There’s this piece of received wisdom that horror cannot work in the modern world. There’s a way in which a lot of horror movies set in modern times play with isolation. Get Out starts with the main character driving out into the country, far enough away from the city that deer become a menace. Peele then wastes no time reminding the viewer that there is no help to be found here in the form of a police officer who demands Chris for his driver’s license even if he wasn’t the one driving.
Cure For Wellness depicts a long, meandering drive up a mountain, through a clearly unfriendly village and then up the castle. Jason takes Manhattan, a terrible movie in many respects, also not set in Manhattan. It starts there the very quickly moves onto a boat. So many horror movies rely on physical isolation. It, The Thing, Secret Window, The Shining, Gerald’s Game, Misery. I could go on. And I’m also noticing there’s a lot of things written by Stephen King there. Beside the point, moving on.
Now granted, a lot of the causes for the isolation in those horror movies are somewhat uniquely modern. Cure For Wellness gathers up super stressed executives who come from all over the world to feel better only to find they’re being used to create an elixir for eternal life. Even Jason takes Manhattan, there’s fairly little reason for anyone to be on that boat in times that are not fairly modern.
Isolation in public
But a lot of movies also play with an element of social isolation. And that can be just as scary if not even scarier than physical isolation. Neon Demon relies on this isolation. In the very beginning, we see the main character posing as a corpse for the consumption of her boyfriend’s ambitions. She continues to be preyed upon throughout the movie until she herself becomes a predator. Cure For Wellness plays with this element as well, as do many gothic horror stories.
No one does this as brilliantly, however, as Cam. Cam is one of those movies that really could not work outside of the modern world without significant changes to the story itself. Sex workers have been largely socially isolated for forever and a day, but there’s an added layer to that for cam girls because they don’t even need to go out to ply their trade. The story in Cam does recall elements of movies like Single White Female, but with a distinctly modern twist that leaves the viewer guessing.
But that isolation is key for the effectiveness of Cam. Just as in Cure for Wellness, Alice goes to the police for help, only to find that they’re no help at all. Unlike in Cure For Wellness, the police aren’t corrupt, they just don’t begin to understand even what her job is. Just as in Get Out, the police themselves become an implied threat to her safety. As the officers leave, they add that last, most terrible line: “if you don’t want to see this stuff, just stay off the internet”.
Can horror be modern?
Horror as a genre has deep roots. Technically, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be the first example. But let’s be honest; we humans have been telling ghost stories to each other for longer than human history. Each culture has its own monsters, a lot of which wound up as today’s fairy tales. Urban legends often carry elements of horror in them, but just as often, they could be transferred more or less wholesale into other timelines. A car becomes a carriage, a debutante the pastor’s daughter.
But there are elements of modern life that are prone to horror that did not exist before. We are all more vulnerable to the predatory elements of society because of the internet. We have to trust strangers because everyone is a stranger on the internet. In some ways, that’s a wonderful thing. The number of friends I’ve made on the internet keeps me believing that I can make friends, even as an adult. But in other ways, it’s dangerous. It leaves us open for the people who want to take advantage of us. And those people can be clear across the world. None of our existing safety-nets can touch them. Some who are supposed to protect us, decide we don’t need protecting because they don’t understand the danger.
Can horror be modern? Absolutely. But strangely, though, to make modern horror understandable, you need to do more set up, more subtly, than for the familiar kind.