Springtime at the movies is usually awash with bad comedies, second-string action flicks, and a handful of contrived dramas that nobody really watches. With awards season over, studios don’t tend to put out their best fare. Nothing is “for your consideration” come February. However, 2016 brought another installment in a new trend—independent horror films. Last year had It Follows and this year brought us Sundance hit The Witch. What’s special about these isn’t just their genre—though it’s certainly unexpected to see horror coming out before late summer to ring in Halloween—it’s the combination of the artfulness of the direction and the importance of their stories. They aren’t slashers or found-footage throwbacks. Instead, they are explorations of the darkest parts of humanity: sexual repression, religious extremism, the failings of patriarchy, and the resultant suffering of the feminine.
What’s especially exciting about these films premiering in spring is the intentionality it gives to their marketing, and the way people watch the movies themselves. Context is everything. For many, the season is closely associated with growth, hope, rebirth, and new life. So it’s especially striking to see a spring film about the decomposition of the human spirit—movies containing supernatural, inescapable forces that punish rather than give or nurture. There’s a special type of disturbance that comes from leaving the gray depths of horror cinema and walking out into a warming, green world. These are more than just unusually timed premieres; they are foils to the season and the sort of fare we’ve grown used to in the early months of the year. They automatically require viewing under a more speculative lens, and this forces the audiences to consider not only how frightening a film is, but why it is so scary.
Both It Follows and The Witch, though obviously disparate in terms of setting and basic plot, are thematically similar. Both have cornerstones in sexual repression. In The Witch, this comes from the intense religious Puritanism and societal isolation of the main characters, particularly the father, William. In It Follows, repression is enforced via a sexually transmitted ghost—sex either occurs out of necessity and deceit to pass on the ghost, or is avoided completely. In both films, this culminates in depravity: incest, witchcraft, and/or death.
Additionally, while neither is political in practice or production, the messages of both are feminist. It Follows begins when the main character, Jay, is tricked into contracting a curse from her new boyfriend after they have sex for the first time. Her suffering and sudden fear of her own sexuality is a direct result of men’s actions. The Witch sees its main character, Thomasin, persecuted and traumatized by the lies of her father, which are escalated by the supernatural. In both, men face the consequences of their actions, and women, after enduring incredible punishment, either triumph or succumb to their circumstances.
Each film concludes that its events were without true closure—and you could be next. They are more than just classical horror movies, and it’s not just because they’re compelling and beautiful. Instead, The Witch and It Follows are both critiques on society, past and present. Both are about more than just action and reactions; they are about consequences. Here’s hoping the trend of cerebral horror in the springtime is long-lived.