2020 has certainly given the world a good deal to be afraid of, but in cinematic circles, the scares have been coming for a while longer. From the meeting of classic horror tropes and race politics in critical darling “Get Out,” to the wildly experimental, genre-transcending “The Lighthouse,” to latest mainstream breakthrough Ari Aster and his “daytime horror” film “Midsommar,” the past half decade has seen a cultural revolution in the American horror genre, moving away from the funhouse thrill rides of yore and towards refined, artistic expression.
The “horror renaissance” of the 2010s has been a gratifying time for any connoisseur of the grotesque, and as a new decade draws on, the limits of mainstream cinema have never been so pushed. The question, then, if there is one to be asked, is why now? Why are audiences suddenly so keen on such bold and new cinematic visions? What brought about this rebirth? What stoked the fires which now blaze so passionately in the lenses of Ari Aster, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele and other titans of this “horror nouveau?” Why is it so fun to be afraid?
To answer all of these questions, The Retriever reached out to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Student Org Filmmakers Anonymous, a small group of passionate film buffs who meet weekly to screen and discuss cinema. Gabe Brunal, Information Systems major and president of Filmmakers Anonymous, argues that, of all the things that inspired this new artistic direction, the most important aspect was boredom. “I think it was just way too much time of horror being played out, and dull. A lot of what came out before was pretty run of the mill, a lot of jump scares, very basic plots … Audiences wanted something interesting, and it pushed studios to fund those smaller, weirder scripts … It’s not all demon possessions and jump scares. Snore. Snore!”
Just as Brunal says, before visionaries like Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele and other such directors, mainstream horror had lulled into a troubling stagnancy, with genuine scares turning too quickly into tired, played out conventions. At its core, horror lives on the unknown, the unpredictable, the incomprehensible, and after you start to see the makeup smears on the face of the monster, the chills start to wear off. As Brunal later points out, the issue was systematic, an overall formulation of the genre, and the blame could not be doled out on any specific filmmakers:
“Previously, so many movies were about taking the convention that worked and running with it. The overabundance of slashers, of demon possessions, I don’t know, it all came up so often. Now you get horror movies — at least, it seems like there are more — that don’t all follow the same conventions. ‘Get Out’ came out, and not every horror movie is about contemporary race politics. ‘The Lighthouse’ came out, and now they’re not all about sailor period pieces!”
An important piece of what has spurned the horror genre on so strongly in the past few years has been the overall rejection of form, or what Brunal calls the “willingness not to follow genre convention.” Once, mainstream horror was not dissimilar from a roller coaster, something to shock and excite and then be discarded; enjoyable, frightful in the moment and then forgotten. This new, “arthouse” form of horror walks a different path, following in the footsteps of films like “Eraserhead,” “Tetsuo: The Iron Man,” “Antichrist,” “Haus” and other wildly experimental works.
In fact, as Marissa Clayton, graphic design major and FA vice president, points out, the presence and context of the experimental film in modern horror is crucial: “I think the history of repeated horror clichés probably got tiring. At the same time, underground films became more accessible to the public. Beforehand, [arthouse horror] was mostly seen at festivals and things, but as time moved on, they started to show up in the theaters.”
It is always difficult to determine exactly what few works spurn on a specific period or trend within a larger artistic movement — as literary critic Harold Bloom points out, “cultural prophecy is always a mug’s game.” With this said, art begets its movements, and to understand the developments of the past decade, it would be best to analyze some of the towering successes of the past few years.
“Black Swan,” the 2010 Darren Aronofsky psychological thriller, was an early example in the decade of a film both critically acclaimed and boundary pushing, at least for the mainstream. In “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who quickly becomes entirely swallowed in a production of “Swan Lake,” and the entire film chronicles her maddening, confused descent into her roles, both as black and white swan. It is a simple enough premise, and chock full of disturbing imagery, but beneath the surface lies a compelling discussion around artistic perfection, show business and the human psyche. Brunal describes it as such: “she has to find a way to be another character, to be both of them, even when one of them isn’t a part of her at all. It’s fascinating in how it presented how it is to be a performing artist, especially in such a physically demanding field as ballet.”
“Black Swan,” as an early critical success in what might be dubbed “arthouse horror,” served only as an indication of what films might later come as the decade progressed. Even as the 2010s turned out “Paranormal Activity” sequel after “Paranormal Activity” sequel, a slow trickle of experimental films began to hit theaters with greater and greater frequency. 2014 saw both “Enemy” and “Nightcrawler,” two Jake Gyllenhaal-led features which explored the depths to which an average man can sink, all through a lens of surreality which only encroaches as the film draws to a close.
In the face of such blockbuster fun houses as “Insidious,” “The Conjuring” or the “Annabelle” films, these are all movies which defy both genre and, more maddeningly, even interpretation. “Enemy” alone boasts hundreds of YouTube interpretations, and “Black Swan” was celebrated for its subjective, surrealist take on performance art. Audiences had made it clear that they were patient enough to tackle these films, and it is perhaps these cerebral, psychological films which led to a sudden and exuberant celebration of horror within the latter half of the decade.
Moving forward into this experimental realm, two wildly different visions emerged in 2016, both groundbreaking in their own ways: “The VVitch” and “Get Out.” The Robert Eggers-directed period piece “The VVitch” deeply interrogates the role of religious piety in human society, and apart from its fanatical devotion to historical accuracy, the story of Thomasin and Black Phillip is nearly universal. “Get Out,” on the other hand, is rooted quite firmly in the issues of contemporary America, using the mode of horror to deeply interrogate the fear that African Americans labor under, as well as the sneaking, unstated racist tendencies of a psuedo-neo-liberal-Capitalist-democratic-whatever American society has become.
“The VVitch” and “Get Out” are incredibly distanced from one another both in tone, in time and in subject matter, yet both push the boundary of their shared genre and both received incredibly positive receptions, with “Get Out” even receiving the fabled 100% Tomato-meter on Rotten Tomatoes. By this point, audiences had more than proved ready for whatever horrors (literally speaking) the film industry had to throw at them.
And boy did they get what they bargained for.
“Hereditary,” “Us,” “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “It Comes At Night,” “Midsommar” and “The Lighthouse” all continued the work which was laid down earlier in the decade, spreading out in all directions, inviting audiences to engage in the horror not as ride-goers but as critical thinkers. “The Lighthouse,” contender for film of the year for many, straddled perhaps every genre that could be straddled in the context of two New England men stranded on a rock: horror, comedy, surrealist dreamscape, even the barest hints of homoerotic romance. That same year, Ari Aster returned with “Midsommar,” a film which might have made Twitter history as the first “arthouse horror” flick to reach meme-status popularity. Humorously, in spite of its popularity, “Midsommar” was still divisive enough so that even in their respective interviews, Clayton and Brunal offered up different conclusions:
Clayton: “I think I can understand why people [thought] the film dealt with toxic masculinity, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a feminist film. The boyfriend didn’t really cause everything, and the girl definitely had previous trauma. I also think the boyfriend’s torture is really discounted throughout the film. He’s raped, after all. I think there’s just a more nuanced take to the movie.”
Brunal: “It seemed to me like a ‘break-up’ movie, in a way. It was almost an extended metaphor, one would say, for this woman’s breakup with her terrible boyfriend, as well as the trauma of losing one’s family, and breaking connections, transitioning into something new, that kind of thing. It’s like the ultimate girls rock movie, in a way?”
And doesn’t that just say it all? A decade ago, the most you left a horror movie with was a temporary sensitivity to the dark, a racing heart and maybe a spooky night or two. Now, people leave horror movies with nuanced, thoughtful opinions, opinions that maintain even a full year out from the release of the movie itself. Whether this “horror nouveau” will be a defining moment for cinema, or simply a footnote, remains to be seen.
When Brunal is asked what to anticipate for the future, they reply, quite observantly, “after 2020, what can you anticipate about anything at this point?” Indeed, the film industry has faced quite a motherlode with theaters being shut down, but Clayton offers a more optimistic prognosis: “I definitely think it will continue, especially as more horror films are produced, and people keep trying to produce things you haven’t seen. That’s sort of the appeal of these films — things you haven’t seen before.”
In this answer, Clayton offers a fantastic summation of everything which sets this new trend in horror apart — things we have not seen before. Humans have always been oddly compelled towards the unknown — what goes bump at night, what flits out of sight and so forth. From the “memento mori” motto of the Renaissance, to the tortured sublimity of the Romantic poets, to the hockey mask and the axe to the head, our collective fascination with the grotesque will not be going anywhere.
At the end of the day, whether or not it is all just a show, the human mind is drawn, inevitably, to that which seems the hardest to grasp. Stephen King puts it best: “In my stories you will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing waiting under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
Thank you, and goodnight. Make sure to keep that foot under the covers.