I've been enjoying being freaked out lately. The revival of the horror genre has produced some quality couch time.
It was the mainstream success of the indie horror film, Get Out (2017), that got my attention first.
What worked so well in Get Out was that the social interactions between the southern white family and their daughter's black boyfriend were creepier than the "horror moments".
It wasn't only the awkward racial tension, it was the way the movie played with the fears anyone has when they meet the family for the first time.
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Get Out took that fear to a vicious extreme, with the host family literally wanting to take over the boyfriend's body and brain.
The best new screen attempts at the horror genre stand out over how they intelligently connect real-world fears with the monsters and demons of the imaginary screen world.
This year, Heredity, starring Toni Collette, mined the fear of heredity mental illness.
Science is confirming what folk knowledge has often expressed, that many traits — including mental health issues — can be passed down through our genes.
Could there be something in us that is passed down to a child which makes them mentally unstable or even psychopathic (metaphorically a demon)? Scary stuff indeed.
The worry and concern parents have for their children is a recurring theme. It's no accident, I think, that fears for our children's future are at the forefront of popular culture, as the future is looking very uncertain and in some respects terrifying.
In the movie A Quiet Place (2018), the parents struggle to protect their children from blind alien predators who hunt using their incredible hearing.
In a nice shift, one of the children learns something about the alien creatures that turns the tables.
The parents — and the father in particular — had done all they could to protect their children, but ultimately it's with the children to make their way in this hostile world. As is the case in the real one.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018), a 10 part series on Netflix, is so multifaceted and bewildering (in a good way) that it cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs of explanation. I won't attempt it.
But a central component in the unfolding story is again parents' fears for their children's lives.
The series also deals with something I struggled with when my own children were young (and still do to some extent); that as parents we make the decision to bring a new life into the world, who will then inevitably die.
I remember my daughter, at just 4 years old, asking me about dying and then quite calmly wishing I'd be there when she did. Heartbreaking.
The Haunting of Hill House confronts the guilt and responsibility a parent can feel for the life and death of a child. It also pinpoints the dangers of being fixated on those feelings.
Perhaps the most potent visual memory I have from this recent crop of horror movies comes from the Netflix movie Cargo (2018), starring Martin Freeman.
The Australian outback is overrun by zombies, with a mother and father trying to keep themselves and a small baby alive.
The movie ends with a variation on the "carrot leading the donkey", a moving expression of what a parent will try to do for their children. I won't say more.
Maybe horror movies, which are enjoyable for reasons I can't properly explain, are ways of acknowledging our fears.
Horror stories must have sprung from the fears early humans and hunter-gatherer cultures had of their physical environment, and the threat from dangerous animals. And no doubt other "weird" and "foreign" humans who could be hostile.
These days it's mostly what humans can do to each other that so often gives us the chills.
Perhaps the psychological message we take when the credits roll at the movie theatre or on the couch at home is simply, be careful.