All Horror is Social Horror

by David Kaminsky

On the surface of things, it’s surprising that more people aren’t explicitly comparing A Quiet Place with Get Out. How often are two genre-innovating horror-movie sleeper hits by comedy-writer/actor-turned directors released to rave reviews from one year to the next? Not very often, is my thinking!

When you look at reviews of the two movies, on the other hand, it becomes difficult to imagine how most critics would even go about that comparison, so different are their approaches to them. Commentaries on Get Out always address its treatment of race, as well they should for a movie that so openly wears its politics on its sleeve. With very few exceptions, however, reviewers are not addressing the politics of A Quiet Place at all, racial or otherwise.

(SPOILERS FOR GET OUT FOLLOW.)

Jordan Peele, who wrote and directed Get Out, openly encourages and also participates in the political discussion surrounding his film. He describes it as a “social thriller,” identifying it with politically conscious movies like Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Stepford Wives. (Jordan Peele also places Get Out in the horror genre, and others have adapted his terminology to call it “social horror.” Still others have called it a “horror-comedy,” but those people were clearly watching something else on their iPhones during the movie and can safely be ignored.) For Peele, Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby put the viewer in the position of empathizing with the claustrophobic feelings of a woman whose body is entirely subject to decisions made by the men around her. With Get Out he wanted to do for racial politics what Rosemary’s Baby did for gender politics.

To my mind, though, there’s something slightly odd about applying the qualifier of “social” to a horror movie. The thing is that any effective genre horror is probably going to be driven by an engine of social relevance. Those movies succeed by playing on audience anxieties, and if that provocation is meant to resonate with a wide viewership then the anxiety drawn upon has to be societal in nature. (A more fundamental fear of death, or let’s say spiders, may play a part but will generally not by itself make a compelling enough narrative.) Nor is this a particularly new idea in the analysis of popular film—critics have often read the zeitgeist through trends in the sci fi, horror, and thriller genres. Alien invasion and giant monster movies of the 1950s were about the Cold War and the nuclear threat. Spy thrillers went from jet-setting in the 1960s (grappling with the decline of colonialism) to paranoid in the 1970s (reflecting a growing disillusionment with government). Slasher movies of the 1980s played on anxieties about teen sexuality, feminism, and AIDS. And so on and so forth.

What sets Get Out and its direct precedents apart from the rest of the genre is not their grounding in social politics, but the fact that those politics are progressive instead of reactionary. A well-worn principle of much of the horror/sci-fi genre, for instance, is that it plays on white people’s fear of black men. The Alien franchise terrifies with the raping black penis and its miscegenated progeny. The Predator movies overwhelm with the physically superior armed black man. (I mean, just look at his scary-ass dreadlocks!) If there’s an even vaguely anthropomorphic monster to be had, its color will rarely stray from the black or dark brown. If you think about it, it’s one of the only places in Hollywood filmdom where blackness is the norm.

get-out-movie-daniel-kaluuya-slice1-600x200

The white subjectivity of the standard horror movie was a central concern for Jordan Peele as he was writing Get Out: “Black people are a very loyal horror fan base, and we sit in these darkened theaters yelling at the screen, and the black guy’s the first guy to die, and after that there’s no representation” (22:12). This movie goes well beyond having the black guy survive to the end, though, which has been done elsewhere. The fundamental brilliance of the film lies in its total investment in black subjectivity via its reversal of the implicit horror movie imperative. Where other horror movies play on white people’s fears of black men, Get Out is all about black men’s fears of white people. It begins and ends with the locational terrors of white space—the suburban then the rural—and the vague dread of those spaces subjecting you to observation by an unseen force that may or may not be the Law, may or not be the Klan, may or may not matter which it is because either way you are its bête noire and neither will protect you from the other. And then there’s the whole Armitage family, populated by stock figures from a black man’s nightmare: the violent redneck, the duplicitous self-serving rich liberal, the psychiatrist/witch, the beautiful and charming white woman who professes to love you but is really only fetishizing your body.

Ro-Ro

Okay, they were never going to give Get Out Best Picture given that the previous year’s winner was a similarly low-budget all-black-cast production that literally took the award away from a movie about how awesomely magical Hollywood is. And it’s not just because of the old guard of the Academy who didn’t bother to watch it—let’s be real, those people wouldn’t have voted for a black horror movie even if they’d seen it. No disrespect to Shape of Water, which I also enjoyed a lot. But a movie as tight and brilliant as Get Out is a once-in-a-decade kind of thing.

And then there’s A Quiet Place.

(SPOILERS FOR A QUIET PLACE FOLLOW.)

I mean, it was fine. Emily Blunt was excellent as she often is. Millicent Simmonds was good too. John Krasinski had a big bushy beard and I probably would have enjoyed him better if I was more into Jesus or people who are extremely concerned all the time. As I watched I was kind of bothered by the fact that our well-armed and bunkered US military hadn’t already managed to deal with the problem of these easily-lured and fully explodable creatures, and that kind of took me out of it. (Maybe they don’t respond properly to being exploded? Well hey, they seem to be made of one giant eardrum, so have we experimented with our sophisticated arsenal of sonic weaponry? Let’s try that then.) Also the racial and gender politics did kind of nag at me. Like I noticed how you managed to justify your all-white cast in 2018 by having almost everyone except your main family be dead, so good job I guess. And how only the boys get to go out exploring, and Emily Blunt spends her time at home doing household chores, literally barefoot and pregnant. (Okay everybody’s barefoot, but her barefootedness is an actual plot point.) Then the part where John Krasinski sacrifices himself for his children (spoiler he really is Jesus!) where the movie wants me to see this as some beautiful selfless moment but all I can think is oh shit that girl is going to be scarred for life because now she’s going to blame herself not only for her brother’s death but also her father’s? But I really feel like this movie doesn’t want me to think about that because this is the moment she finally realized daddy Jesus loves her and we can’t have his sacrifice marred by recognizing the trauma it inflicts. Ugh.

Daddy Jesus

I’m pretty sure it was after the movie let out that I started really thinking about what was bothering me. And this is really my main point here—any time you watch a horror movie you should probably ask yourself exactly which social anxieties it’s trading on. Once you go down that road with A Quiet Place the answer is pretty obvious. Our heroes are a beleaguered white mom and dad with two and a half children living a traditional life on a cornfield farm in a generalized rural America. The husband has technical know-how and does wilderness survival stuff, the wife does laundry and bears the offspring. They are living their lives as God intended, but somehow also if any of them so much as speak above a whisper a black monster is going to run up to them from out of nowhere and jump on them and kill them.

The movie doesn’t only have white subjectivity, it has paranoid white supremacist subjectivity. Its anxieties are driven by a genuine sense that honest salt-of-the-earth white people can’t speak their minds without some monstrous Other jumping all over them and ruining their well-earned way of life. (So I googled it, and the New Yorker critic said pretty much the same thing but almost nobody else was talking.) From this perspective, of course, the absence of a military that was bothering me so much as I watched the movie begins to make total sense. In the white supremacist libertarian fantasy of the post-government future, the military just magically disappears, and its absence is what justifies the right-to-be-borne shotgun that will eventually turn out to be the solution to all your black monster problems.

By far the scariest thing to me about A Quiet Place is that the reactionary white anxieties it plays on seem to be resonating with audiences in this election year.

Jordan Peele has said that in writing Get Out he wanted to speak to a loyal black audience long disregarded by the horror genre. The film’s name is taken from a stand-up routine in which Eddie Murphy observes that the behavior of on-screen white people in horror movies is essentially alien to black people; if the Amityville house told a black family to GET OUT they would immediately heed that advice, end of movie. (I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that the tradition of yelling at the screen is in part a response to this alienation, a way to reclaim the black subjectivity denied by those films.) Keeping this in mind, Peele took care to make his black characters’ decisions intelligent and understandable and then actually wrote the classic audience “don’t-go-in-there” admonitions into the script in the form of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA character. At the same time, he wanted to speak to a broader audience about black experience just as Rosemary’s Baby had spoken to him about women’s experience. The box office gate suggests he was successful in both regards.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine a film more actively hostile to that classic black peanut gallery than A Quiet Place. The movie palpably enforces a white horror movie code of conduct. Like if you really want to low-key experience the sunken place, just go sit in a suburban multiplex theater and feel how the film demands your silence as you respectfully observe the travails of this conservative white rural farm family. What would you even say to the screen? Where Get Out is all about the danger of white spaces, there’s really nowhere the people in A Quiet Place can’t go. (Hey, not being able to go places isn’t a big white people problem, thanks colonialism!) Literally all the characters have to do to protect themselves is remain quiet, and they’re already doing that so they really require no further instruction from the audience.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t John Krasinski’s intention to make a movie of what’s going on inside Alex Jones’ head. After all, the man once starred in a Michael Bay-directed propaganda movie about Benghazi and then got mad when Republicans used it to score political points. In all likelihood he is entirely oblivious to the social politics of the movie he co-wrote, directed, and starred in. This likely applies to the horror genre more generally as well. The people who made The Exorcist were probably not consciously going after single mothers. The people who made Alien were certainly conscious of the rape imagery, but probably less so of its racial connotations. I’m sure some of the purveyors of all those 80s slasher movies eventually realized they were part of a political conversation, but it probably took longer than it should have for them to figure it out.

To me that represents a bigger problem than if those filmmakers were actually intentional with their racist and sexist messaging. It adds weight to Stephen King’s admonition that the horror movie is “innately conservative, even reactionary,” urging us to suppress the “adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites.” (Emphasis on the last three words in this context, obvs.) The filmic language of the genre is suffused with those reactionary politics, so if you don’t actively and consciously work against them when making your movie you are just going to reproduce them. And even more generally this suggests a general societal norm of reactionary conservatism, since the mandate of the horror movie is to strike at a broad audience’s most visceral anxieties.

We’re in a moment in the cultural conversation now where we can demand better of both filmmakers and critics. We can be done with the myth that there is such a thing as apolitical art. What you’re calling “apolitical” is just conservative, every single time. I’m not saying you can’t make your reactionary movie, I’m saying you need to own it. Say what you will about the Death Wish remake, the people behind that movie knew exactly what they were doing. Basically, John Krasinski, I enjoyed you in The Office but as of right now you really need to start paying attention.

This also goes for every critic who reviewed A Quiet Place and didn’t think to examine its politics. That doesn’t mean you have to pan it. Your analysis doesn’t need to agree with my analysis. And by all means, talk about its successes in terms of tone, pacing, cinematography, art design, sound design, performances, even the extraordinarily innovative way it demands silence from its audience. But it’s your job to pay attention to what a movie is saying, not only how it says it. Waiting to discuss a film’s politics until the filmmaker invites you to do so is just lazy, and inexcusable in the current environment of popular media awareness. Right now you are being intellectually lapped by Fox Business commentators from seven years ago, and this should embarrass you.

On one level I am excited about Jordan Peele’s “social thriller” concept, especially the part where he has four more of them in the works. The term does a good job of establishing the roots and pedigree of Get Out. But I also think he may be underplaying his hand when he uses that formulation. The blogosphere’s democratization of socially conscious media criticism puts us in a place where we may no longer have to accept the norm of horror as fundamentally conservative. As an alternative, what if we started to relegate regressive films like A Quiet Place to a named subgenre and mainstreamed more politically conscious work like Get Out? It’s not impossible. Scream radically changed the horror movie landscape when it was released by demanding that the films that followed it demonstrate self-awareness of the genre’s narrative conventions. Get Out was no less groundbreaking, and should be able to do the same for the genre’s politics as a whole.

One thought on “All Horror is Social Horror

  1. For that matter, when people point to a film like A Quiet Place as a celebration of diversity (Deaf Culture and ASL), it’s a little ironic given history like https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/sign-language-that-african-americans-use-is-different-from-that-of-whites/2012/09/17/2e897628-bbe2-11e1-8867-ecf6cb7935ef_story.html.

    Meanwhile, as for Jordan Peele and yelling at the screen, remember https://www.cc.com/video-clips/znf2nu/key-and-peele-movie-hecklers? 🙂

    Like

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