The Horror Genre: The New Aesthetics
For a while, the most successful movies have not been horror films. Whether one measures success by the awards the film receives or the money that it makes, horror films have had lackluster performance. Since 1980, the highest grossing horror film has been The Shining with a 45 million dollar worldwide revenue (adjusted for inflation). The movie has also gotten its fair share of positive reviews and is arguably the most culturally significant horror film to come out in that year. However, those box office figures were just one fourth of the highest blockbuster, The Empire Strikes Back.
The horror movies that have come close to what The Shining was able to achieve have been far and few between. However, recently the tide seems to have changed in the horror genre’s favor. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed Get Out did well in the box office at a quarter of a billion dollars, all the while earning an Oscar along the way. The fact that the film was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy already shows a major stride for the horror genre, which was historically shut out by Academy voters. Get Out was far from the only bright spot. It did even better in the box office with $700 million in 2016 worldwide. A Quiet Place even picked up a Screen Actors Guild nomination for an acting role in the movie. The question here remains the reason behind this change.
It is fairly easy to quickly point fingers towards globalization and social media for better exposure for horror films. Before the release of It, there had been a huge media hype for Pennywise, the antagonist of the movie, as well as numerous promotions and advertising campaigns that are generally more effective in a more socially connected world than they could have been back in the 1980s. The longer screening time also allows for non-fans of the genre to go see these movies after they have exploded on Twitter or Snapchat. Of course, one must also acknowledge the role that memes and the challenge culture (prank-like dares that emulate situations that are often inspired from films) play in propelling a critically mediocre movie like Birdbox into the mainstream.
However, there is the case that the “new fetish” for horror movies goes deeper than just purely the result of mass media. In particular, horror movies provide a fresher perspective as people find an escape from the reality of partisanship and intensifying unrest. This is nothing new. It would be hard to say partisanship and social unrest are the product of the 2016 elections, as much as these partisanship has existed in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, and before that. The difference only seems to lie on the solutions. The 2000s saw the rise of post-apocalyptic literature; this genre then gained massive traction and major companies started making movie adaptations. One could recall The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and Ender’s Game to seemingly come out in succession with no sign of stopping. These films propose the solution of looking at ourselves in the dystopian future, a type of worst-case scenario, and give us reason to believe that even under the most authoritarian regime (The Hunger Games) or the greatest climate fear (The Maze Runner), humans will still prevail.
The horror genre, riding the tide of the time, just happens to provide the “right” kind of solution. Horror movies now, albeit drawing from different sources of literal evil, supernatural force (A Quiet Place), monster-like entity (It), or humanity itself (Get Out), all show the struggle of the individuals against the encroaching society that threatens our values and autonomy over ourselves. This is becoming more and more true for the mass majority as people struggle to resist the power of the “mainstream dynamic,” the influence of tech companies, or to escape the overloading presence of memes. The way that the horror genre emphasizes an individual struggle against adversity broadly, regardless of the metaphor one can draw, means that the horror movies seek to apply to the mass.
Talking about a rise implies an inevitable fall, but fans of the horror genre might not be too discouraged. In the not-so-far future, when the media gets caught up with the next narrative of movies, the horror genre will have already gained many more fans and exposure. After all, the strive to find humanity in each individual is perpetual, meaning that horror movies, in whatever form, will always be able to find new ways to reinvent themselves.