A quick confession: horror films are not my favorites. I like to tell the story of how I was five, accidentally saw a “scary” scene of Beetlejuice (dir. Tim Burton, 1988), and then refused to even think about scary movies until I got to college. And then, as part of my degree requirements, I had to take a class all about the horror film genre and, as I learned more about the genre, I began to tolerate most of the films.
I used to assume that pretty much every horror film was a slasher film – typically a male character, possibly with some supernatural ability, that hunts and kills groups of people, usually teenagers and usually teenage girls. Characters like Freddy, Michael Myers, Jason, and Leatherface (among so many others) entered mainstream pop culture around the 1980s and the horror film genre tried to emulate the success of these films. Some were successful, some were not. Many of popular culture’s slasher films were rebooted, though usually to none of the same acclaim or success rate of the originals.
However, with today’s horror films, many of the more successful and acclaimed horror films do not feature a slasher and instead put an intense focus on a common thread linking all horror films: the unknown.
There are a couple films I want to touch upon in this regard: It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2014) and The Invisible Man (dir. Leigh Whannell, 2020). The films are new takes on the horror genre and take on the “Final Girl” trope (where there is usually a heroine who is forced to confront the evil being). These horror films deal with the unknown in the form of an invisible horror monster, which is either a supernatural entity or a monster created through technology. The use of invisibility and the unknown in the films creates a more psychological kind of horror, which might be more effective in scaring audiences than the usual slasher film.
It Follows is a film where you never actually see the entity behind the evil. Though it could also be considered more of a thriller film, The premise of the film is that there is a sort of curse that follows and tries to kill the person affected; the curse shape shifts into people that they know and the cursed ones are the only people who can see the entities. The only way for the curse to stop following that person is for them to have sex with another person to pass the curse on. If that person dies, the curse then goes back to following the person who gave it to them. And so on. Like the usual slasher film, the entity is stalking and trying to kill Jay (Maika Monroe) after an ill-fated one-night stand and she is the one who has to take control and survive. She is the only one who can see the forms the entity takes and spends the film convincing her friends that it’s real and trying to kill the curse.
Because the curse is a shapeshifting entity and turns into different people, Jay is always paranoid about her environment and it translates in the film – the viewer notices a blurry shape in the background that then becomes a sharper looking person, who seems to have tunnel vision as they walk directly towards Jay. The most harrowing scene and example of this is when Jay and her friends drive out and sit on a secluded beach; you see a figure in the background, someone who you don’t recognize, and are immediately filled with dread as you see it get closer and closer to an oblivious Jay. She tries to do some research to prove the curse to her friends but there is little information, even when she reaches out to the guy who passed it onto her. Jay knows as much as the audience, which is little to nothing, so the audience feels that same level of paranoia and fear that she does. The film plays with Jay’s, and the audience’s, minds to try to convince them that maybe there isn’t a curse or maybe all of these events are just a coincidence. There is no clear, definitive way to kill this curse, only one that she hopes will work – for the audience, not knowing if the film will have a clear ending builds up even more suspense and horror.
In another take on the unknown/invisible entity, The Invisible Man (one of the few theatrical releases this year) takes the paranoia and fear of the unknown to an even bigger extreme. The film is a modern retelling of a classic 1933 Universal Studios horror film and, unlike the 1933 film, doesn’t let us see the entity until near the end of the film. The main character, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), suffered abuse at the hands of her late partner Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and is convinced that he is the invisible presence that is terrorizing her. The audience still feels that same sense of dread and paranoia as they see random objects be picked up from nowhere. However, much like Jay from It Follows, Cecilia continues to be told that the presence isn’t real, that she’s just imagining it.
Though eventually Jay’s friends believe her and help her to fight this curse, Cecilia continues to be discredited for most of the film and ends up being sent to a mental hospital. She constantly has to prove that this presence is real, that she isn’t imagining it, that she’s being set up for all of the entity’s crimes. The audience believes her story because they also see the entity, but as more and more of the supporting characters doubt Cecilia’s claims, it also builds a sense of doubt in the audience as well. Is it possible that Cecilia is just imagining things? Are we imagining this as well? It forces the audience to question their own reality while also continuing that paranoid fear by keeping this invisible monster just out of reach.
Perhaps these recent horror films rely on this psychological horror because we, as audiences, already know the ins and outs of what makes a slasher film. We know that basics of what make a slasher film – there needs to be a singular being, it needs to be hunting something, that “Final Girl” trope needs to be present and the girl needs to be the one to kill the being and save herself. These most recent films expand on the slasher genre by never showing us the slasher, leaving audiences as clueless and scared as the characters in the films. The films also use the invisibility to prey on a collective fear of the unknown. Audiences became so used to horror films being explained to them, showing the terrifying face of Jason or Leatherface and them running after their prey, that they know what to expect when a new slasher film comes out. They aren’t scared of the traditional slasher horror films because they’re familiar with these tropes, that things will be wrapped up neatly at the end.
However, when less and less information is revealed to the audience, the collective fear of the unknown kicks in and it heightens the audience’s fear. They fear what they cannot see and an invisible monster in the horror film fits in perfectly with the unknown.