Why Empathy in Horror Makes for Better (and Scarier) Movies

Embrace your fears—and the fears of others.

midsommar empathy in horror movies feature

Beware! This article contains spoilers for the following horror movies: Halloween (1978), Halloween (2018), Midsommar, It, and It: Chapter Two.

From the very beginning of the horror genre, stories about monsters, murderers, and other nightmares of the dark served to reflect our fears. Take, for example, Mary Shelley’s literary classic Frankenstein, written in an uncertain era of scientific and industrial advancements. Or think of a more modern film like The Strangers, which taps into post-9/11 anxieties about foreign threats and random acts of terror. However, in recent years, audiences have encountered a growing number of horror movies that get under the skin in new and significant ways. The lingering impact made by these movies may be the result of particularly well-crafted silver screen scares. Yet it's far more likely that the terror lingers in our minds because the characters we encounter are startlingly familiar, and the trauma, pain, and fear that plays out on the screen reflect our own experiences in ways horror has rarely done before.

Related: 15 Best Horror Movies of the 2010s

For the past decade, empathy in horror movies has been on the rise. Recent filmmakers have made a point of more fully fleshing out their characters and building up familiar connections and relationships on screen. What's more, many of today's horror movies explore the emotional and psychological depths of their characters in powerful ways. Audiences see that surviving doesn’t always mean a happy ending, and the terrors suffered in the film have physical, psychological, and emotional repercussions that linger well past the rolling of the credits.

The characters in horror films have evolved beyond tropes and stereotypes. As these characters emerge as nuanced and familiar, the trauma, dread, and loss at work in the movie begin to feel more real, too. Terror is no longer something viewers can shrug off at the end of the day.

halloween empathy in horror movies
    camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Blumhouse Productions

One great insight into how empathy has changed horror comes from looking at the original 1978 Halloween movie and comparing it to the 2018 reboot of the franchise. John Carpenter’s original slasher film is inarguably a classic, haunting in its depiction of cold-blooded killer Michael Myers (Tony Moran) and his deadly fixation on the young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Audiences are typically drawn to Laurie (thanks, in no small part, to Curtis’s on-screen charisma), but the victims along Myers’s brutal path are less engaging. While the film frames some of the victims as tragic examples of young lives cut too short, audiences are never given a real sense of who these people are, let alone the impact they have on Laurie’s life.

These shallow “starter victims” are typical of early slashers, which utilized a climbing body count to make the final confrontation seem more dramatic, rather than affecting the audience with any real sense of loss. Halloween found success with viewers who had never seen a slasher before and got a lot of traction out of its climactic showdown between a "final girl" and pure evil. 

Related: 17 Horror Movies We’re Dying to See in 2020

By contrast, when Halloween’s 2018 reboot picks up 40 years after the events of the first movie (retconning the many increasingly creative sequels of the franchise), the beats feel far more personal. Viewers see the woman that Laurie has become—hardened, paranoid, complex, and ultimately terrified. She lives an isolated life in a home full of clever traps, awaiting the day she knows is coming: the day Michael Myers returns for her. But the trauma doesn’t end with her; it ripples through her family, affecting her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak) in unique ways.

When Allyson’s inner circle falls victim to Michael Myers, it stings in the mind of the viewer; these characters clearly loved and cared for their friend. What's more, we get the sense that every body added to the morgue adds to the guilt and shame Laurie carries on her shoulders. And while Michael carries out his reign of terror, a gripping family drama plays out between the Strode women, making it easy for viewers to see themselves in these vulnerable yet strong characters.

Related: 10 Women in Horror Who Scare Us to the Bone 

midsommar empathy in horror movies
    camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: A24

Midsommar is another prime example of the growing empathy in horror flicks. The film is built entirely on unease and essentially wields empathy as a weapon against the audience. The story of Dani (Florence Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) traveling to Sweden to attend a mid-summer festival at a commune unravels like a cautionary fable. Ever since Dani’s sister killed their parents and then committed suicide, Dani's life has been wracked by tragedy. Yet at every turn, her boyfriend flees from conflict and uncomfortable conversations, withholding emotional support as he grapples with his desire to break up with her. As the commune slowly reveals itself to be more cultish and murderous than expected, Christian and his self-absorbed friends are essentially treated as expendable pawns for the greater goals of the Hårga.

Related: 32 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time

The film provides an interesting and immersive insight into how real-life cults recruit vulnerable members. Rather than using character building to endear characters to the audience, Christian and his friends are framed as unbearably selfish. In stark contrast to their behavior, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) and the women of the Hårga embrace and comfort Dani through every up and down, ultimately creating a situation in which many viewers actually find themselves rooting for Dani to choose the cult over Christian. After the credits roll, audiences may find themselves conflicted over their satisfaction with Dani's newly established villainy. However, the movie planted enough seeds to remind us that while setting a man on fire inside of a bear may not be the most ethical of choices, there was plenty Christian could have done along the way to ensure that Dani’s choice at the end didn’t have to be so easy.

A lack of empathy can be the most dangerous threat of all.

it chapter two empathy in horror movies
    camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Like reboots, adaptations have their own place in the discussion on empathy in horror movies. The feature adaptation of Stephen King’s classic book It made the wise choice to break the film into two parts: It and It Chapter Two. It also altered the time period of the story, bringing the second installment into the modern day.

Related: We All Float Down Here: 13 Terrifying Books for Fans of Stephen King’s It

This film took care to cultivate the bonds that held the Losers Club together, fleshing out the characters so that their deaths not only affect the audience but also break the hearts of other characters, producing a second wave of pain that ripples back through the audience. Yet the film also soars in what it has chosen to highlight and change. For starters, this adaptation portrayed comedian Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard/Bill Hader) as a closeted gay man who carried a torch for his best friend, and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer/James Ransone) as a man whose issues with hypochondria and an overbearing mother were pushed even farther than the limits of the book. Additionally, two Losers who carried particular weight in the sequel were Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs/Isaiah Mustafa) and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis/Jessica Chastain), who had their struggles with racism, self-perception, and sexual/physical abuse explicitly and unflinchingly portrayed on screen.

The film made a man of color, a woman, and a queer character complex heroes (who survive, no less) in a genre that typically exploits their trauma, broadening the appeal of horror to an audience that rarely finds the on-screen opportunity to relate to such protagonists. But the film goes even further to carry a message of hope, allowing the characters to retain their memories after they defeat Pennywise. This assures audiences that while grief and fear may be things we always carry, human beings are still capable of growth and happiness after trauma.

Related: 21 Best Horror Movies on Amazon Prime You Can Watch Tonight

Empathy in horror doesn't end with the above films: critically acclaimed flicks like Get Out and The Invisible Man engage directly current societal issues, while Hereditary and Ready or Not dive into the heart of loss and the need for connection. In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to gravitate towards films that encourage empathy. Beyond the fact that these empathetic stories make for more entertaining viewing, compassion in film is vital for bringing us closer together. 

Surprisingly, the horror genre is a wonderful tool for fostering understanding and building bridges, exploring our shared fears, and giving us the skills to navigate the repercussions of pain.

Featured still from "Midsommar" via A24

Published on 22 Apr 2020