We all know that old saying: one is an example, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend. It’s not 100% clear if we’re on the verge of a legitimate new wave in horror cinema, but we can’t ignore the fact that three of the best reviewed horror films within the last decade – The Babadook (Kent; 2014), It Follows (Mitchell; 2015) and The Witch (Eggers; 2016) are relentlessly creepy films about a supernatural evil that can’t be stopped. If this is indeed a tipping-point, what does this say about our collective apocalyptic anxiety in the mid-2010s?
To ascribe to any larger meaning to a particular pop culture uprising can be a fool’s game, because it presumes artistic intent within an enterprise that’s fundamentally profit-driven. Ever since I could remember, the horror genre has always been my favorite one to watch. It’s the idea that fear and anxiety can be contextualized on a broader scale than most other emotions. Hollywood took note of this mainstream obsession of people wanting to be scared at the movies, especially after the first major wave in horror cinema back in the ’70s and ’80s. Films like Halloween (Carpenter; 1978) introduced us to a post-Michael Myers wave of masked murderer movies in which countless books presented these movies as the resurgent social conservatism that culminated in the election of President Ronald Reagan.
Why did American filmgoers become so enamored of Japanese-style ghost stories in the early 2000s? What’s the deal with “torture porn,” or the modern boomlet in exorcism tales, or the recent proliferation of remakes? Are “found footage” horror movies a crime against cinema or a relevant statement on modern technology and the surveillance state?
These questions are fun to explore and debate about – but horror is one of the most convention-bound genres, so these above mentioned movies are being made accordingly. It should also be mentioned that ever since Halloween, it’s been standard operating procedure to end a scary movie with an ellipses and a question mark, not a period. Evil lives on… if only just for the purposes of a sequel.
What’s different about The Babadook, It Follows and The Witch, is in tone and premise. There’s never much of a sigh-of-relief moment in these three films. First time writer/ director Jennifer Kent, wrote and directed The Babadook with an unapologetically, grim take of the horrors lurking inside a grieving, single mother and her son. This repressed grief and pain takes the form of a monster or “The Babadook.” Without giving away too much of the film, life sort of just goes on while our main character makes a sort of deal with the monster and keeps it in her basement.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has a group of young folks, who’ve been infected by the film’s “sexually transmitted invisible serial killer” disease, trap their nemesis and make it bleed, but never actually see it die. This film subverts the conventions of earlier horror classics like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven; 1984) and turns the cliches inside out into a modern and nuanced portrait of teenagers coping with the repressed anxieties of growing up.
With this year’s critically acclaimed (and money-making) horror indie The Witch, we are presented with the possible relevance of a horror movie set in early colonial America — when the only “immigrants” were Puritans fleeing from the Church of England and the Crown — with the specific grade of 21st-century Donald Trump insanity that has driven this topsy-turvy election year. It turns out there’s a whole bunch of relevance, considering the fact that the main character (an angelic teenage girl) is accused of being a witch by her family in a time when any form a female sexuality (or empowerment) is horrifyingly repressed.
With these recent horror films, the usual rhythm of slow-build, intensification, release is ditched in favor of persistent unease, punctuated regularly by shattering terror. However, these three artful horrors respect their monsters as a repressed “force of nature” rather than a physical being – which is exactly how John Carpenter envisioned the iconic Michael Myers – with his otherworldly yet hauntingly real presence that can never seem to just…die.
That’s what’s so fascinating about The Babadook, It Follows and The Witch. They are bone-chilling, but they’re also instructive about how to cope with the impossible. At times of growing despair, people like to go to the movies to escape—and here are three films saying, essentially, that some things are inescapable, and that we have to learn to live with them. That’s unusually honest, and may explain why they are cult hits, not cultural phenomena. But if they are part of a trend, and these kinds of stories become widely popular, well, that could say a lot about how resigned we’ve become to the end-times.
Check out these fine movies and pay attention to the horror films that are being released – we could be apart of a new wave. We will see. Happy Halloween!