DISCLAIMER: This article contains spoilers for the movie NOPE (2022). But if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re on my watch list, which should concern you more than the spoilers.
We, the Letterboxd, tote-bag-carrying, critical-media-analyst generation, have witnessed the transformation of the entire genre of horror. Over the past ten years alone, horror has seen a change in purpose. Although horror in the past hasn’t shied away from making bold statements, the main purpose of the genre was to scare us and let us leave the movie theater taking the film at face value.
But we can’t just be scared anymore; we have to think about the current state of certain institutions, societal morals and agreements, and why aliens are completely and totally real. We’re getting smarter, and it takes more immersion into a movie for it to feel like a well-done experience, something that old horror movies didn’t need.
And it’s a telltale sign of how the film scene is morphing to our rapidly advancing media analysis skills.
Freaks like Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and Darren Aronofksy have twisted the horror genre into something not unrecognizable, but far enough from the traditional tropes of horror that each film pushes boundaries and, at least for a short time, becomes the best movie I’ve ever watched.
So let’s dissect why this new turn to make horror more nuanced is a turn for the better — and how it makes us more immersed in the stories on the big screen.
Horror movies are just as old as film itself, with the first film being made in 1888, and the first horror film being made in the mid 1890s. Oftentimes, these movies had a poorly developed paranormal element — a phantom ghost puppet hides a bag, a spider is comically large and that’s the plot, a bat turns into the devil and then gets crucified. (These are all real things.)
These movies are products of their time — a time when nobody knew quite what a film was meant to be. Despite their confused nature, these films are a sign of what horror should be: an improbable, yet still viable, concept that’s just realistic enough to scare the viewer.
But then we got our first slasher film with Thirteen Women (1932). It follows eleven women (misleading title, I know), who are slaughtered after a clairvoyant mails them a horoscope saying they would be slaughtered. (Remind me to never date someone who’s into astrology.)
Moving forward, the ruthless, gory murder of women also became a staple of the horror genre.
Studios discovered quickly that they could create entire franchises with devoted fan bases if they murked young, attractive women, whether it be with a haunted house, knife-wielding doll, or any of the dozens of masked serial killers that are industry-standard today. The women wouldn’t be saying much, (other than an unintentional commentary on how much our society fantasizes about brutalizing women, and how heavily our media relies on misogyny and a lack of diversity) but they’d hot people on the big screen, make millions of dollars, and end up with about 700 different and totally unique franchises all called Halloween.
This isn’t to say I don't see the value or cultural importance of a good slasher film — wherein women star in movies and overcome insane conditions — but if we observe who gets to live and die, we’ll see an unfortunate, racist, misogynistic pattern.
The subtle, nuanced turn in horror could be seen when the queen of being disturbing and off-putting herself, Anya Taylor-Joy, starred in The Witch (2015).
The Witch is a commentary on womanhood, societal expectation, and how hot people have the right to do as much devil worship as they please. This movie stood out from contemporaries for one clear reason: It wanted to be a good film, not just a good horror film.
Despite its strong cinematography, score and acting, it took home no accolades. Critics still wrote The Witch off as a good horror film, but nothing to write home to The Academy about.
And this was the case for the small medley of indie horrors made over the next two years.
At least until Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).
Peele took a grand challenge – systemic racism, already horrifying — and showed us how it could be chilling. He made the horror of the story feasible and realistic. You can’t watch Get Out and understand its thematic integrity without media literacy skills and an understanding that racism today looks differently than it did fifty years ago.
And that’s why Peele and modern horror are so extremely delectable to my little analyzer brain.
They encourage us to think about our media consumption. We’re compelled to ask why we’re uncomfortable, why we’re scared. We understand that the chase of a killer is scary. We understand that haunted dolls are creepy. We understand that blood and unseeable monsters are frightening.
But being scared and not knowing why is even scarier.
Peele’s NOPE, an alien movie, features an unsettling side plot wherein a chimpanzee is captured on live TV and mauls the cast of said TV show. One of the members of the cast, Jupe, survives the attack unscathed, but years after, pop culture has made light of his trauma. At first glance, it feels like it’s in the wrong movie.
It’s an alien movie. The movie is about a huge scary alien that terrorizes a small mountainous sector of California. And yet, this side plot fits almost seamlessly into the theme of the movie, as Jupe goes on to make an extravaganza of the alien for profit, to his own untimely demise.
We have to think about its purpose in relation to the movie’s purpose: how the chase and capture of a spectacle can be something people are willing to die for.
The deeper we’re connected to the main triad of characters, the more we can understand and likely even identify with their willingness to put their lives at risk to get a picture of a murderous alien – We see ourselves in their shoes, even if at first it feels unreasonable.
This is because Peele’s a genius, of course, but also because the difference between commodifying and objectively documenting tragedy is a uniquely modern thing.
Movies like NOPE, Get Out, The Witch, Midsommar and Hereditary all want us to further engage with them past our first watch. They desire to be watched again, to be picked apart and analyzed. They want to be treated like good movies that scare you, not movies that sacrifice their goodness to be scary.
Modern horror has demanded better media literacy skills of us, which is a wonderful and well-needed tool, often left on the cutting room floor when producing anything set for the box office.
So the next time you sit down to watch a Blumhouse Productions or A24 horror movie, think of me, (or don’t, that’d be kind of weird) and enjoy the scare being more intentional, diverse and nuanced than it was before the past ten years.