Welcome back to Guest Recs, this month’s guest is my sister Neo. Despite her occasionally questionable taste in movies (looking at you Resident Evil), she generally tends to have really great taste in movies.
Back when I started the column I asked her if she would like to be part of the first batch and she (thankfully) said yes. I’ll be honest, I didn’t fully know what to expect when she agreed to do this. Afterall, she could have done everything from bad video game movies to The Matrix power hour. Instead, she blew me away with this rumination on fear in film. As per usual all of these recs are cosigned by me but I just wanted to make very clear that I think all of these are at the very least fun movies that should be seen at least once.
Our world has always had its fears, festering up from deep inside of us at rational and irrational times alike. Whether they be primal fears founded in rationality, like fear of heights, or whether they be more modern fears of a more irrational variety such as fears based around social media. Everyone experiences a particular breed of anxiety from time to time when faced with their fears, valid or invalid as they may be, with some people experiencing it to a crippling amount. Like most media, films often reflect the fears we hold both intentionally and unintentionally, and in some cases have been shown to increase already existing fears societies hold.
It can be important to recognize what fears that media can be showing us, even unintentionally, and to be critical of them. Films can be used to direct vitriol at different groups and cause ostracization of them by associating different people with terrible things. They can be used as a form of propaganda against groups that the writer or director doesn’t like, or ones that are easy targets to tear down if society already looks down on them. When we see a depiction in a film that scares us it is important to ask ourselves what message the film is trying to get across.
Halloween (1978) dir. John Carpenter, United States
Halloween is an all-time classic horror movie that still holds up as frightening to this day, with Michael Myers/The Shape remaining an iconic staple in slasher horror alongside other giants of the genre such as Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger. It is a film that prays on many fears people in society hold, the silent killer, the home invasion, being hunted, but the specific fears I’m focusing on here are those of the fear of the other and the fear of the mentally ill. Both of these fears can be tied together as they often go hand in hand in reality.
People fear those with ‘scary’ mental illnesses such as psychotic disorders because they are different, because they are other and because it is hard for them to understand the disorders and what they mean. People hear the word psycho in psychotic and picture Patrick Bateman, the eponymous American Psycho or Norman Bates of Psycho fame, when in reality those with psychotic disorders are nothing like the characters meant to represent them on screen. Michael Myers can be seen as another example of the archetypal Psycho Killer (qu’est-ce que c’est?) often found in horror media, a harmful stereotype representing those with psychotic disorders as brutal and unstoppable killers. When in fact they are just people with a mental illness who aren’t going to just start walking around town killing people at random.
It is easy to see Michael Myers as The Other. He was originally called The Shape, a nebulous title that represented his obscured nature, he always wears his mask, never really revealing his face, and he is almost inhuman seeming with his impossible survival through several attempts to take him down, whether they be by a knitting needle, a gun, or a fire. Despite the fears it can represent, intentionally or not, Halloween is still an excellent horror movie that I highly recommend to those who have never seen it, and highly recommend a rewatch for those who have.
Train to Busan (2016) dir. Yeong Sang-ho, South Korea
Train to Busan is one of the best zombie movies ever made. While I’m sure some would love to debate this opinion I will plug my ears and ignore them as someone who typically hates zombie movies but loved Train to Busan. The fears it prays on are both obvious and more metaphorical, with it having elements of fears of death and disease, but also having elements of the fear of growing distant from and losing family.
Trapped on a train surrounded by the living dead, a businessman is forced to confront how distant he has become from his young daughter due to his workaholic nature and ignorance. The film shows how his greed for money and his choice to work instead of spending time with his daughter has pushed a wedge between them, and how it was likely the cause for his divorce.
Throughout the film, he is forced to reflect on his own nature and his fear of becoming separated from his daughter, both in an abstract and literal sense, as he traverses the train with a group of survivors attempting to reach the other group. The film also shows the fear of disease, with the character of the greedy COO fearing the group trying to connect with his group could be infected and attempting to keep them locked out to save his own skin while ignoring their insistence that they are not infected. Everyone fears disease, and many people fear driving a wedge between themselves and others. Often these fears are rational and irrational alike, and they are ones the film doesn’t use to stigmatize anything but greed and ignorance. Train to Busan is a film I’d recommend even if zombie films aren’t typically your cup of tea.
The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino, United States
The Strangers is a film that preys on our fears of stalking and home invasion, similar to the original The Purge but preceding it by a number of years. It tells the story of a couple who are attacked in the night by three masked strangers who invade their home and attempt to hunt them down, simply because they can. Many people have anxiety around these particular fears. Is that bang outside a raccoon or is someone trying to smash a window and get in? Was that creak on the floorboard the house settling or is someone creeping down the hall? Is that shadow in the corner of my eye a shirt hanging on a chair or is it a person trying to hide?
These are fears further exacerbated by the real home invasions, stalkings, and killings that happen in our real world. They are fears very much based in reality, but ones that are often irrational. While The Strangers isn’t a perfect horror film it is one that I love and recommend to anyone who doesn’t have intense anxiety around home invasions.
Resident Evil (2002) dir. Paul W. S. Andersen, United States
Resident Evil is a film series I will admit is not very good. However, it is incredibly fun to watch, and I recommend at least watching the battle against Wesker from Resident Evil: Afterlife. Both the films and the games explore our fears of disease and our fears of corporations. The T-Virus and its variants across the franchise seem nigh-unstoppable, even when Raccoon City is hit with a nuclear bomb the T-Virus continues to spread across the world. Fear of disease is one that is incredibly prevalent, especially today. Everyone is worried about becoming sick from something, even more, so something that could kill you or that could remove your autonomy.
Resident Evil also represents our often justified fear of corporations, as the incredibly shady Umbrella Corporation is directly responsible for the outbreak either by incompetence or purposeful infection in an attempt to experiment on an unwilling populace. We often fear what corporations are doing behind the curtain, whether it’s an invasion of privacy, destruction of the environment, or simply causing problems for everyone via sheer incompetence. I highly recommend the Resident Evil series for anyone looking for a good time, at least not critically.
The Matrix (1999) dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, United States
The Matrix is a classic sci-fi film and one that I knew would be on this list for certain as soon as I knew I was doing this. It’s my favorite film of all time, and despite not being a horror movie like the others, it still explores some of our societal fears, such as the fear of becoming complacent and the fear of reality not being what we perceive it as. Within the Matrix itself, people are expected to conform to the computer-generated fantasy. Conformity means the computers can keep using the human race as batteries and soylent green. When people don’t conform, such as the characters that teach Neo about the truth of the Matrix, it poses a threat directly to society and the way things are done. The systematic issues are ones the robots don’t want to be challenged as it would threaten their position of power. Sounds a little familiar, even today.
It can be scary as well to think of the Matrix conceptually. It is scary to imagine the world we know is not real but is instead lines of code on a computer telling us things are a certain way, that things are good when they very much are not. I highly recommend the Matrix to everyone who watches movies. It is a classic and a pioneer for sci-fi visual effects, and an excellent franchise all around. It’s also a good time to watch considering the fourth film in the series comes out this holiday season.