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From Haunted Houses to Social Commentary: Horror in the 2010s

After reaching critical and commercial heights in the 1970s, the horror film genre had steadily declined in acclaim and box office earnings in the subsequent decades, largely relegated to a niche within video stores and dismissed by professional critics as second-rate cinema, with several notable exceptions. By the 2010s, independent film studios began recruiting more auteur-driven filmmakers while more actively blending in contemporary social commentary with their movies. This led to the genre becoming widely acclaimed once again while box office records were regularly smashed by the new wave of horror movies that thrilled audiences worldwide.

As the genre began to stray from the gory, torture films that had defined it across the preceding decade, independent film production companies like A24 and Blumhouse Productions would increase their horror output. Fueled by the success of the low-budget Paranormal Activity in the previous decade, Blumhouse met early success in the 2010s with horror movies like Insidious and Sinister, keeping a focus on a families under attack from supernatural forces that would persist across many of their films.

Many of the filmmakers that had collaborated with Blumhouse, including James Wan and Scott Derrickson, would go on to gain greater prominence in the superhero genre while maintaining their creative interests in horror. Wan, in particular, would sign with Warner Bros. after successfully launching the Insidious franchise with Blumhouse. In 2013, Wan and producer Peter Safran created The Conjuring franchise with its inaugural film earning over $319 million at the worldwide box office and widespread critical acclaim as one of the biggest bonafide horror film successes in years.

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The movie’s enormous success led the studio to create an entire shared cinematic universe around the film, including a direct sequel and five spinoff films all released over the course of the decade to their own box office success. The franchise reaffirmed the genre’s focus on family and brought back the haunted house sub-genre to the forefront of horror cinema in a big way.

However, Blumhouse’s biggest single-film success of the past decade wouldn’t come from Wan or Derrickson but, instead, Jordan Peele. Fresh off his award-winning comedy sketch television series Key & Peele, he wrote, directed and co-produced the 2017 film Get Out through Blumhouse, with the movie featuring undercurrent themes of racial tension and class differences as a young man visits his girlfriend’s remote, rural town in upstate New York.

Earning over $255 million at the worldwide box office on a reported production budget of $4.5 million, Get Out was nominated for four Academy Awards – including Best Picture – with Peele winning the award for Best Original Screenplay. Peele would follow-up on his success in 2019 with the well-received horror movie Us through Universal Pictures.

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The genre’s exploration of social commentary wasn’t limited to themes of racial tension throughout the decade. For instance, Blumhouse’s The Purge franchise, launched by James DeMonaco in 2013, explored class hierarchy and the division of wealth across four films and a television series, Radius-TWC’s 2014 independent film It Follows provided a cautionary tale on sex with allusions to sexually-transmitted diseases and the 2014 Australian horror movie The Babadook was a meditation on grief and single-parenting.

A24 would also expand from dramatic films and period-pieces with its own line of horror movies throughout the 2010s, including brutal thrillers like Green Room and supernatural horror fare like It Comes at Night. However, just as Blumhouse’s horror line had been elevated by James Wan, A24’s would have its own visionary filmmakers in Robert Eggers and Ari Aster.

Eggers wrote and directed the 2015 film The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, each focusing on themes of isolation and the constant threat of embracing one’s own inner darkness in period-piece horror films. Meanwhile, Aster wrote and directed 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, with each exploring abstract themes. Hereditary tackled familial grief over the loss of a child while Midsommar dealt with romantic decay, and both films each had sinister overtones that escalated over their respective narratives.

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While horror has kept a focus on families under threat for years, the thematic trope appeared to be much more visibly prevalent across the 2010s. The genre largely moved away from gore-filled torture fests and reimagined slashers, for the most part, favoring instead good, old-fashioned ghost stories and other wicked things that go bump in the night.

Furthermore, driven by visionary auteurs and the additional creative freedoms allowed by independent film studios, the genre had gained the acclaim and box office success that had widely eluded it for years. By weaving in both timely social commentary and more abstractly humanist themes, the horror genre has become more startlingly relevant than ever as the new decade looks to build upon 2010s trends by channeling contemporary anxieties and fears to create effectively haunting cinema.

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The 2010s saw the horror genre embrace culturally relevant themes once again to enormous critical and commercial success.

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