“We’re terrified of disruption,” said Stephen King, the master of the things that go bump in the night, in his 2006 interview with The Paris Review.
In every life you get to a point where you have to deal with something that’s inexplicable to you, whether it’s the doctor saying you have cancer or a prank phone call. So whether you talk about ghosts or vampires or Nazi war criminals living down the block, we’re still talking about the same thing, which is an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it.”
The small horrors seeping from the corners of everyday life have been the subject of storytellers for decades. From Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic Rear Window to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the inexplicable mysteries of our typically mundane existence have always had their teeth in readers and moviegoers. While most of us love a good thriller, the horror genre itself has gained popularity among those who might not consider themselves lovers of the macabre. Everyday people are starting to love horror, and major networks and movie studios have taken note.
The first project of its kind was American Horror Story – the first widely-viewed network series’ to take horror into television.
Television adaptations of King’s works and other works of horror had been attempted, but not to the acclaim of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story saga. The horrors and gore that had once been reserved for monster-based series like The Walking Dead, True Blood, Supernatural, and The Vampire Diaries were now running free through suburban America. The gritty, violent, and twisted series paved the way for others: The Following, The Strand, Hannibal, and Bates Motel to name a few. Small-town horror was back, sans monsters, and viewers were hooked.
The trend passed through documentaries like Netflix’s Making A Murderer and Amanda Knox, as well as into true-crime adaptations like FX’s The People vs OJ Simpson. Teen-oriented TV is also following suit with series’ like The CW’s Riverdale and Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens.
Horror films themselves are also taking note, becoming more complex and intricate to match the level of fright we can now find on TV. One of this year’s most critically acclaimed and daring horror films, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is a provocative take on the small-town horror premise. The crucial element in Peele’s film is race, and the unnerving Stepford-esque community of white families puppeteering a dark secret. Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness is a tale of the horrors of geographic isolation à la The Shining. The film is a bit of a mess, but altogether a beautiful ascent into the innate human fear not of death, but of decay. Additionally, last year’s It Follows was a classic suburban teen nightmare—sexually transmitted evil.
This concept, however, isn’t new. The horrors of small town America have been captured for decades thanks to the long-time masters of the game. Hitchcock was one – using light and airy cinematography to craft a visual contrast to the darkness that lies within ordinary things. His films Psycho, Marnie, and Strangers On A Train capture the horrors of human nature, providing a glimpse at the fine line between good and evil. King takes a different approach—his characters are often the prey, not the predators. His acclaimed novel, It, is the story of a small town whose history is deeply intertwined with monstrosity. The story features a group of kids who discover a monster lurking in the shadows of their small northeastern town. This story, along with The Goonies, are of course the predecessors to everyone’s favorite conversation topic, Stranger Things.
There are a variety of professional theses which claim to explain why people enjoy watching scary things. None of these theses are widely agreed upon, and the reasons why we enjoy horror are largely missing. This is the great unanswered question of horror—and isn’t it ironic? Our love of the genre itself is a mystery.
Some researchers believe it is because we are all sensation-seeking beings—that we want to feel heightened emotions which we may not feel or express in day-to-day life. Some think that watching people die is a cathartic and satisfying experience. The character tropes who are often killed off are historically the “culturally lesser”—prostitutes, minorities, sexually adventurous teens. We watch the cheerleader and jock get what they deserve for being assholes to everyone in the school. The underdog hero rises and we feel satisfied by the triumph of the average kid over evil.
King theorizes that “we need ghost stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts.”
But horror movies and books have existed for years. What is making them more accessible? Primarily, exposure. More studios and networks are picking up horror shows and films, and giving them the platform they need to reach more people. But why are these stories suddenly successful among larger audiences? It’s primarily because of the way the genre itself has changed. The quintessential slasher flicks of the eighties and nineties have been parodied and played out. The new horror lies in the house next door, in someone who pretends to be normal, someone who hides in plain sight. It’s the small town, suburban story that draws new audiences in.
Emma Donoghue’s Room, dir. Lenny Abrahamson
Horror has taken new forms. In many ways, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a horror story, as is Emma Donoghue’s Room. The way the genre has shifted towards suburban life and home life is a critical element in analyzing its somewhat newfound popularity. When we think of horror, we think ghost stories, serial killers, and gore. However, horror authors like Stephen King have been writing small-town horror for years. The stories are not always bloody, torturous films like the Saw franchise. A&E’s Bates Motel serves up it’s fair share of gore, but the true horrors lie in the small-town politics that influence the series’ events, and the slow and subtle progression of Norman Bates into the killer we know him to be. The show isn’t ridden with jump scares and torture. In fact, much of the series is understated – portraying Bates as a somewhat awkward teen with very normal teen problems. It is the otherness of Norman that we are attracted to – we know who he becomes, but we don’t know how he gets there. The quiet desperation you feel as you watch his descent into madness, hoping that things won’t end up how you know they do.
The grit of everyday life provides the basis for Gillian Flynn’s crime thriller Gone Girl – the tale of a relationship gone wrong. The horror of Gone Girl is not who gets killed, it’s who doesn’t. We see the parallel perspectives of a couple who is simultaneously gaining and losing control. There’s murder, madness, betrayal – it’s horror, but it’s not what we expect horror to look like. Donoghue’s Room is the tale of a woman who was kidnapped as a child. She lives her life in one room, with the son she has as a result of her tormentor’s rape. Room is marketed as a thriller, but it is horror. It’s about abuse, torture, and the horrors of isolation. Again, not what we think of when we think of a horror flick, but absolutely a horror story.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher
It is the repackaging of horror which has made it widely accessible. The thrillers we see today are grittier, riskier, horrifying. They are not thrillers. They are horror stories. Horror as a genre is not changing, what we are seeing is a forgotten side of horror coming back to life. Horror doesn’t have to be over the top, bloody slashing (although I love a good bit of that). Horror can be subtle. Those small details that feel out of place. The story of an ordinary boy evolving into a psychotic killer. We can all connect to the fear of disruption. We love to get under the skin of the things that scare us. We hope to find some small glimmer of humanity in the inhumane.
I’ll let Stephen sum it up, as he always does best:
The work of horror really is a dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives. Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing—we hope!—our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character… it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points. The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out. The Stranger makes us nervous…but we love to try on his face in secret.”