It’s like a scene from Carrie right now in Hollywood as the corn syrup flows and horror ascends back to the top. While the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe duke it out with behemoths like Avatar and the Fast & Furious movies, horror has been quietly, and consistently, carving its own path. It’s also been unafraid to get its hands dirty.
Whereas Avatar: The Way of Water strives to make between $1.5 and $2 billion just to break even (depending on who you ask), our bloodlust proves that horror doesn’t need all the bells and whistles to strike gold at the box office. That doesn’t mean your favorite ghosts and ghoulies don’t have a few tricks up their sleeves, with horror finding its way to put bums in seats without having James Cameron attached (although we still wish he’d make an Aliens sequel).
There once was a time when you’d once associate the phrase of “going viral” with zombies like those found in Danny Boyle’s long-mooted 28 Weeks Later sequel. But now harnessing the power of the TikTok generation can be make or break for your modern horror movie. Boasting a typically smaller budget than most blockbusters is one thing in horror’s favor, but it also means a new IP like Gerard Johnstone and James Wan’s M3GAN can’t roll out the Disney bandwagon for marketing. Then again, the House of Mouse didn’t exactly help Strange World. Don’t worry, M3GAN doesn’t need your help, because she’s proving she’s more relevant than ever.
Valley of the (Living) Dolls
As an army of Mary-Kate and Ashley-lookalike dolls performing M3GAN flash mobs in NYC has already shown, viral marketing is a boogeyman’s best friend. Despite having the horror hounds of Blumhouse behind it, releasing M3GAN as what is effectively a gender-flipped Child’s Play could’ve been a huge risk—-especially as 2019’s Child’s Play was something of a box office bonfire. Instead this sassy little cyborg earned almost all of her $12 budget back in her first day and currently sits at a bloody $60 million in the U.S. alone.
More than just dancing on TikTok, M3GAN has become the moment by appealing to the key Gen-Z demographic by stirring up beef with Child’s Play’s Chucky on Twitter—replicating Nicki Minaj’s iconic, “Miley, what’s good,” rant. M3GAN also took the fight to a viral Reddit AMA, where she said she loved “middle-aged white males whose souls are stuck in the body of an ‘80s toy,” shaded Anabelle, and explained her love of Taylor Swift. To butcher the box office as a modern horror, you need to either bring something completely new or put a clever twist on an old idea, both in story and marketing.
Resurrecting the Genre Online
Away from launching a new demonic doll to laud it over the charts, there are some familiar faces also cutting a bloody trail for Hollywood’s viral game. In 2023, we’ve got the return of two legacy franchises: Scream 6 and Evil Dead Rise. Although Scream previously left Woodsboro in Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), the latest chapter made the most of New York City with a poster that retraced the past 23 years of Scream lore as a subway map. And serving, as its own Easter egg hunt, fans loved there was a nod to Hayden Panettiere’s surprise return as Kirby Reed.
The Scream Twitter account is having a lot of fun right now too, creating its own BeReal as the latest social media sensation. It’s an evolution of 2022’s Scream, which created a TikTok ARG for two characters called Ash and Sarah as they tried to solve the killings. Scream 6, however, is elevating its footprint (or knife mark?) on social media trends by having “Ghostface” threaten Jenna Ortega during this year’s Golden Globes awards ceremony. The young star is everywhere right now after starring on Netflix’s Wednesday, and Scream 6 is making the best of the hype by reminding viewers she joined the Scream franchise first.
As for Evil Dead Rise, director Lee Cronin isn’t letting the fact that Bruce Campbell won’t be back as Ash Williams stop him. Campbell serves as an executive producer and has been on the media circuit saying it’s the “scariest” Evil Dead yet. Keen to cash in on its rabid fandom, the movie’s Twitter account asked whether we’d want a blood-soaked Red Band trailer or an audience-friendly Green Band for our first look. Even though it was obvious what we’d pick, no one expected the level of violence that ensued—putting Evil Dead Rise on the map as much more than just another reboot. Cronin has also honored the trailer’s most gruesome moment by tweeting about Greg the Grater… if you know, you know.
A Viral Pandemic
An emerging crop of horror directors have learned the mastery of how to get tongues wagging. Andy Muschietti’s It used a guerilla marketing campaign that tied red balloons to sewer grates while 2018’s Hereditary sent unmarked packages containing creepy dolls made by “Charlie” to unknowing influencers. After Jordan Peele built a reputation, horror hounds knew 2022’s Nope would be something special, but it’s sometimes what you don’t show. The trailers left us guessing, and although some thought it would be aliens, did anyone guess the villain would be a human-gobbling space horse?
Most recently, Parker Finn’s Smile smashed its budget in its opening weekend last September after hiring “Smilers” to lurk in the background of everything from The Today Show to a Yankees vs. Red Sox game. A website called smilesightings.com also encouraged you to report sightings or upload them to Snapchat. Is it any coincidence Smile’s $216.1 million dwarfed the legacy of Michael Myers when Halloween Ends limped away with $105 million?
Of course horror has always had a knack for building hype. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project shocked the world by claiming it was based on real-life events. Even though it was (obviously) a fabrication, it still kickstarted a whole genre of found-footage horror. But then for as long as horror movies have been around, they’ve had to break through the mainstream appeal other genres have. Hence long before The Blair Witch Project, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) warned it was based on real-life while being a fictional story that was only loosely inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein.
An Appetite for Horror
In a post-pandemic era, horror is proving to be one of the most durable genres as X, The Menu, Prey, and Barbarian devour more traditional outings. You only have to look at the commercial disaster of recent Oscar fare and original studio event films like Damien Chazelle’s Babylon to see horror is serving its competition on a plate. Boasting a cast of Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and even a heavily marketed Tobey Maguire, Babylon’s reported $80 million budget has tanked when compared to its $14.3 million takings as of press time. And one problem might be that it’s not as easy throwing a viral 1920s-themed party or having Margot Robbie ride down the Hollywood Walk of Fame on an elephant as it is to make younger audiences part with their money after seeing a “doll” boogie.
Horror is on a high-speed train right now, and although it waited 11 years for a fifth Scream movie, Scream 6 is slashing its way back into our lives just a year after its predecessor. X quickly led to Pearl (with MaXXXine in development), and Dan Trachtenberg is already talking about a Prey sequel. Alongside slasher staples Ghostface and Michael Myers, there are new creations like M3GAN or The Black Phone’s Grabber.
Perhaps the genre’s biggest commercial problem at the moment is if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it. This means horror marketing has to evolve faster than the cordyceps infection. A flash mob of dancing dolls might work for the confirmed M3GAN sequel (come on, call it MEGAG4IN), but Chucky doing the griddy won’t fly. Then again, when The Nun 2 comes out, we wouldn’t be surprised to see demonic nuns doing choreographed routines to Taylor Swift’s back catalogue popping up on TikTok.