Who’s your favorite movie monster? If you’ve been following me for a while and have read between the lines (or just read the like 25 articles I’ve written on the topic) you know mine is Jason. My colleague Jess wrote a piece earlier this year about her love for Freddy Krueger. For others, it’s Leatherface, or Pinhead, or, for the fans of classic horror, maybe it’s The Gillman or Dracula. Until recently, horror has lived and died by the strength of its monsters, be they human, inhuman, subhuman, or something in between. There have always been heroes, sure, but for every one you can probably name (Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street; Professor Van Helsing) you can probably easily name three other monsters. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing a change in the way that horror presents its heroes and villains, and I’m interested to see the long-term ramifications for how future generations interact with their horror.
As of this writing, the Conjuring franchise (I’m counting the two Annabelle films) is on its way to becoming the most successful horror franchise of all time, with a global box office of $1.2 billion. That puts it into the same territory as franchises such as Friday the 13th (which, adjusted for inflation, raked in $825 mil in the US alone), A Nightmare on Elm Street ($703 million adjusted for inflation—again, US numbers only), Saw ($874 worldwide), and Paranormal Activity ($889.5 million worldwide). There’s something interesting about the Conjuring movies, though, that set them apart from the rest of the movies on the list: The recurring characters aren’t the monster. Consider: Right now, of the four films in the franchise, the Warrens are the primary characters in two, and receive a shout-out at the climax of Annabelle. The doll Annabelle recurs in both the films bearing her name (plus an innocuous cameo in one Conjuring), but the precise nature of the demonic entity varies slightly between narratives, with the second film somewhat ret-conning what exactly is in the little bugger and how it got there. As of this writing, there’s a third Conjuring in the works, which will bring back the Warrens. There’s also The Nun, which will feature the titular entity introduced in The Conjuring 2. Since Lorraine Warren explicitly says that the demon Valek has taken on this form just to mess with her, and seeing as how actress Vera Farmiga’s sister Taissa will be playing the lead role of Sister Irene in The Nun, it seems likely it will have some connection back to the ghost hunting couple. For perhaps the first time, then, we have a grossly successful horror series that isn’t about a recurrent monster, but recurring heroes.
It’s not entirely isolated to the Conjuring franchise, either. We’re getting a fourth Insidious movie in January, which will feature the fourth appearance of Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier, a character who proved so popular with audiences that the studio had to build the franchise around prequels since they killed her off at the end of the first one. When it was announced that John Carpenter was returning to the Halloween franchise earlier this year, we weren’t excited about getting to see Michael Meyers again—it was because Jamie Lee Curtis was returning as Laurie Strode. What may have been the most well-received franchise installment of 2017, Cult of Chucky, saw Andy Barclay and Nica Pierce coming back to settle their respective scores with the titular doll. Though Friday the 13th is currently as dead in the water as its villain, the biggest hope we’ve gotten of a revival came in the form of Corey Feldman voicing his desire to return to the franchise as Tommy Jarvis, Jason’s nemesis from Parts IV and VI (and a crazy dude’s nemesis in V). We’re seeing not the monsters in the spotlight, but their adversaries. The closest we’ve ever gotten before has been Hammer’s cycle of Dracula films, which saw Peter Cushing returning time and again to the role of Van Helsing against Christopher Lee’s Dracula—and even then, the films were so sporadic so as to barely qualify as a franchise.
Why the shift? Why are we suddenly invested in the good guys? Maybe it has to do with the changing nature of the world. We’ve been through terrible economic and social strife before—I’ve talked about the impact of the 70s on American pop culture—but we’re also a more empathetic people now. For all the grief Millennials get about stringent codes of political correctness and SJW culture, at the root of it all is a seriously evolved concern for the well being of our fellow human beings. In the 70s, adult men having sex with teenage girls was a way of celebrity life, an open not-so-secret that was common knowledge among the rock tours and backlots of the world. Today, it’s recognized as the crime it is. We’ve also evolved in our treatment of gays, people of color, and women; for as unideal as the social scene may be today, it’s far more accepting, open, and advanced than it was the last time cinema was influenced by a terrible socio-political climate. Maybe this time around, instead of wallowing in one another’s suffering, horror fans want some kind of victory. Even before 2016, our country was knee-deep in the muck, and things haven’t exactly gotten better—the final years of the Obama presidency were marked by a lack of progress on any meaningful social issues, constant partisan infighting, birtherism, mass shootings, and a culture of conspiracy theories on the right and constant purity tests on the left. Today, we can turn on the television any hour of the day and see too-real monsters wielding too much influence over our daily lives. When the future of our very existence is controlled by a man who treats nuclear war like a high school pissing match, boasts about assaulting women with impunity, and mocks the disabled for chortling masses of his followers, do we really want to duck into a theater and repeatedly indulge in the escapades of a dead man hunting down teenagers? Or do we want to watch as, again and again, decent, well meaning people fight evil and come out triumphant?
Removing race and ethnicity from the equation (two areas where horror has never excelled), the heroes of these films are a model of egalitarianism—none of them have any class distinction as either upper or lower, Elise and Lorraine are treated as equals by the men around them and their relationships to men are a facet of their characters rather than their defining traits. Similarly, these are not heroes (with the exception of Andy and Nica) who win through brutal violence, surviving the night, or being able to take the most punishment. Their demons and ghosts are defeated through ingenuity, intellect, faith, and even love (and in a way that “winning through the power of love” doesn’t come off as hokey—a feat in and of itself). It is a reflection, perhaps, of a basic desire to see a peaceful resolution to our current woes—an underlying belief that maybe these same attributes can be applied to our real world battles and a great victory against the forces of societal darkness will come about not through violence and bloodshed but compassion, love, and wisdom.
There will always be love for villains—it’s a drive as old as fiction. Neither the slasher pantheon nor the Universal monsters nor the myriad one-offs in between will ever really go away—hell, we’re getting a new Gillman movie in December (Guillermo del Toro has flat-out said that The Shape of Water was borne from his desire to see The Creature get the girl). For now, though, maybe it’s comforting that we actually want to root for the good guys. It’s a sign, maybe, that things aren’t as hopeless as other evidence might indicate.