In the internet age, we need horror stories more than ever
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
One of the most iconic moments in modern horror is when Samara crawls out the television in Ringu: an invisible barrier of safety is broken, and suddenly she is in the room. It’s chilling because it breaks all the agreed rules. What you’re watching is supposed to stay in the cinema, it’s a short-term thrill. It’s not supposed to follow you back home.
A comparable (and more recent) example is the creature in It Follows, walking endlessly - and extremely slowly - towards its next victim. It comes for you in daylight, it comes in public, and it takes any shape. There’s nowhere the heroes are safe from it.
Before long the audience starts searching every scene with figures in its background, wondering whether they’ve spotted the creature coming first. The film might come to an end, but that habit lingers long after the credits have rolled.
These stories are so powerful because they bleed out into the world.
These days it's easier to live off cultural ‘jump scares’ instead - short, sharp shocks that rarely linger. Hardly surprising, really: after all, the internet thrives on cheap sensation. One day there’s an iconic image of wildfires, and the next the UK Prime Minister is chased out of a village by angry locals. A day later, and Hong Kong starts looking like something out of The Hunger Games.
Those images evoke a brief fury, or shock, or joy - the whole social media engine is built on monetising these small hits of emotion - but we scroll on, and forget them right away.
And who can blame us? As Jia Tolentino puts it in Trick Mirror, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”
Real horror - the kind of deep, lingering dread that sticks with you long after the story’s ended - denies us that luxury of forgetting. It disturbs and disorientates, crawls out into the world beyond the screen.
Horror stories don’t so much add to the discourse as confront it head on: they refract and distort it, showing it for what it truly is.
In the increasing complexity of the internet age, some things are too large or too terrifying to look at directly. Timothy Morton called them “hyperobjects” - by his definition, they connect a wide range of different areas (like hyperlinks), have an enormous cumulative impact, and can hardly be called objects at all.
Racism is a hyperobject. Climate change too.
Any attempt to talk about ‘fixing’ or even ‘addressing’ racism quickly descends into a discussion of what exactly we’re talking about fixing (which assumes that it can ever be ‘fixed’, which in all likelihood it can’t). Are we talking about large-scale, entrenched social injustice? Historic devaluing of non-white narratives? Mass incarceration? Voter suppression?
The answer is ‘all of the above’, but even if all of those things were somehow dealt with simultaneously the issue wouldn’t be resolved: we’re talking about a complex, interconnected world here, and a hundred different angles.
Likewise climate change.
Maybe we want to address it, but what does that mean? One person says it’s modern agriculture that’s the biggest problem; another free-market capitalism; another our increasingly globalised world; mass manufacturing overseas, the chopping down of the rainforests, our insistence on eating meat and dairy. And it is all of them, at once.
To even talk about ‘solving’ climate change suggests that it’s a thing can be solved: in reality, it’s so interconnected we can barely look directly at it.
Much of the time we look at the pictures, we feel a brief terror, and then we look away.
We need something new.
Horror can give us the vision we need to see a complex world clearly. Just look at Jordan Peele’s Get Out, whose motifs - especially ‘the sunken place’ - refracted and reframed the experience of black Americans using the grammar of horror movies.
It’s a movie that makes everyday actions strange, and in doing so makes them newly visible.
There’s a reason people are still talking about it now.
Or take Hereditary. Ari Aster’s depiction of the strange, distancing effect of grief uses that same horror movie grammar to give a language to something profoundly inarticulable, while his follow-up, Midsommar, delves even deeper into how Western liberal humanism can’t account for personal tragedy.
The experience of watching these films lingers: it’s not limited by the cinema.
This is what great horror does. It can make us see again.
This is not what Viktor Shklovsky was referring to when he coined his famous term ostranenie - ‘defamiliarisation’ - but it could have been. Maybe should have been.
We make the world strange, and in doing so, we can see it for what it is.
Horror occupies a unique place in culture because it strives for the unknown. After all, the things that scare us most lie in the liminal spaces, at the edge of our perception, and those liminal spaces are always shifting: they are shaped by culture.
As long as horror keeps reaching for the unknown, it will keep uncovering new things.
So, while the internet’s algorithms drive us towards the accepted and accessible, horror, in all its unpredictable complexity, will continue to resist the easy answers.
It will show us its distorted mirror image of the world, one that won’t be flattened or sanitised. And that’s for the best: because these days we’re all too good at forgetting.