Aleks Kro­to­ski

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

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.

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