Listen Up, Horror Movies: You Don’t Have to Spell Everything Out

The "prestige horror" boom often puts message first—at the expense of substance and scares.

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Listen Up, Horror Movies: You Don’t Have to Spell Everything Out
Screenshot:Hulu

At the very end of Mimi Cave’s millennial cannibal romp Fresh, Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) attacks Ann (Charlotte Le Bon) with a shovel, putting an end to Ann’s family business of kidnapping young women and selling their body parts to wealthy fetishists. “I asked you for help,” Mollie tells Ann as she wields the shovel, reducing Ann’s face to something red and squishy, “Bitches like you are the fucking problem.”

I groaned. Not at the blood—this was a horror movie and I’m a horror movie fan—but at the winking obviousness of the line. Yes, women who are complicit with bad men are, in part, the problem. But the line felt like political social media chatter, not a heat-of-the-moment pronouncement from someone fighting for her life.

Fresh, with its bizarre dance breaks, genuinely terrifying premise, and fantastic lead performance from Sebastian Stan, is a well-executed and enjoyable film. Still, that moment echoed a quality present in a lot of other contemporary horror—a tendency not to let subtext be, well, subtext, and instead to spell out every major motivating idea and underscore its relationship to the real world. This tendency has made some recent horror movies a little less fun, and significantly less scary.

Mariama Diallo’s Master is, like Fresh, another otherwise solid film let down by its own didacticism. Master, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video last month, is atmospheric rather than bloody, and is about a grim and gothic Yale-inspired university in which two black women, a student and professor (Zoe Renee and Regina Hall, respectively) are haunted by a spirit that lurks within its ivy-covered walls. It’s in the Jordan Peele-inspired lineage of works that use supernatural scares to underscore the real-life horrors of racism, and, like Candyman and Lovecraft Country, manages to both over-explain and under-sell the nightmarishness of life under white supremacy. In one scene, a white colleague praises Hall’s character for her recent promotion by saying, “Should we call her Barack?” Another eye roll.

Then there’s Ti West’s new film X, an homage to ‘70s horror golden age of porn. X finds a group of youngsters renting a farm in order to shoot a porno, only to fall prey to the property’s aged and eerie owners. The film’s final reveal is a pat message that hammers home its themes around sex and desirability—and the movie’s own righteousness.

This isn’t to say that horror movies shouldn’t hold commentary, in fact, the great thing about the genre is that it’s always been full of social messaging. In decades past, this commentary was often regressive, and took the form of virginal “final girls” and quickly-dispatched Black characters. In recent years, the boom in so-called “prestige horror” has dispatched with many of these more retrograde tropes, and given the red-headed stepchild of movie genres a new polish, as more diverse creators assume leading roles behind the camera. The thematic content of the average horror film has grown far richer—but movies messages are still often delivered in a clunky style.

Upon its release in 2017, Peele’s Get Out was rightfully deemed one of the best scary movies ever, and the film (along with its Best Picture nomination) helped kickstart the prestige horror trend. However, the formula for some of the ham-fisted horror films that would follow can be traced at least back to 2014’s The Babadook, which tells the story of a widow struggling to raise her son and fend off the titular creepy creature, a mysterious entity from one of his children’s books. The Babadook found a second (and in my opinion, far more fruitful) life as a digital gay icon, but in the movie itself the monster is a heavy-handed symbol of grief. At the end of the film, the widow locks the Babadook in the basement, feeding it worms but keeping it largely under control. The movie combined loudly telegraphed and not-especially profound social observations—grief is frightening, it will never go away, it will eventually become manageable—with not-especially profound horror movie making. It’s a combination that’s dominated over the years since.

Horror isn’t the only form of entertainment that’s prone to didacticism these days. In a recent interview, Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson noted that some of the hit series’ appeal lies in the fact that it doesn’t “sound like a Twitter timeline,” as she told the New York Times. “People were tired of seeing their Twitter regurgitated back to them through their viewing. A lot of shows had started doing that. But people still want stories.” The show, which is about an under-funded, largely black elementary school, contains content that is inherently political. By taking a character and story-driven approach, the show illustrates these issues artfully and respectfully, but without leaning into obvious writing.

However, openly allegorical horror is especially challenging to pull off because the essence of fear is the unknown. When movies spell absolutely everything out, there’s little room for doubt and scares. Paradoxically, these movies can make real-life terrors seem less scary than they actually are. Racism becomes a haunted house that a hero can escape, violent misogyny is no match for a shovel. In real life, these sins are not so easily confronted or vanquished.

Luckily, there are still plenty of recent scary movies that either reject obvious interpretation or, at the very least, aren’t too heavy-handed about it. Julia Ducournau’s Titane, a French body horror spellbinder about a psychopathic young serial killer who gets off by making it with motor vehicles, is filled with familial themes, but doesn’t put obvious dialogue into its characters’ mouths to communicate them.

Then there’s one of my favorite films of the last decade, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, which teems with ideas surrounding maternity and mental illness. In a now-famous monologue, Toni Collette’s character confronts her son in the aftermath of a life-altering family tragedy. “All I do is worry and slave and defend you,” she bellows, “and all I get back is that fucking face on your face!” Her rage and grief is nearly incoherent—her character is a person speaking to another person, not the physical embodiment of a weighty theme addressing an audience. It’s all scary as hell.

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