The Horror Renaissance

What a time to be alive. Aside from living in the real-life hellscape that was 2020, audiences have gotten the opportunity, over the second half of the 2010s, to see some genre-defining horror films and series.

Through the aught years and early 2010s, on-screen horror lagged a little, with sequel after sequel, each getting more worn out than the last. But around 2015, scary movies that were genuinely good began delighting audiences.

Disclaimer: I’m absolutely not a snob. I love a cringe-worthy slasher flick as much as anyone (for a laughably terrible teen scream, may I recommend Deadly Detention?). But I’d argue that horror is a genre that writers and filmmakers can do a lot with, and I’m glad it’s being explored to its full potential.

(This is also not to say that we haven’t had eras of really good horror in the past—the ‘80s, for instance, and the self-awareness sparked by Scream in the ‘90s.)

Anyway, as for this particular renaissance, A24 studios is leading the charge with Ex Machina, The VVitch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Hereditary, The Hole in the Ground, Midsommar, and The Lighthouse, to name a few films they’ve either produced or distributed. Jordan Peele dazzled us with Get Out and Us. Old classics are getting remakes, as well, from IT to Child’s Play. (I personally rule some of these as unnecessary, but I’m a curmudgeon about remakes in general so, y’know, pinch of salt.) These movies are getting lavish budgets and making good use of them—and not just on corny special effects.

American Horror Story got the genre’s foot back in the door for television, but given that the TV landscape was in flux, as we all started streaming instead of paying for cable, and the quality of AHS seasons varies widely, it wasn’t much of a sea change on its own. However, when streaming services like Netflix realized that online, they had the freedom to gore up stories to their hearts’ content, they went wild.

The results were amazing—The Haunting of Hill House, for example, and its follower The Haunting of Bly Manor are artful stories that twist together grief and ghosts and still manage to tell one hell of a yarn. Netflix also gave us the French series Marianne, which is a delightful take on the “haunted horror writer” storyline.

I’d be lying if I said I knew why horror has had such a renaissance in recent years. I don’t think the world’s gotten all that much more barbaric—we might be more aware of it, but humans have been pretty terrible for time in memoriam—but I have a decent handle on what these new movies and shows are doing right: they’re going deeper.

Horror provides opportunities to explore some of the primal parts of being human: the fear of the dark, aloneness, death. Mike Flanagan’s ghost stories touch a nerve because they delve into grief, examining the terror of being the one left when someone has died. Instead of relying on jump scares, he breaks our hearts—because, as Stephen Crain says, in the very first episode of Hill House: “Most times, a ghost is a wish.”

Trawl through the internet and you’ll find endless posts about Dani’s sobbing in Midsommar and Annie’s screaming scene at the dinner table in Hereditary. After years of being the Final Girl or Damsel in Distress, women have lately got to see their raw emotions on screen in frightening, yet liberating ways. The special horrors and griefs of being a woman are centered in ways they rarely were in the past.

“I am that very witch,” says Thomasin, and who among us doesn’t, at least a little, want to follow her into the woods with Black Philip? The deep wildness that is denied most of us in this life—especially those of us who are women—splashes across the screen and speaks to us. It’s beguiling, and yes, that tension between intrigue and fear is the essence of what makes horror so alluring.

And some horror gives us hope. IT gave us a rag-tag group of children who defeated the evil that stalked them both in Derry, Maine and in their homes and hearts. Down a Dark Hall ends with the vanquishing of demons both natural and supernatural. Horror films are moving beyond “Plot twist! The monster is still alive!” and a fade to credits to telling well-crafted stories that tie up both logically and satisfyingly. Sometimes they are frightening and hopeless, certainly, because many stories must end this way. But some are bittersweet, and some are even joyful, as in the case of Hill House.

In the second half of the past decade, horror moved from cheap tried-and-true tricks and matured. It began to tell the stories it was meant to tell, the ones that touch on the darkness in our world and in ourselves with nuance, not shock value.

If the trajectory continues (and it looks like it will), horror fans are in for more mind-bending, more heart-wrenching, more gut-churning—and we’re all ready, even if we have to leave the hall light on for a few days.

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