Social Horror Films Unleash All of Us Fears

In a Chicago suburb, a black man is beaten and killed by police officers after they hear a child scream. When entering a basement inside a popular housing project, the police murder the subject, without any chance of defense. Years later, his memory starts to be remembered and cause dark feelings in people who now live in the same place.

The synopsis above has several elements that resemble news: they directly refer to recent and highly publicized events of black people cowardly killed by American authorities. The most famous case is that of George Floyd, an unemployed man whose death from suffocation – while desperately saying “I can’t breathe” – sparked an uprising represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, who fights for racial justice. But be amazed: the first paragraph of this text describes a scene from a horror movie. I speak here of The legend of Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta, one of the most revered movie releases of 2021.

Does it seem strange to imagine that a horror film can address issues of social relevance? If you think so, know that The legend of Candyman you are not alone in this endeavor. The film is part of a kind of cinematographic “movement” that today many call “social terror”. These are productions that use horror genre conventions and strategies (whose experience serves, above all, to stimulate the tensions of suspense and fear) to discuss important issues of contemporary social life.

The legend of Candyman, as the title suggests, is the continuation of the film. Candyman’s Mystery, 1992. The theme of social criticism was already present in the original film, but was intensified in the work of Nia DaCosta. The sequel film unfolds in the same location as the first: the Cabrini-Green housing development. Only now it is gentrified (the process of when a region, usually poor or peripheral, is “remodeled” and starts to have much more expensive rent values, which alienates the original residents) and full of hipsters.

In this scenario, a black visual artist, who is trying to succeed in the (white) art market, does research and comes into contact with the legend of Candyman, the spirit of a black man who was murdered in the 19th century for having impregnated a white woman. He soon begins to become obsessed (and of course terrified) by the spirit that is summoned through the mirror.

Films that fit this proposal of social horror seek to explore the genre in a way that, in addition to generating entertainment, also brings deeper reflections. This is the case with other famous works, such as Run!, by director Jordan Peele, winner of the Oscar for best adapted screenplay in 2018. The film has a very interesting premise: a young black man accepts the invitation of his white girlfriend to visit her family. In the house, everything seems strange: the employees seem catatonic and uncomfortable with the presence of the visitor. The girlfriend’s parents and brother soon reveal unfriendly sides as well, and prove to be quite dangerous. What unfolds throughout the film is a fanciful plot (which also flirts with science fiction conventions as well as horror) in which racism and racial inequality are uncomfortable backdrops.

The movie ‘Run!’ part of an interracial novel to discuss modern fears.Source: Blumhouse/Disclosure

Jordan Peele, incidentally, became one of the great references in social terror. In addition to being the producer of The legend of Candyman, he also directed We, 2019. In this work, discussions about the fight against racism, typical of the director’s work, intersect with another theme, that of xenophobia symbolized by the Trump government, which understood other nations, especially Latinos, as subordinate. No accident, We works in its plot with a metaphor of space, representing the “other” of this “we” literally in the underground, that is, in the “basements” of the place that would be reserved only for “conventional” Americans.

The appeal of social horror films is precisely because of their ability to bring to light the horrors that exist within each one of us – and that, most of the time, are hidden in our core, without us having the courage to face them. them. In other words: the fears portrayed in works of how The Candyman Legend, Run! e We, among other films that also fit into this wave, are our current and everyday fears.

It’s worth remembering that while these movies are becoming more and more fruitful, this isn’t exactly a novelty or something unique to cinema. In the 60s, George A. Romero, with his zombie movies, like night of the living dead (1968), already thematized terrors associated with the dangers of his time. Children’s stories themselves, like the fairy tales we’ve heard since we were born, have always had a task of bringing out our horrors.

I hitch a ride here in the explanation given by the critic Rodolfo Stancki, when mentioning the relevance of horror cinema: “the stories that circulate in our society can be good records of how we think about our own reality. With the right interpretation, a fable can become a fundamental historical document to discover the mentality of a people. If it’s true for books, it’s true for movies. Logically, we could say that horror cinema is a mapping of our fears”.

If these films are becoming more and more recurrent among filmmakers in the genre, this is also due to a possible maturity in the idea that horror is not mere escapism, and that the fears that affect us today are more real than they may seem. Perhaps for this very reason, these works easily become an object of cult among fans.

The messages diffused in these films are in several details. The Legend of Candyman, for example, uses in the soundtrack a new version of “Say my name”, a well-known song by the group Destiny’s Child, formed by Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams in the 1990s. The choice is not by chance: “say my name ” refers to hashtags Say Her Name Where Say Their Names, that seek to bring visibility to the names of black citizens killed by the American police who, by having their names highlighted, are no longer just a statistic. Yet another important reminder that fears in real life are far more frightening than those in movies.

Maura Martins is a journalist, professor and editor of the cultural journalism portal Escotilha. At TecMundo, he is a columnist in the Minha Série and Cultura Geek sections.

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