*Spoilers for It Follows, The Babadook, and As Above, So Below...below
Horror films have been ripped to shreds by critics for as long as the genre has existed. These are movies that most people don’t take too seriously, perhaps because of their unrealistic story lines, low production value, or intense graphic nature. The few films that do garner critical acclaim are generally a blend of horror, (psychological) thrills & chills, and the supernatural.
Classic horror films that are deemed the cream of the crop include Halloween, The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs, and The Shining. Few other “scary” movies have had such a long-lasting impact on our cultural understanding of what makes a truly great horror movie, compared to a subpar one. But that should not outright diminish the intent behind other supposedly “lesser-than” films.
Believe it or not, horror is more than just shock value. Many of these movies attempt to depict current anxieties we may hold, both publicly and in the back of our minds. Within the last few years, similar narratives have surfaced whose content is a reflection of these societal fears which, in turn, demands further introspection from its viewers. Here is a short list of recent releases whose motifs were a cut above the rest.
"It Follows", Anxiety, and...STDs?
Everything about this film is unsettling: the dialogue, the weather & clothing choices, the production design. The way in which the characters speak to each other seems off at times. The change in weather patterns, too, is bizarre as we see characters bikini-clad one moment and bundled up in heavy winter coats the next. Perhaps the most obvious (and intentional) visual discrepancy comes from the setting. This story exists in an ambiguous, 80s-inspired suburban area that is undeniably reminiscient of John Carpenter's Halloween but is still nonexistent nonetheless. But what raises the most questions about It Follows is what exactly "it" is—or rather, what "it" represents.
The director, David Robert Mitchell, came up with the idea for the script from a recurring nightmare that plagued him as a child. In this dream, he was relentlessly followed by a stalker that would reappear in different forms. Thus the monster he created is anxiety personified. "It" stalks its next victim slowly but without end, creating a feeling of dread in both the victim and viewer as we wait for the inevitable. This is not to suggest that anxiety will overcome everyone. However, the film depicts the longevity with which our anxiety can follow us throughout our day-to-day lives.
"It" has also been interpreted as a kind of STD because of how it spreads: sex. In the film, Hugh sleeps with Jay and only tells her about "it" after-the-fact, leaving Jay to feel upset. Many people who live with STDs experience that same feeling of violation. By choosing not to tell her about "it", Hugh projected the monster onto an unsuspecting—and non-consenting—victim.
"The Babadook" and Depression
This eerie film tells the tale of a widowed mother (Amelia) and her young son (Sam) after they find Mister Babadook, a creepy pop-up book about a black shadowy figure that claims you can't get rid of him. Amelia is visibly disturbed by the story and, when strange occurrences become more frequent in their home, she decides to tear up the book and dispose of it. The next day however, the book reappears with a new part in the story: the more Amelia denies the Babadook's existence, the stronger it grows. The book also shows Amelia killing their dog, then Sam, then herself.
When the Babadook possesses Amelia one night, she begins to fulfill the book's ending and breaks the dog's neck before going after Sam. The two end up in the basement and, when Amelia tries to strangle her son, Sam cups her face in a surprisingly tender moment. Only then is Amelia able to expel the Babadook from her body. The end of the film shows Amelia briefly leaving Sam's birthday party to feed the Babadook in the basement.
If the monster is a stand-in for depression, then the film becomes more sad and less scary (or more scary, if you're familiar with how depression can feel). The whole film reads differently as we watch a grieving mother struggle to raise a son alone, her husband's death still haunting her. Her son is even able to recognize signs of depression within his mother before she even sees them herself and wants to rid their home of it. While Amelia does acknowledge her depression (the book), she initially refuses to do anything about it and instead ignores it. But depression is not so easily dispelled and it returns, time and time again.
When the Babadook possesses her, Amelia becomes completely consumed by her depression. If she doesn't learn how to control it, it can cause harm to those she holds most dear. It comes as no surprise, then, that the love of her son helps Amelia confront her inner demons head-on. But just as the Babadook lurks in the shadows of the basement, so too does her depression rest in the corners of her mind. Thus the monster remains and she must learn how to live with it.
"As Above, So Below" and Past Sins
Found footage reveals the fictitious story of Scarlett Marlowe, an alchemy professor obsessed with finding the fabled philosopher's stone. This search comes on the heels of her father's suicide which is suggested to have been a result of his obsessive search for the stone himself. Scarlett enlists the help of a cameraman (Benji), as well as George (a previous lover) and three French guides (Papillon, Souxie, and Zed) to travel deep into the catacombs beneath Paris where she believes the stone lies.
As they venture farther and farther down, the words "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" are etched in Greek above a tunnel which just happens to be the only entrance they can go through. According to Dante's Inferno, this inscription is above the gates of Hell. Chaos ensues for the rest of the film as we see characters killed off one-by-one: first Souxie, then Benji, and finally Papillon. As statues come to life and start to chase the remaining three, Scarlett realizes how to save themselves. In order to rid them of these demons, the three must first confront their inner demons and confess their sins to one another.
Even if you don't believe in confession, sometimes all we can do is try to make amends for our mistakes. But no amount of apologies can ever truly erase our past transgressions. Likewise, confessing to relieve yourself of guilt doesn't always give way to the desired result. Maybe some sins are better left buried.
The horror! The horror!
Anxiety can follow us wherever we go while depression threatens our livelihood, our past sins not far behind. The return of the monster is an inescapable truth. What these and countless other horror films do is depict perhaps our deepest fear: that we may never truly be rid of our demons, whether they be outside forces or something already inside of us. Sometimes the hardest monsters to face are the ones that no one can see but ourselves.