Book Review:

Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation, by David Church

Reviewed by Miranda Corcoran

University College Cork

Review of David Church’s Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation, Edinburgh University Press, 2021. 280 pp. Hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-1474475884). 

Initially surfacing in reviews and film criticism printed in mainstream publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times, terms such as “post-horror” and “elevated horror” refer to an emergent corpus of 2010s horror cinema the aesthetic sensibilities of which hew closer to indie and prestige cinema than to the sensational iconography of either grindhouse or multiplex horror. Although often representing a sincere attempt to grapple with horror films whose narrative or aesthetic conventions evoke those of the modernist art film, these neologisms are largely reviled by fans of the genre. For many horror aficionados, the prefixes “post” and “elevated” gesture towards a broader critical discomfort with the horror genre, a sense that for consumers of mainstream film, horror has, until now, been a disreputable, artistically barren form. The elitism connoted by the terms “post-horror” and “elevated horror” has thus ensured that their use has become fraught with a host of tangential concerns about art, genre, legitimacy, and cultural arbitration.

It is precisely because of the ideologically loaded nature of terms like “post-horror” that David Church’s new monograph Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation is such a timely and necessary critical intervention in the contemporary discourse surrounding 2010s horror cinema. Church’s book is sophisticated and nuanced, engaging in a fine balancing act between gathering together a host of new, formally innovative horror films under the banner of post-horror and, at the same time, demonstrating an acute awareness of the term’s limitations. As Church explains in Chapter One, “the succession of different terms used to name the cycle is not merely a question of taste, but also a product of film critics grappling with the affective qualities of these films—trying and repeatedly failing to find a name sufficient for circumscribing the affects produced by art cinema’s formal structures” (28). Consequently, Church’s book not only analyses the emergent post-horror canon but also explicitly, and indeed self-consciously, problematizes the very assumptions upon which the notion of “post” or “elevated” horror has been built.

In the book’s first chapter, Church frames post-horror, the 2010s new wave of art-horror cinema, as an “apprehension engine” based on the estranging aural reverberations of a novel musical instrument created by Mark Korven, composer for The Witch (2015). After establishing the apprehension engine as a musical metonym for post-horror’s aesthetic and affective strategies, Church moves on to outline post-horror’s formal traits and to construct a provisional filmic canon representative of the genre’s aesthetic and thematic concerns. For Church, post-horror’s key texts include It Follows (2014), The Witch, A Ghost Story (2017), Get Out (2017), Hereditary (2018), and Midsommar (2019). Secondary examples of post-horror texts encompass works such as Let the Right One In (2008), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), The Babadook (2014), The Neon Demon (2016), and Suspiria (2018). For Church, these films are united by their reliance on the aesthetic markers of art-cinema: visual restraint and stylistic minimalism (10). Post-horror films diverge from the older tradition of art-horror (works like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920], Repulsion [1965], Don’t Look Now [1973], and Possession [1981]) because their primary affective register is one defined by dread, deferral, and unease, as opposed to shock, terror, and disgust.

In Chapter 2, Church employs reception theory to frame post-horror as a product of the wider critical failure to grapple with the affective impact of 2010s horror cinema as well as the splintering of critical discourse in the age of social media and online journalism. Chapters 3 and 4 center on two key thematic concerns of post-horror cinema: grief and psychological manipulation (“gaslighting”). Chapter 3 looks at the representation of mourning in films like The Babadook and Hereditary, and Chapter 4 highlights motifs of emotional abuse in The Invitation (2015), Midsommar, and Get Out. While both chapters deftly analyze the central themes uniting 2010s horror cinema, Chapter 4 is particularly innovative in its exploration of gaslighting as a feature of both gendered and racialized power dynamics. The highlight of this section is undeniably Church’s nuanced evaluation of gaslighting in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The author’s claim that Get Out relocates this form of “epistemic violence” from the gender-based inequities of heteronormative relationships to the often-unseen modes of manipulation that govern racial hierarchies is both convincing and original.

Chapters 5 and 6 are likewise paired, though this time it is by a preoccupation with place and space. Chapter 5 examines the treatment of rural space in The Witch, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2017), It Comes at Night (2017), and A Quiet Place (2018). Here, Church argues that while historical, witchcraft-themed works like The Witch and Hagazussa figure the division between cultivated land and the wilderness as essentially gendered, post-apocalyptic films like It Comes at Night and A Quiet Place problematize an increasingly porous divide between forest and homestead. In a similar vein, Church argues that the vast ocean portrayed in The Lighthouse (2019) is an existential peril that constantly impinges on and threatens to erode rigid conceptions of violent, heteronormative masculinity.

In the following chapter, Church shifts his focus to urban spaces via an extended engagement with the post-industrial, ruined Detroit of It Follows. The author forges ambitious connections between the crumbling cityscape (the film’s multitudinous lingering shots of what might be termed “ruin porn”) and its treatment of decaying notions of “mononormativity.” Ultimately, Church argues that through its largely negative representation of monogamous, heteronormative relationships, It Follows proposes an alternative, queer ethics of open, responsible, and multiple sexuality. As Church elucidates, “The monster in It Follows may be a supernatural being, but the film’s true source of horror is living under a regime of sexual shame . . . wherein our heteronormative culture compels sexual subjects toward monogamy” (182).

Finally, Chapter 7 investigates how 2010s horror cinema treats that most ubiquitous of gothic conventions, the ghost. Grounding his analysis in A Ghost Story, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), and A Dark Song (2016), Church argues that post-horror treats the ghost less as an object of fear and more as a conduit through which to meditate on more existential questions of selfhood, time, alienation, and loss.

Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation is a thoughtful yet ambitious study of 2010s horror cinema. The book is well-researched and scholarly, yet it remains accessible in its tone and coherent in its argumentative structure. A useful entry point for readers unfamiliar with contemporary horror, Post-Horror will also engage scholars already acquainted with 2010s horror cinema through the rich detail of its analysis. Church’s monograph is unique in its capacity to engage with contemporary critical paradigms while simultaneously questioning their most basic assumptions. Indeed, Post-Horror is impressive precisely because of how it employs a divisive critical term as springboard from which to launch an incisive exploration of genre, form, narrative and, most crucially, the way viewers respond to and talk about horror.

-27 July 2022