The Subjectivity of Horror, Part Three: The Return of Psychological Horror

In part one we discussed the key characteristics of psychological horror and took a look at some of the cornerstone masterpieces of the subgenre. This was followed in part two by a discussion on the evolution of the horror genre and how the slow-burn, subtle style of psychological horror quickly fell by the wayside in favor of more gratuitous and direct styles of horror. In part three we will explore the recent return of the subgenre, draw parallels between those new films and the previously discussed genre classics, and take a look at exactly what critics said about each film compared to what audiences have been saying.

The Return of Psychological Horror

The Witch – April 2016

In recent years, film studio A24 has been at the forefront of the rebirth of the psychological horror subgenre. Their first notable release in the subgenre was Robert EggersThe Witch in 2016. The story revolves around a Puritan family in 1630s New England who have been banished to the countryside and now live along the edge of an ominous forest. Throughout the film, paranoia grows within the family that one of the siblings may be a witch. This film takes place in a time and place when witchcraft was one of the main fears of everyday people, culminating in the Salem Witch Trials decades later. The Witch effectively combines supernatural horror with the psychological reality of the time to deliver an effective horror film.

Throughout the film strange occurrences take place that arouse the suspicions of both the parents and the audience, but nothing that happens is ever definitive enough to answer the question of which sibling, if any, is a witch. As the occurrences pile up, the fears of the parents continue to heighten and the tension between them and the siblings grows to palpable levels. In fact, the majority of the conflict in this film is kept between members of the family, not so much between the family and the possible witch in the woods. This keeps the plot grounded and real.

The intensity of this interfamily conflict is never more evident than in the climax. The mother is convinced that the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is a witch after the rest of the family is mysteriously killed. She attacks her daughter and Thomasin is forced to kill her own mother in self-defense. It is after this scene that it’s revealed that none of the children were practicing witchcraft. Rather, the family goat (referred to as Black Phillip) had been serving as a vessel for the devil. After discovering this and having just witnessed the demise of her entire family, Thomasin speaks to the goat/devil and is offered the future she has always wanted, one of freedom and independence. Thomasin then makes a deal with the devil, undresses, and walks towards the woods where it is revealed that a coven of witches reside.

The Witch contains many of the common characteristics of a psychological horror film. It is a slow-burn, high tension horror film that avoids answering many questions and keeps the truth about its characters and what is in the woods hidden until the very end. Instead of a central character that questions their own sanity, this film offers up multiple characters that fit that mold, adding to the confusion and the tension. Similar to The ShiningThe Witch opens itself up to many different interpretations about its overarching themes, such as it being about parents fearing their daughter coming into her own sexually or being a film about the seven deadly sins where each character is a personification of a different sin. The ending of the film, where the family goat is revealed to be the devil, is a clever twist that finds a realistic way to play into a common depiction of the devil, that of a horned being.

No matter the interpretation, critics seemed to love this film. It currently holds a 91% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus being that it is “as thought-provoking as it is visually compelling, The Witch delivers a deeply unsettling exercise in slow-building horror that suggests great things for writer-director Robert Eggers.” Audiences, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy the film nearly as much. It holds a 57% Rotten Tomatoes score, 6.8 out 10 on IMDb, and a “C-” Cinemascore. Parsing through the audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it is clear that many moviegoers found the film slow and boring until the violent and bloody climax.

It Comes at Night – June 2017

The following year, A24 released another psychological horror film in Trey Edward Shults‘ It Comes At Night. Similar to The Witch, it focuses on the paranoia of a family and builds off the tension stemming from that paranoia. The plot revolves around a family of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world. It is clear there has been an outbreak of some kind that has wiped out the vast majority of the population and it is implied that, when afflicted with the virus, the person turns into something deadly (maybe a zombie?). The audience is watching most of the events unfold from the son, Travis’, point of view. He is unaware what exactly his father is protecting them from and so is the audience.

The plot thickens when the family agrees to take in a couple with a young son. As the two families try to determine whether or not they can trust each other, the tension begins to build. It hits a breaking point when it is revealed that the couple’s young toddler, Andrew, may be infected with this mystery virus. Again, similar to The Witch, all the conflict is grounded and stays between the characters, culminating in a violent and bloody climax with a bit of a twist ending. However, unlike The Witch, no answers are ever given. There is never any proof that anyone was actually infected, only symptoms. What exactly lurks outside at night is never shown nor answered.

It Comes At Night invokes another aforementioned key characteristic of psychological horror: the fear of the unknown. It allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about what lies in the wilderness, if anything at all. Similar to Rosemary’s Baby, this keeps the film grounded in reality and allows it to play to many different fears, regardless of whether it’s an everyday fear like claustrophobia or nosophobia, or something more supernatural based like ghosts, zombies, or monsters.

It also carries another key characteristic of psychological horror in that the film’s ambiguity gives rise to different theories and interpretations. One such theory that changes the entire viewing experience is that the title of the film isn’t referencing a physical thing, rather a state of mind. The theory is that the “It” in the title refers to paranoia. The film then becomes a story about the power of the human psyche and the terrifying scenarios that the human mind can create.

Just like The Witch, It Comes At Night garnered widespread praise from critics. It boasts an 88% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus being that it “makes lethally effective use of its bare-bones trapping while proving once again that what’s left unseen can be just as horrifying as anything on the screen.” However, the audience scores tell a very different story. It holds a 44% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6.2 out of 10 on IMDb, and a “D” Cinemascore. Audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes show that the consensus found it to be a slow, boring, and empty film where nothing really happens.

Hereditary – June 2018

Lastly, we come to Ari Aster‘s Hereditary, the most recent horror film released by A24 and easily the most hyped film of the three being discussed. Hereditary tells the story of a family dealing with the aftermath of the passing of a family matriarch. One of the main characters is Annie, whose mother is the one who passes away at the onset of the film. Not too long after, Annie’s daughter, Charlie, passes away suddenly and tragically. Annie, her son Peter, and her husband Steve are now left figuring out how to cope with their immense loss.

The first half of the film follows Annie as she deals with the reality of losing her mother and her daughter. She blames the loss of her daughter on her son, Peter, creating some heavy family tension. The tension heightens as Annie is driven further and further into madness, unable to cope with the loss of her daughter, and Peter finds out what is mother really thinks of him. Eventually her coping process leads her down a more supernatural route as she believes she can still communicate with her deceased daughter through a ritualistic séance, causing her family to believe that she is losing her mind.

The film is littered with creepy and unsettling occurrences; however, everything comes to a head when Annie discovers the truth about her mother. It is revealed that Annie’s mother was part of a satanic cult and that same cult may have been controlling every aspect of the family’s lives in order to find a new human vessel for “Paimon”, one of the eight kings of hell. Much like the previous two films discussed, the tension boils over in a nightmare-inducing climax that ends with Peter jumping to his death and Paimon overtaking his body. Paimon/Peter arises and appears before the cult. Chants of “Hail Paimon!” are heard as the screen cuts to black.

Hereditary draws many similarities to the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby. Much like Rosemary, Annie serves as that central character who may or may not be going insane, forcing audiences to question the legitimacy of the reality presented.  The film also plays on some of the same everyday fears that Rosemary’s Baby exploited, particularly loss of control. Similar to Rosemary, Annie realizes towards the end of the film that the cult has been secretly in control of every aspect of her and her family’s lives.

Hereditary plays on that idea with the recurring motif of Annie’s lifelike dollhouse that she is repeatedly seen working on. The dollhouse is a replica of the family’s home and the figurines in the house are all modeled after members of the family. Annie continuously moves pieces around the doll house, which serves as a form of recurring symbolism of how the cult is lurking on the outsides, watching the family from afar, and controlling their every move.

This film also invokes the “fear of the unknown” as the demon, Paimon, is never shown at any point in the movie. The film knows that the viewer will automatically create the most terrifying image that they can conceive for Paimon and that showing an actual demon would have been distracting and taken away from the grounded realism of the story. By successfully mixing legitimate scares to please modern horror fans with the classic tension filled and character driven narrative of some of the most well-known psychological horror films, Hereditary seemed like it would be the film to bring psychological horror back into favor with general audiences.

Unfortunately, like a broken record, history repeated itself again. Critics adored Hereditary and, as of this writing, it holds an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus was that “Hereditary uses its classic setup as the framework for a harrowing, uncommonly unsettling horror film whose cold touch lingers long beyond the closing credits.” Many critics went on to praise the performance of Toni Collette, who played Annie, calling it Oscar-worthy. Audiences, however, did not agree. The film does hold a respectable 7.6 out of 10 on IMDb but that is countered by a 58% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes to go along with a dismal “D+” Cinemascore. Audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes paint the film as boring, confusing, and not scary.

Last Word on the Return of Psychological Horror

What is causing general audiences to seemingly turn sour on psychological horror films? Why is it that a style that was once lauded with praise is now being viewed as “boring”? How is it possible that the supposed return of a once loved subgenre is looking more like its swan song?

(To be continued)

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