Does subversion of the Horror genre through familial conflict make Horror films horrifying for the audience?

The Horror genre has existed in storytelling long before film was invented or even conceivable; the genre has changed and evolved through time and across mediums, therefore the way these stories are made frightening must also evolve. Subverting genre keeps films entertaining and fresh for the audience and in the case of Horror, makes them more frightening. This essay argues that, through the introduction of familial conflict, or family drama, filmmakers subvert the Horror genre into films more horrifying to the audience. This essay will first explore how codes and conventions define the Horror genre and how filmmakers make repeated tropes in genre fresh so that their films are entertaining for the audience. Subsequently, this essay will examine what makes family drama and horror such a frightening combination for the audience. Finally, three recent films that deal with familial conflict through the genre of Horror will be analysed to determine how the filmmakers subverted the genre to make their films more horrifying.

Codes and conventions are the maps that guide the filmmaker and audience within a specific genre (or mixed genres), that is, they are the accepted ways the filmmaker gives meaning to the audience;

Semiotic analysis is a way to explain how an audience makes meaning from codes. All meaning is encoded in that which creates the meaning. No object or word is without meaning – one cannot read or see something without associating it to a certain idea, the meaning. (De Reeper 2013)

The codes and conventions used by filmmakers have been well established and vary across genres, sometimes crossing over, giving the audience an understanding about the type of film they are watching whether they are conscious of this or not. An audience can easily identify a Horror genre film because of a vast set of codes, such as, the use of high contrast lighting that plays with the light and shadow of the image (chiaroscuro) and casts darkness across the setting or the people within it. The filmmaker will usually include camera angles or framing that obscures part of the scene, so the audience is almost leaning forward in their seats to peak into the world of the film. Immediately an audience feels a current or impending danger for the protagonist, however, Film Noir also uses high contrast lighting and obscured framing, therefore codes alone cannot establish the genre of a film. Conventions are another way filmmakers give meaning to the audience and in the Horror genre this also builds up fear and tension, such as a cabin in the woods (isolated location) the characters are trapped in as they are violently murdered one by one. This gives way to another convention, that of the ‘Final Girl’, where one survivor must face off with the film’s monster. The Horror genre has a long history and many codes and conventions have been built within it for the filmmaker to give meaning to the audience, however, repeated patterns within film do not entertain or horrify audiences. In order to make a Horror film that achieves this goal, the codes and conventions that make it must become new to the audience.

Whilst Horror codes and conventions define the genre and give meaning for filmmakers and the audience, the subversion of a genre brings new elements to the film that entertain and provide new ways of instilling fear and tension into the audience. Chandler (1997, p.7) acknowledges this by explaining that to write within a genre one must use the established codes and conventions of that genre but must introduce ‘new elements’. A method of bringing in new elements to a genre film is to manipulate or exploit the codes and conventions, that is, subverting the accepted and repeated elements of the Horror genre. Furthermore, Jordan Peele states in the Vice Guide to Film “Horror movies… are about releasing a conversation about some social phenomenon or some real-life horror…” (Cohen 2018). Horror is a genre that lends itself to filmmakers examining controversial or dangerous themes and ideologies, thus allowing them to transform the genre from the expected tropes and create a deeper meaning for the audience. The three films analysed in this essay, Hereditary (2018), Get Out (2017) and The Babadook (2014), all subvert the codes and conventions of Horror in addition to exploring themes of familial conflict; these are the new elements Chandler refers to. Conflict within a family is usually explored in dramatic films, however, when utilised by Horror filmmakers, it creates a new way of delivering and intensifying the horror for the audience.

Family Dramas explore themes that are universal to the audience, this is not always the case in Horror, such as the un-killable monster that hunts promiscuous teenagers in a white suburb (Halloween et al). Universal themes are those that most people understand or have experienced in their lives, subsequently, they draw the audience emotionally closer to the story and characters because they can identify with them and feel empathy, whether consciously or subconsciously. The audience emotionally connecting to a character, especially the protagonist, is essential for the filmmaker so that the audience is invested in the outcome of the story as the stakes are raised leading up to the climax. To achieve a connection between the audience and the protagonist in Horror, the three films analysed utilise familial conflict in the form of grief (Hereditary), racism (Get Out) and motherhood (The Babadook). The use of these themes not only creates the desired emotional connection from the audience but elevates the tension and horror. Maw (2017) states ‘Horror isn’t in the gothic and ghostly, but in the people we’re taught to love. Horror is close to home’, the imperative here is that what frightens an audience most are the things or people that are believed to be safe, such as, your own family, the trust and love of your significant other or a mother that cares for you.

Hereditary explores, among other things, the universally understood theme of grief and the impact this has on a family;

I wanted to make a film that served as a serious meditation on grief and trauma. It begins as a family tragedy and then continues down that path, but gradually curdles into a full-bore nightmare—in the same way that life can really feel like a nightmare, like everything is falling apart – Ari Aster. (Stefansky 2018)

The connection with the audience and Annie (Toni Collette) occurs as the film follows her dealing with the loss of her mother, whom she had a fractured relationship with, the fractured relationship she has with her own son Peter (Alex Wolff) culminating in the shocking death of her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Charlie’s death creates further tensions within the family, especially between Annie and Peter. In a traditional drama, these events would lead to a healing of the family, instead, Writer and Director Ari Aster uses these traumatic events to embed a simmering tension throughout the entirety of the film that serves to increase the intensity of the horror for the audience. The main setting of the film is in the family home, generally a place where people feel safe. Aster exploits this safe feeling by having the home located in an isolated area, that is, the middle of the woods; a commonly used Horror convention, such as the cabin in the woods previously mentioned. Therefore, Aster has subverted the convention by locating the audiences ‘safe space’ in a conventionally unsafe place where most of the tension and horror occurs. Additionally, the climax of the film is a subversion of the ‘Final Battle’ convention, where the audience expects a grand sacrifice or gallant fight with the monster that brings triumph to the hero. Annie’s attempt to sacrifice herself and save her son, therefore symbolically repairing their relationship, fails and puts the antagonists on the path to victory. Ultimately, the film is horrifying to the audience because Aster uses their empathy for the characters against them, and finally, shows that the characters were never going to win as their fate was inevitable, just as death and grief are inevitable.

Get Out Writer and Director Jordan Peele cleverly creates an emotional connection between the audience and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) by using a situation most people can empathise with, regardless of race. Meeting a significant other’s parents for the first time is a situation that mostly plays out in dramas and comedies, rarely would Horror explore such a dramatic situation.

One of the lessons I took from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—which is one of the influences here—is that one of the reasons that film was so effective in its discussion with race is because it started with a situation that was universal. Take the race out of it, everybody can relate to the fear of meeting your potential in-laws for the first time – Jordon Peele. (Goldsmith 2017)

Peele builds tension throughout the film by exploiting the audience’s ability to empathise with Chris, intertwined with racism through ‘racial micro-aggressions’ committed by Rose’s (Allison Williams) family and their guests. The racial tone of the film is set from the first scene where Peele subverts the Horror convention of killing off the black male first. In Get Out the African-American male Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) is lost in a white neighbourhood but is completely self-aware that this place is unsafe for him and despite doing all the ‘smart’ things, by trying to get away from danger, he fails. Peele establishes early in the film that the people an audience would usually consider safe, the Police, aren’t for Chris because of his skin colour. At the end of a Horror film when the Police arrive it is a signal to the audience that the danger is over and they can relax. Peele uses this and the dramatic betrayal by Rose to increase the tension and make the climax more horrifying, as Chris leans over the bloodied Rose, familiar flashing lights appear. It isn’t until the audience realises it isn’t the Police that the tension is dissipates and the danger is over.

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook takes the audience on a dark exploration of motherhood, where Amelia (Essie Davis) is a fractured single mother dealing with a troubled young son and the loss of her husband. Through this Kent exposes a truth about our society, that mothers are idealised by accepting nothing but perfection and ignore the fact that they are humans with needs and faults. Kent emphasises this and connects the audience to Amelia by using grief as an undercurrent to all her actions and the overall tone of the film.

I think where horror excels is when it becomes emotional and visceral… I wanted to talk about the need to face the darkness in ourselves and in our lives. That was the core idea for me… The horror is really just a byproduct – Jennifer Kent. (MacInnes 2014)

Although Amelia is dealing with grief, her behaviour towards Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is shocking and a constant source of tension for the audience; here Kent is challenging the Horror convention of the ‘Evil Matriarch’. Generally, this trope is used to establish an antagonist where the mother figure has always been evil and/or abusive. In The Babadook, Kent establishes early in the film that Amelia is not the perfect mother and can barely stand being around her son but shows she still loves him through her other actions. The audience empathises with Amelia’s grief and exhaustion at dealing with Samuel, however, her behaviour towards Samuel is a source of tension that slowly increases until she is completely possessed by unchecked grief (evil). The Babadook creature, Amelia’s descent and eventual possession are more horrifying to the audience because she is a mother, a figure in most audiences lives that represents the ultimate comfort and safety.

In conclusion, this essay has examined how three recent films subverted conventions of the Horror genre using familial conflict and found that the filmmakers created a deeper meaning within the film that intensified the horror for the audience. To achieve this, the filmmakers used codes and conventions associated with Horror films; an important part of making a film meaningful to an audience. Codes and conventions are repeated across genres because they guide filmmakers and audiences but must remain fresh and entertaining, therefore filmmakers subvert genres to add new elements, and in the case of Horror, to make their films more horrifying to the audience. The filmmakers of Hereditary, Get Out and The Babadook all achieved this by using universal themes to create connections with the audience, subsequently making them emotionally invested in the denouement of the story and the fate of the characters.


Chandler, D 1997, ‘Introduction to Genre Theory’, Visual Memory, viewed 07 December 2018, <http://visual->

Cohen, L 2018, Vice Guide to Film: New American Horror, SBS On Demand, Vice Studio Canada, Toronto.

De Reeper, M 2013, ‘How to Analyse Movies #2: Signs, Codes & Conventions’, Film Inquiry, viewed 09 December 2018, < signs/>

Goldsmith, J 2017, Jordan Peele Get Out Q&A, podcast, The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, 07 December 2018, < ?c_id=14312186&cs_id=14312186&expiration=1544715469&hwt=3bf55594f0e23ab2 c13365f893a622fd>

MacInnes, P 2014, ‘The Babadook: I wanted to talk about the need to face darkness in ourselves’, The Guardian, viewed 10 December 2018, <;

Maw L 2017, ‘The Shining, Domestic Violence, and the Architecture of Horror’, Catapult, viewed 09 December 2018, < domestic-violence-and-the-architecture-of-horror>

Stefansky, E 2018, ‘That Horrific Hereditary Scene Is Director Ari Aster’s Favorite’, Vanity Fair, viewed 13 December 2018, < ari-aster-director-interview>