The Problem with Post-Horror

Curator's Note

In the trailer for Get Out (2017) there are jump scares, gleaming surgical instruments, unnatural movement, musical stings, and a roaring skeletal stag. This is a film, the trailer suggests, that seeks to scare or at the very least unnerve you. The trailer situates the film as a horror film.

Following its release, Get Out was met with critical acclaim, and was nominated for four Academy Awards (winning the title of Best Original Screenplay). It was also simultaneously, and curiously, distanced from the horror genre, whether through its positioning in the Comedy/Musical category at the Golden Globe Awards, or by reference to it being a “social thriller”.

There emerged a persistent desire to delineate a specific term for an apparently “different” form of horror cinema, a term which could be utilised to disassociate Get Out, along with The Witch (2015), It Comes at Night (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), and Hereditary (2018) among others from the perceived low-brow quality of the broader horror genre.

The term that gained the most attention was coined by Steve Rose, who posited that “post-horror” represented a ‘new breed’ of genre films that replaced ‘jump scares with existential dread’. A slew of alternative terms followed this article, including ‘elevated horror’, ‘prestige horror’, ‘highbrow horror’, and ‘smart horror’. The commonality of these terms is clear, in their implication that the horror genre is not usually elevated, prestige, highbrow, or even smart.

These terms also function to distance the “serious” critic from the historically distasteful, and possibly deviant, position of horror fan, in their key suggestion that if a non-horror fan enjoys a horror film, then that film cannot possibly belong to the horror genre, which is a “bad” genre, and from which nothing of worth ever emerges.

The problem with post-horror therefore is characterised not only by a lack of understanding of horror genre history, as highlighted in Nia Edwards-Behi’s superb response to the term, but also by its critical ignorance of the horror genre as it currently stands. A genre which, as contributors to this theme week will show, has never been so varied and vibrant.  


Get Out is a great example to open this discussion with, and I like the distinction here between how it was marketed vs. how it was received (horror fans & critics had no such issue understanding it as a horror film!). The attempts to distance it from the horror genre which you outline here seem to be deliberate strategies to detach from some kind of imagined generic baseness. The starting points for celebrations of so-called "post-horror" are always to contextualise both the historical and current state of the genre as something lost, pointless, low, artless, or devoid of meaning. Horror is tired, and post-horror's waking the genre up, right?! 

You mention Nia Edwards-Behi's response to Steve Rose's article, in which she outlines the ways in which the genre has been subject to this kind of reframing throughout both literary and cinematic history. Time and again horror films, filmmakers, cycles and trends have been de-contextualised, distanced from a genre that anyone with knowledge of its history can trace the connections to. I struggle to think of a genre that, beyond occasional standalone examples, is subject to similar repeated debates. 

I completely agree with Laura in her assertion that horror is subjected to this kind of commentary in a way that other genres are not (and historically have not been). The closest analogue I can think of is more common in discussions of literature than cinema: "speculative fiction." While this is a perfectly legitimate term in its more common usage (to broaden discussion of science fiction to also include horror and fantasy), it has occasionally been used in far less useful ways. Margaret Atwood, for example, has always been very keen to distance herself from science fiction (which she has somewhat insultingly described as "talking squids in outer space") and prefers to position her own novels as "speculative fiction." This seems like a fairly cynical attempt to elevate her work above what she clearly sees as a genre that lacks nuance and class. Similarly, debates like these occasionally manifest around the Western; in a recent article on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for Forbes, Sarah Ashwell chastises the Coen Brothers for failing to "elevate the genre." But, as Laura says, these seem like isolated examples when you consider just how often these debates rage around horror.

Absolutely. These examples are spot on, but yes, I think they only serve to highlight how horror is a very specific subject of these debates. What's really notable about the latest attempts to elevate the genre is that, while the same examples (Get Out, anything A24 distribute...) are used time and again, they are always employed to represent the genre as a whole--"horror is having a cultural moment", "horror has never been richer" etc--while ignoring the diversity and sheer quantity of horror films released in recent years.

Completely agree, its always a full gone conclusion that horror is in a state of crisis. I've also noticed in a good deal of journalistic accounts of post-horror, there is a wider implication that "this film isn't just going to save the horror genre, it's going to save cinema completely!". There's this constant assumption that the horror genre "needs" saving, which we can see repeated through history each time one of these debates emerges, whether it needed saving from 1970s realism, 1980s slasher franchises, 1990s post-modern slashers, or most recently torture horror and found footage, the earlier of which have since been "reclaimed" as "classic" movements in the genre,

I think Get Out and Hereditary are great examples of this odd binary between critics and fans, and how there has to be a distinction made in order for a critic to approve; lest they tarnish their reputation. It made me think about how in the past, it takes the passage of time for a horror text to become acceptable, culturally significant, or middlebrow. Look at Psycho, Halloween: deemed as trash at the time of release, and now they are "classics." Only with temporal distance can they be allowed in the critics good books. 


Laura's point at the end there about how there is interesting, how other genres might not have to be put to such extreme tests as horror - rom coms maybe? 

Yes, rom-coms sprang to mind as a comparison, if only in the way they a similarly disparaged, often dismissed as trivial, with assumptions made about their audience, gendered criticism etc. But I couldn't think of many examples (perhaps because of the specific genre hybridity?) of attempts at elevation, as such--Woody Allen aside? 

I'll pick up the "classics" stuff in my post on Friday.

I completely agree, Stella. You also brought up temporal distance as well which I think is a really interesting area to get into, given that we live in so much more of an accelerated age now, films used to have time to find their audience and become "classics" of the genre, whereas now it seems like there is a need to mark films out as "classic" as soon as they are released. 

I think the observation made here, that the trailer for Get Out situates the film as ‘horror’ from the outset, is interesting; there is an overt suggestion that genre tropes, familiar ones at that, are at play and recognisable (positioning the film within a rich and diverse cultural history that has been at best overlooked when thinking of ‘Post-Horror’ as a viable descriptor, or genre in its own right). It will be interesting to see if there is a resurgence in the usage of the term around the release of Jordan Peele's Us.

Similar discussions to the ones debated here seem to emerge when any cultural form is pre-fixed with the term ‘post’. As a point of comparison, one such example would be post-punk music, characterised by groups such as Joy Division, Wire and The Fall. The prefix ‘post’, as it is used here, suggests a sense of lineage, transition, and most importantly, an awareness of what came before. Diverse influences, changing aesthetics and formal innovation ultimately lead to a wider sense of nuance within this genre. That being said, there is always a sense that the genre is never fixed or static and remains subject to change and reinterpretation. This is something that ‘Post-Horror’ does not allow for (or ignores).     

One thing that struck me when considering Nia Edwards-Behi’s response to Steve Rose was the mention of The Neon Demon, a film which explicitly deals with issues of beauty, extreme violence and aesthetics. Likening this film to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s late 70s work, it is clear to see how the art/ trash/ horror binaries explicated in my own post could just as easily be attached to this film.   

Great points. And it's especially interesting that, for a descriptor of transition, an "awareness of what came before", post-horror is often applied with seemingly little knowledge (or otherwise maybe wilful ignorance) of horror's history and the genre contexts in which these films should be situated.

I'm really interested to see if there are similar discussions around Us, I've already seen a few tweets about the film that mark it as "different" from Get Out, with it being flagged up that Us is more clearly part of the horror genre than Get Out.... and then there's me thinking Get Out was quite clearly a horror film...  I'll try to dig up the tweets later and post them here when/if I manage to find them! 

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