Years of fears: How horror films keep us on the hook

Praised for refreshing the folk-horror genre, new horror film Midsommar may be accused of flouting convention.

When a group of American tourists partake in Midsommar, a summer solstice festival in beautiful rural Sweden, you might not expect things to turn sinister. But sunny skies and flowery fields is exactly what Midsommar director Ari Aster decided would make a horror film scary in 2019.

And as indie successes such as The Cabin in the Woods, The Babadook and Get Out continue the 2010’s “horror renaissance”, we look at what horror trends fall in and out of fashion and how what is ‘scary’ has changed over time.

A couple cowers behind their popcorn in a cinema.
Should have gone with a RomCom.

Not your cup of scream

When you get right down to it, horror is always going to be a matter of taste. With over a century of films to choose from and more subgenres than you can shake a stick at, there’s a good chance that something out there makes you shiver.

But horror is not one-size-fits-all, and realistic effects or the latest sociopolitical commentary don’t guarantee a scare.

Cecilia Sayad, senior film lecturer from the University of Kent, explains that “scary factor” is “very subjective”.

We've probably all grown out of a film at some point, too: something that terrified us once seems cheesy when we watch it again.

“Some elements of classic films feel ‘dated’," says Cecilia. "For example, special effects of films from the past (say, Jaws) are not as effective as today’s.”

And if we can predict what’s going to happen, naturally we’d feel more prepared for it when it does.

But for films like Midsommar to turn tropes and land a scare in 2019, the tropes had to be established in the first place.

All together now: Don’t go into the basement!

Michael Myers from the film 1978 film 'Halloween'.
Teenagers? Check. Halloween mask? Check. Reboots, prequels and sequels? Check.

For gore’s sake

Advances in special effects and CGI have allowed filmmakers to dictate scares in a way that just couldn’t be done 100 years ago.

In the 60s, British studio Hammer lay the foundations for “splatter horror” with gallons of their signature scarlet blood gushing onto screens.

The 70s and 80s, Sci-Fi and body-horror in films such as Alien and The Thing pushed the limits of prosthetic special effects, gifting us with scenes that would give us nightmares decades later. You know the ones.

However, what was shocking back then might not always have the same effect today.

“We are now much more exposed to gore and extreme violence than we were in the 70s and 80s,” Cecilia adds. “Halloween or Friday the 13th may be perceived as far less violent now.”

And CGI made strides over the 90s and early 2000s, making gory effects all the more accessible for franchises like Saw and Final Destination.

Although these might increase the “disturbing factor” in depictions of gore, it’s also the special effects that can end up aging a film - or spoiling the threat altogether.

“It can make a monster look more realistic, but I also believe that it can ruin the experience," says Cecilia.“I personally find that seeing too much of a monster or ghost makes it less scary… less is more in horror sometimes.”

This may explain why certain films still frighten us today:

“Having taught horror for many years, I see students have very different reactions to some classics: some find The Exorcist, for example, still very scary. The same applies to Rosemary’s Baby, which for some is still a disturbing horror film.”

Mia Farrow as Rosemary in 'Rosemary's Baby' leans over a black crib.
Rosemary doesn't lay eyes on her baby until the last few minutes of the film - and we don't see the father, either!
Frankenstein's monster holds a fainted damsel in his arms.
“We’ve been doing the Monster Mash since 1931 - she’s tired.”

Just another sign of the times

If it’s not relevant, it’s not necessarily scary. It’s hardly surprising that a horror film might reflect what's causing anxiety in society.

For example, the very real threat of nuclear war in the 50s and 60s inspired a ‘doomsday’ era of horror, creating a what if? culture of giant monsters, space invaders and science experiments gone wrong.

But horror themes tend to endure the times better than gore-fests, as they might become relevant again. Cecilia explains:

“Sure, it would be hard to find someone being too freaked out by James Whale’s Frankenstein, from 1931, but this has more to do with the film’s pace than its theme - which has never been more relevant, now that AI is a much bigger part of our lives.”

Are the 2010s truly a horror renaissance?

Drawn-out psychological horror - existential fear, fear of the self, fear of the unknown - has been a theme since horror began, but we’ve seen our fair share of jump-inducing flicks, too. This decade has given us a healthy mix of scares.

“I think it’s too soon to clearly identify a trend for the 2010s, even if we are coming to the end of the decade,” says Cecilia. “Maybe the fact that critics are finding Midsommer unique is proof that the slow-burn psychological horror does not really define the productions of the past ten years.”

“This is also the decade of the Conjuring films and spin offs: from Annabelle to The Nun. These are not slow-burn… Neither is It Follows, which, in my opinion, is one of the best horror films of the decade.”

So what does the future hold as we enter the 2020s?

Films like Midsommar might be a mark of what’s to come - but as long as vengeful spirits and possessed dolls are still making us scream, they probably won’t be leaving any time soon…

A creepy girl stands in a corridor, long hair covering her face.
"Has anyone seen my hair tie?"
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