The Nostalgia of Horror


On a recent episode of the Filmspotting: SVU podcast, hosts Matt Singer and Alison Willmore discussed the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things and questioned whether horror can be nostalgic. It’s an interesting question as horror is predicated on exploiting fears and anxieties, while nostalgia is generally understood as revelling in past experiences. We believe one relies on negative association, the other positive. And yet, despite this seeming contradiction, horror in film is often nostalgic. This is because nostalgia is not always about remembering the happiness of the past.

Because we’re living in the midst of a nostalgia wave, people assume nostalgia is limited to pop-culture’s narrow definitions. Pop culture is rife with entertainment appealing to our collective (read: white, mostly male) past. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the highest grossing film of all-time. Every old movie or television series such as Power Rangers or MacGyver has or is coming back in a new form. Superheroes dominate our blockbusters, reigniting the passions of childhood. Nostalgia sells and Hollywood is adamant to squeeze every penny out of past interests, good and bad. But these definitions limit the fact that nostalgia in film often focuses on negative aspects of the past.

As anyone who has seen Mad Men knows, nostalgia has its etymological roots in the Greek for the pain from an old wound. In its base definition, it’s about wanting to re-experience the pain of the past without feeling that pain. This actually makes nostalgia intrinsic to horror, as horror is about experiencing trauma and nightmare without living that trauma. So, in a sense, all horror is nostalgic, as it stylizes and recontextualizes a past experience in the safety of the present.

Nostalgic horror relies on exploiting past fears and feelings. In film and television, horror can tap into adolescent fears and portray the world as our memories of childhood composed it. Nostalgic horror is often referential, playing on past films’ depictions of death and the unknown. But it’s also primarily atmospheric, creating a dreamlike mood that transports the viewer to a world that seems entirely composed of memory and feeling. It takes things that scared us in our past and makes them safe through stylization and pastiche. Most interestingly, like all true nostalgic art, nostalgic horror encourages repeat visits, encouraging the viewer to return to a vision of the past that is terrifying, but also strangely comforting because it is outside our current experience.

Stranger Things is the obvious starting point of discussion as it spawned the conversation in the first place. As well, it embodies the conventional assumption about nostalgia in modern film and television. Exploring the disappearance of a child in a picturesque American town in the 1980s and the supernatural ramifications of that disappearance, Stranger Things is the perfect storm of Hollywood’s ’80s nostalgia. The series cribs details from late ’70s and early ’80s favourites like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and John Carpenter’s Halloween. It features a synthesizer soundtrack and a shadowy government conspiracy right out of 1982’s summer movie season. Its main characters are pre-pubescent kids reminiscent of The Goonies who are deliberately the age that its target audience members would have been in the time period it takes place.

The Duffer Brothers’ series is calculated nostalgia. Its greatest strengths lie in its referential relationship to the films of the early ’80s. Its scares are familiar in their otherworldliness. As a horror entity, it tries to recapture the feeling of watching Halloween or The Thing for the first time on VHS in a dimly lit basement. Its horror is built around manipulating the viewing habits of its audience. Thus, its nostalgia is entirely rooted in material entertainment.

However, not all nostalgic works of horror operate like Stranger Things. For instance, the nostalgia of John Carpenter’s Halloween does not rely on its relationship to past films. Instead, the film plays on a collective American ideal of what Halloween ought to look and feel like. The film follows a fateful Halloween when a homicidal psychopath named Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and terrorizes a high schooler named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Myers is an unstoppable killer who disposes of anyone in his path and is seemingly invulnerable. For example, Laurie often stabs him dead and a minute later he gets back up like nothing happened. He operates much like the bogeyman out of childhood stories.

As a narrative, Halloween is nonsensical. Its characters act idiotically and its villain follows no rules of the physical world. However, the film is not playing for logical storytelling. Instead, it recreates the mood of Halloween nights as a child, where you and friends would revel in the possibility of horror amidst your trick-or-treating. As a child, much of the allure of Halloween was its paradoxical combination of safety and danger. The street was your own, the people handing out candy were neighbours, and you were engaging with your community, but the traditions of the night spoke to spirits and monsters lurking just outside your vision. A child goes out on Halloween because it scares him or her, but it also strangely makes him or her feel safe.

If Halloween did not reflect this collective vision of suburban sanctuary, it would not work as a horror film. Because only after recreating the idyllic vision of late-fall and the soothing comfort of that world, can it introduce Myers to shatter that sanctuary and unsettle the viewer. Carpenter’s film plays into the notion lurking in the back of every child’s mind that the safety of his or her suburban street on Halloween night is merely a facade holding back the dangers of the unknown. And it’s iconic because it allows us to constantly return to that dangerous feeling without bringing the danger into our real lives.

While less deliberately nostalgic than Halloween, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining also plays into the nostalgic headspace of childhood. Based on Stephen King’s novel, The Shining follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who works as the caretaker of an abandoned hotel over the winter, staying there alone with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). As the winter develops, Jack loses his mind and becomes convinced that he needs to murder his family. Such a tale of domestic violence hardly sounds nostalgic, but The Shining creates a subconscious depiction of nostalgia. Instead of foregrounding nostalgia, The Shining uses its atmosphere to evoke the childhood feeling of confinement and exploration, much as you’d experience during a blizzard or in an abandoned building.

Many scenes in the film depict Danny Torrance riding around the hotel on his tricycle, exploring it as any child would. On these trips, he often comes across ghosts, such as the woman in Room 237 and the Grady girls in the hallway. Whenever Kubrick depicts Danny’s perspective, he takes on an unconscious nostalgic gaze, framing the hotel as a giant maze, full of both danger and wonder, that Danny (and the viewer) can explore. It’s no accident that the film’s climactic chase takes place in a hedge maze as Danny eludes his deranged father. The Shining itself becomes a maze, as viewers are encouraged to endlessly explore it on revisit. The film taps into the nostalgic feeling of being confined in a womb-like environment that promises mystery alongside danger. And like with all nostalgia, that danger is sanitized and safe to experience again and again.

More recent horror films have continued to use nostalgia to inform atmosphere and scares. Ti West’s The House of the Devil is similar to Stranger Things as it recreates the details of the 1980s. However, instead of referencing the films of Carpenter and Spielberg, The House of the Devil replicates the lo-fi horror films of the 1980s. And unlike Stranger Things with its CGI monster and obvious anachronisms, The House of the Devil is about replication of craft in addition to content.

The House of the Devil follows Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a university student trying to save up money for a new apartment. In a desperate bid for cash, she takes a babysitting job out of town for Mr. Ulmann (Tom Noonan), who gets her to watch his mansion and make sure his unseen mother remains safe. However, as the evening slowly passes and Samantha explores the house, it becomes clear that Ulmann is hiding sinister motivations.

The film is shot on 16mm, giving it the brown-toned grain of films of the era it depicts. It uses yellow font and freeze frames and opening title cards to replicate the Satanic panic films of the late ’80s. If the viewer did not know the film was made in 2009, it could genuinely trick viewers into believing it’s a product of the past. The House of the Devil taps into viewer’s nostalgia for the 1980s. However, beyond this, the film accesses a generational panic about Satanic cults and devil worship. Its nostalgic in both the attentive recreation of the past and its focus on anxieties that plagued the conservative mindset of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its nostalgia for the past—both the details of the period and the fear that terrorized people—is its primary tool.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is possibly the culmination of nostalgic horror. The best horror film of the past decade, It Follows centres on Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman terrorized by a spectral monster that will never stop following her until it kills her. Her only hope of diverting its focus is to pass on its curse through sexual intercourse. Thus, It Follows exploits adolescent fears about sex and intimacy, and, ultimately, death. Its use of steadicam and its synthesizer score by Disasterpeace resemble the work of John Carpenter. However, the film is not interested in film reference as the driver of nostalgia. Instead, it uses atmosphere to recreate the feel of a world where adults are seemingly absent.

It Follows takes place in Detroit, where quiet suburbs encircle the desiccated downtown core. Adults are only seen a few times in the film, and even then, only from a distance. Otherwise, Jay and her friends are left alone to watch old movies, prowl the streets, and have sex near abandoned car parks. It Follows triggers the feeling in late adolescence that the adult world is not only inexplicable, but essentially nonexistent. It captures the feeling of exploring a park at nighttime or watching old films in the middle of the night, with only the static buzz of the television set to remind you there’s life outside your door.

Beyond that, it taps into a teenager’s fixation and anxiety about sex. Mitchell’s film evokes the boundless world of late adolescence while amplifying the fears that make that period of life so hectic. It make viewers nostalgic for their own experiences as teenagers, while literalizing their fears and complicating its calming evocation with dread. In short, it encapsulates both the pain and pleasure of nostalgia.

Films like Halloween, The Shining, The House of the Devil, and It Follows, and television series like Stranger Things prove that horror cinema continues to draw on nostalgia as a source of its terror. Furthermore, nostalgic horror films are often the ones we return to over and over again. They evoke the atmosphere of our pasts even as they become a fixture of our present. As they rely less on individual scares and more on form and atmosphere, these nostalgic horror films are not limited by knowledge of the narrative or anticipation of the jump scare. Their appeal is deeper and more basic than surprise.

In a sense, nostalgic horror films themselves become objects of nostalgia, as the initial terror we feel when first watching them is dulled on revisit. They become objects of affection and not fear. In the midst of mining our nostalgia, these films turn our pain to pleasure.

This article was original published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.