THE thought hit me as I was reading about the police advising the public to prepare a “grab bag” full of emergency gear – first aid kit, food and water, clothes, torch. You know, the kind of stuff you pack during a zombie apocalypse.

I thought to myself – this is like a bad scene from a horror movie. The cops want me to pack a survival kit? For real? Should I be scared? Then a few hours later, came the spectacle of the House of Commons descending into chaos on live TV as Parliament was suspended. MPs screaming, holding signs, running around like headless chickens, surrounding the Speaker, singing, scuffling. They looked demented. These are the people in authority, and it seemed like they’d gone mad.

If you were able to stop laughing for a moment and take a step back to think about the scenes in Parliament, then it was quite frightening. Things were falling apart.

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But then chaos is frightening. We all fear chaos. It’s one of humanity’s primary terrors. Humans like order, predictability. Disorder, that’s the stuff of our nightmares.

But there’s chaos all around us in the western world now, from America to Europe. Old systems are crumbling, there’s a sense of unrest and anger, authority is breaking down, rules are being torn up, everything seems in a state of flux and disruption, change is so rapid and it always appears for the worse; there’s a mobbish them-and-us atmosphere, even the crackle of threat and violence is in the air.

Not so long ago we lived in a very stable world. From 1945 until nearly the end of the century, we may have had the shadow of nuclear war hanging over our heads, but we lived in an exceptionally well-ordered system. Sides were clear, each generation saw life improve a little, things may not have been great – in fact at times they were downright terrible – but we all chugged along in a relatively predictable way and the fear of chaos seldom went through our minds.

But not so today – and thus our present state of mass paranoia. Many generations have described themselves as living through the Age of Anxiety, but our era is one marked by profound levels of mental health problems, unheard of before. It’s as if there’s a collective sense of trauma among us. As a group, we seem panicked, depressed, scared.

Where do we seek answers at a time like this when politics has become a place of fear and upheaval, rather than reason and sense? We usually turn to art.

But books, painting, theatre, television and film all seem to be struggling to reflect and analyse this fear, this chaos. It’s hard to find the works of art which dissect our current malaise, and troubled psyche.

Writers, artists and filmmakers talk privately about how difficult it is to take on subjects like Brexit, Trump or populism – issues which move so fast it’s hard to digest events, let alone interpret them creatively. Instead, a lot of art now provides a distraction to chaos rather than confronting it head on. TV, films and books seem now to mostly want to take our minds off our fears. This is art as warm bath – art as deflection.


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But there’s one unlikely place where you can find this chaotic world of ours being prodded and probed and dissected in all its visceral nastiness: the horror movie.

Unlike most other genres, horror has always drawn deep on contemporary fears. The novel Dracula was spiced with the Victorian fear of migrants and disease. But that was all subtext – the book didn’t wear its xenophobia on its sleeve. Movies like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers were clearly about the “Red Menace” - but again it was subtext. The politics were well hidden, and only there if you searched.

Today, though, there’s a new type of horror film being made which explores politics in a way horror movies have never done before – and in a way which no other films, regardless of genre, are doing so at present. This new breed of horror movie wears its politics on its sleeve – gone are the days of hiding the message in subtext. These are the films you need to see if you want this chaotic world of ours explored and explained.

This new wave of horror – alt-horror, if you like – is about politics, chaos and society. There’s seldom any supernatural element, no monsters, rarely even a single villain – mostly because the villain is society itself, us. The new wave likes big ideas as much as scares. It’s contemporary, knowing, clever, unrestrained, and it wants to comment on the world unlike so many films. Alt-horror is political art.

These are films like Mother!, Us, Assassination Nation, Get Out, The Belko Experiment, Mum and Dad. They examine identity, class, race, wealth, feminism, and technology, not vampires, werewolves and axe-wielding maniacs.

The film Mother! – a masterpiece by Darren Aronofsky –has as its climax a house invaded by a parade of modern horrors. Riot police, people traffickers, terrorists, religious maniacs – every modern scare – comes to destroy Jennifer Lawrence. In the film, Lawrence cannot escape the world – it never lets her alone. It torments her until it kills her.

In Assassination Nation, a remarkable update of the Arthur Miller play The Crucible, itself a comment on McCarthyism, a small town is devastated by hatred whipped up on social media against a group of young women.

Mum and Dad, a bizarre black comedy, sees bored and selfish parents intent on murdering their children. In Us, it’s us who are the villains – all of us. In Get Out, race is the monster. In The Belko Experiment it’s the corporation and authority which is out to destroy ordinary people.

Hell, in these films, is other people, and their behaviour. These movies say that it’s the ideas that other people have thought up – whether about your skin colour, or the contents of your wallet – which are truly monstrous. And what’s really frightening is that these ideas are inflicted upon you, and you are too weak and powerless in the face of the rest of society and its beliefs to do anything about that. Society and politics mean your victimhood. Our horror springs from the chaos others create.

All art is supposed to be cathartic: to purge bad feelings of fear and anger and shame. Watching the new wave of horror movies is perhaps the only way in this chaotic day and age to rid oneself of the fear and anxiety which typify life in 2019, if only briefly.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year