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Horror often reflects the collective fears and traumas of its time, and two of 2023’s biggest hits explored the nightmare of pandemic cities.

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With a little bit of distance between us and our not-so-distant, traumatic past, many of us may have forgotten (or chosen to forget) how much the pandemic changed us. While individual experience differs, the one thing that has changed for most of us is our perception of space, from the literal six redundant feet of enforced emptiness to the more abstract re-classification of our daily haunts.

During the lockdowns, communal and private areas nary afforded a second thought suddenly fell under heavy scrutiny.

When the trailers for the latest installment in the Scream series – Scream 6, confusingly a direct sequel to 2022’s Scream – arrived in late 2022, their showstopper scenes took place in two interiors that the pandemic had redefined: supermarkets and subway trains.

Add to this the cramped, sweaty apartments and the even sweatier, crowded frat parties, and Scream 6 (released in March 2023) is a movie rife with the big city hyper-claustrophobia born of COVID.

April 2023 saw the release of a sweatier – and significantly bloodier – horror movie: Evil Dead Rise.

Rise took Scream 6’s confined spaces and perspiring bodies and added a projectile vomit splash of suffocating isolation, the whole film taking place in a decrepit apartment building soon to be demolished. Along with bodily fluids, restrictive passage is the order of the day here. While the parking garage in the basement offers the promise of vehicular exit, during the ninety-minute runtime, no one walks out of the building, and no one is seen entering.

In Scream 6, when conventional exits are closed off, even a rickety ladder suspended across certain death may seem preferable to further confinement. For the family of Rise, however, their building plays host to their entire lives, just as our own apartment buildings seemed to for many of us during those two long years.

Rise also makes handy use of one of the most hyper-claustrophobic pandemic spaces: the elevator — that metal kill box with a jolly chime.

These re-evaluated spaces may be coincidental when comparing any other series of films, but both of these franchises have only just made the switch to city life.

With the exception of the wonderfully bizarre Army of Darkness, the Evil Dead movies have always taken place in remote forest cabins with escape routes to civilization severed. Meanwhile, Scream has been so tied up with its small town of Woodsboro that many (myself included) wondered how it could retain the series’ DNA outside of that satirically twee Americana.

But despite a renewed reverence for cinematic legacy and a modern cinema that panders first and foremost to the nostalgic, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Scream 6 switched small town Woodsboro for not-so-small New York City, and Evil Dead Rise traded its lush forests for an exhaust-fume-choked Los Angeles.

Why? Because living in a big city during the pandemic was horrific.   

The central characters in these films are far from wealthy; Samantha in Scream is working two ‘crappy’ jobs, and Rise’s Ellie is a single mother of three children struggling to find a new apartment before their building is demolished.

These are the working-class people who suffered most in the pandemic and are still suffering through the cost of living crisis left in its wake.

Living in Toronto in 2020, the class lines were clear. Those fortunate enough to own a rural cottage were piling onto the highways hours after the first governmental announcement. Very few returned during the first year.

The city and its workings were left to the leftovers: those lazy Millennials and Zoomers who may never own a home but don’t know how good they have it, the immigrants who should consider themselves privileged to be allowed to come here and prop up a struggling healthcare system and other essential services.

Those who had nowhere else to go were left in a production with a script of uncertainty and scored with sirens in the night and phantom coughs on the wind. That word: pandemic.

The horror movie had written itself.

Pitch: A horror movie where the killer has no identity or intent.

The Ghostface mask in Scream keeps the killer anonymous. The evil presence summoned by the Book of the Dead chooses its victim randomly – being in the wrong place at the wrong time is deadly. This lurching feeling of nowhere being safe, of the potential of everyone to be a killer, a feeling that all who lived through the cities of the pandemic will understand, and none more so than essential workers who interacted with scores of strangers each day.

In horror films, safety can sometimes be found in numbers, but with these films numbers are no protection, and in Scream 6 they seem quite the opposite. A full subway train is a bloodbath waiting to happen, and in a busy supermarket, no one is safe, least of all the shopkeeper.

In Rise, smaller crowds present interminable danger; just when you feel certain that the cackling laughter of a Deadite has been ended for good, along comes a second wave and a third, perhaps even another host: a variant.

Family (even said in Vin Diesel’s phlegm-clear voice) is no more trustworthy than the strangers on the street; their ability to unwittingly kill is the same.

Inside Scream’s Samantha is Billy Loomis, and within each family member in Rise is a potential devil hungry for those delicious souls. All dormant but counting the hours, the minutes. And family becomes all the more complicated with the inclusion of children. The lies they must be told to help them feel safe when really the guardian is the most afraid of all.

In Evil Dead Rise, director Cronin revisits the uneasy parental relationship from his debut feature, 2019’s The Hole in the Ground, for a portrait of a mother pushed to the edge… and then pushed over it.

Oh, the rural joys of sitting on a cottage porch watching the children play in the yard. But for those in a city apartment during COVID, confined indoor space was shared in a way it was never meant to be.

With schools closed, many parents spent every waking moment attending to their children. Working from home is difficult when ‘home’ contains a large family and when ‘home’ is listed by an optimistic realtor as ‘2 bed, 1 bath’.

In such unending contiguity, the fine line of love-hate becomes frayed.

In Rise, it snaps altogether.

Ultimately, Evil Dead Rise and Scream 6 are films about space and what it means to share it.

With people. With a pathogen. With a killer. These are films about how it feels when all three of these are one and the same.

Horror is a genre of extrapolation in which potential danger becomes certain death. When real-life risks exponentially increase, the need for extrapolation shrinks, but it’s still there to get you over the mortality hump.

Horror feeds and gets fat in worst-case scenarios.

To extrapolation, then. To live on the upper floors of an apartment building, high above the world, but still trapped, still under attack. To have your means of exit removed or made dangerous. To ride an elevator in which you might die, to visit a supermarket in which you might die, to enter a train carriage in which you might die.

Every person, every room, and even every surface possesses the unwitting ability to kill you.

The façade of the metropole safety was sliced open so that its insides leaked out. What better reason for a rural horror to make its first trip to the big city?

Written by Chris Corker

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