A few weeks ago, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker announced that his show’s sixth season would be delayed in direct response to the impact of COVID-19. The thinking goes that the world doesn’t need any additional bleakness at the moment, which is a fair point. A more cynical observer might paraphrase Ron Swanson and ask why anyone would bother dramatizing the apocalypse when they could just go outside and stand in it.
That makes sense on an intuitive level, but fails to take into account the fundamental nature of humanity. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, but we’re defined less by our wisdom than by our tendency — even instinct — to weave narratives. Simply put, we’re a storytelling animal, and telling stories is how we make sense of the universe we inhabit. Creation myths from around the world confer the souls of heroes, villains, killers and lovers on fundamentally impersonal natural phenomena. The sun, the earth below, the flooding river, even the abstract “deep”; they’ve all been given human roles to play in the stories we tell about our world.
Put another way, as intensely social animals, our brains are wired to understand interpersonal relationships more intuitively than the vast, faceless machinations of the world. When those machinations generate fear in us, we move to assign blame, assign agency, assign an identity. We need a face that we can punch. We need a heart that we can stake. We need to give ourselves a fighting chance in the story we’re going to tell. The bleakness of the times does not preclude our narrativizing them. Rather, it ensures it.
Given this understanding, it’s not exactly surprising that each great wave of popular horror can be read as a way to narrativize — and thereby process — real, generational traumas.
The first great wave of 20th century horror is a direct reaction to the traumas of World War I. New kinds of weapons and new kinds of medicines made previously unimaginable carnage both possible and survivable. Soldiers returned home, permanently disfigured or disabled by injuries that would simply have killed them in previous wars. The carnage of war returned home with the survivors, visually, in a way that is evident in the wave of horror that followed.
At least in the United States, this era is associated with the reign of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the unrivaled master of monsters. Chaney was a unique performer who blended a gift for mime with a near-masochistic willingness to contort his face and body to create uncanny characters. But these aren’t werewolves, or fish creatures, or revenant corpses; Chaney’s stock and trade was inflicting pain on his body to approximate the results of mutilation, deformation, and bodily violation.
In The Phantom of the Opera, Chaney plays a man whose facial scarring leads him to withdraw from society; in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, his character’s appearance leads to his being mocked, taunted and excluded; in The Unknown he plays a double amputee relegated to life in a literal sideshow.
On December 7th, 1941, Japanese planes bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, finally confirming what many Americans had long suspected: that the war that had been raging in Europe and Asia for years would soon make its way to their shores. Isolation was impossible. Diplomacy was wasted effort. There was only War, ever growing, expanding, worsening.
Only five days later, Universal Studios released The Wolf Man. Initially, the studio worried that a nation so recently and directly rocked by the horrors of war would reject the fantasy horrors of werewolfery, but the opposite happened. Perhaps seeking simple distraction, or perhaps seeking a foe that could be totally vanquished in just over 70 minutes, Americans made The Wolf Man a smash hit.
Although the Wolf Man is killed at the film’s climax, he would not stay dead for long. Larry Talbot, the film’s titular lycanthrope, would remain trapped in a Sisyphean cycle of death, rebirth and trauma for the remainder of the war. Larry was an all-American meathead, fated to spend the 1940’s transforming into a killer in a landscape of corpses, European landmarks and incomprehensible ancestral conflicts. Larry Talbot might be, apart from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, the most visible American abroad during the war years.
Incidentally, the man under the yak hair and rubber appliances? The man tasked with shepherding the American imagination through this funhouse version of the European theater? None other than Lon Chaney Jr., son of the man who personified the ghoulish phantoms of the First World War. These horrors that reflect our cultural traumas are generational — though not always as literally as the Chaneys illustrate.
The 1950’s grew horrors of a cataclysmic scale, grown tall and strong in the shadows of mushroom clouds. They were children of science and progress gone mad, but tempered, reasonable science could always restore order, usually with the help of the Military-Industrial Complex™️.
The 60’s and 70’s saw real carnage broadcast more vividly than ever before; the horrors of Vietnam, the depredations of serial killers and hysteria about malicious cult activity were no longer for the eyes only of soldiers and police, but beamed directly into the living rooms of Americans everywhere. Films like Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen suggest a world in which apocalyptic evil can be resisted — but perhaps not successfully.
The 1980’s slasher boom brought with it the advent of the monstrous killer as corporate franchise tentpole. Now the monsters, once manifestations of horror and trauma to be ritually snuffed out, became functional protagonists. Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees became moral arbiters, striking down obnoxious teen after obnoxious teen to the delight of … obnoxious teens. The audience now packed theaters to see itself killed, rendered powerless and ineffectual at the hands of irresistible outside force.
And so it went. By the 2000’s, the American public, visions of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib dancing in their heads, made torture porn like the Saw and Hostel franchises the most profitable subgenre in horror. Once content to see the hubris of horny camp counselors repaid with gore, audiences now shifted to extended scenes of ourselves methodically cut apart, not by quipping bogeymen, but by other humans.
We, the filmgoing public, had come to the same realization as Ghostbusters’ Ivo Shandor: Society is sick, probably terminally, and could really use a Destructor. And here we are, in 2020, facing down death by plague on a scale unseen in centuries in the midst of fascist violence and civil unrest. Looming beyond that, the threat of environmental breakdown at a scale that society as it is has no way of surviving. Mr. Stay-Puft was at least fluffy.
So where does that leave us? What story can we tell about this horror show that won’t pale in comparison to what we can see by looking out the window? What form will we choose for our next Destructor? Are we too close now to oblivion to wish it upon our fictional selves? That’s not yet clear, but here’s what is: No time is too bleak, and no trauma too ghoulish, for humans to weave into a story. We’ve done it as long as our brains have been capable of it, and we’ll continue to do it until we can no longer draw breath — no matter how soon that may be.