When I watch a horror film, I’m always subconsciously looking for its themes, asking myself, what’s the allegory here? I’m a firm believer that the horror genre effectively reflects cultural anxieties, and hopefully this list will provide readers with some proof of that tendency. In chronological order, here are the 10 horror metaphors to prove the richness of the genre.
1) ______ of the [Living] Dead (1968—2009)
No disrespect intended for one of my favorite horror film icons, Mr. George A. Romero, but it felt appropriate somehow to consider his zombie-saga as such—a series, each installment of which has its own metaphors—as opposed to separately, despite those metaphors being different from film to film. Night of the Living Dead (1968) famously and bravely examined racism, race tensions and civil rights, not to mention with a little bit of timely radiation thrown in as well, all on a shoestring budget. Dawn of the Dead (1978), set in a mall, was clearly and unabashedly commenting on the increased consumerism of that time.
More recently, Romero has explored economic disparities and classism (Land of the Dead, 2005) and technology (Diary of the Dead, 2007). These metaphors are all so ingrained in the films, so purposeful and obvious, that it would be hard to miss them… except for maybe in the case of Day of the Dead (1985). This installation is the least overt and the least specific about its metaphor, or rather, its metaphor is perhaps the least pointed and the most basic— the zombies are simply used as a marker for the barbaric, archaic, brutal potential of humans who survive such an apocalyptic event. Sometimes the most simple of metaphors are the easiest to miss.
2) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Even though I haven’t seen the film in full for quite some time now, its storyline and haunting execution certainly stuck with me, and its messages and metaphors certainly resonated even more over time and with greater reflection and understanding. Directed by Roman Polanski, this film is a story of a woman who, because of a selfish decision made by her husband, is raped and impregnated with the devil’s child thanks also to a coven of neighbors. With its seemingly ordinary cast of characters, the supernatural horror is disguised in the eeriness of the everyday. The film then is a story of motherhood, marriage and the fear that came with both at the time, serving as a metaphor for the marginalization and control of women, or at the very least, how easily a woman could lose control over her own mind, life and self.
3) The Exorcist (1974)
One of the greatest horror films of all time, this film contains a lot of metaphors about religion but more interestingly, it contains a slightly de-emphasized version of another metaphor that is more strongly felt in the novel— fears of divorce and specifically a critique of the single working woman. In the novel, Captain Howdy symbolizes Regan’s father, Howard. The interpretation of course is that Regan’s possession is related to or even caused by her mother’s arrogance in believing she could be a successful single mom who works and parents with equal attentiveness. Demonic possession itself can be seen as a metaphor for female independence and sexuality (horrific crucifix scenes notwithstanding), and feminism is not only achieved but equally punished by the film’s portrayal of such rebellion as being demonic in the first place. The film is then a fascinating metaphor for feminism and for all the fears and critiques of it.
4) The Shining (1980)
Another classic horror film that I unfortunately haven’t seen in a while, Stanley Kubrick’s beloved, supposedly loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name is a metaphor for alcoholism. In the 2013 documentary Room 237, testimonials are offered by hidden talking heads that link the film with a collection of interpretations, including an assertion by historian Geoffrey Cocks who sees Kubrick’s movie as an allegory for the Holocaust. In Sight & Sound magazine, in 1999, film critic Jonathan Romney explored the film as an exploration of a crisis in masculinity, sexism, corporate America and racism. But with Jack Torrance’s evident alcholism and the film’s blending of the mundane and the supernatural helping to blur and test perceptions, alcoholism becomes both an obvious and overlooked metaphor among many the film may have to offer.
5) Oldboy (2003)
Among the mostly art-house films from China and Japan that I had to watch as part of a New Asian Cinemas class I took at college a couple of years ago, stood this South Korean outlier, directed by Chan-wook Park— a violent, stylish and twisted mystery about a man who is inexplicably imprisoned in what seems like a grungy hotel room for 15 years. Now, in this course, we always looked at films in their cultural contexts, and as a result, I cannot ignore the culturally informed metaphors in this film.
According to my professor at the time, South Korea has often had a tendency of putting forward a “smile”— that is, constructing certain images and reputations of the national self to be displayed while other truths may be hidden or repressed, obscured from the global community’s view. Oldboy is, of course, all about repressed memories and further repressing trauma through any means necessary, including self-punishment (via self-mutilation) and hypnotism. And the film ends of course with the most haunting, pained and loaded smile of any film I’ve ever seen. As a horror film fixated on revenge and rediscovery, it is a fascinating cinematic exercise in questioning and commenting on the repressed nature of traumatic cultural memories through a narrative that is filled with similar questions.
6) Saw (2004)
James Wan’s quintessential torture porn is oft overlooked in terms of metaphorical content, especially when set against its cohort, Hostel. Eli Roth’s Hostel is more overt in its criticisms of a post-9/11 world—a world in which Americans feel both privileged over and fearful of any kind of foreign “other.” Saw, however, is filled with its own brand of post-9/11 political commentary. Jigsaw stands in for a kind of domestic terrorism, but he likewise symbolizes and personifies America’s violent approach to foreign policy in the hopes of reclaiming a status quo—an approach that failed in reality and arguably in the film, too.
7) Cloverfield (2007)
Matthew Reeves’ Cloverfield is not just a found footage monster movie, and found footage, to me, is not merely a gimmick when it is done right. From scenes in which Hud records other people using cell phones to document terrible events (namely the Statue of Liberty’s head flying through a Manhattan street) to those in which the military yells at him to turn the device off, the film is a metaphor for citizen journalism and the limited, temporary, and conditional forms of power that mobile media technologies can afford us, especially in times of terror.
8) Paranormal Activity (2009)
Another found footage comment on technology, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, if you look closely enough, takes a more negative stance. Specifically, as the presence of the camera increases the interpersonal tensions between Katie and Micah, the camera also supplies the demon with negative energy to feed off of. The film can serve as a metaphor for surveillance and the inability of private citizens to use surveillance technologies for security, protection or defensive means in the private, domestic sphere.
9) Cheap Thrills (2014)
A film that impressed me greatly this past year was E.L. Katz’s indie horror-comedy/dark comedy Cheap Thrills. I found its toxic tale of desperation to be more resonant than one might expect it to be– a family man who loses his job and is on the brink of eviction goes to terrifying, violent measures for equally improbable amounts of cash. Pat Healy stars and perfectly embodies not only that blue collar desperation but also the meek, family man identity that comes with it for better or for worse, making this not just a metaphor for loss of money and economic failure but also for what that loss or failure says about masculinity itself– this film takes a man’s fear of not being a successful breadwinner for his family and turns it into something visceral. After all, what terrible things would such a man do to earn back his money and the masculinity that would rightfully come with it, and what other aspects of his identity would be sacrificed and destroyed in exchange for that masculinity? The sick, sarcastic and haunting final shot says it all, I’d say.
10) Oculus (2014)
Mike Flanagan’s Oculus was one of my other favorite films of this year so far– a twisty and unrelenting set of tricks being played on our very perceptions. At the time, I jokingly said that the film could easily be read as a comment on mental illness, dealing with such themes as paranoia, delusion and the very reliability of human memory. But upon further reflection, I realized that maybe it’s not merely comic fodder to say so. With brother and sister Tim and Kaylie at odds over the what truly happened the night Tim had to shoot his own father– Tim being trained over time by psychologists to trust in rationality, everything given some neuro-scientific term or explanation, while Kaylie trusts in her superstitious beliefs about an ancient mirror– the film is constantly asking us to question all conceptions and measurements of both sanity and insanity, of both science and spirituality. Because as viewers, we too are left feeling a little crazy– never sure what to believe based on what the film is showing us at any given moment.