Horror's depiction of societal struggles

Peter Lennon dissects the Horror genre and its many representation of societal grievances

Peter Lennon
5th June 2020
Image Credit: IMDB
Horror has long been a mainstay in cinema worldwide, from some becoming a word-of-mouth sensation and others filling the January void. More often than not, the genre is often commissioned by producers for its low-production, big-returns track record and dismissed critically for its “cheap-thrills and formulaic” approach to film. For the open-minded, however, Horror is renowned for its addressing societal grievances through the years.

To state the obvious, a director’s and writer’s approach to a Horror film is to produce a terrifying experience for its audience. As such, it’s a natural creative progression to centre the film around familiar settings that connect with its intended demographic.

Take the ‘Home Invasion’ sub-genre, for example. From You’re Next (2011) to The Strangers (2008), the sub-genre adopts a middle-class, white suburbia – highly regarded as a peaceful and comforting locale in western society (particularly in North America) – and disrupts it. In both films, a group of masked, knife-wielding villains terrorise a typical white couple. The films explicitly feel targeted towards a group that prioritise, or simply have means and privilege, for social security and disrupt with very little motivation other than they can.

The origins of societal exposure dates back to the birth of the Horror genre in cinema, becoming potent in the era of German Expressionism.

Although this is a rather contemporary example, the origins of societal exposure dates back to the birth of the Horror genre in cinema but became more potent in the era of German Expressionism. This style of German cinema placed a heavy emphasis on distortion, contortion, and overly stylised set-pieces. It takes the everyday and made it fiendishly un-human. Of course, this didn’t just happen overnight. The German Expressionism movement began and peaked in the 1920s, during the height of the Weimar Republic – a new form of non-monarchical established by the Allied Powers after World War One.

The period was one of unrest, with coalitions rising and breaking down, and an exceeding pressure from the French to pay reparations. The distortion of reality that resided in Horror became a gesture towards Germany’s own distortion and the difficulties to cope with change.

While German Expressionism never really reached a rebound after its original appearances – though it remains influential throughout world cinema – other themes have been more transgressive throughout time, often due to persistence of social injustices. This is especially prominent in both women liberation and feminist movements, as well as Black discrimination.

For the latter, cinematic triumphs such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Carrie (1976), and this year’s remake of The Invisible Man (2020) have all stood against such injustices. The Invisible Man reimagined the classic H.G. Wells’ novel into a piece concerned with female paranoia and male scepticisms in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It takes the original piece concerned with masculine identity and transforms it into a nuanced examination of entrapment, sexual assault, and abusive relationships.

The Invisible Man (2020) has been critically acclaimed since its release, but 2009’s Jennifer’s Body has seen a significant critical re-evaluation during the #MeToo movement as well. At the time, Jennifer's Body was derided for its sexualised content, with critics citing Megan Fox’s sexualisation as a marketing ploy to appeal to the straight male fantasy. Jennifer’s Body follows teenager Jennifer Check after she becomes demonically possessed at the hands of male demonic cult. The film then follows Jennifer killing her male classmates in increasingly violent and consumptive manners.

Acting as a Horror-Comedy, the premise is now often recognised as a feminist revenge fantasy, getting back at those that had sexually violated Check. Like most in the Horror genre, the visual effects produce violent delights that expose not-too-subtle allegory (despite the film’s initial dismissal). Unlike Jennifer’s Body, The Invisible Man takes a fairly non-violent approach to its screening, instead exposing the mental anxieties that are exploited by patriarchal environments.

Nia DaCosta's upcoming sequel [Candyman] plays in a larger meta-narrative of taking control of Black storytelling.

As for Black discrimination, many looks no further than Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which pierced both the Box Office and the Academy Awards in its non-compromising look at white America’s accountability and complacency in systematic racism, not just within the alt-right, but those with self-considered liberal outlooks. Like those mentioned before, Get Out succeeds wildly in its Horror-centricity by asserting a truth that remains a point of taut tension.

While Candyman (1992) introduced a Black slasher foe, for better or for worse, into mainstream cinema, Nia DaCosta’s upcoming sequel plays in a larger meta-narrative of taking control of Black storytelling. The original film was written and directed by white English filmmaker, Bernard Rose, and starred a white protagonist with Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle. Though yet to be released, one can imagine that DaCosta’s remake will bring back control of the Black narrative in cinema in general, and Horror in particular.

Societal issues are nearly always uncomfortable and, at times, extremely distressing situations. Horror’s natural disposition towards such situations solidifies its place and constant relevancy in cinema’s generic menagerie. It would be folly to downplay the importance of the genre’s contributions to cinema and wider societal conversations, without even first acknowledging the genre’s entries as being the most bodily receptive and connective with its audience. You can avoid conversation with other people, but you can’t avoid the conversation stirred within yourself.

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AUTHOR: Peter Lennon
English Literature undergraduate. Although I primarily write for the Courier's Film section, I do love helping out in the Televsion and Gaming sections as well. I also organise and host livestreams/radio shows as FilmSoc's inaugural Head of Radio. Twitter: @PeterLennon79

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