There has never been a better time for chills and thrills in the United States – at least where film and television are concerned. From the campy style of Drag Me to Hell to the slow build of the period piece The Witch, it is a tremendous time for that black sheep of entertainment, the horror genre. Film critics at the pop culture publication The A.V. Club have gone so far as to declare that the U.S. film scene is currently experiencing “a quiet horror renaissance.”
While U.S. horror junkies bask in the upsurge of chilling cinema, the genre has not been embraced, to the same degree, elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East, audiences have yet to appreciate the power of horror. This is a missed opportunity. In the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there has never been a better time for Middle Easterners to produce or indulge in horror as an art form and means of social commentary.
The best horror films are neither defined by cheap scares or endless scenes of gore. The best of the genre is, instead, disruptive. It challenges our view of the world and demands that we re-evaluate what we think we know. This is the type of horror that sends a viewer out of a theater with his heart and brain twisted in knots, looking up at the night sky wondering what, if anything, he can still believe to be true.
Robert McCammon, a founding member of the Horror Writers Association, describes horror as a genre that “upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted.”
In other words, horror is subversive in nature. It is also emotional. In challenging our preconceptions, horror relies on a range of emotional responses, like fear, awe, anxiety, and relief. It is for this reason that horror can be so effective. By speaking to viewers on a base level, horror can deliver a powerful message like no other genre.
Creeping in the Right Direction
There has been some movement in the Middle East toward exploring horror’s artistic and social potential. Writing for the Turkish media outlet, Hurriyet Daily News, journalist Emrah Güler reported on an upswing in Turkish-language horror films in 2014. This new Turkish cinema finds its roots and themes in classic American horror flicks. “More often directed by newcomer filmmakers, these films take haunted houses, teen-slashers and other-worldly entities and tailor them to Turkish (and naturally Islamic) culture,” he writes. Even with a dose of foreign inspiration, these films take on a life all their own, as “[g]hosts and zombies become jinn, exorcism is done by hodjas, and the apocalypse takes its own version from the Quran,” Güler observes.
Turkish horror films highlight the rich supernatural material, which so often goes hand-in-hand with horror and is readily found in Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. The faith and cultural traditions of the Middle East embrace notions of evil and the occult largely unexplored in the West. The Qur’an, for instance, tells of shaytan (the devil) and his tens of thousands of offspring working tirelessly to lead mankind astray. There are also djinn, mysterious and powerful beings whose essence is fire.
In exploring these concepts, Middle Eastern horror films have the opportunity to uniquely thrill, terrify, and engage with audiences around the globe. In the right hands and with the right vision, the potential is tremendous.
One excellent example of the latent possibilities of Middle Eastern horror fulfilled is the Iranian-American horror production, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.” The move is set in the dilapidated town of Bad City, whose inhabitants are shaken out of their grim routines by the appearance of a vampiress. This blood-sucking threat is not the pale-faced Dracula of old. Instead, true to Iranian fashion, she roams the streets garbed in a chador.
Without revealing too much about the film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” achieves two things. First, in gritty noir style, it serves as a pointed critique of the excesses that come with postmodern living. Second, as one of the fifteen highest grossing domestic horror films of 2015, it demonstrates that demand for thoughtful Middle Eastern horror does exist, at least in the United States.
Horror as Social Commentary
Among horror’s contributions is its ability to identify and bring the unspeakable to the fore. These are the issues society hesitates to discuss, lurking beyond the day-to-day public consciousness, like death, fear, corruption, and betrayal. The vampires, demons, and ghouls so closely associated with horror are often stand-ins for the real monsters that stalk our lives. Horror promotes conversations about who these people and what these issues are, and how they can be handled.
These tendencies are at play in the ongoing American TV series, “The Walking Dead.” The show is about a small band of survivors struggling in a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies. These zombies invite commentary on a number of themes, from existential questions about the meaning of life to discussion of about conservative social views.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg neatly summarizes a book by Professor Daniel Drezner, which looks at how pop culture, like ghoulish cinema and TV, intersects with politics, titled “Theories of International Politics and Zombies.” As Goldberg writes:
[Z]ombie television shows (and movies and comic books) are not so much about zombies as they are about how humans react to zombies, zombies of course being stand-ins for a whole menu of apocalyptic threats facing humanity. […] This is precisely the subject matter of The Walking Dead: How far do you go to defend your own life, and the lives of people you love?
Like “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” “The Walking Dead” uses horror as a catalyst to create multiple levels of meaning and tension. Suspenseful storylines, intense emotions, and heavy-hitting questions about our lives and society are all hallmarks of high quality horror films.
Slipping Past Censorship
Any artistic work involving complex themes, signs, and symbols has the potential to subvert censorship. Horror is no exception. Its inherent ability to disrupt and speak to the unspeakable make it uniquely effective at subverting official narratives. In an interview published in Muftah earlier this year, Syrian theater director, Naila al-Atrash, made it plain that much of her work in Syria attempted to bypass the regime’s censors. This censorship exists across the region. In 2016, Freedom House reported on deteriorating conditions for critical media in Egypt, Turkey, and other countries in the Middle East.
For artists whose work might be censored, horror can act as a protective layer, providing a veil on themes that may otherwise be unacceptable to government authorities. This ability, combined with horror’s inherent tendency to challenge the status quo, make horror an ideal canvas for tackling controversial topics under the nose of oppressive regimes.
Of course, artistic vision is difficult to achieve without proper financing. The good news is that the financial market for this genre is a robust one. According to Nash Information Services, LLC, horror films in the United States grossed almost $390 million in 2015 alone and sold more than 46 million tickets. While this is not the most lucrative genre (comedy, for example, grossed over $2 billion in the United States last year), hundreds of millions of dollars is nothing to sneeze at.
At the same time, successful horror films regularly eschew large budgets. One example is “The Blair Witch Project,” which pioneered the “found-footage” subgenre with a budget of $60,000. It went on to gross $141 million.
While market conditions for films differ greatly between the United States and Middle East, horror’s ability to adapt to regional themes, its provocative nature, and its ability to subvert censorship mean the genre could develop into a powerful industry in the Middle East. And, as “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” demonstrates, it is possible for these films to translate to American screens.
Beyond this analytical argument, however, there is a general desire among horror film lovers for more diverse settings and characters. A friend recently summed up the issue in a Facebook post bemoaning the glut of horror films featuring (predominantly white) “teens stuck in the woods, teens investigating ghosts, or teens casting out demons.”
So, to the filmmakers of the Middle East: the ball is in your court. The stage is set for trailblazing. Give us your best and help spark a Middle Eastern renaissance of horror films that the world wants, needs, and deserves.