How Did Horror Become A Go-To Vehicle For Social Commentary?
All the scariest films are about real life.
Horror is changing. Some of the best horror films of the last few years haven’t been about zombies or aliens — instead, they’re challenging, brave, and modern, taking a firm stand on global issues.
There’s It Follows and its terrifying interpretation of rape culture, and Raw the cannibal tale that’s all about female sexuality, and of course was Get Out, a horror-satire about the ignorance of white liberalism.
Whether or not you liked them, the heated political conversations that followed each of their releases is undeniable. These movies made people talk.
So how exactly did horror become the go-to vehicle for social commentary?
No More Boogeymen
For one, the villains have changed.
The genre’s defining point has always been to scare, and that responsibility has usually fallen to a shadow in the dark or a titular figure. There’s Frankenstein’s monster with bolts protruding from his temples, Dracula’s blood-stained fangs, and Pennywise the Dancing Clown. They all harked from a supernatural universe that was beyond our knowledge, and they were frightening because of it.
Traditional horror confronted our fear of the unknown and in turn, we recoiled because we couldn’t predict what the creatures would do next and why. Then, when serial killers became the culprits of psychological horrors and slashers, we were scared at the thought of these real-life monsters whose minds we had yet to understand.
But now, in the digital age, when we can instantly find out what’s happening in a country on the other side of the world, many have realised there are everyday occurrences that are just as, if not more, macabre as what’s shown in theatres. Social injustices find their way to the forefront of the daily news cycle, whether it’s or the , and this hyperawareness has fostered a generation who are frightened not by ghosts, but rather by what the world and the people in it have proven to be capable of.
As evil spirits, like the ones in Paranormal Activity, and crazed fanatics, such as the infamous Jigsaw faded away, the antagonists took the shape of what was dominating our newsfeeds: injustice, oppression, and everyday brutality.
It was a stark departure from the classics and more removed from the fear of the unknown than ever before. We knew these villains– they were our neighbours, friends, family– and there was no sigh of relief when the credits rolled because these particular demons still existed outside of the cinema.
And that was truly horrifying.
The Armitage family in Get Out, who replaced the brains of black men with ageing, wealthy white people, were still vicious and deranged: but the real horror wasn’t necessarily the auctioning of their bodies.
It was laid in the fact that the film’s predators and the ways in which they fetishised their victims (maintaining a progressive veneer all the while) eerily mirrored the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis. They make not-so-subtle “compliments” about blackness and its relationship to athleticism, sexuality, coolness, and they say things like, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” to claim social awareness.
Using these villains as examples, director Jordan Peele asks his audience, “What cruel and ugly forms of racism are your ‘woke’ friends hiding?”
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
The enemies weren’t the only ones that changed though, so did the survivors.
Horror has started to evolve past long-established tropes like token minority characters being the first to die, queer characters being overtly sexualised and then brutalised for it, and most notably, the Final Girl, where a Madonna-esque, usually white, female character is the last to live and defeat the killer.
Take a look at 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, for example. We assume from the title that the Girl (Sheila Vand) will be the one running from monsters, thanks to classic horror imagery of women shivering in the dark, only for it to be revealed that not only is she the story’s predator, but a vampire who acts more like a guardian angel by feeding off the town’s abusive men.
Of course, undermining the cinematic pigeonholes that women, people of colour and queer people have been forced to conform to is always empowering, and the film industry at large has embraced these characters accordingly.
But what ultimately makes horror such a perfect vessel for social commentary is that it pushes privileged members of our society to feel the same fear that the disadvantaged feel every day.
They inject a physical dread into those who either refuse to listen or struggle to understand and demand that they too experience the claustrophobic tension and anxieties of oppression, just by using a simple jump scare or a chilling violin screech.
In Raw, female desire manifests in Justine’s (Garance Marillier) cannibalistic instincts, and the scenes where she indulges in this hunger are gory and visceral, blood and flesh torn across the screen. These moments are always almost too grisly to watch, and the camera doesn’t shy away from suggesting that when these cravings are repressed, they arise in destructive and gruesome ways.
Meanwhile, It Follows teems with unease as both characters and audience check to see what lurks around the corner and their safety is gradually encroached upon. In one scene, Hugh/Jeff (Jake Weary) says that even after he passed the sexually-transmitted curse to Jay (Maika Monroe), it still follows him.
That fear reflects what sexual assault victims often feel.
One thing’s for certain: ever since horror has become more outspoken, the genre has had a resurgence, the words frequently popping up through the media. Maybe it’s finally time for the genre to move away from gratuitous slashers and towards crafting smarter narratives.
Besides, there’s so much to be horrified by in this world we live in.
Jennifer Park is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist writing about music, film, TV and more. She tweets @hijenpark.