The Problem with Post-Horror

Press/Media: Research


Curated by Dr Shellie McMurdo (University of Roehampton), in collaboration with Dr. Laura Mee (University of Hertfordshire), Dr. Craig Ian Mann (Sheffiled Hallam University) and Dr. Stella Gaynor (Univerisity of Salford)


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.

- Dr. Shellie McMurdo (2019)

Period5 Mar 2019

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • Title“If you feel like screaming, I definitely think that you should”: The House that Jack Built and the continued pervasiveness of the art/ horror debate in contemporary cinema
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletInMediaRes: A Media Commons Project
    Media typeWeb
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    DescriptionIn her foundational work, Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, Joan Hawkins details the prevailing features of the twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetic as follows: [t]he breaking of taboos surrounding the depiction (and performance) of sex and violence, the desire to shock (épater) the bourgeoisie, and the willful blurring of the boundary lines traditionally separating life and art’ (2000: 117).

    Historically, these aesthetics have been attached to various examples of ‘extreme’ art cinema, perhaps most prominently ‘The New French Extremity’, but also examples of independent, transgressive, hardcore-horror cinema. The apparent differences here lie in the cultural distinctions made between salacious torture and violence used in genre cinema (usually resulting in censure), and the same kinds of material rendered as more ‘acceptable’ in the contexts of the art-house/ avant-garde. This is a debate that has seemingly resurfaced amidst distinctions of ‘elevated’ horror cinema positioned against other, lower forms of expression. Lars Von Trier’s The House that Jack Built (2018) stands as a recent example of how these distinctions can be interrogated, as the film acts as a rumination on the very nature of art itself.

    The trailer accompanying this entry reflects on the nature of art, representation, and atrocity as the titular Jack ponders the following: “Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead through our art”. As a cipher for Von Trier reflecting on his oeuvre, Jack is unapologetic for the levels of violence he has inflicted (which include child murder and genital dismemberment).

    Described as an ‘agent provocateur’ and ‘persona non grata’, Von Trier has faced accusations of misogyny alongside the sustained use of ‘extreme’ imagery in his later films that detail callous violence and trauma (largely in relation to female self-abnegation). Alongside Antichrist (2009), The House that Jack Built is the second of Von Trier’s films to be aligned with the horror genre (specifically, the serial killer film). As such, The House that Jack Built has emerged at a moment where the boundaries between art, horror, and exploitation are being questioned once more, and issues of cultural value are being disputed.
    PersonsThomas Watson