Modern Horror: How a Genre Gets Elevated
by Tommy Delp | published Jun. 17th, 2021
Horror has always been considered the seediest genre of film. From the monster movies of the 1930s to the slashers of the 80s, horror has been eliciting the shrieks and opposition of the general public throughout its existence.
Oddly enough though, the 2010s has seen a more mainstream acceptance of horror. Some attribute this to audience's changing tastes and acceptance of more violent imagery and gore. Others attribute it to a changing genre and the evolution of a sophisticated sub-genre fans call, "elevated horror".
Where We've Been
Throughout the 2000s, many saw horror as a genre stagnating. Various franchises that had once induced a fearful excitement in audiences were using the same old tricks and scares.
M. Winegarner, a second year Interpreting major, was a horror fan during this era.
“I had seen the stacks of reboots, remakes and sequels, and now we’re getting something new,” Winegarner said.
That newness can be traced back to the popular horror film studio, Blumhouse Productions, and their first smash hit “Paranormal Activity”. This low-budget ghost film opened the floodgates for similar successes that showed a mastery of the genre’s decades old tropes and quirks.
While the Blumhouse films of the early 2010s reinvigorated horror’s deteriorating image among audiences, they didn’t exactly elevate things. They still played by the many established rules of the genre and weren’t breaking new ground in terms of story and theme. That was until “Get Out” was released, directed by Jordan Peele.
The 2017 film showed that general audiences could accept a horror film that was trying to do much more than make them jump in their seats. Winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, “Get Out” opened the door for a similar group of films looking to more intelligently scare audiences.
Throughout the late 2010s, films such as “Hereditary”, “Us”, “The Lighthouse” and “Midsommar” seemed to redefine the genre. In the eye of the mainstream, there was a change from cheap and trashy to trendy and cerebral.
Looking from the outside in, things may seem a bit complicated. What do fans of the genre think about elevated horror?Looking from the outside in, things may seem a bit complicated. What do fans of the genre think about elevated horror?
Going to the Next Level
Well, for Winegarner, it’s the additional analytical layer that they don’t see in a lot of older horror films.
“I appreciate the depth that comes with more modern horror. It isn’t just horror for horrors-sake. It gives you a little bit more,” Winegarner said.
“I appreciate the depth that comes with more modern horror. It isn’t just horror for horrors-sake. It gives you a little bit more.”
A lot of audiences believe that elevated horror does more leg work in getting you to relate to the characters before it scares the pants off of the people watching.
Winegarner agreed, “I like the thought process of giving the situation and then determining how we deal with it intelligently.”
Usually, these situations have some sort of deeper social context too.
“Old films may have had messages, but they weren’t in the forefront of the story. Newer ones have a message that’s right in your face,” Winegarner said.
All together, films described as elevated horror often attack the viewer not just emotionally, the way you expect a horror film too, but intellectually and socially too.All together, films described as elevated horror often attack the viewer not just emotionally, the way you expect a horror film too, but intellectually and socially too.
“I appreciate the changes that come with something new,” Winegarner said.
Not everyone looks at elevated horror as the genre’s new direction though. Some just see the term as an unnecessary categorization.
Bringing Things Back Down
“The term 'elevated horror' is often used to describe horror films that non-horror people like,” Murphy described.
“The term ‘elevated horror’ is often used to describe horror films that non-horror people like.”
To some, like Murphy, elevated horror is in no way its own subgenre of horror. It’s more of a bland descriptor for non-horror fans.
“If you use the term elevated horror, maybe it’s because you think horror is all cheap slashers,” Murphy explained.
A lot of the films people might call elevated horror often borrow traits from other horror movies, and that’s not always easily recognizable to newer fans.
“These films often already fit into particular horror subgenres. A film like ‘Hereditary’ fits into the category of horror-drama. ‘The Lighthouse’ is an art-horror,” she noted.
The social awareness that we associate with elevated horror has also been used successfully in past films too. The reason many audiences don’t notice is because of how covertly these earlier films blend their story and themes.
“Horror has always been a way to explore themes in a metaphor that people can swallow easier,” Murphy said.
How does she explain the recent rash of successful, analytical and socially-aware horror films though?
“Sometimes, we get on a cycle where a certain type of horror connects to people in a certain way. Because of that, more of it gets made. And the more that gets made, the more of it that’s going to be very good,” she said.
All of this being said, it’s very important that horror be welcoming to everyone. The more people, the greater chance the artform can grow and evolve.
For those who find themselves interested in the idea of elevated horror, Murphy had this to say.
“If ‘Hereditary’ is your entrance point, that’s great! Welcome to the party! All I ask is that you try some more stuff. It’s such a big genre. I guarantee there’s more that you’ll like,” she said.
Taking the Genre As Is
Just like any film genre, horror is constantly evolving. It ebbs and flows in popularity, but the people who really love it have understood its power for decades.
For a genre meant to unsettle, people often have fond memories of the horror movies of yore.
“I remember watching the ‘Friday the 13th’ movies in the mid-80s. I wasn’t allowed to watch them, but I totally did,” Winegarner reminisced.
Murphy, too, can tell stories of her earlier memories of horror.
“I don’t know the exact moment I became a fan of horror, but it was around the time that ‘Thriller’ came out. That’s when everything clicked for me,” Murphy said.
Even though people often disagree on the semantics of things, they can usually, on a primal level, get behind a good scare. And when it comes down to it, that’s what horror has been providing for almost a century.