What Are We Afraid Of? Film as a Reflection of Societal Fears

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Space invaders, irradiated monsters, and the zombie apocalypse.

Each generation is afraid of destroying itself. Your grandparents (or great-grandparents depending how young you are) feared The Great Depression would slowly but surely starve them all to death; the generation after that was certain nuclear annihilation was in its cards; and since 9/11, the largest rational fear (that is, not of monsters, aliens, or other such things) held by the majority of Americans centers on various iterations of terrorist threats.

Each generation also has a way of reflecting these fears through the media they consume. During the Depression no one could afford to go to the movies, but in the nuclear age you had alien invasion films like War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and a slew of giant monster movies ‐ Godzilla, Them, The Black Scorpion, The Giant Gila Monster ‐ which featured antagonists who were products of either radiation or advanced technology and who had the ability to decimate cities, just like the A-bomb.

In the years since 9/11, horror and science-fiction films have frequently tackled the idea of an enemy far more insidious than giant monsters, rather ones who look like us, who can hide among us undetected, and who can ‐ in short ‐ blend into society while harboring destructive wills towards that same society, which they seek to destroy by implosion. And more often than not, this lattermost enemy manifests on-screen as zombies.

Think about it: currently we are up to our eyeballs in the living dead. They’re in every other horror movie that’s released, every third video game, and they’ve even started to spread across television. This modern boom began with Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later, which was released in the U.S. a few months shy of the second anniversary of 9/11. As the following video from Jack Nugent at Now You See It discusses, this is not a coincidence. Starting with the sci-fi films of the 1950s and 60s, Nugent traces the way filmmakers have reflected societal fears over the decades, with his emphasis being on the zombie outbreak our culture has been hungrily consuming like fresh brains since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s a startling look at the sometimes intentional, sometimes subconscious way we as a society generate entertainment from our greatest fears, both to alleviate some of the terror by turning them fantastic, and also to partially realize them, to take them out of imagination and see them for ourselves, albeit thankfully removed.

Americans love being scared ‐ horror box office numbers and The Walking Dead’s ratings prove that ‐ but only by terrors we can control. By reflecting our fears on-screen, we get that control and thus grant ourselves the peace of mind that the real world can’t always offer.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist