For readers of this site, I have written extensively on the horror genre. While mostly in a humorous manner, live-recapping horror films as I watched them, I have a sincere appreciation of the genre. Mostly because it delves into subject matter that we consciously, and perhaps forcefully, push out of our daily thought processes: the inescapable horror of death itself.
It is an art form born out of poverty-stricken writers who wrote for pulp magazines and cheap penny papers stretching back to the mid 19th-century; lurid tales that detailed gruesome acts of violence upon those that have either invited such chaos or else were hapless victims of circumstance.
But when the film industry finally figured out that this genre could provoke and draw in a new crowd, the stylistics changed, mostly to reflect contemporary fears. Early horror films drew upon classic mythologies, such as Nosferatu (or Dracula), while others took from early adapters to the genre, as the many retellings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tale have attested.
But these took the form of what we could consider the “ungodly” type of horror: creatures born against the Christian paradigm of natural creation and life, of standards and morals to be upheld. While cinema’s greatest early creations were comments upon sinning against the natural order of man and God (Dracula, Frankenstein) or else were reflective of the inherent mistrust of science as an amalgamation of process and magic (Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and, again, Frankenstein), both approaches toed the same line: do not mess with the natural world and order of things, or else disaster will occur. Godfather of modern horror H.P. Lovecraft dedicated his entire oeuvre in using such curiosities of elements that shouldn’t be tampered with—outside the realms of man, God, or human understanding itself—to create the genre of weird fiction (and of which Stephen King has been making a mint on ever since).
But as times changed so did the horror genre, particularly in film. Post-WWII American cinema focused more on the possibility of the Atomic Age creating some sort of super-strong mutants that would have to be combated, or else played upon the Cold War fears of Americans by having deceptive aliens begin to manipulate our plane of reality.
And yet time, as it inexorably does, marched on, and due to the acceleration and proliferation of media outlets and demand, the horror genre shifted to get more bang for its buck: out with the metaphor and in with the gore. While earlier (1930’s-50’s) horror films were often laced with some sort of social message, the sci-fi genre picked up this metaphorical ball and ran with it by the late 1960’s.
As a result, the horror genre in film began to become more about delivering shock and visceral violence than attempting to create any sort of lasting moral or social message. The heyday of the grindhouse film illustrates this point eloquently enough: with many social taboos having been shattered during the tumultuous 1960’s, censorship in regards to on-screen violence also loosened, to the point where horror films became immediately one of the most profitable genres in history due to low production costs and their ability to lure in audiences with graphic violence that had previously never been allowed to be disseminated widely to the public.
And so the grindhouse era gave way to the slasher era, where an easy formula was derived: place a group of young people in an isolated area and let loose the murderous, and mostly supernatural, force that would systematically work its way through their bodies.
And for a while, it was good: these types of horror film satiated a (mostly young) market that caught a visceral thrill at watching one easily identifiable stereotype after another of their generation get eviscerated on-screen. It was both an easy escape from the grim reality of death while also reassuring the audience that they were safe from the grim horrors depicted on-screen.
But then the 21st century happened. More specifically, 9/11 happened. The events of that day have created a shockwave that has yet to subside across the world, has shattered perhaps an entire generation (mine included), and has left the world as a whole assured by only one idea: that anything at any time could happen to anybody, through no fault of their own, and it will utterly destroy everything they hold dear—and the horror may not even end there. And here’s the real horror story: it doesn’t.
Old horror films of the 20th century had conclusive endings: a maniac kills a bunch of people and then is stopped by somebody. And then the horror stops. The 21st century horror is that it is unstoppable.
Everything about the 21st century feels like an endless onslaught: a 24/7 news cycle, the constant mind-bending unwieldy discourse that is the internet, billions of people suddenly being able to disseminate their thoughts and feelings on any given idea or subject at any time, etc. The 21st century horror is that it is not only unstoppable but completely out of our control. No matter who we are or what we do, it will find us and could potentially destroy us.
Think of every rich and famous person that has been taken down in the past 10 years alone just by the ability for people to reach an audience of millions.
Think of the celebrity nude leaks that bared to the world some of the most famous people in the world in their most intimate moments. Think of the careers, large and small, that have been utterly decimated due to a poorly thought-out tweet.
And think of how little any of that actually means to anybody. The powerful and rich, the nobodies, none of it matters. The 21st century has in the most nightmarish way confirmed every existential nightmare every thinking person has ever had: that we are completely unimportant. Every single one of us.
Maybe fame and money can provide a good cushion for this blow—after all, Harvey Weinstein is a monster, but he’s still far richer and lives a better life than you or I. But nobody in his industry wants anything to do with him. Sure, Jennifer Lawrence is still a world-famous movie star, but everybody has seen her naked and in her most private moments. And that all will exist forever, never to be forgotten or taken away. God help you if you’re just some anonymous wage slave that wrote the N-word on Twitter and got fired because of it. Nobody is safe in the 21st century.
Which brings me to my thesis: the unstoppable nature of horror in films in the 21st century. Reacting to this new never-ending paradigm of access, information, and connection, horror films of the 21st century now reflect the new monster—perhaps the most frightening monster of all: the unstoppable, unknowable one. The one that picks you and never stops and can never be stopped until you are completely destroyed.
It Follows is perhaps the quintessential horror film of the 21st century for this very reason: a young woman meets a guy and they have some casual sex, like many people do in our modern era. Only now, she is being mercilessly followed by an unstoppable monster. She finds out the only way she can get rid of this phantom is by having sex with somebody else, thus passing along the curse, but it doesn’t matter: the monster, once destroying that person, will go right back to its last target.
It is unstoppable, unfathomable, and completely out of your control. It wasn’t asked for and was largely an unwarranted death sentence due to a slight mistake. But it is coming for you. Unknowable and unstoppable. Like death. Like 9/11. Like how the 21st century seems to be shaping up in general.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another horror film of the unstoppable: in it, a father—who is a doctor—is unable to save the life of a man’s father due to a misjudgment (in his case, he had been drinking before a surgery). Try as he might to make personal moral amends, it is no use: As a result, the son places an irreversible curse on the man’s family that cannot be stopped after it is put into motion. One small mistake dooms his entire family by an unstoppable force.
Just like Hereditary, another masterpiece of 21st century horror that follows a similar path: due to the actions of the matriarch of a family set into motion long before most of them were even alive, the entire family is doomed to an unstoppable series of tragic events.
Midsommar—by the same director of Hereditary—follows similar lines, where the innocent place their trust in a group of strangers and are similarly doomed due to unstoppable forces that sealed their fates long before they realized what they agreed to. Hostel is another horror film that follows a similar path: the young blindly trusting and agreeing to terms before they can fully understand—or even anticipate—their consequences.
It seems the horror films of the 21st century are ones that reflect the worst kind of horror: real life. More importantly, the after-effects of real life and the chain of events that follow after an agreement of some sort is either reached consensual or otherwise. Or—even worse and even more insidious yet common—of terms agreed to but not fully understood. Ever read the entirety of those consent forms when you agree to downloading a program or turning on your new phone? Or signing off on a student loan? Those are the real unstoppable horrors of modern life.
What 21st century horror is revealing—and reveling in—is that we are simply pawns. Unimportant pawns that can be knocked down easily and with no real thought afterward. We are all meat for the grinder. Think back to those celebrity nude leaks. Sure, everyone paid lip service about what an invasion of privacy it was, but I have yet to meet anybody that didn’t get a damn good eyeful of them. That’s reality’s version of A Serbian Film—it’s horrifying and degrading but we just can’t help but look.
Think of your student loan. Mine is maxing out at 60K and I can’t even afford the monthly interest right now. That’s my It Follows. I’m sure it’s many of yours, as well.
Think of Jeffrey Epstein and the monstrous details that began to emerge before he “killed himself” just before his trial. Think of every famous person—every actor, politician, business tycoon–you can identify that most likely was heavily engaged in activities that would compel the average person go on a rip-roaring rampage of revolution in the streets if such lurid details of their deviant, monstrous activities were ever fully exposed.
That’s our Midsommar. That we even have the slightest hints of an unspeakable evil involving the most powerful people in our reality but have no way to respond or find any real justice to these unspeakable acts that far surpass any horror film any of us have ever seen is evidence of the unstoppable horror the 21t century has delivered into our daily lives.
Think about 9/11.
The horror films of the 21st century are horrifying because they are uncovering the most uncomfortable existentially threatening truth of reality in the modern world: that the monsters that are coming after us are most likely already among us and we have no way of either anticipating or stopping them. All we can do is anxiously wait for the next shoe to drop and hope it’s not going to directly drop on our own heads.
Mike Gray is a writer from Lovelandtown, New Jersey.