Horror Vérité: The horror of everyday life

Illustration by Agasha Kankunda

How the 2010s changed the genre by confronting the alt-right, xenophobia and racism within our society

While many may consider the genre to be lowbrow, unrealistic or simply gory, mass consumers can never seem to get enough of horror movies. 

Throughout the years, horror movies have relied on themes that audiences relate to: the struggle between good and evil, the threat of deviancy corrupting our society, and how law and order remain undefeatable. These narratives are based on shared, culturally-specific understandings of societal morality. What makes horror movies unique is that certain themes reflect social issues that define a generation.

Jessica Evans, an assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson University, has always had a love for horror movies.

“There’s something that’s kind of tantalizing about horror,” says Evans. “It’s dipping your toe into something that’s potentially frightening, but not threatening to the body.”

While taking philosophy, politics and various sociology classes throughout her university years, she came to understand the deeper themes and meanings behind classic horror films, from slasher thrillers like Halloween to the Scream franchise and other ‘90s and ‘80s films.

“That was something that kind of gave me an interest in diving more deeply into horror,” Evans says. “[By] thinking through how horror reflects common concerns, common fears, and common inequities in society.”

Her love for the genre can be seen in one of the many courses she teaches at Ryerson.  Popular Culture (SOC 202) is a liberal course that analyzes personal politics, consumption practices and ideas of the world that influence popular culture. While Evans only briefly covers the horror genre in her class, students are able to learn about how horror has been shaped throughout the history of film. 

Confronting the horrors of our own reality

Throughout the 20th century, horror movies have consistently used political and social fears to terrify audiences. From the Red Scare to the AIDS epidemic, horror films have long capitalized on current events to instill fear within audiences.

“[Horror films] did it in a much more kind of analogous fashion,”  Evans explains. By using fictional tropes, characters and symbolism, horror movies could reflect social dilemmas in a way that was not obvious to mass audiences.

“Our exorcisms and our witches and our ghosts stood in for allegories to common social problems,” she says.

In the past, horror movies were shaped by the impending Cold War, anti-communism and the uncertainty behind the AIDS epidemic. These issues were considered a threat to the morality of Western society.

Filmmakers used symbolism to subtly reflect these “threats” and often catered their films to the default audience: white, Anglo-Saxon audiences in a society that adhered to Christian values. Anyone that fell outside of that demographic, such as marginalized communities, were often ignored by the genre.

Unlike in previous decades, the 2010s saw horror directors zero in on a singular social issue that has defined the decade. There are multiple 

The 2010s has shifted away from the default white audience. This decade marks a shift in the creative tone filmmakers are using to critique current social issues. There is an increased desire for stories to push against the dominant systems, with audiences looking for stories that reflect the current social upheaval.

According to Evans, “horror vérité”– or “truthful horror” in English–can best describe how the genre is honing the use of everyday experiences to expose them to audiences through horror conventions. 

Today’s filmmakers are using horror vérité to expose various forms of oppression through this subgenre. Microaggressions, systemic racism and forms of oppression marginalized people face on a daily basis are all being laid bare to audiences.

Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out.” (Universal Pictures)

The term horror vérité, which was coined by professor Alice Landsberg, explains how films of today, like Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterpiece Get Out, use supernatural and traditional conventions of horror to analyze racial violence, white fragility and liberalism. In Get Out, Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) must confront these horrors when travelling to rural New York to meet his girlfriend’s family, only to discover a much more insidious plot that elevates the very real horrors that come with being a Black man in America. 

“I think what we see today is a very literal reflection of these common social fears,” says Evans.  She says that issues like anti-immigrant sentiment are also being reflected in the horror genre, like in Hulu’s show Into the Dark: Culture Shock

The show uses the same conventions as Peele did, only this time through confronting rising xenophobia and the real life horror Mexican migrant workers face under white employers. 

Indigenous filmmakers are also using the genre to confront colonial standards and systemic racism. Take Blood Quantum, a 2019 Canadian horror film by Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby, as an example. The film is set in an isolated Mi’kmaq community that is immune to a zombie virus. While white people can become infected by this virus, Indigenous members of the community are immune to it. 

This creates conflict when the main character, Joseph is forced to protect his friends, his community and his white girlfriend Charlie, who is not only vulnerable to the virus, but is pregnant with his child. 

The film is named after the colonial measurement system that is still used to determine Indigenous status, or rather the erasure of it.

Blood quantum laws have received controversy in recent years. In order to gain status within an Indigenous nation, one must have either one half, one quarter, or even one sixteenth of native blood. These requirements vary across tribes in the U.S. and Canada, and one cannot gain status if they do not meet these exacting standards. 

A still from Blood Quantum. (Shudder)

Barnaby says he created the film as a way to contextualize colonialism and the horror of the past, according to a Toronto Star article. He, like many other horror filmmakers, is using the genre to expose racial inequalities and colonial thinking that our society continues to uphold to this day. 

Horror movies have flipped a switch this decade by using the fear of xenophobia, racism and the alt-right to play out on screens. Even the threat of climate change has created a new horror subgenre called eco-horror.

An example of eco-horror is the 2018 film Annihilation, which examines a post-apocalyptic zone containing mutated plants caused by an alien invasion on earth. 

“The horrors that we see today are so horrifying, that they need not be hidden by or kind of masqueraded under the guise of ghosts and serial killers.”

Meanwhile, 2020 film Becky takes a deep look into the life of a murderous neo-Nazi (played by Kevin James) who leads a group of escaped convicts and breaks into a cottage during a father-daughter weekend trip.

In addition to new, original stories, horror remakes have become popular, updating older stories to reflect current social issues.  A recent example is the 2020 remake of  The Invisible Man, directed by Leigh Whannell. The reboot centers around Elisabeth Moss’ character, who has to fight her unseen abuser, who repeatedly stalks, gaslights and abuses her after she walks away from their relationship. 

While horror of the 2010s has and continues to use social fears to scare audiences, it’s doing so in a more obvious way that audiences seem to be responding to. 

“The horrors that we see today are so horrifying, that they need not be hidden by or kind of masqueraded under the guise of ghosts and serial killers,” says Evans.

Horror on the web: Streaming platforms welcome low-budget filmmaking 

When done well, horror movies can have high returns at the box office despite having low budgets.

“A lot of horror, in a practical sense, requires very little [production expenditures],”  Evans explains. “You can make a really effective indie horror film with very little.”

Evans points out that streaming services like Shudder are catering to horror fans and filmmakers by exclusively streaming ad-free horror content at a reasonable rate. 

The summer of 2020 has seen a successful period of low-budget horror, according to The Atlantic. The pandemic has allowed filmmakers to lower the barriers to entry through online platforms, allowing for more diverse representation in the horror genre.

Shudder is currently streaming Host, a film that was shot remotely throughout quarantine in the United States. Rob Savage, director and filmmaker, recorded the entire film in just 12 weeks.

A still from “Host” (Shudder)

The premise of the film takes place entirely on a Zoom meeting where kids in quarantine conduct a seance. He filmed scenes remotely from his house and worked with the actors to coordinate effects and stunts through recorded Zoom meetings, and while no exact numbers have been confirmed, the movie has been reported to have been filmed on a fairly low budget while maintaining high quality storytelling like its predecessors, Blair Witch and Paranormal Actvity

“You can produce horror quite effectively and quite cheaply, if you know how to pull your jumpscares and write a good story,” says Evans. 

Speaking of Paranormal Activity, the franchise is a famous example of a successful low-budget horror film. The first film of the series was focused on a young couple moving into their first home together, where they set up CCTV cameras to catch a demonic presence that is haunting them.

The success of the first film sparked the beginning of a popular franchise that terrified audiences in the mid 2000s, yet many don’t know that the first movie was shot on a humble budget of $15,000

While the franchise has gone on to expand its budget throughout each installment, it is worth noting how small its first movie budget was. 

The film went on to surpass $100 million dollars at the American domestic box office and the franchise is still going strong. The seventh installment of the film will be released in March 2022. 

Barriers to representation: What comes after 2020?

Although horror movies have adapted to more modern conventions, there are still barriers to receiving full representation in the genre. 

In her Popular Culture course, Evans discusses the use of the ‘final girl’, a cinematic trope that idealizes chastity within a white female lead. 

There has been a major push back against this prominent ‘90s trope in horror films in the last decade.

“What we’re seeing more and more recently, I think, is not only a push back against those stereotypes, but the female protagonist also gets revenge,” says Evans. 

However, this narrative arc is only applied to white female leads. There is still the process of creating stronger narratives for women of colour in horror films. Evans reiterates that there is still a lack of empowering narratives for women of colour in the horror genre. 

“The lack of racialized representation in these more powerful gender roles reflects expectations of gender, of womanliness, of chasteness, of propriety… those might have changed for white women,” says Evans. “ 

While the genre may have evolved in terms of developing empowering female characters and narratives in horror this decade, there is still limited representation for women of colour.

In her class, Evans applies critical race theory to examine a lack of representation in horror films that have been historically prominent in the genre.

Students analyze parts of Xavier Neal-Burgin’s Horror Noire, a documentary based on Texas A&M communications professor Robin Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. The film features Black actors, filmmakers, and other media icons recounting the racist and harmful tropes Black men and women have historically been subjected to in the horror genre, going as far back as 1890. 

“The lack of racialized representation in these more powerful gender roles reflects expectations of gender, of womanliness, of chasteness, of propriety… those might have changed for white women.”

Coleman looks at these racist tropes prescribed by white filmmakers as well as the evolution of Black representation in film in her research and subsequent documentary.

In her book, Coleman explains that “real representations” of Black people – excluding white people wearing Blackface – in film were treated as “curiosities and oddities”

In the early film era, Coleman cites that these characters were defined by scenes of Black people going about their daily lives while a white, male “adventurer” documented their activities, which many film historians identify as a limiting the role of the Black character that erases their innate humanity as both a character and individual in the story.

This was a popular lexicon in the 1930s, and this dynamic between Black periphery characters and white protagonists still lives on in horror to this day.

“[Coleman] discusses the trope of having the Black person die in the film. And I think in a lot of ways, we haven’t seen that entirely reversed,” says Evans. 

Evans reinstates these ideas in her class; the initial death of a Black character in horror movies is only done to serve the character arc of the white protagonist. Even if they are not the first death in a film, the chances of the character surviving are often zero to none.

With filmmakers like Jordan Peele, there is a new era of horror dedicated to creating developed narratives that better reflect the Black experience in North America.  

“I do think that these kinds of concerns are going to be kind of picked up in future horror films,” says Evan. “I don’t see that dying down anytime soon.”

The social and political fallout of the pandemic could also serve as a reflection within new horror films that may expose the social inequalities and economic bust for the next decade. Regardless, only time and the box office will tell what consumers of the genre think in the years to come.