Coronavirus will influence horror movies for decades to come. History proves it

Chris DeGraw / Digital Trends

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic will influence a terrifying new generation of horror movies long after the very real threat has been contained. How can I be sure? History shows us, and there’s even evidence our subconscious is setting up those stories in our minds right at this moment.

Traumatic world events and significant cultural upheaval have shaped horror before, but perhaps most interestingly, these movies won’t arrive straightaway, because we simply won’t be ready for them.

No, not just pandemic movies

“Current events have shaped horror from the First World War mutilations informing director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney’s work in the silent era, through the nuclear fears of the ’50s creating the monster genre, to the AIDS crisis affecting every vampire movie,” film critic and horror expert Alan Jones told Digital Trends.

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You don’t have to be an expert to see where some inspiration will come from next. The unprecedented restriction of movement and citywide lockdowns across the world, an unseen killer outside our door, and a sometimes xenophobic fear of strangers are all prime horror movie fodder. But does this simply mean an influx of pandemic movies?

“One hopes there won’t be too many pandemic movies coming this way,” Jones continued, before quipping. “I don’t want to see a 28 Months Later for at least 28 years!”

“One hopes there won’t be too many pandemic movies coming this way.”

Instead, the coronavirus may end up being present in horror in far less obvious or direct forms, and it’s these stories that may be getting dreamed into life, literally, as the situation unfolds around us today. In a piece published by The Cut titled, “Why are my dreams so vivid right now?” we get a snapshot of how the pandemic is influencing our subconscious minds.

In it, a journalist describes being held hostage by a predator she cannot see, and another talks of being given a lethal injection instead of treatment for COVID-19, the official name of the coronavirus. An emergency worker dreams of running out of time, which currently could mean the difference between life and death. If those dreams aren’t the basis for thrillers and horror movies, I don’t know what is. These anxiety-filled nightmares may be the first seeds of creativity for some.

Culture shapes horror

Writers and directors are all influenced by society and culture to some extent in their work, and horror is no different. Horror auteur Wes Craven, best known for Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), also made The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), two perfect examples of how prior experience shapes highly effective horror. Last House is a brutal home-invasion-style revenge film, which, in an interview, Craven said he made to be, “direct with its audience about the impact of violence,” following the real-life horrors of the Vietnam war. Specifically, the chance of similar dreadful things happening on the street people lived on.

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Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes pits a normal, middle-class family against a barbaric clan of outsiders, and was made a few years after Last House. Craven said in the same interview he got the idea from visiting slums and meeting people who “want what we have” and would kill to get it. Moving away from Craven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Thing (1982), deal with a terrifying unseen enemy generating fear and paranoia. Both could be seen as an allegory for the Cold War and McCarthyism, although The Thing director John Carpenter said the movie was an allegory for whatever the audience wanted it to be, from politics to a disease, and even castration.

The Thing was an allegory for whatever the audience wanted it to be, from politics to a disease, and even castration.

Somewhere in the middle of all this was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It came to be during a turbulent time in American history, with everything from President Richard Nixon’s downfall and hippies searching for meaning in a harsh world to the actions of serial killer Ed Gein shaping the movie’s nihilistic narrative. All are products of their time, with cultural events twisted into stories crafted to frighten, and it’s not a stretch to think we’ll see similar films inspired by the coronavirus pandemic in the near future.

What we could see

Classics of the horror genre feed our fears of the world around us — and often our lack of control over it. This way, the underlying subtexts in horror movies often strike very close to home, and gain more power to scare us because of it. What’s more frightening than being forced into hiding by an otherworldly foe that cannot be seen, and currently cannot be stopped? The time seems ripe for a new wave of unsettling horror.

The coronavirus could take many forms in future films. In addition to some of the films mentioned above, there are some obvious subgenres for filmmakers to exploit. Home-invasion horror — see not only Last House, but also anything from Straw Dogs (1971) to The Purge (2013) — seems like a perfect fit, as we close our doors and are wary of anyone who arrives on the other side. Dystopian visions of an altered world are also possible — see Children of Men (2007) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), plus films that look at the virus in a more literal fashion.

Then there are movies like The Mist (2007), which shows both a changing world and a terrifying enemy in disguise, while survival films with a horror twist like The Descent (2005) depict the effect a traumatic situation can have on humans. Beyond this, body horror like David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), paranoia-soaked movies like It Follows (2014), and nightmarish fantasy like Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) could all find a place in post-coronavirus horror cinema.

We need time

Based on what we’ve seen in the past, it seems inevitable that horror films will eventually feature the specter of the coronavirus in some way. but that doesn’t mean these films will be approved very quickly, or even be palatable to an audience. Kim Newman, novelist, film critic, and author of multiple books on horror, told Digital Trends it may take a while for these movies to arrive, and the influences may not be so obvious when they do.

“Of course, societal traumas like world wars and catastrophes filter through into horror fiction, but it usually takes time and tends to be relatively subtle, the way lingering memories of World War I influenced Universal horror films in the 1930s,” he told Digital Trends.

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Newman’s words suggest we may not see the immediate effect the pandemic has had on horror for a little while. Indeed, when you look at the 1970s and ’80s horror movies mentioned above, most arrived years after the situations that inspired at least part of their stories. Newman backs up his statement with an anecdote:

“I interviewed Michael Powell once, and he admitted that it was a mistake to make The Small Back Room (1949), which is a terrific film, just after World War II, since audiences who had just lived through it didn’t want to see films about it just yet. It wasn’t until the 1950s that British war films found a nostalgic audience.”

This makes complete sense. Will the next movie you see at the cinema be a tense thriller about a housebound person being stalked by an unseen killer? Probably not. The wounds, psychological or physical, of our collective experience will be raw for some time. Newman explains further:

“It usually takes time and tends to be relatively subtle, the way lingering memories of World War I influenced Universal horror films in the 1930s.”

“My guess is that there will be a lot of pitches for pandemic/shut-in horror stories, and all sorts of other genre spins on current events, but that very few will get immediately accepted,” he said.

If that’s the case, what should the creatively inspired be pitching?

“I suspect immediately, there’ll be a bigger market for crowded great outdoors stories. So I’d advise writers to start thinking about their ideas for Westerns, high adventure or big musicals.”

The language of war

Since the pandemic took hold, the language of war has been repeatedly used to describe the challenge we face. This excellent piece in The Atlantic explains how words, scenarios, and comparisons with prior war efforts are being used to illustrate the gravity of the situation now. Perhaps coincidentally, the author points out that while this can “promote national cohesion, it can also breed fear, which can in turn drive anxiety and panic.” It’s this that’s causing the nightmares, which in turn could eventually be channeled into creativity.

But this may not be the only place comparisons between war and the pandemic can be drawn. Newman’s anecdote about Powell’s The Small Back Room, and his suspicions about the films that will sell after the pandemic is over, also mirror how the film industry coped after 1945. At the time, cinemas struggled with serious financial problems amid the rise of television following the war, while studios made tried-and-tested movies including Westerns and musicals — but things began to change after several years.

“New, lower-budget films tried to develop thought-provoking or perverse stories reflecting the psychological and social problems besetting returning war veterans and others adapting to postwar life. Some of the American cinema’s grimmest and most naturalistic films were produced during this period,” writes the Britannica in its entry on post-World War II cinematic trends.

It’s entirely possible we will see the industry take a similar direction over the coming five years or more. The allegorical horror generated by the very real horror of what’s going on today will come to cinemas, but it will take a little while before we’re all ready to watch and therefore live it all over again. In the meantime, a nice musical may be what we all need.

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