Danielle Ryan is a freelance writer and critic.
But recently, filmmakers of color, female filmmakers and LGBTQ filmmakers have flipped the script. Instead of presenting communism, crime or immigrants as the enemy, these artists, prominent among them “Us” director Jordan Peele, generate horror from the experience of being that formerly monstrous Other. Rather than fearing slashers or ghosts, the protagonists of these movies are menaced by society’s prejudices. And instead of abstractions, the monsters they face off against are horrifyingly human.
Horror has always been popular among marginalized people, even when the genre hasn’t exactly been tailored for them. In AMC’s recent documentary series “Eli Roth’s History of Horror,” Peele argued that black audiences respond to horror movies differently than white audiences. He suggested that black audiences tend to root for the villain, whether it’s “Halloween” killer Michael Myers or cannibal Hannibal Lecter, because the villain is capable and strong. Often, the villain is coded as “Other,” and people of color understand all too easily what it is to share that label.
It’s that instinct to sympathize with monsters that has made Peele one of the leading forces behind a new wave of horror that doesn’t provide easy answers. His 2017 movie “Get Out,” which depicts a young black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) who comes to understand that his girlfriend and her family steal black people’s bodies to give ailing white people a chance at renewed vigor, was rooted in these dynamics. The results of these monstrous surgeries aren’t villains; they’re victims with the strength to break through their conditioning and warn our hero to save himself. In addition to scares and a clever concept, “Get Out” gave us “the sunken place,” the perfect vocabulary for black audiences to describe being swallowed up by white hegemony.
Peele is hardly alone in finding new ways to highlight the horror of being human.
Feminist horror cinema might seem contradictory, given the genre’s history of brutalizing women simply for the thrill of it, but a wave of fiercely female-positive fare crashed into cinemas after Donald Trump was elected president.
Take Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge.” In another horror movie, the mistress hunting down her paramour and her friends might have been the monster, a homewrecker whose moniker becomes all too literal. Instead, Jen (Matilda Lutz) is our hero, a resilient survivor hunting down the men who brutalized her and left her for dead. Jen is flawed, but those flaws make her a more compelling character than the archetypical virginal “final girl” who survives to the end of the movie because of her virtue. Fargeat’s gory and glittering revenge film makes misogyny the real monster.
Women aren’t the only people addressing this theme. Sam Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” features four teenage girls trying to survive when their town turns against them after a vicious hacker reveals their secrets on social media, resulting in a bloodbath. Given that one of the most acclaimed movies in the horror canon, “The Silence of the Lambs,” is notable for its ugly presentation of an apparently transgender character, it’s also notable that “Assassination Nation” cast a transgender actress as one of its leads, portraying her as a heroine who can save herself, rather than a monster to be hunted and revealed.
Peele’s “Us” takes this theme even further, blurring the lines between monster and survivor. The ostensible monsters of “Us” are the Tethered, doppelgangers who live in underground tunnels and emerge at the direction of their leader, Red (Lupita Nyong’o). Red’s topside counterpart, Adelaide, is the film’s primary protagonist, alongside the rest of her family. But the film’s final minutes suggest that our sense of hero and villain may be misplaced.
Perhaps that’s what is so ingenious about Peele’s work. While other filmmakers in this renaissance of embracing the Other still have clear antagonists, Peele is muddying the waters. The white liberals of “Get Out” are certainly villainous, but they’re part of a much larger, systematic evil. “Us” is more complicated still; there are no clear heroes or villains, only victims of a variety of tragedies. Instead of pointing fingers or trying to turn Othering back on the people who did it first, Peele is asking audiences to look at the underlying roots of our problems.
At a moment when the president starts fights with a dead man, global warming is wreaking havoc on our weather systems and everything seems too scary to be real, audiences can look to this new golden age of horror to guide us through — and to help us recognize when the monster is us.