The Real Fears That Fuel Scary-Movie Season

Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'Let Me In'

Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as lonely boy Owen in Let Me In, the 2010 remake of a Swedish vampire thriller, Let the Right One In. Saeed Adyani/Overture Films hide caption

itoggle caption Saeed Adyani/Overture Films

For centuries, the autumn months have been associated with pagan (and Christian) celebrations of harvest and the hereafter — the Celtic tradition of Halloween, the remembrance of All Saints' Day, the Aztecs' Day of the Dead. In today's more secularized consumer society, fall is marked by the release of scary movies.

Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that myths provide a way for societies to resolve the tensions that are liveliest in the culture at a given moment. Myths and stories get passed on from one generation to the next, playing this role for each age. Horror films, too, are allegories for the social tensions and anxieties of their day: As collective nightmares, they help us unravel perceived threats to society.

Christopher Lee and Veronica Carlson

Christopher Lee and Veronica Carlson starred in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave circa 1968. Keystone/Hulton Archive hide caption

itoggle caption Keystone/Hulton Archive

In the 1930s, Universal Studios and RKO offered up Frankenstein, Dracula and King Kong as demons to distract Depression-era audiences; Frankenstein was an allegory for the greed of robber barons, among other things. In '50s films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, giant pods from outer space symbolized our fears of the "Red Menace" and our anxieties about the potentially deforming effects of nuclear weapons. And during the Vietnam War, communism was still considered an infectious ideology that could spread like disease. So in Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby, the monsters were inside our hometowns, our minds, even our wombs.

This fall, there are nearly 10 horror films in wide release. And what do today's scary movies reveal about American fears? The social and political dilemmas we face today parallel the concerns of the Vietnam era. Let Me In is a vampire film that, on the surface, is about the horror of adolescence — but remember that vampire stories are often metaphors for life's transitions and the difficulties we have with them, and the sadistic bullying and torture depicted in Let Me In (to say nothing of the Saw franchise) begin to evoke the human-rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The Resident Evil franchise, meanwhile, has used zombies to address collective anxiety over the military-industrial complex, terrorism and the host of viruses and cancers we've yet to contain.

Milla Jovovich

Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: Afterlife, the latest of a zombie-themed franchise of action films. RAFY/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption RAFY/Sony Pictures

But zombies and vampires are malleable metaphors; they've symbolized anxieties over wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, environmental holocaust, and technological disaster. And critics and filmmakers both have deployed zombie films as Marxist critiques of capitalism, with the consumer excesses of capitalism symbolized by the mindless, insatiable undead.

Just when you thought you'd seen it all — in 3-D — "reality horror" entered the picture. It's a subgenre that uses documentary filmmaking devices (like showing you the equipment) to make you think what you're watching is not constructed, professional filmmaking, but rather real events recorded by ordinary people. The Blair Witch Project started the mockumentary-horror movement; this season's Paranormal Activity 2 and The Last Exorcism are the latest entries, calling attention to filmmaking conventions with dangling boom mikes, actors who address the camera, location shooting and reflexive humor.

These are scary movies for the iProduct generation — for teens who've owned cameras and multimedia devices since grade school. And if previous films relied on the fantastic, "reality horror" suggests that terror lurks in the everyday.

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