What Are We Afraid Of?

Well folks, October has come and gone, and gone with it is the movie industry’s litter of trope-y, recycled Halloween cash-ins.

Yes, I’m talking about you. Now get out of here. Scram.

This means we can get back to the horror movies being made as movies first, rather than cynical money-grabs.

Excluding the Paranormal Activity franchise, but obviously that goes without saying…

See, say what you like about horror flicks (and there’s no shortage of criticism to be leveled), I do truly believe this is a genre just as important as any other- heck, possibly even more. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a better gauge for contemporary culture than the things we fear most as a society.

Now to a certain extent, we already know this. Time and time again, our fear of zombies has been linked to more widespread fears about mindless consumerism, conformity, and loss of identity. Vampires have been alternatively used as stand-ins for both conservatives (a fearful elite draining the blood of the working man) and liberals alike (decadent, foreign, sexually licentious moochers).

But where do we stand today?

While holding their own for a long while, both vampire and zombie stories seem to be retreating from public attention. One could point to oversaturation, but I’m going to argue that it’s because our fears have changed and the ravenous undead no longer work as avatars for our anxieties.

Sorry, buddy…

So what do?

Well to answer that question, yours truly has been tirelessly observing and analyzing every horror flick coming out this year. And yeah, you’ve got your ghosts, your goblins, a handful of decent lookin’ psychological ones, but do you know what I found above all else?

Aliens.

How crazy is that?

I mean, ever since everyone and their dog first got camera and video capabilities on their phones, reports of UFO sightings and alien encounters have plummeted. As people become (comparatively) more scientifically inclined, an understanding of how implausible it would be for alien life to contact humanity (or vice versa) has become widespread. Truth is, we as a culture have really had no major reason to believe in extraterrestrial life, let alone fear it. So why now?

The other theme of the year would appear to be exorcisms. And while you’re bound to get at least one or two of ’em a year, they seem to be everywhere these days. And like alien stories, it’s not something you’d necessarily expect to find, especially in today’s increasingly secular culture. It is worth noting that the “demons” we’re being shown really aren’t even demons in any traditional sense. These aren’t so much fallen angels as malevolent spirits with agendas beyond our understanding.

So what’s it all mean?

The common theme seems to be one of cosmic horror– that we’re just insignificant specks against a much bigger backdrop. That there are forces in this universe totally beyond our comprehension or control.

The continued conflict in the Middle East might have something to do with it, as Americans, for the first time in a long time, seem tired of war.

While supporting air strikes against ISIS in the Middle East, more and more I’m hearing people complain that “other countries need to step up” and that “America shouldn’t have to lead all the time”. We seem exhausted– realizing that we just might not be able to fix every problem by bombing it.

This seed of self-doubt seems to have been nurtured by the Ebola outbreak. While we can (and should) point to the bigotry the panic has revealed, I think it has just as much to do with our concern that we’re facing an enemy we have no clue how to deal with. We’re used to using the gun to solve our problems, and while I don’t think that’s as wrong as some people make it out to be, I do think it makes us feel suddenly both very irrelevant and very small in a strange and dangerous world. Of course, the whole alien-foreigner connection might also speak to renewed xenophobia on the part of westerners.

So what do we do with this info?

Engage, of course. The point of literary criticism and study is, after all, to help us make our culture better, either building on the good we have or confronting the bad. Here’s the info, readers- what you do with it is up to you.

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