I’m not your typical horror fan, but my Cuban grandmother couldn’t get enough of it. My abuela (Spanish for “grandma”) did not speak English very well. When she and my mother came to this country, they landed in central Florida, which, at that time, did not have quite the Latino population that it has today. So she had limited options and opportunity for art and entertainment in her new home city. (This is no longer the case, thankfully.)
My abuela liked two genres of American film and TV: game shows and horror films. It was partly because you didn’t need to understand English to follow along with either of them. My abuela‘s love for horror inspired one of my favorite memories with her: at the ripe age of eight, she woke me up in the middle of a school night (we shared a room because of course we did, we’re Cuban). Shooting out of bed, I said “What is it, Abuela?” She told me to look at the TV, where I was just able to catch a man with a pig’s head dueling a cop with chainsaws — what I later learned was the movie Motel Hell. My abuela was beside herself, laughing hysterically. I’m pretty sure the irony of a pig and a cop dueling was lost on her. She just loved the spectacle of it all and wanted to share it with her granddaughter.
But Abuela‘s love for horror was deeper than any language barrier because horror is the ultimate escape vehicle. It’s spine-chilling visuals, hair-raising scores and tension-building pace make it one of the most visceral genres of any medium. It cuts to the chase; it’s mildly predictable; and it will elicit a physiological reaction from its audience. It’s a guilty pleasure that is making a comeback with mainstream audiences. Just when, I might add, we need it most.
When audiences’ relationship with horror films began is a subject of some debate. Some people would argue that it began with 1896’s The Devil’s Castle:
Others may argue that audiences’ love affair with genre began in earnest, in 1922, with the creepiest figure of them all: Nosferatu, a silent, bloodsucking vampire badly in need of a manicure. As the Great Depression segued into World War II, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman frightened audiences seeking escape from the bleakest of hard times. It’s no coincidence that wartime audiences chose to escape from a real monster — you know, the one responsible for millions of deaths — by watching fictional creatures that destroyed innocent lives and then received justice and even retribution for their atrocities. Mainstream film closely follows current affairs and cultural shifts. So does horror.
The detonation of two nuclear bombs above Japan in August 1945 was a point of no return. The war was soon over, but the new weaponry posed an existential threat of real horror. As Americans started building their white picket fences and creating their nuclear families, we graduated from monsters to creatures from another world (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as well as homegrown terrors (Psycho, The Birds) and the zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead. As the years passed, Stephen King carried us into the psychological thriller –chilling stories full of dead pets, clowns and demented fangirls. And let us not forget our obsession with creepy, disturbed stalkers so often trounced by the young, virginal heroine.
I would argue that today the horror genre has stepped back into the spotlight. It makes sense when we consider the terrible, reprehensible, terrifying things coming out of the current administration, to say nothing of how man is destroying the planet. From American Horror Story entering its ninth season to the award focus for Get Out and Stranger Things, we appear to be returning to what we know: escaping the big, bad old monsters in favor of watching new, fictional monsters that, we hope, get what’s coming to them.
To put this another way, most of us can see that we’re no longer in control of a reality that we once trusted; what once felt unbelievable is now, sadly, very much believable. In such moments, we may find ourselves thinking: What could be scarier than this? So in the spirit of the season, here are a few suggestions to connect your horror viewing to our reality.
- Do you feel that dark presence? Titillating, yet unsure what danger it will bring? Maybe you have an idea — you’ve heard rumors, stories. No one has seen it unmasked, but you know he’s out there. He’s coming, and in due time he’ll show his face. Fire up Halloween, Friday the 13th and Scream in your Netflix queue, and prepare for the White House whistleblower.
- You thought you knew where this was going. You’ve followed this plot over and over again; you’ve seen all the signs; there is no way you’ve got this wrong — only, who’s this? Another plot twist, another diversion. Ugh, of course! It’s that guy from earlier in the movie, coming back to screw with us all again. You’re on the edge of your seat, you know this can’t end well. Fire up Rear Window, Vertigo and Spellbound. Their twists and turns will keep you guessing — like the roller coaster that is America’s gun control laws.
- Everything looks normal, it looks…nice. Where did you get that couch, love it! But why does everything feel so wrong? Almost too perfect, too correct. Why does it feel like you’ve sold out a little, relied a bit too much on the appearance and convenience of things? Wait, who’s running this show anyway? Soothe your mind of the impending takeover of mega-corporations by binging Us and Get Out. Oh right, we’re streaming everything from these companies now. We’re playing right into their hands, aren’t we?
- The danger is real! It’s palpable, but you can’t pinpoint it. It feels as if it’s in your water, in your backyard, even the local food court, and it’s growing quickly. You see it all over though you can’t believe your eyes; you feel it creeping on the back of your neck. Yes, the future of the world is at stake, and the only people who can save it are the children. To prepare for the imminent annihilation of our beloved planet, rewatch the first three seasons of Stranger Things. Just remember to tell the take-out delivery guy to leave out the plastic utensils — there’s no need to feed the Demogorgon.
- You’re not alone! His creepy smile; his sharp, bright makeup. His voice sending chills up spine. And those “jokes”? They’re all cringeworthy, a sliver of doom creeping in. Those tiny hands, that round belly. Oh God, no — he’s making that resting-clown-face again. No, you’re not watching Pennywise, Stephen King’s demented clown from It. You know what you’re watching. It was this.
Never mind. Maybe just watch all of Queer Eye again and remember that the world isn’t always a big scary place that’s run by a clown.