In 1974, Siegfried Kracauer wrote that ‘horror aims at letting people come to terms with things they are otherwise blindly subject to’ (Kracauer, quoted in Landsberg, 2017). He touched on a very important and often overlooked point: that if the genre of horror plays on our unconscious biases and social anxieties, it is therefore inextricably linked to our political viewpoints. For years, writers and directors have used horror to call attention to political changes in society, enhancing and sensationalising societal fears not only to inspire terror, but also to hold up a mirror to society. From The Crucible’s examination of mass-hysteria to the feminist narrative of The Stepford Wives, and most recently to Get Out’s exploration of racism in ‘liberal’ white American society, horror media has been influenced by political change and the anxiety it causes.
In this article I will examine how political change and social anxieties, in shaping our unconscious biases and fears, have influenced the genre of horror. I will begin by addressing the theme of female emancipation in horror, from the archetype of the Witch to the role of the ‘Final Girl’. I will then move on to address the theme of otherness in horror, examining the legacy of colonialism, the racial other and the role of transgender depiction. This is by no means a comprehensive review of the many complex socio-political factors that contribute to fear and horror media, it is simply an examination of how political change influences aspects of horror, and an acknowledgement that we cannot separate the political from the genre of horror.
It’s Alive! Female emancipation in the Horror Genre
The story of Witchcraft in America arguably begins in 1692 with the event of the Salem Witch Trials. Although the trials took place in a period of time where mass witch trials were not uncommon, Salem is set apart from those in Germany and England, its infamy cemented through Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. The play addresses the mass hysteria and puritan theology of the time in such a chilling and memorable way that it establishes the Witch as a primary role in the horror genre. Through the 1950s, and onwards into the 1960s and 70s the Witch became a key character in horror, allowing writers and directors to present ongoing anxieties over the increasingly contested role of women in suburban America. Women were expected to be content as wives and mothers, and yet with events such as the public availability of the contraceptive pill in 1960, and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the traditional role of women was being challenged (Murphy, 2009). Films such as Bell, Book and Candle (1958) captured this conflict, presenting women as witches with a choice to make: to be free, but forever lonely, or to settle down with the man of their dreams but give up their powers forever (Murphy, 2009). As time progressed, the narrative subtly changed. Young witches like Sabrina from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina could have it all, but only if their powers were used for good (Murphy, 2009). Just as the religious leaders of Salem had exploited the young female accusers for their personal and political gain, so the witches of the 70s were forced to use their powers for the concept of ‘good’ that had been decided by male characters (King & Mixon, 2010).
As horror changed throughout the 1970s and 80s, a new genre of film became popular- the ‘Slasher’ film. These pictures focused on a central, usually male, murderer targeting a group of friends. With this new brand of fear, an update was in order for the female characters. The term ‘Final Girl’ was coined by Carol J. Clover. Her presence in horror was evidence of the growing anxiety over gender and sexuality in the 1970s and 80s. Where her female counterparts were sexually promiscuous, hyper-feminine, and often murdered because of this, the Final Girl was boyish, virginal and therefore able to survive (Clua, 2020). For Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as for Friday the 13th’s Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) the ability to survive comes from refusing to give in to the stereotype of the pretty, feminine, hyper-sexualised secondary character. Traditional Slasher films used the Final Girl as a vehicle to express the anxieties of men over the emergence of second wave feminism, with every aspect of the genre emphasising the male gaze and male agency (Rusnak, 2020). The murderers are primarily male. The murdered are primarily female. Friday the 13th begins with a young couple of camp counsellors being murdered after they sneak off to have sex. Slasher films sensationalised that great fear of the post-Reagan era: female sexual emancipation (Rusnak, 2020). As time went on, Slasher films became less popular, fodder for satires such as Scary Movie (2000) and Scream Queens (2015-2016). But as feminism moved into its fourth wave, directors sought to give Final Girls a makeover. It Follows (2014) tells the story of Jay, who is cursed to be followed by a murderous force after sleeping with her boyfriend. What sets this film, and its use of the Final Girl, apart from other Slasher films is the influence of a new form of feminism. Fourth wave feminism emphasises the collective and its power, and indeed the film ends with a so-called final ‘collective’ of friends who have survived (Rusnak, 2020). Moreover, the film emphasises the idea that the so-called ‘norm’ that society must return to at the conclusion of conventional horror (white, male and middle class) is inherently threatening to women’s safety (Rusnak, 2020). It will be interesting to see how, as feminism progresses, the role of women in horror, and what is considered ‘safe’, changes. It is this concept of challenging the conventions of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ that leads me to my next section- the role of the other in horror.
‘Them’: The role of The Other in Horror
When did the ‘Cabin in The Woods’ become the setting of choice for any rural horror? From The Blair Witch Project (1999) to Antichrist (2009), directors have recognised that there seems to be something uniquely chilling about a small wedge of ‘civilisation’ in the middle of the barbaric wilderness. But why? From what corner of our collective psyche does this fear come? The juxtaposition of the ‘Civilised’ cabin and the ‘Violent’ woods harks back to a time when shelter meant safety and exposure to the elements meant certain death (Murphy, 2013). Writers and directors have used ‘the woods’ as a metaphor for our fear of barbarism and violence, linking the wilderness to what was in it - wild animals, and historically, the threat of exposure and of Native Americans. It is unsurprising that as awareness is raised around post-colonialism in politics, horror films begin to recognise that the true horror comes from the concealed violence of the ‘Civilised’ cabin and its colonising inhabitants and not the woods themselves. The legacy of colonisation has meant that where living in an isolated community tightens communal bonds, it also heightens the fear of the ‘others’ outside of that community (Murphy, 2013). It is in this vein that I will go on to discuss how the fear of the other has influenced a range of horror sub-genres.
In the midst of debates over what genre of film Get Out (2017) should be categorised as, director Jordan Peele provided one very simple answer: ‘A Documentary.’ (Peele, quoted in Landsberg, 2017). What he was referring to was Get Out’s status as ‘Horror Vérité’- media that is horrifying because it explores the truth, in this case the realities of racism in post-Obama America (Landsberg, 2017). Get Out emphasises that what is treated by the majority as paranoia is, for minorities, a lived horror (Lowenstein, 2022). Everything in Get Out emphasises Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) ‘Otherness’. The legacy of Sundown Suburbs in America plays into the environment of fear created in the suburbs that the film is set in, which are a ‘spatial metaphor for whiteness itself’ (Weise, quoted in Patton, 2019). Here, the ‘colour-blind’, ‘post-racial’ messages put forward by white characters make them complicit in the oppression of African Americans (Landsberg, 2017). What makes Get Out truly horrifying is not its jump scares or its use of suspense. It is the truth behind it. Peele held up a mirror to a society that seemed to believe that in the wake of the Obama administration, racism in America no longer existed. Get Out finds its roots in the same thing as so many other horror films - social anxieties and fears. It was simply that this time, it was the anxieties and fears of Black Americans that were being focused on. As Lowenstein has argued, for those who lack social power and are othered by the majority, common ground may always be found in horror (2022).
With this in mind, it is particularly interesting to turn our gaze back to classic horror films and consider them from a more contemporary perspective. The films I am referring to are in this case Psycho (1960) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). With the growing awareness around transgender issues and trans rights, it is even more important that we look back on how trans people have been represented in horror and how they have been othered and demonised. Although it is true that horror plays on existing anxieties, it cannot be denied that horror also plays a significant role in what we believe we should fear. In both films, to be transgender is to be associated with madness and murder. The themes in Silence of the Lambs play on the invasion of identity, literally presented through Buffalo Bill’s use of the victim’s skins as a ‘suit’. In Psycho, Norman Bates dresses up in women’s clothing when committing his murders (Phillips, 2006). Both films erroneously draw comparisons between presentation and gender, and play on anxieties over the subversion of traditional gender roles. Those rare horror films that deal with trans characters are written and directed by cisgender people, and therefore represent an approach to trans people rooted in cisnormativity (Miller, 2017). Until trans people are no longer solely villainised and treated as the other in horror, audiences will continue to internalise the view that trans people are to be feared.
It is easy to think that when we consume horror media we are being confronted by events so horrific and violent that they could never possibly happen to us. This is not the case. The object of horror is not to scare the audience with a scenario that could never happen, but rather to alarm them because it could. In this way, politics and horror have always been linked, with writers and directors using pre-existing biases and anxieties to confront the audience, playing on their societal fears and twisting these fears until they become something more conventionally monstrous. Second Wave Feminism ushered in an age of uncertainty over the role of women, how they should balance their new opportunities with their historic roles. This shifting role was personified through the figure of the Witch, a caricature of male anxieties of what a woman could become if she had the freedom to do so. In the post-Reagan era, this male anxiety morphed women into something new - the boyish, innocent Final Girl. The outsider, the other, has always been a source of fear, from the rural gothic’s dark woods, to the ugly truth of Horror Vérité. As politics moves forward, as the norms and ideas of what is ‘safe’ and what is ’dangerous’ change, so horror will change too. If we are to separate horror from politics, we must first separate our fears from our social anxieties and unconscious biases, something that I suspect cannot be so easily done.
Clua, I. (2020) ‘ ‘People Call Me a Final Girl But We’re All Final Girls in Lakewood’: Female Survivor(s) in Scream: The TV Series’, in Paszkiewicz, K. and Rusnak, S. (eds.) Final Girls, Feminism and Popular Culture. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 41-61
King, E.W. & Mixon, F.G. (2010) ‘Religiosity and the Political Economy of the Salem Witch Trials’, The Social Sciences Journal, 47(3), pp. 678-688
Landsberg, A. (2017) ‘Horror Vérité: Politics and History in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)’, Continuum, 32(5), pp. 629-642
Lowenstein, A. (2022) Horror Film and Otherness, New York: Columbia University Press
Miller, L. J. (2017) ‘Fear and the Cisgender Audience: Transgender Representation and Audience Identification in Sleepaway Camp’, The Spectator, 37(2), pp. 40-47
Murphy, B. M. (2013) The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness, London: Palgrave Macmillan
Murphy, B.M. (2009) The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 40-68
Patton, E.A. (2019) ‘Get Out and the legacy of sundown suburbs in post-racial America’, New Review of Film and Television Studies, 17(3), pp. 349-363
Phillips, J. (2006) Transgender on Screen, New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Rusnak, S. (2020) ‘The Slasher Film and the Final Girl Get Makeovers: It Follows and the politics of Fourth Wave Feminism’, in Paszkiewicz, K. and Rusnak, S. (eds.) Final Girls, Feminism and Popular Culture. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 115-133