If American Horror Films Reflect Our Collective Fears, What Monsters Will This Generation See Emerge?

Horror can be considered one of the most evolving of all movie genres because it is most reflective of our present, past and future anxieties.
Inside Edition Digital

Horror has shaped America for as long as the genre has existed. So what's the next monster on the horizon? Film experts say we need not look further than the last year-and-a-half for jump scare inspiration.

Ask anyone who over the last 18 months found themselves self-isolating and dealing with the myriad ways life has changed, to describe their last year, and many may liken their experiences to that of a horror film. After spending months in lockdown and transitioning to working remotely, many have been, literally, left to their own devices –– through Zoom meetings, chats over FaceTime and escaping reality by way of television screens.

Which is why it's no coincidence that Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller, “Contagion,” climbed in movie rentals and online streaming at the start of 2020. 

Horror can be considered one of the most evolving of all movie genres because it is most reflective of our present, past and future anxieties. And in times of uncertainty, that is truer than ever. 

The genre encapsulates anything that provokes an intense feeling of fear, shock and even disgust. The late film critic Robin Wood defined horror plotlines as instances where "normality is threatened by the monster." Professor and horror scholar Scott Poole from College of Charleston told Inside Edition Digital that the monster is always changing; sometimes they are foreign to us, sometimes the monster is us, and in the case of "Contagion," the monster was something entirely different.

“Contagion,” a story about the global spread of a deadly virus, had climbed to become the No. 2 most-watched movie in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2020, according to data released by Warner Brothers Television. The decade-old film had sat at No. 270 at the end of 2019.

The average daily visits on piracy streaming sites for “Contagion” increased by 5,609% in the month of January of last year, according to public data. The film was ranked the seventh most popular movie on iTunes at the beginning of March 2020 and was also trending on Amazon Prime. 

Brooklyn-based student Sierra Hubsher told Inside Edition Digital that she was among the group of early lockdown hermits who watched the post-apocalyptic movie to “get a preview of what real life might be like.”

“I normally never watch horror movies, but I chose to re-watch ‘Contagion’ to get a preview of what real life might be like,” Hubsher said. “I actually did learn a lot of things from it.”

She rented the film for $3.99 on Amazon in March of 2020.

“‘Contagion’ had a virus that was much more extreme than our experience [with COVID-19], but I would say it had a really good real life portrayal,” Hubsher said. “I was scared after watching it but felt more comfortable because I felt like it was a good introduction for what to expect in real life.”

“It makes perfect sense to me,” Professor Robin Means Coleman says of the rise in the popularity of “Contagion.” “And though [the film] is fiction, and people knew that, what we know about horror is that it has always been a mirror of our socio-political world. There is always a nugget of truth.”

Coleman told Inside Edition Digital that it is “perfectly healthy for people to resort to popular culture for insight” in the real world. Coleman, who is also an author focusing on African Americans and media at Northwestern University, added that the genre of horror “is a funhouse mirror, but nonetheless a mirror.”

And there were, in fact, many parallels to draw between the decade-old film and the actualities of the largest global pandemic of our lifetime.

Barry Jenkins, the Academy-Award winning writer and director of “Moonlight,” told The New York Times last year that he was willing to pay $12.99 to rent “Contagion” because he was “really curious to see how well it would line up to what is happening right now.” 

The movie’s screenwriter Scott Burns also told The Times that people were asking for his opinion on the state of the world ever since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

So what does our dependence on films, and horror specifically, say about the way Americans make sense of their own fears? Horror films are merely a reflection of the terror we are living –– or the terror we have once lived. And the only way to grapple with those trepidations, authorities say, is to indulge in them. So how will the next generation’s trauma and fear make its way onto the silver screen? The best predictor is the world in which we’re living, experts say. 

Are Horror Movies as American as Apple Pie? Absolutely, Experts Say

The big horror boom in America took place after the Great Depression in the 1930s, as well-known figures like the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein made their debuts to global audiences.

Dracula and Frankenstein especially captivated American audiences — specifically for their terrifying dispositions, thick foreign accents, and flesh-eating desires.

“You had this reassuring distance between the American home front and the supernatural threat. And there was a sense that the threat was exotic, it was often, even subtly or overtly racialized. So the  results of the sense of distance for the white audience,” Dr. Bernice Murphy, one of the first scholars of Gothic literature and horror at Trinity College in Dublin, told Inside Edition Digital.

But, she argued, over time, these characters that once stretched across theatre screens began to take on different forms. The monsters started to look more familiar — more like ourselves. 

“Now [the monster] could be your neighbor down the street, someone in your own house, it could be your own child or your own parent,” Murphy said. 

American horror movies have long been an outlet for entertainment and started becoming a phenomenon here in the 20th century, College of Charleston Professor Scott Poole, a historian who teaches courses on American politics and popular culture, told Inside Edition Digital. 

“The United States produces more horror films than any place on Earth,” he said. 

“Every horror film or novel suggests that everything is completely fine and yet, simultaneously suggests that there is something wrong,” Poole continued. “Often, good horror puts that in capital letters. That everything seems OK, but it’s not.”

Horror movies evolved as our fears did. As Americans became more fearful about what happened under their own roofs, so too did horror films.

A clear example of this occurred during the rise of serial killings in the United States. Killings spiked between 1950 to 1999 in the country, with nearly 88% of those occurring between 1970 to 1999. Those 30 years were otherwise dubbed the “peak years” of crime, wrote historian Peter Vrosnky in his book, “American Serial Killers.”

Concurrently, the fan favorite genre best known as “slasher films” rose significantly in popularity in the 1970s. These films surged in popularity as did the anxiety around the real life horror of the time: the notion that American suburbia was no longer safe.

Robin Wood, the horror film critic, once wrote, “Horror films of the period are characterized by the recognition not only that the monster is the product of normality, but that it is no longer possible to view normality itself as other than monstrous.”

Wood wrote in his 1986 book, “Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan,” that movies in the 1970s “produced films more gruesome, more violent, more disgusting, and perhaps more confused, than ever before in its history.”

And despite how terrifying these films are, these slasher films were paramount and garnered massive cult followings that still exist today.

Murderous outcasts dominated cult-favorites like Tobe Hooper’s 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” John Carpenter’s 1978 film “Halloween” and, a hockey-mask guised killer Jason in Sean Cunningham’s 1980 blockbuster “Friday The 13th.”

Those films went on to become top-grossing Hollywood franchises, collectively garnering nearly $2 billion in revenue. “Halloween” went on to be the highest grossing slasher franchise in the United States, with $813 million, followed by “Friday the 13th” as the second-highest garnering approximately $755.6 million, according to box office ratings.

Poole suggested that mainstream American horror is often tied to a sense of optimism, particularly amongst white middle class Americans, who, he said, “have generally had the privilege of imagining the world as safe.”

When the world becomes a scarier place, horror films magnify the cracks in society.

Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Murder of George Floyd, “Normality Has Become the Monster”

As we creep into the middle of 2021, society is slowly reintegrating –– but, like the characters who find themselves coming out on the other side of a horror movie, many have come to realize that there is never going to be a return to normalcy. 

But real life horrors have been taking place in our communities long before the pandemic came along. Black lives have been lost at the hands of law enforcement and the horrors of those traumas have become increasingly more publicized with the advent of social media and smartphones.

Wood's highly debated theory that horror movies follow a particular formula, where “normality is threatened by the monster,” argues that in the world of horror, everything society represses ultimately returns in a more frightening, exaggerated form.

Dawn Keetley, an English professor at Lehigh University who runs the review website Horror Homeroom, agreed, saying, “horror has to erupt into what viewers consider recognizes something of their own life.”

“We have different monsters in different decades, and they reflect the contemporary moment in which the film was made,” she said.

Not only are the horrors of a generation reflected in the films of those times, but so too are their priorities. And now, filmmakers and the characters in their films are becoming increasingly more diverse.

George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” was released amid the Civil Rights movement in the United States and turned into one of the highest earning films of the time, garnering nearly $18 million in the global box office.

It was the first time in American cinema where a Black man was cast as the leading role of a mainstream horror film. 

Scholars point out that Duane Jones was not the first Black actor to walk on screen, but the late director George Romero told The Wrap in 2010 that casting him in the film was a major milestone for Black cinema, specifically Black horror.

Though Romero said, “Perhaps 'Night of the Living Dead' is the first film to have a Black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race,” scholars argue that it’s difficult for his mere presence to not pay tribute to Black history and that the film did in fact have cultural relevance.  

At that film’s end, Jones is one of the last surviving characters until a group of people break into the home and mistaken his character, named Ben, for one of the “ghouls,” Romero’s name for the flesh-eating zombies in the movie. They shoot him and throw his body into a bonfire. It’s important to note that the history of zombies goes further than what American pop culture presents. Zombies are, in fact, rooted in Black culture and first appeared in Haitian folklore during the 17th and 18th centuries as a projection of African slaves.

Now 50 years after its release, “Night of the Living Dead” continues to be one of the most socially relevant pieces of horror. And when Jordan Peele’s 2017 blockbuster film “Get Out” hit theatres, the film was lauded as a modern day twist on the decades-old film.

“Get Out” follows protagonist Chris Washington, a young Black man, played by Daniel Kaluuya, and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams, as they head to her family’s home to meet her parents for the first time.

Tension builds as Rose reveals to her boyfriend that she has not told her parents yet that he is Black. But, she reassures him, “They’re not racists. I would have told you.”

Once they arrive at the secluded home, Chris quickly becomes nervous by his surroundings –– and with good reason, given there appear to be no Black people present in the community, except for his girlfriend’s parent’s two Black domestic workers, Georgina the maid and Walter the handyman.

Americans who watched “Get Out” seemed to understand the film beyond the creepy suburban setting and the falsity of the safety of the white picket fence, and that it defined America’s most frightening monster in our contemporary world: racism.

Peele credits his inspiration, in part, to both Ira Levin’s novel-turned-film, 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” and 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” both of which satirize the roles women are condemned to.

Critics and scholars see the political implications in Peele’s film and argue that “Get Out” became the trailblazer of contemporary Black horror. 

Poole agrees that, “I don’t know if ‘Get Out’ would have been made, or if it would have become the phenomenon it did, if it was not for Ferguson in 2014 and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Loneliness and the Horrors of Technology in the 21st Century

“Loneliness and isolation wasn’t born in 2020,” Poole tells Inside Edition Digital.

Horror has long tapped into the fear of isolation. Whether a character finds themselves alone in a cabin in the woods where a killer lurks, stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the mercy of a Great White Shark, or stuck at home during a pandemic  ––  we have always acknowledged that being alone can be terrifying. 

While U.K.-based director Rob Savage was isolated at home last year, he attempted to alleviate his boredom by making a low-budget horror film all on the video conferencing platform, Zoom. In his film, “Host,” Savage explores the role “being online” plays in our everyday lives. The story follows a group of friends who at the start of the pandemic organize a virtual séance. Savage expertly played with the concept of Zoom by setting the film entirely on a computer screen, a recently designated subgenre: found footage. 

Found footage gained traction in the early 2000s with films like “Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended” and “Blair Witch Project,” all of which used acknowledged cameras or videos woven into the main fabric of the film, but felt especially relevant in 2020 given the circumstances many found themselves in amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

In his upcoming film, a so-far untitled sequel to “Host” that is expected to be released sometime in the following year, Savage said he will continue to touch on the topic of tech fear while also tapping into the fears that people are experiencing as they reintegrate back into society.

“I think [now] the monster is other people and the kind of innate fear of touch that we've all got right now,” Savage told Inside Edition Digital. “You see somebody coming towards you on the sidewalk and you're struck with this anxiety about do I cross, am I keeping two meters, just this kind of fear of other people that's been instilled in us, I think is kind of what we're touching on in this new movie.”

Savage also told Inside Edition Digital that his upcoming film will touch upon how “truth and information has become weaponized” and “about fake news, and what it means to kind of document something versus what we're told by the media.” 

“It’ll be all that good Twitter stuff but dramatized within a 90-minute horror movie,” he added. 

Savage said he uses technology as a tool to capture the true horror of our time and the “growing sense of claustrophobia and helplessness” that everyone has appeared to experience during the pandemic. 

“What I love is to be in a cinema and to get a jolt that makes me jump up in my seat, because that kind of scare that’s so much about construction, so much about timing,” Savage said. 

“I think the ending's quite fun, funny, and scary. And it becomes more of like a roller coaster ride. It changes minute to minute, which is exactly how I feel about the future.”

And the idea of timing, of course, is not limited to that inside the movie: the timing of a horror film’s release is as or, in some instances, more important, than all the jump scares and big moments in a film combined. Will movie fans and horror nerds alike be interested in watching a film about a pandemic? Savage is confident he knows the audience is ready to be ushered into a new wave of horror.

“The world outside is scary, the world inside your computer is scary,” Savage continued. “And ultimately everyone in the movie is on their own, even if it doesn’t feel like it.”

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