The recent shift in the horror genre of film directly coincides with the ever-increasing public awareness of mental health. What horror movies can do, which other genres can’t often do, is discuss and depict surreal truths that are deemed ‘touchy’ or ‘inappropriate.’ As is the case with any film touching on sensitive topics, there is a thin needle to thread of not glorifying, over-exaggerating, under-exaggerating or just generally misrepresenting certain perspectives and stories. However, the past couple of years have seen horror films handle issues of psychological trauma with greater deftness.
This is not to say that these movies did not exist up to this point. Movies such as “American Psycho” (2000) and “Black Swan” (2010) are two of the more revered films of the 21st century. Still, a breakthrough around 2014 catapulted the subgenre of psychological horror to the forefront of the genre.
Two films, “The Babadook” (2014) and “It Follows” (2015), both popularized with the help of Netflix, unearthed the subgenre that had only been seen in sporadic bursts throughout the years. These two films garnered respective Rotten Tomatoes scores of 98 and 96 percent, respectively, though their box office scores were not up to par with the more conventional horror movies of these years. And yet their influence was immediate — movies like “Split” (2016), “Gerald’s Game” (2017), “Mother!”(2017) and “Hereditary” (2018) were released, and the psychological horror subgenre started becoming more prevalent.
The shift can also be attributed to the desire to tell new stories. Many conventional horror films from 2010 until today have been either successful both critically and commercially or only commercially. Films such as “Insidious” (2010), “The Purge” (2013), “The Conjuring” (2013) and “Annabelle” (2014) spawned series due to their low budgets and wildly high box office scores. But the films of these series, regardless of their critical scores, told similar stories or contained similar thematic elements in each film.
Each of the aforementioned psychological horror films tell vastly different stories because the human psyche is unique. When the main source of horror in a movie is internal as opposed to external, there are many more ideas to explore.
There is an argument to be made that the successful psychological horror movies of the past few years hover closer to the psychological thriller genre than the horror genre often associated with classics such as “Halloween” (1978) and “The Thing” (1982). However, this is a flawed argument that assumes that classic horror films are the determinants for what is truly horror and what is not. Manifestations of external horror, such as a masked murderer chasing the protagonist with a knife, can be just as terrifying as those of internal horror, such as an anthropomorphized manifestation of grief wreaking psychological havoc on a widow.
It is likely that the trend of psychological-horror films will continue for a while — probably until their market becomes inevitably oversaturated and consumers start negatively responding by not watching these films anymore. With this oversaturation comes a decline in effort and a tendency towards formulaic-ness that will only push the current state of the genre back to what it was when popcorn flicks dominated the horror movie landscape. However, there is no sign that this fate is coming anytime soon.
These popcorn flicks haven’t gone away completely, either. Just this past year the three highest-grossing horror films were “A Quiet Place” (2018), “The Nun” (2018) and “Halloween” (2018), none of which focus on the psychological elements of horror.
So it seems that the shift is not complete in any sense, nor is it definitely headed to one extreme. It is possible that multiple horror subgenres will take up the responsibility of leading the genre through its evolution.
Regardless, more variety in the genre is good for horror fans. As long as horror filmmakers continue trying to tell original stories in smart ways, especially ones of mental health, audiences will continue to be receptive.
One point of worry is that recent successful horror movies will revert back to the cycle of spawning repetitive sequels. If this happens, the genre will falter again. This is why the upcoming sequel to “A Quiet Place” is worrisome.
Recent variety in the horror genre has set it apart from a movie landscape plagued by redundancy. Let’s hope the genre doesn’t pull a classic horror movie protagonist move and head down a road that obviously will lead to a grisly end.