What horror movies do y’all watch when real life seems like a horror movie?
The line between reality and the world of our collective imagined horror seems especially hard to find this week. I’m catching myself wondering if Ari Aster is going to introduce a third act where Trump is revealed as the leader of a coven of witches and the white house erupts in flames. Maybe it’s the isolation or a coronavirus fever dream — or maybe it’s real life. I honestly can’t tell anymore.
The horror genre has a long history of examining what is fundamentally sick about our society and entertaining us with movies about potential consequences of our cultural beliefs. Think about how fear works. We’re not preoccupied with fears about things that will never affect us. Horror is about what is possible, about what in our lives might go wrong. Black Mirror (2011-) exposed our anxieties about technology, Candyman (1992) used an urban legend to teach us about the real horror of gentrification, Get Out (2017) explains why it feels so uneasy when someone’s white dad makes a point to say they would have voted for Obama a third time. These are unsettling elements of our waking lives that we fear may one day reach a kind of boiling point. In the dark, we fumble around for what the consequences of these elements of society might be and explore them through storytelling and filmmaking, but occasionally we can turn on the news and find that truth is even more chilling than fiction.
A few horror movies that seem less unhinged than our current state of affairs:
A sci-fi horror film that depicts people being diagnosed as ‘hysterical’ when they become convinced that the people around them are being replaced with pod people. Despite the gaslighting, main characters Becky and Bennell discover that the human race is actually under attack from an alien life form who is doing exactly what they feared was happening. In the end, the horror is less about the alien invasion and more about the grim futility of being the only one screaming: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”
A veteran from a prominent political family, Raymond Shaw, rises through the ranks to aid the political dreams of the terrorists who brainwashed him and turned him into a sleeper agent. It’s a little too familiar that the political hopeful is emotionless, lacks empathy, and has no friends but is repeatedly praised by those who have been programmed to support him with the refrain “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The prophetic portrayal of what gaslighting an entire country looks like is just… *chef’s kiss*.
The Manchurian Candidate was made into a well-reviewed remake in 2004 if you’d like a more modern version.
A group of strangers band together at a farmhouse after zombies rise from the grave and begin mass murdering everyone they come into contact with. Considered a subversive story about the silent American majority complicit in supporting the Vietnam war, Night of the Living Dead started a trend that still exists in horror today. The story is set in a familiar landscape. We aren’t far away in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle anymore. We’re not visiting The Island Of Doctor Moreau or the Black Lagoon. This is the suburbs. We’re home and the horror is here.
Influenced by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, popular at the time, The Stepford Wives is about a woman, Joanna Eberhart, who moves with her family from Manhattan to an idyllic suburb in Connecticut. At first hopeful, she meets a few female friends and tries to start a women’s liberation club but is derailed by the other wives in town who only express interest in which products they should use to clean their family’s homes. Joanna even goes to a therapist to talk about how bizarrely she feels the women are behaving but is ultimately told her only answer is to leave the community where she lives. Once she chooses to leave, she realizes her husband has decided he’d be happier with Joanna replaced by a “Stepford wife” than engaging with her as another human and co-creator of the life they have committed to sharing together. The message is unfortunately not at all unfamiliar.
A mysterious white substance is detected growing out of the Earth. When it’s discovered that the mystery substance tastes good, people become addicted en masse. It turns out, “the stuff” is actually a parasitic alien life form! People who eat it become zombies as everything human about them is slowly eaten away from the inside out. Couldn’t be about the dangers of getting radicalized by hate movements, could it?
A man discovers powerful sunglasses that reveal aliens masquerading as humans and the subliminal messages they run through the media in order to subdue and control everyone who remains. The deeper he digs, the more corruption he finds as he uncovers wealthy elites helping the aliens in exchange for power in the new regime. Director John Carpenter says the movie was a critique of consumerism, yuppies, and Reaganomics.
In a Los Angeles ghetto, a boy nicknamed Fool breaks into his landlord’s house and discovers a group of cannibalistic children locked up under the stairs. Fool is caught by the landlord and locked up with the other children but is rescued by one of them who hides from the others in the home’s walls. Fool eventually escapes and discovers that the landlord couple are actually an inbred brother and sister who have been stealing children and exploiting their tenants. The People Under the Stairs warns viewers not only about the greed of gentrification and landlords, but what capitalism can do to people in general. The landlords in the film were originally compared to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but have since been compared to more contemporary figures like disgraced Los Angeles landlord Donald Sterling and president Donald Trump.
A grad student, Helen, begins her thesis by investigating a Chicago urban legend about a ghostly entity named Candyman who can be summoned by saying his name in front of a mirror and is said to have murdered a number of people in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Helen investigates and decides that Candyman is made up, and all the murders that have happened at Cabrini-Green are just regular murders that happen in any low income area. She even unsuccessfully attempts to summon Candyman.
Later in the film, Helen discovers Candyman was once a real black man who was lynched for dating a white woman. He died on the site that became Cabrini-Green. What’s brushed off as an urban legend is also the truth of a low income housing project where a dangerous predator was allowed to hunt freely.
An anthology horror film made up of four stories about life as a Black American. The movie tackles white supremacy, police brutality, racial profiling, and urban violence while also managing to be actually funny. Tales from the Hood is 25 years old and the themes don’t feel dated at all.
If Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a political horror movie, The Faculty is too. In many ways The Faculty is a reimagining of Invasion and even directly references the movie in the script. The story is about a misfit group of high school students who try to stop parasitic aliens from invading their school and controlling their friends and family. It provides commentary on conformity, high school cliques, female sexuality, and teenage loneliness.
What starts out as an average horror movie about small town Iowa residents dealing with the outbreak of a bizarre virus that turns people homicidal becomes even scarier in the second act when it turns out the real danger isn’t the virus, but the government’s desperate attempts to maintain control no matter the cost of human lives. Survivors are rounded up and killed while misinformation campaigns fill the airwaves. The average American is shown as being vulnerable to actual danger as well as disposable to the government who is sworn to protect them.
Three teenage boys are lured by a woman to an extremist conservative church where people are ritually murdered as part of the church’s worship practices. A bloody standoff follows between the congregation and the local sheriff (and eventually a group of ATF agents). An inherently political movie, but not necessarily one with a deeper message beyond seeing the violence any ideologue is prone to to protect their own narrative.
The Purge franchise started as an unrealistic dystopian standalone film depicting a near future in which everyone agrees rape, murder, and torture should be legal for 12 hours to “release the beast” and reduce overall violence in America. However, with each movie the series has evolved to be more and more realistic as it slowly reveals the real reason the Purge was created by the fictional political party New Founding Fathers of America: to murder poor people. Check out this eerily prophetic news report from The Purge: Election Year (2016) where a reporter interviews a mob going to the capital to kill people:
The next installment in the franchise, The Forever Purge, is due to be released on July 9, 2021.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is the story of a Black man, Chris, who plans to visit his white girlfriend’s family for the weekend. At their home, his girlfriend’s family is outwardly welcoming but Chris senses something off about the group, especially their Black servants. Chris’ girlfriend turns on him and it is revealed that the family regularly preys on Black men and women, transforming them into powerless hosts for the family’s white friends to achieve immortality.
A horror comedy in which every American is asked to sign an oath of fealty to the U.S. government. One couple, Chris and Kai, are against the oath and dread spending the Thanksgiving holiday with their family. Chris’ brother and sister-in-law in particular are fervent supporters of the oath. Government officials arrive at the home to question Chris about why he hasn’t signed the oath and the visit turns violent.
A group of people wake up in a clearing, under assault by an unseen enemy. Eventually, the survivors realize they are living out an urban myth about a remote manor where liberal elites hunt down “deplorables”. Because of public perceptions about the movie’s plot, the premiere was cancelled several times before it was eventually released directly to Amazon home video.
A horror comedy about a group of boys from the Bronx who realize vampires are gentrifying their neighborhood. A Netflix original, it is still only available on the streaming service.