Great horror masters are not known for dying well. Edgar Allan Poe died at 40 from unclear causes in the streets of Baltimore, and in clothes that were not his. An obituary in the New York Tribune read that "few would be grieved by it … he had readers in England, and in … Europe, but he had no friends." H.P. Lovecraft died at 46 in obscurity and poverty from untreated intestinal cancer — he feared doctors as much as he did the unknown. No one actually knows what happened to Ambrose Bierce when he went to Mexico and never returned.
These stand in stark contrast to the widely mourned passing of their cinematic peer George A. Romero last month. Instead of weirdly dismissive obituaries, Romero was justly celebrated for films that brought classic horror lore out of the mausoleums and right into our neighborhoods. And the standout tribute was the simplest.
"Romero started it," Jordan Peele tweeted over a still of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, the black hero of an otherwise overwhelmingly white 1968 film. Romero was not the only horror auteur of his generation, but the nod from one of this generation's breakout talents shows how the previous one's innovations in expanding the notion of what horror can show us have been taken to heart in the last decade, and in the last couple of years especially.
Indeed, we are in a golden age of horror films.
Film viewers can't seem to go even a few months without hearing about a horror film that wears its genre designation proudly while eschewing its long depended-upon bodily extremes and shoddy production in favor of atmosphere, nuance, and ambition. The new wave of horror echoes the Miramax-born independent flux 20 years earlier. As with Pulp Fiction and Clerks before them, films like The Witch, The Babadook, and It Follows are shoo-ins to become part of the critical canon. Before film critic Armond White sharpened his blade, Get Out boasted a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.
The new wave of high-concept horror doesn't always sit well with a contingent of horror's fanbase, which prides the genre's narrower formula of quick, almost pornographic frights. They invoke "not scary" like a hex, or at least a word of warning, at any film that replaces an ax swing with a Pinter pause. For all the critical hype, The Witch and It Comes at Night gained low C- and D-grades respectively from the confusing CinemaScore. "[A]s in any insular community of fandom," critic Jason Coffman writes, "the horror gatekeeper defines their identity by their perceived ability to put other people in their place. … [T]his also happens to unfortunately dovetail with viewers who find intelligent films 'pretentious' and films to which the viewer actually has to pay attention 'boring.'"
Fandom always functions with a bunker mentality. The few who observe the safety precautions live within the fortification and take their rations with care. The reckless fend for themselves in cannibalistic abandon. Makers of prestige horror see it another way, preferring to pry open the escape hatches and let pure and diseased alike convene before their visions. "What's important to me about horror stories," The Witch director Robert Eggers told The Observer, "is to look at what's actually horrifying about humanity, instead of shining a flashlight on it and running away giggling."
Films like The Witch, It Follows, Green Room, Get Out, The Babadook, and The Blackcoat's Daughter were all released within the last three years, all tell vastly different stories, and were made at different levels of experience. (All but two listed are directorial debuts.) They are united in the ambitious notion that pushing past aesthetic expectations and audience limitations are not mutually exclusive. The Witch grossed $8.8 million its opening weekend, more than double its $4 million budget. Get Out fared far better, grossing over $33 million.
For the new horror directors, fear is not a matter of taste — or lack thereof — but a shared condition with numerous sources, whether it's skinheads, white liberals, single parenthood, or Satan (or stubborn piety, I'm not really sure). Even if it confuses fans now, it proves horror's perverse but enduring appeal: Fear is pervasive and we are not alone.