How horror films run parallel to public ills, anxieties, concerns

As the “IT Chapter Two” craze died down, the “Joker” controversy sauntered into the spotlight. While both movies flaunt hours of antagonizing clowns, they represent distinctly different ideas of what “fear” means to an audience today.  

This fear is collectively manifested in films that capture contemporary concepts and ideas that aggravate our insecurities and shake our conventional norms to their core: What happens when we damn the social pariahs? 

Horror films show us what lurks beneath the foot traffic of regular life, and force us to stop and stare down into that storm drain to face the fears we’ve been hesitant to acknowledge through the ages.

Edison Studios’ “Frankenstein,” based on Mary Shelley’s novel, was produced in 1910 as a short film. Revolutionary medicine and science was not yet developed, and unpreventable illnesses coupled with jarring and premature deaths were the main anxieties of the time. 

But people were not strangers to human experimentation. Just two years prior, Philadelphia researchers infected dozens of children at an orphanage house, which resulted in blindness, lesions and inflammation in some children’s eyes — in the study, they referred to the children as “materials used.”

These anxieties and unethical investigations came to fruition in the mangled body of “Frankenstein,” in all its unnatural glory. It answered their curiosities about resurrection and immortality, but left them with a gruesome image that tampering with science through the human body wasn’t as holy and wholesome as it seemed.

Cultural significance within the horror genre picked back up in the “radioactive years,” or the 1950s. The shadow of a devastating atomic war was cast over the genre as Europe was recovering from World War II, and people were exposed to the unprecedented effects of radiation. 

As such, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” burst forth from the pools of radioactivity, towering over and tearing through Japan — the country that received the nuclear terror attacks. Like Frankenstein, people were given a monster to match the anomalies they experienced — from disfigured fish to cancerous tumors — and a fantasy to inflame an uncertain post-war reality.

In the 1980s, vampire movies saturated the horror industry.  From “Near Dark” to “The Hunger,” divergent interpretations of the classic fang-toothed Dracula were in high demand, while other literary monsters lurked in the shadows of their 50s prime.

This was due to the populous’ fixation with blood, specifically an epidemic that involved the same, deadly transfusion of blood: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Vampires brought this silent killer to the screen, while also creating a new monster to accompany the physical horrors of AIDS: the social stigma that came with the illness.

People avoided health clinics and Planned Parenthood like they were the disease itself, out of the fear of being ostracized and the ridicule they would receive from their peers. AIDS doesn’t make itself apparent in overt ways, so anyone with the illness could be hiding in plain sight. 

Similarly, vampires morphed from pointy-eared, beady-eyed deviants into beings of human semblance, with charm, wit and charisma. In films they were more adept at hiding their fangs, but were still subject to a state of decay, especially in regard to skin (cold and pale). A common ailment of AIDS involves varying debilitating skin conditions from rashes to shingles.

Nowadays, our horror movies have grown out of the expanse of monsters and ghouls, instead treading in psychological territory with more depth and complexity than ever before. Though we indulge in the occasional classics — with remakes of “The Omen” and famously, “IT” — the genre has grown reflective of the deep-seated political turmoil that our generation is experiencing.

The political narratives can be as blatant and inflammatory as that of “The Purge” series, or more subversive and critical as that of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us.” Party polarization and the marginalization of minority groups are prominent themes in these films, which hold a mirror to far-Left and far-Right feuds and ever-present racial discrimination that run rampant throughout the country, symbolized through malicious patriotism in “The Purge” and the chilling line uttered by the main antagonist of “Us,” holding shears in mockery of the Hands Across America movement: “We’re Americans.”

As the decades march on, our fears and subsequently the horror genre as a whole will develop, transform and manifest into new collective nightmares and monsters. But for now, more killer clown movies abound.

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