horror pandemic

Horror: Helping to make sense of a senseless world


Helping to make sense of a senseless world

Alex Kronenburg looks at how horror, far from being a source of fear, helps us better understand the world around us (particularly in testing times)...

Whether it’s a raging monkey from an African rainforest rife with deadly bacteria or the latest contagion that swiftly transforms the general public into flesh-eating shuffler – film has always been adept in presenting the terrifying effects of global pandemics. Horror in particular excels at offering audiences a glimpse of the days leading up to the breakdown of civilisation.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) turns twenty next year and offers stark visions of a Britain on the verge of collapse. Looting, greed, paranoia and a merciless military gone rogue were all the pandemic perils that audiences were warned of. Despite the promise of a happy ending in many genre films, rarely do they outline how exactly society assimilates and then ambulates from onscreen events.

Little did Boyle, or any horror filmmaker, know that the UK would be on the brink of the darkest period in living memory and civilization would require some indication or guide on how to process recent events. Alas, a Leaving the Home for Dummies book doesn’t exist, neither does Interacting without a Screen or a Top 10 guide for getting dressed in the morning that is so desperately required. Rather than face this new changed world head on, preparation is required. Allow the genre to play out all your worst fears, realise your insecurities and indulge your paranoia until it becomes clear that these pervasive emotions are not limited to individuals but, rather, they are collective symptoms of a healing community.

The familial home has been a consistent horror cornerstone, providing an untainted environment that must resist corruption by the most sinister of forces. Whilst many British horror films still exist within the residence, the dynamic of evil has shifted focus. This is in synchronicity with the mutating role that habitats have experienced in the last two years; kitchens, bedrooms, hallways have become offices as droves of workers have been forced to continue working from home. As a result, the lines between leisure and labour have been eternally blurred. Lockdown measures have only exacerbated our alienation from the home ensuring that we reside as prisoners, restricted to minimal interaction with the outside world.

As the complex, almost schizophrenic, relationship with living environments manifest, so does the form they take in homegrown horror. In a narrative sense, the equilibrium typically represents the abode as a warm and nurturing environment invaded by sinister forces. In The Exorcist (William Freidkin, 1973) Chris MacNeil and her daughter Regan are content in their grand but welcoming Georgetown home, but, when a demonic spirit forces its way into the house via a Ouiji board, Regan becomes incarcerated in both her bedroom and her body. Contrary to this mid and post-pandemic, Brit-horror posits the home as intrinsically malevolent, a place that its victims must survive and escape from. This is probably most overtly obvious in Damian McCarthy’s traumatising debut Caveat (2020). A film in which its protagonist is literally, and metaphorically, chained to the roof of the house in which he inhabits. Escape is made seemingly more impossible by the unforgiving coastal waters that surround the tiny island. The palpable feeling of despair in Caveat is made more unbearable by the fact that the only thing to do in the dilapidated building is to look after a part-time vegetative cohabiter. A job the protagonist is paid handsomely for but is ultimately unwanted. The term ‘Working Remotely’ is all too literal here.

The concept of entrapment in one’s home is an idea fully realised in Remi Weekes’ BAFTA Winning His House (2020). Rial and Bol are refugees fleeing war-torn South Sudan and arrive in Britain hoping to find respite from past anguish. In contrast, what awaits them is a home filled with dark memories and even darker spirits but the thing that keeps them confined is their own plight and desperation. The only thing worse is what awaits on the outside. A labyrinth of concrete populated by suspicious mocking tormentors and resentful civil servants; the hangover of a nation desperate to lay the blame anywhere but at the door of those responsible. His House evokes notes of Cold War Paranoia pieces such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) with the seemingly mindless masses consuming and regurgitating political propaganda.

Perhaps the film that sums up the British Pandemic experience more accurately than any other, is Rob Savage’s techie found-footage flick Host (2020) A shooting schedule in the heart of the first lockdown meant that each cast member was required to set up their own socially distanced rig attached to their laptop. Twelve weeks later it was released to a country that was well accustomed to life in quarantine. It’s a film that exists in the pandemic world but isn’t defined by it; perhaps a savvy move from Savage to ensure the film’s appeal doesn’t wane. Still, there is an almost nostalgic quality (having experienced lockdown 2 and 3) about enthusing over Zoom socialising and the hearty elbow handshakes. The truth is that a dreary winter of solitude has taken its toll on the public’s mentality to the extent that Host’s devilish joviality marked a period of content refuge. The novelty of isolation has since worn thin and the genre seeks to locate the racing pulse of an audience struggling to readjust.

‘Freedom Day’, a term coined to delineate the ceasing of all social distancing measures. Nightclubs will reopen, capacity restriction lifted, and limitless social contact will be greatly welcomed by many but also met with fear and trepidation by a large proportion of the population. In fact, Doctor Stephen Blumenthal, a leading clinical psychologist, has suggested that the term is counter-intuitive, and creates an expectation that ‘everybody should be absolutely joyous.’ There are those who are suffering from the pressure the 19th of July threatens to bring with it and those people will no doubt feel alone and marginalised. But, one thing that horror has always done, and will hopefully continue to do, is to give the minority a loud clear undeniable voice.

A young doll-featured girl peers outside a small window overlooking a vibrant sixties London vision. She retreats into her apartment peering into each room, alien in its normality. Increasingly agitated, the girl drifts into the bathroom. To her horror the room is distorted into an Ames Room optical illusion only this isn’t a trick of the eye; as water begins to ebb from the recesses she fumbles out of the room. Completely drained, she rests against the hallway wall, hands burst from the plaster snatching, grabbing and groping her as she writhes in terror.

Catharine Deneuve’s descent into madness in the 1965 film Repulsion can be read in many ways. One such reading is that Carole’s withdrawal into her troubled psyche is in response to a society that could be deemed as unrestrained, hedonistic and unpredictable. Something she is ill-prepared for and forces her psyche to take flight.

Whilst external forces may wax lyrical about moving on and healing, Horror will always allow time for contemplation and recovery. Master Wes Craven used Sydney Prescott to illustrate his feelings on PTSD and trauma in the iconic Scream franchise. Sydney is constantly being denied access to her own emotions and being told that they are unhealthy, only for them to manifest in the form of Ghostface. Time and time again Sydney conquers her demons whilst her repressors are literally left for dead.

Like Sydney and countless other Final Girls, the country is healing from a transformative ordeal that has likely left scars. Luckily, there is a community that welcomes scars, lesions, wounds and contusions and celebrates the fact that this is what makes us human. Whatever the future holds, horror film will continue to fill the void between entertainment and group therapy helping audiences to make sense of the world in which they exist but may not entirely understand.

Picture of Alex Kronenburg

Alex Kronenburg

I watch films.
I teach film.
I write about films.

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