A woman walks home alone at night. It’s a clear evening and the streets of New York City are deathly quiet. The only sound is the click of her heels on concrete until she hears another set of heel clicks just out of time with her own. She looks around and sees nothing, nobody only the quiet, empty space of the street. She continues her journey home, and both sets of footsteps resume. Just as she expects a monster to jump out and pull her into the shadows a bus screeches to a stop beside her. She boards the bus, scared but safe.
The above scene wasn’t filmed recently; not in the last 10 years nor even the last 20. It’s from the 1942 Jacques Tourneur horror film Cat People. At nearly 80 years old the scene still makes people jump and shout. The horror genre has always known how and when to innovate whether it was monsters in the early twentieth Century, nuclear weapons in the ‘50s, serial killers in the ‘80s or the golden age of creativity and experimentation we’re in now.
This current golden age didn’t come out of a vacuum, however. It’s not like Jason Blum, Jordan Peele and Ari Aster willfully ignored a hundred years of vital film history and somehow made some of the most successful horror movies of all time. No, they were informed, inspired and influenced by movies like Cat People and Nosferatu and The Exorcist. So, does that mean we should ignore a hundred years of history just because these films look slicker and are designed for the current generation of filmgoers?
The reason this article came about was because I was trawling through Twitter and kept seeing tweets by people that seemed to think movies like Hereditary, Get Out, The Witch and Us are a new kind of “elevated horror”. That term is bullshit. Horror has always had layers to it, even the cheap gore movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. This attitude is either willful or genuine ignorance and it’s a dangerous stance to take. So, I’m writing this before some hard done by writer at Buzzfeed or GQ or VICE publishes an article entitled “Horror Only Meant Something After 2000”. Do I blame them? Partly but the blame mostly falls on Google and Facebook for devouring the digital ad market and leaving hate clicks as one of the few ways for online media to survive. That’s the real horror.
In fairness those that exclusively watch and praise horror movies after 2000 have kind of got a point; they’re just going about it the wrong way. Horror movies are really having a moment. Especially considering how 2018 was such a banner year for the genre with Suspiria, the Halloween sequel, Hereditary, A Quiet Place and Apostle on Netflix as well as the likes of Channel Zero, The Terror and The Haunting of Hill House on TV. And before that there was It Follows, The Babadook, The Witch and IT. So yeah, the last decade has been pretty stacked even outside of the often average Blumhouse fare that dominates multiplexes.
Further Reading: The Haunting of Hill House – Stylish But Flawed
But there are only so many good horror movies within the last two decades and to say or think that these are the only movies with something deep or meaningful to say is not just ignorant but also insulting to those that came before. Us wouldn’t exist without the influences of the likes of The People Under the Stairs, Funny Games or even Ringu. Apostle has The Wicker Man and a litany of other folk horror films. Hereditary drew on decades of grieving families in horror and was agonizingly raw thanks to that influence.
Horror films – much like the ghosts and demons that populate them – don’t just pop out of thin air. There is method to their madness. Horror will always be there because we, as humans, will always be scared. It’s in our nature to be curious and when what makes us curious harms us, we fear it. It’s why so many people fear open water, the dark and why we maintain a healthy respect for fire. It’s why a few early horror movies like Nosferatu or Tourneur’s own I Walked with a Zombie have a distinct xenophobic or racist bent. Immigration and racial tension were fresh in the minds of Conservative filmmakers, so they put their fears onscreen. But now we seem to have the reverse.
Both Us and Get Out shattered records and made new ones. We live in an age of increasing diversity and equality. Women have often been the leads of horror but in hysterical roles. That changed with the first proper slashers like Halloween. It took people like Keith David as Childs in John Carpenter’s The Thing to break the tradition of “the black guy dies first or just plain dies”. Equality and diversity have only strengthened in recent decades, but they didn’t start with The Babadook or Get Out.
We live in a golden age of horror. That much is true. But retrospectively horror has had its golden ages before. Horror is quick to adapt and change more so than any other genre. Admittedly it took years for black, female and LGBTQ filmmakers to be able to tell their stories from big platforms but the same can be said of the rest of the film industry.
If we want to continue building up such a promising future for the genre than we must confront and learn from the past. A past full of masked men with knives, flickering shapes at the edge of reality and nameless things that scuttle and crawl. It is a frightening past but without we would be more lost and afraid than ever.