Genre: What Can Horror Reveal To Us?

It’s a well worn analysis that the horror genre reflects society’s fears and anxieties at any one point in time. Monster movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s showcased invaders from another world bringing destruction, slashers in the 70s and 80s preyed on fears of violence tearing apart the traditional family unit, and zombie movies of the 2000s were seen as a response to terrorism. What then are our current horror movies trying to tell us?

Although it goes through peaks and troughs, the horror genre is not stagnant and even remakes can help spotlight what fears pervade modern society. In their essay, Horrors of Society: The Reflection of Societal Fears in American Horror Films, Brooke Lilek makes this very comparison between the 1982 version of Poltergeist and its 2015 remake:

Poltergeist (1982) invokes American parents’ brewing repression of technological fears and the impact these fears have on children who watch too much TV, whereas Poltergeist (2015) uses repressed fears of financial instability in an economy recovering from a recession to conjure the poltergeist figure. (127)

Sounds like we’re reading too much into this? George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead wore its critique of 1970s consumerism explicitly overt with lines like, “Some kind of instinct. A memory of what they used to do.”, commenting on why the zombies hung out at shopping malls. Though the genre can tackle wider societal issues, there is a particular area that horror has been focusing on for the past decade or so.

Family, Relationships and the Horror of ‘The Self’

Oculus (2013), A Quiet Place (2018), The Babadook (2014), The Invisible Man (2020), Get Out (2017), and Hereditary (2018). All great genre films in their own right, but all with one thing in common – close relationships gone sour. In contrast to films of the past, where the threat was oftentimes external or situational, these films explore what it’s like when the horror comes from within. Whether that be from within oneself, or from within the corrupt and secretive nature of the family unit. In essence, these films are depictions of trauma.

With people becoming more open to talking about their mental health, horror movies have responded in a metatextual sense, giving visual life to these topics. One of the most affecting movies of the past decade (for me) has been Hereditary. No doubt thanks to some stellar performances from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, but also due to its brutal, unflinching depiction of familial inherited trauma. There was one scene in particular, anyone who has watched the movie will know what I’m talking about, (MINOR SPOILERS) where Alex Wolff’s character has done something awful. He goes to bed and lies in wait for the deed to be discovered and the camera stays fixed on his face. Then it happens. His mother finds out what he’s done and the camera remains, stuck to his face as we hear her shriek in the distance. My palms are actually getting sweaty just recalling this scene.

We’ve all done something we dread being discovered by others. And that’s the point – it’s relatable. Filmmaking like this allows us to transpose our own fears onto the screen and have an active dialogue with the audience, bringing the horror home.

We can all recoil at the gore of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but there’s a separation between audience and material when it comes to traditional slasher movies. We watch them with the knowledge that it’s all an artifice, a spectacular show for us to experience extreme violence at a safe, vicarious distance. However, horror nowadays has gotten personal and all the more terrifying because of it.

So… what are you afraid of?


For a horror story closer to home: What Being a University Student During a Pandemic has Taught Me