It’s not unusual for eras or decades of the horror genre to be categorized by one overarching theme or style. The eighties have become synonymous for their boom in low-budget, often sleazy, slasher films inspired by the cornerstone slashers of the mid-to-late seventies. The horrors of the 50s reflected cultural fears of science creating new monsters or humans facing threats from an unknown origin. Not so long ago, the 2000s — or the aughts — saw a weird meshing of the one-third remake craze; one-third gritty, nihilistic, Post-9/11 horror, and part found-footage frenzy. Now, with the 2010s somewhat in our rearview, and a plethora of diverse and compelling horror left in its wake, it’s interesting to consider how we might reflect upon a decade that started with movies like Insidious and ended with something as unique as The Lighthouse.
Even throughout the 2010s, there seemed to have been a weird dispute between genre fans about how people referred to some of the different types of horror films that were coming out. Many, oft labeled films like The Witch “elevated horror” for the unique approach in dialogue, set design, and its overall tone, pitting it against movies in the vein of, say, the Annabelle series. And while, admittedly, there is a clear distinction with the style, writing, and directing between both worlds — there is something inherently truthful about this delineation.
David Church, author of Post-Horror Art, Genre, and Cultural Elevation, discusses the concept of what “elevated horror” has become in the genre. Church elaborates that the notion of “elevated horror,” or, “art-horror,” — which he refers to as Post-Horror — is an attempt, by critics, at creating a divide between other genre films and the films that, more often than not, get bunched in or labeled with this “elevated” moniker; Aronofsky’s mother! (2017), or Midsommar (2019), for instance. He furthers this discussion by admitting that, while there is an obvious difference in subject matter and stylization, these films still belong to the horror genre, and have since become a discussion between varying degrees of horror fandom and film criticism.
The 2010s, while offering many different things to many different pockets of horror fans, did see a tremendous rise in the quality and substance of these movies. I believe the phrase “higher art,” however, isn’t necessarily a proper way to classify it. More often than not, these films are a part of the overall, reinvigorated life of independent cinema, currently spearheaded by companies such as A24, NEON, IFC Studios, etc. Nevertheless, when we eventually look back on the 2010s years from now, we’ll find that this decade, more than anything, should be seen as the decade of Grief Horror.
What is Grief Horror?
In summary, grief horror is, professedly, a horror film where grief is the crux of the film’s theme or tone. They’re slow-paced while being dramatically and emotionally tethered to the central idea. Often, our protagonists are toiling with their melancholy or malaise while simultaneously dealing with some external terror. They’re most commonly found under the subgenre of psychological horror movies, as they have more room to explore these themes, though not always.
In theory, these types of horror movies and their tonality could be traced back to the German expressionist films starting from 1910, through the 1940s — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance — which saw movies that embellished themselves in images or content that was, for the most part, depressing and bleak. Echoes and remnants of this style of filmmaking saw a slight return with films like Carnival of Souls and Repulsion throughout the sixties, leading to its most poignant example in 1973, with Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In the film, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxtor (Julie Christie) struggle to fully cope as they grieve their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), who drowned the year before.
John sees images of their deceased child throughout their stay in Venice and has issues comprehending the supernatural occurrences that seem to follow him, leading to his eventual death.
This film appears to be one of the earliest and more blatant examples of what grief horror entails. The sense of paranoia surrounding these otherworldly forces, which often are misconstrued as a manifestation of these characters’ guilt, leading to the emotional resonance these films leave us chewing on long after the credits roll. Sometimes, the trauma these characters endure and rarely overcome helps us, the audience, confront — or at the very least, understand some of the issues we face ourselves.
In some ways, Don’t Look Now is, to the grief horror sub-subgenre, what The Blair Witch Project was to the found-footage subgenre. Both predate the massive boom of these niche corners of horror and seem to set up a quasi-formulaic layout that other films would try to emulate — or at least, lend itself as a frame of reference for the similar movies that followed. Some of these films, The Changeling (1980) or Full Circle/Haunting of Julia (1977) offer familiar, grief-stricken storytelling beats as Don’t Look Now, and would continue to establish what a grief horror film should, and can, be. One of the last few films that predate the big boom of grief during the 2010s is the lesser-known — yet equally important, Australian horror film — Lake Mungo (2008).
Like the previous titles, Mungo thrives off the intense dread that is crucially instrumental in the story it tells. Grief, for the most part, is the catalyst of this story; the Palmer family is the subject of the pseudo-documentary/found-footage film that follows them throughout their journey of uncovering secrets about their young daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker), and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her disappearance and death. The shared misery the family professes throughout the film drives their desire of finding solace in Alice’s passing; whether it be speaking with a psychic, finding their daughter’s lost cell phone (which leads to one of the most unsettling moments EVER in a horror film), or, following up with reported sightings of the deceased teen.
Now, it’s not to say that these films necessarily require these particular elements to vehemently be considered a “grief horror” film — however, these qualities are often recurring and significant in establishing the foundation of the films that we would come to find familiar in the last ten or so years.
Entering the 2010s
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that the decade of 2010 did not start with a slew of grief-based films– despite my argument so far. They were introduced gradually as this decade of horror began with the remaining ember flames of the 2000s, Post-9/11 horror cinema, and its residual trends. The trite tread of found-footage knock-offs attempting to cash in on the lasting success of the Paranormal Activity series was still in full swing. Sequels and odds-and-ends remakes would still occasionally pop up, but a new wave of supernatural films, such as The Conjuring, the aforementioned Insidious franchise, Sinister, and so on, would dominate the horror landscape for these first few years.
Honestly, it isn’t until Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) is released that the so-called decade of grief horror kicks in. Undeterred by that fact, this film serves as the impetus for other independent film studios producing horror films that would grow with immense popularity while targeting a relatively specific audience. Helping to cement this rise in grief horror was Robert Eggers’ powerful debut feature, The Witch (2015), which also assisted in establishing the, now revered, indie film company, A24.
With the massive success of these two — for lack of a better phrasing, pioneering films, in this decade — there began to grow a hype in the market for independent horror films, and, consequently, grief horror — which helped releases like Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter (another A24 horror picture) to satisfy this newfangled craving that had grown in horror audiences.
Aside from sharing parallel tones and story elements, it’s worth noting that these films also share similar, visual characteristics that create a sense of sameness among them. As Chase also describes, “… stylistically, post-horror films evince minimalism over maximalism, largely eschewing jump scares, frenetic editing, and energetic and/or handheld cinematography in favor of cold and distanced shot-framing, longer than average shot-durations, slow camera movements, and stately narrative pacing”. It’s apparent in the feel and looks of films like Hereditary, Luca Guadagino’s Suspiria, or even 2020’s Relic — these films uniformly disposed of the jarring and seemingly ineffective filmmaking that had since become all too familiar in the horror films of yesteryear. These newer films instead turn to cinema’s past and use filmmaking techniques that managed to engross the audience and create this fluidity that had, at a time, seemed abandoned as we went on.
Similarly, as these films were doing away with what these mainstream horror pictures were oversaturating the market with, these newer films would take advantage of their over-usage of genre tropes to enhance the terror and keep audiences on their toes with what these films were willing to do. A perfect example of this is Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Most of the marketing for this release led many to believe it would rehash the tired-out “creepy-kid-in-a-supernatural-movie-that’s-too-dark” routine, but it was much more than that. In a further act of defiance, the “creepy kid,” Charlie (Millie Shapiro), dies before the second act gets underway — letting everyone know that this movie wouldn’t be like the others. This film, instead, explores the family’s trauma after Charlie dies, much like Don’t Look Now and other predecessors, establishing this new wave of grief horror. Hereditary has, in some ways, become an emphatic example of what this decade is. Though many genre fans are strongly in opposition to this film and those like it for frivolous reasons like: “it wasn’t scary,” “this movie is too slow,” “it made no sense,” and so on. And, of course, not everyone is going to agree all time — however, the fact that this became a frequent excuse for many viewers to oppose these movies feels uncanny to how critics felt about the slasher boom of the eighties or the exploitative run of late seventies.
These arguments, to a fault, feel like an archetype. Nevertheless, these excuses would cease to be true if this decade were not filled with films that fit these criteria; long films that weren’t inherently preoccupied with how many scares it needed to have to remind the audience that it was a horror movie. All the movies that we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying over these last ten years ring true to these statements — that’s what makes this the decade of grief (independent) horror.
So, why this decade?
I don’t think it’s an accident that these films were released when they were. Some could say this is all a happy coincidence; one film just got lucky and paved the way for its imitators — and it wouldn’t be the first time this happened for the horror genre. Craven’s Scream and Carpenter’s Halloween can tell you that much. But, I think this ushering in of GRIEF correlates to what came before: The nihilism of 2000s horror. In a previous article, I talked about how the events of Sept. 11th had inadvertently engendered a new thematic era in horror — Post-9/11 Horror Cinema — and created a realm of gruesome and bleak horror films, which, in-and-of-itself, brings arguments. Nonetheless, when trying to find a reason why this trend of grief in the 2010s came about, it might be a bit simpler than we think.
Most analysts find that there are many stages to grief. The first stage, most commonly, is the initial shock from the incident. This shock can cause a sense of callousness and distance in the individual — leading them to either act out or develop a destructive pattern, if possible. In this metaphor, the “individual” is the horror genre, and the “shock” could be Post-9/11 horror movies. They’re explosive, crude, unapologetic, and, ultimately, reflective of the cultural abrasiveness that had become popular.
Once the individual realizes the dangers of reacting this way, they tend to reflect and often feel guilty — which commonly leads to some depression. These feelings — while difficult — are crucial in gaining a sense of understanding and acceptance. My point is — what if this is the reason for the new wave of grief horror? The exciting new storytellers we’re enjoying now must’ve grown with the terror of the 2000s, and it probably affected them — it most certainly affected the genre. So, who’s to say that this decade of horror isn’t, in some ways, an emotional response to all this shock?
Either way, you look at it — the 2010s gave us such incredible additions to the genre that we all know and love, and we’re sure to remember these films as we continue to travel through the unpredictable decade of the 20s. Still, as cinema rolls out new additions to older franchises and we await to see what the titanic amount of filmmakers yet to be discovered have to offer, there’s no telling what this decade of horror is capable of doing.