This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2020

How horror helps us overcome our fears

And why it becomes popular during frightening times

Adam Pottle

“Horror Movie Illustration” by Kaitlyn Haddlesey (Creative Commons)

Horror has always been a marginalized genre, a misunderstood, even reviled vehicle dismissed as a disgusting, juvenile playpen for amateur talents. When it does become popular—such as during the post-Hiroshima years, or Nixon’s tenure in the early seventies—it has a brief moment in the limelight before being relegated back to the shadows.

So why has horror become so popular in the last three years?

The real question is what are we currently scared of?

Some of horror’s current popularity comes from remakes and continuing franchises, such as It, The Conjuring, and Halloween; some of it comes from the emergence of fresh, effervescent voices that speak to our current reality. The scarier reality gets, the scarier our stories become, and our current political and social climate has conjured grim horrors, including racism, white nationalism, misogyny, greed, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, environmental destruction, Islamophobia, child abuse, and xenophobia.

In response to these fears, filmmakers such as Jordan Peele, Jeff Barnaby, and Issa López have produced excellent, stunningly crafted films. Peele’s Get Out brilliantly satirizes racist white liberals, while his second film Us underscores the plight of the disenfranchised in America. Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, the follow-up to his exquisite Rhymes for Young Ghouls, uses a zombie narrative to attack Canada’s devastating colonial structures. López’s gorgeous fable Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a group of young orphans in Mexico who face brutal treatment after their parents are murdered; the cruelty the children face echoes the horrifying treatment that immigrant children have endured at the hands of ice in the U.S.

These and other films not only frighten us; they enlighten us by giving us a vocabulary that allows us to articulate—and therefore confront—our fears. Naming the monsters is half the battle in defeating them. As an example, the Sunken Place from Get Out has become an ominous symbol for the oppression of Black people.

These films also comfort us. They dissect the horrors so we can safely study them through the comforting distance of the screen. To paraphrase Stephen King, we know that a movie will end, which gives us hope that the pain we experience in real life will end, too.

Mainstream movie studios such as Universal, Warner Bros., and New Line Cinema have been producing big-budget horror films with increasing regularity over the last few years. While horror has always been a stronghold for independent filmmakers—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Blair Witch Project are but three prominent examples—seeing big studios take notice is encouraging. According to The Numbers, horror films have generated over $3 billion at the domestic box office between 2016 and 2019; 2017’s Get Out took in over $176 million alone. Many popular television shows, including American Horror Story, The Twilight Zone, The Walking Dead, and The Haunting of Hill House, also focus on scaring audiences.

While horror has always featured outcasts, such as Frankenstein’s monster and Jason Voorhees, these outcasts and the people telling their stories have predominately been white men. Horror stories have been around since the beginning of humankind, but mainstream films and television shows have only recently begun to feature racialized, LGBTQQAI2+, and Deaf and disabled artists.

The true purpose of horror is connection, the community we feel after sharing and working through our mutual fears. Horror is not just an entertaining means of dealing with what scares us; it provides the perfect vehicle for marginalized voices to tell their stories with all their visceral truth. There are no limits to a horror film, so there are no limits to the storytelling possibilities.

There is no guarantee that horror and the voices it promotes will permanently become prominent parts of our cultural landscape. But if we keep buying movie tickets and supporting these filmmakers, then maybe, at the very least, the conversations we have may shift just enough for our fears to diminish a little. We will always be afraid of something, but maybe we won’t be deathly, constantly, apocalyptically afraid.

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