“The aesthetic features of post-horror replicate the mixture of shame, confusion, shock, and anxiety about the future experienced by liberal Americans in the midst of the Tea Party and Trump’s rise – and possibly, as well, the rise of post-recession, right-wing populisms from Australia to Eastern Europe, as evidenced by the international films The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy. The pervasive presence of the uncanny reflects the sudden feeling that a familiar political landscape that looks much the same as before has become strange and riddled with danger. The placing of circular narratives in isolated, frontier landscapes expresses skepticism of the progress stories central to American political life. The homes – their reconstruction, renovation, and destruction – suggest millennials’ post-financial crisis ambivalence toward housing, but also the terror of a world becoming more walled, shut down, not to mention the dangers of dealing with the past by locking it up inside of us. The repeated presence of a striving motherhood and an occultist anti-feminism reflects the misogyny of the Trump movement and a critical eye cast on the gendered burden of caretaking in an era of transnational austerity.”
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Serious fear appears in the lives of most children in an age of precarious living, but different children – and different parents – experience fear in different ways. Some parents worry that their children won’t earn enough money to buy a house or will be saddled with a student debt load that makes it impossible for them to live more than paycheck to paycheck. Those fears are real and significant. But some parents fear that ICE will rob their children from them, that their children won’t graduate because of a legacy of segregated schools, that they will spend their retirement raising their grandchildren because their children struggle with opioid addiction in a health-care system incapable of providing effective chemical dependency care except to the wealthiest, that leadened drinking water will poison their children, that their son won’t come home tonight because of a bullet from a police officer’s gun. There are some fears, of course, that any family could share – of losing a child, partner, or parent in an accident or to mental illness. But others’ fears are simply racist, classist, or both. And some fears go unrecognized entirely.
To point out that childhood fear is something whose allocations are political is not to say that there aren’t difficult things about growing up anywhere, nor worse to flatten the range of experiences that children have into a spectrum of hardships. Neither is it to dismiss, reductively, imaginative filmmaking that doesn’t address (like Attack the Block) more systematic injustices – to say that a horror of middle-class concerns is merely an escapism, a choosing to exchange the sight of real horrors for imagined horrors. Rather, it’s to argue that it’s becoming more and more difficult to experience the fears of horror films without recognizing their context in a larger economy of fear, or to understand its represented horrors without attending to which, whose horrors go represented and unrepresented.
It’s to say, too, that injustice is a disposition of social relations, that a more just world must have the means of more just social relations and kinships, and that the privileged distribution of fear across families is one of many causes for privileged people failing to see or act on possibilities for dispositions that are more just. Filmmaking is one of many conduits through which people might see a world with less fear.
Just as many playgrounds have replaced gravel surfaces with rubber mulch, and softened sharp metal slide edges with plastic curves, many children, too, have felt the shape of adult fears in the layers of tests and paperwork filling contemporary teaching. Anyone who has taught young people, or raised them, knows that no fear comes close to resembling that which we feel for a lost child: the parent of a college student you teach sending an email saying he’s not picking up the phone, the eighth grader whom you can’t find for a moment on a field trip but turns up behind you. Like the instinctive breathlessness felt when a toddler careens backwards and we can’t help wanting to rush to catch them. Privileged families can erect layers of comfort and protection around their children to alleviate this breathlessness. Less privileged families often have to live without.
It’s a similar breathlessness that I’ve felt – and a similar set of questions that I’ve considered – as I’ve wandered through the recent turn in psychological horror, a turn that Steve Rose, in 2017, dubbed “post-horror.”1 Nia Edwards-Behi has rightly called Rose’s definition of post-horror elitist – that, for Rose, post-horror as an auteurist avant-garde ignores the ways that horror films have always stylized and experimented with conventions.2
But in the same way that his critics are right that the distinction is exclusionary, Rose is right, too: a set of post-Great Recession horror films does seem to be intentionally mannered as auteurist and often written about elite, upper-middle-class families. Films like Mother!, The Witch, A Ghost Story, Hereditary, It Comes at Night, The Eyes of My Mother, The Babadook, The Haunting of Hill House, Goodnight Mommy, and Get Out frequently stress the uncanny image and a slow dread of the future over suspense and surprise. They almost always revolve around familial conflict, use nonlinear or cyclical narratives, show a preoccupation with eschatological themes, represent a haunting or possession in rural or exurban settings, and reflect on the meaning of the tragic death of a family member.
The relationship between family and horror is nothing new, of course: family haunting films were in vogue in the arthouse horror of the 1970s – The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining for example. Tony Williams has argued that family horror is a crucial archetype for the genre.3 But this new set of films seems, more so than in the past, to develop with the emotional depth of middle-class family dramas – for instance, A Woman Under the Influence, Manchester by the Sea, Amour, Make Way for Tomorrow, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Scenes from a Marriage, Ordinary People, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or American Beauty – and conclude with high gothic sublimity.
As a genre, these films raise questions about the future limitations of contemporary family norms, the meaning of parental sacrifice for future prosperity, and about the visibility or invisibility of gendered emotional labor. But with some important exceptions, they also tend to ignore the broader scope of fears experienced in the United States and outside. They elevate the fears of professional middle-class American families to the level of mystique: supernatural and unexplainable.
Kitchen Sink Gothic
In grade school my class completed an exercise: we were given pictures of animals split into three parts – front, middle, and back – and we had to match the different pieces to the same animal. Just as my horse’s head usually ended up with cow rib and a pig’s tail, post-horror films begin with kitchen sink realism, shift abruptly to 1970s occult horror in the middle, and end with the eschatological despair of post-9/11 apocalyptic films. From kitchen sink realism, the genre draws its psychoanalytic premises. From occult horror, it draws stories that make parallels between familial conflict and haunting, witchcraft, or possession, and a moral universe in which the secular collides with the supernatural. From apocalyptic films, post-horror develops thematic topoi like angst about the future; the impossibility of salvation; a bleak, endtimes landscape; and a gothic stress on irrationality, despair, and decay.
The expositions start on the outside of middle-class settings and seem to invite us in with the most familiar scenarios of family dramas – a stagnant marriage, a grieving wife, silent dinners, emotionally remote children, group therapy or psychoanalysis – quietly detailing a set of tensions that play out later in unexpected ways. Even those films that are distant from contemporary middle-class experience strive for documentary-like authenticity: an epilogue notes that The Witch’s dialogue is taken from historical records of Puritan New England.
These films are set almost entirely inside rural or isolated, suburban homes; the settings frequently invoke landscapes emblematic of American rugged individualism. Mother!, It Comes at Night, The Eyes of My Mother, The Haunting of Hill House, and Hereditary take place in the countryside. The Witch takes place in the Puritan frontier. Get Out takes place in suburbia. While A Ghost Story strays briefly from heartland residential to skyscrapers, it immediately returns to watch a white settler family make camp. The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy aren’t set in the United States, but the former takes place in suburbia and the latter in isolated farmland. Particularly in The Witch, given that Thomasin’s Puritan father proclaims at the movie’s outset an intention to conquer the wilderness but becomes consumed by it, the films seem to reverse the conventional associations between the frontier life of American settler colonialism and unskeptical faith that things will always get better.
In most, the building and destruction of the home takes central importance. At the core of Get Out is the juxtaposition of Lil Rey Howery’s TSA agent sleuthing in New York City next to the main action taking place within a single-family home in a prosperous countryside location (called Lake Pocono). In Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence’s character builds and designs her house before witnessing its literal obliteration. In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s character builds tiny models of her own home and life before tearing them down herself toward the film’s end. The Witch takes place almost entirely within a small Puritan hut, isolated from the rest of the world, one that is built and damaged over the course of the film. A Ghost Story likewise uses the figure of the home to signify loss and accepting change; by the second half of the film, the house is destroyed. In It Comes at Night, the home is the bulwark to outsiders; in Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, and The Eyes of My Mother, domestic spaces are used to figure rotting within the family.
All of the families are haunted by past traumas that make them unable to fully love or accept one another, an obstacle to intimacy nearly always symbolized architecturally. In The Eyes of My Mother, the man chained to the basement stands for the traumatizing death of the mother he killed; in Hereditary, the treehouse where the film ends for the pain of Charlie’s demise; in The Babadook, the basement for her husband’s death; in Mother!, a boarded room for a painful breakup; in both It Comes at Night and The Haunting of Hill House, the red door – in The Witch, the goat’s pen; in A Ghost Story, a piano near the entryway upon which the whole story turns.
Some stress the avant-gardism of post-horror, but what makes the genre unique is the way that it seamlessly merges a conventional horror narrative with a conventional family drama narrative. In all of the films, the characters are stuck at an important life stage that they seem unable to get beyond; nor can they explain why they can’t get beyond it. In Mother!, the inability to have a child or genuinely care for one another; in Hereditary, the inability to move beyond grief; in Get Out, the inability to move beyond a mother’s death; in The Witch, to move into adolescence; in The Babadook, to grow up; in Goodnight Mommy, to get better: in A Ghost Story, to finally die, in The Haunting of Hill House, all of the above. As in family dramas like Ordinary People or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Manchester by the Sea, there’s some trauma (hidden or transparent) preventing the characters from moving through the normative, linear stages of their lives. There’s a grief they cannot entirely explain.
Unlike such films, though, in post-horror the psychoanalytic explanations for grief end up being inadequate: there is no clear resolution to the trauma that allows the principals to move beyond. Only the supernatural fully explains their predicament, something that becomes clearer as the genre shifts from the first to the second act. Like many family dramas, the first acts of these films nearly always conclude with a traumatic family event or, in the case of Get Out, the reliving of a traumatic past event – Daniel Kaluuya’s character’s mother dying in his childhood. In family dramas, this event leads inexorably to the final act in which the past trauma is finally resolved, as in the famous scene in Ordinary People when Conrad forgives himself for the guilt of his brother’s death.
But in post-horror, this tragedy usually precipitates a sudden shift from kitchen sink setup to the narrative structure of 1970s occult horror, like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Shining, The Exorcist, or The Amityville Horror. Unlike these films in which – granted the exception of The Shining – a family’s haunted past seems to fade into the background, in post-horror the family’s trauma doubles as the haunting.
Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House adapts these themes to a TV family epic format like The Sopranos, Transparent, or Downton Abbey. The show follows a family of house-flippers (five children plus a handy husband/designer wife team who, in their lighter moments, look like a made-for-HGTV couple) renovating an old mansion. There’s the mother whose mental illness leads her to harm her children, a cyclical structure in which family history collides with the present, and the mansion itself (in the woods, in the past) that stands for a family’s incapacity for self-repair. There’s the paranormal figuring of each family member’s demons – the “bent neck lady” for Nell’s sleep paralysis and struggle with mental illness, a man with a bowler cap for Luke’s opioid addiction, clairvoyance for Theo’s fear of being hurt, his own wife for the guilt felt by Hugh Crain (played by Timothy Hutton, a clever allusion to Ordinary People no doubt). In this program, though, the inadequacy of the psychological in the face of the paranormal becomes less a stable protocol for the genre and more the show’s central dialectic: the show insists on leaving the explanations for the hauntings up to the audience.
The specters of 1970s occult horror were often elite – the ghosts of an expensive resort, an eccentric upper middle-class couple, a far-flung conspiracy in The Omen – but in post-horror, the hauntings are not elite. The Babadook enters a home through a children’s book. In It Comes at Night, a former construction worker’s family enters, and eventually threatens to disrupt, the family of a history teacher. In Hereditary, it’s an affluent artist’s attempt at a friendship with the less affluent Joan (an unforgettable performance by Ann Dowd) that precipitates a family’s downward spiral, unlike Rosemary’s Baby, in which an actor’s relationship with an upper-class couple initiates the possession. In Mother!, this distrust of the populist moves from implied to obvious, as the self-obsession of Javier Bardem’s poet-celebrity invites a mob of devotees that, in scenes with visual quotes from Children of Men, literally eviscerate Jennifer Lawrence’s exquisite home design and family.
These films usually hold a populist haunting responsible for its central fear: a fear of a future in which the characters won’t be cared for, loved – won’t be capable of loving themselves or others. The more poignant moments of these films are about caretaking or its absence – when Charlie in Hereditary asks her mother who will take care of her when she dies, when the family huddles searching for Nell in The Haunting of Hill House, when the baby disappears in a peekaboo game at the beginning of The Witch, or when Francisca mourns her father in The Eyes of My Mother, dancing to a song called “I Will Take Care of You After You Die.”4
The relative answers to the questions of who will take care of us and how we’ll take care of others in the future often differ. In The Babadook – perhaps the most hopeful of these films and one of the few directed by a woman – a mother who works in a caring profession (in an assisted-living facility) learns that it’s her son’s differences that help her overcome the haunting presence of her husband’s death. In The Witch, Thomasina has to look outside the normative family, in a community of witches, to find the ability to care for herself. In The Eyes of My Mother, the urge to care for becomes so strong that it suffocates everyone subjected to it. And of course, black brotherhood is the saving care of Get Out.
Invisibility of Care Labor
The movies are almost entirely sexless, the families usually (Get Out and It Comes at Night excepted) white, often middle-class professionals with children, almost all heterosexual. Post-horror’s loneliness is real, but is usually of a privileged scope. Unaccounted for in most of this genre are the lonelinesses of a queer teen cast out by their family, an incarcerated person kept in solitary for years, a student who’s the only woman of color in her college classes.
On the other hand, post-horror frequently positions gendered questions – especially the equitable distribution of affective labor and care and the visibility or invisibility of care work – at the center of their narratives. Some of the films have been widely hailed as feminist horror classics – The Witch and The Babadook in particular, but also Hereditary. Some, like A Ghost Story and Mother!, not so much. Critics have suggested some of these films represent progress in creating more complex women characters in the horror genre. Certainly, motherhood and the gendering of emotional labor are central to post-horror. Almost all of the movies, with the exception of A Ghost Story, deal with mothers grappling to keep their families afloat under the desperate circumstances of a haunting past. The commonness of motherhood’s mention in the films’ titles – Mother!, Goodnight Mommy, The Eyes of My Mother – attest to this fact.
The mothers in these films frequently have difficult relationships with husbands and especially sons, but attempts at companionship (with women and men) often backfire, leaving the burden of care to fall in these films almost exclusively on individual women. In many of the films, mothers appear as threats to children – but in almost every case, the hauntings and traumas in the movies are masculine, occultic, and misogynistic – “Black Phillip,” the Babadook, the serial killer in The Eyes of My Mother, Ed Harris’s character, Paimon. The hauntings usually disrupt a mother’s attempts to care for her family or keep her family together. When women seek to form friendships to dismantle this threat, such friendships are often difficult – as in Mother!, Hereditary, or The Eyes of My Mother.
Because it is about seeing things that no one else can see, horror ideally allows us to see the “trouble with normal”: it helps us identify alternative relationships and communities, imagine a world in which what’s real is more complicated than observable surfaces, and replicate the anxieties of advocating for progressive change – the fear of looking foolish for one’s cause, the fear of not being believed. Post-horror turns on these feelings: sharing Jennifer Lawrence’s vision of there being something amiss; a mother sees the Babadook when everyone else thinks it’s her mental illness, Daniel Kaluuya seeing that there’s something seriously the matter in an apparently idyllic white home in Get Out.
The Eyes of My Mother manipulates the trope of vision most uniquely. Framed by the story of St. Francis of Assisi – known for his empathy but apparently blind by the end of his life – the film recounts the brutal murder of the principal character’s mother, a Portuguese ophthalmologist now living on an American farm owned by an American husband. The young girl and her father are so traumatized by the death that they bury the mother’s body and keep the killer locked in a barn; the young girl removes the killer’s eyes but takes care of him for the duration of his life. She goes on to kill her own father, kill a woman that she picks up at the bar, and kidnap a woman and child that she keeps as her own. One could argue that the film asks us to look at the horrors of intimacy and the compulsion to care. One could also point to the contrast with a similar film – Ana Lily Amirpour’s extraordinary A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an also black-and-white, slasher-like horror film, one that reimagines the woman vampire/slasher as a righteous anti-rape warrior. By doing so, Amirpour uses the horror genre not only to diagnose oppression but to imagine new forms of justice.
By contrast, imagination in post-horror has an at-best complicated relationship with a justice that doesn’t always materialize. For better and worse, imagination is double-sided in post-horror. It’s necessary because it’s the only way to make sense of trauma or suffering, but also dangerous because it disrupts the lives and security of post-horror kinships. In Goodnight Mommy, the skillfully constructed difference between what the twins see and what their mother sees represents both the only way for a child to seek to unite his family again and the grounds for the family’s destruction. In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s character imagines connections between unrelated tragedies in her life to make sense of them, but that imagining itself becomes part of the undoing of her family. In The Haunting of Hill House, apparitions likewise become the basis for explaining the deaths of loved ones but also subject those who experience them to torment.
Two exceptions – films that view imagination more positively – are Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Robert Eggers’s The Witch. In Kent’s film, the invisibility of a mother’s caretaking – herself a working-class professional care worker – becomes a metaphor for the invisibility of women’s affective labor in a neoliberal state in which caretaking has become almost entirely individualized. Her victory over the Babadook at the climax of the film requires her to reimagine her relationship with her past and allows her to recognize her strength as a mother, but only leads to the strengthening of the bond with her son. In The Witch, the result is more ambiguous. The family’s runaway imagination in The Witch tears it apart, but also allows Thomasina to reinvent herself in the finale as an independent woman amongst a community of women.
Eschatologies of Care
In ’70s occult, hauntings as often bring families together as they tear them apart: in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is divided from her husband, but Regan (The Exorcist) reunites with her mother and Shelley Duvall (The Shining) gets away with her son. The stakes for families in those films were much lower, too: the Faustian bargains that parents struck in 1970s family horror were for nicer homes and better careers and new starts, as though families always seem to be in the way of the flourishing lives that parents want to achieve – the characters, as in The Shining for instance, seem content to be unbothered by one another in the vast chasm of an empty hotel, a fact that makes the film’s ending all the more chilling.
The characters in these new horror films, by contrast, are haunted by impossible desires to genuinely care for others and to experience authentic forms of care, and the films’ trajectories often trace the ways that – like Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) or Walter White (Breaking Bad) – parents’ sacrifices for family can justify selfish means with ostensibly selfless ends; ends that themselves replicate the feeling of being unloved, unvalued, or traumatized. In this way, they use a mixture of occult and family drama to elaborate the themes of recent apocalyptic films like First Reformed, The Road, Children of Men, and There Will Be Blood. They are about, as such, “eschatologies of care”: they associate endtimes with social isolation and the disintegration of normative families.
In nearly every case, these films call the survival of the family into question. Sometimes this survival is quite literal, as in the family avoiding plague in It Comes at Night, a horrific death in The Eyes of My Mother, or outcast settlers in The Witch worried they will lack food to survive the winter. More often it’s a figurative survival that’s called into a question: child protective services taking away a son in The Babadook, a contentious move in A Ghost Story, a fizzling marriage that threatens to split a couple in Mother!, histories of mental illness and abusive intentions in Hereditary. In Goodnight Mommy and The Eyes of My Mother, even the truthfulness of mother-son bonds is called into question.
Like much of the best psychological thrillers, post-horror’s moral acuity revolves around manipulating our judgment about who can and cannot be trusted. But, much like First Reformed, these stories use this device to make broader observations about whether and how “we” will be judged in the future, by history. In The Witch, setting the film in Puritan New England allows director Robert Eggers to use shifting perceptions about the source of a family’s haunting to make us think about faith in final destinies and the consequences of a preoccupation with guilt and judgment. In Mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s cinematography hews close to Jennifer Lawrence’s face, allowing us to identify with the way that her character’s judgment is insistently undercut by her husband’s obsession with the judgment of his legacy. Hereditary and It Comes at Night depend, similarly, on the audience’s always ambiguous grasp of who can be trusted with our collective future. The Haunting of Hill House revolves around the lingering anguish of children whose fears were judged unbelievable. Goodnight Mommy proves this genre rule in the breach, suggesting not that the present can’t be trusted with our future but, in its Shyamalanesque ending, that the future can’t be trusted with the past even when we expected that the opposite was true. Even A Ghost Story, almost completely without suspense, centers around the theme of our future judgment in death, as in the film’s long monologue in its halfway point in which a character reflects on what it means to have a legacy in a secular time.
Behind this worry about future judgment lies a doubtfulness about the certainty of a better life for future generations, a skepticism of progress narratives most creatively presented in films like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed or Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Structurally, that skepticism of progress narratives is apparent in the circular arrangement of these films, driven by the tension between the central characters’ desire to change and their being trapped in circumstances beyond their control. In Mother!, the Javier Bardem character’s cyclical relationships structure the entire film, beginning in the same way that it ends: with the encrusting of his lover’s heart into diamond and the renewal of the writer’s home. This cyclicality is quite literal, too, in A Ghost Story, as the eponymous ghost becomes trapped in a time loop that is only broken by his acceptance of his own death. The Eyes of My Mother begins with the same scene with which it ends, with a blind mother escaping her bondage. In The Haunting of Hill House, the nature of the family’s haunting warps the past and present as Olivia, the family’s mother, drifts into a future she won’t be alive for and the ghost haunting Nell ends up being her future self: Nell rejects, at the end of the first season, her siblings’ attempts to treat time “like a line” and claims that “Our moments fall around us like rain or snow or confetti.” The children in the film often have experienced trauma or feel emotionally adrift, usually inheriting an affluent present but facing an at best uncertain future.
It is a judgment about sacrifice – metaphorical and real – and its relationship to making family possible that drives the ideas in this set of films. The supposed sacrifices parents make often turn out to be selfish – as in the grandmother’s in Hereditary and the father’s in The Witch, possibly Hugh’s in The Haunting of Hill House – while parents sacrifice their children’s futures for their own benefit, as in Mother! and again, Hereditary. The purposes of those sacrifices – for money, glory, pride – all turn in these films on the lesson that attempts to possess too much become ways that people are possessed to their own ruin. Here lie the extended metaphors at the heart of ‘70s occult horror, a metaphor inherited by post-horror: the figurative connection between parental sacrifice and occultic sacrifice, and between supernatural denotations of “possession” and the literal denotations of the word.
The fear of a future in which we’re no longer cared for underlies post-horror’s skepticism of imagination: the feeling that the sacrifices meant to make a better future possible are in fact the symptoms of a coming time in which we cannot conceive of a future with security.
A Liberal Uncanny
When Donald Trump was elected President three Novembers ago, many white liberals reacted with shock and incredulity. Critical race theorists have long shown that racism was a long-standing, structural feature of political life in the United States, while critical whiteness studies scholars had developed theories that clearly explained the reasons that white voters in the United States had a history of responding electorally to racially coded dog whistles of the type that became Trump’s stock-in-trade. And most Americans had watched for several years as the Tea Party came to dominate conservative politics.
Yet many progressives claimed that they had no way of “explaining” 2016’s outcome and that the United States they thought they knew no longer seemed to exist. The incredulity of white middle-class professionals was a nightmare of the uncanny: suddenly something that appeared so familiar now seemed at once exactly the same and yet totally unfamiliar.
The aesthetic features of post-horror replicate the mixture of shame, confusion, shock, and anxiety about the future experienced by liberal Americans in the midst of the Tea Party and Trump’s rise – and possibly, as well, the rise of post-recession, right-wing populisms from Australia to Eastern Europe, as evidenced by the international films The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy. The pervasive presence of the uncanny reflects the sudden feeling that a familiar political landscape that looks much the same as before has become strange and riddled with danger. The placing of circular narratives in isolated, frontier landscapes expresses skepticism of the progress stories central to American political life. The homes – their reconstruction, renovation, and destruction – suggest millennials’ post-financial crisis ambivalence toward housing, but also the terror of a world becoming more walled, shut down, not to mention the dangers of dealing with the past by locking it up inside of us. The repeated presence of a striving motherhood and an occultist anti-feminism reflects the misogyny of the Trump movement and a critical eye cast on the gendered burden of caretaking in an era of transnational austerity. The failure of intimacy in mostly heteronormative families suggests anxieties about the possibility for families to ensure security, prosperity, and happiness for future generations. And the guilty judgment attributed to parents’ hidden sacrifices – either made through unethical means or done for selfless ends – recognizes the myopic and unsustainable economic, political, and environmental choices that threaten to damage the lives of children. Post-horror, in summary, worries that normative forms of family lack the same power to care, love, and reproduce social mobility.
Almost all of post-horror turns to witchcraft, occult, possession or haunting to figure the rise of Trumpism and our bleak, collective future. These films’ representations of occult nearly always highlight irrational, spiritualistic adoration or reverence of a great figure or savior. While authoritarian and ritualized, occult also manages like Trumpism to be chaotic, deceitful, inconsistent, and shape-shifting. Like Trumpism, possession propagates distrust even as it shrouds itself in secrecy and conspiracy. The films’ figuring of occultism also represents alternative standards of eschatological judgment that, like Trumpism, are permissive of greed, selfishness, and libertinism. Too, occult and possession can be invisibly part of the family even as they divide the family.
While lacking the circular structure of most post-horror films, Hereditary – the most archetypal of post-horror – in its name alone signals its interest in making allegorical connections between guilt about the pasts we inherit and the emergence of an irrational, authoritarian hocus-pocus. The movie revolves around a secretive bargain with a demon called Paimon: a grandmother trades her younger grandchild for riches that go, in the movie, unspecified – but because Charlie is a girl and the misogynistic demon requires a male body to inhabit, the grandmother’s funeral precipitates a series of events that lead to Charlie’s death (one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve seen in a horror film), then to Charlie’s spirit possessing her older brother, Peter.
Toni Collette’s Oscar-worthy performance unfolds first around her grief and inexplicable guilt in the aftermath of her mother and daughter’s deaths – and her grappling with the mental illness that runs in her family, that she fears runs in her as well. Collette’s character, Annie, meets a spiritualist who summons Charlie’s spirit back. She spends the rest of the movie figuring out how to outmaneuver the demons that she’s unleashed: “Something is happening,” she tells her son, “and I’m the only one who can stop it. I’m the only one who can fix it.” But she can’t – not alone, and she doesn’t ask for help. Annie, Toni Collette’s character, wants to fix so much about the past, perhaps one reason that as an artist she works to create miniature models of her life. Every time that she thinks she has figured out what haunts her family, the haunting throws her for a loop.
There are more than one post-horror masterpieces, and most of the films represent compelling, if incomplete, working through of many complex social and political dynamics. But only Get Out provides a persuasive vision for how to exorcise familial and national demons, precisely by reimagining the meaning of possession in horror. In the 1970s, secular families turned to spiritual antidotes, including Catholicism, to combat spiritual disruption. Despite a brief reference to St. Francis in The Eyes of My Mother, spirituality is no resource for post-horror families, and the consequence is usually the triumph of occultism – even in The Babadook the eponymous character remains kept in the basement.
But in Get Out, possession is refigured as white people’s literal possession of black bodies, not an imagined fantasy but an inescapable fact of history. What’s hidden in the political unconscious of the rest of post-horror, locked deep in basements and disordered offices and goat pens and displaced by ghosts and witches and demons, is made obvious in Get Out: not a paranormal presence, but that the privileges of whiteness themselves are haunting the normative white family, and that it is white liberals’ own investments in whiteness that both allow them to reproduce their privilege for their families and threaten to make a just, caring society difficult. Unable to face the historical pains of white guilt and the role that liberals’ own investments in whiteness play in reproducing racism, post-horror explains what it is unable to explain with the supernatural.
In Get Out, Jordan Peele envisions a horror film that critiques such contradictions of white liberalism and, in the end, locates redemptive possibilities in black brotherhood. But there is another message in Get Out signaled by the important role played by camera phone flashes in the film’s story – one that calls attention to the importance of seeing in post-horror. Get Out, it’s often been noted, is a movie that documents the things that white liberals say to deny their own investments in privilege. It’s about microaggressions, racial animosities that are by definition invisible to the white people who perpetrate them. Possession in the post-horror genre thus figures the very thing that it attempts to displace: it’s meant to stand in, to block the recognition of the privileges of whiteness, but precisely by doing so it replicates the logic of whiteness: the assurance that privileged whiteness remains invisible to those who possess it, just as Get Out turns on a white man’s desire to see with photographer Chris Washington’s eyes.
By associating political consciousness with the flash of a phone camera, Jordan Peele shows that making the unconscious conscious means film must think of how to make invisible injustices of privilege visible.
These films show the potential for horror to act as a potent allegory for the frightening political times in which we live. But, like Get Out, they also need to help us reimagine the political possibilities for a more democratic and sustainable future.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from DVDs and Blu-rays of the films.
- Steve Rose, “How Post-Horror Movies Are Taking Over Cinema.” The Guardian. July 6 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/06/post-horror-films-scary-movies-ghost-story-it-comes-at-night [↩]
- Nia Edwards-Behi. Wales Art Review. “A Response to Post-Horror” September 7, 2017. http://www.walesartsreview.org/cinema-a-response-to-post-horror/ [↩]
- Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2014. [↩]
- Chris Alexander. “Fantastic Fest Interview: Nicolas Pesce on The Eyes of My Mother”. Comingsoon.net https://www.comingsoon.net/horror/features/770095-fantastic-fest-interview-nicolas-pesce-on-the-eyes-of-my-mother [↩]