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Buffalo State Experts: Horror Genre Speaks to Societal Truths

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The popularity of newly released horror films such as It: Chapter Two, Us, and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark reminds us that we never completely outgrow a spine-tingling thrill. 

The genres of horror, gothic, terror, and the uncanny found on screen and in literature can also help us understand uncomfortable truths and deal with fear of the unknown or the scariest monster of all—humans gone bad. Or, in the case of Jordan Peele’s latest film, Us, an American family on vacation finding itself pitted against an uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

“American gothic fiction still uses anxiety-producing, suspenseful situations to invite readers to think about how they interpret their own experiences of reality,” said Allison Siehnel, Buffalo State College lecturer of English. “American experiences, such as supernatural belief systems and fears of the unknown, take center stage.”

Much like horror, the gothic genre asks readers to reorient their perceptions.

“Where traditional gothic invokes medieval architecture of ancient castles, crumbling monasteries, and other ruins, along with the supernatural creatures typically found in such locations, the American gothic situates its stories in the isolated, lonely places of the frontier—its newly formed towns and the wilderness that surround them,” said Timothy Bryant, Buffalo State associate professor English who teaches a graduate course on American gothic literature. “Where spirits, vampires, and werewolves plague the characters in European stories, more often in American gothic, those supernatural entities are replaced by racist caricatures of Native American peoples as bloodthirsty savages and ‘devils in the forest.’”

Likewise, contemporary horror films increasingly address the worst traits of mankind in an artful way, noted Macy Todd, assistant professor of English and director of the department’s film studies minor.

“The horror genre is just starting to be taken seriously by critics,” Todd said. “It’s a trajectory we’re seeing in literature as well.” He pointed to a new term—neo-horror—which is more intellectual than in the past.

In the neo-horror genre, filmmakers address societal problems like racism, he said, pointing to Peele’s 2017 critically acclaimed film Get Out.

In Siehnel’s research, she has addressed how the nineteenth-century slave plantation is another place of horror, which is reimagined in more contemporary works such as Octavia Butler’s neo-slave narrative sci-fi novel Kindred.

It alludes to how nineteenth-century writers of slave narratives used gothic themes of captivity and entrapment in their works, though, of course, not in the same ways as the novel,” she said.

And she said the gothic genre does inform the horror genre.

To really understand horror films, one needs to understand their origins. Horror films gained popularity in the United States right after the end of World War II, according to Todd.

“Having defined ourselves on the international stage, there was nowhere to direct our gaze but internally,” Todd said. “And we found a lot wanting in terms of inequality and oppression.”

Horror films throughout the remainder of the twentieth century began targeting those problems, both in obvious and subtle ways, he said.

For instance, the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist was more than a silly supernatural thriller, Todd said. Toward the end of the movie, viewers learned the real reason behind the family’s haunted house: a greedy developer built it on sacred Native American burial grounds.

Traditional and contemporary scary movies, plays, and novels can also address more mundane but painful issues, such as the disintegration of the nuclear family or a marriage.

Bryant is currently teaching the play 70 Scenes of Halloween to his Introduction to Literature students. Originally published in 1990 by Jeffrey Jones, an American playwright whose specialty is the surreal, the drama focuses on an unhappy couple on Halloween night.

“Jones wrote the play as 70 distinct scenes that were intended to be performed in any order,” Bryant said. “That chaotic structure mirrors the relationship at the heart of the play, between Jeff and Joan, who sit at home and fight as trick-or-treaters ring their doorbell. Ghosts, a beast, and a witch also haunt them as they try to deal with the problems in their marriage.”

Todd said he sees a renewed interest in scary films that explore entrenched societal woes. 

“Art can help you have a discussion about an issue,” he said, “rather than address it head on.”