The enduring popularity of horror fiction is because the world is an utterly terrifying place. We live on a planet rushing towards an apocalyptic environmental collapse, spending our life working to feed the voracious greed of rich vampires, lurching around in a cycle of work and anxiety like hordes of zombies. Politics aside, we all face the uncontrollable destruction of ourselves as death chases us from the moment we are born…. and always wins. Horror provides a fictional lens from which to stare at this reality without going blind from its sheer grotesquery.
In the last decade, the most groundbreaking and potent horror has been inspired by racial and gender oppression. Jordon Peele’s directorial debut Get Out (2017) took the dehuminisation caused by white supremacy to a chilling extreme. His follow-up Us (2019) has just hit cinemas, expanding the domestic terror of Get Out to newly twisted ends. As argued in the superb new documentary Horror Noire (2019), black history is itself a horror tale of slavery, colonialism, lynch mobs and police killings. The documentary explores the underrecognised story of black filmmakers using the horror genre to both depict and challenge white supremacy, and presents Peele’s success as a validation of this artistic legacy. It has also opened the door for other work like Boots Riley’s wild satire Sorry to Bother You (2018). While marketed as a comedy, its second half takes an unexpected detour into horror, making an explicit connection between capitalist accumulation and the mutilation of the human body. In a less political vein, Donald Glover flirts with horror aesthetics in his TV show Atlanta (2016-). This was most notable in the episode ‘Teddy Perkins’, an eerie updating of the Gothic trope of the mansion with dark secrets.
Along with race, creators are also tackling issues of gender and misogyny. This February was the 10th annual Women in Horror Month, an initiative to celebrate the overlooked contribution of women in the genre. As Cassie Doney recently wrote, a thriving underground of horror zines and short films is accompanied by women directors playing a bigger role behind the camera. Provocative works like Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and Julia Ducornau’s cannibalism saga Raw (2016) have added new layers of terror to cinema.
Interestingly, the monstrous trope of the witch has been enjoying a subversive renaissance. Marcia Elizabeth discusses how the figure of the cackling, malevolent witch has been used to dehumanise women, by making their desires for autonomy and respect appear monstrous. But recent films have reclaimed the witch as a figure of empowerment and resistance. Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016) is a lush commentary on gender relations. The more overtly chilling The Witch (2015) is a meditation on the dangers of religious fanaticism, showing that repression and men’s obsession with controlling women is far more frightening than any black magic curse.
The socially charged atmosphere of contemporary horror also entails tackling problematic aspects of the genre’s past. No figure better embodies this than H.P Lovecraft, the American writer whose works casts on a vast influence on almost any area of fantastic fiction, from Stephen King to the Alien series to Game of Thrones. Written in the early 20th Century, Lovecraft responded to scientific discoveries which showed humanities’ insignificance in a vast and hostile universe. He literalised this into stories of cosmic horror, in which protagonists are driven mad by the realisation that they are specks of dust in a reality controlled by unsympathetic alien entities like the iconic Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. But his personal racism, xenophobia and misogyny is as undeniable as his cultural importance. Lovecraft happily embraced the paranoid eugenicist beliefs of his times, his writings and letters revealing an obsessive belief that the hetro, white male order was under siege from outside influences.
Recent work has shown how to acknowledge the imaginative impact of Lovecraft, while challenging his dubious politics. Alan Moore’s and Jacen Burrow’s comic book series Providence (2015-2018) reimagines the Cthulhu Mythos by exposing the sexual pathologies and personal inadequacies that drive the reactionary worldview. The work subtly hints at how the heightened bigotry of Lovecraft’s time connects to the Steve Bannon neo-Fascism of today, ancient hatred which continue to haunt our present. Even more potent is Victor LaVelle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom, a reimagining of a Lovecraft story from the perspective of a black musician in 1920’s Harlem. The story contrasts the real life terrors of racist police and state murder with the abstract fear of alien gods, concluding “better Cthulhu than you devils”.
The growing influence of new perspectives on race and gender is contributing to a renaissance of horror. And what these works shows is that true horror doesn’t come from the monsters of our imagination, but from cruel and oppressive systems which allow us to inflict nightmares on other people.