What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen lately? The correct answer is: Who needs horror movies when we’ve got politics? Want to feel the cold, primal fear of being trapped inside a slowly shrinking room? Just check your New York Times push notifications! These are easy jokes, but ones that get at the truth—the scariest thing imaginable is being alive today.
It’s a reality the horror genre is responding to faster and more successfully than most other art forms today. In the best of these—Get Out, The Purge franchise, Don’t Breathe—the evil darkening the doorstep is not an unyielding maniac or reanimated homicidal horde. It’s racial conflict, a widening wage gap, economic oppression.
Jordan Peele's Get Out is not strictly a horror movie, at least not in the mode of demonic possession and extranatural evil (or unless your idea of horror is a future where only Microsoft products remain legal). Peele has been describing his movie, which recently surpassed $100 million at the box office, as a “social thriller.” Its horror is a high-key vision of what it means to simply exist as a black person in America. It's not the naked hostility visited on black communities that is the threat in Get Out (though it's present, too), it's the creeping, casual racism of liberal whites, affable people who go out of their way to tell a black person that they would have voted for Obama a third time. Donald Glover fleshed out these "good whites" for laughs in his show Atlanta (an optometrist who daps and throws Juneteenth parties, a woman with a Ph.D. in black masculinity). In Get Out, cultural appropriation is taken to its Island of Dr. Moreau extreme—lobotomized black people forced into a permanent, grayed-out existence of code-switching.
That discomfort, the sensation of screaming into a void, is a recurring visual motif in the the movie. At the screening I attended, the mostly black audience wasn’t gasping in bated terror as much as laughing in sardonic acknowledgement. It felt like the most sinister scene was the late appearance of a police cruiser, which was met with knowing chortles that, in this movie, the arrival of the cops won't signify rescue.
Get Out subverts the home invasion genre's classics like Friday the 13th and Scream—here, the menace is what's already residing inside the white suburban house—while going further. Its first scene, of a young black man out at night alone walking through suburbia, goes from a feeling of unease to something deeply sinister with the appearance of a car that stalks him. “When this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin,” wrote Manhola Dargis in the New York Times.
“Social thriller” is Peele’s nomenclature, but it’s a good descriptor of the swell of recent films that wear horror’s cowl loosely, masking their progressive messaging just beneath genre makeup. The class commentary of The Purge franchise is more emphatic, but heavy-handedness doesn’t make its point any less true. Set in a near future in which a national holiday of state-sanctioned anarchy has yielded record-low crime and a one-percent unemployment rate, it’s a dystopia masquerading as utopia, thanks to a few hours of cathartic bloodletting—and a warning about where a few missteps could land us. The first installment came out in 2013, when the heft of the monthly unemployment rate carried weight.
Its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, was blunter still, featuring an extended scene in which a wealthy white overclass who look as though they just played 18 holes deposits the captured poor into something like a laser-tag arena, and proceeds to literally hunt them for sport. By its third installment, The Purge: Election Year, the franchise's writer-director James DeMonaco dispensed with subtlety altogether. In it, a female senator runs for president against the majority party, a patriarchal cabal of sallow WASPs. There is also a guerrilla resistance force of black and Latino men and women. The words “predatory capitalism” are invoked. The Purge’s ideas found its way into our actual election cycle, of course—Donald Trump swinging pledges to drain swamps, build walls, and ban Muslims about his head like rhetorical chainsaws.
So why horror now? The low barrier to entry helps. Sentimental pseudo-musicals that call for a shutdown of the 105 don’t come cheap (La La Land cost $30 million to make), and those kinds of budgets do not invite risk in the form of deft social critique. Houses of horrors are another story. Blumhouse, the production company that helped bring Get Out to market, has made the scare-for-a-song model its own art form. Since 2006, they’ve churned out nearly five dozen movies, including The Purge movies and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, and have fostered the Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity franchises, all for under $5 million each (films that warrant sequels also warrant higher budgets, but not by much). The sub-$5 million figure ensures happy surprises, and Get Out’s early numbers are one of the happier ones: the $4.5 million film is the quickest of Blumhouse’s releases to breach the $100 million mark, its box office sitting at $111 million as of this weekend.
“The point of the company is that we let artists have creative control and let them express their political anxieties, class anxieties—or whatever they want to express—the way they want to express it,” said Couper Samuelson, President of Feature Films for Blumhouse. “The creative freedom and the low budgets are two deeply, deeply interrelated features of these movies. And yes, we're certainly not able to grant creative freedom unless the budget is low.”
The freedom could be worth the compromise in resources in a Hollywood where makers of mid-budget movies—which are now seen as a dying market inefficiency—are often forced to mortgage their vision. “If you want to tell really dramatic stories, the only way to do them and get them into multiplexes is to do it via a scary movie,” Samuelson said.
It's certainly not a new feature of the genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was a veiled indictment of homophobia at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “It's a question of degrees,” he went on. “It's always been present. I think the difference between those movies and Get Out is how foregrounded the issue is.”
The issues behind last year’s Don’t Breathe, a haunted house heist set in a ruinous precinct of post-recession Detroit, and Attack the Block, a 2011 British horror/sci-fi pastiche about black teens living in a South London council estate while resisting an alien invasion, could be appropriately described as “foregrounded."
These are the underserved spaces President Trump presumably refers to whenever he says the words “inner city”—a half-woeful, half-disdainful dog whistle that elides the scaffoldings of poverty, like predatory lending, redlining and color-coding (a practice Trump routinely deployed) that discriminate on race and leave neighborhoods to atrophy. “Show me a capitalist,” Malcolm X promised, “and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.”
Don’t Breathe in particular goes all the way in on its economic anxiety allegory, locating itself inside a generational struggle between millennials staring down an anemic job market and an aging veteran whom the social apparatus has forsaken. There are no ghouls, just people pushed to the margins, left to tear at each other for scraps.
The "social thriller," then, is plenty horrifying enough. As Peele, who has said he will continue to make these types of movies, told the Times about the films that inspired Get Out, “they all deal with this human monster, this societal monster. And the villain is us."
See scream queen Anya Taylor-Joy reveal her biggest fears: