Sometimes, horror can feel a little stagnant. Genre purists within the culture are often resistant to change, or don’t love something until they’ve had enough time to decry it thoroughly; the result is fresh ideas and voices often getting shouted down before they have a chance to prove themselves. This is understandable to a certain degree — as with metal, horror can be annoying when it tries to hard to feel ‘elevated’ or above the genre as a whole. At the same time, yet another movie with yet another vengeful wearing yet another dead skin mask isn’t exactly the answer to the problem.
Thankfully, the past 10 years or so have seen horror cinema being steered in interesting new directions. Whether they’re breaking away from tradition entirely or giving nostalgia a hard kick in the ass, a wave of new directors have taken horror seriously and tried out novel concepts within the genre. The result is a splintering of subgenres that are sometimes hard to recognize but have become fixtures within the contemporary scene.
Here are 10 growing subgenres of horror that are redefining the art form as we know it…
Examples: The Babysitter, Bliss, Vicious Fun
What separates synthwave horror from the synth-heavy films of the ’70s and ’80s from which they take their stylistic influence is simple: self-awareness. These films’ use of loud outfits, quippy dialogue, smeared magenta, and yeah, Carpenter-esque synths music make them feel like wry, clever throwbacks to the movies that inspired them What this does is leave them open to be totally trashy. Ludicrous kills? Absolutely. Too much slow-mo? For sure. Blatant sex and drugs? At every turn. An example of what happens when the art house and the grindhouse finally bro down together.
Desperate parent horror
Examples: Anything For Jackson, A Dark Song, Son
Get between a mama bear and her cub and you might get ripped apart. Lately, horror directors have realized that there’s no scarier bond than the one between parent and child. Whether it’s protecting their monstrous son or bringing their wrongfully killed daughter back from the dead, these parents’ devotion to family provides a sympathetic basis where almost any kind of insane behavior is understandable. Sure, they’re out of their minds — that’s what family is.
Examples: The Haunting of Hill House, After Midnight, We Are Still Here
What’s scarier than the ghost of a murdered girl who was buried in the walls? The ghost of your own childhood, or your mother’s mental illness. One genre of horror that’s being milked for all its worth, especially in foreign markets, is movies about returning home and encountering the demons of one’s own past. Sure, these are often manifested as little girls with big mouths or withering elderly folk with black drool, but the introspection and trauma are the real enemies here. Unfortunately, with the genre’s establishment, the eventual reveal gets a little old. We get it, the ghost is YOU>
Foreign vacation horror
Examples: The Ritual, Midsommar, Hostel
Abroad, no one can understand what the Hell you’re screaming. The one-two of cheap shooting locations and fear of leaving one’s comfort zone has made foreign vacation horror one of the genre’s most fertile niches. The simple fear that comes with not knowing the terrain and customs of a place makes fans instantly sympathetic to these stories of trying to survive another culture’s bizarre, supernatural traditions. Stay home.
Found footage sagas
Examples: Paranormal Activity, [REC], Hellhouse Inc.
When they first became a genre mainstay, found footage films were these short sharp shocks — some paranormal investigators checked out a house, it turned out to be actually haunted, jump cuts ensue. However, more and more, these films have become sprawling franchises with circuitous epics being told through them. Often, this involves a time travel/dimensional jump element, allowing characters from Film #5 to suddenly interact with the figures in Film #1. As with any horror franchise, the good examples of these are amazing — and the bad ones are rough.
Woman alone horror
Examples: The Invisible Man, The Wind, The Reckoning
Ah, women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t leave ‘em alone for fear that their mental illnesses might manifest as literal demons. The woman alone horror trend always hinges on the psychology of being female in a world that doubts, dismisses, and demonizes your experience at every turn. So much of the subgenre’s terror comes from simple gaslighting — watching a man say or do something in one scene, then deny it out loud in front of the knowing viewer’s eyes and have the film’s supporting characters believe him. If these movies leave you terrified and nauseated, well, maybe that says something about how society treats women.
Casual vampire horror
Examples: The Night Watchmen, The Shed, Stake Land
Back in the day, vampire movies were all about the vampire itself — the mystique, the mythology, the power. But a new breed of film now exists in which vampires are just sort of monsters rather than villains. There isn’t a lot of emphasis on what the vampires are other than undead parasites, and the heroes are badasses who are here to fight — and just so happen to be facing bloodsuckers. While traditionalists may find this a bummer, many others are happy to see the nosferatu represented in a way that’s brutally scary, without a lot of ruffles/.
Examples: The Beach House, It Comes At Night, The Lighthouse
What’s haunting our protagonists in this film? Dark forces? Menacing vibes? Maybe a disease? Who the fuck knows! The trend of never really explaining one’s self is a huge part of modern horror, with films putting all its stock in tense scenes between characters rather than ever defining the rules of the world. The whole ordeal is usually topped off with a cryptic shot that allows film-buff viewers to turn to their friends and say, “Did you get it?” Awesome when done right — looking at you, Robert Eggers — but very hard to nail down.
Examples: Get Out, The Purge, Parasite
Who needs demons and maniacs when humanity is this fucked up? There’s been a recent proliferation of horror movies about societally smiled-upon atrocity, with the villains’ cruelty and cunning matched only by how polite and well-regarded they are in this world. While some films and TV shows have gone a little too hard in this direction — the ‘Cult’ season of American Horror Story, for instance, was pretty confused — those guiding with a deft hand, such as Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho, have made it one of horror’s most important modern subsets. Heavily connected with racial horror, because, well, society’s a fucking racist mess!
Examples: The Conjuring, The Curse of La Llorona, The Nun
Spearheaded by Blumhouse’s Conjuring universe, a surge in old-school Catholic horror has been dominating at cinemas for a while now. The return to traditional-yet-terrifying values is an interesting way of circumventing modern society’s many shades of gray: there is good, and there is evil, and evil wants to swallow your children. End of story. These stories are also powerful in that they are contained — there is no sky vortex or hellmouth here, only real people doing their best to battle demonic evil. Hey, nothing’s more frightening than the church.
Stark Lovecraft horror
Examples: The Void, Underwater, The Colour Out of Space
So often, Lovecraft’s vision of horror is accentuated by lush set pieces and grandiose cosmic theories. But a new breed of directors has focused instead on the simple, repulsive monstrousness of eldritch menaces from beyond. These films don’t get too caught up in Necronomicons and pre-human societies; instead, they show just how upsetting and physical these beings beyond our comprehension can be. Sometimes, unlocking the gates to another world just means being squeezed half by a tentacle.
Examples: IT, The Babadook, It Follows
The problem with creatures like vampires and zombies is that they have sets of rules that everyone knows about. But a solo boogeyman isn’t some ancient mythological creature — it’s a pocket-dimension monster, with its own strengths, weaknesses, and bizarre powers. Without garlic or silver to help them, the poor bastards wrestling with these unholy beings have to make it up as they go along. The result is a genre of nonstop anxiety and dread, where the whole world thinks you’re crazy because they’ve never heard of or seen the thing making your life hell.
Words by Chris Krovatin