IF horror movies are a society’s nightmares, then our bad dreams have become very political of late.

Where once horror movies depended on the mysterious and monstrous to scare us, today it’s race, class, extremism, gender, technology, and the environment which are the stuff of onscreen terror.

Of course, any student of film knows that horror movies are the one cinema genre which has always supposedly carried some sort of political message. But until recently that message, if it existed at all, was well hidden – it was all subtext, hint, and coded suggestion. Nowadays, politics in horror movies is front and centre, plain to see, and often a film’s central theme.

Horror today feeds off our culture wars, deliberately and overtly – it rubs the awfulness of the political world in the viewer’s face. In fact, scary movies appear to be the one art form which is tackling the woes of the modern world head on. Horror goes where other movie genres, TV, music and even literature often fear to tread. Perhaps it’s only the visual arts – painting, sculpture and installation – which rival horror when it comes to looking politics straight in the eye.

If we go back long enough into the history of horror, and examine the earliest stories which frightened us, we’ll find that what drove our fear was the monster and the unknown. Read the scary parts of old legends – Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Beowulf – and you’ll find they all depend on a fantastical creature: Humbaba, a monster in a wood; the Cyclops, a one-eyed fiend in a cave; Grendel, a creature out there in the dark. What terrified us was the bogeyman, the unknown and unseen, phantoms of our imaginations.

That’s pretty much how horror proceeded until the last decade or so although a few rare exceptions did deal openly with contemporary fears over the years: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explored fear of the scientific revolution in the early 1800s; and the cult movie Society satirised the Thatcher-Reagan era.

Look back on the history of the horror movie throughout the 20th century and you’ll find it littered not with political comment but with vampires, reanimated monsters, werewolves, zombies, and creatures from outer space. Some connoisseurs of film have discovered political messages in these movies, but you must look very hard to find such themes.

Is Dracula really about the fear of immigration? Perhaps, if you desperately want it to be. Are George A Romero’s zombie films about civil rights (Night Of The Living Dead) and consumerism (Dawn Of The Dead)? Possibly, but if so the meaning is pretty obscure. Is Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers inspired by Cold War McCarthyism? Maybe, but you’d have to read a lot into the film. When it came to horror films of the past, the casual viewer watched for the scares – the message, if there even was one, either didn’t matter or was too obscure to be noticed.

Later in the 20th century, horror movies shifted from the monster to the person – it wasn’t the unknown that frightened us anymore, it was us. And so came Psycho, Halloween, Friday The 13th, The Silence Of The Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The message of the slasher movie was as simple and unpolitical as this: humans are horrible. If slasher films from the 1960s to the 1990s reflected anything it was how mass media triggered hysteria around crime.

There was little obvious comment to be found about the big political issues of the day: Vietnam, the counter-culture, women’s liberation, unemployment, capitalism, Ulster, Palestine, poverty or famine. The only slasher film ever credited with having any political subtext was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For some, the fact the killings in the 1974 film took place in a “white house” was a comment on the Nixon administration. If director Tobe Hooper really intended such a message, he buried it very deep.

Today, that’s all changed. It’s hard to think of many successful horror movies now that depend on a traditional monster or textbook serial killer for scares – and if they do then the monster and killer are dressed up in overtly political clothing, and the message is so clearly about culture and society that it’s impossible to miss.

This change in horror has been happening, unnoticed, for at least a decade. Horror movies, often wrongly dismissed as a shallow medium, began looking politics straight in the face. The genre started using real events – current affairs – to frighten us. Horror became a confrontation with modern dread and paranoia.

That’s unsurprising when you consider life in the age of 24-7 rolling news. Historians already talk about how the events of this century’s first decade alone combined to make it one of the most traumatic eras from a global perspective. We had September 11 – the start of an endless low-level global war, that brought terror into our living rooms; we had the invasion of Iraq – which began the collapse of faith in Western democracy; we had the 2008 financial crash – when the dividing line between rich and poor became stark and brutal. Those events helped trigger Brexit and the rise of Trump – two existential blows for the Western consensus.

It’s little wonder that in recent years psychologists have reported a rise in nightmares related to political events like terrorism, job losses, the man in the White House, and Britain’s Brexit divisions.

And that’s precisely why horror movies are so political today – the genre quite literally reflects our own nightmares back to us. In one way the changes in horror movies hint that the human race has grown up – we’re no longer scared of things that go bump in the night, we’re scared of reality.


Poverty, wealth and financial inequality have become a horror movie staple over the last decade. During lockdown, one of the most-watched horror movies was The Hunt. It’s as straight-up a political horror as you’re likely to get. Here, a group of working-class Americans are hunted by a bunch of super-rich psychopaths looking for murderous kicks. The film playfully mocks our conceptions about class though. Some of the victims are Trumpesque “Deplorables” – all red necks and conspiracy theories – and some of the killers are virtual signalling liberals, but the bottom line message is this: money kills because money is power.

The Hunt was a switch-around on the themes of the British horror movie Eden Lake – an earlier film which predicted the coming of deep class hate in Brexit Britain. Here a group of angry marginalised teens from England’s sink estates persecute a complacent, entitled, liberal couple. The violence is so graphic that viewer caution is recommended.

Last year’s Best Picture Oscar was won by the low-key horror movie Parasite, from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. In the film, an impoverished family slowly takes over the lives of a family of idle rich dilettantes. The film is unsparing in its depiction of poverty’s humiliations – a theme that Joon-ho polished in his earlier horror movie Snowpiercer, which portrays a group of survivors at the end of the world living on a train brutally divided by social class. You don’t want a third class ticket, that’s for sure.

The Platform, a 2019 Spanish horror, takes class struggle to stomach-churning levels – with captives in a nightmarish prison battling to reach the top floor of a jail where the food is good; in the basement you starve or eat your cellmate.

The more comic horror Ready Or Not, also from 2019, gives us a standard liberal take on rich vs poor. Here an ordinary woman is about to marry into a super-rich family – the only problem? They like killing poor people like her.


Ready Or Not is also seen as part of the new wave of “feminist horror” – where a woman takes the central role, often as hero. In Ready Or Not, our young female lead determinedly kills her way to survival. She’s that very modern movie stock character – a kick-ass feminist. In most modern horror films, women can also, refreshingly, be as evil as men, rather than just a passive victim – as in the Australian movie The Loved Ones, featuring a deranged teen who likes to kill with a drill.

However, while women have indeed been stepping forward as powerful characters in films like Ready Or Not, the portrayal in most so-called “feminist horror” of what it means to be a woman is pretty one-dimensional and mostly seen through the eyes of male directors. But of late, especially after MeToo, the role of women in horror has become much more sophisticated, and disturbing – thanks to more women directing and writing.

Prevenge, a British horror comedy from 2016, is probably the best example.

Written, directed and starring Alice Lowe, it takes an intensely dark look at a woman’s view of pregnancy and gives full vent to female rage.


One of the defining movies of the new political horror genre was Get Out, the 2017 directorial debut of African-American writer and actor Jordan Peele. The film makes no bones about the fact that it’s all about race. A young black man arrives at the home of his white and rich – there we go again with class – girlfriend.

The family, however, kill and use the bodies of black people. It’s slavery, Black Lives Matter, white flight – the whole ugly grab-bag of racial themes all wrapped up in a hallucinogenic film.

The movie Beneath Us taps into the issue of immigration, with undocumented foreign workers exploited and murdered by rich, immoral Westerners. The American Dream quite literally becomes a nightmare.


Green Room was one of the best and most underrated horror movies of the last decade. It tells the story of a group of young punks who take their band on the road and end up in a neo-Nazi clubhouse. What follows is a tense, claustrophobic bout of murder and mayhem where the villains are driven solely by extreme political ideology.

Buried – from 2010 and with Ryan Reynolds as the unlikely (but excellent) star – takes on war and terrorism. Here a US military contractor wakes up buried alive in a coffin underground. He’s been captured in Iraq by insurgents out for revenge. Who’s the terrorist, the film asks? What are the consequences of waging war?

In Red State, Kevin Smith (better known for his slacker comedies) tackles the religious right. It’s a Waco-inspired bloodbath, that rips Christian fundamentalists to satirical ribbons, but also shines a light on police violence and American gun culture.

Perhaps the best and most popular (not populist) take on modern extremism is The Purge franchise – which imagines a world where on one night of the year there’s no law, and anything goes, including murder. If you haven’t seen it, turn on the TV news and watch any report about violence on the streets of America – that’ll give you a good idea of what the films are like.


One of the most disturbing films of the last decade was the horror movie Mother! by Darren Aronofsky, starring Jennifer Lawrence. The film offers a whole palette of political themes, but is at its best when it turns its gaze on modern mob mentality.

The most distressing minutes of the film come when a rampaging crowd bursts through the door of Lawrence’s family home and trashes her life. They don’t listen, they don’t care, they just want to destroy and vent their most animal instincts. It’s social media writ large.

The same theme is repeated in the recent We Have Always Lived In The Castle – inspired by the Shirley Jackson novel – where a mob full of hate just destroys for the sake of it.

Even family-friendly horror movies reflect this modern fear of uncontrolled crowds – like the delightfully dark stop-motion animation ParaNorman which satirises the absurdity, stupidity and cruelty of Twitter’s pitchfork-and-torches brigade through the eyes of a child.

There’s also been a spate of rather blunt “techno-horror” movies riffing on fear of the internet – usually featuring a vengeful villain, who the victim knows, taking over their life online, publicly shaming them with revenge porn, and otherwise generally making the viewer change their passwords and cover their webcam. For the best of the bunch, check out Unfriended.


We’re back with the magisterial Bong Joon-ho here, and his movie The Host. South Koreans really know how to make great modern horror films, perhaps because they live with the very real and very modern horror of nuclear war on their own doorstep. The in-your-face message of The Host is this: if you treat the environment like trash, then the environment is going to come back and bite you, literally. What we get is a classic homage to the monster movie but wrapped up in an overt ecological message.

No take on modern horror would be complete without a mention of the recent Midsommar by Ari Aster, who also gave us the disturbing movie Hereditary.

Both films centre on women and the turmoil of their interior lives (there’s that feminism again), but Midsommar also does something very scary with modern green ideology. In Midsommar, a group of hipsters travel to Scandinavia to a commune that lives an idealised rural life.

Except, of course, they don’t. If you really worship Mother Earth, the film says, then there’s got to be some sacrifices – in this case, human ones. It’s like that great Scottish horror movie, The Wickerman, but updated through a modern political lens.

The best horror films are deeply cynical about the human condition, and Midsommar tells us that even if we try to do something good – like live a green life, for example – we’re all just people at the end of the day and that means something really horrible is going to go wrong.