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“Millennial Nasties” is an insightful look at the history of modern horror violence and the cultural-political landscape that fueled it. 

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Many people dismiss the gory, violent, and all-around nasty horror genre commonly known as “torture porn” as meaningless or without cinematic value. But to really understand how the genre came about (and why it’s important), we need to examine the historical and cultural context around these movies, which started growing in popularity around the turn of the century.

Ariel Powers-Schaub, a horror devotee and scholar, has delved deep into the roots of this violent genre. She’s even given these films a more fitting name: Millennial Nasties. In her book Millennial Nasties: Analyzing a Decade of Brutal Horror Film Violence, she thoughtfully dissects these films and explains why they became so popular in the early aughts.

While some films under the Millennial Nasties umbrella are Australian, Powers-Schaub points out, “Millennial Nasties are mostly from the United States, often exploring American fears.” During the time when Millennial Nasties became popular, the U.S. was in an unprecedented place in history: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the country to its core. Americans were afraid, and they no longer felt that the U.S. was a safe place.

Unfortunately, this fear often results in a fear of The Other, which Powers-Schaub discusses at length in Millennial Nasties.

Many Americans became increasingly distrustful of people who were different from them, which led to an ugly increase in racism and xenophobia.

Filmmakers in the U.S. saw this tension; consequently, this fear was present in the Millennial Nasties produced from approximately 2000 to 2011.

Cabin Fever

Eli Roth’s infamous 2002 film Cabin Fever highlighted this fear of otherness – in this case, it was “fear of rural communities and what they get up to when city folk aren’t around.”

This tension rears its head in Cabin Fever when five college-aged friends set out for a remote cabin and are totally unprepared when trouble comes their way. At this time in American history, rifts between groups grew deeper, and this film is one of many Millennial Nasties that Powers-Schaub focuses on to demonstrate how this tension was reflected in horror films of the time.

In 2004, director Zack Snyder released a remake of George Romero’s 1978 zombie film Dawn of the Dead. As Powers-Schaub notes, “The themes in the film reflect American fears and feelings of the early 2000s after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This film is very pro-America, pro-military, and pro-Christianity.”

A new layer of American anxiety was layered over the original plot. At the time, many Americans were turning to new levels of patriotism and religious fervor to cope with their distress over 9/11 and the U.S.’s uncertain future.

Like many remakes released during the early aughts, Dawn of the Dead was one of many Millennial Nasties that told “stories that upset the comfortable domestic space,” as Powers-Schaub puts it. Just as the losses and trauma of 9/11 affected the U.S. for years to come, she observes that many of the horrors shown in Millennial Nasties “follow the survivors and bring them discomfort for a long time.”

Another change in American culture that Powers-Schaub astutely notes is the growing interest in reality television.

Sorority Row

Sorority Row

Post-9/11, many Americans began to gravitate to the somewhat askew “reality” seen in reality programming.

Released in 2007, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End is about a gruesome parody of a reality competition show named Ultimate Survivalist in the film. Powers-Schaub describes this Millennial Nasty: “It’s a clear allegory for the fear America was still feeling after 9/11, but how we also compartmentalized and leaned into reality TV to escape actual reality.”

Another nasty aspect of some of the horror films made during this time period is the reflection of rampant sexism and misogyny, which continues to be a very real problem (and not just in the U.S.) While some films shrewdly satirize these backward attitudes with over-the-top characters, some films merely present the reality of misogyny without commentary.

Sorority Row is director Stewart Hendler’s 2009 update to Mark Rosman’s 1982 film The House on Sorority Row. When discussing this film, Powers-Schaub points out that in Sorority Row (and many other horror films), “[w]omen were supposed to be sexy, and enjoy sex privately, but not supposed to be overtly sexual or enjoy sex too much. It’s an impossible standard.”

The film reflects the real-life sexism women experience. Powers-Schaub states, “What makes Sorority Row a Millennial Nasty is how the film executes those plot points. In a standard of the time, sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are never taken as seriously as they should be.”

The shrewd analysis and deep knowledge of horror film history make Millennial Nasties a fascinating read.

Author Ariel Powers-Schaub (via @Ari_Hellraiser on X)

Powers-Schaub thoughtfully breaks down each film she discusses and connects it to the larger cultural narrative, granting her readers a new angle for viewing these nasty films.

As she invites readers in her introduction, “Dig into the guts and sift through the mud with me.” You won’t be sorry.

Millennial Nasties: Analyzing a Decade of Brutal Horror Film Violence will be available from Encyclopocalypse Publications on September 17, 2024.

Pre-order the eBook or the print version.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5

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