Horror: The most important genre of the past decade

- By Hiram Harrington

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When one thinks of important, powerful, moving cinema, one often looks to films that veer on the side of dramatic realism. These films often confront influential moments in our world’s history head-on to show us their sheer impact. Just as easily, one would then forget to look at the world of the fantastic. Without a doubt, one would gloss over the terrifying as if it were a footnote of fantasy, so why then, would this writer consider horror to be the most important genre of the past decade?

The easiest answer is: we’re more afraid than ever.

Historically, horror has always been a genre that represents contemporary societal fears, or the fears the filmmaker has because of the society they live in. The earliest example would be James Whale’s 1932 Frankenstein. Whale was later revealed to be a closeted gay man in an industry where even showing a kiss on screen was considered obscene, let alone two men in love.

Frankenstein is famously the story of Doctor Frankenstein and his Monster, whom he creates to show that he has the power of god in his own hands. However, when the Monster does not possess the acceptable qualities of a human being, the Doctor and his peers shun and eventually murder their own creation. Knowing now that Whale was a gay man, is it so difficult to see the resemblance between a coming out narrative and that of the Monster?

This isn’t the only example of social issues being examined through the lexicon of horror cinema. Friday the 13th (1980), a classic of the genre, depicts teenagers being hunted down by a vengeful spirit at a lake house in the woods. The vast majority of these deaths take place when characters have just been or will be in sexually intimate situations, echoing the societal promotion of celibacy in the 1970s following the “free love” movement of the 1960s. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) touches on fears of child abuse after a growing number of cases in the United States during the 1980s. Horror films made tangible, real fears palatable, and therefore, made starting conversations about them that little bit less taboo.

It Follows (2014) springs to mind as one of the most culturally conscious horrors in this past decade. After having sex with a strange boy, teenager X begins to be pursued by a mysterious figure whose intention is to kill her. The only way to stop this happening is to have sex with another person, and pass the curse on. It doesn’t take a philosopher to see the obvious connections with fears of sexually transmitted diseases. Being only slightly older than the group in this film, it’s safe to say we were raised on the same notions of STDs; that these are horrible, incurable, life-ruining parasites that you would absolutely get if you had sex. It Follows doesn’t represent a fear of sex, but rather, represents the fear of sexual diseases our parents’ generations have instilled in us, having lived through the decades of AIDS and HIV. However, horror’s impact goes beyond representing our fears; it forces the audience to confront what fears are presented.

Capturing the hearts of critics and audiences alike, Get Out (2017) became the surprise sensation of 2017. An independently produced horror-satire by Jordan Peele, it had the odds stacked against it from day one. But, it defied all expectations. Peele’s uniquely witty screenplay coupled with the tale of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family, only to have them be so much more sinister than they seem, captured the cultural consciousness. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, violence against African Americans by white Americans has increased dramatically, with racists emboldened by their new bigoted leader. The story of a young black artist fighting the literal colonisation of his own body by a white man who envies yet degrades his physical form touches that newly exposed nerve in American society.

The fact that Peele, himself an African American man, knew that horror would be the best genre to expose this deep-rooted fear comes from its history. Get Out relates fears of white violence against black people, and veils it as a horror fantasy to show white audiences this scenario without directly antagonising them for it. Peele’s script confronts modern racism head-on, but alienates the white antagonists to the point where they are undoubtedly white, but undoubtedly other, allowing white audiences to further alienate people they associate with that branch of white hate.

The focus of this article is to talk about the significance of horror in addressing collectivised fear, but it would be a mistake not to discuss the technical prowess the past decade of scary cinema has displayed. The aforementioned It Follows plays with neon lighting and a chilling synthesised musical score, while Get Out’s design focuses on neutral colours and patterns to highlight the characters’ skin tones. Horror has always been a groundbreaker for new techniques stylistically and narratively and this decade has been no different. 2010’s Insidious tears up audience expectations for each scene by seemingly randomly inserting the film’s monster into a casual conversation without warning or anticipation. The use of rapid editing to lure the audience into a false sense of security alone is astounding to witness.

As recent as this month’s Mandy (2018), horror has demonstrated its ability to continue breaking barriers in artistic ability and in storytelling complexity. As well as being a constant feast for the senses, horror is unique in that it is the genre that makes an audience feel most alive. Fear triggers the production of adrenaline: the primal fight or flight response. Whether those fears are killer clowns, or police brutality, horror has a way of finding its way under the skin. What makes it the greatest genre is undoubtedly its ability to play with our perceptions of fear and its causation, supernatural or otherwise. It’s a radical reminder of the sheer power of storytelling: we can be happy for short periods of time, but with all the terrors around us thriving, where else but in cinema can we actually enjoy being afraid?