The Social Thriller is the latest trend in horror, jump-started by Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. These movies use the genre to comment on current events and issues of our society. But hasn’t this always been a staple of the genre? In this video we explore the way horror through the decades has reflected the world around us.
The Social thriller film is in … and it’s reinventing the horror genre as we know it. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s smash hit Get Out not only generated an endless stream of think pieces and dialogue about enduring racism in our nation it also ignited a cinematic craze of socially-minded horror films which have even come to be seen as a genre of their own.
Jordan Peele: “I call it the social thriller.” - The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
The trademark of the social thriller is that it devises its scares around hot-button, politically charged issues that make us uneasy. Horror movies have always found new ways to crawl under our skin, routinely reinventing themselves to maintain a grip on viewers. So what exactly scares us? You may look to common phobias, like spiders, clowns, and ghosts. But according to research, these menaces hold a rather low stake in our minds. Our true greatest fear is humanity and its capacity for evil. And likewise, manmade perils like war, terrorism, or simply society itself can give rise to terrifying cinema and TV.
Dracula: “There are far worse things awaiting man, than death” - Dracula (1931)
If we look closer, horror films have always been full of social insight – inherently loaded with the subtext of our shared traumas, fears, and unrest. So what exactly is the social thriller, and how does it provoke our collective anxieties in a new way? Here’s our take on modern Social Horror and how it follows from the evolution of the horror genre through the ages.
The Monsters of Society
Horror movies provide a safe space for us to face our fears. After all, we can tell ourselves that it’s just a movie. But social thrillers are crafted to remind us that the true terrors are waiting for us once we leave the dark cinema and re-enter civilization.
While the term “social thriller” has popped up in individual film reviews and criticism since at least the 1970s, it wasn’t generally used to connote a distinct, cohesive genre. Then, in 2017, Jordan Peele coined this label in its modern incarnation, defining the social thriller as, quote, “thriller/horror movies where the ultimate villain is society.” As Peele has put it, “it’s about the notion that to find the scariest monster we need look no further than the human demon. And when I talk about the human demon, I’m talking about the evil we’re capable of collectively.”
For Get Out, Peele found inspiration in a variety of precursors to the modern social thriller like 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, which tackles issues of female disempowerment and control over their bodies.
After protagonist Rosemary is raped by Satan himself, her pregnancy is medicated and managed by hostile, controlling men.
Dr. Saperstein: “Don’t read books. No pregnancy was ever as described in books.” - Rosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s own body becomes an enemy, while all decisions about what to do with it are taken away from her. So the film dramatizes it’s time period’s historic battle for women’s rights, as well as male fears of female agency. These themes of control over women and their bodies also play out in another movie based on an Ira Levin novel, 1975’s The Stepford Wives, set in a dystopian suburb where the women are suspiciously subservient to their husbands. When it’s revealed that the housewives are actually cyborgs programmed by the Men’s Association, this analogy for women being brainwashed by the patriarchy offers a concise feminist critique of old-fashioned gender roles.
Other prominent social thrillers have focused on racial tensions. In 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, released at the end of the civil rights movement, African-American protagonist Ben is trapped in a house with unequipped white people who must reluctantly rely on him to survive.
Ben: “I know you’re afraid, I’m afraid too, but we have to try to board up this house together” - Night of the Living Dead
While director George Romero said his film wasn’t consciously intended as a racial critique, critics have read Ben’s preparedness to take on the zombies as a product of having faced the horrors of racism his entire life. In 1992’s Candyman, the film’s black boogeyman is the ghost of a former slave who was murdered for impregnating a white woman. We never learn his real name, nor are we asked to sympathize with him, so the film highlights America’s ugly history of demonizing black men like Candyman, against a backdrop of urban plight and the housing projects he haunts.
One quality that distinguishes a good social thriller is that it reveals multi-layered and complex feelings around political topics that so often get reduced to simple us-or-them party lines in public discourse. Get Out wouldn’t be a very interesting movie if its message were simply that people are racist or racists are bad. Instead, the plot is looking more specifically at self-congratulatory liberal types who think of themselves as inclusive and progressive, but who, when it comes down to it, are determined to preserve the status quo that keeps them on top. The result is a cinematic experience that confronts us with how much more pervasive racism is than we generally like to think and it makes viewers uncomfortable by forcing them to question their own complicated, repressed racial allegiances. The horror genre’s convention of symbolically evocative monsters is especially effective at bringing out the full messy, complicated spectrum of our unease about social questions that are, in reality, anything but simple.
Chris Washington: “Why black people?”
Jim Hudson: “Who knows?” - Get Out
Since Peele popularized the social thriller, critics have eagerly applied the term to a wide range of new films that tackle complex problems like race, class, oppression, and sexuality, or gender, as well as retroactively to past classics.
A number of prominent films to be grouped in this category – like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and 2020 Oscar winner Parasite – merely have horrific elements, and the term has even been extended to examples far outside of the horror genre. When Peele curated his BAM film series “The Art of the Social Thriller,” he also included Joe Dante’s more comedic The Burbs, Hitchcock classic Rear Window, and even 1967 comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner about an interracial couple meeting their soon-to-be in-laws, because he views his own Get Out as “sort of thriller take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Still, some have questioned the craze for applying the “social thriller” label to any vaguely horrific movie with something to say or any horror movie that’s especially good. Critics argue that the category – like the related “elevated horror” label that’s been thrown around lately – plays into a long history of the horror genre being critically ignored and dismissed as not “serious.” As Emma Fraser wrote for Syfy, “‘Social thriller’ is essentially a fancy way of talking about a specific kind of horror — but by dressing this genre up, it actually does it a disservice…Horror is much smarter than it is often given credit for.”
In fact, arguably many of the best horror films throughout history could qualify as social thrillers, as they so often symbolically express our shared cultural anxieties as literal monsters. In order to understand why this socially conscious breed of horror is thriving today, it’s helpful to look back at the evolution of horror in cinema over the course of U.S. history.
Social Horror Through The Ages
The question of what scares people offers a glimpse into the social consciousness, angsts, and unrests of a particular era. So how have our shifting anxieties over the decades translated into American film?
Back in the 1930s, as the optimism of the Roaring Twenties was washed away by the Great Depression, horror films saw the rise of the mad scientist, whose once-promising marvels had gone terribly awry and created something awful.
Doctor Waldman: “You have created a monster and it will destroy you.” - Frankenstein
‘30s classics The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde both captured the period’s pervasive feeling that American dreams had turned to American nightmares, through stories of scientific experiments with costly consequences. But no other film provided as poignant social commentary on losing faith in the powers of progress as 1931 creature feature Frankenstein. When Doctor Frankenstein’s meddling backfires, he struggles to undo the monstrosity he created, reflecting how people felt powerless to put things back in order. But it’s Frankenstein’s Monster who is the true proletarian symbol of the period’s anguish. From his work clothes to his asphalt spreader boots, he represents the legions of abandoned American laborers.
‘50s films expressed anxieties about the potentially world-ending weapons unleashed by World War II and the specter of nuclear attack which haunted the Cold War. These fears manifested in monster movies about civilization being decimated by a force too big to be contained – like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or the tremendously popular Japanese monster movie, Godzilla, which can also be viewed as a response to the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The giant arachnids in Tarantula are the result of radiation mutation and must be defeated with napalm, an incendiary weapon used in the second World War. In the 1953 H.G. Wells adaptation, The War of the Worlds, the U.S. government resorts to dropping an atomic bomb on Martians invading California, but the aliens’ force fields prove impervious to the bomb’s power. So this provided American audiences a terrifying glimpse of what could have been if the bomb had failed to end World War II.
Starting in the ’60s and peaking in the ’80s, an upswing in violent crime, a rise in American serial killers, and hysteria driving many people out of big cities and into the suburbs, spawned the slasher film genre. Many classic slasher films based their villains on real-life serial killers – like Ed Gein, who inspired the killers of 1960’s Psycho and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Marketing that reminded viewers some of these films were “based on true events” evoked the close-to-home terror of these unthinkable crimes.
Today’s social thriller label tends to be used (both by critics and Peele himself) mostly for progressive or inclusive films, but there are plenty of social horror movements in history that can also express more conservative or reactionary views of the world. In slasher films, there was an implied morality punishing premarital sex and drug use – which were often precursors to a character’s departure – while a pure “final girl” managed to survive. These conventions can be seen as a condemnation of the time period’s youthful experimentation with sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Randy: “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. You can never have sex. You can never drink or do drugs.” - Scream
Horror movies that responded to the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s likewise could express both progressive and conservative sentiments about the crisis. In Fright Night, The Lost Boys, and From Dusk Till Dawn vampires came to stand in for the risk of infection, implicitly demonizing carriers of the virus. On the other end of the spectrum, Alien 3 shows sympathy for victims of the virus. The stigmatized colony of men Ripley lands among, who are separated from society due to a genetic mutation, can be read as a proxy for the leagues of HIV-positive men who were ostracized from the world. 1993 thriller Daybreak also called out the government’s inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic and criticized the social persecution of HIV positive men through a story where infected people are tattooed with the letter P to indicate their positive status.
More broadly, the resurrection of horror movie conventions like tainted blood and body horror reflected visceral fears of this unknown virus that could be invisibly lurking within oneself. Fast forward to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and major shifts in American culture and politics manifested in the ascendancy of horror subgenres like found footage, clash of civilizations, and home invasion.
Echoing the feel of 9/11 news coverage, found footage films attempt to contain an experience only for the characters to frequently become trapped and fall victim to it. The clash of civilizations subgenre capitalized on the rampant xenophobia that consumed America in the wake of 9/11, frequently depicting non-Americans as barbaric antagonists, belonging to an ancient society that knows no bounds of evil.
Home invasion films reflected that, after this attack on their home soil, Americans now felt unsafe in their own sanctuaries. In movies like You’re Next and Funny Games, intruders with eerily unknowable motives torture families in their own homes.
George: “Why are you doing this?”
Peter: “Why not?” - Funny Games
And in 2008’s The Strangers, protagonist Kristen also begs the question of ‘why?’ just like the millions of Americans struggling to understand the violence of 9/11. Kristen’s assailants callously respond…
Dollface: “Because you were home.” - The Strangers
… reminding us that no person or place is ever safe from acts of terror.
While the moral code of slasher films gave people the illusion of control over their fates amidst their time period’s hysteria, in this senseless new age, there was nothing you could do to protect yourself from the danger.
The Modern Social Thriller
While it’s clear that horror movies have been commenting insightfully on society since the dawn of their existence, social thrillers with something to say about today’s world are particularly successful and appealing to audiences. Why is that?
Today, we’re plugged into a constant stream of information, making our emotions volatile and easily manipulated. As filmmaker Jen Senko put it to Rolling Stone, “all of these emotions, especially fear, whip people up into a state of alarm and they become angry and almost evangelical about what they believe.” Even though violent crime is down and life expectancy is up, people today feel increasingly unsafe. Leading sociologist Barry Glassner remarked that, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history...It used to be that people waited for the evening newscast or for the morning newspaper to get their dose of fear. Now they get it on their phones.”
Some modern social horrors employ social media terror to reflect our anxieties about an increasingly digital existence and threats to cybersecurity. Other films and shows reflect that much of our nation’s fear is stoked by today’s tumultuous and divisive social climate.
In the 2017 season of American Horror Story, titled “Cult,” the explosive Kai represents the right, while volatile Ally portrays the left, and the season focuses heavily on mob mentalities.
Chapman University’s 2016 survey of Americans exposed the country’s greatest fear as corrupt government officials an enduring, increasingly validated fear which has been mirrored in horror narratives centered on an evil, backstabbing government, like The Purge series. 2016’s entry Election Year reflects that the self-serving actions of politicians directly endanger and harm the lives of the people they’ve sworn to serve.
Dante Bishop: “For the past 20 years, the NFFA has taken to legalized murder to decrease the poor population, which in turn keeps the government’s spending down.” - The Purge: Election Year
And this public outrage is on display once again in the fourth film The First Purge, which features an anti-purge operation bearing a striking resemblance to the Black Lives Matter movement. So while the government fought alongside civilians in monster movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s many of today’s horror movies reflect the public sentiment that the government is decidedly against us.
Dmitri: “Our neighborhood is under siege, gentlemen, from a government who doesn’t give a shit about any of us.” - The First Purge
Peele’s Get Out gives voice to the horrors of racism and the particular ways it’s expressed in our day and age. The story’s twist (that the Armitage family is stealing the bodies of healthy, young black people as hosts for their relatives’ aging brains) is a metaphor for the disenfranchisement of African-Americans – similar to the symbolic point that Stepford Wives made for women in the ‘70s. The “sunken place” protagonist Chris is cast into, visualizes the lesser, subjugated existence that modern systemic racism continues to impose on black people.
Jim Hudson: “Your existence will be as a passenger. You’ll live in the Sunken Place.” - Get Out
Yet even before these symbolic plot points develop, the film realistically portrays enduring problems like cultural appropriation and the tendencies of the white people Chris meets to minimize him and acknowledge his blackness before his personhood.
Peele’s 2019 social thriller, Us, shifts its focus from race to class – looking darkly at how our inherited socioeconomic status predetermines our lives, and how inequality has grown into a monster that threatens to destroy us all.
2020’s The Hunt also presents a class war, but where the liberal elites hunt those they refer to as deplorables, who are selected for not being “PC enough”. So while most modern class critiques implicitly endorse progressive values, The Hunt can be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of the left’s cancel culture and the toxicity that can radiate within political echo chambers on either side.
The 2020 remake of The Invisible Man tackles toxic masculinity with pathologically abusive Adrian, who continues to torment his wife Cecilia even after he’s apparently died. Cecilia’s unheard cries for help echo the Me Too Movement, which urges us to believe women. 2018’s Unsane likewise focuses on a culture that labels women as “crazy” instead of listening to them. So if we’ve gleaned anything from the popularity of these films, it’s that having something insightful to say about our world has become a mainstay of today’s most acclaimed horror.
So what will tomorrow’s horror movies look like? No doubt, the array of emotions and changes to human society unleashed by 2020’s Coronavirus pandemic will be processed through themes of isolation, social collapse, and, of course, the fear of infection. But whatever their focus, as the Social Horror has taught us time and again, if there’s one thing we’re afraid of…
Jason Wilson: “It’s us.” - Us
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