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Beat The Heat (To Death): 4 Terrifying Summer Horror Movies

Just when you think you can relax, horror strikes. 

florence pugh dressed in a flower crown in midsommar smiling evilly
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  • Photo Credit: A24

Summer hits most of us like a breath of fresh air. School is out, and kids run free. The night shrinks before the longest days of the year. Our shoulders fall knowing the isolation of winter is long behind us.

And yet, horror movies set in summer are some of the scariest. 

Why? 

Because there’s nothing inherently scary to rely on. Instead, summer horror films pervert the very things that are meant to make us feel relaxed and willing to let down our highlighted hair.

Compared to flicks set in fall and winter, full of creepy darkness and eerie cold, summer horror strategically degrades the simple things that society is designed to trust. 

Here are some of the most effective ways horror makes summer scary: 

The Perversion of Light 

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of summer is the sun—a giant, flaring chance to make good on a few months' worth of missed Vitamin D.

Bad things don’t happen in the daylight, or at least, the worst things usually don’t. However, daylight isn’t the sigh of relief it usually is when it comes to Midsommar. In this case, daylight is the enemy. 

Midsommar follows Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) as she tags along with her boyfriend Christian who plans to write his thesis on an isolated community in Sweden after Christian’s friends have been invited to visit by their Swedish roommate Pelle.

What follows is two hours and thirty minutes of some of the most fucked up shit you’ve ever seen.  

What’s fascinating about Midsommar is how most of the movie takes place in daylight, and in this case, what light does is diffuse responsibility. For Dani and her friends, who soon learn they’re living among a suicidal death cult, it tears their guard down, making everyone less willing or pressed to express their lack of trust.

The Hårga people wear only stark white linen, and vibrant flowers flourish at every turn. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, the most picturesque summer—until it’s too late. 

The Underworld of Amusement Parks 

Everyone has memories of summers spent in special places from Coney Island to the Santa Monica Pier. However, what we often forget about these bright and crowded places is how closely danger lurks.

While its deeper meaning aims to make social commentary on the nuances of classism, Jordan Peele’s Us shows the harrowing aftermath of what happens when a child enters a funhouse unsupervised and comes out—well—not exactly herself.  

In its final act, Us presents (quite literally) an underworld beneath the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. A sinister place that shows how easy it is for a child to be stolen in a theme park and also allegories how tourism economies are gripped by darkness and desperation in the remaining months of the year.

Take, for example, the downfall of Atlantic City or the off-season anarchy in the Ozarks popularized by the eponymous Netflix show.  

Despite the flashing lights, sweet treats, and swirling Ferris wheels, Us reminds us of the danger of not paying attention—to both children and our effect on the places we visit.

Monsters are lurking just beneath the surface, but maybe sometimes we’re the monsters, too.  

Children Left to their Own Devices 

If you have windows and neighbors, you likely hear children playing all summer long. That’s what summer is for after all? Nine months in school and kids need release.

Childhood summers are everything, and both our reverence for summer nostalgia and the new world around us, having recently bloomed in spring, create an inextricable link between summer and youth. So, an easy way to make summer terrifying is to crush this connection, and not the way you think.  

On any given summer day, how much trouble can a group of kids get into on their own? 

Do you really want to know? 

If so, watch The Children of the Corn (1984) and see what happens when kids are left to their own devices. All it takes is one bad seed (pun intended), and soon you’ll have a cult of kids sacrificing any adult they encounter at the altar of a made-up deity.  

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. But still, The Children of the Corn warps that summer-youth connection, and reminds us sometimes it’s not always adults who corrupt children. Sometimes it’s the kids themselves.

Which is a good reminder—do you know where your kids are right now? 

Ruining the Only Relief 

What is it about Memorial Day Weekend that creates an absolute frenzy for water? Kiddy pools crop up on city sidewalks, and if you’re lucky enough to have something deeper than three feet, you’re probably busy with a house full of guests.

The only remedy for summer heat and stir-crazy kids is a nice dip. And when isolation horror isn’t an option in the wide expanse of summer, what’s the next best thing?  

Shrink the expanse. Ruin the viewer’s relief. 

The best to ever do it? Jaws, of course.  

Jaws is low-hanging fruit on a list of summer horror films, but it always earns its stripes. On the surface level, it’s enough to keep you out of the ocean, but beneath that, the underwater angles in the film might even make you think twice about an in-ground pool. 

A large body of water, even a contained one at that, offers an element of the unknown that can sour any night or solo swim when you think about it too much, and without question, Jaws was the first movie to make us all go there. 

So, preying on our most cherished nostalgia and the three months’ worth of ease that seems to settle over life, perhaps summer horror is the cruelest of them all, but that cruelty is what makes it some of the best.