In 1971, the film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain told the story of a satellite that crashed to the Earth releasing an unknown contagion that kills off a rural town, and the subsequent race by a team of scientists to prevent its spread. While it was one of the first major “outbreak” movies, at its core it wasn’t really about a fear of viruses or anything like that at all.
Just take a look at the separate pieces. A mysterious attacker from afar. A satellite that could easily be considered a stand-in for a missile. An underground laboratory shaped like a missile silo. Science gone awry. A climax that centers around an out of control nuclear device. When you add it all up, this was a film about the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and the fear of nuclear devastation that was prevalent at the time.
Projecting Horror on the Screen
Admittedly, The Andromeda Strain is more of a thriller (and a damn relevant one at the moment) but in any case it serves as a fine example of how movies—horror movies in particular—often reflect the fears of the era in which they were released.
Consider the Weimar films that came out in Germany following the First World War. Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, M, and others were all dark pictures about alienation and violence, which were accurate reflections of the German post-war psyche.
…our cinematic horrors sync up to the horrors of the time in which they are produced.
Later came Japan’s Godzilla films—a franchise that not only featured a radioactive monster (which obviously signified the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but a slew of gargantuan monsters who devastated the country. These were likely stand-ins for superpowers like the United States, China, and Russia, which had all fought major, destructive wars against Japan in the past.
Later still we had an explosion of blood and guts slasher films like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. These were films about presumably ordinary Americans killing each other—tales of the enemy within, a people destroying itself—which arose from an era of assassination, growing nihilism, the Manson murders, and Vietnam.
And more recently, we’ve had a rash of family horror flicks like The Babadook, Hereditary, and Us. These deal with contemporary concerns about rampant depression and the loss of familial connection.
I could go on, but the point is clear: the things we fear in the real world are projected on film, and accordingly our cinematic horrors sync up to the horrors of the time in which they are produced.
Fear in the Time of Covid-19
As I write this, we’re going through the most blatant example of communal fear that we’ve seen in a generation. A deadly, new virus is not only on the loose, but has gone pandemic. We’re all trapped in our homes with no idea when the quarantine will end. The economy is collapsing at breakneck speed, and no one knows how bad it will get, or what its repercussions will be.
It’s probably accurate to assume that all this distress will inspire its fair share of horror movies. But what trends will emerge in a post-coronavirus world? I’ve got a few theories.
It’s easy to assume that we’ll get a bunch of movies about viruses—and we probably will—but clever filmmakers tend to use monsters that are more symbolic in nature.
I suspect that we’ll see films featuring antagonistic forces that can strike anywhere at any time, without their victims seeing them coming. Could this mean ghosts, trans-dimensional creatures, invisible monsters, or microscopic attackers of some kind? We’ll likely see some version of all of these, as well as innovative frights not yet imagined.
Absence and Isolation
Never before has so much of the world been indoors. Never have the streets been so empty and our cities so silent.
We’ll almost certainly see this play into upcoming horror films. That might mean scares taking place against a backdrop of empty cities and landscapes ala 28 Days Later, locked within the confines of a home as in Don’t Breathe, or perhaps the disappearance of people will in itself be the source of fear. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but I think we’re all seeing its more eerie side right now.
Botched Governmental Response
Governments around the globe have responded at best poorly and at worst criminally to the current crisis. China kicked things off by attempting to hide the scale of the growing epidemic, then countries from Japan to Italy to Brazil to the United States were all slow to respond, or responded badly in general, in each case making the problem worse than it needed to be.
You can expect to see this mirrored in horror films to come. While this certainly isn’t a new plot point—botched governmental response is a classic horror trope—we’ll likely see it played out on a scale that is global rather than regional.
‘It’ Could Be Anyone—Even You
One of the defining aspects of our current crisis involves the fact that anyone could be carrying the virus, even you. School teachers might catch it from their students. Doctors from their patients. Grandparents from their grandchildren.
This mechanism was perhaps best wielded in John Carpenter’s The Thing, in which no one—neither the audience nor the characters—knew who would turn out to be infected by the alien next. It’s even strongly implied that those who are infected don’t know it themselves until the moment they’re exposed. We’ll almost certainly see variations of this.
One of the defining aspects of our current crisis involves the fact that anyone could be carrying the virus…
Eventually we as a society will get Covid-19 more or less under control. How much damage it will do in the meantime is anybody’s guess, but one thing is for sure—right now, we’re afraid.
Fear scars the psyche. It damages our individual and collective consciousness in ways that are visible or at least felt long after the danger has passed. And those scars tend to be on full display in our horror films.
So if you’re a horror buff who has always dreamed of writing a screenplay, now is your opportunity. Until things settle down and we can return outdoors again, you’ll have no shortage of time. And plenty of inspiration.