Reflecting Reality Through Modern Horror
Updated: Feb 16
The modern genre of horror is more terrifying for viewers than ever before with its boundaries being pushed beyond just creating jump scares and terrifying fictional monsters. Instead, newer films take inspiration from daily occurrences and embody the worst fear that humanity can have, the real world. Instead of being stand alone pieces of work we forget about, these films involve audiences in away in which cinema has never before. It makes them think or even involves them in the films plot which makes the development of the genre even more exciting.
One of the best examples of this in practise is Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). With a cult fanbase and many dubbing the film as ‘comforting’ and apart of the famed ‘good for her’ universe, Aster masterfully puts the audience exactly where he wants them to be - numb and unaffected.
The story of Dani is so terrifying because at multiple points it seems realistic. Being in a relationship that is not working and trying desperately to ignore the warning signs is typical for humans and we empathise with her sadness and loneliness throughout the film. This is exactly what Aster tries to make us do from the onset, so we stay with her as she becomes further indoctrinated through the film making us also become immune to understanding the full horror of what is happening as we view things from her perspective. For example, cult members like Pelle are not seen by the audience as evil villains (bringing 4 friends to the cult knowing at least 3 would be killed as sacrifices) because due to his kindness to Dani and his humanity shown to her while her boyfriend is off with his friends he becomes almost heroic under the audiences gaze. In reality he is using a typical love bombing tactic used to draw in victims so they stay (ie Dani).
We further see this when Dani becomes the May Queen. We view how the love shown to her makes the cult seem like family rather than a group of killers and villains. The humanity they show her in contrast to the brutality they are capable of makes audiences forget the horrors of the deaths of the other visitors. They begin to forgive the cult, zooming in on the other visitors’ slight mistakes and misdeeds to excuse their killings. This is because we see the cult doing something good straight after they kill someone. Therefore, we end up forgetting the full horror of their actions (as described previously in Pelle). Dani partakes in this too as by the end she is unaffected by the films victims’ fates including her boyfriend who was drugged, raped and then who Dani chose to kill over a cult member she did not know. She begins to participate in the cults rituals and messed up logic like audience members.
What makes this film so terrifying is the fact that many audiences view it as not too scary. This proves the idea of indoctrination of the audience as they are ‘weirded out’ by the film but are not scared by how the cult has managed to kill multiple people and completely draw in one person to their ritual without a trace of accountability drawn to them. The full scope of the story isn’t understood as they view it through Dani’s eyes rather than taking a step back and understanding the degree of what has just happened like in other horror films where we are rooting for the killer/ villains to stop from the opening. The only reason why the cult may appear humane is due to deliberate choices which reel audiences in, showing moments of kindness so they don’t fully understand the horror of the story. Audiences watching Midsommar are shown how easy indoctrination is by becoming indoctrinated by the cult themselves throughout the film. Ari Aster manipulates them to believe the film is not actually scary but just slightly disturbing due to the gore shown, not due to empathy for the characters who despite being well fleshed out are not given any sympathy by audiences. He even makes them root for Dani to kill her boyfriend and join the cult.
By the audiences justifying and agreeing with Dani’s end actions they themselves become apart of this system of manipulation. They themselves have joined in with the films main message becoming living proof of indoctrination and its ease. At each killing there’s a sense of the gore becoming more normal and excused until by the end the audience are actively encouraging Dani to partake in the killing of her boyfriend. The audience are now hoodwinked by the cult themselves, viewing Dani’s actions as reasonable. Aster therefore has perfectly proved his point by involving the audience in the film’s indoctrination process showing how easy it is to brainwash, it can even be done via a film only spanning 2 hours and 20 minutes. The Midsommar merchandise, parties and excuses for Dani are living proof of this.
Another example of modern horror using a real-world villain is Get Out (2017). The story of Chris is so terrifying because yet again despite metaphors being used, his story brings the reality of being a black man to the screen. Jordan Peele expertly weaves a story in which rather than showing the racism of groups which we typically associate with racism like Trump supporters, he zooms in on how the liberal white elites microaggressions and white based agenda leads way to something terrifying below the surface.
If we take Rose for example, we see how she excuses and ignores her families’ aggressions towards Chris from the opening and even pretends to not see why he feels alone. Despite acting like she’s awake to the realities of racism on the surface, we see within Rose superficial activism in which she is only willing to defend and help Chris if it aligns with her own interests. This very real portrayal of ignorance directly aligns to the reality of black people who see the rise in fake ‘activism’ whenever something horrific happens in the news before white people move on with their lives after a week or so as though racism only appears when they want to address it as opposed to the systematic racism that is weaved into the fabrics of society. Rose is essentially one of the worst villains of the film as we realise that even this superficial activism was false at the twist, leading way to show how anyone who upholds racism is just as bad as outright racists as below the surface they are doing the same thing (as we see that Roses character was made up to get to Chris). It highlights how she uses her fake ‘wokeness’ to seem like a good person when she just wants to be in a society where she can get what she wants regardless of who she is harming to achieve her goals. She cares only about what can benefit her and we even see no remorse at her families death later on showing the classical liberal attitude of atomism (self-interested individuals with selfish morals) in play and how it creates a selfish and awful human who will do anything to uphold their own success while also leaving way for them to claim they are good people due to the way liberals pride themselves on ‘equality’ and in reality ignoring the institutionalised racism and prejudices in society.
Furthermore, we see how control is used by those elite to keep up the institutional racism that they use to benefit themselves. The hypnosis, gaslighting and strapping of Chris down keeps him controlled and not escaping their world where they can abuse him and use him as they please. This we see in society as microaggressions, and outright racism are used to uphold the fabrics of a world built on oppression. As white people refuse to unlearn behaviours and educate themselves, we see how they purposefully control the world and lift themselves up by ignoring black suffering or instigating it themselves. This again picks apart the liberal congratulatory activism we are so used to seeing as in reality it is more to make themselves feel better than to instigate change or to educate, they refuse to change so they add to this system of oppression.
The films horror is created by using Chris and Rose to shine a light on the horrors of our racist society and places the audience, so they watch the events from Chris’ perspective fully showing them how racist the world is and the power of white supremacy within society. This makes the horror even more effective as it haunts audiences as they see how it wasn’t really a film but more a critical analysis of how every bit of society contributes to oppression, whether it is outright or subtle it all impacts the same.
These two films both fit with the modern world and reality while also being excellent horror films. In Midsommar the gullibility and very fabric of human nature is challenged whilst also looking at indoctrination and how its an extremely easy trap to fall into. The film makes viewers feel more comfortable with the violence it goes on. Whereas within Get Out we are constantly made to feel uncomfortable and uneasy through multiple instances that occur through the film, we are surrounded by the horror in such a way that racism surrounds the world. Midsommar is a narrative and a journey viewers go on where they feel more comfortable with the horror as the events unravel (creating a horrific effect of comfort in inhumanity) whereas Get Out is an uneasy ride that gets heightened as the film goes on and the racism gets more intense, however we are always aware of the potential for it to escalate and feel more and more scared as events continue.
Both films fit perfectly into the new and progressive idea of horror shining a light on humanity (other examples include the Babadook (2014) and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)) where the meaning is deeper than providing a few scares. Each film wants to haunt you through your days instead and challenge you to think and reflect on our world and your own world too. This modern outlook on the genre keeps it not only fresh but also important as it makes us not just see the films as a cheap scare but as deep and meaningful reflections on our society and its real-life demons.
This post was written by Ella as part of her participation on Kingston Film Festival's Work Experience this July. For more information on upcoming work experience and other events, keep an eye on our website and 'Arts Emergency'