How Horror Movies Can Help Us Deal With 2021
It’s Halloween, which means that, in addition to stockpiling candy that you know deep down you’re going to end up eating yourself well before the 31st, it’s a great time to watch loads of horror movies. It’s no secret that some of the best horror movies are often elaborate allegories for real-world issues. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is clearly about the Red Scare, The Shining is secretly about American frontier genocide, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is a parable about not trusting grown men who think fedoras make them look cool.
So really, it’s not totally surprising that we’re already getting horror movies reflecting on our current epidemiological predicament -- although they seem to vary wildly in terms of quality. On the more well-received side, there’s last year’s HOST, which tapped into the lockdown zeitgeist with a story about a group of friends who inadvertently conjure a vengeful demon over Zoom (amazingly, it wasn’t bankrolled by Skype). And the same filmmakers already have another movie coming out called Dashcam, which similarly tackles topical subject matter, in that the protagonist is an anti-vaxxer, not unlike the protagonist of every Rob Schneider movie, we assume.
On the flip side, we’ve gotten many more lurid, exploitative, and downright inept attempts to make horror movies themed around the pandemic. These include the Michael Bay-produced Songbird, Covid 21: Lethal Virus (somewhat confusingly about a strain of “ancient rabies” found in Antarctica), and CORONA: Zombies, which was literally just clips of pre-existing movies intercut with modern news footage. Which sounds terrible, but at least the poster features a masked zombie hoarding Purell and toilet paper and will probably end up in the Smithsonian one day.
Shameless cash-grabs aside, it makes total sense for the horror genre to tackle our pandemic anxieties, given the long history of horror stories being used to symbolically deal with medical crises. Take Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the classic American tale of how the ghostly Headless Horseman terrorizes school teacher Ichabod Crane after pounding back one too many Bud Lights. It’s subsequently been argued that the story of a “community paralyzed with fear” who never knows when an “unseen presence will claim its next victim” was inspired by real-life outbreaks of Yellow Fever. Irving even goes so far as to describe Sleepy Hollow as a place with “contagion in the very air.”
Even more unmistakable was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which was literally about a gnarly fictional plague, and the asshole Prince who decides to throw a costume party for all of his rich friends while the commoners bleed to death in the streets. At midnight a figure shows up with a mask made to “resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse” whose robe was “dabbled in blood” -- and since this isn’t one of those Poe stories with an upbeat, cheerful ending, things don’t go well …
Only a decade earlier, Poe had “survived the Cholera Epidemic of 1832,” which spread to the U.S. from Europe. Perhaps not coincidentally, one highly-publicized event that Poe likely read about involved a group of wealthy Parisians who threw a masquerade ball, including one who “dressed as the personification of Cholera with skeletal armor and bloodshot eyes.” And the trend of using horror to process global tragedies continued in movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing -- the 1982 classic starring Kurt Russell and co-starring Kurt Russell’s glorious beard.
A lot of people have interpreted The Thing, which is about a mysterious deadly threat that targets a group of men, forcing them to conduct blood tests to identify the infected, as an allegory for the emerging AIDS crisis -- a theory that seems to have been validated by Carpenter as a conscious decision on his part. Just a few years later, Carpenter again crafted another, arguably even less subtle AIDS metaphor with Prince of Darkness, in which “the evil passed through bodily fluids.” Similarly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, played off the “unchecked fear of further AIDS invasions of the national bloodstream” according to a 1992 article in The New York Times, which also added that the film was “brilliantly, if as unintentionally, timed to ride a wave of public trauma.”
Even movies from that era that weren’t actually intended to draw comparisons with the AIDS pandemic have been seen as such in retrospect. For example, both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London were made in 1981, even before the term AIDS was coined. But while An American Werewolf in London also works as an allegory for “psychological trauma” and mental illness, both movies suggest that lycanthropy could be sexually transmitted, making it “tempting” to interpret them “in the context of AIDS.” Similarly David Cronenberg’s The Fly has often been viewed as an AIDS allegory, but that wasn’t really the intention. According to Cronenberg, it was intended as a more broad point about the “inevitability of deteriorating.”
But here’s the thing: horror movies can help us cope with real-life catastrophes even if that wasn’t purposeful. We’re seeing this happen more now, as people are retroactively interpreting past horror movies through the lens of the modern dumpster fire we’re living through. For example, when the long-delayed A Quiet Place Part II finally hit theatres, critics noted that it inadvertently became a metaphor for the act of watching A Quiet Place Part II in a movie theater.
People also found new meanings in random movies like It Follows, the 2014 film about a group of scrappy college kids who attempt to electrocute a sex demon in a public swimming pool. In many ways, it’s more relatable now, seeing as the characters deal with this supernatural contagion by employing social distance and staying outdoors. Even An American Werewolf in London has a story that’s surprisingly pertinent in light of the pandemic -- a young man refuses to self-isolate, despite knowing that he is infected, leading to the deaths of several older people as a result.
Weirdly, the horror movie that’s come up the most this year in relation to the pandemic is I Am Legend, which made the news recently for the dumbest possible reason. As we’ve mentioned before, anti-vaxxers latched onto the 2007 Will Smith movie as a justification for not taking the vaccine -- which is a little like refusing to call 911 with a smartphone because of some shit that went down in I, Robot. Even dumber than turning down a potentially life-saving vaccine because of a movie penned by the screenwriter behind Batman & Robin, whoever started that particular conspiracy theory wildly misrepresented the premise of the movie, which involves a zombie-vampire apocalypse caused by a “genetically reprogrammed virus, not by a vaccine.”
It could be argued that the movie that better encapsulates 2021 is another version of that same story. The book I Am Legend by legendary Twilight Zone/godawful buddy cop flick writer Richard Matheson was turned into two previous movies; The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. And it could be argued that the Heston movie is a much better reflection of our modern existence. For one thing, The Omega Man is actually a vaccine success story. The reason why Robert Neville is humanity’s lone survivor (or so we think) is that he injected himself with an experimental vaccine.
And he pretty much spends his days alone watching stuff; sure, he’s begrudgingly screening prints of Woodstock in an old theater, not binging Tiger King in his pajamas, but still …
At night he battles a gang of zombie-vampire albinos in shades. But unlike other versions of the same story, in this version, the vampires are more like a cult, they love being vampires, and they’re attacking Neville because they blame science as a whole for the apocalypse. Sure, our current situation (despite what you might see on YouTube) wasn’t caused by bioweapons like in The Omega Man, but the vilification of the medical scientist who is trying to actually solve this problem plays way differently now in an era when mobs are literally storming hospitals. Unfortunately, the movie also features hopelessly stereotyped Black characters and a white savior narrative -- but at least it’s got the star of Ben-Hur mowing down vampires with a machine gun.
And in a way, it makes perfect sense that we would turn to horror stories to help us understand medical emergencies seeing as so many of our greatest monster myths were, in essence, created by misinterpretations of disease. People assigned supernatural explanations to then-unexplainable maladies, like how porphyria, a blood disorder that can cause blisters when patients are exposed to sunlight and receding gums that make teeth look more pronounced, contributed to both the vampire and werewolf myths, as did rabies, which can cause confusion and hallucinations. And it’s probably not a coincidence that both creatures are created by bites. Diseases led to monsters, monsters led to stories, and those stories, in turn, help us to grapple with the horrors of illness; it’s basically a feedback loop of anxieties that somehow help us to cope with mortality. Because, when it comes right down to it, we’re all, one day, going to have to make that metaphorical horny trip to Camp Crystal Lake.
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Top Image: RADiUS-TWC