We Scream at Horror Movies, but We Also Learn From Them

Horror is a polarizing genre. Whether in 1960 watching the tense, fast-paced shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, or the violent, shocking sewer scene from 2017’s It, audiences are confronted with terrifying scenarios through horror. No matter how uneasy or distressed horror movies make us, we keep watching because we are fascinated by the power they have to elicit such a strong response. 

Among my Mayfield peers, some refuse to watch horror films altogether while some can’t seem to get enough of them. In the broader film world, only six horror movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards despite horror’s commercial popularity and influence on pop culture. Why do many write off an entire genre? Whether or not you enjoy watching them, horror movies can give us more than just a good scare. A well-crafted horror film can reveal a great deal about what we fear as a society. After all, filmmakers want to appeal to as many viewers as possible. To do so, they must understand what people find terrifying.

Look at one of the most iconic sci-fi horror films: Ishirō Honda’s Gojira, widely known as Godzilla. While there have been many remakes and sequels since its 1954 release, none hold a torch to the original film, and the fear that it elicited from audiences, even now with its dated special effects. The difference between the original Japanese film and its western predecessors is that the monster in Gojira was a clear metaphor for the terrifying effects of the atomic bomb. The monster, a mutant resulting from US nuclear testing, attacks and devastates cities across Japan. The destruction in Gojira was especially disturbing as this film was released only nine years after the devastating bombing of Hiroshima. Gojira was a manifestation of all the very relevant fear, tragedy, and apprehension surrounding the atomic bomb. In the movie, the monster is eventually defeated, but the character Dr. Yamane delivers the movie’s ultimate message, “If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world… another Godzilla may appear.”

In the more recent Oscar-winning film Get Out, Jordan Peele explores the pervasiveness of racism within the United States and the resulting fears faced by many Black Americans. The protagonist, a young Black man named Chris, stays at the home of girlfriend’s family, the Armitages, who are white—where he is faced with a series of racist microaggressions that are revealed to be reflective of a much more sinister plan. The film delves into a supernatural horror involving what is described as the sunken place in which Chris finds himself under the control of the Armitage family. Underneath the supernatural aspect lies the constant dehumanization and dismissal of Chris and of the fears he faces while staying with the Armitages. When combined with connotative imagery, Chris’s situation demonstrates the reality of racism, racial gaslighting, and racist attacks faced by Black Americans. As the film progresses, the Armitages’ progressive, harmless appearance is revealed to be a pretense hiding their violent racism. The family represents the danger caused when white Americans ignore racism under the facade of a “post-racial” America. Peele further explains that his goal for Get Out was, to make a film that acknowledges neglect and inaction in the face of the real race monster,” but also “to offer us a hero,” Chris, “out of this turmoil, to offer escape and joy.”

Horror movies certainly reflect worldwide fears and offer political messages, but they can also speak to personal and emotional fears. Hereditary, a 2018 film directed by Ari Aster, was bemoaned by critics for being too uncomfortable and disturbing because of its unrelenting tension. Aster explains that this is the film’s point, stating “The movie’s primary aim is to upset people on a very deep level.” The movie’s villain is a demon called Paimon and his worshipping cult, but the underlying monster of Hereditary is grief. The film’s opening is the tense funeral of character Annie Graham’s mother. Quickly the audience sees Annie’s struggle with the loss of her mother when considering their distant, flawed relationship. Annie has dealt with loss within her family since she was young, and the tragedy only continues when the film shows a sudden, gruesome death of a key character. Hereditary puts the audience in the unimaginable struggle of grief with long camera shots of Annie sobbing in anguish, an unsettling score, and intense arguments within her family. While not many can relate to their family being terrorized by a demonic cult, any family who has ever dealt with grief and domestic disputes can relate to the looming presence of despair and tension that the film builds. 

Though very different movies, Godzilla, Get Out, and Hereditary are all examples of how horror movies reflect the fears of specific places, times, identities, and emotions. The destructive monster in Godzilla, the loss of autonomy in the sunken place of Get Out, and the sinister demon Paimon in Hereditary are all fictional villains and horrors. While terrifying, we don’t have to worry about them in our daily lives. They serve as metaphors, however,  for real fears that people experience relative to war, racism, and grief. Many people instinctively shy away from addressing the intensity of fear, but horror, though an often underappreciated genre, provides an unbridled analysis of fear and humans’ response to that fear. So, the next time you watch a horror movie and find yourself jumping and hiding behind your bag of popcorn, ask yourself why you are scared. You might learn a bit about yourself, the world around you, and grow admiration for the horror genre.