Peele isn’t alone in thinking horror might be just the right genre to document the United States in 2017. Ryan Murphy’s most recent season of American Horror Story, on FX, begins the night Donald. J. Trump wins the 2016 presidential election. The season’s central protagonist, a white liberal and lesbian in small-town Michigan, suffers a panic attack. In subsequent episodes, a number of phobias resurface to paralyze her with anxiety. But as it turns out, her seemingly irrational fears are, in fact, rational responses to a world that really is conspiring against everything she holds dear. “My phobias were a perfect reaction to what I instinctively knew was true,” she explains when it is revealed that a cult of alt-right sympathizers is indeed terrorizing her town. “My entire being was telling me this — the world is fucked up. And the election made it worse.”
2017 was a good year for horror. Maybe even “The Biggest Year in Horror History.” Get Out was 2017’s most profitable film; It, the adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel, broke records not only for the largest box office opening weekend for a horror movie, but for any movie released in September ever. There were also new entries into established horror franchises or subgenres. Although an attempted reboot of the Saw series, Jigsaw, committed the unforgivable sin of simply not being scary enough, Annabelle: Creation, the fourth film in the The Conjuring series, was widely considered “not bad,” about as high as praise gets for a prequel. The seventh installment of Chucky was said to “have no right to be this good.” Witness, moreover, the ongoing strength of the slasher film (this year represented by Happy Death Day), the disease-outbreak film (It Comes at Night), and the home invasion film (Keep Watching).
The popularity of horror suggests that the genre is taking on a special cultural role, providing audiences an opportunity to process very real contemporary fears and political anxieties. But to a certain extent, horror has always provided this outlet; it has always bled into documentary.
To be sure, there have been more or less progressive ways of doing so. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an Eastern European who moves to London to suck British blood, provided an outlet for xenophobic responses to immigration. The zombie figure, on the other hand, first emerged in Haitian folklore as a projection of the horrors of slavery. In the most influential modern visualization of zombies, George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the monsters are white and the protagonist, Ben, is Black, although no one else in the otherwise all-white film ever remarks on his race. At the end of the film, the military squad tasked with “liberating” the countryside from the undead shoots him, too. It takes an apocalypse to suspend racial animosity, the film seems to say. Once order is restored, Black life is disposable once more.
Cinematic and televisual horrors from the past year, including It, American Horror Story, and Get Out, join a tradition of using horror to think through forms of structural violence. But they also innovate the genre through a renewed self-consciousness about what it means to tease the line between documentary and fiction. As horror continues to cannibalize the real world for material, ingesting everything from Trump to terrorism, it will be necessary for the genre to meditate on the kinds of relation it makes available between the fictional and the nonfictional. Some works from the past year have been more successful than others.
Take, for example, It. As in the original 1986 novel, it’s not just Pennywise, the sewer-dwelling clown with an appetite for children, who’s scary. Each member of the Losers Club, the band of juvenile outcasts who eventually defeat the monster, has his or her own experience of being terrorized by something else in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. The form of this terror is usually an attempted hate crime motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia, or anti-Semitism. Pennywise condenses these forms of structural horror into a horrible character, grounding something more floating and permanent in an object that can be seen and defeated. This was the elegance of calling Pennywise “It” — a pronoun that can refer to anything, in particular any and all forms of structural inequality. When one of the kids says, in the new film, “we can’t pretend It’s going to go away” or “It wants to divide us,” she invites us to fill in any number of words for what “It” refers to. Horror tends to be promiscuous with allegory.
King’s 1980s novel is set in the late 1950s. The 1991 miniseries adaptation, whose scariness was limited because it aired on ABC and whose real claim to fame is Tim Curry as Pennywise, was set in 1960. Last year’s film is set in the 1980s. Like Netflix’s Stranger Things, the remake benefits from a contemporary attraction to imagining today’s adults as yesterday’s misfit children, ganged together to take down evil. In a different context, Nicholas Dames has remarked that “realism’s gaze [is] sharpest when focused on the recent past,” usually understood as a generation ago. Horror, too, negotiates the terror of today by giving it over to “history.” The fact that the children in all iterations of It are set 30 years in the past suggests that a kind of archaism is built into the narrative and the feelings it collects.
In turn, It risks making structural violence seem like a thing of the past, too. Moreover, the movie seems to only be able to see structural violence when it, like a clown, is visible. Racism manifests as a Klan burning down a Black club, sometime in the past, rather than an ongoing system of violence. When the town’s bullies attack the new kid for being both new and fat, it’s not enough for their words to puncture him. The bullies have to try and carve their speech into his belly with a knife. The film seems unable to register hate speech as violence. It has to leave a wound we can look at.
As a genre, horror converts a hovering sense of crisis in the real world into something we can see before us: a scary clown, a zombie, a vampire. Sometimes, when we’re moving around in the real world, it’s hard to comprehend how something abstract like a social structure is terrorizing everyday life. A horror movie invites us to slow down and grasp it.
But there can be a catch. Sometimes, the scary clown absorbs so much of the real world’s anxieties that you can forget it was something like social inequality that was the really scary thing. Or it can start to feel like utopia is just around the corner if all we have to do is vanquish a monster. When a horror movie concentrates real-life horror too effortlessly, as in It, it can start to seem less like an occasion to confront the problems of everyday life and more like an opportunity to forget them. Come to the movie theater to be scared, the genre seems to promise, and you won’t have to worry about being scared outside. In the Purge franchise (which had its own political zeitgeist plug-in with its Election Year installment in 2016), all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours every year. People concentrate all their hatred and aggression in that time period, purging their negative emotions and leaving the rest of the year peaceful.
So, too, might horror more broadly make living in the world more bearable, by providing a temporary character or object to deposit all our anxiety into. And then structural horror can be forgotten. Vivid spectacles of violence, concentrating terror into a single monster, can be a kind of wish fulfillment, a relief from facing the ways in which inequality compounds terror in everyday life.
If It seems to set its structural violence in the past and needs a spectacle, such as an arm ripped off or a belly carved, in order to see it, then American Horror Story provides a different approach. Cult, the seventh and most recent season, is set in a fictional small town in the United States. A woman is being terrorized by clowns, but what sets the series apart is its ultimate refusal to let the clown be just a metaphor.
The central male protagonist, Kai, runs for local office by fashioning himself as a Trump figure. He taps into people’s fears (predictably, the fears circling around xenophobia and sexism) to create a cult. All politics, he remarks at some point, is just a cult of personality. One member explains that she joined the cult because “there was no structure to contain my feelings.” Horror, as a genre, gives a structure to feelings: it provides a set of expectations for when and where to find hate, fear, and distress. Similarly, Kai provides emotional structure to the members of his cult. He gives them a place to put and process the feelings generated by a speedy and polarized world.
The twist, provided halfway through the series, is that Kai himself was originally recruited by Bebe Babbitt, the (fictional) ex-lover of Valerie Solanas, who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol and who authored the 1967 “SCUM Manifesto” that called for women to “destroy the male sex.” Bebe is a sort of feminist accelerationist. She thinks that “we’re sitting on the biggest bomb the universe has ever seen […] female rage.” People like Trump have lit the fuse, and she wants Kai to make the payload nuclear. If Charles Manson’s aim with Helter Skelter was to ignite an apocalyptic race war, Bebe’s will be a sex war that reorganizes the world as we know it.
Gendered violence was at the center of more than one work of horror from the past year. Perhaps most brilliantly, Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, explores the interface between the genre of horror and the horrors of gender. Meanwhile, male entitlement to women’s bodies and women’s work received feature-length treatment in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror, mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Like any good horror film, mother! invites more allegorical readings than can be neatly summarized. Fundamentally, however, the film is about a man who asks everything of his wife, who simply wants to renovate their house. Eventually, both her newborn and then her own body are torn open for him. Horror, however, stems as much from the film’s spectacles of violence as from the sense of dread created through the placement and pacing of shots. The camera in mother! stalks Jennifer Lawrence, hovering just above her shoulder. It follows her uncannily, feeling entitled to her space and body. We rarely get a shot-reverse shot in which we see her looking at something and then see what she is looking at. Again, like a stalker, the camera follows her without taking a deep interest in her own psychology. And because the camera was never really interested in or tied to her, despite being trained on her body, it can continue to observe the scene after she has died. A new woman emerges in the center of the film’s final shot, restarting the cycle of exploitation. The movie seems to say that a structure of female subordination and exploitation will always be observable, will always rejuvenate. Like a house, misogyny is easily redecorated.
In mother!, there is no monster besides the cycle of violence itself. And in imaging a cycle of violence, mother! gets more quickly to a sense of structural violence than does It, which concentrates its horrors in a clown to be vanquished. This is the effect of American Horror Story, too, in the season’s most successful moments. Cult casts its central actors not only as the domestic terrorists of Trump’s America but as the misogynist leaders of past generations, too. Evan Peters alone, who plays the cult leader Kai in 2017, gives us Marshall Applewhite (of Heaven’s Gate notoriety), David Koresh (the Branch Davidians), Jim Jones (Jonestown), Charles Manson, and, provocatively, Jesus. Although many feel today is unprecedented in its horrors, the series sees the present as part of a longer history of terror.
Both mother! and American Horror Story suggest that horror might lurk more pervasively in the everyday and that misogynistic violence is part of a cycle that has a history as long as gender itself. Like the monster or killer in any good horror franchise, it keeps coming back, resurrected for the next installment. It is the same with other forms of structural violence, too.
Ida B. Wells titled her path-breaking 1892 study on the epidemic of lynching Southern Horrors. She argued that lynching is a form of white terrorism aimed at retarding Black progress. Like Jordan Peele in 2017, Wells also suggested that horror is the proper genre for thinking about white-Black relations in the United States. America is designed to create fear in Black communities — and to profit from it.
This is one reason why Get Out is a vampire film. The Armitages, a white family living on a rural plantation-like estate, have perfected a medical procedure for transplanting consciousness from white customers into Black bodies. White life feeds off Black flesh. At first, the procedure was only used to keep alive the aging generation of the family. The estate’s Black gardener and maid, we learn, are actually hosts to grandpa and grandma Armitage. But today, the Armitages run a small business in which the affluent whites of the area can bid on living Black bodies. Why Black? A customer explains that “Black is in fashion,” confirming that the vampirism depicted in Get Out is not only an allegory for a nation built on the backs of slave labor, but also an allegory for cultural appropriation.
Based on its premise of captivity and surgical manipulation, Get Out could have been a “torture porn” movie in the tradition of Saw, Hostel, or The Human Centipede. But what makes Get Out not only one of the best films of 2017, but also one of the most innovative horror movies of all time, is its resistance to showing us horrible images. Far away from a movie like It, which primarily understands structural violence in spectacular displays of bodies ripped apart, graphic violence is not the primary mode of entertainment in Get Out, and depictions of gore are almost incidental to the means by which it generates horror.
Nor does the film capitalize on images of the brutalization of Black flesh as other controversial cultural products of 2017 did, such the portrait of Emmett Till in Open Casket by the white painter Dana Schutz or the violence against people of color in the historical drama Detroit by the white director Kathryn Bigelow. In Get Out, Jordan Peele invokes horror without making the representation of Black death its primary motor.
Instead, the movie gives form to a more diffuse sense of racially motivated horror. Before we know the Armitages steal Black lives, they don’t seem particularly KKK. The patriarch says he’s a liberal, although perhaps too self-congratulatory about it. He would, so the joke goes, vote for Obama for a third time if he could. The protagonist of the film, Chris Washington, is coming to their estate because he has been dating the family’s daughter for four (“actually, five”) months. Thinking he is her first Black lover, the dread that permeates the beginning of the film is primarily organized by the apprehension of cross-racial encounter: the unpredictable trajectories a conversation can follow when its most privileged participants do not or will not see their own privilege.
There is also a fear that such encounter can, and frequently does, overcorrect emotional discomfort with violence. “You know I don't want to be chased off the lawn with a shotgun,” Chris jokes. This, then, is the original terror of Get Out: the suddenness with which a Black American can come up against the bruising speech of racism and the possibility of life-altering or -ending violence irrupting from within the quotidian moment. Chris’s best friend, and the first to put together enough pieces to intuit the plot of interracial medical horror that underlies the gentile veneer of the Armitage family (“White people love making people sex slaves and shit”), works at the airport as a Transportation Security Administration agent. He is, from the beginning, alert to the ways in which terror and its manufacturers can show up in unexpected places. At first, when telling Chris a story about patting down an elderly woman at work, this seems a feature of Rod’s comically conspiratorial mind. “I'm serious, man. The next 9/11 is going to be on some geriatric shit.” But the ultimate effect of Get Out is to remove 9/11’s monopoly on terrorist visualizations. The film moves the scene of terror from the airport to plain air.
Get Out witnesses the everyday terrorism of racism in the United States, a terrorism that rips apart Black lives not only in spectacular events that can be attributed to one day of the year, but in the ongoing routines of stereotyping, segregation, and police brutality. Because of the possibility of horrific rupture at any moment, because of the structure of surprise in which a bad outcome is both expected to happen but still terrifying when it does, Get Out suggests horror is the appropriate genre for the experience of Blackness under conditions of white supremacy. And in doing so, it creates a horror that is more atmospheric, that cannot be attributed to a monstrous character but to a monstrous social structure.
Like American Horror Story and mother!, Get Out relates the present to the past. The visual tropes of slavery abound as the Armitages auction off Black bodies for their customers to inhabit. Its lesson is that the ghosts of slavery continue to haunt and organize conditions of opportunity today. But the horror unleashed by systemic racism cannot be confined to the auction block or the plantation. It lingers in every corner of narrative, lurking in the background waiting to be yanked into the fore.
Jordan Peele has said he is “open” to a sequel for Get Out, although he wouldn’t just want to do it “for the cash.” It is without question that a sequel will be relevant, that the structures of racism will not, miraculously, be dismantled in the near future. This may be the central lesson of horror in 2017: that a fund of fear and the social structures that manufacture it will never be depleted. It may be that horror is a genre we turn to in the contemporary political moment not because the present seems more horrifying than the past but because it is still horrifying — because we feel we are in a B-movie sequel and there are many more sequels to come. A good horror film has a twist, and there will always be new ways in which racism and sexism surprise us. A good horror also delivers enough familiarity that you can keep the sequels coming. America’s got a lucrative franchise going.
Michael Dango is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Humanities and English at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared in journals including Novel, Post45, and Social Text.