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What happened to horror films?

Watery idealism is robbing the genre of its fear

Artillery Row

The decaf coffee, the zero-sugar soft drink and the alcohol-free beer — we live in an age of artificial substitutes for harmful things. To this we might now have to add the modern horror film, which takes the often reactionary impulses of horror — sin, violence and the inexorable workings of fate — and gives them a liberal twist. This acts so innately against the grain of horror that it ends up not working as a substitute: a non-scary horror film isn’t a horror film at all.

The default mode of a lot of contemporary film and television can be described as a sort of softly-evangelical progressivism. No genre is safe from it. Of late we’ve had more horror movies that directly take up discourse around progressive issues, such as 2022’s Barbarian, which uses the #MeToo scandal as the background to its story; or 2018’s Jordan Peele megahit Get Out. A buzzword in criticism of the genre has become “trauma”, with the idea that supernatural events or phenomena are no longer metaphors for racism or misogyny. Now those things are the actual horror itself. This attitude to the genre is best encapsulated in the title of Alex Garland’s recent folk horror, Men.

Whilst both remakes are well-acted, they are fundamentally unscary

We’re also now seeing attempts to remake the horror movies of the past to align them with more contemporary manners. Two recent examples serve as illustration: the remake in 2021 of the 1992 Chicago project-set horror Candyman, made by a Black female director and released during the heyday of the BLM movement; and the recent television reboot of David Cronenberg’s 1988 body horror classic Dead Ringers, with Rachel Weisz playing the titular gynaecologist twins and with a script written by the British playwright Alice Birch. The twins, previously played by Jeremy Irons, are now female, with the original character names of “Beverley and Elliott” retained.

Whilst both remakes are handsome and well-acted, they are also fundamentally unscary. The original, male-centred Dead Ringers is animated by genuine terror of female reproductive capacities, and the Candyman film with the more intense feeling for the Chicago ghettos was the one made by a Jewish man from London. In both original cases, the outsider perspective of the creators on their material created a deeper and more unsettling intensity of horror than the more “suitable” filmmakers managed. The earlier films feel like primary texts, whereas the remakes are mere commentaries on them.

More fundamentally, the idea of a “progressive reboot” of a horror movie feels ill-conceived because horror is a fundamentally non-progressive genre. Horror is about your inexorable fate. Something bad is happening, you want to avoid it, but despite your best efforts, it happens anyway — the genre does not believe in the empowering effects of individual human agency.

The idea of progressive horror is a contradiction in terms as no horror film could, or indeed would want to, articulate a vision of a better society. Instead, scary movies express our fears of the world as it is now. As horror legend Wes Craven said, “Horror films do not create fear, they release it.” It follows that the horror genre flourishes at times of greater social repression and anxiety, which is why the high watermark of the genre, the 1980s, was also the apex of late Cold War paranoia and AIDs panic. Not even your dreams were safe.

Some of the best recent horror movies, such as 2019’s Impetigore or 2019’s La Llorona, come from places as diverse as Indonesia and Guatemala — nobody’s idea of overly permissive societies. As soon as you have repression, political or spiritual, you will get scary stories.

People of all backgrounds and identities should participate in horror movies, but the only equality that exists in horror is being equally in danger of being killed. Strong female role models in horror have been distinguished by their ability to survive maniacs rather than, say, their views on the gender pay gap. There’s a risk that by putting the terror we see in horror films in “liberal parentheses”, we rob the genre of one of its great strengths: its ability to depict the world’s injustice.

The idea of using horror as a metaphor for trauma is flawed in another way. If ghosts, vampires and ghouls are just expressions of trauma, all you need to do to treat them is to go to a therapist. If they actually exist, you have more fundamental problems — not least that reality may be entirely different than what you perceived. It’s no surprise then that two of the best British horror movies of recent years, 2016’s A Dark Song and 2019’s Saint Maud, treat their supernatural elements with absolute earnestness. Religious belief and ritual, from 1973’s The Exorcist to 2015’s The Witch, have long been a wellspring of potent horror — which again presents a challenge when creating horror from more secular ideas.

Perhaps progressives need simply to look closer to home. Surely there is plenty of horror in progressive spaces themselves. We could easily imagine a horror movie about an unnamed progressive activist, shunned and ostracised by their peers, subject to a whispering campaign and driven to psychological collapse, all the while unable to find out what they’ve actually done wrong. Call it The Cancellation, with the tagline “We know what you said”. Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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