Horror fans have always known that the genre is more than a nightmare carnival. Horror is, and always has been, in dialogue with the anxieties and fears of its time. During the Great Depression, the misery and economic strife were embodied by monsters from literature and folklore, as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy made their way across the movie screen. In the 1980s, when paranoia about the Cold War and fears of nuclear winter reached a fever pitch, a slate of suburban terrors assured us that our insecurities were valid, that we were not, in fact, safe in our homes. Enter Jason Voorhees, with his machete and hockey mask; Michael Myers, with his mechanic overalls and chef’s knife; and Freddy Krueger, with his fedora and very sharp fingers.
But horror doesn’t just reflect our fears and anxieties back at us. It also helps us process them. Horror is a fun house mirror everybody can use. It exaggerates, distorts and distills whatever it is we’re trying to work through, then delivers it back to us as entertainment.
Horror can offer comfort, can offer solace. Not because it’s an accurate representation or dramatization of our turmoil — who’s that intentional with their media consumption? — but because horror comes packaged for us in 400-page novels, in two-hour movies, in stories that end. Whether those books or films end happily or not, they end. For all of us who sense no end to our own daily horror stories, that’s what’s important.
And even amid the jump scares and houses that are obviously haunted, horror can get you thinking, can get you talking. That’s the key to what horror can do. Horror can shine a light on things we’d rather ignore, can confront us with our failings. Horror can challenge us to do better. “Get Out” didn’t solve discrimination or racism — Black people are still dying in traffic stops — but it did, at least for a couple of hours, make a lot of people see the racism that lurks beneath even the most liberal-seeming facades. And that’s success. That’s art.
Every horror story, whether an ecological disaster or a vampire encounter, a haunted house or a plague, is basically a long, dark tunnel that the story’s “final girl” is trying to survive.