Long gone are the days of cult followings in horror movies such as Halloween or the Scream saga; modern times call for thought provoking, uncomfortable films about cults.
But how do these modern horror films pan out against the classic slasher flicks of the olden days?
An old-but-great 90s flick is a great place to start in the transition from horror films relying on jump scares and gore to the modern trance of these two Ari Aster films. Scream (1996), and the following four sequels, rely on a fear factor that once upon a time dominated the industry: the jump scare. Accompanied by appropriately timed sound effects and the right balance between shock and gore, these movies kept me hiding behind pillows as a kid and checking my closet before going to bed. The after effect of these movies were grand — movies like Mirrors (2008) kept me from even so much as looking in a mirror for fear that I might slit my own throat open while being puppet mastered by a mirror demon. An immediate fear of every relevant item — a closet, a mirror, a seemingly harmless doll (thanks Chucky..and Annabelle). The haunting of these movies, however, are quick to fade. A good night’s sleep and some daylight, or the occasional quick comedy episode after a good cliff-hanger ending and you would be good as new — no monster under my bed!
But as we enter a new age of horror, or rather indulge in the mysterious world of all things Ari Aster, a question is provoked: what is the after effect of movies that don’t rely on cheap gimmicks or jump scares, but rather force us to reconsider the way we view horror itself?
The answer to that question is indefinite, just as the effect these movies have on the viewer. As a consumer of a wide range of horror content, I can say these movies horrify me in a vastly different way than walking at a faster pace for the shallow fear of being stalked home by Michael Myers. These movies tick a different set of boxes — the kinds of boxes that make me pause the movie mid scene and take a few deep breathes, and genuinely consider if I can carry on.
Midsommar (2019), in the strangest sense, is actually a break-up flick. I watched this movie before I dove into Hereditary; not by choice, but rather peer pressure by a few people in my life whose opinions I value. To be honest, the filming of Midsommar was nausea inducing. I genuinely needed to look at anything but the screen during some of even the least graphic scenes of the film. The juxtaposition of imagery and sound, as well as the artful camera shot composed in every scene brought on a physical discomfort I could not deny. I watched this film on two separate occasions — I truly could not sit through the entirety in one go. But what about it made it so hard to watch?
The story so lightly opens with an obviously failing couple on the verge of breaking up. The break up is put on pause when one of the main character’s experiences a close family member go through a murder suicide— which for some reason beyond me, resolves by the couple accompanying a group of friends to a retreat abroad. What seems to be a festival of flowers quickly reveals itself to be a raw cult ceremony by which gore is systematically placed, leaving the viewer with endless questions that — spoiler alert — are never answered.
On the other hand, there is Hereditary (2018) — a slightly more straight forward horror film that grapples with the idea of modern cults worshipping demons and making extra-familial sacrifices to perpetuate obedience to a dark lord. Sounds exciting — right? While this film is slightly more straight forward (slightly given with a grain of salt), the film still leaves you with bountiful questions that — once again, spoiler alert — never get answered!
So how do these films succeed in horror? From the perspective of an amateur horror consumer, the immediate fear seems to be in the discomfort brought on by some stale imagery in both films. Whether it’s a severed head or an almost too-real depiction of people flinging themselves off of tall rocks onto slightly smaller rocks, the imagery in these films is just…gruesome.
When I think of gruesome horror classically, I recall upon the scene in Halloween (1978) where Michael Myers pins a man to the wall with nothing but a chef’s knife. This scene — although very spooky — is obviously unrealistic, and the depiction itself is more of an abstract horror rather than real life. But no — the imagery in both of these films instill the same kind of fear and shock of blatantly staring at roadkill. It is real life, and the film accomplishes its goal in that way — by providing real, believable horror.
Let’s face it — when consuming horror, most of the fun is hiding behind pillows with our friends and occasionally throwing popcorn in the air in reaction to a good jump-scare. However, Ari Aster accomplishes something different in our new age of horror: a fear that cuts so deep and stale, that the viewer is barely able to stomach popcorn while consuming its content.
But is the stale horror of reality really what makes these movies scary? On many levels, the answer is yes. However, upon further examination, the true horror of these movies lies within the unknown. The questions that arise throughout the film that leave you thinking… “what?”
As humans, we fear the unknown. We appreciate consistency and defined answers. Nobody likes to be left on read — at least not many people I know do. And on the same note, most people also do not like the anxiety that manifests within wondering about things. Where are the answers? Why did this scene just happen? What was that look for? Ari Aster carries the modern horror genre into a whole knew level of pondering — one that will provoke the same types of questions that may arise while watching movies that exist within contemporary films. Contemporary horror is a completely new beast, not reliant at all on the classic mechanisms of slasher flicks or 90s gore. It forces you to question the way you live life, explore reality, and what truly matters in a world full of such raw fear and emotion. Dismay resonates after consuming this level of media, often leaving room for difficult questions that may never truly be answered, leaving a lingering of emptiness for weeks on end. Modern contemporary horror feasts on the corners of the human mind that most people choose to ignore — but the question is, are you one of those people?