The horror genre has an uncanny ability to reflect the collective fears of a particular moment in time. The monster movie has transformed from the very literal threat of the “other”—Dracula, Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—to a more sophisticated evil, one that reared its ugly head as society veered into the unchartered territory of human psychology. With time, the horror genre has kept tempo with societal changes.
The ‘80s, with its idyllic suburban cul-de-sacs and wholesome family units, found a resurgence of traditional adversarial tropes: aliens (“Aliens,” “The Thing”), ghosts (“Poltergeist”) and vampires (“Fright Night,” “The Lost Boys”). The ‘90s, with its charming public figures embroiled in high-profile trials like OJ Simpson and then-president Bill Clinton, preferred deranged killers in films like “Scream,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Urban Legend.”
Following a grueling recession in 2008, the past ten years have focused on escapist supernatural films about possessed houses (“The Conjuring”), possessed dolls (“Annabelle”), possessed kids (“Insidious”), possessed mirrors (“Oculus”), possessed children’s books (“The Babadook”) and possessed clowns (“It”), to name a few. But as we neared the end of this tumultuous decade, one that had seen growing political and cultural divides, horror film output dutifully altered with our changing world, moving away from demonic possession and on to themes much more personal and deeply introspective.
The election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency in 2016 is an inflection point in history. Political and social movements like Black Lives Matter and a new wave of feminism following Hilary Clinton’s run for presidency had been surging before Trump took office, but once he did, the country could not have been more divided. The Trump presidency also coincided with, or perhaps sent into hyperdrive, the #MeToo movement that condemns sexual assault and sexual harassment.
These events have reshaped the fabric of our country forever, and as such, horror films of the past year mirror the general unease plaguing our national consciousness. They reflect our burgeoning disenchantment with everything we once knew so intimately, and we can isolate these roots into three fear-inducing adversaries: fear of the foreigner, fear of those close to us and fear of ourselves.
The threat of “that which is foreign” is hardly novel. You could argue every horror film requires that the antagonist is foreign, either physically, mentally or culturally. However, after the election in 2016, political rhetoric heightened a very specific fear, that of people who were not American and who threatened our way of life. Chants to “Build that wall!” along the U.S.-Mexico border coupled with cries from the conservative corner to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country have had their effect on our psyche and cultural identity. That which isn’t wholly “American” is viewed as a threat.
In 2019, writer/director Ari Aster gave us the mother of all modern “fear the foreigner” films with “Midsommar.” Dani (Florence Pugh), fresh off the heels of losing her parents to her sister’s murder-suicide, travels to Sweden with her emotionally unavailable boyfriend and his friends where they are conducting research for their doctorate thesis on pagan rituals.
However, the beliefs and actions of the remote Scandinavian tribe begin to frighten the Americans. Two members knowingly plunge off a cliff to a rocky death. Though they speak English, the Swedes recite their rituals in their native tongue, and even through translation, much of it does not compute for the American crew. When they show signs of wanting to flee, the visitors begin to disappear one by one. This culminates in a drug-fueled competition wherein the “May Queen” is chosen and given the power to determine the final human sacrifice.
The increasing fear we feel as the audience stems chiefly from the unfamiliar. Sweden's landscape is physically foreign to us, and the bright daytime of the country’s long summer hours does not feel natural, particularly in contrast with their murderous intent. Through Dani’s eyes, we are uncomfortable throughout: as she takes a hallucinogenic and goes on a bad trip; as she, upon witnessing the suicide of the two elderly pagans, revisits the deaths of her parents and sister; as she is crowned May Queen, betrays her comrades by offering her boyfriend as the final sacrifice and is lulled into thinking the pagans have her best interest at heart.
Herein lies the warning: our own people may be flawed—Dani’s boyfriend neglects her emotionally and has a wandering eye, his friends are callous to her situation and encourage him to break it off with her, no one seems to understand her bottomless well of grief, etc.—but they, at least, aren’t killing anyone. They aren’t soothing her into submission with false pretense and opiates. The villain in “Midsommar” is a collective non-tangible, one linked irrevocably with America’s growing hysteria surrounding non-Americans.
Leigh Whannell’s horror-thriller “Invisible Man” directly responds to the #MeToo movement, and is also a scorching look at the fear we harbor for those close to us. The writer/director keeps us in the loop throughout the film, heightening our discomfort as our protagonist Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) flees from a monster she can’t see and, worst of all, she can’t convince others even exists.
The film opens with Cecilia’s great escape from Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her rich, smart, but very abusive boyfriend. Fearing his retaliation, she cowers inside for weeks, too afraid to take even check the mail. Adrian dies of an apparent suicide, but Cecilia won’t believe it. When strange, innocuous things begin to happen like bacon burning on the stove or duvet covers sliding to the base of the bed, seemingly empty doorframes begin to hold terrifying possibilities.
"This is what he does," Cecilia says in an attempt to convince those around her that Adrian isn’t actually dead. "He likes to make me feel like I'm the crazy one."
Based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, “Invisible Man” is less about the man and all about the woman he chooses to torture. Whannell updates and modernizes the dated science fiction property for a generation post-#MeToo, wherein there is no sympathizing with an obviously disturbed man committing his reign of terror. Instead, it is the woman who is finally seen, and it is her perspective that is the focus.
There is no better metaphor for the rise of feminism in the 21st century than a woman who is held down by the literally invisible force of the patriarchy. Whannell's first concern is the build-up, followed closely by the pay-off, both of which he delivers handily. Cecilia falls deeper into Adrian's traps until no one else will believe her. Finding help is futile.
In this vein, victims of sexual assault, particularly those who were abused at the hands of famous men, were too scared to come forward because, like Cecilia, no one would believe them. Whannell, influenced by the stories from the #MeToo movement, makes a statement about powerful men and their incredible privilege. With such privilege, their abuse often goes undetected.
Like the women in the real-life cultural movement, Cecilia does eventually break free of her jailor through her own strength and determination. After she kills Adrian, using his invisibility suit to commit the act, the film's final shot is a head-on of Cecilia’s face curled into a confident smirk as she struts from the scene. Gone is the shrinking violet forced to succumb to the will of a man.
If the title alone doesn’t give it away, Jordan Peele’s “Us” confronts perhaps our greatest fear: ourselves. The Wilson family is visited by strangers who bear their striking resemblance. These familiar-looking guests turn sinister quickly, holding the Wilsons hostage in their own home. They are called the Tethered, and they are actually clones created by the government, forced to live underground and made so they could hypothetically control their counterparts on the surface. The experiment failed, however, and the Tethered were abandoned.
“Who are you people?” Gabe (Duke Wilson) says, injured and cornered.
“We’re Americans,” replies Red (Lupita Nyong’o).
Again, Peele minces no words. His affront is with Americans’ actions toward our own. In a political climate so divisive and polarizing, there is still great debate on how responsible we should be for the health and wellness of our fellow countrymen. Universal healthcare and the homelessness crisis are just a few hot button issues that demonstrate our divided stance. The abandonment of the Tethered references current politics in the United States where parties are fighting over whether or not it is our responsibility to care for all Americans, not just the ones who can pay for it.
“They look exactly like us,” says Adelaide (also Nyong’o). “They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won’t stop until they kill us. Or we kill them.”
The Tethered doppelgängers represent the dirty underbelly of ourselves and our unsavory subconscious. The biggest mistake we have made, Peele argues, is our inaction in helping normal American citizens we don’t want to see. To see would mean to acknowledge what we have done—and not done—for them. The Tethered reflect our offensive actions towards our own, primarily the neglected subsect of the country who don’t feel heard and who don’t feel like they have anyone championing for their lives. This is, in many respects, why Trump was elected. He, like Red, saw the disparity in the country and understood that one underserved American can’t do much, but many can.
Peele brings back the “Hands Across America” campaign in order to reinforce this idea. A charity event in 1986 to purportedly benefit homelessness, “Hands Across America” has long been criticized as a superficial gesture that didn’t offer a meaningful solution to poverty in our country. By using something from our real-life history, Peele makes the piercing statement that not much has changed in 30 years.
However, patience is nearly spent. If the cultural and political movements of the past few years, like #MeToo and the Trump presidency, are any indication, America is heading towards a civil revolt. And, Peele warns, there is no telling if human or Tethered will win in the end.