The terror begins in the London of 1985 when Enid Baines, a film censor, spots an eerie reflection of her sister’s mysterious disappearance in some frightening footage she must view. Enid, the traumatised character at the centre of the chilling new film Censor, has to unravel the dark riddle as a public row about the impact of hardcore horror is raging.
Censor is just one film among a carmine flood of modern British horror now hitting screens and streaming services. Out in cinemas on 20 August, it has been described as a gory tribute to the “video nasties of the past”. But the film’s Welsh director, Prano Bailey Bond, is also making a timely comment on the strange therapeutic relationship between horror films and their ever-growing audience.
“Video nasties” was the term once used for films deemed unsuitable because of their gratuitous blood, violence and sheer determination to terrify. Forty years ago, in a more protective era, many were banned from general release in case they did lasting harm. The counter argument – that a dose of pure horror can offer catharsis in times of trouble, or even heal wounds – was not audible above the moral panic. So why now, after such a grim period of national trauma and anxiety, are so many of the stories being told on screen so scary? And why do millions of viewers clamour for more?
“One of the appeals of horror right now has to be the immediacy with which it makes you feel something,” said Mark Bould, reader in film and literature at the University of the West of England. “For many people, the pandemic has been a numbing experience: locked down, socially distanced, trapped alone or trapped with families, constant peril and endless boredom, overwhelmed and powerless.”
The current horror boom in Britain began with films such as Howl, Attack the Block, Sightseers and It prevents, and has been followed recently by critical hits such as Saint maud and the haunting refugee nightmare, His House. But it is a trend that has perversely continued throughout the real horrors inflicted by Covid-19, reflecting a renewed appetite for shocking content.
This June, Sightseers director Ben Wheatley was back with his paranoid pandemic-themed In the Earth, while Rob Savage concocted Host, about a virtual séance conducted on Zoom, as a riff on lockdown culture.
Next month at the Venice film festival, another British director, Edgar Wright, will unleash his new thriller Last Night in Soho, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith, while a few weeks later the folk-horror film Sacrilege, made by David Creed, will dole out some downloadable pagan violence.
This Friday, as cinema audiences take their seats for Censor, a new British political horror film, Election Night, will have its UK premiere in Chichester followed by a discussion with director Neil Monaghan ,who has mined the terror at the heart of the Brexit divisions.
“It is a horror movie in essence, but one that actually has something to say,” said Monaghan, explaining that the roots of his film go back to the 2016 vote. “People lost friends arguing about it. Families were torn apart. We had gone from having a relatively stable society to something that was tearing us apart even though it wasn’t actually affecting us as a people very much.”
The tension of a horror movie, Monaghan argues, can be used to examine real conflict, as in the 2017 American hit Get Out, starring black British actor Daniel Kaluuya as the boyfriend of a white woman who takes him to meet her sinister family.
This American school of new, thoughtful horror is still thriving, running fast alongside a quickening flow of upcoming reboots of well-known film franchises, such as the candy man, Resident Evil, Scream, Halloween and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series.
On 20 August, the acclaimed David Bruckner film The Night House reaches British cinemas, with English star Rebecca Hall playing a widow who is coping with grief in the lakeside house her husband built. Ten days later, the Canadian horror film Hall is released in Britain and will deal directly with pandemic fears, set as it is in a hotel corridor as a deadly virus spreads.
Last year, a Finnish study concluded that horror films can activate neural pathways in a way that little else that is predictable can, offering a taste of the genuine fear experience. Pupils dilate and heart rate and blood pressure increase.
Danish academic Mathias Clasen, director of the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University, has even argued that watching horror “may have positive effects in terms of fine-tuning coping strategies”. Clasen and a colleague at the University of Chicago, Coltan Scrivner, followed this up with a study of 310 recruits who answered questions “used to assess their morbid curiosity, how prepared they felt for the pandemic, how they were feeling during the pandemic, and their movie preferences”.
Their results indicated that people who watched horror learn about their own fear responses and so are better able to regulate their emotions.
In 1950s California, Dr Martin Grotjahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was first dean of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute, controversially argued that scary movies are “self-administered psychiatric therapy for America’s adolescents”. Others have argued that going through trauma simply means survivors develop an appetite for stronger fare – rather like those Covid patients whose taste buds are dulled – and so want more potent content in their entertainment.
The brutalising effects on art of war, famine, disease and natural disaster have been clear down the centuries. After the black death killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe, Renaissance art began to represent its lethal, random power. An illustrated manuscript made in Tuscany at the end of the 14th century shows devils shooting arrows down on a twisted heap of bodies. And across Europe, the fear of hell became a key element of culture for decades to come.
Likewise, the summer of 1816, blanked out by clouds of dust after the eruption of the volcano Mount Tambora in 1815, was followed by a tide of gloomy art and music, including the invention of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. And the aftershock of the first world war changed poetic language for ever, letting blunt Anglo-Saxon horror back into literary salons.
Official war artist William Orpen was one of several painters who felt the need to reproduce the horrors of the modern battlefield in a way that would deliver a shock. In paintings such as Dead Germans in a Trench (1918), he wanted, he wrote, to show “the shell-holes with the shapes of bodies faintly showing through the putrid water”.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s, America also enjoyed a wave of horrific imaginings from Hollywood, with characters such The Mummy, Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein making their cinematic debuts.
Some fans have testified to the relief that watching horror can give them after living through a personal trauma. They may be right. Repetition compulsion is the psychological term for the phenomenon which sees an anxious person unconsciously seek out situations that will remind them of their fears. There can be comfort for some in the familiar feelings of nervousness and even of terror.
The late English film critic Robin Wood once said the key plot requirement of a horror film is that “normality is threatened by the monster”, and this perhaps goes some way to explain the bonding experience of watching horror films in a big group.
“Horror is also one of the genres that has a particular kind of sociality to it – for the last half century or more it’s often been about young people going in groups to experience vicarious threat together. It has a special kind of pleasure to it. So undoubtedly that heightened kind of audience experience is also part of the appeal,” said Bould, whose book The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture is to be published this autumn.
But whatever drives the determined horror fan, there is certainly plenty of terrifying British content coming up soon, with the Host’s director Rob Savage recently promising Inside Edition Digital that his next film will focus on the alienation people have felt from each other during the pandemic. “You see somebody coming towards you on the sidewalk and you’re struck with this anxiety – do I cross? Am I keeping two metres? This kind of fear of other people that’s been instilled in us, I think, is kind of what we’re touching on in this new movie,” he said.