Horror’s Having Quite A Year, Isn’t It?
Horror’s having quite a moment, isn’t it? I mean, obviously it being October the genre’s enjoying its usual annual renaissance, rising from its dormant phase to chill us to the core much the same way Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” does every December (and, let’s be honest, most if not all of November). But I mean beyond its usual seasonal bump, horror movies are consistently performing or even overperforming at the box office while “nailed-on” blockbusters are falling short of expectations if not outright flopping. But why? It was while watching INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR, the fifth film in the franchise, star Patrick Wilson’s directorial debut and a welcome return to form for the franchise after a turgid two movie diversion into prequel territory, that the answer occurred to me: horror movies are fulfilling an audience need that goes beyond mere escapism.
In normal times, people go to the movies for many reasons: to be amused, to be entertained, to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half on a rainy school holiday but the common thread through all of them is escapism. A break from the every day. It’s the thing that has kept cinemas alive through the rise of home entertainment from television through VHS and DVD to the current insidious era of streaming services. There’s an immersive quality to seeing a movie in the cinema, an exclusionary element that shuts out the world (assuming you’re not plagued by people who have forgotten what proper theatrical etiquette is) and leaves you in an absorbing darkness illuminated only by the giant screen.
So how does that equate to a horror boost at the seeming expense of regular crowd-pleasers at the box office? After all, FAST X and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING PART 1 offered their usual brand of high-octane escapism didn’t they? Yet they still underperformed significantly by their own standards. DC has released superhero dud after superhero dud and while the studio has struggled to ever set the box office alight post-THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (AQUAMAN? Really?), 2023 has been a limbo year for the benighted studio with them managing to slip below no matter how low the bar is set. Even Disney has seen underwhelming returns on its usually dependable cash cows of Marvel and live-action remakes. There are, of course, a multitude of factors which explain the performance deterioration of these marquee projects: the incomplete post-pandemic audience recovery, the shrinking of the theatrical window, the cost-of-living crisis, the list goes on and there doesn’t seem to be a corelation between quality and success either. Great blockbusters are struggling just as much as mediocre ones (although the latter are more numerous) yet horror is experiencing a mini-boom, exceeding expectations and achieving returns on studio investments beyond their wildest nightmares.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the nature of the escapism that horror offers that refreshes the parts other genres can’t reach. It’s hard to embrace a world where square-jawed, noble heroes stand against the bad guys and truth and justice win out, often aided by the noble actions of the rich and powerful. So all-encompassing has the awareness of the injustices that plague society, the corruption and erosion of institutional trust so pervasive and the looming threats of war and climate collapse so overwhelming that the milquetoast villainy of most genres just seems naïve.
Horror, on the other hand, plunges headlong into the darkest of subject matters, embraces the depths of evil and immorality. Horror requires its protagonists not just to defy the odds and win, but suffer horribly along the way. To experience pain, terror and loss at every turn, tormented and tortured all the way. In a funny way, horror reassures us that however bleak or insurmountable the adversary, however terrifying and harmful the sacrifices might need to be, there is still a way through and that it is possible to survive and come out the other side. There’s an ironic reassurance in that, a confirmation that however bleak the real world may be at the moment that we might just make it through to the other side. It’s a deeper acknowledgement of what we’re trying to escape from and a more authentic type of hope, because even when we think we’ve escaped the monsters, horror movies tell us they nearly always come back.
You want to escape your every day humdrum life? Go to the movies. You want a break from the current never-ending apocalyptic shitshow of the world? Go see a horror movie. If nothing else, it’ll give you the perfect excuse to let loose that scream you’ve been holding in.