why are we living in a new era of on-screen horror?

The dystopian, violent tyranny we stream so readily is a sign of the times.

by Clementine de Pressigny
16 August 2017, 10:51am

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

The Handmaid's Tale, the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's book, might be categorized as a dystopian drama, but for most viewers it likely felt like pure horror — what else can you call a world on the brink of extinction due to environmental catastrophe which has resulted in dire fertility rates, a world in which women are stripped of all rights, where ritualized rape and public execution are just your run-of-the-mill societal duty. The gripping plot made for addictive viewing for those who could endure the very uncomfortable resonance with the current political climate. The edgy feeling only increased as the story developed, with flashbacks showing the way that the society in which Offred and co. knew, which resembles ours today, was replaced with a bat-shit crazy dystopian hell. It was eroded bit by bit, slowly enough for her and her family to not realize just quite how bad things were getting, until they were screwed. There are plenty of blood-run-cold moments throughout the ten episodes. Group murder by way of beating someone to death. Check. Surgical clitoris removal. Check. (I was squirming for days after that episode). But it was watching the characters realize that the usual methods you use to challenge power in democratic society — like protesting — were no longer possible, that really sent a shiver down the spine. Because, now you can actually imagine getting to that point, in a way that would have seemed farfetched a year ago.

The Handmaid's Tale has been a big talking point, with it's all too foreboding horror. But it's part of a bigger influx of deeply dark film and TV absorbing a lot of cultural focus at the moment in time. From Get Out to Raw, and IT to Stranger Things, we're obsessed with scary shit right now. There are even some stats to back this up. According to this official looking website, horror films are taking up over 7% of the box office market share for 2017, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it's at its highest for ten years. You can't spend more than ten minutes on Vulture or Deadline without seeing an announcement about yet another Stephen King adaptation going into production. Then there's Twin Peaks: The Return, which has always had a disturbing edge, but this time around, evil is not just lurking, it's sashaying around right out in the open — Lynch has gone next level brutal. It's hard to keep track of the many story paths, but they all tend to leave a trail of blood and gore in their wake. Yes, these went into production before Trump became President, but that madness began long before he actually took office. And it's not that we're just going to see the occasional big-budget frightening film, we're binging on scary stuff and then spending time poring over it, talking about, picking it apart, waiting for news of the next film, clamoring for next season news.

"It's not that we're just going to see the occasional big-budget frightening film, we're binging on scary stuff and then spending time pouring over it, talking about, picking it apart."

Stranger Things has a lot going for it, adorable cast, great outfits, Winona Ryder, comforting 80s pop culture nostalgia. But what keeps you coming back for more is the creepy, unknowable terror, another dimension in which monsters prowl and should have stayed put, but they've broken through and made their way into daily reality, completely changing the nature of the regular world. As Congressman David Cicilline said, while holding a sign saying "Trump Things." "Like the main characters in Stranger Things, we are now stuck in the Upside Down."

It might seem like, in times like these we'd turn to the lols, be looking for the next comedy hit as some light relief from the daily horror of the news. And yeah, the current political insanity does ensure a constant stream of Twitter amusement. But the funniness feels pretty hollow, it's getting more shrill, a collective hysterical laughter to cover up that feeling of rising panic. There are other signs that typical anxiety-free escapist fodder is not what we want right now, with a crash in sales for tabloidy media this year so far, and an uptake in more serious news and current affairs publications. We're faced with the President of America goading the notoriously goad-able Kim Jong Un towards Nuclear War — two men with equally bizarre hair who have somehow ended up with the power to wipe out humanity. Nazis are emboldened and are brazenly walking the streets in the US, and in the UK is about to vote itself out of the EU with no plan and no idea what will happen afterwards. So instead, we're looking to be scared. Maybe we're steeling ourselves for what's coming, strengthening the psyche with a diet of disquietude, exposing ourselves to the worst we can imagine, so we're ready for what might come next.

"Maybe we're steeling ourselves for what's coming, strengthening the psyche with a diet of disquietude, exposing ourselves to the worst we can imagine, so we're ready for what might come next."

The rise in popularity of anxiety-inducing films has had notable spikes in line with the political landscape, says writer, film historian and filmmaker Gary Rhodes, "As a film historian, I believe the horror movie has often been at its most popular in America during difficult times. For example, the first major wave of Hollywood horror movies appeared during the Great Depression and World War II. The proliferation of alien invasion films came in the 1950s during the Red Scare. Some of the most influential horror movies appeared during and immediately after the Vietnam War, including Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Much the same could be said of the Post-9/11 era. Uncertainties, worries, and deep-set fears in American society have regularly made their way to the screen."

There is, of course, the catharsis they bring. Unlike the news cycle, they have an ending — once we turn them off, they're done. "Horror and stressful films and TV can be appealing as an escape," says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. "But also as confirmation that things will be right in the end. Horror films in the West are generally morality plays in that they have the good guys survive and bad guys and villains caught or killed. The heightened emotion of the horror makes the resolution all the more satisfying. We are also seeing an increase in superhero stories where the world is put to order and the bad guys defeated."

The next season of Stranger Things is, according executive producer Shawn Levy, about "this determined desire to return to normality in Hawkins, in the Byers family, in that group of friends, and it's the struggle to reclaim normality and maybe the impossibility of it". Will managed to leave Upside Down world. We're still trapped in it, and have no superpowers to save ourselves, so we just have to keep fighting back with whatever means we have. Things are getting scarier, so we have to stay focused.

Read: Were the Spice Girls the most sexually progressive group of the 90s?

stranger things
The Handmaid's Tale