On The Babadook, It Follows, and the new age of unbeatable horror

On The Babadook, It Follows, and the new age of unbeatable horror

There’s an old saying that one is an example, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend. That’s especially true when it comes to horror, where either because of synchronicity or cold commercial calculation, trends bubble up seemingly overnight, and then dominate the genre for years. One slasher film is an anomaly. Two? Well, sometimes minds—great or otherwise—think alike. But if there’s three? Brace for the glut.

It’s hard to say whether we’re on the verge of a new wave in horror right now, but on the one-two-three trend-scale, it at least qualifies as a coincidence that the two best-reviewed thrillers of the past two years—The Babadook and It Follows—are both relentlessly creepy films about a supernatural evil that can’t be stopped. Are we one movie away from the tipping-point? And if so, what does this say about our collective apocalyptic anxiety in the mid-2010s?

Let’s make one thing clear up top: Ascribing any larger meaning to a particular pop culture uprising can be a fool’s game, because it presumes artistic intent within an enterprise that’s fundamentally profit-driven. If all of a sudden there are a bunch of movies and books and TV shows about zombies, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our artists have developed some deep-seated psychological or sociological need to tell stories about the undead. Individual zombie films and shows may be trying to explore serious ideas, but the trend proliferates because producers smell money. One big success begets another—and continues to do so until consumers revolt.

Still, it was no accident that during the era of the Cold War and atomic angst, movie theaters were full of outer space invaders and irradiated monsters. Sometimes the connection between what’s happening on the big screen and what’s going on in the world outside is too blatant to ignore. Other times, it’s more tenuous. The “animals attack” eco-horror of the 1970s was clearly tied to a heightened awareness of environmental issues; and when the hyper-ironic Generation X was ascendant in the 1990s, mega-hits like Scream put slasher pictures in quotation marks. But a shelf’s worth of books have been written about what the post-Halloween wave of masked murderer movies had to say about the resurgent social conservatism that culminated in the election of President Ronald Reagan—and not all critics agree as to whether the popularity of those films was radical, reactionary, or just coincidental.

Really, that’s what makes the likes of Friday The 13th so rewarding to unpack: They’re open to interpretation. Why did Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers start getting beefier and more supervillain-like in the late 1980s? Why did American filmgoers become so enamored of Japanese-style ghost stories in the early 2000s? What’s the deal with “torture porn,” or the modern boomlet in exorcism tales, or the recent proliferation of remakes? Are “found footage” horror movies a crime against cinema or a relevant statement on modern technology and the surveillance state?

These are fun questions to grapple with, and some of them can be answered pragmatically, by referring back to the first paragraph of this essay. To put it bluntly: There’s more often a lack of creativity at work in the rise of a subgenre than some organized social commentary. Yet something within fluke hits and cash-ins has to resonate with audiences—and possibly for reasons beyond the base desire for cheap thrills.

Neither The Babadook and It Follows has become a blockbuster, so it’s hard to say whether either is going to inspire many imitators. Then again, given the big box office for the Insidious and Paranormal Activity series, and the varying success for the likes of The Pact (and The Pact 2), The Conjuring (and Annabelle), Mama, Oculus, Unfriended, and others, it’s possible that we’re already in the thick of this decade’s dominant horror trend. In all of these, the menace is ever-present, unsparing, and eternal. It’s to be endured, not conquered.

Horror is one of the most convention-bound genres, so to some extent all of the above are just doing what they’re supposed to. They could each just as easily be slotted into other sub-categories: haunted house picture, demonic possession story, silent stalker shocker, and so on. Also, ever since Halloween, it’s been standard operating procedure to end a scary movie with an ellipses and a question mark, not a period. Evil lives on… if only just for the purposes of a sequel.

The difference with It Follows and The Babadook though is one of tone and premise. The first Insidious movie ends with its demonic force as powerful and malicious as ever, but aside from the paranormal expert who gets killed right before the closing credits, most of the film’s heroes believe the worst is over. That’s the basic story arc for horror movies: The survivors assume they’ve won, then the audience learns otherwise in one final gotcha scene. (It’s a way of making us feel mildly freaked-out as we walk through a shadowy parking lot to our cars.)

With It Follows and The Babadook, there’s never much of a sigh-of-relief moment. In the former, a group of young folks who’ve been infected by the film’s “sexually transmitted invisible serial killer” disease trap their nemesis and make it bleed, but never actually see it die. In the latter, the top-hatted shadow-beast who haunts a widowed mother and her hyperactive son tacitly agrees not to be so annoying, but it doesn’t go away. And in both, the usual rhythm of slow-build, intensification, release is ditched in favor of persistent unease, punctuated regularly by shattering terror.

Even Insidious spends most of its running-time establishing that the “ghost” plaguing one pleasant middle-class family isn’t going to be so easily dispatched. Night or day—and regardless of where they move—the Lamberts are living under a thick, dark cloud. An extra-dimensional parasite has attached itself.

On a case-by-case basis, these films are exploring different fears: grief and parental exhaustion in The Babadook, sexual shame in It Follows, and so on. But taken all together, there’s a larger panic enveloping all of these movies like a fog. The overriding message of horror in the 2010 is: It’s too late. These filmmakers—and their audiences—may be responding to the near-daily headlines predicting imminent, irreversible disaster. Be it global warming, peak oil, food and water shortages, market collapse, or permanent political gridlock, it certainly feels lately like we’re doomed.

That’s what’s so fascinating about The Babadook and It Follows. Both are bone-chilling, but they’re also instructive about how to cope with the impossible. At times of growing despair, people like to go to the movies to escape—and here are two films saying, essentially, that some things are inescapable, and that we have to learn to live with them. That’s unusually honest, and may explain why both are cult hits, not cultural phenomena. But if they are part of a trend, and these kinds of stories become widely popular, well, that could say a lot about how resigned we’ve become to the end-times.

The good news is that nearly every generation has felt the same way at some point. It’s part of our innate narcissism to presume that our time on this Earth is the most important in recorded history, and that there won’t be much left for those who come after us. That’s the subtext of all of horror’s shifting trends: Something’s worrying us, and once we’ve devoted as much of our conscious and subconscious as we can to it, we move on and start worrying about something else. That doesn’t mean our real-life fears are unfounded, or that we shouldn’t rage against the dying of the light (regardless of what may be doing the dimming). But the story of genre cinema is in part the story of our fatalism—and thus the story of our continuing survival, despite our certainty that all is lost.