How Has The Horror Genre Changed For The Years To Come?

horror scenes
All of 2020 has felt like a Zoom horror movie. Image source: ytimg

In March of 2020, everything stopped. As COVID-19 descended on the world, we all descended into our houses, and many of us descended into isolation. We asked ourselves millions of questions about how to cling to normalcy, and how to adapt to this newness, and some of those questions have gone unanswered. Theatres were hit particularly hard, and film projects ground to a halt; even Hollywood shut down. 

From the ashes, however, rose “quar-horror” movies like Host, which exploded into everyone's newly screen-bound lives during our first quarantined summer. Host, and other horror films made during the COVID-19 pandemic, seek to explore the questions that this global disaster has left us asking.

They can also answer questions about where horror is going next. Here is a retrospective of how quarantine changed horror and how some artists adapted, as well as predictions about where we're going next.

“Quar-Horror” Defined 

Coined by NPR in an episode of Morning Edition, “quar-horror” is a sub-genre of horror consisting of movies made during the COVID-19 pandemic, when filmmakers, actors, and crew could not work together in person due to lockdowns and other restrictions.

Quar-horror films mostly center around themes of isolation, disconnection, and uncertainty. Most movies in this category are small, indie productions due to the shutdown of major studios as lockdowns began. Examples include Host, Isolation, and horror shorts like Stay at Home

Due to the shutdown of major studios, thousands of talented theatre professionals suddenly had nothing to do, which sparked many filmmakers to take advantage of the situation and write scripts that could accommodate the new restrictions. Enter perhaps the most famous, and my favorite quar-horror: Rob Savage’s Host.

Rob Savage: Quar-Horror Juggernaut

To horror enthusiasts that tend to keep up with more commercial films, Rob Savage seemed to come out of nowhere. Thanks to Shudder, the horror-exclusive streaming service by AMC, his 2020 movie Host was quickly thrust into the public eye, and suddenly everyone from comedian Duncan Trussell to my personal therapist was talking about it. After watching the film and getting totally wowed, I had to know more; where did this guy come from? How did he make this film during quarantine?

It turns out Rob has been in the indie film circuit for a while: not only had he already directed several dark short films, he was also the youngest director to ever win a BIFA (British International Film Award), which he took home for his 2012 drama Strings. He also took Host from idea to movie in just 12 weeks.

A 12-week movie turnaround is scary fast. Image Source: Pixabay

How Do You Make a Horror Movie in Quarantine?

For Rob Savage, it started with a simple tweet about pulling a Zoom prank on some friends.

(Jumpscare warning.)

To sum up the video: Rob starts out the video in the middle of a Zoom call with some friends. He claims to hear strange noises upstairs and goes to investigate. His friends nervously banter with him as he gets closer to the “noises,” which are coming from the attic. The whole thing ends with a jumpscare taken from the 2007 film [REC] and Rob "falling" down a ladder. 

During the prank, future Host actress Jemma Moore anxiously responds to Rob grabbing a knife with: "what happens if you fall and then you stab your face... We have to watch that, and then what do we do?" Thanks to the tweet later going viral, Rob was able to make Host, in which he explores that very question.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the premise of the movie is simple: six friends want to hold a seance over Zoom. What could go wrong? It turns out, everything. The movie goes from a normal Zoom call to a demonic nightmare in the span of 57 minutes. The whole thing plays out like a modern Paranormal Activity, with low-budget effects galore.

“I did a workshop on Zoom with [the actors] on old-school special effects — moving doors, making things fly off shelves,” Rob said in an interview. “... They pitched ideas themselves of objects around their house.” 

The more Rob talks about the filming of Host, the more it becomes clear that a major key to his quar-horror success has been working in close collaboration with his actors.

In an interview with Slash Film, he talked about the amount of improv the actors did, mentioning that the script was minimal - about ten pages - and the character deaths were all kept secret from the other actors until it was time to film their reactions. "A lot of what you see on-screen is genuinely the first take of actors witnessing these horrible narrative moments unfold," Savage confided.

So, with a little improv, some actor-created special effects, and a viral tweet, you can make a quar-horror film in just 12 weeks. What else will creatives take out of quarantine?

A Wired interview with photographer Rachel Cabitt sheds some light on more visual experimentation taking place in quarantine. Rachel explains that, because of her isolation and sudden lack of projects at the start of quarantine, she was prompted to do a series of photographs storyboarding a horror movie about her time in isolation.

“The first one I did was the one of me smoking on my windowsill. Initially, it wasn’t even a thought related to this whole project. The next day as I was editing it, I tried a 16x9 crop and thought it looked very film-like so that got my brain turning,” Rachel said. As she took more photos, she felt inspired by the movie Suspiria to experiment with lighting. 

Rachel Cabitt smoking on windowsill
Some creatives experimented with lighting during lockdown. Image Source: wired

“I think that sometimes you just become set in your ways, and you’re always ordering the same equipment. After quarantine, being more flexible with how I shoot is a big thing that I want to carry over,” she says. Hopefully, in the wake of the pandemic, we'll get to see the fruits of many creatives' at-home experimentation.

Why Will Quarantine Change Horror?

Horror, like any genre, goes through fads as our culture changes; the 30s obsession with mad science doesn’t scare us as much today because we don’t have the context of 1930s medical experimentation. With the changing of our surroundings comes a change in what scares us. As neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez explained in an interview:

[Watching a horror movie] is almost like exercising your skills if you were to be in the same situation. It helps us prepare for that unknown fear from the comfort of our couch knowing when the movie is over, we go back to our lives.

This may explain why Contagion suddenly became the eighth most popular movie on iTunes in the US during March 2020, as people began to process the reality of COVID-19, but what can it tell us about the future?

Contagion movie on a screen
First, we watched Contagion, then we lived it. Image Source: Pexels

How Will Quarantine Change Horror?

There are many ways that changes in public sentiment and filmmaker technique during the COVID-19 pandemic may impact the genre at large, from the introduction of new fears to the opening of new avenues for communication.

“If Host was kind of our lockdown movie, about the claustrophobia of lockdown, this new movie is about the horror of going back outside,” Rob Savage said when questioned about his team’s first Blumhouse project.

Announced in 2020, the project doesn’t have a release date yet but is part of a three-movie deal for Savage’s team, coming off the back of Host's success. It will certainly be only one of a wave of films examining what we're experiencing as we return to some semblance of "normal."

Looking toward the future, and considering the large number of people refusing the vaccine, “horror about going outside” seems a likely direction for the genre to go.

people wearing masks
We may struggle to trust each other as we start to come together again. Image Source: pexels

It’s also possible that distrust of the vaccine will lead to films like I am Legend, a movie about a zombie virus caused by a cancer cure. The movie came out in 2012, just two years after the first vaccine for human cancer treatment was approved by the FDA. However, vaccine and disease fears aren't the only things the pandemic has dredged up.

In the USA, COVID-19 was cited as the reason for closing the country’s borders in March, further stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. In addition, anti-Chinese sentiment in the country has been on the rise since 2016, reaching a peak in 2020.

Couple these fears of “outside invaders” with 2020's strange monolith appearances, the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force suddenly coming out of the shadows, and an Israeli space security chief claiming aliens are already among us, and it's clear conditions are ripe to birth some alien-centric horror, for better or for worse.

In fact, we may see alien flicks from more than just the USA; Neil Blomkamp, known for Session 9, an alien movie that explores themes of racial tension, has been working on a “secret horror movie” during the quarantine.

This comes just a few years after his plans to direct Alien 5, a sequel to the classic Alien movie that would have starred Sigourney Weaver, fell through in 2017. Does he still have the alien itch? Not much is known about his latest project, but it’s been reported that there will be “a strong sci-fi and VFX component in keeping with Blomkamp’s previous three movies.”

In addition to all this, we may see the pandemic's influence continuing with more remotely-directed films, considering the price of Zoom is drastically lower than the price of travel. Now that successes like Host have proven it's possible to direct a great film remotely, we might even see collaborations that wouldn't normally happen due to distance, which is an exciting prospect.

What Does This Writer Think is Next? Eldritch Annihilation.

A galaxy
Smite me, space being Image Source: Pexels

As someone who has a lot of opinions on horror, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring here with a prediction of my own: I think something we’ll see next is a resurgence of Lovecraftian, or “cosmic,” horror. 

This past year saw HBO’s Lovecraft Country, adapted from the 2016 Matt Ruff novel of the same name and produced by the visionary Jordan Peele, find huge success, reaching an audience of 1.5 million with its season one finale, and for good reason: cosmic horror deals with everything we’ve been dealing with in quarantine.

Firstly, in discussions about Lovecraft’s work, we must address the man himself: H.P. Lovecraft was a racist. Many of his stories include racist characters and caricatures, and part of Lovecraft Country’s strength lies in the way it addresses this.

Part of the appeal of art is its ability to transcend authorship; creatives from Stephen King to Guillermo del Toro to H.R. Geiger have been inspired by Lovecraft’s worlds. However, it’s still important to criticize even the media we emulate.

And emulate we do; Lovecraft's stories have been used by filmmakers to examine difficult topics, from the race in Lovecraft Country to sexuality in the 2007 film Cthulhu.

Many of his original works deal with themes of disconnection and fear of the unknown, making them ironically great for tackling such things. Speaking as someone in the US, I think these themes are extremely relevant to the divided country we will emerge to post-lockdown.

Secondly, Lovecraft was a man who struggled, often alone and penniless, with unchecked mental illness. His loneliness seeps into his stories, lending an atmosphere of isolation and helpless dread. I'm not sure about you, but that's exactly how everyone I know has been feeling lately. 

As we try to recover from the trauma of suddenly having our lives thrown out the window by something beyond our control, and from the fear of possibly being wiped out by a global event, I think we’ll find solace in stories of incomprehensible beings destroying worlds. The things we find may help us answer the questions left in the wake of this cosmically horrific year.

Image Source: Pixabay
A graduate from Knox college, Jay is a writer, podcaster, horror nerd, thespian, and a lover of camp and camping.

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