BY EMILY ROLES-FOTSO ’21
Few film genres have as much cultural significance and power as horror. That is why it’s rare to find someone who feels ambivalent towards the genre; most people are either enthusiastic fans or vehement opponents. Some are afraid, some can’t stomach the violence and disturbing imagery that characterize the genre, but others simply don’t take it seriously, dismissing horror as shallow or sensational. What they fail to see is that horror movies speak to the most fundamental fears of humanity, and often have deep roots in both pop culture and the political sphere.
The rare times that a horror film reaches critical acclaim, media sites will often publish a think piece about how it’s speculative fiction or a psychological thriller, or just somehow “doesn’t feel” like horror. The reality that people often fail to accept is that there is nothing genre-defying about nuanced or sociopolitical horror; nuanced and sociopolitical commentary are inherent parts of the genre and their prevalence is one of the reasons that horror resonates so strongly with audiences all over the world.
When thinking about sociopolitical commentary in horror films, people often point towards overtly political works like “Get Out” (2017). They’re not wrong: “Get Out” is undeniably a horror film about the black American experience, and as such is both horror and more overtly political than many other films in its genre. Even though it was marketed as a horror film and referred to as such by director, cast and crew alike, it still fell victim to the “is this really horror?” phenomenon, perhaps because it received so much critical acclaim.
Many observe that this reaction is not only indicative of a lack of respect for the genre, but also a lack of respect for the horrific nature of black pain. By saying the movie was “not really horror” or “not really scary,” it dismisses both the genre and the heavy topic that the movie was being used to communicate. It also misrepresents the fundamental purpose of horror, which is not just to be scary, but also to make us examine who we are, what we are afraid of and why we fear what we do.
When the sociopolitical commentary in horror films is more subtle, the film itself is disparaged instead of the genre. Take “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) for example; it is a film widely considered to be thoughtless “torture porn,” a messy and shallow display of brutality that serves little purpose other than to titillate and terrify theater-goers. Upon closer viewing, however, the film is a clear critique of factory farming and the ways society desensitizes us to violence. Shots of teenagers being horrifically murdered by a group of cannibalistic killers are intercut with shots of cow meat hanging on meat hooks, and slaughterhouse instruments are often the weapons used to carry out the horrific acts on screen. Instead of saying the film “isn’t really horror,” critics dismissed it as poorly made, missing or ignoring the message its creators were trying to convey. The message might not be one that is popular, but to negate its existence and dismiss the film as shallow and ill-thought-out is lazy and inaccurate.
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968) is another often overlooked classic that is much more than meets the eye. The film is known as a pioneer in the zombie subgenre, but its layers of sociopolitical commentary are not as often acknowledged. The lead character and the last survivor of the film is a black man, an unprecedented choice during the time period. After surviving a movie full of zombie attacks, he is murdered by white police officers who believe him to be a zombie, a shocking reference to the police brutality that was so prevalent in the 1960s (and remains so today). Some also speculate that the zombies in the film were meant to represent the uncritical and mindless nature of mainstream America during the Vietnam War. All of this nuance is lost on us when we refuse to acknowledge its presence or the intention with which it was placed and instead see it only as a shallow thriller.
Although there is certainly a supply of shallow and depthless horror films, the genre-defining classics and a large majority of lesser-known works have weaved in commentary about frightening social realities for decades, and they deserve far more credit than they are given. Fear is a powerful emotion, and the things that scare us are often indicative of the societies and time periods in which we live. Horror movies serve as a study of sorts, of ourselves and of our history, and for that reason they will live on forever.