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Sunday Scaries: This New Era of Horror is Awesome… But What Are We Afraid Of?

To my great satisfaction, I find myself once again enjoying a feverish horror throwback in delightfully poor taste even more than Joey did this weekend. X wears its sleazy 70’s grindhouse-era influences unabashedly, but also displays genuine verve in pushing on those influences and deploying them in novel ways. It may not be as scary as The Innkeepers, but X is almost certainly Ti West’s most purely entertaining film. Between this and Malignant, we may be looking at the next trend in horror: gleefully deranged old-school shockers that aren’t really all that frightening but you’re having too much fun to care. And hey, after a decade of “elevated horror” telegraphing how the monster/wraith/demon is actually a heavy-handed metaphor for grief centering a performance that deserves but inevitably doesn’t receive Oscar recognition, I’m more than happy for this shift in the genre.

But this shift does give me a weird feeling, because of what it might say about us right now. I’ve talked about this before in previous Sunday Scaries articles, but one of the reasons why horror is one of the most interesting cinematic genres to analyze is because of how often the most popular ones reveal things about our collective anxieties at a particular moment in time. No one was actually afraid of a masked killer literally stalking and stabbing them to death in a suburban neighborhood, but a lot of people of a particular preferred socioeconomic status suddenly got really nervous about The Other invading their safe secure (predominantly white) suburban existence in the wake of Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

But of course, these observations are usually made in hindsight, by future generations with a bit more distance from the hysterias of their parents. And yet, the two arguably best American horror films of this time of lockdowns and civil unrest and fascist coups almost feel like… comfort food. They are modern remixes of classic subgenres (Giallo and backwoods slasher, respectively) borne from eras most of the people reading this article – maybe everyone reading this article – have no living memory of. Even the horror-influenced The Batman leaned on recalling beloved serial killer thrillers from the 90’s in its imagery and marketing. Nostalgia and callbacks are nothing new in horror, but this time it feels… oddly motivated when paired with the current cultural mood.

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To take just one example, one of the predominant commentaries of X is how irrational, borderline psychotic our responses can be to uninhibited sexual expression. But what does that commentary mean today? Young adults these days are significantly less sexually active than their parents were at their age. At the same time, we are more accepting of nonconforming sexual and gender identities than any previous generation by far. We’re a lot more open and less judgmental about all the weird sexual kinks everyone was indulging in secret before. This generation probably contains, proportionally, the fewest men likely to empathize with R.J.’s anguish. It all seems to evoke bemusement more than anything; “remember when Americans thought there was something shameful about sex work?”

Perhaps I’m being impatient, but I would have thought we’d be inundated with horror movies flat-out assaulting us with imagery and stories and motifs needling us more directly. Time is running out on countering the worst effects of climate change and the efforts to end egalitarian democracy in the United States, and I hate to break it to you guys, but it’s not looking promising so far. “But Robert, you said horror movies tap into irrational anxieties and those threats are real!” Even better for the genre, then! Look at all the reactionary panics over Critical Race Theory and transgender youth and cancel culture! And yet, so far, nothing outside the laziest trend-chasers even pretending to try to do anything with those laughable hysterias. Modern filmmakers can’t be bothered with this generation of reactionaries and their sad attempts at boogeymen.

Remember when films like RoboCop envisioned cities owned by predatory multinational corporations and over-militarized police forces? Remember when the titular Carrie was terrorized by a fundamentalist Christian parent with internalized misogyny and sexual abuse? What scary situations can genre filmmakers imagine that aren’t just… considered normal now? Did you know the Lutzes bought the house in The Amityville Horror for $80,000? That huge three-story Dutch Colonial in Long Island was purchased for less than a third of the price of a mid-sized condo in Bethesda today.

The only other horror “trend” that shares some similarities to what may be happening now was that brief burst in popularity of meta-slasher horror comedies popularized by Scream and Bride of Chucky in the mid-to-late-90’s. Of course, back then, poking fun at those Reagan-era relics in a detached Gen-X irony sort of way made sense: the Cold War was over, the economy was booming, the violent crime rate was plummeting, and the worst national scandal at the time was the President fooling around with an intern

Except now, the tongue-in-cheek grotesqueries of Malignant and X really seems like they’re coming from a place of affection, not mockery. Its influences – small-but-influential boundary-pushing classics from a time when violent horror movies were made on the margins of Hollywood – are backsliding into obscurity again after nearly thirty years of unprecedented availability of classic films that allowed anyone to be a Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith-level encyclopedic movie nerd. What’s the point of horror “legacy sequels” if we have no interest in seeking out and preserving that legacy in the first place? Horror isn’t just not bothering with envisioning a future anymore; it’s losing its grip on the past. 

Our access to classics is slipping away, and we see no solution to a bleak future engineered by old rich people who won’t live to experience the consequences of their actions. So sure, why not enjoy the warm embrace of a slasher movie taking place during a low-budget porn shoot? Of course I’m excited for Jordan Peele’s next sly, stylish horror-thriller titled after a dismissive phrase popularized and memefied by Gen Z. Give me more horror movies bursting with creativity in their salaciousness, unencumbered by pretensions or hopes for Oscar nominations. Because hey, what’s the point of tapping into the “anxieties” of a generation that turned doomerism into a solace? Might as well have a little fun with this stuff while we still can.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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