Skip to content

From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

The Silver Scream

On heebie-jeebies past and present

Pasha Malla

The images are indelible: The ­silhouetted vampire slinking upstairs in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Knife-wielding, wigged-out Norman Bates whipping back the shower curtain in Psycho. Regan MacNeil’s revolving demon head in The Exorcist. Jack Torrance hacking through the bathroom door in The Shining. All among the most iconic moments in cinema — and all from horror films. Yet despite the genre’s reputation for gore, these scenes tend to be anticipatory, less depictions of violence than portents of it. Since the earliest days of motion pictures, no other form has so effectively traumatized ­viewers by dramatizing trauma — and death — as an impending, indiscriminate, inevitable threat.

We find these moments frightening for how viscerally and grotesquely they depict ­menace snarling into peril, but their abiding resonances are also broadly social. In “Return of the Repressed,” his seminal survey from 1978, the critic Robin Wood outlined how horror films had, to that point, always told the same story, in which “normality is threatened by the Monster.” That Monster — be it a serial killer, ghost, Satanic cult, alien invasion, zombie uprising, or, in the case of the phantasmagoric Japanese cult hit Hausu, a really weird, malevolent cat — has often manifested some inherently fraught or fragile tendency within the dominant social order. In such films, the threat to innocent protagonists frames trauma as a disruption to the status quo, rather than the universal baseline of “normal” human experience.

But over the past decade or so, the dialectic between trauma and normality has been transforming. No longer are the protagonists of horror, as proxies for some ostensibly average, innocent viewer, untroubled before we meet them. If the archetypal ghost story used to open with an innocuous (white) nuclear family moving into a bucolic country manor only to be terrorized by evil spirits, it might now centre on a South Sudanese refugee couple, who, after losing their daughter in transit to London, become haunted by an incarnation of their forced displacement and personal suffering (His House).

In PTSD horror, the Bad Thing isn’t ­coming; it’s already happened. Two American indie studios seem especially invested in relegating trauma from imminence to backstory. Since 2019, A24 has released Saint Maud, which the producers describe as following “after an obscure trauma”; Men, which begins “in the aftermath of a personal tragedy”; It Comes at Night, which transpires after “a mysterious apocalypse”; and Hereditary, which begins with a funeral. The disturbing first scene of Midsommar — a murder-suicide — incites Dani’s emergence from dark devastation into sun-drenched coronation. IFC Midnight’s recent offerings share similar themes: She Will follows a double mastectomy and reconciles an episode of childhood sexual abuse, while Rebecca Hall stars in both The Night House, as a woman “reeling from the unexpected death of her husband,” and Resurrection, in which her character must “confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades.”

It seems that some old tropes are out of a job.

Alexander MacAskill

The reconfiguration isn’t limited to the art houses. This past spring alone, publicity materials for both mainstream and low-budget releases promised movies that begin “after a senior co-worker assaults a bright-eyed young woman” (Pollen); “after a bullying incident leads to tragedy” (Pillow Party Massacre); “after the disappearance of her young son” (From Black); and “a year after the incident at the Mount” (The Mount 2). In other films, characters have, prior to the opening credits, already suffered “a recent terrifying home invasion” (Motion Detected); “the alleged suicide of her priest brother” (Consecration); and “an abusive relationship” (Dark Nature). Even before he’s possessed, the mute kid in The Pope’s Exorcist is haunted by his father’s death. If trauma used to be the mystery meat in horror’s blood-and-guts gumbo, it’s now the roux — if not the recipe.

Even reboots of ’70s and ’80s classics frame the traumatic events of the originals as case histories to inform present-day journeys of healing and recovery. None of these resurrects its emotionally scarred protagonist with more virtuous vigilantism than David Gordon Green’s trilogy of Halloween sequels. In Halloween, Halloween Kills, and Halloween Ends, Jamie Lee Curtis reprises her role as Laurie Strode, now equipped with firearms, a booby-trapped bungalow, and the blood-lusty catchphrase “Evil dies tonight” to accompany her revenge-fuelled pursuit of Michael Myers.

Similarly, the latest entry into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre canon features the return of the original’s “final girl,” Sally Hardesty, who, in a climactic scene, confronts Leatherface and demands that he atone for the pain he inflicted upon her and her friends. In Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited/dreaded follow‑up to The Shining, Danny Torrance, now an adult and played fretfully by Ewan McGregor, struggles with alcoholism — the fallout, presumably, of being chased into a topiary maze by his axe-wielding dad — and with the “shining” superpower he awakened that fateful winter at the Overlook Hotel. Meanwhile, the protagonists of the Hellraiser and Black Christmas updates are identified as, respectively, a recovering addict and a sexual assault survivor.

These revivals are particularly revealing for how they portray damaged lives and to whom they assign said damage. Trauma, as a symptom of American original sins, used to belong to the villains, who then enacted its fallout on their victims. The brutal backstories of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Norman Bates informed their homicidal mania in the early Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Psycho movies, which were less excavations of troubled pasts than depictions of their murderous culminations. But now the Monsters are no longer the “sick” ones; instead, they embody protagonists’ clinically corroborated experiences of addiction, mental illness, grief, and abuse. Adapting Wood’s formulation, in the new PTSD narratives the Monster has been normalized, and the most ominous threat — the engine of every horror story — is one of allegorical, failed reconciliation.

Wood was not the first to observe that ­horror films of the twentieth century, reflecting doomsday prognostications of nuclear war and social collapse, had “one premise disturbingly in common: the annihilation is inevitable, humanity is now completely powerless, there is nothing anyone can do to arrest the process.” Yet now, with many of the planet’s ecosystems suffering real-time annihilation, horror might be proceeding into its palliative phase. Tellingly, the internet is loaded with articles espousing the genre’s homeopathic properties. In publications as diverse as Time, National Geographic, and Psychology Today, well-meaning content creators suggest that scary movies can offer remedies for everything from stress and anxiety to, bizarrely, obesity. (Watching The Shining can apparently burn up to 184 calories.)

Over the years, several documentaries have featured renowned directors touting the notion of horror as a curative as well, particularly for our mental health: scary movies are “about how we cope with death” (Joe Dante in Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue); they “don’t create fear, they release it” (Wes Craven in Fear in the Dark); and they enable you “to look into yourself” (George R. Romero in Why Horror?). So in this formulation, the genre, like all transactional art, adopts psychological, emotional, and somatic utility. Beyond providing catharsis, it heals us and makes us ­better people, especially by repositioning trauma so we can participate in a restorative process along with the characters onscreen.

Along with found-footage mainstays like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and V/H/S, the first decade or so of the twenty-first century saw the rebirth of the zombie as horror’s dominant Monster. A slate of international films (28 Days Later, REC), comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), adaptations (Resident Evil, World War Z), and remakes (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies), plus the TV series The Walking Dead, express a post‑9/11 paranoia of civilizational ­disintegration, in which even the mighty forces of government, the military, and capitalism itself cannot stem — and indeed often hasten — the end of the world as we know it. As a conceit, the zombie apocalypse represents external threats, even if those threats are of our own, neo-liberal making. But the predominance of this trend is very much over.

Certainly, psych-horror films such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession long preceded the current shift to internal Monsters; and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, along with other contributions from France’s “New Extremity,” seems to take perverse delight in exploiting the graphic representation and devastating aftermath of trauma. Those influences aside, among twenty-first-century English-language releases, few feel as pivotal to the current PTSD zeitgeist as The Babadook.

Its opening dream sequence, which introduces the car accident that killed the protagonist Amelia’s husband, immediately compromises the “normality” perpetuated in contemporaneous haunted house films — Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister — where ghosts and demons, pro forma, pestered intact, happy families. In The Babadook, the family unit is broken before the story begins, and the Monster, a spooky, top-hatted incarnation of the characters’ grief, terrorizes Amelia and her son before ending up, with all the subtlety of a Dr. Phil platitude, imprisoned in their basement.

If the structure of The Babadook seems pop-psychiatric, Smile drives the genre even further onto the proverbial couch. Not only is its heroine, Rose Cotter, a clinical psychologist, but Smile locates her formative trauma, and its reverberations, in a single, catalytic event. Obeying the template of PTSD horror, a gruelling — and traumatic — confrontation triggers flashbacks to Rose, as a child, witnessing her mother’s suicide. And naturally the story climaxes in a literal showdown with that maternal Monster, staged in a flaming simulacrum of Rose’s childhood home. (A twist ending follows; it’s kitsch.)

Smile is a protraction of the writer-director Parker Finn’s own Laura Hasn’t Slept, an eleven-minute short set during a single therapy session. Similarly, The Boogeyman extends a 1973 Stephen King short story, which also unfolds during a single therapy session, into ninety-eight minutes of grief-induced jump‑scares. Until the final few lines of King’s telling, Dr. Harper remains a blank proxy for the reader, an empty vessel that receives the sordid details of his patient’s testimony. The adaptation gifts him a first name (Will) and repositions him as its protagonist. Now the titular “shadow monster” embodies the unreconciled trauma of his widowhood. This CGI-rendered, goopy demon‑elk, which, ­according to a fellow victim, “goes after the hurt and vulnerable, follows you everywhere you go,” is quintessentially subdued in the family basement just in time for Dr. Harper to learn to love his kids and also burn down his own house.

If the goal of horror used to be to disrupt the status quo, the PTSD version operates with different intentions. These films seem more designed to console the viewer, alongside their characters, on a path to recovery. In addition to their somewhat reductive approaches to human psychology, they constrict horror’s thematic purview from the socially diagnostic to the personally therapeutic. So instead of stories about a masked serial killer or about a tornado full of sharks, they become, as Curtis has relentlessly claimed of her latest Halloween instalments, expressly and exclusively “about trauma,” and their exploration of character is largely pathological.

Further, representing past wounds antagonistically positions trauma as a kind of enemy. Given Hollywood’s propensity for us-versus-them, good-versus-evil binaries, the monsters of horror, especially, have long been a threat to the innate decency of their protagonists — and therefore to society. When that threat is essentially a component of the protagonist, character arcs operate as soul cleansings intended to achieve the same reversion to “normality” championed in everything from the most anodyne network sitcoms to the flagrantly reactionary Mission: Impossible franchise.

PTSD narratives aren’t, of course, the only mode of horror being produced right now. There’s still plenty of schlock that doesn’t burden glorious carnage with even cursorily psychoanalytic complexity, as well as many excellent pictures that progress unencumbered by their characters’ pasts. Some, like the hilarious Deadstream, even parody a redemptive journey through a land of ghouls and demons. Also intriguing, if unevenly executed, are the current crop of experimental, atmospheric films — Skinamarink, The Outwaters, Enys Men — that seem less concerned with narrative or ­character than with building immersive, impressionistic experiences of terror. And globally there’s all kinds of creepy stuff making the festival rounds, with Indonesian studios lately releasing some of the most compelling horror cinema.

Here in North America, there’s another trend that, by necessity, explores trauma not as emotional backfill clogging personal growth but as a set of systemic social phenomena. The seminal case in point is Get Out. In nightmarishly skewing the racial dynamics of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner through Invasion of the [White Supremacist] Body Snatchers treachery, Jordan Peele’s Oscar winner speaks to communal rather than just individual fears. Tellingly, the film’s original ending features Chris Washington being violently arrested and jailed; his successful escape from the Armitage compound in the revised finale feels relatively aspirational, if not uplifting.

A wave of movies by other Black filmmakers, featuring Black protagonists — including Antebellum, Master, Nanny, Black Box, Sweetheart, and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel — express what Gabrielle Bellot, writing in the New York Times, has described as “a certain kind of trauma [that] surrounds us . . . born out of anti-Black violence and racism.” Yet the Black horror boom isn’t limited to depictions of suffering and inequity onscreen: the genre’s racial clichés are ironized and lampooned in The Blackening, whose tag line, “We can’t all die first,” speaks to its self-aware meta-commentary. This time, the core characters band together and survive.

In the past few years, several features written and directed by Indigenous filmmakers have also used horror and genre tropes to explore the destructive legacies of settler colonialism, including Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum and Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders, both of which won multiple Canadian Screen Awards. (A television adaptation of Cherie Dimaline’s dystopic novel The Marrow Thieves is currently in production.) Prey, released in both English- and Comanche-language versions, relocates the Predator mythos to the eighteenth-century northern Great Plains, where a young woman faces off with the franchise’s iconic alien warrior against a backdrop of imperialism and misogyny.

Historically and politically informed social commentary in horror is not limited to Black and Indigenous productions, of course. Like His House, which operates from such a linguistically and aesthetically distinct South Sudanese perspective, Kourosh Ahari’s The Night and Iris K. Shim’s Umma are both ghost stories that capture struggles for cultural and familial autonomy among Iranian and Korean immigrants, respectively. Again, the traumas aren’t isolated to the main characters’ personal histories but suggest shared experiences of broader communities.

Yet even these counterpoints to PTSD horror, while performing necessary corrective work, also invest in remedying past injustices and positing cinema as a space to process shared harm. Perhaps modern horror, in shifting from depictions of impending doom to its navigation, simply reflects the current eschatological discourse: the end isn’t just nigh, we’re already living in it. If scary movies are intended to express their corresponding cultures’ most essential nightmares, PTSD horror indicates the decline of death as our primal fear, replaced with a fear of not ­living well while we can. The greatest threat of a symbolic trauma Monster — which is, after all, incapable of transcending its own allegory — is a curiously Catholic failure to accept, forgive, and resolve its ­dominion over the past.

But can a movie “about trauma” still be scary? The youngest film on the list that opened this little report, The Shining, is forty-three years old. Its vintage is not anomalous. The only American entry from the past decade that cracks the top twenty-five of Shudder’s docuseries The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time is from Ari Aster’s Hereditary — a moment that, while astonishing, is so sudden and dimly lit it’s quite difficult to see. “Movie moments” rely on a harmony of novelty and emotional acuity; they must operate on a continuum that culminates in an image both surprising and earned. Perhaps remedial horror faces a temporal impossibility: Can a character obsessing over their psychological beginning elicit the same urgency as one confronting their existential end?

Creating characters that battle the monsters of their pasts, however, isn’t the only way to evoke fear and dread while exploring lingering pain. Talk to Me, a feature debut by the Australian Philippou brothers, centres on seventeen-year-old Mia, who is mourning the loss of her mother, two years earlier, to an ambiguous overdose. Mia hooks up with some classmates in possession of an embalmed hand that, via an abridged séance (and attendant footage posted dutifully to their socials), allows them to commune with the dead. As with most high school activities, things spiral out of ­control, and Mia and her friends are transformed from parlour game TikTokers to diabolical ­vessels and victims.

Rather than charting a path through this scenario to a resolution of Mia’s pain, Talk to Me is more focused on churning through the irreconcilable muck of loss. Mia’s discovery of her mom’s body is portrayed in flashback, but the film resists catalyzing this moment into a journey of healing and recovery. Instead, her grief creates a textural aesthetic that, if not atemporal, is at least non-linear: a state of insatiable longing with no possibility of real closure. And the monsters that emerge from those manual communications with the dead also defy the rote, figurative readings of most PTSD horror, less embodiments of trauma than duplicitous perpetrators of it.

Talk to Me is not formally or narratively radical. Similar stories have been teased out of loss — Pet Sematary and Flatliners come to mind — and it borrows imagery from several other horror films, including the teary-eyed, frontal close‑up from Get Out and the generically blown-out pupils popularized by Ju‑On’s child demon. Its treatment of trauma, however, does feel unique amid the current landscape of therapeutic offerings. The sheer nihilism of the Philippous’ storytelling rejects the self-help instruction of, for example, The Boogeyman, veering into far darker and considerably more unnerving territory. Talk to Me will defy any viewer seeking solace or consolation. It’s disturbing in its hopelessness as well as in the searing, irredeemable alienation Mia endures because of her grief. The film also ends on a remarkably poignant, chilling final image. Whether it’s indelible enough to crack any best‑of lists, it’s ­probably too soon to say.

Pasha Malla is the author of six books, most recently Fugue States, a novel. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Advertisement

Advertisement