Ava Caudle ‘25
Envision Halloween and you’ll think of the classic characters that define the holiday, from black-and-white fiends like Frankenstein’s Monster to campy slashers like Michael Myers. Given that this entire sect of media, horror, has iconized a holiday, one would think that scary films or shows would receive more respect on the cinematic ladder; unfortunately, critics and audiences alike are quick to dismiss the horror genre as superficial, needless, or just plain dumb. There are some cringe-worthy attempts at horror media that lack scares and substance no doubt, but to discount every creation in the entire category is to do an injustice to the societal strides that have emerged from portraying the gruesome, paranormal, or suspenseful.
Fear is a cornerstone of human evolution. From a young age forward, much of what we learn about survival stems from some initial fight-or-flight response (one child, for instance, may run from a birthday party clown while another may try to brawl with the imaginary shadow monster in their closet). The horror genre pokes at this universal experience, taking common fears or sources of anxiety and testing us with them in a controlled setting from behind a screen. Even jump-scares call back to those original moments of feeling defenseless, paying homage to sensations that have lingered within the human race for centuries. The use of horror to dissect universal struggles or fears has extended even more deeply with the rise of modern “arthouse” or experimental horror films, created by unconventional minds like Jordan Peele or Ari Aster. Hereditary (2018) explores the psyche of grief and familial relationships, showing that cinematic terror, like terror in the real world, does not solely exist in the box of ghosts or demons. Such stimulating movies do more than entertain; they disturb and provoke thought, which is horror at its prime.
In this vein, horror in itself can be viewed as a sociocultural medium. In many cases, the true scare factor of a villain lies not in what they are on the surface but what they represent. Horror films with humans as the sole subjects tend to depict a psychological downfall. Audiences watch as a character, just like them, living a typical life, cracks and crumbles under social expectations or intense alienation—which is perhaps a scarier option to witness than if the character was a nonhuman being. The subject loses what semblance they had of a typical status and becomes an unpredictable, ambiguous “other”: someone whose behavior transcends logic and is unaffected by common societal standards of conduct, beauty, or ideology. The pattern of vilifying the “other” is an age-old formula used in all kinds of media beyond horror films, but horror, in particular, takes a self-aware approach to said pattern by probing the various straws that can break the metaphorical camel’s back.
The criticisms of stories told by horror films, books, and shows regard horror as relevant, hollow stories that are not “deep enough,” but these criticisms fall flat. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) depicts the struggles of a young woman pregnant with a child who is later revealed to be the spawn of Satan. Throughout the film, Rosemary’s concerns about her impending birth are disregarded; her pregnancy occurs on the terms of those around her instead. The pressure she faces from everyone in her life, including her unborn baby, mirror the real-life judgements associated with pregnancy as well as the dangers that arise when a woman’s bodily autonomy is stripped away. A Nightmare on Elm Street’s (1984) Freddy Kreuger, deemed a cheesy villain by some, attacks teenagers via their dreams as they rest. The premise of the film speaks to a primal human fear: being preyed upon while in one’s most physically vulnerable state, in an environment meant to be safe and relaxing. Even the plot of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), later made into numerous film adaptations, portrays at its core a mysterious Eastern European wreaking havoc in a Western European city. The story has been largely perceived as a manifestation of Western Europe’s growing paranoia towards a possible invasion, made more fantastical with the addition of a vampire. Turning a nose up at the horror genre discounts the ways in which these tales have helped human beings creatively express and process the anxieties of their everyday lives.
Horror prods at foundational human fears. It arouses strong reactions: some visceral, others fascinating. It makes a statement and implores audiences to approach the unfamiliar or daunting with curiosity rather than dismissal. It’s time that horror films be given their long overdue credit for pushing limits and ballooning the boundaries of comfort zones; after all, feelings of panic, unease, or dread do not make us weak—they make us human, a fact that this genre embraces to remind crowds that we are made of flesh and bone, not stone and steel.