Why ‘Elevated Horror’ Doesn’t Really Exist

Raise your hand if you feel personally victimised by Ari Aster.

hereditary toni collette screaming horror films the witch

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

For fans of horror, it’s been a killer year. From the extraterrestrial theatre of Jordan Peele’s NOPE to The Menu‘s fine dining nightmare, the genre continues to scale to new heights. 

But historically, it’s one that’s has only won a smattering of awards. There is only one instance in history that a horror movie has won an Academy Award for best picture and that was for Silence Of The Lambs all the way back in 1991. 

In recent years, though, there’s been a vibe shift. While it used to be teenagers in the woods running away from an unhinged individual in a funny mask, we now have satirical commentary about racism and intergenerational trauma. So what’s going on? 

Horror Through The Ages

Before we look ahead, let’s check the leaderboard. Letterboxd statistics suggest that horror had its heyday back in the 1970s, with movies like Alien, Halloween, and Jaws. And with top shelf credits like Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg, nobody can deny the cinematic clout horrors had back then. 

But genres, like fashion, tend to have cycles. A box office hit encourages studios to make similar movies and recreate the magic (and profits). It’s part of the reason why we were blessed with the ’90s rom-com era, and the mid-2010s swell of dystopian fiction like Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner

Sadly, the golden age of horror came to an end in the early 2000s. Which left a lot of us growing up during horror’s flop era, wearily familiar with unremarkable horror flicks. 

Until the horror genre was rediscovered as a valid way to tell powerful stories, that is. For me, that was The Witch in 2015. Then a few years later, Hereditary really hammered this new wave home. (I’m still mourning my favourite water bottle that I left behind at the cinema because I was in a complete daze after the movie. RIP.) 

A common way that this new wave of horror films is described is the ‘Elevated Horror’. So what exactly makes these next-generation horror movies so evolved?

What Is ‘Elevated Horror’?

‘Elevated horror’ is a relatively new term that essentially separates this fancy new class of horror films from its predecessors. The most commonly referenced ones are Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018). Some argue the era can be pegged as far back as 2007’s box office breakout Paranormal Activity and the still-running Insidious franchise, first released in 2010. 

Jordan Peele’s NOPE (2022)

No other genre has this kind of demarcation. Comedy, thrillers, rom-coms – all have hits and misses, but none have their own elite subgroup. How would you define a rom-com from an elevated rom-com? Aren’t there enough critically-acclaimed action movies versus gimmicky ones (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay) to warrant a class of their own?

Nope, the term seems to be exclusive to the horror genre. So, what’s up with that?

Is It Warranted?

For one, Jordan Peele thinks the term is a “trap” that he “doesn’t appreciate”. Speaking to Variety, the filmmaker said he just wants to make “weird movies that I’m really just not supposed to make — and sometimes challenge people on the other side of things as well.” 

Halloween creator John Carpenter also told The A.V. Club that he had no idea what the term ‘elevated horror’ was supposed to mean. When probed further with references to ‘elevated horror’ staples like Hereditary and Midsommar, he explained “I hear you… but all movies… have thematic material. The good ones do.”

And look, who are we to disagree with the John Carpenter? The man who scarred me so deeply with The Thing that I woke up sweating in the dead of the night convinced that everyone in the house was a shapeshifting alien out to get me? 

It also may be unfair to accuse the early 2000s as an exclusively bad time for horror movies. The Ring, for example,  gave me a fear of screens and phone calls. The Descent made sure I’d never set foot in an unexplored cave. Final Destination had me on high alert for weeks. But all in all, it was a time when horror was about cheap thrills and jump scares; not powerful dialogue and sociological critique. 

But the movies that explore ‘thematic material’ a little more intentionally – that up their game with things like dialogue, cinematography, and acting – tend to take the art of mystery or suspense into its next form: dread. For a movie to build up the pressure enough for audiences to deeply dread what’s coming next, we have to care about the characters, and have an inkling for what’s about to happen to them and why.

In my opinion, a good horror movie is one that is able to properly turn suspense into dread, and voila: you’ve spun yourself some elevated horror.

In The End Though, It’s Not Really A Thing

Ironically, slapping an ‘elevated’ label on horror movies can feel kind of cheap. By trying a little too hard to set it apart from the other supposed plebeian, non-elevated horror movies, the label can end up undercutting the genre as a whole. 

If a horror movie bags the Oscar for Best Picture this year, it won’t be because it’s more ‘elevated’ than the others. I understand why we favoured the term in the late 2010s; and it probably made sense at the time. But I for one hope that 2023 is the year that we leave it behind.

You can’t convince me that the quiet girl in a cheesy ’90s movie just takes off her glasses and magically gets hot — she was hot all along. ‘Elevated’ horror movies are just good horror movies. So, enjoy The Descent in all its jump-scare glory. It’s a damn good watch. 

Lia Kim is a writer and producer at Junkee. Follow her on Twitter here