The State of Horror: Why We’re in the Midst of a Golden Age

Chris Tilly
TV Movies
TV Movies Streaming American Horror Story Stranger Things

“Horror I think is very cyclical,” producer Jason Blum claimed when FANDOM recently spoke to him about the state of the genre. “It’s very popular, then it slows down a little, then it comes back, and we’re definitely at the crest of another golden age of horror.”

Which is correct. Kind of. As we’re not on the crest of a “golden age.” Rather we’re in the midst of one, because in 2018 the genre is as healthy, vibrant and popular as it’s ever been. Horror films are garnering critical acclaim, often topping the box office charts, and even winning Academy Awards. Not through cheap scare tactics and graphic gore, but by asking tough questions of audiences, and reflecting political and social unrest in a way that’s truly resonating with filmgoers all over the globe.

This month has even seen the return of horror bible Fangoria after far too long in the wilderness. It’s an exciting time to be a horror fan, so we’ve spoken to a variety of industry luminaries to get their thoughts on the current state of the genre, as we figure out how horror got here, and look ahead to what might be next.

Horror Movies Are Better Than Ever

The iconic Babadook.

The Babadook kicked it all off. In the early-to-mid-2000s, the most talked about horror was super-violent fare like Saw and Hostel, while the next decade saw supernatural efforts Insidious, Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring taking centre stage. Films that were sometimes well-reviewed, and made their budgets back, frequently many times over. But weren’t exactly topping any ‘Best of Year’ lists.

In 2014 however, The Babadook crossed over. A psychological horror about a single mother bringing up her six-year-old son while being haunted by the death of her husband, the film featured a monster that spawned a thousand memes. But that monster was really representative of the guilt, anxiety and resentment weighing the protagonist down, and tragically affecting her mental health. Which turned The Babadook into less a creature feature, and more a disturbing meditation on grief, loss, and existential dread. It was one of the breakout hits of Sundance, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews when released, earning The Babadook a coveted Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%.

It Follows was the next to receive universally high praise. An ingenious spin on the slasher sub-genre, the story concerned a teenage girl having sex, then being tailed by a mysterious supernatural entity. The film was filled with subtle symbolism that turned it into a parable about intimacy, abuse, and sexually transmitted disease. It’s a tense, beautifully shot chiller, that takes on even more poignant meaning when viewed today, through the prism of the #MeToo movement.

Black Phillip, of The Witch fame.

A year later The Witch hit screens, and scared critics and audiences alike via malevolent goat ‘Black Phillip’, and through its terrifying take on intolerance, repression and religious belief spiralling out of control in 1630s New England. This earned the film numerous awards, and again, another unusually high RT score for the genre.

Yet, despite critics giving more love to the genre than ever before, Alan Jones — esteemed horror journalist and co-director of world-renowned genre festival FrightFest — is wary of such critical consensus: “The horror genre has always been in good shape. I can’t remember a year when that wasn’t the case. And I’ve been covering the genre for 40 years now. But when a few titles suddenly seem to become household names, everyone (and I’m talking the mainstream press here) suddenly starts taking notice in ways they should be ashamed about not focussing on before… I’ve always thought such peaks always occur when the mainstream media can’t quite believe they’ve enjoyed a horror film and need to justify it with stupid terms like ‘elevated horror’ or ‘post-horror’.”

However, the trend for crossover acclaim has continued. And it isn’t just English-language output that’s now being taken more seriously. In 2016, France produced the shocking cannibal flick Raw, South Korea gave us gruelling serial killer thriller The Wailing, and Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari crafted powerful war-time horror Under the Shadow.

Indeed, Jones believes some of the best horror currently being produced is actually from an unexpected source. “You need to look at the global fantasy festivals to really see what’s happening and right now that’s in South America,” he says. “Terrified is leading a tsunami from down Argentine way and their industry is at the same point the French one was a decade ago when Switchblade Romance and Martyrs shook up international genre roots without apology, the real reason why we have such a diverse catalogue of carnage right now.”

All these films have been critical darlings, while at the same time passing the Jason Blum test — which he apparently applies to all Blumhouse movies — whereby they work as dramas if the horror is removed.

On top of being smart, character-driven pieces, they are also largely the work of writer-directors. Some of them on debut. So where much of Hollywood’s output these days is made for the masses by committee, horror is exposing audiences to very personal and very specific stories; passion projects that burn with anger, emotion and intensity. Helping horror to connect with critics and audiences in a way that transcends the genre.

Horror is Truly Holding a Mirror Up to Society

The world is in turmoil right now. Brexit is tearing Britain apart and dividing Europe. The Trump administration has triggered social and political unrest the likes of which America hasn’t seen in generations. And North Korea seems to be playing a game of ‘nuclear chicken’ with the rest of the world. Which is bad for mankind. But good for movies. Because as every horror fan knows, the genre thrives in times of turmoil.

Get Out is the most obvious and high-profile example. Angered by the liberal media’s narrative that racism had somehow been solved by Obama’s presidency — placing us in the so-called “post-racism” era — writer-director Jordan Peele set out to tell his truth. And the result was not only a great horror film, but also a monster smash that got nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and won Peele the Best Original Screenplay award.

An overtly political film, Get Out deals with liberal racism head-on, and tackles many more issues connected to bigotry and intolerance. Peele compares ‘The Sunken Place’ into which protagonist Chris is plunged to the prison-industrial complex, and uses it to emphasise the lack of black representation in genre cinema, and pretty much everywhere else he looked.

When we spoke to Peele about the movie’s many metaphors, he explained, “The Sunken Place represents a lot of things, but mostly marginalisation, and the paralysing effect of fear. Within the movie, it’s a mental state created under hypnosis, and it’s very much tailor-made for Chris with his personal set of fears and his traumatic incident. But it’s also a symbol for the marginalisation of black people in society and in industry as well.”

The First Purge
The very political First Purge.

Get Out producer Blum — who is also responsible for The Purge movies, which focus on economic unrest as well as politics and race — believes that we’ll see more stories of this ilk.

“I think a 21st Century horror film really benefits from being political,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t think it has to be political, but I think it really benefits. John Carpenter started a great tradition of politically themed genre movies. The world is a scary place at the moment, so it’s very fertile ground. We’re seeing work that reflects the Trump administration. Art takes time… but it’s starting to seep into the scripts we’re reading in interesting ways. I’d rather have a better President, of course, but one of the only benefits of the incumbent is that we will have better art.”

And so it goes. The new Halloween movie hit screens earlier this month, and post-#MeToo, focussed on a woman dealing with the trauma of her past by taking control of her narrative in the present. Similarly, the new Suspiria concerns a coven of witches smashing the patriarchy via magic and murder. The latter film from Luca Guadagnino — which is set in Berlin in 1977 — also delves into Germany’s post-war guilt and self-loathing.

Peele calls this “social horror,” with society at large the true villain. Meaning that audiences are no longer turning to the genre for escapism, but rather using horror to try to make sense of the chaos and confusion that surrounds them in everyday life.

Better Representation in Horror

Yet, despite all the genre has done for cinema, horror has largely failed when it comes to representing minorities. African-American audiences support the genre in huge numbers, yet rarely see themselves depicted onscreen. And seldom as the hero, with the token black character frequently killed in the first few reels.

The success of Get Out in 2017 — and the phenomenon of Black Panther in 2018 — will hopefully go some way to convincing Hollywood that it’s worth telling more diverse stories. Indeed the hero of Overlord — which hits next month and is one of the most expensive horror movies ever made — is African-American. While Indian-American M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass — which stars Samuel L. Jackson alongside James McAvoy and Bruce Willis — comes out in January. But at the moment they are very much exceptions.

When it comes to women, in spite of Jason Blum’s recent claim that “there are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror” (which he quickly recanted), the situation does seem to be improving.

The aforementioned Babadook was written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Julia Ducournau performed the same duties on Raw. In fact, some of the best horror films of the last five years have been helmed by women. Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge turned a female gaze on the rape-revenge narrative, while Alice Lowe’s Prevenge revolved around a pregnant serial killer — with Lowe starring and shooting while she herself was heavily pregnant.

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation made waves when it debuted in 2016, largely due to that ending. Ana Lily Amirpour announced herself on the world stage via vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Anna Biller’s The Love Witch was a dark horror-comedy with a satirical feminist twist. Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger kicked off FrightFest 2018, making Wexler the first female filmmaker to open the festival.

“I think there is a sincere desire to see more representation onscreen and behind-the-scenes,” says Natasha Kermani, whose wonderful Imitation Girl also played FrightFest before being released by Dread Central. “It’s clearly going to take a long time for the numbers to get where they need to be, but I’ve definitely felt a sea change. It seems that executives understand that audiences do have an appetite for new stories and perspectives, and I know that many of the doors that have opened for me are directly because of this intention on the part of the powers-that-be. Hopefully, that can translate into more opportunities for diverse filmmakers, actors and crew members.”

There’s still a long way to go when it comes to better representation, both in front of and behind the camera, with Blum himself admitting — via his apology — “we have not done a good enough job working with female directors” and promising to do better. So here’s hoping he stays true to his word, and that when it comes to women and minorities, the rest of the industry follows suit.

The Box Office Numbers Don’t Lie

Horror is big business, but that isn’t really news. Some of the most financially successful movies of all-time have been genre pictures made on shoestring budgets. The Blair Witch Project grossed $249m from an outlay of just $60k in 1999. While a decade later Paranormal Activity made $193m for Blumhouse, having cost the company just $15k to make.

Indeed, Blum’s business model has revolved around small budgets and lucrative returns. It hasn’t always worked, with the likes of The Bay, 13 Sins, and Area 51 quickly disappearing without a trace. But when they hit, Blumhouse movies make a fortune; the modestly budgeted Purge films scored the studio $456m worldwide, and the even cheaper Insidious flicks grossed a whopping $540m.

But it’s Warner Bros. who saw the true blockbuster potential of horror, pitting their monsters against superheroes. And that’s largely thanks to James Wan, the most successful horror helmer of the modern era, who launched the Saw and Insidious franchises before turning his attention to the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Resulting film The Conjuring was due to hit screens in early 2013. But buoyed by hugely positive test screenings, and preview footage that practically blew the roof off New York Comic-Con, the film’s release was pushed back to July. This meant the $20m movie was pitted against the hugely expensive likes of The Wolverine (budget $120m), Pacific Rim (budget $190m) and The Lone Ranger (budget $215m). And that bet paid off, with The Conjuring outgrossing all three films domestically, and amassing $319m worldwide.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring.

The studio took the same approach with The Conjuring 2 (budget $40m) in the summer of 2016, and were rewarded with a global gross of $320m, and domestic numbers that dwarfed more typical — and much more expensive — summer fare like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (budget $135m) and Warcraft (budget $160m) the same month.

Warner chose the tail-end of summer to release It: Chapter One, a relatively expensive horror film at £35m, but one that was based on a truly beloved Stephen King novel. And the author’s fans showed up in huge numbers, with the movie scaring up $700m in theatres, making It the highest grossing horror movie in history.

Following that, late last year Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy-romance The Shape of Water — which was filled with horror elements — managed the one-two punch of grossing nearly $200m worldwide AND winning the Best Picture Oscar.

Those blockbuster numbers have continued into 2018, with A Quiet Place one of the biggest movies of the year, The Meg and The Nun making a fortune over the summer, and Venom injecting scares into the superhero movie, setting an October opening weekend record in the process. Such success has translated into big numbers on this very website, with our horror communities currently receiving an average of 3,903 page views a day, a 685% increase on 2014.

Halloween has also been breaking records this month (see tweet above), scoring the second biggest opening for an R-rated horror, with a whopping $77.5m haul. Which has also had a knock-on effect here at FANDOM, turning ‘Michael Myers‘ into the most popular horror page on the site. 52k people have searched for ‘The Shape’ thus far in 2018, and that number is spiking even more now the movie is out.

But some believe the success of the belated sequel might come at a price. “Blockbusters will beget similar product,” says Phil Nobile Jr, Editor-in-Chief of the new Fangoria. “I’m worried that the success of Halloween might curtail the actual golden age. Films like Get Out and Hereditary and other original stories were breaking through in a way that horror films hadn’t in decades. If the takeaway of Halloween is resurrect old brands (and that’s a dig on the industry, not the film itself, which is quite good) we could be looking at another age of reboots.”

Television is Catching Up Fast

Netflix frightener The Haunting of Hill House.

Horror television has traditionally struggled to keep up with film. This is largely due to censorship, TV unable to compete with cinema when it comes to violence and gore. There’s been the odd outlier. Anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were smart with their scares in the 1960s, the horror being largely psychological. The X-Files and Twin Peaks took advantage of networks relaxing their rules in the 1990s, resulting in the likes of Eugene Victor Tooms and Killer BOB terrifying television audiences.

However, with the advent of cable and streaming services, those rules are now pretty much non-existent, meaning that TV can go to the same extremes as cinema. And horror fans are reaping the rewards.

The Walking Dead is probably the best example, with AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic leaving nothing to the imagination when depicting the zombie apocalypse. Audiences loved it, with TWD the most successful TV show in the world early in its run.

An infamous scene from horror phenomenon The Walking Dead.

American Horror Story has also gone to some pretty extreme lengths to scare audiences. Ryan Murphy’s show — which tackles a different subject in a different setting with a (largely) different cast each season — is filled with WTF moments. Involving torture, mutilation, bestiality, snuff movies, cannibalism, penis trauma, and many, many more unspeakable horrors.

Both shows are still airing, while Hannibal — which may be the best of the bunch — sadly got cancelled. But over three unforgettable seasons, audiences were treated to maybe the most graphic show to make it onto the small screen. The violence interspersed with cooking and homoeroticism. Which proved to be a heady mix, if not one successful enough to keep the show on the air.

Castle Rock has been paying tribute to the ubiquitous Stephen King in frightening fashion, while in terms of anthologies, the Inside Number 9 team have been crafting perfect horror half-hours that conclude with devastating denouements, and Black Mirror has been warning of the dangers of technology in spine-chilling fashion.

The latter transferred from Channel 4 to Netflix, as the streaming service amped up its horror output. And they’ve created fantastic genre telly in the process, with the phenomenally successful Stranger Things as good as the 1980s sci-fi and horror it apes. And The Haunting of Hill House proves that a ghost story doesn’t need guts and gore and buckets of blood; just simple, effective scares.

Though Kim Newman — acclaimed novelist, critic and broadcaster — believes that these modern TV horrors frequently slip into soap opera. “I’ve seen some decent horror stuff,” says Newman. “But series horror as opposed to one-off or anthology show horror still doesn’t quite gel… and I’m not sure that streaming shows designed to be watched as 10-hour sessions are the same thing as serialised TV, even if there’s been a tendency to highlight the stand-out episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return or The Haunting of Hill House as works in their own right.

“Serialised TV still tends to devolve to soap opera rather than scariness, though soap has been a part of horror at least since Stephen King mashed up Peyton Place and Dracula in Salem’s Lot. As a novelist, I’ve been getting more interest in my works as streaming-type shows rather than theatrical movies, which might be significant.”

The Golden Age Looks Set to Continue

Gerald's Game debuted on Netflix.

All of which means that horror is in a pretty great place as we head into 2019. Much of that emerging talent have their sophomore efforts hitting screens in the next few months, with Ari Aster following Hereditary with Midsomer, Robert Eggers leaving The Witch for The Lighthouse, and Jennifer Kent — who helped kick all this off with The Babadook — finally releasing a follow-up in the shape of Preservation.

Other up-and-coming filmmakers are getting their projects financed by Netflix, with the likes of Gerald’s Game, 1922, The RitualHold the Dark and Apostle all debuting online in the last 18 months, to almost universal acclaim.

Stephen King is still big business, and there are multiple projects based on his work planned for next year, including a new version of Pet Sematary, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, a new season of Castle Rock heading to Hulu, and the biggest of the lot — It: Chapter Two — which follows The Losers’ Club into adulthood, and has the potential to become the first billion-dollar horror movie.

Meanwhile, leading light Jordan Peele will follow Get Out with another “social horror” in the shape of Us. While he’s also overseeing a reboot of The Twilight Zone for CBS.

“It’s been amazing to see how Jordan Peele has leveraged his success into all sorts of new projects and to see that success open up the industry’s eyes to letting new voices step up to the mic,” says Phil Nobile. Though he’s quick to add, “I also just saw a news item about Friday the 13th being rebooted by LeBron James, so who in their right mind would hazard a guess on the future?”

Alan Jones believes we should temper our expectations, saying of this period: “Golden? Not so sure. After the glow comes the quick tarnish, remember. All it takes is for one high profile dog like… ooh, I’d better not say this far in advance… and it’s all over.”

While Kim Newman has a different descriptor, stating, “I think it’s a glittering rather than a golden age… lots of interesting, disparate work, but no big, era-defining trend of sub-genre, the way classic monsters, slasher film, J-horror, torture porn, zombie apocalypse or remakes have done over the years. There might well have been more one-off hits in the last few years than for decades, and for the fact that they’re as different as The Witch and It Follows or Let the Right One In and The Lure or Under the Shadow and Anna and the Apocalypse is actually a good thing.”

Newman also sees the fractured political landscape further shaping the next few years of genre cinema: “In the near future, I’d expect to see the effect of current events — Trump, Brexit — seeping through into horror the way 9/11 and the war on terror did in the early 2000s. It’s already sort of happening in that a whole bunch of films (10 Cloverfield Lane is a good example) are about smart women trapped with overbearing bloated men who keep insisting they know what’s best and making terrible decisions.”

But we’ll leave the last word with Natasha Kermani, who agrees that politics will play its part going forward, and who has an optimistic view of horror’s future: “I don’t know where the genre is headed, but I do know where I’d love to see it go; I hope that horror filmmakers feel empowered to make work that creates conversation, rather than re-hashing the same tricks over and over again. I would love to see horror films getting political, speaking truth to power — movies with something to say.

“Over the last year, I’ve found the horror community to be incredibly supportive and welcoming, especially when it comes to new voices interested in pushing boundaries. I think if we can continue to make a safe, inviting and creative space for filmmakers, we could be looking at a really exciting new generation of fearless horror movies.”

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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