For most of the last four decades, horror had gone through a specific formula. From slashers to creature features, horror movies followed a few simple rules. If you’re naked in the first few minutes, you’re dead. Planning to have sex? Dead. Check out random noise and tell everyone you’ll be back? Guess what. You’re dead.
For most of us, sitting down to enjoy a horror movie has also turned into knowing the rules. Based on the rules, you know who your supporting cast is, who’s likely to be the killer, and who will be the last girl standing. There’s never any question as to who the infamous Final Girl will be, and while most of these movies have us cheering for each kill, we also cheer on the pure final girl standing as she faces off against the killer.
Each decade has reinvented the genre by switching focus. For most of the seventies, religious-themed horror movies took most of the control, like The Omen and The Exorcist, but we also watched the beginning of our beloved killers with Leatherface’s emerge, leading us into the eighties where killers reigned supreme. Killers that were unstoppable or laughable controlled the screens, whether they were human, creature, or book. The nineties made the formula clear and played with more human killers with agendas and motives clearer than killing just to kill. The millennium threw away most of the formula in exchange for films that were bloodier and more gruesome, often not allowing anyone to live.
But four decades worth of movies that follow a similar tone has resulted in most people proclaiming loudly that the horror genre is dead. Not like the Freddys, Michaels, and Jasons of the genre that continues to die and come back, but dead.
Horror isn’t dead. If anything, I’d say horror is more alive than ever.
Horror has reinvented itself many times. From silent films to zombie movies, each has gone through their time and added something new to the genre. As we entered the 2010’s, horror began to pull from the torture porn that pulled from the formula into a new area. It began to go into darker places rather than bloodier ones.
In the last ten years, we’ve seen horror pulling in a new direction. Ditching the blood for the story. Ditching killers for characters. Ditching the final girl for something darker.
With this change has come many horror elitists to proclaim, once again, that the genre is dead. One of the first instances we saw this with was with the 2014 Australian psychological horror film The Babadook. The film deals with a grieving mother trying to deal with life with her hyperactive son. Rather than a psycho killer coming for her in her dreams, the monster comes from a book. Instead of watching numerous people die bloody deaths, most of the horror comes from the mother’s descent into madness.
Horror has been exploring the mind for years. Madness, mental illness, and even things like split personalities as we saw with 2016’s Split, have become more popular throughout the last decade. And though the kills and blood have dramatically decreased, it doesn’t mean the horror has. If anything, it’s gotten darker.
Movies like Hereditary and The VVITCH have traded the numerous kills for more disturbing imagery. Even if a character dies in the movie, their deaths are often more of a surprise than an expectation. Movies in the past have turned to extreme kills for shock, but have forgotten that something simple and well-executed can have the same effect, like a child gasping for air being beheaded by a light pole. Or a baby being pummeled to death and their blood being used like lotion.
The genre has stepped outside of its boundaries by introducing us to a story. Most movies have opted to take out the classic idea of the main character against the monster or killer by exploring the idea that we are often the biggest monsters here. Purity and chastity have been replaced by guilt and turmoil. The demons have been exchanged for our own.
When the genre includes monsters and killer beings, they often pale in comparison as their human counterparts. In The VVITCH , though the witch is said to be the antagonist of the film, the eviler parts of the movie come from the parents instead. More particularly, the mother. And even as the movie’s end, the proposed evil of the movie turns out to be the most accepting, shifting our views from the ‘big bad’ to something that gave comfort.
In Jordan Peele’s Us, the monsters of the movie are versions of the main characters themselves. As almost an ultimate view on the idea of different versions of ourselves, the movie takes a thought and turns it into an actual plot. It also played on an old trope that most of the horror from the last decade has enjoyed, and that is the twist.
One of the best things modern horror has managed to do had been to convey a twist within the third act that completely shifts the entire movie’s focus. Often, horror movies from the last decade aren’t fully enjoyed until the second or third sitting, when you’re able to see the hidden details throughout the film. All those hints you missed along the way make the movie more enjoyable as you begin to see the story unfold even more so than you originally thought.
That’s not to say that these movies are superior to any other decade. Some have tried to be too smart and have become more confusing than enjoyable. The reason most die-hard horror fans give these movies flack is because of the lack of action. Some people prefer to not think about what they’re watching, and the one thing that’s become evident with the newer horror films is that writers and filmmakers want the audience to think more. Feel more. Even see more.
We haven’t forgone our precious psychotic killers either. Terrifier introduced fans to a demented clown named Art. IT brought back Pennywise for a new generation, with even more terror and more blood. Krampus introduced people to a monster worthy of being weary about, as well as The Conjuring movies, where characters like Annabelle, Valak, and even the Crooked Man have become nightmare fuel. Even Child’s Play rebooted Chucky with a newer, creepier premise, though the movie does fair better to disregard as a Child’s Play film.
Gerald’s Game, Hush, and Haunting of Hill House from director Mike Flanigan go along with this growing list by portraying both sides of the story while also keeping the horror. Ghosts, demons, haunted houses, but also personal demons, mental illness, and complicated characters are as clear as day in Haunting of Hill House and is one of the best shows to be produced in the last few years. It joins ranks with similar shows like Penny Dreadful and Hannibal.
Some of the newer films have even opted to make the horror more subjective. After all, horror is more than a genre. It’s a feeling that can be found throughout many genres, from thrillers to the classics of the past. Movies like Mother and Black Swan both played with different themes, but the horror was the same, even if both films left you rethinking everything you thought before.
In truth, this is where modern horror excels beyond its previous years. Most of what has come out in the last decade has pushed you to think. Rather than going for scares or gross-outs, it pushes you to feel horror as opposed to just seeing it.
Modern horror has changed the formula by forgoing the formula. Kills are more involved in the plot than for jeering gore-hounds. Characters are neither good nor evil. Evil is subjective. And nothing is as it seems. Horror has reinvented itself once again by bringing life, real, pulsing life, to the screen.
And though we still love the killers of the past, I do enjoy the empathy and realness of the future and hope that horror continues along a similar path.
At least. . . until it decides to reinvent itself again.
Christy Aldridge writes horror. When she’s not writing, she’s procrastinating from writing by playing with any cat within arms distance. She’s heavily influenced by her semi-psychotic family. She dwells in a small town in the sticks of Alabama with her family of fur babies.