Panic Room, The Ring and Signs — what do they have in common? Most movie lovers will cite all of them as successful horror movies. Even if you haven’t watched them, they’re all classics — part of the pop culture fabric and the storied history of the horror genre. Another commonality? All three films came out in 2002.
Clearly, the early 2000s marked something of a horror renaissance. It’s not every year three genre classics hit the silver screen, after all. Now, 20 years later, we’re seeing another boom. More than ever, horror movies are blending mainstream appeal and artistic merit. We’re thinking of films like The Witch (2015), Get Out (2017), Hereditary (2018), Us (2019) and Midsommar (2019). And franchises, like The Conjuring cinematic universe and The Purge series, have also made distinct marks.
Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, is continuing this momentum. Banking $20 million on its first Friday in theaters, Nope will likely make around $45 million in the U.S. and Canada over its opening weekend. As Deadline points out, “That’s the best domestic debut for an original screenplay since Peele’s own Us,” which garnered a whopping $71.1 million.
Clearly, we like the adrenaline rush and inventiveness that come along with horror movies — but is there a reason the early 2000s were such a successful time for the genre? And, perhaps more importantly, why are we seeing such a horror boom now?
What Was Different About Horror Movies in the Early 2000s?
For viewers whose idea of horror was limited to old black-and-white monster movies, the latest Stephen King adaptation, or a slasher from the ‘70s or ‘80s, the early 2000s expanded their view of the genre. For example, the plot of David Fincher’s Panic Room looks a lot like a thriller. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart’s characters move into a new home — it’s massive, complete with a panic room, as the title suggests — and the mother-daughter duo find themselves the victims of a violent break-in.
Panic Room, at its core, is still pure horror, too. Sure, it trades monsters, demon possessions and pyrokinesis for some careless-yet-formidable intruders (played by Forest Whitaker and Jared Leto). But that’s what makes it so frightening, so tense. It’s something that could actually happen to you — it’s more likely than a poltergeist or a killer who shanks you in your dreams.
Much of the film’s tension derives from the cat-and-mouse of it all. Once Stewart and Foster’s characters are locked safely in the titular safe room, though, a new problem emerges. While Whitaker and Leto try to break into the supposedly impenetrable room (or lure our protagonists out), Foster needs to sneak out to secure her diabetic daughter’s insulin. The way this scenario is so possible is what makes it a modern classic of the genre.
Of course, Panic Room wasn’t the only movie to help shift things. As mentioned earlier, 2002 was also the year The Ring hit theaters; a remake of a Japanese horror film, it made the mundane — a haunted video tape that gets passed around — into the killer (sort of). Signs, meanwhile, took a more measured approach to an alien invasion than, say, War of the Worlds (1953), leaning more into horror tropes than sci-fi. In grounding this extraterrestrial takeover, it made the whole concept more terrifying, for sure.
And, a few years before all of these films, there was The Blair Witch Project (1999). The scripted, found-footage-style film marketed itself as a documentary at first, using the fledgling days of reality TV and the internet to its advantage.
The point? The early 2000s reframed horror, finding new ways to reflect the anxieties of the day and showing audiences that horrifying possibilities lurked in the periphery of their own lives.
How the Genre Helps Us Cope With Real-World Terrors
Recently, we covered the rise of multiverse narratives in Hollywood, and got to the root of why genre films are often better at illustrating our cultural anxieties than straight dramas. Horror, in particular, allows for some element of the unreal or the improbable to be taken as fact. In doing so, in suspending our disbelief, we can more clearly see the message. Metaphor helps us understand and empathize in ways that more literal narratives can’t.
When it comes to horror movies, the classic example is Night of the Living Dead (1968). Although the flesh-eating undead aren’t called “zombies” in the film, this zombie movie has been viewed as a critique of America’s involvement in, and actions during, the Vietnam War. It’s also an indictment of the media and government agencies, especially during times of crisis. In her book Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic, Linda Badley, a film historian, notes that what really works about Night of the Living Dead is that the monsters aren’t creatures from outer-space or some supernatural space — “They’re us.”
Undeniably, the early 2000s in the United States were shaped by the September 11th attacks. It’s not surprising, then, that superhero movies took off as a response to the events of 9/11. Super-powered heroes, after all, can protect us from the unexpected and save the day against the odds. But why did horror have such a moment?
Maybe it’s tied, somewhat, into that uncertainty. Going to work and school didn’t necessarily feel risk-free anymore; people were shaken to their cores. It was hard to feel safe. A lot of these horror films from the early 2000s touch on that sense of feeling unsafe, an underlying anxiety that so many people were feeling at the time, even if it wasn’t front of mind.
In The Ring, Signs and Panic Room, the characters aren’t playing with ouija boards, attending haunted summer camps or summoning demons. They’re living their lives — and the horrors sneak up on them. Something as innocuous as a VHS tape can hold terrors. You could have your birthday party — and then your whole life — upended by the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Even your home might not be safe. Horror movies offer us both a chance to see ourselves reflected and a chance to escape.
First, escapism. Sure, these films tap into the fears we have, but they’re also not illustrating the exact thing that’s scaring us. The feelings might be the same, but the circumstances are vastly different. That makes it easier to digest, to think about it.
Not to mention, there’s some sense of thrill that comes with watching what characters in a horror movie do, and then critiquing them for it. For example, we all know that horror movie characters should never investigate that strange noise in the basement. The tropes are familiar, comfortable even, because we know something’s going to go awry.
As for seeing ourselves reflected in horror? Well, we can judge the characters for the actions they take — and believe that, if confronted with the uncertain (or the scary) we’d do things differently. In films like Signs, the protagonists keep trying to find rational explanations for the crop circles and other strange goings ons. Eventually, though, they have to expect the truth; it really is the unexplainable, the thing they fear most.
Plus, on the whole, horror movies usually end with the protagonist overcoming both the uncertainty and the larger threat. We don’t always get that sense of closure or control in real life. But even just knowing that the characters will overcome the threats is comforting. And a bit cathartic.
Jordan Peele’s Nope and the Spectacle of Horror Movies
The opening shot of Jordan Peele’s Nope probably isn’t what you expect. We see empty rows of chairs in what should be a full studio audience. “Applause” signs blink overhead. Later, we learn about how this opening moment of a sitcom-turned-tragedy ties into one of the film’s central characters, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun).
Jupe is a former child star whose Wild West-themed amusement park neighbors the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch — the family home and business of our protagonists, siblings O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer). “What if I told you that today you’ll leave here different,” Jupe says to an audience of eager amusement park onlookers. “Right here, you are going to witness an absolute spectacle.”
And this UFO movie is all about spectacle — about trying to understand something you can’t quite explain by capturing it (on film). In a way, it’s all pretty meta. But that’s exactly what makes horror movies — and movies at large — resonate so much. They provide a spectacle that we can graft our feelings onto and that, in turn, can help us make sense of things or weather the real-world horrors we’re shouldering.