The horror genre is a way of processing our fears and anxieties, and as a result tends to reflect the issues that exist at the time the stories or films are written. During the Reagan era, in the early 1980s, horror films tended to depict attacks on innocence, with grisly deaths befalling wayward teens, their overly conservative parents baffled as to how to understand or protect them. In the 2000s, post-9/11 trauma combined with a news cycle detailing U.S. tactics in hunting down and interrogating suspected terrorists led to the rise of the “torture porn” sub-genre. Now, at the end of the decade, the 2010s’ most common style of horror film has been one in which a family unit is decimated, either from without or (more commonly) within.
Hereditary is the latest example of a film where the family as a whole — rather than one specific member — faces a threat. It’s not new for characters in horror movies to have families, or for family units to be central to the story (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho). But the modern family as protagonist is relatively recent, with movies such as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) depicting average, everyday families under attack by supernatural forces. In terms of a modern family being attacked by a member of their own, the notion is most prominently seen first in George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), in which brothers and daughters attack their kin, who are paralyzed when confronted with a formerly trusted relative now turned murderous.
It’s that element that pervades many horror films of the ‘10s — the fear that those you trust are, in fact, the greatest threat. It’s used as subtext in many films about supernatural possession, the granddaddy of which is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), whose influence can be widely seen. Recently, films in The Conjuring series, the Insidious films, and the Paranormal Activity series all involve family members seized by evil. Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s work is particularly concerned with families attacked from within by a possessed or supernaturally cursed member, as is seen in his Oculus (2013), Before I Wake (2016), and Ouija: Origin Of Evil (2016). In these films, evil is an outside force, preying on a family’s weaknesses, and they may or may not be triumphant.
In the last four years, however, there has been a thread of horror films involving a threat to a family unit that was always there, festering, and it’s for that reason — apart from any supernatural involvement — that the family is doomed. In The Visit (2015), Lights Out (2016), Raw (2017), The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017), and Hereditary, a horrible secret thought buried in the past emerges, bringing deadly consequences to every family member. In The Witch (2016), Better Watch Out (2017), and Thoroughbreds (2018), the malaise of one family member grows, infecting others, curdling until the person turns murderous (with assistance from those they’ve coerced or been coerced by). In It Comes At Night (2017), Mom And Dad (2018), and Hereditary as well, the rampant misunderstandings and mistrust within the families cause them to implode, and eventually attack each other. One of the creepiest things in Hereditary isn’t supernatural at all: It’s Annie’s (Toni Collette) account of a sleepwalking incident that damaged her relationship with her children.
The prevalence of these themes is a perfect symptom and reflection of the last several years: the election, the rise of the Trump era, and the spread of domestic terrorism causing us to mistrust our loved ones, to watch what we say at reunions and gatherings, and to become resentful and potentially hostile toward those who don’t share our opinions.
If the people we live with no longer being trustworthy weren’t terrifying enough, the good old-fashioned fear of other people is still going strong, and many recent horror films exploit this by having the last refuge of safety, the Home, be invaded and attacked. The most quintessential home invasion horror film of the last twenty years, 2008’s The Strangers, got a follow up installment this year, The Strangers: Prey At Night. Rather than the titular killers stalking and invading one home, the sequel sees them terrorizing an entire trailer park full of homes, portraying how even a community of safe spaces can be violated. James DeMonaco’s The Purge series takes that notion even further, making the entire United States a danger zone for one 12-hour period of anarchy. The series leans into the social commentary, making the government (one that explicitly doesn’t care about its citizens, especially minorities) the primary antagonist, yet allowing every stranger on the street to seem like a potential threat. It’s a state of mind many people can relate to, especially at the present moment in U.S. history. Most interesting is that another home invasion film, You’re Next (2011), is actually revealed to be a “family unit falls apart” film, in spoiler-y ways. You’re Next shows just how closely related the themes are: An attack from without is an ever-present possibility, but an attack from within is the bigger thing to fear.
But perhaps the family unit is not as doomed as these trends make it seem. After all, in many of the classic examples of families in horror, the families prevailed thanks to their unshakeable love for each other, using it as a strength against a greater evil. One of the biggest successes of 2018, A Quiet Place, showcases just such a family. To be fair, this family is not issue-free, as the weight of a sibling lost to the mysterious creatures roaming the Earth hangs over them, and the resulting guilt and self-doubt cause them to make foolish decisions. However, by and large they are devoted to family at all costs (with Emily Blunt’s matriarch going as far as delivering her baby while being stalked by one of the creatures), and it’s that bond that allows them to outwit the monsters in their midst. Taken as a whole, the state of the family seems pretty bleak when seen through the prism of the horror film. Yet if we don’t take after Collette’s Annie in Hereditary — constantly isolating herself making pristine, antiseptic dollhouse versions of herself and her family members — and instead follow Blunt’s mama bear example in A Quiet Place, perhaps there’s a chance. Regardless, maybe you should give your mother a call soon, just to be sure.