If the current zeitgeist could be reduced to one word, “horror” might be it. From the horrors of climate change to the trauma of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, from despair over political extremism to anxiety at soaring incoming inequality, apprehension, dread, and fear have dominated many people’s experience of the world over the past decade. During that time, horror has also dominated world media cultures. While real-world horror suffuses witness videos of the ongoing international refugee crisis and racist police violence, fictional horror films have achieved more commercial success and critical praise than the genre has seen in ages.
To be sure, the major studios are still churning out gore-filled pablum about demonic clowns and malevolent escape-room designers. But esteemed auteurs never previously associated with the genre—such as Jim Jarmusch and Denis Villeneuve—have embraced horror conventions to investigate issues of human extinction or the lures of totalitarianism. Emerging directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster are likewise receiving praise for work in a genre that many of their predecessors were never allowed to transcend (e.g., George Romero and Wes Craven).
To understand who’s contributing to the current horror renaissance and its larger cultural and artistic significance, one would be well served to turn to David Church’s latest book, Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation, which argues that since 2014, an international coterie of filmmakers have revived the long-dormant subgenre of art-horror to make cinematic “apprehension engines” that marry certain horror tropes with the aesthetics of slow cinema to explore grief, dread, and desperation (1). As Church shows, this film cycle—and the controversy it has created between populist genre fans and professional film critics—requires more sustained scholarly attention than it has thus far received, for it suggests that something is changing dramatically in what it means to be horrified by life and media today.
What to call the cycle in question is no simple matter, however, and Church wrestles with the problem at some length in his first and second chapters. Fans and detractors have variably referred to the movies in question as slow, smart, indie, prestige, elevated, and post-horror—all in an effort to differentiate artistically ambitious films like The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017) from more-conventional contemporaneous horror fare, such as The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) or Happy Death Day (Christopher Landon, 2017).
Church seems personally inclined toward “art-horror,” an appellation coined by Joan Hawkins to describe the intermingling of horror conventions and avant-garde techniques in 1960s and 1970s cinema. He argues that, like art-horror forebearers Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1974), the current cycle of aesthetically ambitious horror films decenter “familiar genre tropes … via art cinema’s formal expressiveness and narrative ambiguity, making space for characters and viewers alike to soak in contemplative or emotionally fraught moods” (12). Yet Church’s interest in the reception of the current cycle—the praise it elicits from critics and the animus it inspires among horror fans—leads him to displace his own preferred term in favor of “post-horror,” the most conceptually accurate of the many monikers attached to these movies. Like post-punk, that is, post-horror denotes not “a definitive break from what came before, but rather a stylistic approach that attempts to both contain and move beyond” past precedent (37–38).
As Church explains in his second chapter, naming privileges are inextricable from cultural authority. Who really knows horror: the fans who’ve spent years achieving expertise in an oft-derided genre, or the critics and cineastes who’ve finally taken an interest? Church perhaps tarries too long with this question; his diligent representation of the various factions involved in the fray suggests that some of these groups might be fighting just to fight. What is really interesting about these films, after all, is what they do, not who coins the catchiest term to categorize them.
To that end, Church’s close readings of post-horror films and their formal evocations of negative affect are among the book’s most significant contributions. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with Church’s previous work, particularly his Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema. There as here, cultural studies and reception history are the frame through which the author organizes nuanced critical claims about the objects themselves. Hence Church opens his third chapter—on themes of grief and mourning in post-horror films—by briefly citing popular writers who question why “a character coping with the death of a loved one is the new car of teenagers heading to a cabin in the woods” (Jason Zinoman) before opening up to the larger issue of how tragedies involving familial inheritance stand in for anxieties over generic inheritance in these films (68).
Through textual exegeses of the dysfunctional family dynamics in The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014), and Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018), Church shows how techniques borrowed from the modernist mourning film “allow the audience to differently feel the breaks in generic/familial tradition that have been so divisive among different audience segments” (70). Exemplary in this regard is Church’s analysis of how narrative focalization combines with “architectural sterility” in Goodnight Mommy to destabilize its spectator, leading them to (erroneously) read the conventionally grieving character as cruelly psychotic and the psychotic character as an innocent victim (82). This confusion enables a “nihilistic conclusion” far bleaker than horror films’ typical open-ended finales (86). Instead, Church argues, Goodnight Mommy negotiates genre formula to demonstrate the totalizing brutality of trauma’s contagion.
Church is an astute reader of film form and narration, more so than the book’s early focus on reception and cultural studies might suggest. Chapters 4, 5, and 7 (on gaslighting, landscape, and existential dread in post-horror movies, respectively) evince his skills well, yet the book’s crown jewel is chapter 6—Church’s extended interrogation of It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015) and its queer “critique of monogamy as a monstrous force” (22). This chapter expands on a previously published study to further consider how the film’s “overall aesthetic of ruination mourns the lost collectivities of pre-AIDS queer subcultures and work-class solidarities alike” (206). One ends up wishing that the author had spent more time on such theoretically rigorous, historically grounded close readings, which showcase his scholarly gifts far better than parsing the nuances of why some horror fans rejected The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019) or why some post-horror directors deny their debt to the genre (46–49). Proscriptive discourses about what “counts” as horror—or post-horror—never yield much insight into what such movies do or why; far more interesting are rigorous accounts of generic inheritance and cultural negotiation—at least in this reader’s opinion.
Still, Church’s investment in reception cultures renders Post-Horror even more valuable as a pedagogical resource. The later chapters’ organization around key titles in the post-horror cycle makes them easy to assign for genre courses, while the chapter on naming the post-horror cycle will also be useful for discussions of media cultures and shifting valuations of fan knowledges. Post-Horror further affirms that the past decade—an epoch of horrors—has provided a fertile opportunity for filmmakers of various marginalized backgrounds to rethink what it means to be horrified. While one might wish for more focus on their work in the present volume, it does lay the groundwork for further studies by articulating the critical ethos of the cycle. The Post- of Post-Horror is thus a promise of continuity rather than a gesture of finitude.