Horror movies are supposed to be horrible. Their job is to show us situations that elicit fear and revulsion. Thus, they tend to highlight the worst in humanity, not the best.
Why, then, would anyone want to watch horror movies? Many people don’t. My partner refuses to watch most of them (vampire movies excepted), because they just make her too tense. I, on the other hand, love a good one; I often find them beautiful. When the vampire descends on his victims in the classic Nosferatu (1922), the scenes inspire awe in me—that is, a feeling of smallness in the face of something much greater than myself. In this case, the thing that makes me feel small is death itself, personified by the vampire.
Death is the great theme of the horror genre, and, in these movies, death comes in many forms. In the slasher film, mortality is a knife-wielding maniac. In ghost stories, death is some kind of emissary from the afterlife, walking among us. In a zombie flick, the dead rise from their graves and try to eat our brains.
Why do we so compulsively tell and listen to these stories? By turning our fears of injury and illness and death into fantasy stories, we can exert some measure of control over them. In our early evolutionary history, wild animals jumped out of the bushes, making us feel tiny and afraid and edible—and so in horror movies those animals become gigantic, as in King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954). We’re exaggerating and dramatizing fears, but in the drama we control what happens, not nature.
Telling horrible stories helps us to feel less alone with these fears, but they do something else, as well: They explore how we might behave in the face of danger.
In Dracula (1931)—and in all the vampire movies that came after it—humans share knowledge with each other about bloodsucker counter-measures: garlic, crosses, sunlight, stakes through the heart. We cooperate to defend ourselves against death itself. In some of the more radical vampire movies, like The Hunger (1983) and Let the Right One In (2008), the protagonists don’t resist death at all—they befriend it, become its ally, sometimes its consort.
The choices we make in the face of death are moral ones. What is right? What is wrong? Should we hold on to our own lives at the expense of others? Or do we sacrifice ourselves for the greater good? In fighting evil, do we allow ourselves to become evil—or is goodness the only answer we can ever give to evil, lest we become what we fear? These are the questions that horror movies ask again and again.
Here are six horror movies from the past year that each highlight something good about humanity—the qualities and behaviors that can help us survive in the face of the uncontrollable and horrible. Or if not survive, then at least accept the inevitable.
The Addams Family
The cartoonist Charles Addams created his family of misfits and spooks in 1938—and they’ve been creepy and kooky ever since, through many media.
The latest incarnation of The Addams Family is an animated film, out in theaters as I write, that starts with Gomez and Morticia being chased away from their own wedding ceremony, along with Uncle Fester and Thing, by a mob angry at how strange and different they are.
That’s fitting, because the Addams family has always been about how we respond to the strange and the different. This was mostly implied in the first cartoons and classic TV series that ran from 1964 to 1966, and then made explicit in the 1991 movie by director Barry Sonnenfeld. Its 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values, took things to a whole new level as it went straight for the jugular of American hypocrisy and conformity.
As its myth has evolved, the Addams family has come to stand for embracing differences, accepting what we can’t control, and looking in the darkest corners for comfort and meaning. It’s not accidental that the story plays with horror-movie tropes—the creepy old woman, the scary little girl, the disembodied hand, the butler who lurches into scenes like Frankenstein’s monster. In The Addams Family, horror isn’t something to be avoided, because what we dread is always a part of who we are. We overcome our fears by turning toward them—and snapping our fingers.
It: Chapter Two
The first It movie—released in 2017, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel—capitalizes on the archetypal image of the scary-ass clown, who in this story is named Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgård). When Pennywise smiles, we scream.
Why should clowns like him be so freaky?
Clowns remind us of the innocence of childhood and yet they also evoke insanity. Clowns exist to be senseless, irrational, reckless, inexplicable. They’re childlike but they’re not children; the colorful makeup and clothes clowns wear often simulate happiness (or sadness) but the traditional costume is just a mask, suggesting a hidden agenda. At any moment, the madness underneath the face-paint can strike at us. In putting its finger on this tension between innocence and insanity—and then ruthlessly pressing down until it hurts—It rouses a very particular fear: of threats to our children.
The plot of It goes into motion when six-year-old Georgie disappears. A group of outcast kids band together—dubbing themselves the Losers—to find Georgie and other children who are disappearing. What they discover is Pennywise, who reaches into their minds and unleashes their secret fears.
As is so often the case in horror movies, the Losers don’t survive by running away from what frightens them. Instead, they defeat Pennywise by facing and then growing beyond their fears. This year’s sequel (spoiler alert, but not really) ends in a similar way, with the now-grown-up Losers confronting their grown-up fears and making Pennywise seem small enough to vanquish.
The story is about threats to children, but it’s not adults who can save them. The children save themselves by becoming more adult.
Midsommar is the story of four hapless American graduate students who are invited by their “friend” Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit the Swedish “commune” where he grew up, Hårga. Unlike many horror movies, almost all of this one takes place in broad daylight, in Sweden during a time of the year when the sun hardly sets. Director Ari Aster creates a series of visually and aurally integrated set pieces, with every color and shape and sound arranged in elaborate patterns for maximum emotional effect. The dominant emotion is dread.
What are we dreading, exactly, in Midsommar? Death looms large in this story, but this is really one of those horror movies that asks us, in a very direct way, to make friends with our own mortality. The protagonist, Dani, starts the movie running away from death, but by the end she has learned to take a kind of joy in it. So, yes, Midsommar is about death, but its specific horror lies elsewhere—in gaslighting.
That word comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a man tries to convince his wife that she’s crazy by contradicting what she sees as he secretly controls the gas-fueled lights in their home. Gaslighting has come to describe a form of psychological manipulation in which people seek to make their targets question their own memory and sanity.
What’s striking about Midsommar is how completely Dani (Florence Pugh) and the audience are both swallowed by Aster’s set pieces, which cut us off from the outside world and also our own selves. The reality created by the director—and the people of Hårga—is dangerous because the deception is so persuasive. Like the clown’s face-paint, the set pieces conceal a hidden agenda.
Why is Midsommar on this list? Where can we find the best in humanity in this movie? In many ways, Hårga really is a kind of utopia. It’s playful and creative, and its people take genuine care of each other. As Pelle tells Dani, whose sister murdered her parents:
My parents, they burned up in a fire, and I became, technically, an orphan. So, believe me when I tell you that I know what it’s like. Because I do, I really, really do. Yet my difference is, I never got the chance to feel lost, because I had a family here, where everyone embraced me, and swept me up. And I was raised by a community that doesn’t bicker over what’s theirs and what’s not theirs. That’s what you were given. But I have always felt held. By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves. And you deserve.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It is. And in this scene, Pelle is telling Dani a truth. Hårga is the monster in Midsommar, but it’s a monster that contains empathy, compassion, and altruism. Only when viewed from the outside is Hårga a monster; from the inside, it is a lovely and caring place. The bonds of Hårga’s in-group are unbreakably strong, which allows them to create seamless, complex, manipulative traps for outsiders. Midsommar becomes a horror movie because it coolly describes how the best in “us” can be weaponized against “them.” (If I told you how that happens, I’d spoil the story.)
In this way, Midsommar reminds us that horror is very much in the eye of the beholder. To the victims in the movie and to the audience watching their suffering, Pelle emerges as sinister. To his people, however, Pelle is a hero.
What’s even freakier than a clown? Someone who looks exactly like you, but who is not you.
In horror movies, our doubles can stare back at us from mirrors; they can be clones that are grown in a lab; they can be robots bent on replacing us. This fear of our own reflections has ancient roots in myths and fairytales. In Irish folklore, seeing your “fetch” is a sign of your own impending death. Spotting the doppelgänger of German folklore means you’re about to have some very bad luck.
That’s certainly the case in Jordan Peele’s Us. The story starts when a child named Adelaide (later played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) wanders into a hall of mirrors on the Santa Cruz beach. There, one of her reflections comes to life—and that is when the movie takes a very dark turn.
Many people didn’t like this film, especially in the wake of the director’s instant-classic, much-beloved Get Out, which is currently the highest-rated horror film on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw Us with my fifteen-year-old son, who got stuck on the implausibility of its explanation for the doppelgängers in the story.
I argued to him that Us is more like a fable than science fiction, in which everything is supposed to have logical explanations. Us is driven by a dream-logic that can be deeply unpleasant to experience, because we can’t control what we dream. The world of Us is like our world, but it’s not our world. It’s a double—us but not-us. The world of Us is everything we refuse to see, emerging from the subconscious and subterranean.
In Midsommar, the threat comes from other people who manipulate our sense of reality. In Us, it is we who manipulate our own reality, in order to avoid seeing some hard truths. The movie’s threat is one we create ourselves, out of convenience and ignorance. (And again, I can’t tell you more without spoiling the plot.) That’s why the “monster” in Us can’t be defeated by physical violence. The monster is “us.” In the mirror-world of Us, the only weapon that could possibly work is self-awareness.
Zombieland: Double Tap and The Dead Don’t Die
These two movies are the year’s best zombie comedies. Of course, they might be the year’s only zombie comedies. It’s probably not a coincidence that actor Bill Murray is in both of them.
Otherwise, they’re very different from each other. Double Tap (a sequel to 2009’s Zombieland) is a straight-up goofball laugh-fest about a makeshift, misfit family who keep the walking dead at bay with sarcasm, neurotic rules, and guns—lots of guns. For its part, The Dead Don’t Die is so deadpan and subtle that you’ll miss the humor if you’re not paying attention; it functions as a satire of both 1970s horror films and contemporary small-town America.
The two movies do have one thing in common, aside from Murray and the zombies: There is tremendous warmth between the characters. This is easy to miss, in both cases. In The Dead Don’t Die, irony can mislead us into thinking the people in the story don’t matter to each other. In Double Tap, it’s hard to take the relationships too seriously, because everyone is so damn snarky. “I avoided other people like they were zombies, even before they were zombies,” says Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the man-child anti-hero. “Now that they are all zombies, I kinda miss people.”
But there is so much in both these movies that betrays a secret agenda of connection and compassion. It shows up in the ways that Columbus tries to make his girlfriend Wichita happy, and how Wichita (Emma Stone) tries to take care of her sister. In The Dead Don’t Die, it’s in the very first scene, when Sheriff Cliff (Murray) reacts with compassion after Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) takes a shot at them with a gun. The characters in the movie’s local diner really like each other, and both they and we feel genuine loss when the disemboweling and brain-eating start.
Why go to such lengths to obscure the warmth with snark and irony?
Zombie movies are almost always about the ultimate in-group-versus-out-group competition: the living and the dead. They are very seldom about a lone hero against a legion of walking corpses; instead, zombie movies tend to highlight the social dynamics among a group fighting to stay alive. As Columbus says at the end of Zombieland, “Without other people, you might as well be a zombie.”
But in these groups, people disagree and argue. People are flawed and they have foibles, and they might even start to fight each other, breaking off into smaller and smaller in-groups, becoming even weaker and more vulnerable in the process. This reveals an essential truth about humans: We try instinctively to connect and cooperate, and yet our connection and cooperation are extremely tenuous.
The snark and irony have a purpose, which is to show how much the characters need to struggle through distrust in order to find and help each other. They bicker, but, deep down, they know that survival depends on getting along. Here we come to the warning embedded in most zombie movies: Everyone dies, sooner or later—but death will come sooner if you don’t get over yourself.
Is that a grim message or an optimistic one? I vote for optimistic, though I know it’s difficult to find optimism in stories where everyone dies. You have to train yourself to see the good in horror movies. If you can find it in them, trust me: You’ll be able to find the good in anything.