Horror films now aim to leave audiences dazed and confused

Story by Andrea Valadez-Angulo

The horror movie genre has evolved over the last few decades. While thriller/horror films are the fifth most popular movie genre, the way in which these films are approached and received has adapted through time.

At the beginning of the genre in the early 19th century, horror films depended on certain literary classics such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Frankenstein,” in order to create fear in an audience’s mind.

The creation of “slasher” films in 1974  shifted the genre to be geared toward a different audience. During this time, directors focused on creating disgust and fear toward a specific antagonist, such as Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. 

The popular sub-genre also heavily benefits from the creation of the stereotypical friend group who happens to find itself in precarious situations for which none of them are prepared.

In many horror movies, even to this day, it is teenagers who are targeted by an ax-wielding maniac. This friend group typically consists of a narcisistic boy (usually a jock), an outspokenly sex-positive girl, one or two characters who don’t serve any real purpose except to be the first to be killed and the famous “final girl.”

 The final girl spends the movie being chased while witnessing her friends be murdered. She always manages to narrowly escape the killer, despite the fact that she’s usually wearing high heels. 

This format of horror has found wild success; look at “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Scream” (1996) and most recently, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” (2022). 

While this particular form of slasher films may never go out of style, directors and producers are now shifting to a more disturbing art form. Many creators of horror films nowadays are aiming to leave audiences disturbed and unsettled, as opposed to fearful of a fictional killer.

A great example of this can be seen in A24’s highly anticipated film, “Pearl,” which since its release in September of this year, has garnered about $9.5 million in revenue. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen this yet you might want to skip the next few paragraphs where we take a closer look at the plot.

The film tells the tale of a small town girl named Pearl, who is essentially stuck on her family’s farm taking care of her sick father, while following orders from her strict mother.

Set in 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic is rampaging through the country, but Pearl has her sights set on one thing only: being a chorus girl on the big screen.

The audience follows Pearl as she does whatever she deems necessary in order to achieve her goal. This includes violently and unremorsefully murdering anyone whom she deems to be in her way. 

Pearl’s long list of victims includes her mother, whom she kills by first setting her on fire and then locking in the basement until she finally succumbs to her injuries days later. The film’s pro/antagonist also murders her devoted sister-in-law, Mitsy, who Pearl believes to have stolen her chance of joining a travelling dancers troupe. Pearl chases Mitsy down the farm’s driveway, until she trips (over her high heels, of course) allowing Pearl the opportunity to hack her to death with an ax. She subsequently feeds poor Mitsy to an alligator.

While the audience is left with a deeply unnerving feeling, it is also extremely possible that one might still be rooting for Pearl to achieve her dreams. 

If Pearl was willing to do whatever it took to get there, and she actually does have talent, should she have the chance to become a star?

This internal dilemma is perhaps the scariest part of the film for an audience member to walk away with.

The crippling suspense throughout the course of “Pearl” is another main difference in horror movies now as compared to the late 1900s, where one can almost predict what will happen next.

Another example of a horror movie dependent on suspense is “Barbarian” (2022) which came out in theaters last month and has received a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes and made roughly $42 million at the box office.

“Barbarian” follows the film’s protagonist, Tess, as she finds herself in a horrifying situation upon arrival at a rental home that is already occupied by another guest. Audience members follow a climactic plot line that leaves one thrilled and unlikely to stay at a vacation rental again.

The slasher films of the last few decades have cemented their place in film history by delivering classic performances. However, the overall atmosphere in a room after a modern day horror film is played, is incomparable. 

Horror movies no longer aim to leave viewers solely with feelings of fear. Rather, some directors seem to want an audience to walk out of a movie theater feeling disturbed and not totally sure of what they have just witnessed.

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