The most effective protests are going to be unpopular. If the cause they’re protesting is a popular cause, what would be the point of protesting? From kneeling for the National Anthem to blocking traffic to disrupting town halls, the point is to get under the skin of those you seek justice against as you seek something better for those experiencing injustice. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. You were too comfortable before the protest began, that’s the point.
The defining quality of a great horror isn’t that it’s scary. It’s not the fluidity of the plot or the characterization or the setting or the overall concept. What truly defines a great horror movie is that it manages to get under your skin. Hours, days, years after watching it, it stays with you. It buried itself within your psyche and planted a seed. What grows from it could be practically nothing, or it could be life-altering. But a truly great horror is effective because it doesn’t let you go.
And that’s what makes horror the best genre for social commentary.
Get Out (2017) is the most recent and obvious example of how brilliant inserting social commentary into a plot can be. Jordan Peele himself said that he wrote it specifically to be watched twice through, and with nearly every line spiked with deeper meaning, he accomplished it. I think it could be arguably the best script ever written. It got under your skin, every line mattered tremendously, and at the end of the movie, you felt like you exhaled for the first time since the opening scene, each breath to follow accompanied by that sinking feeling that gets deeper and deeper under your skin and toward the pit of your stomach.
Another recent example is It Follows (2015), which was rich with meaning in a different way. Peele’s plot was extremely self-aware, a line-by-line master class of, “Ah-haaa, I see what he’s saying there,” moments. It Follows, on the other hand, was much subtler. Its meaning is up for interpretation. Is the monster a metaphor for sexual assault? That’s what I initially thought. It could also be argued that the monster is presenting you with things you don’t want to see or face in general, realities that are inescapable. Whatever it meant to the viewer, this one is for certain about It Follows, a sentiment I’ve heard from critics and average moviegoers alike — it gets under your skin.
I could spend a lot of time going movie by movie, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and They Live (1988), two classic science fiction thrillers steeped deep in social commentary, to Candyman (1992) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), two horror classics that are arguably more famous for what they say and spawned than as standalone pieces of cinema. But those lists already exist. We’re talking about horror as a genre, using fear and the supernatural as a segue into the unsettling realities of the real-world.
Historically speaking, comedy has been the go-to genre for social commentary. The truth within satire is incredibly effective in seeing important societal issues from a different perspective. Or, if nothing else, comedy as it relates to tragedy, can bring about some manner of levity or deeper understanding. But I think horror is more effective in its subtlety.
One of the most common complaints about protest is the idea that people just want to go on with their lives, enjoying the things they enjoy without having to face the tragic truths that don’t otherwise affect them. That’s the whole point of the protest, to disrupt the everyday to bring about a better tomorrow. I wonder then, is it easier to break through the kneejerk detest for disruption by planting a seed rather than presenting a tree?
Planting an idea and shifting the perspective of a person or group of people often requires subtlety. Ideas and concepts inspire personal growth at a subconscious level, and I can’t think of a more effective way to plant the seed of new ideas than by getting under someone’s skin. If they can’t turn it off, if it stays on even when they close their eyes, the truths they can come to become inescapable. The movie is about this, and there’s no overt evidence to the contrary. That is, until you’re done watching it, and a day or two goes by, and you’re faced with your everyday life, the news, social media, conversation. And that movie that got under your skin comes back to the surface within those different contexts, something that you’ve unwittingly consumed that adds fuel to your critical thinking engine.
A horror movie doesn’t have to necessarily be written to purposefully serve an underlying message in order to enter the psyche. Often, the deeper meaning of a film can come without the intention of the screenwriter or filmmaker themselves. But if we’re discussing the genre within the context of being intentionally perspective-shifting, particularly a genre that’s been achieving massive success from standalones that rely more on story, meaning, and quality than the prominence of a brand name, there’s a real opportunity to make a difference societally, politically, and socially without coming right out and saying it. In fact, the mere pursuit of such a project can spawn new ideas, from the big picture to the nuances utilized throughout the film.
Further, the mere freedom the genre allows makes the possibilities limitless. When you set a movie in the real-world, you’re limited by the omission of fantastical elements and supernatural components. These features of the horror genre can serve as pieces to the message in excitingly subtle, original, and unique ways. The way George A. Romero used zombies or Jordan Peele used a fictional, horrific medical procedure would be tools unavailable without the freedom of expression the horror genre offers. The same goes for science fiction, but where science fiction often makes you think, horror makes you feel. There is no genre more visceral, and therefore none are more suited for the psychologically impactful delivery necessary for successful social commentary.
All the ingredients are there. All it takes is a well put together recipe.
In the month of October, when the horror genre strikes its seasonal peak in popularity, inspiration is all around, and the viability for a commercially successful film steeped heavily in underlying messages can be an aspirational challenge.
I don’t know how substantial any movie’s impact can have on society as a whole, but I know that books have reshaped society since the dawn of the written word. There’s nothing stopping filmmaking from having the same impact, especially as the digital age has made filmmaking more accessible than ever, and our society becomes more open to progressive (rather than regressive) perspectives by the decade. It could all combine to spawn one of the most important eras in filmmaking history if for no other reason than we can access every movie with the few clicks of a button and some free time.