If 2020 was a horror, 2021 was the shitty sequel. For a second year, COVID-19 ravaged the globe taking us through an array of personal horrors – the haunted houses of quarantines, the survival horror of navigating pandemic public life, and variants of the virus popping up like bad villain re-imaginings. Horror films, in a repeat of 2020, found solid footing during the second year of the pandemic. Large horror releases were the first to cautiously re-enter theaters, as the entertainment industry recalibrated once again and streaming options could be relied upon.
The pandemic primed audiences for horror that played to our greatest anxieties and 2021’s slate of films delivered. The pandemic experience in 2021 had a slightly different flavor than 2020, in that the danger wasn’t so obvious. As the pandemic came to an (apparent) ending, for a moment, the masks came off and life seemed to resume. The pandemic was still present, but it was hidden among us. This same anxiety of “who can truly be trusted?” and “where is the danger?” translates into the horror films of 2021.
2021 in horror focused in tight on the hidden dangers within our communities. Themes of distrust and unseen evils permeated many of the great horror releases of the year. From comedic romps like Werewolves Within to the more overt examples like A Quiet Place 2, horror in 2021 taunts each of us and brings the threat dangerously close to home.
Werewolves Within, a werewolf mystery-horror-comedy, takes the most light-hearted approach to this particular brand of pandemic-era horror. In the isolation of a small mountain community, a string of werewolf attacks holds the townsfolk in the grips of terror. Law enforcement and local authority is woefully unprepared. Differing political ideologies translate to hasty accusations. The killer is hiding in plain sight. Sound familiar?
The bone-chilling, yet warm parallels to the pandemic placed Werewolves Within in a place of esteem and affection for all that found it in 2021. Through the twists and turns of a true to form whodunit, Werewolves Within playfully challenges the viewer to set aside prejudices and expectations. Other 2021 titles, such as A Quiet Place 2 and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It take a much more hostile approach.
Unidentifiable threats are but one aspect of pandemic-era horror narratives, but the “aggressive other” provides the most fascinating fodder. Both A Quiet Place 2 and the latest Conjuring installment, take an adversarial approach to survival. The message is simple: There is something or someone in your community that is out to get you.
A Quiet Place 2 places the whole of humanity in a merciless competition of “survival of the fittest.” Human kindness is a liability and human nature is a corrosive force. An essential element of surviving the circumstances of the film, is to live in fear of those around you. The Devil Made Me Do It, grounded in some realism, takes its cues from the Satanic Panic – an American cultural moment that led to mass hysteria over malevolent actors causing terror within their communities. If Werewolves Within shows the lighter side of distrust within communities, these other films highlight the darkest of outcomes. It’s no surprise that our own lives are saturated in adversarial points of view and versions of the “aggressive other.” The fear among neighbors goes deep and extends beyond the contagious nature of the pandemic, and into more complicated and hostile spheres.
Horror films in 2021 may not have been the escapism that many horror viewers were hoping for, when these themes are reflected so much in our realities. That being said, what these stories have in common is the threads of humanity. The helpers. The trusted allies. The people that can be relied on, when everyone else is a suspect. In film and in the year to come, it is this writer’s hope that the horror community finds and holds tight to that essential thread.