By Wil Forbis
May 1st, 2014
Horror movies attract a lot of people, including myself. When you think about it, this is curious. Why pay money to be horrified? I think part of the reason is this: horror movies have a certain honesty. We live in a culture besotted with phoniness; we deal with a barrage of people and institutions who claim to be on our side when we know that deep down they are looking after their bottom line. I'm talking about salesmen, our insurance agents, our mechanics, our dentists... most everyone really. We don't really trust these entities because we know they will tell us what they think we want to hear if it's good for them. But not horror films. Ask them, "Is there a monster under my bed?" and they reply, "Damn right there is!" Horror movies never sugarcoat the truth, and while that may make us uncomfortable, it earns our respect.
I'm on record (somewhere, I forget where) as saying I thought that the first decade of the 21st century was a golden age of horror. Films like The Ring, Hostel, Cabin Fever, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, The Devil's Rejects and others propelled the genre into new territory and redefined what a horror film could be. All while being "shit your pants" scary! This was a period when it seemed like every horror flick was a winner.
Sadly, that isn't the case today. While I found the first Paranormal Activity enjoyable I've been unable to muster any interest in the sequels. The same is true with recent mainstream horror offerings like Silent House or The Woman in Black. Modern horror doesn't seem to be bringing anything new to the party. (I'm talking about big budget pictures; Low budget horror has always been fertile ground and I've seen several recent movies of that ilk that I've loved such as Bloody, Bloody Bible Camp and Deadgirl.)
Ruminating on this topic has led me to wonder how the horror genre can right itself. What has it done correctly in the past and can it do so again?
My sense is that horror films, more than many other genres, are bound to their era. A successful horror movie in 1973 would not have been as successful or even good (in some ethereal, objective sense) in 1993. This is, I believe, because horror movies are about exploring fears and the fears a society finds itself grappling with change as time goes by.
Now, some fears are timeless. The fear of the bogeyman, explored so brilliantly in the first Nightmare on Elm Street (and less brilliantly in the film Bogeyman) is probably wired into man's DNA. So too is a certain fear of the natural world and a fear of the dead (zombies and their ilk are found in the scary stories of so many cultures.) But other fears have zeniths. For a film to capitalize on the fears, the timing needs to be right. Consider the following great films and the fears they explored.
Halloween - During the seventies and eighties, sociologists touted the notion that no one was born bad but that a negative environment made people bad (e.g. all nurture, no nature.) John Carpenter's sociopathic Michael Meyers was a direct refutation of that notion.
The Brood - David Cronenberg's 1979 film explored the battle of the sexes right when feminism was challenging the patriarchy and traditional gender roles.
The Terminator - As the earliest twinklings of the internet and artificial intelligence* were being considered, the mother of all killer robot movies was unleashed.
* For nerds: Yes, I know the Internet and theories of artificial intelligence were around before the eighties but I believe this is when they started to enter the mainstream.
Hostel - As the Iraq War raged and anti-Americanism skyrocketed throughout the world, director Eli Roth shattered the sense of privilege American travelers had blanketed themselves in.
Return of Living Dead, Night of the Comet, The Quiet Earth - While not always overt about it, these movies were explorations of the terrible portent of nuclear devastation that sizzled during the end of the Cold War.
So, can these films of the past help point to a new future for horror? They can if they prompt filmmakers to explore the fears that are particular to our time period. So what are the fears of our age?
- Inequality –
There's no shortage of rumination of the wealth disparity between the so-called haves and have-nots. And there's even some observation that increasing one's wealth leads to a decrease in one's compassion. Sounds like a great area for exploration by horror. (Granted, one H.G. Wells explored years ago in the Time Machine.) And it’s a doubly interesting conceit as it can be explored both from the point of view of poor or middle class protagonists warding off the evils of the super-rich but also from the point of view of wealthy first-worlders (like myself and most of my readers) being terrorized “from below.” Wealth is, after all, relative.
- Climate change –
This topic was explored in the 2004 clunker The Day after Tomorrow. But I posit that it is still ripe territory, especially if handled with a certain nuance. Part of what makes this fear interesting is that it ties into the classic notion of sin. We damn ourselves by bringing about climate change and thus deserve the terrors it brings.
- GMOs, Genetic engineering –
I find concerns about genetically modified food overblown but that doesn't mean they aren't fertile ground for horror movies. Perhaps the campy, comedy classic Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was ahead of its time. And as scientists unravel our recently sequenced genome, what monsters will they unleash?
- Loss of individuality, the hive mind – As we become more and more connected through technology and ever more bombarded with the consensus view of our social tribe or political party, do we risk losing our individuality? Does constant connection eradicate free thinking and eclecticism? Will we awake one day to find ourselves part of a cohort of virtual clones? These questions are fruitful territory for horror.
- Secularization – A quick survey of the first world shows a general decline of religion and religious orthodoxy* on the part of the populace. As an atheist I should applaud this trend but I wonder whether the arrival of a godless world will have hidden consequences. Will some people fall into a kind of existential madness and desperately try to invent their own moral codes? (See here for a fictional example of such a scenario.) Will others transfer their faith from gods to less benevolent lords such as technology or the state? Only horror can tell us!
* To be fair, some have argued that these trends will slow and even reverse themselves within a few decades.
Nanotechnology - King Kong and Godzilla capitalized on our fear on the very big. But what if the real danger lies in the world of the very tiny devices and artificial creatures we may soon unleash upon the world? Will robots the size of cells be the demise of humanity?
- Robotization – The terrors of robots gone wild have been explored in movies like Chopping Mall (which had one of the best exploding head scenes ever!) and I, Robot. Nonetheless, the fears have always had a certain faraway quality. I think the age of a real robot workforce is coming closer and closer and thus these fears become more real. Mad, runaway robots is one tact that could be taken, but I think Asimov’s metaphor of robots as the underclass is also worth using (see "Inequality," above.)
Loss of free will - Part of why we fear robots is because they have no sense of agency; they simply do what they are told. But what if we humans are no better? What if we have no free will? It's a concern most blithely dismiss but it's one science is raising more and more. Are we merely puppets dancing on a string? Once set upon a wrong path are we incapable of righting ourselves? That, my friends, is a question made for horror movies.
Hopefully the many Hollywood movie directors who read acid logic will take these fears into consideration. And give me a job.