It has been over a year since the world shut down. When the coronavirus pandemic made its first sweep around the globe, jokes about zombie outbreaks and the film Contagion dotted social media feeds. After a while, the jokes died down as the global body count climbed up. Now, in the spring of 2021, the world is collectively peeking out of our self-created foxholes to take a look around and see what’s left. For me, the anxiety of the pandemic was bookmarked through film – horror films, in particular.
The last time I set foot in a theater in 2020 was for an advance screening of The Invisible Man. Working as a freelance writer in a world without movie theaters boiled down to indie horror releases, because those were the only films that dared to forge ahead into the frontier of video-on-demand. I got the shot, the world started to look a little more normal, and I felt safe to venture back out into the world…to a sparsely populated movie theater to see A Quiet Place Part II.
Horror gently tucked the world into the isolation of the pandemic. Horror kept our imaginations alive and our anxieties simmering for the long year. And now, it seems that horror releases like A Quiet Place Part II and the third installment of The Conjuring series will be a strange point of re-entry for many of us.
If we’ve learned nothing else over the last year, we’ve learned that humanity is disturbingly adaptable. We meld our identities and our lives to whatever bizarre circumstances are thrown at us and suddenly foreign ideas like total isolation and wearing a mask everywhere are totally normal. More importantly, they become difficult to walk back.
Getting Comfortable with Disaster
In a time before the pandemic, disaster movies used to be the greatest form of escapism. In films like A Quiet Place, the scarcity and isolation of that world were something that existed solely within the imagination. We could root for heroes and lose ourselves in the stories because we were removed. Coming into Part II, the film didn’t like escapism at all. It felt familiar and that was scary.
In A Quiet Place Part II, isolation for the sake of safety and a healthy fear of other people (those that present a potential liability) is an eerily relatable notion. In one year, the center of what made something frightening totally shifted. When watching Part II, the most striking element of the film was no longer the strangeness of a world built on isolation and fear. That was expected. Where the real horror of the film rested was with the examples of people that had lost all humanity.
As the film rolls into the third act, our heroes come face to face with a group of people that has adopted a predatory method of survival. Once again, escapism gives way to grim reality. It’s hard to watch villains that sacrifice the weak and interpret it as a fictional take on monstrous humanity when we’ve spent the better part of a year learning which of our colleagues, neighbors, and even loved ones view human life through the scope of “I got mine and fuck everyone else.”
Conjuring Fear in Our Communities
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It latches its narrative to its 1981 setting and, more importantly, to the Satanic Panic that gripped the nation at the time. During the Satanic Panic of the 80s, sociopolitical forces created a pervasive cultural narrative that led many Americans to believe that Satanic cults had taken hold in their neighborhoods. Evil was everywhere, the fear festered, and no one could be trusted.
While the Satanic Panic feels ridiculous in hindsight, it also feels safe to say that our culture is gripped in its own panics. Pandemic panic. Political panic. This past year has been defined by a chilling fear and distrust of our neighbors and the repeated message that you can’t count on others to look out for you. In our isolation, so many of us have only had the option of watching the news and watching our own real-life horror play out in the form of pandemic reporting, a hostile election cycle, and unrest in nearly every corner of our life. The result is each of us looking over our shoulder and asking ourselves, “Who has been careful?” or “Who did they vote for?”
Unlike in the third Conjuring film, where the Warrens rooted out and defeated the occultist, there is no third act confrontation where we identify and remove what scares us. Fear in our communities is a condition that we’re living with. Horror has historically reflected the top social concerns of a given period. For the horror films coming out as the world re-opens, it’s not the film that is responding to the moment — it’s how the moment has led to us responding to horror in new ways.
The movie theater and broader entertainment industry have become an illustration of the overall impact of this last year. The industry ground to a halt releases tentatively pivoted to a “new normal” by way of streaming partnerships, and movie theaters — formerly places of community gathering and shared experience — sat empty. The experience of film relies heavily on community, which is precisely why the re-opening of some theaters felt like the most hopeful sign of life returning to some new plane of normalcy.
As with the pandemic, horror films are the first to venture out and test the waters. Many viewers will come to their first movie theater in over a year to screen a new horror like the latest installments of A Quiet Place or The Conjuring franchises. For many viewers, myself included, the heart-pounding thrill of a new horror film will be tempered by the lower hum of anxiety. The scares on the screen don’t quite hold a candle to the fear of not knowing and overcoming the tension of the past eighteen months. The horror films of 2021 will serve as a strange, resonant point of re-entry and also a small opportunity for hope. I don’t know when we will comfortably gather for the communal joy of shrieking through a jumpscare or feeling an entire auditorium hold their breath as a slasher stalks, but we will get there.
Caitlin is a sweater enthusiast, film critic, and lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began with being shown Rosemary’s Baby at a particularly impressionable age and she’s been hooked ever since. She loves a good bourbon and hates people who talk in movies. Caitlin has been writing since 2014 and you can find her work on Film Inquiry, The Financial Diet, Nightmarish Conjurings, and many others. Follow her on Twitter at @CaitDoes.