Monsters in modern horror culture reflect social anxieties

Plumb your darkest contemporary fears with 9 Halloween viewing suggestions from an education professor.

Horror movies aren't what they used to be.

Where once they drew on primordial fears about death, darkness and the unknown to hair-raising effect, 21st-century movies have updated their tactics to equally scary effect.

"Horror is all about monsters, and those monsters are often the embodiment of social anxiety," said Jason Wallin, a media and culture expert in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Education.

"It's not about the scare tactics so much as the unconscious fears. Horror is a speculation on a potential future and it tries to elevate those anxieties to conscious thought."

He said contemporary horror movies transform highly relevant concerns about invasive and isolating technology, the wholesale destruction of nature, incurable diseases and fear of difference into the stuff of new nightmares.

And though most people don't believe the streets will be overtaken by the undead with an appetite for human flesh, the horror genre forces both characters and viewers to confront their fears, which in the 21st century often revolve around the fragility of human society.

"That's one of the things I love about horror films--they pull the rug out from under all reference points. People have to actually start thinking for themselves since there's no framework to fall back on to make sense of things," said Wallin.

How characters resolve their situations also reflects the way society thinks about these issues outside of the genre.

"Instead of trying to understand different bodies, gender, race or how other humans relate to non-humans, we have this really stark division between humans and others. Horror tries to play at the intersection of those forces, but it also tries to understand how we reconcile humanity and the uncanny."

To help you face your darkest fears, here is Wallin's list of 21st-century horror recommendations for your viewing discomfort, and the real-world themes that underpin them:

  1. Zombies - "George Romero, the father of the modern zombie movie, took inspiration from class warfare, racial tensions and inequality in the United States. Now zombies also represent fears about being overworked, about super-viruses and epidemics like Ebola, avian flu and SARS." Recommended viewing: Fido; Train to Busan

  2. Mutants - "Playing on the fear that there are no pristine spaces of nature left, the mutant shows us that the natural world has already mutated. It's also a look at the fear of what humanity has created and of losing control." Recommended viewing: The Bay; The Descent

  3. Animals - "In the era of the sixth mass extinction of the animals on this planet, concerns about settler-colonialism and the presumption that the planet belongs to western society, these fears are embodied by animals reclaiming their space." Recommended viewing: Backcountry; Sharknado

  4. Vegetation - "The natural world creates defence mechanisms against the contagion that is humanity, a genocidal force against all non-human things. By using natural attributes, Mother Earth gets her revenge." Recommended viewing: Treevenge; The Girl With All the Gifts

  5. Technology - "Vulnerability, the erosion of the private sphere-where anyone can see into the most intimate aspects of your life-and being forced into a game through electronics and social media manifest." Recommended viewing: Unfriended; The Ring

  6. Stalkers - "From a heightened cultural paranoia about who people are, what people are capable of and who is watching you, it feels like you are constantly pursued and there's no escape anymore." Recommended viewing: Corpse Husband; It Follows

  7. Supernatural - "When latent social traumas like abuse or isolation go unacknowledged, they come back to get revenge on the living through supernatural means, forcing the living to account for what they have done." Recommended viewing: The Conjuring; Annabelle

  8. Mental health - "With worries about mental illnesses, depression, social anxiety and lack of supports to help people through difficult times, internal anxieties manifest externally." Recommended viewing: The Babadook; Legion

  9. People - "In the midst of apocalyptic devastation there is the opportunity to rethink how to live and configure society, yet humanity often chooses to act out its worst habitual tendencies." Recommended viewing: The Walking Dead; 10 Cloverfield Lane