Something Wicked

How a reflective horror like Get Out thrives in troubled times

Words: James Nash | Illustrations: Ashiq Johnson

Horror is divisive. For most, it’s avoided in favour of the newest comedy starring Kevin Hart or The Rock (or perhaps worse: both). Yet in the times we're living through, horror might be more important than ever – allowing us to confront fears that lurk in the back of our minds, to play out scenarios we pray never happen to us. In return, the increasingly troubled world we live in fosters the genre, feeding it with horrors of our own and providing an opportunity for socially relevant films like Get Out to explore some of our most disturbing social norms. 

The genre is simultaneously an abyss and a mirror: we look deeply into ourselves and our most primal fears stare back. It taps into the base level of our emotions, rooted not in our consciousness but instead in our primal nature. A fear we share with every living thing, a fear that unconsciously drives our will to live.

In 1818, Mary Shelley’s infamous Gothic novel Frankenstein enthralled readers with descriptions of vast, icy wastelands, gothic spires and piercing clouds belonging to storm-ridden nights. More than anything, she created a monster, something to haunt us in our dreams. A representation of human arrogance and of our own capacity to commit atrocities, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster became an icon for a genre that would not come to fruition for many years.

In 1922, arguably the first horror film was released: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Although predated by George Melies’ 1892 short, Le Manoir du Diable, it would be acclaimed as the first full-length foray into the genre.

Based on a nefarious doctor who uses a sleepwalking patient to commit dark deeds, the film succeeded in evoking the same fear from its viewers that all descendant horror movies would. It succeeded mainly because of its allusion to very real fears, much like Mary Shelley alluded to the general population's fear of the rapid progress of science in her time, and, much like modern movies, plays on terrors such as home invasion.

This is where horror’s true value lies. It lives in an endless spring: as long as there are people, people will be afraid, although these fears may change. More than that they speak to an inherent need to have our fears validated, to be told we are sane for being afraid.

It makes sense, then, in these troubling times that we have reached a renaissance for horror. An abundance of critically acclaimed horror films has graced the silver screen in the last few of years. The last time so many horror films were so well-received was in their supposed golden era, with films like The Exorcist, The Thing, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre taking centre stage.

This era was informed by some of the greatest fears the 20th century faced. The Vietnam War left a permanent psychological scar on not only its combatants but also the American people. It was the first properly televised war and the public was finally able to see the very real horrors humanity was capable of. Utter annihilation lurked in the back of everyone’s minds as the nuclear arms race reached its peak and Cold War tensions became more palpable. Finally, crime had become a plague across America, ushering in the end of once care-free times and welcoming the brave new world of today. Fear was a flavour in the back of your throat, and the films reflected this. The morbid became almost mundane.

The genre unwittingly took it upon itself to create alternatives for these very real fears inside of the supernatural, the extraordinary. These films provided an outlet for their viewers, wherein that fear ceased to be a part of everyday life. By creating these stories so cruelly inflicted upon fictional characters, the viewer was able to leave with a sense of comparative ease. They were a reminder that it could be worse.

And so it should come as no great shock that horror is enjoying its second Golden Era. The world is as filled with real horror as it could be: terrorism, a certain presidency, climate change, and school shootings are only a few thoughts that haunt the modern person. A greater sense of awareness about social constructs, systemic violence and the once-slept-upon plight of women and people of colour only further fuel the fire. All of this is only heightened by the ease of access to information.

Social media is now an irrevocable part of the human experience. Within seconds, people can remind themselves just how terrible our world is. War is more than televised now, it is live-streamed onto our Facebook timelines. Every act of terror is brought to our attention almost immediately, sometimes with the option to alter our profile picture to show our sympathy, a new kind of prayer for lives lost.

For better or worse, this is the environment in which horror thrives. Perhaps more than ever we, are in need of films that allow us to both release and face our fears. With everything seemingly collapsing around us, horror becomes cathartic. When our fears are more unassailable than ever, we are in even more of a dire need to cast them upon characters whose deaths only last for 120 minutes, and into places that might not exist or, at the very least, we will not visit.

This is not to say horror doesn’t still find its home in real fears. 2015’s It Follows hosted a supernatural entity that operated like an STD, playing on both the fear of an increasingly promiscuous youth and smartly referencing the now outdated, yet certainly overused, tactic of using teenage sex as a selling point for certain slasher films. A more recent critical success, Don’t Breathe worked with fears of home invasion as well as increasing gun violence in America. The immensely popular The Purge operated in a similar fashion. Based around a night in which anything was legal, it posed a moral question to the viewer: which side of the door would they find themselves on? Although both technically thrillers, the inclusion of aspects key to horror showed the genre’s increasing relevance, as well as its almost viral ability to influence everything around it.

David Egger’s The Witch might be the most unique of them all, creating a sense of atmospheric horror that can be felt for days after, genuinely pushing the boundaries of the genre while still maintaining so much of its spirit. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, with a current rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, might be among the best-received films of the decade,  praised for its equal parts satirical and horrific story of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents only to find something is not quite right. The story comes at an important time, with race politics at the forefront of modern thought, and as increasing racial tension in America becomes more evident to the previously ignorant masses.

Cinematography has found a bastion in the genre as well, with exhaustive efforts put into uniquely unsettling shots, the likes of which film hasn’t seen since Kubrick’s The Shining. Perhaps this is seen best in Ana Lily Amirpour’s stunning black-and-white film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the forerunner in what is being called the “Iranian New Wave”.

Finally, horror has found a companion in series, which are enjoying a renaissance of their own. Shows have been made around older intellectual properties, like The Exorcist, and around newer strains such as Creepypasta. These short stories, with a large online following, even led to a real-life horror: the tragic stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by her friends in an attempt to appease a fictional monster, Slenderman. The crime inspired a Netflix documentary, Beware the Slenderman, which explores both the crime itself and the impact the internet is capable of having on the real world.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Horror is the modern abyss. Inside of its atrocities, we take stock of ourselves, and when we leave it, returning to a world just as horrific, we feel braver.