How horror has always been a grim reflection of our taboos

To mark the UK release of Get Out, the racially charged thriller critiquing white America, we look at how the genre has always used metaphors to mirror society’s shortcomings

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Every now and then, a truly thoughtful horror movie comes along to challenge the notion that the genre is unimaginative, borderline pornographic and produces teenage psychopaths. This year that film is Jordan Peele’s Get Out – a refreshing critique of racism in America. The villains are well-meaning middle-class white people and the film blends innovative satire with horror tropes. But horror films have a long history of tackling critical social issues in titillating ways that scare the shit out of you but also make you think. Just as the film noir classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers used an extraterrestrial invasion to mirror communist paranoia in the US, others have mixed an exaggerated terrifying plot with metaphors that echo everyday fears. We’ve rounded up a selection of the best socially conscious horror films to unpack the messages you may have missed:

THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)

Peele cited Bryan Forbes’ horror-satire as one of his greatest influences in the conception of Get Out, and it’s immediately palpable: the two films are cut with a similarly biting critique of white suburbia. In The Stepford Wives Joanna and her husband move to the all-too-pristine town of Stepford, where the women are vacuous and solely bent on pleasing their equally basic husbands. Of course, the men have replaced their wives with android versions; because that’s what men want, right? It tackles male chauvinism head on. Not to be confused with the truly atrocious remake starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick, where the satire is turned into cringe-inducing comedy.

IT FOLLOWS (2015)

“This thing… It’s gonna follow you”, says 19-year-old Jay’s boyfriend after their first sexual encounter, which leaves her bruised, ashamed and haunted by a shapeshifting presence. One of the most innovative horror films in recent memory, It Follows blends teen romance with 70s/80s horror traditions (take the John Carpenter-esque synth-fuzz score) but uses it to tackle a more mysterious point. Critics have proposed that the film is about the danger of sexually transmitted diseases, others have said it could be about the anxiety surrounding sexual trauma. 

THEY LIVE (1988)

John Carpenter packs some B-movie cheese (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubblegum”) into his dystopian masterpiece. They Live is an overt allegorical assault on the class divide and consumerism in 80s America. Rowdy Roddy Piper’s nameless drifter discovers a pair of glasses that allow him to see the world in its true form. Signs that subliminally urge lower classes to CONSUME, CONFORM and OBEY – the graphic responsible for the OBEY fashion label’s logo – are clear, and the rich and powerful in society are revealed to be skeletal monsters. It’s a film that holds increasing relevance in the age of Trump: Carpenter was even less coy about his symbolism in interviews, directly addressing the aliens as republicans.

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (2014)

Subverting expectations of male-dominated Arab countries, the titular ‘girl’ in Ana Lily Amirpour’s sleek vampire western is not the victim, but the aggressor. Combing through the semi-deserted streets of Iranian Bad City alone is how she picks her prey: drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. All men, all terrible people. She also listens to White Lies and rides a skateboard. All in all she’s a character full of personality and independence.

THE HOST (2006)

The monster in Joon Ho Bong’s horror is a direct consequence of the American military presence in South Korea. The incident in question, in which a mortician is forced, by a US officer, to pour formaldehyde down the drain, is based on a real-life event in 2000 when a deformed fish with an S-shaped spine was caught in the Han River. Bong clearly has environmental carelessness and the effect of US imperialism in his crosshairs – the film was a surprise hit in North Korea largely because of its anti-American sentiment. Despite this, Bong is unafraid to pinch from his American forebearers in the depiction of the monster’s hunt; the amphibious, sewer lurking monster roaming the waters is clearly indebted to Spielberg’s Jaws.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

In dreary Glasgow, a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives a van through the streets, picking up local men and taking them back to a dilapidated house, where she leads them into a black abyss. It’s not exactly your run of the mill boy-meets-girl story. The film is backed by Mica Levi’s menacing, dissonant score, and the composer was recently robbed of an Academy Award by La La Land. Under The Skin is an uncomfortable but incredibly intriguing watch. It has been lauded as a shrewd look at immigration, as Johansson’s nondescript foreign entity adapts to her new surroundings and a subversion of perceptions of rape culture: the men in the film are vulnerable and helpless to her seduction.

AUDITION (1999)

When widower Aoyama invents a fake film in order to audition potential replacements for his late wife, his decision to advertise a supporting role is telling. He wants a submissive woman, who is not quite confident enough to try out for the lead role, assuming they will then succumb to his advances. Unfortunately for him, the girl that takes his liking turns out to be quite the Kathy Bates (the antagonistic nurse from Stephen King’s Misery), with a little more psychotic energy. “You can’t go anywhere without feet, can you?” She says to her captive. Spoiler Alert: she cuts off his feet. It’s all an allegory for man’s fear of the power of female sexuality and ultimately shrinking in front of it.

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