Recently, in the lobby of a suburban Maryland Cineplex, I spotted a poster for Patriots Day, Peter Berg’s movie about the Boston Marathon bombings. Only a few weeks had passed since Donald Trump’s victory, and I was a raw nerve. Now I was looking at a blown-up image of Mark Wahlberg in police gear, topped by a quote proclaiming, “THE MOVIE THAT AMERICA NEEDS RIGHT NOW.” Says who?
A quick Google search showed that the quote probably came from a Nov. 18 Mashable review. Patriots Day, the article says, arrived “in the wake of this year’s divisive election and numerous incidents of unwarranted police violence” as “evidence that, while there will always be evil in this world, there will always be more good people than bad.”
That’s just the tip of the anodyne iceberg. The “movie America needs” praise has been lavished on just about every awards hopeful from 2016. Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg writer, praises Hidden Figures as “offering patriotic balm for the fractured body politic.” Loving, according to attorney Ted Olson writing for CNN, is “an antidote to the dispiriting and debasing poison that we have been through these past brutal months.” La La Land has been heralded as a “tonic” (The New Yorker) and a “magical musical [that] will transport you from Trump-World” (The Guardian).
I like poignant movies and escaping real-life uncertainty by watching in a dark theater as a plot unfolds and neatly concludes. Ruth Negga is breathtaking in Loving. I’m thrilled that Hidden Figures explores an unfairly overlooked piece of U.S. history. All of which is to say: What I’m about to argue has little to do with the quality of these movies. (Except La La Land. The key ingredient in that saccharine tonic really is white nostalgia.)
The notion that America needs to feel better for the sake of feeling better is problematic — maybe even risky. It’s true that many people are in an emotional tailspin. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey published this week recorded a statistically significant uptick in stress levels for the first time in a decade; 49 percent of respondents described the election outcome as a source of anxiety. An ABC/Washington Post poll from January found that 35 percent of Americans reported additional stress as a result of Trump’s victory. The rest, though, felt unaffected (52 percent) or better (12 percent). Meaning, almost two-thirds of Americans said they weren’t freaking out, at least not more than usual.
My point? As the ABC/WaPo pollsters noted, “Sometimes stress can be good. It can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially threatening situations.” Like a corrupt and bigoted White House, the forces that gave it power, and the wrongs it blatantly wants to commit.
So here is a modest proposal: When it comes to movies, maybe what America needs is horror.
If this seems like a bizarre pivot, hear me out. I’m an acolyte of the horror genre, the kind who once subjected a college professor to a paper about the religious symbolism in 28 Days Later. Horror is, in my nerdy and sincere opinion, an under-appreciated cultural medium for grappling with our base fears and instincts. In his edited volume The Horror Film, critic and theorist Stephen Prince puts it well: “Musicals offer courtship rituals; Westerns and war films give us lessons about American empire…. But only horror goes straight to the deepest unease at the core of human existence.”
When it comes to movies, maybe what America needs is horror.
For starters, horror tests the limits of physical and social sensibilities. What shocks or disgusts viewers — and why? In George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, the black male protagonist hits a white woman when she attempts to leave the house that’s protecting them from zombies. How staggering and, to some viewers, upsetting that act must have seemed when the film debuted in 1968, even with the hordes of flesh-eating undead staggering across the screen. More recently, in 2016’s The Witch, director Robert Eggers reveals the abject stuff of supernatural forces in the first few minutes of his 17th-century thriller. Religious zealotry, collective paranoia, and sexual fears — all very real and very contemporary — deliver the enduring shocks for the movie’s duration.
Horror films push viewers to locate what scares them: an invading force from a distant place? A terrible secret that might be buried in the house next door? Or perhaps some aspect of their own existence? Poltergeist, The Babadook, Let the Right One In, and The Stepford Wives offer prime examples of this psychological prodding. Then there are movies like Funny Games and It Follows, which upend expectations of societal and personal security. By extension, they ask how far you’d go to protect yourself and those you love — and, in some cases, if you’d go as far for a stranger. The answers can be unsettling.
Good horror movies reflect immediate social anxieties and abiding fears that humanity, in both the individual and collective senses, is under threat. The great ones go even further: “[I]t isn’t just that these traumas trigger these films,” film historian Tom Gunning once said, “but that we understand these traumas through these films.” My favorite fright-fests adjust the lens one additional time. They pose the provocative question: What if you’re the monster?
That’s what first-time director Jordan Peele, of Key & Peele fame, asks in Get Out, a thriller debuting later this month. The movie is about a young black man who visits his white girlfriend’s parents in suburbia. Things start out awkwardly, in the vein of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner. They veer into horror, though , and not because the girlfriend’s parents are, say, white nationalists out to kill a black man. That would be too obvious.
In its rave review of the movie, Variety explains: “Get Out represents a searing political statement wrapped in the guise of a more innocuous genre: the escape-the-crazies survival thriller, à la Deliverance or The Wicker Man, where sympathetic characters are held captive by a deranged cult. Except in this case, the crazies are the liberal white elite, who dangerously overestimate the degree of their own enlightenment.”
Get Out is a movie about the sociopolitical moment — sorry, epic crisis — we find ourselves in, reinforcing why many viewers are stressed about Trump’s America while shaking others out of their complacency to face their complicity. Or trying to, anyway. “We go to the theater to be entertained,” Peele told Forbes, “but if what is left after you watch the movie is a sort of eye-opening perspective on some social issues, then it can be a really powerful piece of art.”
To drive the point home, Peele is curating “The Art of the Social Thriller” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from Feb. 17-March 1. He’s selected a dozen movies that influenced Get Out — all of them relevant to the Trump era and the currents of history that ushered it in. Rosemary’s Baby is about rape culture and women losing agency over their own bodies. Rear Window is about being trapped by circumstance and drawing conclusions based on limited information. The People Under the Stairs is about social inequality, greed, and class oppression.
Get Out and the classics that inspired it are, in my humble opinion, the movies that America needs right now. The country doesn’t need a patriotic painkiller or hollow reassurances about national goodness so that we can all sleep more soundly. It doesn’t need, as the Bloomberg review of Hidden Figures argues, “a new national story… that can acknowledge past injustices without becoming defined by them.” That sounds an awful lot like an endorsement of a narrative conveniently built on alternative facts, in which unlikely triumphs are exaggerated and systemic failures are glossed over.
In that January ABC/WaPo poll, 71 percent of white people — more of them male than female — said they didn’t feel extra stress because of Trump’s election. Yet more than half of Hispanics and nearly 40 percent of black people did. The APA survey captured different but no less upsetting figures: 54 percent of Hispanics and 69 percent of black people cited the election result as a source of stress. Only 42 percent of white people said the same.
There’s good reason for this disparity. Injustices, both realized and promised, inexorably define the world for the people they afflict or threaten. Pretending otherwise is playing with fire. Injustices, though, should do even more, disturbing people who aren’t directly aggrieved so that they can start to be better, not just feel better. Wielding the almighty power of pop culture, horror can help. And if you think that power doesn’t exist, I refer you to Geoff Nelson of Paste. “‘It’s just a movie,’” he wrote in his review of La La Land, “is the apologia of people who have never been victimized by culture.”