry a deeper meaning again, rather than just being a squeal of fear and pain. It is no longer solely a reflection of society’s fears; it has opinions on them, too. Themes explore alienation in a digital age; unsettling, uncomfortable feelings of not belonging, struggling to connect, in a capitalist society, a racist society, a dying world.
Going to see a horror movie no longer ends with you leaving the cinema covered in spilt popcorn and a suspicious stain on the back of your trousers; the modern horror film invites you to interpret it, leaving you with nuanced, thoughtful opinions, perhaps a greater willingness to critically think about what scares the film has just shown you. The genre’s vast scope has re-revealed itself, and the future of horror looks extremely bright.