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Illuminating The Darkness around us: Horror Films and societal fears Elizabeth Rai | NSU 2021 | English Major & Film Studies Minor

From tales of blood-sucking vampires to demonic possessions of the human body, the horror genre has had a long and dynamic history. The genre has its roots in the great literary works of the past, most notably seen in the Gothic literature of the Victorian era (Dixon 1). During this time renowned authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley implanted a taste for the dark and macabre into our culture. Thus, when the new medium of film emerged at the end of the 19th century, horror easily became a staple.

The horror genre thrives on feelings of fear and anxiety. While the subject matter of horror films vary greatly, they’re all tied by their attempt to tap into these central emotions of the human experience. Underlying all horror movies is an inherently psychological process; understanding what makes us afraid and emulating it in a fictional setting to evoke a reaction takes a great understanding of the human mind. In a study on the neural activity of people while watching horror movies, researcher Matthew Hudson concludes:

"Our brains are continuously anticipating and preparing us for action in response to threat, and horror movies exploit this expertly to enhance our excitement."

The study shows that horror films function on a psychological level, as they stimulate parts of the brain to mimic the response to actual threats. Consequently, filmmakers in the horror genre must have an intimate understanding of the anatomy of human fear in order to craft a successful horror film.

Horror films remain consistent in this goal of inducing fear and anxiety. Oftentimes they portray universal human fears in order to successfully affect a lot of people. Such fears include but are not limited to the fear of the unknown and death, both of which are found in many horror films to some extent. While the horror genre has its consistencies, it’s also able to change and adapt according to the times in terms of form and content. The changing tides of horror films often reflect the surrounding changes in society at the time of creation, as human fears tend to change as society changes.

"Horror movies provide a secret history of modern times. All the great social cataclysms and traumas of at least the 20th century seem to have put in motion, decade by decade, new patterns in the kinds of entertainment we use to scare ourselves.”

-Horror Historian David J. Skal (PBS)

Many scholars point to 9/11 as a catastrophic event that largely shaped the landscape for horror films in the following years. For instance, scholar Thomas Fahy points to Eli Roth’s 2002 film Cabin Fever as an example of the effect. He notes that the film can be interpreted as a manifestation of the fear of “biological terrorism in post-9/11 America” (Fahy 3). Other eras in society with clear worries in our collective consciousness have also impacted the horror genre, as seen in the link between mutated monster movies during the Cold War era as a result of fears of nuclear war (Skal). Thus, there seems to be a tendency among horror films to encapsulate the specific fears of a given time and place, a notion that seems to be in effect in contemporary horror films as well. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, many are already speculating on the rise of isolation and disease-ridden horror movies in the years to come. What better way to scare people than by tapping into the fears that are most pressing and relevant to them?

Despite their impact on American culture, horror films are often written off as just pure entertainment with little depth or purpose other than to scare or shock people. Of course, there are exceptions, as seen with the many horror films that have gained a cult following and are now considered classics not only for the horror genre but for cinema as a whole. However, when it comes time for accolades in filmmaking, horror films are often overlooked. This is evidenced by the fact that only six films categorized as horror, some more loosely than others, have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, of which only one has actually won (Durkan).

However, despite horror films frequently being undervalued, they often act as effective vehicles for commentary on the current social climate of the world. When looking at why people are drawn to the horror genre, researchers have many theories regarding the phenomenon, one of which is rooted in social relevance (Fu 19). Throughout the history of the horror genre, filmmakers have implanted timely, real-world fears into their films in both metaphorical and literal ways. By translating real fears on screen, horror films can give insight into these fears by forcing people to confront them or by offering new perspectives. In doing so, these filmmakers make their creations relevant to the social world of their audience, taking on a more confrontational lens rather than an escapist one. Thus, many horror films have value beyond mere fear and shock factor, as they can have a lot to say about the world we live in.

“Horror, therefore, provides a dark mirror in which we can examine ourselves by honestly facing the shadow side of the human condition as well as our deepest intuitive (and inviolate) sense of right and wrong.”

-Philip Tallon, "Through a Mirror, Darkly: Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection"

In our current social climate, this mechanism of horror has become especially pronounced. With many issues and fears at the forefront of our minds, horror has allowed these anxieties to be discussed in a way that not only entertains but also illuminates. Thus, many contemporary horror films provide poignant commentary on our times by reflecting the fears of modern society. For instance, journalist Aja Romano points to how home invasion films in 2016 were a metaphor for attitudes toward immigration in the US. In this way, horror films can act as a sign of the times, with many films today tackling prevalent issues and fears in more bold, outspoken ways.

The following links provide examples of how contemporary horror films reflect prominent fears and anxieties found in modern society. The first two links provide a micro approach, as they look specifically at two films that successfully emulate modern fears. In these case studies I explore how narrative and filmmaking techniques are used to reach this goal. The third and final link provides a macro approach, looking more holistically at a few apparent trends in horror films over the past decade that reflect our cultural fears and anxieties.

Case Study #1

Get Out and the Horrors of Racism

While there is much debate on Get Out’s categorization as a horror film, it’s undeniable that the film elicits fear and anxiety, both of which are at the heart of the horror genre. The reason for debate around its genre lies staunchly in its proximity to the real world. However, as the horror genre has proved time and time again, many horror films utilize real-world fears in real-world contexts...

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Case Study #2

The Invisible Man and the Horrors of Abusive Relationships

Based on H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel titled The Invisible Man, the 2020 film of the same name adopts the general premise of the early sci-fi novel and turns it into a timely commentary on abusive relationships...

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Modern Trends in Horror Films That Reflect Our Collective Fears

As the horror genre continues to hold up a mirror to society, there are certain fears that have been repeatedly emulated in horror films over the past decade. Excluding the universal and eternal fears that always plague the human experience, the repetition of certain fears in recent years suggests that they are prominent in contemporary society...

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Credits:

Created with images by Rosie Fraser - "I love forests and were long due a trip so we went to Dalby forest in Yorkshire. The mist fell as we arrived and got this beautiful eerie image that reminded us of the forbidden forest in Harry Potter!" • David Dibert - "untitled image" • Re Stacks - "https://www.instagram.com/re._stacks" • Stefano Pollio - "krisis"