How ‘woke horror’ opens our minds.
“WELL-MEANING PEOPLE MAY NOT EVEN REALISE THEY’RE BEING OFFENSIVE”
Now is the time of year when the nights draw in. And with the longer nights come darker thoughts full of monsters and ghouls, along with cautionary tales of things that go bump. In the past, horror poked at psychological terrors. Since the internet, though, the latest ghouls are more socially conscious. Let’s take a look at woke horror.
A poster child for the woke horror genre is the Academy Award-winning Get Out. It was released in 2017, the year that, arguably, liberals ‘woke up’ from their filter bubbles and got political. In Get Out, Chris, who is black, is invited to meet his girlfriend’s liberal upstate New York white family. But the sociopolitical commentary comes from the creepy way that Chris knows exactly what’s about to happen based on a lifetime of the racist microaggressions that he’s experienced in US society.
Woke horror is gaining power among the increasingly diverse talent that’s flooding into Hollywood. They’re using the mass platform to let audience members of all backgrounds know what it feels like to be an Other. These aren’t just token black-guy-gets-killed-first trope characters either. The horror medium is being re-imagined to scare the pants off people in a more meaningful way, and to get them to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Psychologists and social workers have long used role play to create empathy. More recently, researchers are using it to target some of the subtle things that we do and say that contribute to someone else’s unknown distress – those microaggressions that stem from baked-in stereotyping and cultural indoctrination. The aim is to help society, not the individual, though it works at both levels. A lifetime of feeling put-upon can lead to problems with mental health, from anxiety and depression to binge drinking and poor academic performance. These, of course, can then contribute to systemic problems that keep particular groups of people down.
Earlier this year, Dr Christy M Byrd from the University of California, Santa Cruz, published a framework on the best way to respond to prejudiced comments. Her paper, Microaggressions Self-Defense: A Role-Playing Workshop For Responding To Microaggressions, tries to embed a way for both sides to act that is effective, rather than pushing the aggressor and victim into even more polarised camps. Because the thing is, well-meaning people may not even realise they’re being offensive. She argues against confrontation, and for ego management. Saying things like, “I thought you were an open-minded person” and “What did you mean by that?” opens up the conversation, rather than shutting it down. And if a face-to-face situation doesn’t do the job, you can always role play in computer games. In a recent study published in Social Science, Lars de Wildt and Stef Aupers interviewed 20 international gamers from diverse religious backgrounds to find out how playing a character of a different religion affected their worldviews. They found that playing these characters let them empathise with the Other, and suspend their own worldviews. So atheists saw the logic in religious inclinations, and Christians, Hindus and Muslims were able to see the similarities in their faiths.
The modern demon of our darkest thoughts is still the Other, but the trend is to wake people up to their unconscious actions and beliefs by giving them another person’s shoes and therefore interrupt social polarisation. If this happens to cover the walls with fake blood, I’m glad. As long as it scares the Dickens out of me.
Aleks Krotoski is a social psychologist, broadcaster and journalist. She presents BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human.