My music fandom runs deep. As a lover of both oldies and hip hop, I sometimes lament missing the Beatles craze and not being able to connect with why they are so beloved. Recently, I attended the Beastie Boys exhibit in Los Angeles and had the same feeling of having missed out. I can hear the instrumentals and sing along with the lyrics, but I have no recollection of the pure excitement fans had when these groups were in their primes.
Hearing the music of these two uber-popular groups over the last few weeks brought me back to a movie night that a good friend of mine hosted several years ago. As it was October, he chose to hold a horror movie night filled with the classics of which he knows all too much trivia. After another one of his trivia nugget-filled monologues before hitting play, he turned on Halloween. No, not Halloween 2, Halloween 3 or Halloween 45 and a half. The original Halloween. A good strategy when watching classics, if you can help it, is to somehow put your mind in the time period when the movies were released. Imagine that all the tropes, visuals, and story twists have never been done before.
I couldn’t do that.
To me, Halloween seemed dated and clichéd. As my friend had pointed out before his screening, it was actually the first horror movie to do many of the things that I was perceiving as overdone. The piano score, shot composition, and entire slasher concept was initiated by John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece and frequently emulated afterwards. In fact, the film was so renowned that it was inducted into the Library of Congress. Nonetheless, I felt slight disappointment that the heavily revered trailblazer of horror movies seemed so past its time.
Playing Mind Games
Fast forwarding to the present, I notice that the ground under the entire slasher genre is giving way to a new standard in horror movies. Rather than a crazy, masked, freakishly strong guy chasing around and killing people at random, the villains in today’s horror movies seem much more conniving and mentally torturous. Instead of hunting down the main characters, they toy with the psyches of the protagonists until everyone around them believes they are losing their grip on reality. You may have heard the term gas-lighting in popular culture. People often use this word to describe the behavior of an emotionally abusive ex-partner who makes them believe that they are making things up or overreacting, simply so they can avoid accountability. In recent years, depictions of this manipulative behavior have infiltrated the horror landscape and become a go-to trope.
Just for fun, I researched movies about gas-lighting. There are a handful of thrillers from the ‘90s and 2000s that stick out (i.e. the 1991 film, Sleeping with the Enemy), as well as the 1944 film that originally coined the term, Gaslight. I compiled a list of projects that I would classify simply as horror. My list tilts largely towards very recent hit movies: The Invisible Man, Resurrection, Get Out, Smile, Barbarian, Midsommar, and The Girl on the Train (released in both 2016 and 2021). All of these movies, along with several others, hit theaters over the last seven years. While there is the occasional oldie in the mix, the imbalance feels strong enough to hypothesize a fairly significant movement in the thematic content of horror stories.
Everyone still on board must be wondering why this trend has emerged. A tongue-in-cheek theory may be that building a story around psychological horror allows you to shrink the hair and makeup budget by having less blood and guts on screen (I kid). A more serious theory may be to point the finger at the production companies and how they have chosen to self-brand. A24, for instance, has produced many popular horror movies in recent years, and many deal with stories of personal trauma inflicted by loved ones.
A Sign of the Times
Though horror movies sometimes seem divorced from reality, I would argue they reflect the prevailing fears of the time of their release (we’ll ignore Sharknado and its sequels for the purpose of this argument). Though less calculated, slasher movie villains and their depravity could be reminiscent of real-life serial killers. During the 1970s and 1980s, the prevalence of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy was a big news story. Police had a tough time catching many of them or rescuing their victims, and to this day, a lot of mini-series and podcasts are dedicated to their atrocities. While they have by no means gone away, the stigma around them has dissipated with the numerous ways that people can protect themselves or contact the outside world. Therefore, a slasher movie may not hit the same nerve as it did at the time. Case in point, the original Halloween was released in 1978, right in the middle of this scary time period.
Another possibility could be that sculpting a horror story around abusive partners and mental health is a more inclusive narrative. Critics of the horror genre believe it to be rooted in misogyny, as much of it revolves around villains chasing around attractive, promiscuous women. More often than not, the victims make very silly decisions that lead to their demise, as Neve Campbell called out during her infamous phone conversation in Scream. Newer narratives in horror movies shift the accountability to the villains and provide more three-dimensional protagonists with which to empathize.
Talking Bout My Generation
Younger generations have learned to be more open about their experiences in both romantic and platonic relationships. Between sharing stories and seeking out mental health resources, many individuals have come to the conclusion that what their partners put them through is not normal or acceptable. With the normalization of terms like gaslighting and self-care, 20- and 30-somethings more easily articulate what they have endured and how to avoid it in the future than the generations that came before them. For fans of horror, especially the millennial/Gen-Z crowd, seeing these shared experiences portrayed in newer hit movies may be more viscerally frightening but, in a strange way, cathartic.
A counter-argument would be that gaslighting has always been an element of horror movies. It is fairly common for the protagonist of a horror movie to be doubted and questioned about the danger they are in or what they have witnessed. After all, Mia Farrow’s character spends two and a half hours being treated as if she is in a state of postpartum delirium in Rosemary’s Baby, a movie that is now over five decades old. I would argue that though horror movie characters have long had their grievances met with a skeptical eye, it has never before been such a central focus of the horror genre so consistently.
In older horror movies, the main characters were doubted about whether or not a man that had been shot and set on fire was still alive, or if a child was actually the devil (both of which do sound ludicrous). Now, the protagonists are betrayed by the person they trust the most and doubted by people they’ve known their whole lives. Even in the satirical 2022 horror movie Bodies Bodies Bodies, gas-lighting and other new-age terms are explicitly brought up and discussed by its collection of 20-something characters. Of the movies that I named earlier from my compiled list, all of them had an antagonist who was a significant other, in some cases even a spouse.
Regarding slasher movies, there will always be something unsettling about an indiscriminate homicidal maniac who cannot be reasoned with. However, an equally scary thought is that very normal human beings that we love and confide in will chip away at our mental well-being through lies and manipulation. Young, diverse, and talented filmmakers have picked up on this reality and implemented new elements in a genre as old as motion pictures themselves.