Now is the time for horror. As a lifelong horror fan (both film and literature), I’ve encountered a number of gross misconceptions about the genre. Many of these are rooted in the false narrative that horror films are little more than tales of physical torture. A number of horror properties do feature that as a story element, but these are by no means what define horror. Must we judge an entire genre on whether or not you enjoyed Saws I-3D? (3D is the seventh film; a missed opportunity.)
What is almost universally true of horror is that it’s been used as a tool to express social and political discontent for the marginalized since its creation. It’s a kind of popcorn propaganda that’s allowed writers and filmmakers to voice their anxieties while couching them in titillating narratives that would fly below any political censors.
As far back as 1794, for instance, women like Ann Radcliffe were writing the original Final Girls, like the character of Emily in the Mysteries of Udolpho, who escapes vengeful, domineering men in a creepy old castle to become an autonomous woman. Radcliffe paved the way for Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and, of course, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein). These authors were popular in their time, but they’ve remained a collective compass for much of the horror to follow, and what they all have in common are concerns with ethics. Horror stories are, at their hearts, morality tales.
So at a time when our country’s morals have strayed off course under the guidance of an immoral, autocratic ruler, the need for more and better horror seems critical. Some, like Jordan Peele, would like to label his work as “social thrillers,” but it’s not necessary to bury his genre — he’s simply making one of many facets of horror. In fact, Get Out bears an undeniable resemblance to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which can only be classified as horror (sub-classified: zombie). In that classic, Duane Jones plays Ben, the African-American hero of the story who must battle cowardice and racism inside his shelter and the undead outside of it. (Cover your eyes if you haven’t seen both films.) In Night, Romero’s explicit anti-racism themes give way to a stark reality where the black hero fights harder than anyone else to survive yet is still shot by the cops in the end. Get Out, then, seems almost a direct response to Night — Peele leads us to believe protagonist Chris will die a similar fate, but then circumvents that expectation; in a way, Peele is righting a wrong.
In horror, we can right these wrongs and others. But we can also offer stark warnings.
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Horror is barely ever on the side of the powerful or the mean. The good writers and filmmakers of the genre can tap into our very real fears and follow them to their logical conclusions: In Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, a greedy man can get everyone killed. In Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, unprocessed emotions can birth mass hysteria and murder. These are globally relevant cautionary tales, which is one reason why horror films do so well across cultures. (That is, outside of China, whose censors will not allow ghosts in films.)
But as a woman in this brave new Handmaid’s time, what I’m most thankful to horror for is its consistent ability to put viewers in a female’s point of view. Films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw hit home on the surface because they’re beautifully shot, acted and written, with the right amount of gore to make buzz. But Raw and its ilk are sneaky; to understand and enjoy this film, male audiences must empathize with the troubles of a teenage girl. In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, young women and male viewers necessarily feel the pain of a widowed middle-aged single mother. Now had either of these films been straight dramas, simply tackling these issues head-on, there’s a decent chance they’d be labeled “chick” movies. By conforming to the constructs of the horror genre, these directors cleverly avoid the gendered labels and garner broad appeal.
The same goes for foreign, politically themed films like Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, which takes place during the Iranian revolution. In it, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young wife and reluctant mother, attempts to talk her way back into medical school. She sits in an office, tugging at the heavy veil she must wrap around her head, apologizing for protesting the rise of their religious right. Through a large window, we can see the city, where numerous fires burn. Everyone is numb to the explosions. As Westerners, we’ve seen numerous images of Iranian women in their burkas, but we’ve also joined in a type of collective amnesia, where we’ve completely forgotten that before the revolution in 1979 and Iran-Iraq war of 1980, Persian women were as Westernized as any of us in the U.S. And this is the side Anvari shows of Shideh when she comes home, rips off the heavy veil and pops in a Jane Fonda workout VHS. Again, Anvari could have made this a drama, and it may have disappeared from American theaters and streaming services in an instant. But instead, he turns this film into a classic ghost story, where an ancient djinn haunts Shideh, much as the restrictive past haunts the women in the present. Because it’s wrapped in a horror package, we want to see it. The more we see, the more we learn.
Now all this isn’t to say there aren’t debates to be had on the merits of campy 1980s slashers. Sleepaway Camp, for instance, remains a favorite of mine, but I’m not blind to the reading of transphobia in the story, though in some ways it helps me understand how emotionally destabilizing it could be to “belong” in the wrong body. And then when men exert their ideas of morality on a female character — she must be pure and virginal — sometimes messages get muddled. But, again, these do not define the genre. Right now, as genre filmmaking remains popular in all demographics, we need to treat horror with the air of importance it deserves for decoding our social issues. But mostly we must continue welcoming more writers and filmmakers from all walks of life to the fold to tell us what haunts them, so we can better understand the world.