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The new wave of horror movies suggest we should embrace our terrifying reality

Relic, Sea Fever, The Witch, The Babadook — horror films are increasingly modeling new ways of coping with trauma

Emily Mortimer in Relic stands in the woods in a bright blue jacket, screaming. Photo: IFC Films

We aren’t living in normal times. The world is under lockdown while COVID-19 keeps humanity in a cycle of outbreaks and quarantines. American cities are facing massive wide-scale protests against racism in reaction to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and seemingly endless others. Earth’s continued survival remains in freefall under the effects of climate change. Dimwitted strongmen and bratty wannabe strongmen have influence or authority over too many nations, to the detriment of their citizens, particularly marginalized or vulnerable communities.

“This is fine,” says a much-reproduced viral comic by K.C. Green. Collectively, we’re the altogether-too-calm dog centered in a flame-engulfed room. Halfway through this godawful year, media reports of catastrophes and bummer developments have numbed us all to onslaughts of further reports of catastrophes and bummer developments, flying in pell-mell via headlines from sources around the globe. Anxiety blends with resignation. Stuck sitting at home, we seem helpless to stanch the flow of bad news. And a new wave of horror movies have emerged that seem to reflect this helplessness in the face of trauma — or at least that model new ways of surviving by giving into it.

Robyn Nevin in Relic sits stone-faced at the dinner table, surrounded by untouched food.
Edna gets spooky in Relic.
Photo: IFC Films

Natalie Erika James’ horror film Relic (arriving on VOD July 10) puts this sentiment into play through a filter of hereditary tensions: When octogenarian Edna (Robyn Nevin) disappears from her home, daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) move into her house, combing it for clues about what happened. Edna returns as quickly as she vanished, compelling Kay and Sam to move in and assist her while exploring the event that took her. Edna seems to be losing her humanity — she’s intermittently aggressive toward her family, the unexplained bruise on her chest gets worse by the day, and she talks to an invisible presence when she thinks Kay isn’t looking.

In Relic, family drama blooms into a nightmare, per the mores of horror cinema. But unlike, say, Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a much more self-regarding version of what James is attempting in Relic, the climax focuses on a kind of reconciliation with Edna’s condition, a grim family history, and the family’s future. It’s a reminder that horror doesn’t just offer scares and catharsis. The genre is also about necessary perspective for confronting terrible realities. Relic is a movie about making sense of life’s worst wrongdoings.

That’s always been one of horror’s functions. Traditionally, the genre expresses widely felt social and cultural fears, manifested through the supernatural or plain old human cruelty. The monster, whether it’s literal or figurative, is usually either overcome or victorious by the end of the movie. The protagonist struggles, and wins or loses.

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman peer under the bed, checking for monsters in The Babadook.
Checking for monsters in The Babadook.
Photograph: IFC Films

But horror is elastic. There’s a recent strain of the genre where “the monster,” in whatever form it takes, isn’t bested but in some way accepted. Characters embrace it instead of fighting tooth and nail against it. Since the 2010s horror boom, this strain has evolved in films like The Babadook, “Her Only Living Son” (Karyn Kusama’s contribution to the omnibus picture XX), Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and most recently, Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever. Over the course of horror’s history, the acceptance dynamic is best embodied in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, a Vietnam War movie about a soldier making peace with his demons instead of resisting them.

That film’s screenplay, written by Bruce Joel Rubin, literalizes the theme in a monologue delivered by Louis (Danny Aiello) to his Vietnam vet friend Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been seeing visions of his dead son, alongside even more wicked hallucinations: faceless, vibrating humanoids and tentacled aberrations. “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life,” Louis tells Jacob, quoting German theologian Meister Eckhart, “your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you … They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

If there’s a better way to contextualize Relic’s quiet-verging-on-tender final images, or the unnerving harmony in the last scenes of The Babadook, or even the cackling terror that unfolds in The Witch’s postscript, then the genre hasn’t come up with it yet. Jacob’s Ladder’s central thesis resonates through decades: There’s nothing like a good “gotcha” ending where evil prevails immediately before the screen fades to black, but while horror is a genre about expressing fear, it follows that horror also teaches us how to cope with those fears.

This is as true for Sea Fever, a nautical tale of sailors marooned at sea by a multi-appendaged bioluminescent behemoth, as it is for Relic. In the former, the characters seek understanding of the monster more than they try to destroy it. In the latter, Kay and Sam seek compassion for Edna even as events spiral beyond their grasp and James shepherds the film into House of Leaves territory, where Edna’s house is revealed as a maze far larger than what should fit into four walls.

A character swimming underwater in a diving suit examines several large, glowing remora-like suckers attacked to the hull of her ship in Sea Fever.
Investigating the creature in Sea Fever.
Photo: DUST / Gunpowder & Sky

These movies argue that if we can’t comprehend fear, we can still coexist with it, or at least tolerate it. The horrors of Relic, Sea Fever, and Jacob’s Ladder are, in a word, “fine.” They can be faced, they can be endured, and they can be nurtured. But the quiet part each film holds back from saying aloud is that nothing is fine, that there’s nothing at all normal about how the protagonists ultimately confront the lusus naturae hounding them. The central messaging, that we should face societal and cultural atrocities head-on instead of running away from them, is sensible in a moment of injustice and verifiable pandemic. Nothing gets better if we flee, and merely accepting injustice and illness isn’t the answer, which is why there are crowds protesting and why folks should wear masks in public.

In Relic, doing the right thing requires courage and a steel-lined stomach. But the right thing isn’t right. The solution to Kay and Sam’s dilemma shouldn’t be to lie down quietly and acclimate to a strange new life. Likewise our solution to systemic brutality and gross administrative neglect shouldn’t be to suffer them. In practice, Relic’s denouement is a beautiful, macabre thing worth relishing. In the real world, the world we return to after watching Relic and movies like it, that same ending warns us away from simply allowing our authentic horrors to feel “fine.”

The Babadook

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Amelia is a single mother plagued by the violent death of her husband. When a disturbing storybook called Mister Babadook turns up at her house, she is forced to battle with her son’s deep-seated fear of a monster. Soon she discovers a sinister presence all around her.

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