Horror movies have long mined their frights from real-life fears, tucking social commentary into fantastical tales of slashers, body-snatchers and other metaphorical ghouls. The past decade has seen the genre hold a mirror up to the world, with powerful results. Here are five notable horror trends since 2009.
Hollywood’s long-overdue push toward equal representation in the past several years has meant more women, people of colour, LGBTQ folks, and other traditionally overlooked groups have been elevated in the industry. In addition to seeing more inclusion behind the camera, storytelling has also evolved, with a welcome shift toward eclectic casting and stories that don’t solely focus on the predictably same segment of the population.
That trend has naturally carried over into horror. We’ve had pointedly feminist tales from female directors (including The Babadook, The Love Witch and A Girl Walks Home at Night) and more female directors in general; after Jason Blum’s 2018 interview blunder regarding the scarcity of female horror directors, he made good on his apology by steering his Blumhouse Productions toward more projects helmed by women, including upcoming remakes of Black Christmas and The Craft. (Remakes and reboots are an evergreen horror trend, but at least these two examples will be coming from a fresh point of view.)
We’ve also seen acclaimed stories from creators who don’t fit the typical show-biz (i.e., white guy) mould, like recent Oscar winners Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, CBS All Access’ The Twilight Zone and upcoming projects like HBO’s Lovecraft Country and the new Candyman movie) and Guillermo del Toro, whose ascendance to the top of the A-list hasn’t slowed him from boosting other Latino filmmakers, like It’s Andy Muschietti (whose 2013 feature debut, Mama, was produced by del Toro) and Tigers Are Not Afraid’s Issa López.
Of course, not every attempt to bring diversity to the forefront has been successful, and it doesn’t always have much to do with the quality of the material. In one notorious example that illustrates how toxic fan culture has been in recent years—though fortunately horror has been mostly spared from that particular trend—certain demographics took it as a personal attack that Paul Feige’s Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, a film intended to be lightweight entertainment, was built around female characters.
It remains to be seen, of course, if 2020's Ghostbusters movie, a family-focused story that appears to have a mum as the main character, will be subject to the same backlash.
Though this nebulous term can be polarising—it’s disliked by some because it appears to diminish more traditional types of horror—no rundown of recent horror trends would be complete without it. Indie studio A24 Films, which released its first feature in 2013, doesn’t only release scary movies, but it’s definitely carved out a specialty in so-called elevated horror thanks to titles like The Witch, It Comes at Night, A Ghost Story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Hereditary, Climax, Midsommar, and The Lighthouse.
Even if you find the classification snooty and off-putting—and really, all types of horror deserve to be celebrated, from high art to grindhouse sleaze—there’s no denying there’s still plenty of gut-wrenching terror to be found in this new wave. They may have higher production values and tend to cast mainstream actors, but they still deliver the goods as far as horror is concerned. (Is there anyone working today who loves mangling human heads more than Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster?)
Horror has long been a genre more driven by the box office than by critical approval, but movies like Get Out—which made tons of money and picked up a screenplay Oscar for its scary, satirical take on contemporary racism—have started to shift that dynamic.
But on the other hand, the elevated horror craze hasn’t lessened the output of old-fashioned scarefests over the past decade—which brings us to the next trend on our list.
The Conjuring movie universe
James Wan was already a major horror player prior to 2009—in 2004, he directed Saw, which kicked off one of the most successful genre franchises of all time (and it’s still going!) But Wan’s most dominating horror success of the past 10 years has to be creating the universe that spirals out from 2013's The Conjuring.
That film—a supernatural drama about a family menaced by a witchy ghost, based on the “case files” of real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren—was a critical and financial smash; a sequel, especially considering how rapidly Saw multiplied, made a lot of sense, and The Conjuring 2 came along in 2016. That was also a hit, so a third Conjuring film will be arriving next fall.
But Wan, who also found time this decade to direct Furious 7 and Aquaman, had even bigger plans for the horror phenomenon he’d helped usher into existence. Multiple spin-offs would serve as prequels to the events of The Conjuring, with 2014's Annabelle tracing the evil doll’s backstory before she came to be a part of the Warrens’ occult museum.
Released in 2017, Annabelle: Creation served as a prequel to that prequel, with this year’s Annabelle Comes Home picking up immediately following the opening scene of The Conjuring, and taking place mostly inside of the Warren family home, where a careless babysitter enables Annabelle and the museum’s other malevolent spirits to run amok. Beyond that, we got The Nun, which dug into The Conjuring 2's formidable villain (who had a cameo in Annabelle: Creation) and reportedly has its own sequel on the way, and the tangentially linked The Curse of La Llorona.
It’s gotten to the point where any spooky object or character that features in one of these films feels like fair game for its own feature—but it’s worth noting that even though the Conjuring universe movies share characters and themes, they don’t feel like formulaic repeats of what came before. Though they’ve all been financially successful, not all of the films are of equal quality (the first Annabelle ain’t so great, for instance)—but the mere fact that there are three different Annabelle movies just six years after the release of The Conjuring is something probably only Wan believed was possible.
The horror genre’s long-reigning literary titan has such a proven track record that you can see why Hollywood keeps going back to his stories. And while Stephen King adaptations have, let’s face it, never really been out of style—since 2009, we’ve seen a dozen King-sourced projects in theatres and on TV, including the Carrie and Pet Sematary remakes, Gerald’s Game, and the just-released In the Tall Grass—the killer success of 2017's It has certainly helped ignite the most recent frenzy.
Studios see King as a sure thing, and while not every King adaptation sticks the landing (see: the disastrous 2017 take on The Dark Tower), he has so much material that one stinker doesn’t at all affect the chances of whatever’s coming next. And there’s a lot coming next.
While we wait for new versions of previously-adapted tales like The Tommyknockers (from, guess who, James Wan), Firestarter, The Stand, The Dark Tower (again), and others, we’ve also got plenty of fresh King meat, too, including the currently-airing season of the King-inspired Castle Rock series on Hulu, and The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, based on King’s 2013 novel.
Looking back at the past 10 years, one of the biggest shifts in the entertainment industry overall has been the rise of streaming networks, with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Disney+ and HBO Max, and so many more doing their best to lasso as many subscribers as possible. That includes viewers who dig the spooky stuff.
In particular, Netflix has released a number of original films, including the smash Bird Box—as well as original series like Stranger Things and The Haunting of Hill House that prove that genre fans also enjoy their horror in binge-able formats.
Aside from the Stephen King series Castle Rock we mentioned above, Hulu’s biggest contribution has been its holiday-themed collaboration with Blumhouse, Into the Dark, which rolls out a new feature-length episode—really, a self-contained feature film—each month.
Horror fans even have their own dedicated channel: Shudder, which has a selection of familiar titles in its library, but also does exclusive releases of movies (including acclaimed titles like Terrified and One Cut of the Dead) and has its own original programming, like the new Creepshow anthology series.
Old-school TV channels have also done their part to bring horror to the airwaves; though some of the best horror TV series of the past decade are no longer being produced (RIP to NBC’s Hannibal, Syfy’s Channel Zero, Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead, IFC’s Stan Against Evil, and Fox’s The Exorcist), AMC’s The Walking Dead is now in its 10th season, and FX’s American Horror Story just wrapped its ninth.
Looking to the future, FX is also home to the screamingly funny (but also gory) What We Do in the Shadows series—one of the very best new shows of the year in any genre; it’ll return next year—while CBS’s intriguing new series Evil offers hope that network TV is still willing to poke into dark, supernatural spaces.