Does Horror Need To Get Topical To Get Scary Again?

Jason Zinoman, who has a new book out about horror movies out, suggests in a series of posts for Slate that a reluctance to deal with current events might be part of the problem with today’s scary movies:

In the golden era, films went for the throat and then worked their way down. Part of the strategy was to tap into potent fears about random urban crime, war, the Manson killings, and the other topical concerns. We have our own phobias today, and if anything they’re even more deeply felt in an era when criminals and terrorists are only as far away as the nearest cable news channel, but the horror genre hasn’t caught up with the times. Why hasn’t a movie made us as petrified of the Internet as Jaws did of the ocean? Where is the great horror movie about Sept. 11? Is that in bad taste? Perhaps. But audiences don’t see horror movies for moral improvement. They go to be scared out of their wits.

I think some of that is true, though I’d be curious to see what Zinoman thinks of Drag Me to Hell, a horror movie rooted in the idea that it’s a poor idea to foreclose on a gypsy. But I think part of the problem is the juxtaposition between the common American fears of today and of the ’70s. Most of the things Zinoman listed that Americans were afraid of in the golden age of horror were things that suggested a dark side to the familiar: city streets and our own teenagers. Fears of terrorism, for example, have definitely spawned unfortunate suspicion of American Muslims, but if a group of al Qaeda-trained fighters successfully carried out an attack on an American city, nobody would be exceptionally shocked that such a thing had happened, or would have their preconditioned assumptions about al Qaeda challenged. Similarly, I don’t think anyone who uses the Internet thinks of it as an entirely benign institution, so it’s hard to think that anyone would profoundly upset if something bad happened as a result of people being online. What we need is something genuinely surprising: people who are attacked by the houses they took out adjustable-rate mortgages to purchase, or something that similarly upsets our assumptions about what’s safe and desirable.