[Written by Mark Wilson]
[Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons//Universal Studios 1931]
You know the drill. Lights off, curtains shut, volume up, and feet in a safer place than the ominous darkness lurking beside your sofa. No other genre has become synonymous with such accepted rituals as that of horror. This encroaching of the horror film within people’s living rooms, cinemas, and social lives has particularly escalated in the past few years due to a severance from the infamous ‘torture porn’ and ‘jump-scare’ flicks of the mid-2000s, towards more socially minded modern horrors. The social phenomenon that became of Hereditary (2018), the Oscar success of Get Out (2017), and the box-office leviathan It (2017), all demonstrate the resurgence of an innate desire to be genuinely frightened. But why is ‘scary’ so sought-after, and what is the cause of this cultural shift towards the horrific; and how, ultimately, can fear bring us a new level of empathy and understanding, together as a society?
First, we need to understand ‘fear’ and how it affects us. Not everyone is a natural-born horror fan, but for those of us that enjoy the primal emotion, the adrenaline rush is only the beginning. Sweaty palms, and heart beating through the chest, are both symptoms of the automatic ‘fight or flight’ response, where our brains distinguish peril and prepare us to either deal with it, or run away. Though horror films elicit this response, they do so in a safe environment where there is, in reality, no immediate threat; only a scary, make-believe movie. Fear of death within a safe space is an inherent appeal of the horror film, as there is a sense of achievement that is felt when you finally finish the film in one piece; having proved yourself ‘brave’ enough not to scream (too much). Similarly, through the rush of being subjected to a horror film, all the anger and stress built up from day-to-day life is cathartically released. After all, it is not uncommon, following a scream, to laugh.
This gratification felt from experiencing horror in a controlled environment can be beneficial as a form of subconscious learning. Our minds will naturally associate the intense emotion of fear within the context of a generalisable story. Therefore, at an early age we are taught horrifying stories to prepare us for life in our horrifying world, these stories then conditioning our actions within society – never trust the Big Bad Wolf. Yet, since fear is learned and instilled in us from an early age, this essentially causes variance in what defines horror within specific cultures. Of course, there are intrinsic fears that cross all boundaries, notably: the ‘fear of the dark’ as the ‘fear of the unknown’. The ‘fear of the unknown’ itself permeating into nearly anything that terrifies: the unseen face behind the mask; (life after) death; the uncanny humanoid shape; etc.
Yet, by itself, the monster is not enough to terrify, what is truly scary is what the horror psychologically represents. Repressed fears are brought forth subconsciously in the most successful horror films, channeled through something more vividly terrifying. Though evolution has taught us to fear the chainsaw wielding maniac wearing a skin-mask (and for good reason), the core horror comes from a realisation of the economic impoverishment and lack of control within a society, where it rings too true that people would turn to nefarious cults for support. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was ranked as the most popularly reviewed horror of its year; acclaimed in a society where memory of the Manson Murders were still prevalent in the public consciousness.
Horror can, therefore, be seen as a representative of our relative societal concerns. That is not to say that race relations will be hiding behind your cupboard door, or that the gender wage gap is waiting under your bed; however, investigating the resurgence of horror
within our society, it is recognisable that the most popular films are those that tap into a vein of public relevance. From this perspective, The Witch (2016), Green Room (2016), and The Purge: Election Year (2016), become commentaries on the issues of dogmatism, xenophobia, and totalitarianism, respectively; all released during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
As has been acknowledged prior: fear is a learned emotion, and different societal cultures will find dissonance in their opinion of what horror is. The problem comes, however, when analysing Rotten Tomatoes list of ‘The Best Horror Movies by Year Since 1920’. Of the 97 horror films, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) remains the only directed by a woman. Similarly, last year marked the first time that an African-American director prevailed, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). This lack of diverse voices results in a general ignorance to different cultures unique fears, preventing such fears from being acknowledged, or confronted.
The growing cult following boasted by female directed horrors A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), and Raw (2016) becomes demonstrative of how voices and fears typically unheard can identify with mass audiences. The context of gender subjugation as investigated by these directors, channeled through more overtly frightening images, establishes the societal fears of the few, in the minds of the many. Correspondingly, Get Out resonated profoundly enough with the public in its commentary of liberal racism that it became a nominee for the Best Picture Oscar. Empathy then, consequently, becomes the ultimate achievement of modern horror. As horror films become more prominent within the same society they react to, more diverse voices are required to present their own unique societal concerns within an environment where such issues become resolutely frightening to everyone. So when the lights turn off, and the curtains shut, and your feet sneak out of the darkness, the rituals of horror no longer merely heralds an adrenaline rush. Rather, a sense of communal empathy and unity is created; and screaming in solidarity becomes the next step towards confronting our fears, together.
[Image Description: A still from 1931’s Frankenstein featuring Dr. Frankenstein and the monster facing each other at sundown on a rocky plateau.]