Once again, October has arrived and so marks Horror Theory’s 31-day horror marathon. This year’s theme, if you couldn’t surmise from the title of this post, revolves around the best original horror films of the decade (from 2010 to 2019). This year, there’s a unique angle: I’ll also be dissecting each of these films from a cultural and societal lens– exploring how the themes presented in each film reflect the fears of this generation.
“Horror is all about monsters, and those monsters are often the embodiment of social anxiety,” Jason Wallin, a media and culture expert from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education, told Folio.
The thesis of Horror Theory could be summed up this way: that one of the most astute ways to understand the primal, sometimes subconscious fears of a particular culture or generation is to look at their horror cinema output. The monsters (or demons or ghosts or whatever demented forces the creators devise) mirror deeper fears, paranoias, and anxieties.
In other words, these films provide, in unmatched depth, social context about how people of a particular time and place were feeling– about war, politics, culture, society, and their own psyches. Horror films put a face to the anxieties that boil beneath the surface of our society. Figurative demons become literal demons. Abstract fears manifest in various forms from vampires and witches to serial killers and cult leaders.
The classic era of 1950s alien invasion films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) came at a time in American history when technological advancements and post-Cold War anxieties were at an all-time high. This might be why film scholars believe that alien invasion horror/sci fi films were the direct result of the populus’ fear of a communist invasion (or even that secret communists might dwell among us).
Around this same time in the mid-1950s, Japan was cooking up their own monster in the form of Godzilla. Following the devestation of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the skyscraper-sized, destructive monster who was powered by nuclear radiation made its debut and appeared in ten films before the 1970s. In case the connection between the bombs dropped on Japan and the launch of the city-destroying monster wasn’t self-evident, Godzilla executive producer Iwao Mori had the distinctive skin of the Godzilla monster modelled after keloid scars of Hiroshima’s survivors.
These two different horror movie movements ran parallel to one another in a dark time in world history. Both movements helped shape what horror cinema is today and continue to expand their legacy in the modern era. In fact, next year, 2020, will mark a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds on BBC One as well as the newest entry in the Godzilla franchise– Godzilla vs. Kong. How these films differ from their 1950s source materials may provide some interesting commentary on our changing perspectives about complex fears. More than 60 years later, our fear of both nuclear warfare and communism lingers.
“They Live was a primal scream against Reaganism of the ’80s. And the ’80s never went away. They’re still with us. That’s what makes They Live look so fresh—it’s a document of greed and insanity. It’s about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse.”
—John Carpenter, 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly
One more example: George A. Romero’s long-running zombie-centric filmography beginning with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead could be seen as a commentary on racism and class warfare in the United States– while his 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, which revolves around survivors of a zombie apocalypse barricading themselves in a suburban shopping mall, could be viewed as a critique of consumer culture or even capitalism in general.
I could go on, but you get the idea. While there are many horror films that exist for other purposes outside the realm of provoking thoughtful dialog about modern struggles and threats (such as to simply entertain of rake in profits for movie studios), most horror films, especially the good ones, can be grouped into subgenres that help us understand their themes and messages.
Horror films that involve rabid animals or natural disasters, for example, likely have something to say about climate change by presenting a situation wherein mother nature reclaims her land. If the horror film includes witches, chances are you’ll find some feminist messages creeping in. And if the film involves a creepy child, the filmmaker perhaps subconsciously may be alluding to their own personal struggles with the responsibilities of parenthood.
So based on these ideas, what do the best horror movies of the 2010s say about our fears? A lot, it turns out. Each of the 31 posts that follow this month will deal with 31 films individually– in the form of a review (all of these films are exceptional in quality) and in the form of an analysis (all of these films are also exceptionally insightful).
It’s worth noting that this marathon will not include any horror remakes, sequels, or adaptations. This was chosen because these films often focus on elements of filmmaking that aren’t necessarily of much use to us as we take a closer look at their shadowy themes. Sequels, remakes, and adaptations are often less intent on telling stories and developing characters as much as building on a larger universe or satisfying an existing fanbase.
So instead we’re looking at original horror films– created in the last decade from original screenplays. These are the horror films that will define this decade. From 2010’s Black Swan to last July’s Midsommar, we’re taking a closer look at what these movies contend are our cultural fears. What are our societal anxieties? What kept us up at night in the 2010s?
Before we begin, one final important disclosure is that the 31 articles that follow are my own personal interpretations of these films. I viewed these films from my own personal vantage point– contextualized by my own personal experiences and cultural identity. I don’t claim that my analysis of horror film is more meaningful than anyone else’s. Nobody, not even the creators of these films, have the final say on their meaning. Often filmmakers inject their own personality (complete with fears and anxieties) into their films without knowing it. And each viewer, with their unique identity and narratives, will glean their own nuance from these films.
Over time, the impact and understanding of these horror films will gain more context. And their place in the grander catalog of horror cinema will become more evident. But what better time to start these conversations about what these films portray about our collective dread than right now: before the decade is even over.