What is occurring on a global scale right now is a massive size terror: a pandemic, unlike anything we have seen in the modern age. What lies in the outside world feels horrific and endless, resulting in a large portion of the population experiencing anxiety and depression on a much larger scale. Along with this instability comes the loss of sleep and an increase in nightmares. The world is a nightmare; we have become unable to distinguish between reality and our dreams. Our brains produce narratives that stimulate our imagination since this is something our daily lives now lack. Unfortunately, the best thing we can do to reduce the outside horror is to stay inside.
Since college, my comfort films have always been romantic comedies. These movies had a female protagonist, a happy ending, and the same essential structure, thus giving my brain an idea of what to expect and then leaving it up to the movie to fill in whatever unrealistic melodramatic scenarios it needed to get the couple together. When I tried to watch romantic comedies in quarantine, they made me upset. In a world where we cannot take comfort in other people, romantic comedies pushed loneliness more than they pushed joy.
After deciding to steer away from rom coms, I continued my venture into horror, a genre I fell in love with last year. This genre contained the same familiar structure as rom coms: it had tropes and set plot structures, but instead of two incredibly idealistic people kissing, horror used these familiarities to explore our deepest fears. These films were new and fresh but still had aspects that made them safe and comfortable, allowing my brain space to process all the emotions of living through a crisis.
The reality is we are living in a terror that we cannot escape, themes that are particularly present in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel’s home invasion film Hush (2016).
As previously mentioned, the isolated humans of quarantine have reported a spike in vivid dreams, particularly nightmares (this is also true of me). In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is pulled in and out of such nightmares. When she first encounters Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), she believes she is only dreaming, which is proven false when she is awakened to discover that the injuries caused by trying to escape Freddy are still present. She has visions where she sees the bodies of her dead friends killed by Freddy — as well as Freddy himself tormenting her — so she develops a plan to wake herself up from her nightmares. As Nancy navigates her nightmares, we as the audience are also forced to reckon with what we believe to be real and what we believe to be a nightmare in the film. The narrative we are presented with is just as confusing for us as it is for the teens, and we are asked to question the boundary between imagination and reality.
This same experience has never been more relevant than it is now. With the ever-looming terror of not just an incurable virus, but also of unemployment, evictions, and the collapse of the economy, there is no distinction between imaginary and reality — something that has become increasingly difficult to cope with.
Hush presents us with another relevant experience. Kate Siegel plays Maddie Young, a non-verbal writer who has just moved into a cabin in the woods (a play on words intended). Hush uses film techniques that allow for the audience to experience Maddie’s surroundings as she does, mimicking the silence around her. A masked figure, simply known as “The Man,” breaks into Maddie’s house. Upon realizing she cannot hear him, he opts to play a game of cat and mouse with her, choosing to forgo what would have been an easy kill for him if he had not intentionally made his presence known. In an interview with the website Modern Horrors, Siegel talks about the writing process with her husband, saying that she would stay inside and he would find ways to break into their house until they found something that was believable enough to include in the screenplay.
Our current situation is reflective of Maddie’s when we look at our indoor lives where we are kept safe from this outside threat. We can try to leave, but the threat remains there on the outside. We can negotiate with the threat, but that will not stop it from trying to kill us. The only way to protect ourselves is to stay inside where we are safe.
The nightmares found in horror films are all too real in our current reality. Where horror films typically serve as a means of escapism, they have now become a comfort. Our brains are coaxed by the familiarity of horror film plots and tropes, and we now find relatability in situations that were previously considered fantastical. The joy from the comfort of others is something that is no longer available, leaving us to grapple with our very real nightmare. And there is no longer a boundary between reality and imagination, everything bleeds together, and we now live in a horror on our own.
So, what better way to spend our time alone in quarantine than watching someone on screen escape their fears? We can only keep striving for the same by taking the proper precautions so that we can safely escape our own cabin in the woods.
Taylor Hunsberger is a pop culture writer who largely focuses on the representation of violence against women in film and television. She’s written for The Validation Project, Buzzfeed, and others. She also writes children’s theater and poetry. Visit her website taylorhunsberger.com.