Human beings have consumed horror and all that relates to it throughout the beginning of culture, rituals, and the introduction of storytelling. For many, it is a euphoric sense of release and a much sought-after thrill of escapism consumed in a variety of ways through media, such as literature and film. ‘The connections between civilization and horror are very clear: the origins of civilization are in violence; ritual and other forms of sacred violence are used o channel otherwise uncontrollably violence, destabilizing urges into socially licensed forms’ (Jones, 2018) The horror genre within film and literature has been forever evolving itself to suit the particular societal fears, pressures, and tragedies that have pervaded history, hence why the analysis of the new 21st century fears and anxieties within the horror genre is an important study. Horror can afford the viewer a sense of control by presenting tragedy through a lens they can relate to, allowing them to vicariously experience the viral pandemic fears of the real world. The general type of fear that permeates all horror, is simply the fear of the unknown, of that which we cannot understand or relate to and when our sense of what we believe to be true and our sense of self is ultimately and harshly challenged, however, this generalized fear is expressed in a variety of different ways.
To analyze, the specific newly emerged fears and anxieties of the 21st century it’s also important to briefly discuss and analyze the general fears and anxieties of the earlier centuries within the literature of horror, how the fears have shifted from one century to the next and why.
19th-century horror seemed to direct its primary focus onto the supernatural, all cultures have been populated by the concept of the other, demons, darkness, and evil. Early literature beginnings of the horror genre were established through the “gothic novel”. Dark, tumultuous, and dangerous stories set against the backdrop of gothic settings such as castles with ghouls, demons, vampires, and the undead, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula published in 1897, a story about a blood-thirsty vampire fraught with evil intent on seeking to wreak havoc on foreign land and to infect others, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published much earlier in 1818, a narrative about a freakish attempt to recreate and manipulate nature to scientific will until it wreaks havoc as well. These stories were pervasive and extremely reflective of the period in which they were published, with the first considered gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, being published as early as the 18th century in 1765 by Horace Walpole, a book known to have had a great impact on the developing horror genre. To summarise ‘the fear of death and the possibility of resurrection in gothic novels and their (later) movie counterparts reflected contemporary society’s fear of premature death and illness, before the advent of modern medicine’ (Lights Film School, 2018) including the ever evident threat of the rapid spread of disease and infestation, particularly amongst the poor and vulnerable such as cholera, smallpox, and typhus. Therefore the reflective literary works before the emergence of the 21st century showcased these shared societal fears and anxieties amongst the general population as these centuries were notably marked by wars, disease, and famine.
However, since the introduction of the 21st century, the general fears of the public have shifted to accommodate for the rapid technological and scientific advancements and the much more easily accessible and widespread knowledge given, which has arguably, in turn, shifted the general public’s fear of that which cannot be scientifically proven to that which is much more realistic and easier to imagine in today’s current climate. The focus seems to be on what is rationally proven and tangible, which in turn means a greater focus on the non-supernatural elements of everyday life. Films take on a documentary-like feel to their structure and intended purpose, straying away from over-the-top, theatrical, and difficult-to-believe elements of the horror genre in the years before, we have come to fear the average man and/or woman, rather than some scientifically fictitious monster lurking in the shadows. ‘Some theories of horror see it addressing ‘our deepest fears’, essentially static, part of the fundamentally unchanging ‘human condition’. But our fears are not fixed, they are mutable and contingent, a product of historical context’ (Jones, 2018)
However, films like The Blair Witch Project (Sanchez and Myrick, 1999) interestingly act as a bridge between the realistic and supernatural elements and an example of a noticeable shift in the general public’s interest coming into the 21st century. The film famously garnered widespread media coverage and attention for utilizing extremely realistic documentary elements and social media marketing tactics to spread false information about the alleged disappearance of the ‘documentarians’ in charge of the production of the film and their recovered footage. However, in reality, this was all a front to garner publicity, which paid off handsomely. The film garnered widespread appeal simply through word of mouth and grossed two hundred and fifty million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. The film was able to combine the classical supernatural elements of the horror genre, through its eerily gothic-like forest setting and paranormal antagonist, with the realism of a documentary and found footage film with authentic and unscripted performances and purposefully amateurish camerawork. The general public most likely connected with The Blair Witch Project because of its undeniable simplicity and the feeling those same circumstances could truly befall anyone, especially with the rise of media coverage concerning missing young adult and children’s cases in the United States that led to widespread social panic for years in the 1990s and earlier. The Blair Witch Project acted on these fears and anxieties that were prevalent during the time.
Because of this, there has been a distinguishable shift towards realist horror conventions, where there are similarities to the new modern media interest in serial/spree killers. ‘Freeland differentiates between “art-horror” – a category suggested by Noel Carroll (1990) – and “realist horror”, stressing the emphasis on the supernatural (vampires, zombies, lycanthropes, etc.) in the former, and on “naturalized” or “ordinary” monsters (human psychopaths, serial killers, etc.) in the latter. She sees a close relationship between realist horror texts and the contemporary media through their respective fascination with serial killers” (Jackson, 2002).
For example, most recent investigative true crime television shows, such as Making a Murderer (Ricciardi and Demos, 2015), act on the general public’s interest by figuring out the reasons for such human depravity within the human condition, which is achieved by looking inwards and accessing the only provable. Making Murderer documents the story of Steven Avery, who finds himself linked to a crime through DNA evidence, the series mainly aims to analyze whether or not Avery is guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach or a victim of law enforcement mismanagement and blatant cover-up. The series performed extremely well, no doubt because it placed the audience into the perspective of an investigator, unraveling the mystery together. Furthermore, an alternative explanation from Greek philosopher Aristotle ‘argues the 'concept of catharsis, according to which the act of witnessing artistic representations of cruelty and monstrosity, pity and fear, purges the audience of these emotions, leaving them psychologically healthier’. (Jones, 2018)
This need for understanding and reassurance for something so human but at the same time lacking in so much humanity is also yet another manifestation of a form of fear that has emerged in the 21st century. Serial killers are now a common staple of the horror genre due to the increased media coverage and widespread paranoia during the televised court proceedings and hearings of infamous serial killers such as Ted Bundy, who gained widespread media coverage and publicity for their crimes, something that was previously extremely difficult to capture in the past. His trial was the first to be televised in the United States and was reported on by 250 journalists from 5 continents. The general public has now been offered a view of the most morally reprehensible human beings, who are just that, human beings, just like everyone else. Furthering the knowledge that this could be anyone you know. This fear and anxiety have therefore been translated into investigative true crime television shows which focus on whether or not the perpetrator is guilty, it’s now up to the audience to set the trail and watch.
Coming into the 21st century also marked a decrease in the general belief in the supernatural. For example, Randall found that there was an ‘Increase in acceptance in religious values alongside a belief in faith healing’ because 'In some respects, it appears that people's supernatural curiosities may have been recently drawn towards religious content and away from other paranormal and pseudoscientific pursuits' (Psychological Reports, 1990). However films such as Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2007) directly contrast this claim, the supernatural is still a popular and highly sought-after mode of horror, however, it has over the years evolved to suit technological advancement. Found footage films have immensely increased in popularity over the years and delve into the fear of seeing/finding something you shouldn’t, something sinister and unseen in your home, what should be a place of safety. It holds similar fears and anxieties regarding home invasions, the feeling that an unseen force has invaded your home and left behind its presence, the introduction of CCTV and home footage is a direct response to these fears, and it could, therefore, be argued that paranormal found footage films such as Paranormal Activity became so popular due to these growing concerns the plotline of the second film, Paranormal Activity 2 (Williams, 2010) follows this premise as a reason to install cameras within the home in the first place.
However recent technological advancements have also led to fears and anxieties concerning the future possibilities of things such as widespread diseases and illnesses. We are consistently presented with boundless possibilities through our relatively easy and fast connection to information, the possibilities of incoming disasters marked by failed human intervention or perhaps too much of it. This fear has sparked a resurgence of the zombie horror genre in all forms of popular media such as film, television shows, comic books, games, etc. ‘Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, zombie movies have become more popular than ever, with multiple remakes, parodies, and sequels.’ (Bishop, 2009) For example, the television show, The Walking Dead (Darabont and Kirkman, 2010) grew into an immense cult following because of this resurgence in popular media.
The series itself begins when its primary character Rick Grimes, wakes up from a coma only to find that the world he once knew has irreversibly changed and is now infested by hordes of zombies. Society now faces the basic struggle for survival. Similarly, the film, 28 Days Later (Boyle, 2002) begins with the same premise, its primary character, Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma, only to discover the streets of a once-bustling London completely deserted. The two films and others of their kind, act on the fear of suddenly waking up only to find your entire world flipped upside down without warning, the general anxiety of losing control of one’s surroundings and being unable to return to everyday life is certainly a possibility that has always existed and previous generations had to, unfortunately, suffer through with wars and the constant threat of death. However, due to the widespread access to information and the speed at which it’s developed, these anxieties have become more prevalent. Therefore within the 21st-century‘ horror films function as barometers of society's anxieties, and zombie moves represent the inescapable realities of unnatural death while presenting a grim view of the modern apocalypse through scenes of deserted streets, piles of corpses, and vigilantes – images that have become increasingly common and can shock and terrify a population that has become numb to other horror subgenres’(Bishop, 2009)
Additionally, the zombie horror genre also relates to our fears and anxieties relating to our autonomy and control. ‘Body horror is a term summarized very usefully as 'the explicit display of the decay, dissolution or destruction of the body, foregrounding bodily processes and function under threat, allied to new physiological configurations and redefinitions and anatomical forms' (Jackson, 2002). Explicit representations of this fear exist within films such as Raw (Ducournau, 2017) and more subtle representation within films such as It Follows (Mitchell, 2015). In Raw, the loss of bodily control is very obvious as the main character Justine (Garance Marillier) begins to suffer from violent impulses towards consuming human flesh after accidentally ingesting meat whilst being a strict vegetarian during an initiation ceremony. The change is unwelcomed and brutal and exists to remind us of our animalistic desires and tendencies, which we must keep under control to function appropriately within civilized society. Of course, not everyone fears these violent impulses within themselves, but people can most certainly fear them from others. Furthermore, It Follows, demonstrates another type of loss of bodily control as the film act as an allegory of the mental anguish that follows someone with a sexually transmitted disease. It’s bodily horror actualized through seemingly supernatural horror, as the main character, Jay (Maika Monroe) inherits a curse after sleeping with her new boyfriend, one which follows her, quite literally, wherever she goes until she transfers it onto someone else. This film acts on societal fears and pressures of concealing and being ashamed of sexually transmitted diseases and having to suffer through them either permanently or temporarily, some of which can be deadly. These growing concerns and our much more open discussion of them inspire films such as these to explore the fears and anxieties held by today’s youth culture, therefore Phillip Brophy argues that ‘the contemporary horror film tends to play not so much on the broad fear of Death, but more precisely on the fear of one’s own body, how one controls and relates to it’ (Brothy, 1986).
In conclusion ‘the spectacle of violence, then, is encoded in art from its very beginnings’(Jones, 2018) and is very well established through the horror genre, which acts as a direct representation of many societal fears of the 21st century, such as the fear of disease, war, human monsters and loss of bodily control. All of these are unique to the 21st century due to our ever-growing interest and concerns with our safety and our unfiltered access to information that may harm our perception of reality and feed into our fears.
- Brothy, P. “Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films.” Screen 21.1, Spring 1986: 20-13
- Jones, D. (2018) Sleeping with the Lights On The Unsettling Story of Horror: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, Oxford. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [18 July 2020].
- Kyle Bishop (2009) Dead Man Still Walking, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 37:1, 16-25, DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.37.1.16-25
- McGrail, Lauren. “A History of Horror in Cinema.” Lights Film School, 19 Oct. 2018, www.lightsfilmschool.com/blog/history-horror-movies-genre-agf
- Neil Jackson (2002) 'Cannibal Holocaust: Realist Horror and Reflexivity', PostScript Vol 21, No.3
- Randall, TM: Belief in The Paranormal Declines 1977-87. Psychological Reports. 1990. 66: Pp 1347-1351.