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Why the Scariest Thing About Horror Movies is Us

by Katie Moritz
May 9, 2019 | Living

When you turn on a classic slasher movie, there's a feeling of campiness about it. A dude with a chainsaw running after teens hardly qualifies as terrifying today. In fact, it inspired an entire parody spinoff genre.

But in the 1980s, when those types of movies were in vogue, it was really scary stuff.

What changed?

Well, we've changed. Though the horror movie genre has been around for about 100 years, it's gone through phases. And while some of that has to do with advances in technology, a lot of it has to do with what terrifies us as a society.

"The horror genre, it changes over time, it's never static, it's always fluctuating and shifting, because the things that we’re afraid of change," said James Kendrick, associate professor of film at Baylor University and a horror aficionado.

No matter the decade, the horror genre has actually morphed to reflect current events, social movements and the mood of the time. Remember the "found footage" horror craze of the early 2000s? At the same time, we were worried about government surveillance. Youth revolts of the 1960s inspired possessed child movies like "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby."

"Horror as a genre only works if it works in concert with things that we’re afraid of, or worried about, or anxious about," he said.

"There's a very conventional notion of being scared (that) revolves around making you jump in your seat... (but) the thing about the genre as a whole is it engages all kind of different fears and anxieties and pressure points. Some are very personal and some are larger, more social, more global."

Chainsaws and mutant frogs

So what was going on during the slasher era?

Film critics will often point out how closely sex was linked with violence in those movies. Barna Donovan, a professor of film and media studies at Saint Peter's University, says it has everything to do with one of the biggest social concerns of the time: the AIDS crisis.

"It's always about the teenagers who are sneaking off to have sex and that’s when they die," he said. "It's an interesting metaphor for a time when they have to deal with the trauma of, 'If I have sex, could this be potentially deadly now?'"

Horror movies of the '70s and '80s often centered around young people who were left to fend for themselves, their ineffective parents nowhere to be found. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" filmmaker Wes Craven has said the slasher film was meant to show how his generation was letting their children down, Donovan said.

"Freddy Krueger stands for the arms race, pollution, (issues) young people have to somehow deal with because their parents don’t want to see it," he said. "It's really up to the kids to solve the problems."

And while "kids of every generation are always blaming their parents for the problems of the world," "it's fascinating to see so many of the horror movies of the time take this sort of approach." Think "The Lost Boys" and the original "It."

Even more literal, environmental issues reared their head in '70s horror films, during a time when people were understanding the impact humans have had on the earth.

"Environmental fears came to the surface — 'We’re destroying the environment, we’re killing off species,'" Kendrick said. "Lo and behold, you get all these environmental horror films, revenge-of-nature horror films," like "Frogs" and "Night of the Lepus." (Yes, giant, mutant bunnies.)

"You had these marriages of social and cultural fears that would have corollaries in horror movies not too long after that."

The personal is terrifying

What about today's horror films?

"The genre has really seen a resurgence in a really major way," Kendrick said. And while "the genre is engaging with a whole bunch of horror ideas" right now, "it seems like a lot of them have been more interpersonal, less about large-scale issues."

The most glaring examples are Jordan Peele's "Us" and "Get Out."

Horror has "been a very very conspicuously white genre," Donovan said. These two horror stories are "told by a black filmmaker and ('Get Out' especially is) dealing with the issue of race, (a) current social concern that we're grappling with."

"It's speaking to what we think or what we wanted to think was a post-racial era," he said. It's saying, "You would have liked to have thought that we were past racism, but this is what we really need to be afraid of. It's still here and it's maybe even getting worse."

Both of Peele's movies are "also a lot about not being able to trust the people immediately around you, and you see that in a lot of the best movies in recent years," Kendrick said, like "It Follows" and "The Babadook."

"Psycho," which came out in 1960, did it first.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic "made the then very radical suggestion that the monster doesn’t have to look monstrous," Kendrick said. "It suggested that monsters are hiding among us.

"It used to be in horror movies you could be safe if you didn’t go to the scary castle out in the mountains. What 'Psycho' basically said is, you can't avoid it, you might just check into the wrong hotel. ... It basically told you there is no safe place. 'Psycho' made an entire generation afraid of showers."

Sure, a jump scare will get your blood pumping. And we're always going to be afraid of things like death and physical harm and losing control of our minds, "universal fears that endure through history," psychiatrist Gail Saltz said.

But what keeps the horror genre interesting is its ability "to pinpoint worries..., what's keeping us up at night or making us nervous about interacting with others," Donovan said. "The real world has to come in to a fantastic genre like this to make it relevant. ...

"Every era, every generation has its problem. The good horror story teller is sensitive to what the worries are right now, and they can ratchet up the worry or speak to them symbolically."

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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