In turbulent times, horror movies can be strangely comforting

March 11, 2021 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

With a global pandemic upon us, who needs scary movies? Lots of us, as it turns out. During the first weeks of lockdown, the 2011 movie Contagion soared in popularity on streaming TV, and a sequel is now in the works. And even before the pandemic, horror movies started to experience a renaissance unseen since the genre’s “Golden Age” in the 1970s.

None of this comes as a surprise to S. Trimble, who understands why we’re drawn to what we most fear. Trimble is an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the Faculty of Arts & Science. She’s also a longtime horror enthusiast who believes that frightening stories have the power to spark important conversations about social change, and can even soothe anxiety.

Arts & Science News spoke with Trimble about her lifelong fascination with the macabre.

You’re an expert in both literary and cinematic horror. How did you get interested?

I grew up really gravitating to the genre: I guess it spoke to me as a young, queer, gender non-conforming person in the 1990s. I was like, these monsters are doing really interesting things! I also thought Freddy Krueger — the killer in Nightmare on Elm Street — had a great sense of humour. 

It’s a genre that you either hate or love, though you can make converts, too. When you give students a way to think about the films, they start to lose some of their aversion. But for me it was never aversion, it was always joy.

It was a lot later that I started to realize: horror is really about taking what we count as the normal world and watching it all fall apart. And that became both intellectually and emotionally interesting to me.

But why would we want to watch scary movies now, when our normal world has fallen apart?

I think horror gathers up all of our bad feelings and packages them into a narrative. I think it can help us process those things. It lets us sit with our feelings. And that’s particularly important when on the one hand there’s an urge to go back to normal, and on the other there’s a realization that “normal” kind of sucked in a lot of ways! So, I think horror is a great genre for allowing us to work through some of that ambivalence.

Even before the pandemic, you were writing about how in recent years, horror movies have started to attract new respect.

Horror has recently started to re-emerge in a way that it hasn’t since the 1970s, when films like The Exorcist were nominated for ten Academy Awards. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, horror kind of got a bad rap; it was the straight-to-video era, a crappy low-budget genre that was considered close to pornography. In the ‘90s it became a little more self-reflexive, but it was only after 2010 that it really started to find itself again.

How did it do that?

Jordan Peele’s movies have played a key part — in 2016, Get Out changed the game in a lot of ways. Before that you had The Babadook in 2014, a horror film directed by a woman, Jennifer Kent, which looks at a mother’s bad feelings about being a mother. Then in 2018 there was the reboot of the Halloween franchise with Jamie Lee Curtis as this grown survivor figure, no longer the teenager she was in the first film.

So, looked at in the context of MeToo, Time’s Up and Black Lives Matter, it seemed like horror was a genre that was metabolizing all these historical conditions: trying to give us stories about them. It’s now starting to provide lots of perspectives on what we consider to be the status quo. And I think that’s really interesting, because you can see horror becoming a site for thinking about social change.

The place of women in horror movies is worth discussing. For example, horror has certain recurring motifs, one of which is the “Final Girl.” She’s the character — generally someone sweet and innocent — who’s often the only one standing at the end. Is the Final Girl a feminist icon, or just a damsel in distress?

There’s always been a question about why women like horror, because mainstream horror films have been fairly unkind to women characters. But the way the Final Girl is seen has evolved, for sure. The conservative reading of the Final Girl was that she was rewarded for her purity and her goodness: she got to survive, while all her promiscuous friends had to die. But I grew up on that character; I always remember that in one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the Final Girl is left with a shock of gray hair, even though she’s a teenager. I remember thinking there’s something there — that she’s aged and become wiser as a result of this encounter with Freddy Krueger.

That got me thinking about what happens to the Final Girl after the films, after all the people who were supposed to support her have deserted her. The Halloween franchise actually tells that story by bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis’s character as a survivor completely alienated from the society around her. The cost of that encounter with masculine violence is something we’re now completely exploring, whereas in the earlier films it was kind of implied.

It’s also interesting that Jordan Peele’s Get Out — a film about racism — was inspired by The Stepford Wives, a film about sexism.

These movies deal with how the white hetero-patriarchal family has all these hidden violences, and Get Out does that from a Black point of view. The film critic Robin Wood offered a great formula for horror in the ‘70s, which is just: normality is threatened by the monster. What Peele did, and what The Stepford Wives did, was show the straight white family, a stand-in for normality, as monstrous. I think that’s the moment where horror becomes super interesting because it’s asking us: where do we locate fear and terror? Where do they start, and where do they come from? And where do we locate hope?

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 by highlighting the groundbreaking contributions and unique stories of A&S women. All week, we’ll shine a spotlight on the vibrant women of our community.