When we think about horror movies we don’t typically think about “woke” content. Well, we might think “woke,” but probably mean it more in the scared-out-of-your-sleep sense. And yet, the film genre that’s supposed to frighten us out of our dreams has become a go-to source for scaring us into our senses. Horror as a genre has experienced a relatively recent evolution into a trusted source of social commentary. That being said, let’s take look at the causes for this shift along with a few examples, and what we should expect from the future of horror.
The new monsters
What do we mean by ‘socially-conscious horror films?’ Any film that – while telling a story that’s meant to frighten us – simultaneously reveals a deeper truth about people, how we relate with the world around us, and how we relate with one another. Socially-conscious horror is in a resurgence rather than a genesis. In fact, film critics argue that conscious horror began with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Issues like Cold War politics, the brutality of the Vietnam War, and domestic race relations were all exemplified through the characters and plotline of the George Romero horror classic.
The socially-conscious horror film is driven by a recognition of the “monsters” all around us. The old saying goes, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,” but fear itself is driven by a recognition of an influential force that you don’t quite understand. What does that mean? Everything we fear has an element of power, combined with an element of uncertainty. Just think about shadowy ocean water, the new noticeably quiet boss at work, or an impending storm. Anything that is both powerful and mysterious is primed for us to develop fear toward it. There is nothing more influential or uncertain than the relationships between us, and new horror exploits that. The new monsters of modern horror are the sides of the human condition that, without the internet to connect us or mass media to inform us, have gone unexplored. Need an example?
Look no farther than Jordan Peele’s genre-bending horror film “Get Out". Not only did “Get Out” break the record for the highest-grossing original debut and highest-grossing original horror film ever, but it changed the way we approach horror films. The movie centered around Chris Washington, a black photographer in an interracial relationship with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage. When Chris agrees to visit Rose’s home and meet her neurosurgeon father and hypnotherapist mother, he’s met with a bizarre combination of off-color racial remarks, psychological manipulation, and black house staff who quietly reveal a sinister side to the upstate New York home of his girlfriend. After slowly escalating traumatic events, including a body-paralyzing hypnotism from his girlfriend’s mom and a troubling party where a friend of the family has an episode that’s more flashback than psychosis, urging Chris to “Get out!”, Chris eventually decides he needs to leave his girlfriend’s parent’s property, but not before facing some climactic conflicts in his efforts to just get out.
The movie shed a light on a whole range of race-driven social issues. For starters, the young couple navigating the realities of interracial romance was both comforting and disconcerting, painting a reality of many Americans while also exposing the unfair choices they must make simply to support their partnership. Second, it opened a conversation on the historic exploitation of black and brown bodies, as the real-life example of physical appropriation was exemplified by an actual auction where wealthy white patrons made bids on the body parts of healthy black youth. We want to give you more details, but why not just watch the movie for yourself?
The rise of the internet and social media
Even “Get Out” wouldn’t have been as big a success without the unique social conditions that produced an audience willing to receive its message. The internet has gifted us a world that is more connected than ever before, with a more visible representation of marginalized groups than we’ve ever seen, even with much work left to be done. On the backs of streaming music we’ve watched, Rap become the most widely listened to genre on earth, and we’ve watched Black Panther become the highest-grossing solo superhero film in history, as well as the highest-grossing movie of 2018. Our connected world has naturally resulted in a few outcomes in the horror world. To begin with, an increased connection has meant an exaggerated reaction to horror—now, in real-time, we can react alongside our fellow movie-goers across the world, filling the Twittersphere and digisphere with audience reactions and creating an incentive to create conversation-provoking material for horror film creators.
Additionally, the social media age has given us a new sense of self. Through our phones we have an automatic mirror in the form of our front-facing cameras, we have our own media networks in the form of our social media profiles, and we have our own PR agencies in the form of our profile curation. Posting so often about our lives has forced us to consider how others view us, and in the process has challenged the concept of self.
What does this mean for horror films? It means that a whole world of reactions has opened up, in response to us recognizing the power of our digital selves without fully understanding it yet. Consider the relatively new Netflix horror flick "Cam," where cam-girl Alice Ackerman is haunted by a surprise doppelgänger who steals her online identity. Through a series of revelations, wtf moments, and suspenseful action sequences, we are taken through a journey of questioning: What would I do in this situation? Do people believe things if they aren’t online? Do people still believe things because they’re online?
This film couldn’t have existed 20 years ago – we didn’t have social media, we barely had the internet, and there weren’t enough of us to empathize with the central conflict of the movie’s protagonist. Movies like "Cam" will continue to challenge our sense of self in our digital mirrors.
A craving for new voices
The natural result of the new monsters that grab our interest, alongside our modernized sense of self, has created a craving of new voices in media.
We’re all familiar with the hero’s journey: a protagonist sets on a path of enlightenment, forges on his way after giving up something irreplaceable, is faced with incomparable challenges, only to emerge hardened, victorious, and enlightened. We know the familiar protagonists—the reliable nice guy, the reformed bad boy, the unprepared-but-passionately-vigilant boy scout. Even static characters in horror films have stereotypes. How many times have you wished that the arrogant, square-jawed athlete was the first to “get it,” or that the pretty cheerleader just made better decisions in the midst of a crisis? Why are you running upstairs?! And why did you leave that door unlocked?! The rise of the socially-conscious horror flick has followed a curiosity for new voices and new stories; the result is a horror film landscape willing to test all sorts of story archetypes and challenge common narratives.
No film better exemplifies the public’s embracement of new voices in horror than Korean newcomer director Bong Joon Ho's instant classic "Parasite". The film, through conflicting character motivations, elaborate deception, and thrilling suspense, tells a story of symbiosis between the wealthy and the poor. Says director Bong Joon Ho, “Because the story is about the poor family infiltrating... the rich house, it seems very obvious that “Parasite” refers to the poor family... But if you look at it the other way, you can say that rich family, they're also parasites in terms of labor. They can't even wash dishes, they can't drive themselves, so they leech off the poor family's labor. So both are parasites.”
Our horror films have gone from startling jump scares to sobering reflections on the world around us, and will continue to be an ideal medium for social commentary.
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