2017 has been a big year for horror movies.
Get Out was one of the year’s first big successes, proving that audiences were ready for smart, politically engaged satire delivered through the lens of sci-fi horror, and things have only gotten better from there.
IT will without a doubt be remembered as one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, enjoying the benefits of brand appeal and an aggressive marketing campaign, as well as following the Stranger Things formula of plucky youths and Eighties nostalgia.
This week, Happy Death Day took the number one slot at the box office, instantly earning four times its production budget in a three day period, which is pretty impressive to say the least. Meanwhile, Jigsaw is on the way, and The New Mutants’ first trailer shows that Fox is embracing the horror trend with their upcoming X-Men movie.
Meanwhile, more traditional blockbusters have been having a rough year. For some reason, audiences simply haven’t been interested in watching upbeat, CGI-laden action romps – Transformers: The Last Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Blade Runner 2049 are but three of the big budget tentpole franchise films that failed to hit their box office targets.
For more proof that horror is on the rise while action is losing ground with audiences, look no further than The Dark Tower. Like IT, this movie is adapted from a Stephen King novel, but instead of making a horror film, Sony instead decided to turn it into a Weird West cowboy martial arts action flick, and audiences simply did not care for it.
Very similarly, The Mummy, ostensibly a horror story, ended up being more of a Tom Cruise action film, and nobody cared.
Modern audiences are more interested in scary stories than upbeat action films. While movies like Wonder Woman and John Wick 2 have caught people’s attention, it’s hard to ignore the fact that horror is growing in popularity in a big way.
Part of this can be put down to the unexpected success of Stranger Things last year. It’s pretty clear that a lot of movie studios, suddenly realizing all at once that light horror was growing in popularity, greenlit a bunch of projects in an attempt to capitalize on the Netflix show’s success.
It also really doesn’t hurt that this horror films are a lot cheaper and easier to produce than big budget CGI-fests. Happy Death Day cost less than $5 million to make, while the upcoming Justice League movie will probably cost more than a hundred times as much when all is said and done.
That’s not the full story, though – horror has been growing as a popular genre among the young for a while, albeit in other forms of media.
Ask a sample of teenagers what their favorite video games are, and invariably, someone in the group will say Five Nights at Freddy’s. A horror survival game about enduring a haunted pizza restaurant, the game earned popularity primarily through YouTube, as fans shared videos of each other reacting to the game’s many jumpscares.
Before Five Nights at Freddy’s, the myth of Slenderman won the internet’s attention with creepy stories of a strange almost-man who lurks in the woods, eager to steal children.
Where kids of the Eighties and the Nineties love overblown action heroes with giant shoulder pads and huge guns, modern kids have been raised on Internet memes that seem invariably to circle back to horror. Perhaps this is a reflection of the world we currently live in, where kids are forced to confront terrorism, fascism, and financial instability from a young age.
For whatever reason, the rising generation of teenagers aren’t interested in stories of heroic billionaire playboys or violent gun-toting tough guys. They prefer more relatable fiction, in which young, relatable, often plucky and sarcastic Everymen/women face off against a seemingly unavoidable, unbeatable existential horror.
It’s worth noting that in both Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slender, the game based on the Slenderman myth, the player will unavoidably meet a grizzly end at some point. Similarly, Happy Death Day is all about a hero facing her own repeated brutal murder, again and again, with glib determination.
This kind of storytelling isn’t just growing in popularity with younger moviegoers. All of us, no matter the age, seem more interested by something dark and sinister, rather than yet another bright, overly polished, heavily edited blockbuster in which the main character is somehow destined for glory.
Perhaps we’re all finally getting sick of the Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter archetype. Maybe we’re accepting the fact that we’re not special or uniquely heroic, but just one more potential casualty in a cruel world.
Now, it feels like success comes from not becoming yet another victim, rather than from single-handedly saving the world.
Modern audiences are losing interest in explosive heroism and bombastic power fantasies. We’re all, collectively, more interested in seeing little people; the young, the inexperienced, the afraid and ill-equipt; stand up and face something far bigger and scarier than themselves.
There’s catharsis to seeing the Losers fight back against Pennywise in IT, or to seeing Tree face her looping murder with resolve in Happy Death Day. It’s more satisfying to see an underdog triumph than to watch yet another superhero repeatedly punching a generic CGI villain until it inevitably explodes.
It certainly looks like horror isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Be prepared for a lot more terror over the coming years as Hollywood fully embraces this new movie trend.