Janet Leigh’s scream in Psycho is arguably one of the most haunting scenes in the history of American cinema. The psychological elements of Hitchcock’s critically acclaimed 1960 horror film remain crystallized in our cultural zeitgeist to this day, inspiring new generations of horror filmmakers. In recent years, the rise of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers signals a contemporary shift in the horror genre, with each filmmaker constructing his own definition of what constitutes horror beyond the limitations of the established label.
Horror has always been obsessed with the macabre and the supernatural. This has not changed. Low-budget horror films capitalize on surface-level fears through predictable jump scares and gore. The films of Peele, Aster, and Eggers challenge this notion through a more complex psychological approach. Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), and Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) still contain elements of the macabre and the supernatural, but these elements are presented in such a way that urges us to delve into unsettling questions that are deeper than what is shown on the screen. After some contemplation, most will come to realize the genius of each film, and upon reflection of what the film is really about, we realize that it’s much scarier than what’s at the surface.
Branded as “horror directors,” Peele, Aster, and Eggers found themselves both inspired by and tethered to the genre that granted them fame. Still, they have managed to slip out of the straitjacket of the label and allowed themselves creative freedom to bring their horror-esque visions to life. One could argue that these aren’t so much horror films, but rather, films that employ horror tropes to elevate themselves beyond the genre. Under the disguise of horror, they culturally and commercially weaponize the elastic framework of the genre, taking full advantage of its dedicated audience before ambushing them with urgent themes that hold importance to the society in which they are created.
Jordan Peele rose to prominence with his debut, Get Out, which earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (and a controversial Golden Globes nomination for Best Motion Picture – Comedy, but we’ll get to that later), followed by the highly anticipated Us.1 Despite having a background in comedy, he quickly established himself as one of the best horror filmmakers; some even enthroned him as the bona fide heir to Hitchcock.2 Using horror tropes, Peele employs identity politics to investigate the contemporary social issues that plague American society. In both films, he simultaneously proves that everything is about race, yet, not everything is about race. With Get Out, he sets out to tell a story about blackness and white supremacy so good that it contributed to our national conversation about race amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Trump presidency. However, with Us, although the central Wilson family is black, it’s not a story about race. As Adelaide asks the Tethered family, “Who are you?” and Red responds, “We’re Americans,” we nervously chuckle to ourselves before falling into an unsettling silence. The evil is us.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Peele expresses his disappointment about the Golden Globes nomination and suggests the link between horror and comedy:
I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of Get Out broke my heart a little. I set out to make a horror movie, and it’s kind of not a horror movie. As a horror fan, I really wanted to contribute something to that world . . . I think of the two genres [comedy and horror] as being very linked. You’re looking for visceral, audible reactions, and part of that art form is the ability to subvert what the audience thinks is going on.3
The Golden Globes were wrong. Peele contributed more to the horror world than anyone, even himself, could have imagined. This genre confusion is not only distasteful on the part of whoever wrongfully decided to put it in the comedy category, but it also goes to show how confined filmmakers are by the invisible barriers that separate genres. Peele is breaking down those barriers and subverting the mainstream conventions of horror. He worked for many years in comedy, and this experience, which many other horror filmmakers lack, informs and enriches his creative work. Beyond his commentary about American society, he’s also commenting on the horror genre itself—what it can and can’t do given its freedoms and limitations. Following in Hitchcock’s footsteps, Peele contributed to our cultural zeitgeist his own vision of Janet Leigh’s scream in Get Out. The scream is now silently uttered by a black face, with two bloodshot eyes, two streaks of tears, staring into the void.
Robert Eggers’ horror films also double as historical period pieces, setting him apart from other horror filmmakers. The Witch and The Lighthouse are horror stories with a theological twist told with meticulous historical accuracy. The Witch presents a puritanical worldview through the lens of a New England folktale, while The Lighthouse draws heavily upon Greek mythology. However, Eggers’ films are not meant to make ideological statements. He tells his stories objectively without judgement. He’s undeniably good at eliciting empathy for his characters, even the most unlikeable ones, like the incompetent father in The Witch or the manipulative Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse. He doesn’t impose morals onto his characters or even his audience; he simply portrays them with painstaking honesty, stripping them down to the very impulses that make them human. This, in itself, carries moral weight.
In an interview with The Observer, Eggers defends his own definition of horror against what is now expected of the genre:
Because modern horror is usually this masochistic titillation bullshit, a lot of people tell me my film is not a horror film, it’s a “psychological suspense thriller with supernatural elements.” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool.” But then Edgar Allan Poe isn’t horror, either. What’s important to me about horror stories is to look at what’s actually horrifying about humanity, instead of shining a flashlight on it and running away giggling.4
Eggers uses his rich imagination as a filmmaker and a historian to bring his own vision of an untold past to life. He tells stories of people living in extreme isolation succumbing to superstition and paranoia that eventually destroy them. The sources of horror—whatever is in the woods behind Thomasin’s family home and whatever is inside the lighthouse that Thomas is so protective of—are rarely seen on screen but ever present in every shot. The aesthetic of his films, whether in color or in black and white, resurrects a kind of intricate minimalism that is rarely seen in mainstream horror. Eggers’ films are aesthetically pleasing despite the muted, subdued color schemes of The Witch and the black and white of The Lighthouse. The visual language speaks louder than words, which are spoken in accents quite difficult to understand. Though minimalist, Eggers gives the audience a heightened experience of the senses, transporting them into the horrors unfolding before their eyes and inviting them to explore the fear for themselves.
Unlike Peele and Eggers, who set out to make horror films, Ari Aster does not consider himself a horror filmmaker. But whether he meant to or not, his works have been instrumental in paving the way for the new wave of horror. Hereditary and Midsommar, inspired by Christian mythology and Swedish folktales respectively, are rooted in existential questions about death that have no real answers. They are grounded by the complicated relationships of perfectly flawed characters—the distrust, the betrayal, the deceit of those closest to us. They tell stories about relationships—familial relationships and romantic relationships—and these relationships are, by nature, horrifying. Aster takes suffering seriously. He exploits our deepest, darkest fears about what could go wrong in a relationship and dramatizes the psychological states of his characters. The melodrama is present in every scene, every move, every dialogue. He’s good at chasing feelings, both the characters’ feelings and the audience’s feelings, and matching their inner states to the world within the film.
In an interview with The Verge, Aster explains the two camps of horror and explains why he enjoys making films centered around emotional trauma:
One is horror films that are essentially roller-coaster rides, that are there to just give people a series of jolts, and then let them go home and get on with their life. Then there are others that are maybe more existential in nature and are really trying to play with very serious fears and engaging with them on a serious level. Those are the ones that I’m interested in watching, and those are the films I’m interested in making.5
Aster’s films are indeed existential. They are more psychologically haunting than scary. On the surface, the scariest parts seem to be the King Paimon altar in Hereditary, or the temple where human sacrifices are burnt alive in Midsommar. These scenes are not meant to be for shock value. Aster is deliberate in using horror elements to leave his audience haunted by what lies beneath the surface—the way Annie is misunderstood in her grief and driven to insanity by her own son who shows no remorse; or the way Christian manipulates and betrays Dani yet still manages to make himself out to be the victim. These are the power dynamics that we have come to know all too well in our personal lives. Aster’s films are about suffering; and his audience gets to watch suffering from the distance, shielded by the fourth wall. Then, much to our surprise, we experience this sense of catharsis as the film ends. But he doesn’t give us this catharsis, we have to figure it out for ourselves. As the film lingers in our psyche, he offers us a chance to grapple with our own repressed fears and unresolved anxieties.
Another film within the horror genre worth mentioning is Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), which received the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in a unanimous vote. It’s not a conventional horror film, but it has all the elements that a horror film is supposed to have—the gore, the suspense, the intense music. It’s still scary, but it’s a subtle and visceral kind of fright. Joon-ho uses horror to allow the audience to understand the forces that can drive someone down a psychopathic spiral. He deliberately dissects his characters’ deteriorating mental states, making us feel conflicted as to whether we should root for them or condemn their madness. He blurs the line between who is right and who is wrong, who is the victim and who is the enemy . . . who is the real parasite. Not to mention the unexpected humor that enhances the film’s complexity and transcends beyond the horror genre. But humor doesn’t always equal good. In an interview with Vulture, Joon-ho said, “Humor comes from anxiety, too. At least when we laugh, there’s a feeling that we’re overcoming some kind of horror.”6 In that sense, horror sneaks its way into every human emotion. Perhaps we’re all driven by fear.
Unlike his previous films, Parasite is more grounded, and quite frankly, more terrifying. There is no supernatural creature or visible evil forces to defeat; there is no monster on the screen. Instead, it’s a situation with no escape; and through this, Joon-ho effectively gives way to soul-crushing realism. The audience is forced to come to terms with the reality that what we are witnessing, and living in, is a cycle perpetuated by a corrupt system that will never be broken. Amidst the bloodshed in the final scene, the most insidious part is the way the rich dehumanize the poor. The relationship between the Kims and the Parks tells a universal narrative of class tensions; but beyond that, it’s about the tension between order and chaos. This is where his genius comes in. He combines artistic showmanship with social awareness to portray chaos in a very orderly manner. But his aim isn’t to mock or sensationalize the social dysfunction unfolding on screen, because in the end, what speaks the loudest is the sanctity of familial sacrifice and the warmth of humanity that shine through the chaos.
Though films like Parasite, Get Out, and Us tend to be read in light of their metaphorical significance and praised for their cultural relevance, these horror filmmakers often deny this and leave the meaning entirely open to interpretation. As Parasite protagonist Kim Ki-woo exclaims, “Woah, it’s so metaphorical!” while examining the fancy rock gifted to him by his wealthy friend, Joon-ho leaves it up to the audience figure out what this symbol is supposed to represent.7 Such a simple line; but it’s the key to understanding the satirical edge that drives the narrative. He invites us to question our own tendency to search for metaphors and encourages us to be more skeptical of how quick we are to assign something symbolic meaning. The elements of which a metaphor is made cannot be ignored for or replaced by the symbolic meaning it conveys. The rock in Parasite might symbolize wealth and opportunity; but if we pay careful attention, its physical weight also becomes a crucial plot element as it sinks and floats throughout certain points of the film. Sometimes, it’s not so metaphorical.
This is not to say these films don’t possess any sort of allegorical significance, because on some level, they do. But at the same time, attempting to strip a film down to its social commentary is too simple and dismissive of the art in its truest form. That’s because its social commentary does not function as a roadmap leading towards liberation so much as a critique of our own tendency to search for these roadmaps in the spirit of progressive culture. As we get lost in daydreams of progressivism and the oversaturation of films attempting to claim political relevance, we become desperate to praise any film that can be deemed as subversive. Get Out and Parasite do not offer us a solution to racism and classism so much as they are subversive in using these themes to criticize our tendency to believe that simply praising these films is enough. In the end, the goal is not to offer cheap catharsis, but to act as a reawakening that social upheaval does not happen with a cinematic metaphor.
The new wave reconceptualizes horror as a genre to reveal the horrors of the real world. These films contend that no matter what horrifying things happen on the screen, the real force of evil is the world we live in. They explore the full spectrum of human emotions rather than simply exploiting the superficial fears that dictate the genre. They call attention to the complex aspects of society without claiming political pertinence. The new generation of horror filmmakers blurs the line between horror, fantasy, and thriller, even extending their grasp to action, comedy, and drama; and in the process, reinvents a new genre for themselves, one that exists between the confines of the existing labels. Their films don’t work because they transcend horror; they work because they connect horror to everything around it. To categorize their works by genre or style is to overlook their originality and go against exactly what they are trying to achieve: breaking down the unspoken barriers separating genres. In challenging these freedoms and limitations, they push boundaries and create room for change.
This is the rebirth of horror.
- “‘Get Out,’” The Envelope, The LA Times.
- Vann R. Newkirk II, “Us and Jordan Peele’s New Horror,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2019.
- Brian Hiatt, “The All-American Nightmares of Jordan Peele,” Rolling Stone, January 29, 2019.
- Vinnie Mancuso, “Robert Eggers, Director of ‘The Witch,’ on the Horror Right in Front of Us,” February 25, 2019.
- Bryan Bishop, “How Hereditary Director Ari Aster became an Unlikely Horror Director,” The Verge, June 7, 2018.
- E. Alex Jung, “Bong Joon-ho’s Dystopia Is Already Here,” Vulture, October 7, 2019.
- Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho (CJ Entertainment, 2019).