FFive years ago, in this article, I coined a term to describe what I saw as a new trend in horror movies: “post-horror.” Bad idea. For me, the term sounded good – a bit like “postmodern”. And in the same way that postmodern architecture has played with established language and traditions without necessarily sticking to the rules, I’ve suggested that a number of recent horror movies have done the same: movies like as It Comes at Night, A Ghost Story and The Witch. The “horror community” wasted no time telling me how wrong I was. Responses to my post ranged from “It’s just horror, duh” to “It’s elitist snobbery” to “You can’t weigh in on this because you haven’t watched that many movies horrified than me”.
“All Rose really says in her article is ‘I don’t like horror, so these particular movies must be something else,'” explained an online article, which concluded, “Using platforms of cultural guarding… denigrating a consistently rich and popular genre with little wit to nuance is more than just cultural distinction, it’s shoddy journalism. Well, that’s what I was told. I hadn’t experienced such vitriol since my two-star review of the movie World of Warcraft.
I wasn’t really trying to put up a flag and say, “I’ve discovered this previously unexplored realm of horror.” I didn’t despise the rest of the horror canon either. I love horror movies – trashy, gory movies as much as polished art house movies. I’m old enough to have spent my youth rewinding and replaying in slow motion the exploding head scene on a video copy of David Cronenberg’s The Scanners. I was just putting a term to describe something, and seeing if other people liked it. It turned out that many of them did not, but some did. I regularly get inquiries about the concept of “post-horror” from film students. Recently I came across an academic book titled Post-horror: art, gender and cultural elevation, written by David Church, Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender Studies at Indiana University. And this month, the Barbican cinema in London is launching a series of “Post-Horror Summer Nightsfeaturing some of the movies I talked about in my original article.
Neither Church’s book nor the Barbican film season apply the term exactly as I intended. In fact, Church dismisses mine as “one of many misguided attempts to name a corpus of recent films“, alongside other terms such as “smart horror” or “high horror” – essentially telling me I’m misusing my own definition. But I never really established a rigid definition at the time. Now post-horror is even more of a thing, maybe I should.
It started with an interview with filmmaker Trey Edward Shults in 2017. Then, in his late twenties, Shults had just released his accomplished second film It Comes at Night. The title suggests something you might find on a grindhouse double bill alongside, say, Night of the Living Dead or Blood Sucking Freaks. And Shults’ film incorporates some classic horror elements: a post-apocalyptic scenario, a cabin in the woods, violent deaths, disturbing noises on the soundtrack and suspenseful tracking shots. But the “It” of the title is not a monster, a virus or anything definable. The film is more ambiguous than that, examining issues of tribalism, paranoia, family, and fear itself. It hit over 2,500 screens in the United States and the general public hated it. He got a D CinemaScoreand many online reactions to the “worst movie of all time”.
“I had no intention of making a horror movie per se,” Shults told me, explaining how the film was informed by his father’s recent death, among other things. “I just got into doing something personal… I put a lot of my own fears into it. And if fear turns into horror, then yes, it is horror. But I don’t think it’s a conventional horror movie.
When I told Shults that I was tempted to describe it as “post-horror,” he replied, “Of course! I like this.”
I had noticed other movies around that time doing similar things. Robert Eggers’ The Witch, for example, a folk horror set in the 16th century that seemed more interested in historical authenticity than leaps and bounds. Again, it got terrible viewership scores initially, from punters who presumably expected a straight-up horror flick. Or Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which collided vampires and occult symbolism with the modern fashion industry. Or Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, which incorporated supernatural elements into a story of grief and upheaval, without really playing the role of a horror movie. Or especially A Ghost Story by David Lowery. This movie features a ghost – with a white sheet with two eye holes cut out – but no one can see it, so it’s not that scary. “I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost movies and haunted house movies without ever becoming a horror movie,” Lowery told me at the time. That pretty much sums up post-horror mode.
Looking around I saw other movies that I could put in the post-horror basket. The works of Peter Strickland, for example. His gorgeous Berberian Sound Studio, from 2012, is steeped in the trappings of 1970s Italian horror cinema, the iconography of which spills over into the increasingly deranged noisemaker-centric main narrative of Toby Jones. Is it a horror film in itself? Not exactly. Likewise, Strickland’s 2014 follow-up The Duke of Burgundy, which paid stylistic homage to ’70s erotic horrors such as Vampyros Lesbos, but twisted them into something altogether eerie.
By definition, film genres have rules. But to some degree, most great horror films overturn these rules or use them to address issues that society struggles to address head-on. But let’s also be honest, a lot of horror movies just rehash familiar tropes to the point of cliché. Horror is one of the few genres that can still generate box office returns for minimal outlay in today’s rushed cinematic landscape. Even if only one in 10 is successful, you can still make a profit. So you don’t have to be an elitist snob to notice that a lot of dumb horror movies have been thrust upon us in recent years.
Another downside to the current film landscape is that it’s even harder for aspiring authors looking to make a name for themselves. Horror is therefore a way to cross the door of the multiplex. When you listen to filmmakers like Shults or Eggers or Ari Aster, director of Hereditary and Midsommar, each of whose films have been distributed by A24, their heroes are not masters of horror like Sam Raimi, Dario Argento or George Romero, They’re arthouse directors like Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, and Robert Altman — all of whom have made movies that might fall into the post-horror category, for that matter.
Eggers hit the nail on the head when I interviewed him for his 2019 film The Lighthouse. A two-handed black-and-white trippy, he had elements of horror – allusions to Edgar Allan Poe, mermaids, sea monsters – but it was far from a straight-up horror movie. Eggers explained how difficult it is for any filmmaker in the current climate to secure funding for an unconventional and “personal” film. But the industry is more willing to back something if it fits into a genre, especially horror. “They knew The Lighthouse was more of an arthouse movie than anything else,” Eggers said, but they also knew they could “lean” on the horror aspects to market it, which helped.
Many of these filmmakers have moved on. Eggers has since moved on to epic fantasy action with The Northman, Shults has moved on to nifty teen drama with his latest film Waves. Lowery directed Robert Redford’s thriller The Old Man and the Gun before stepping back into post-horror territory with last year’s The Green Knight, a dark, mystical and violent Arthurian tale blending fantasy and horror.
Whatever your feelings about post-horror etiquette, we can definitely agree that something amazing was happening in movies in the mid-2010s. also given It Follows, The Babadook, Raw, Split, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Shadow, Green Room, A Quiet Place and Jordan Peele’s phenomenal Get Out. Plus, entertaining franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and The Purge are cleaning up at the box office. Is it too early to consider it a golden age?
To me, many of the aforementioned films are more conventional horror than post-horror, in that they establish traditional genre expectations and fulfill them. But then, what are the limits? How far can you subvert the rules before you’re out of style? Who’s deciding ? Clearly not me. But that’s the gray area I was trying to define. I don’t mind people embracing the term post-horror, rejecting it, or adapting it to mean something else entirely – which is kind of what happened. Perhaps my fellow screenwriter Matt Zoller Seitz said it best a few years ago on Twitter. Weighing in on a similar debate over the term “high horror,” he wrote, “High horror is like an artisanal cheeseburger. Make the fucking cheeseburger. If it’s delicious, no one will care what adjective you put in front of it.
Post-Horror Summer Nights begins at the Barbican Cinema, London, with It Comes at Night, presented by Steve Rose, on August 4