‘Coming Back To Haunt Me’ – The Evolution Of Horror Films Alongside Societal Anxieties

Annabel D’Monte

‘Horror’ as a genre, has always been quite controversial. People either love it, or refuse to come out from behind the sofa – there is no in-between. So what makes horror so scary? Has the genre re-branded itself in recent years to keep us interested, or have trends fluctuated to reflect contemporary anxieties?

These were questions that arose as I watched Jaws recently. Released in 1975, the film was promoted as a horror, and, true to form – absolutely terrified audiences. So why do we now consider it an adventure thriller? IMDb even lists the film under the PG rating which further highlights just how tame we now deem this once terrifying summer blockbuster to be.

In a stark contrast to the melodramatic classics of the 60s and 70s, Paranormal Activity (2007) is a film that arguably redefined the genre entirely

It seems as we examine the evolution of the genre over the years, that horror films are constantly changing to keep us scared, and that new trends come in and out of fashion. The fact is, some elements of classic films such as Jaws, or even Psycho (1960) just aren’t proving scary enough anymore. Whether they use dated special effects, basic prosthetics or dramatic orchestral music, we have evolved past this into more eerie, psychological territory.

So what is it that makes the genre still so popular today? Well in a stark contrast to the melodramatic classics of the 60s and 70s, Paranormal Activity (2007) is a film that arguably redefined the genre entirely. The film used techniques such as night vision and long tracking shots, to create tension and a sense of realism. These effects were further intensified by the fact that it was set in one of the scariest places to experience the paranormal: the home. Through the familiar domestic setting, and use of found footage style shots to portray the frightening events that ensue, the film hit very (literally) close to home. The effect of this style on unsettled viewers, created a new form of horror that went on to influence the basis of both Cloverfield (2008), and Sinister (2012) – both of which used found footage to elicit a terrified response from viewers (myself included).

However, found footage and home settings are not the only concepts that have recently prompted a resurgence in popularity for the horror genre. In other horrors of the 90s and 2000s, gore was all the rage, and new techniques in prosthetics, hair, and makeup swept production departments across the genre – making the danger that bit more realistic. However, while at the time, films like Saw (2004) and Cabin Fever (2002) were popular because of their graphic and bloody depictions of horrifying events, it seems now, that ‘less is more’ is very much the genre’s credo. 

In more recent films including 2018’s A Quiet Place, it is the tension and suspense built up by the threat of the aliens rather than the protagonists’ direct contact, that has proved popular with horror fans. This was thought to have been particularly successful among those who watch horror for more atmospheric fear, rather than being faced with the excessive gore and carnage of the aforementioned films – those poor production teams probably used enough fake blood to fill a swimming pool! Ultimately, the more believable it is, the more it resonates with people’s worries and heightens their fears. However, the fleeting presence of the film’s threat was not the only reason A Quiet Place was a hit.

Over the years, psychological horror has almost become a new genre in itself and has recently inspired a variety of fan favourites. There are so many films to choose from, but Get Out (2017) has a special place in my heart for having one of the most shocking psychological twists I’ve ever seen. Without wanting to spoil the film what I will say, is that the reason why it was so good, was because it kept you rooting for the protagonist while also questioning reality, which is something that all good horror films should do. It was also more nuanced than previous blood and gore filled horror flics and is definitely deserving of multiple re-watches.

Continuing the psychological theme, there has also been the recent resurgence in the popularity of cults and religion within the horror genre. While Ari Aster has certainly contributed to this with Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), this trend has been seen across the genre and more recently, was explored this year in the release of 2019’s Saint Maud in theatres in time for Halloween. However, the idea of a group of people going to horrifying lengths to show their dedication to a higher power, has been used time and time again with Midsommer only being the most recent to hit screens. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1984) also played on these fears, thus suggesting that they have always been a source of anxiety among the wider populace, and proving that the trends of the genre are constantly fluctuating over the years.

Existential anxiety, and fear of the unknown will always probably come to form the basis successful horror films…

Although the genre has become more associated with psychological and slow burning suspense films as the years have progressed, it is clear from the continuing changing trends, that horror may reflect cultural fears at the time. This may be why we see certain themes coming in and out of fashion.

Existential anxiety, and fear of the unknown will always probably come to form the basis successful horror films, because they show us what we fear, which, can be something that changes year by year. There has recently been a profusion of home invasion films including Hush (2016) and Don’t Breathe (2016), which play on the original home invasion trope seen in 1913 short: Silence. Films with this theme, have been suggested to have reflected American fears that their country had been invaded  by ‘job stealing immigrants’. This is not a new theme either, as cold war fears over communist infiltrators also inspired horror about alien invaders in the 50s, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). This again illustrates how societal anxieties influence contemporary culture. Furthermore, there has also recently been more films focusing on new perspectives and, previously overlooked fears of different societal groups, such as previously mentioned Get Out (2017) which forces viewers to confront anxieties over racism from the perspective of a Black man in a white dominated setting – which is still an issue that prevails in today’s world.

Apocalyptic fear is also a trend that has recently grown popular within the genre, with films such as 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), World War Z (2013) and Bird Box (2018) highlighting our collective anxiety about the end of the world – something which is not likely to abate after this year’s pandemic. One film that has already garnered acclaim within the industry is Rob Savage’s Host (2020), which this year was filmed in the midst of lockdown restrictions ,entirely over zoom. The film sees a group of friends hold a virtual séance, and taps into anxieties surrounding prolonged isolation. The film’s success, and 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, would indicate that fear of contagion and the ensuing societal impact is increasingly felt by audiences around the world, and is a theme that is likely to be explored extensively by the genre over the years to come.

Ultimately, the idea of something out of our control and beyond our scientific knowledge, is something that will never cease to be a source of fear. The fact that such concerns are filtering their way into one of our favourite film genres just goes to show, that the genre’s success stems from it’s relevance and self-awareness in how it plays on specific contemporary cultural fears.

Clearly, the changes we are seeing in horror films are more nuanced than what first meets the eye. Throughout the years we can see peaks and troughs in the popularity of certain themes which again highlights the fact that the more successful films play on our own present day anxieties. Although we will always ben afraid of certain things like the paranormal – some specific collective anxieties have filtered their way into the genre, whether it be fears over invasion or the end of the world. Ultimately, they will keep us as audiences hiding behind our sofas for years to come.

Annabel D’Monte

Featured Image courtesy of Kym MacKinnon via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article image courtesy of Echo Grid via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

Videos courtesy of Movieclips Trailers, Paramount Movies and Shudder via YouTube.

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