Culture & Politics

How Horror Movies Show the True Terror of Grief 

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Scared young woman's reflection in a broken mirror

A person in distressed blood-spattered clothing wearing a mask annihilates a house of attractive young people armed only with a knife and inhuman rage.

A supernatural entity haunts a home, killing all who dare to venture inside.

A creature of unknown origin consumes an ENTIRE…

OK, you get the idea.

Horror movies often get cast-off as shock-filled skin flicks for people who worship gore and *only* watch “torture porn”. Now, I’m not saying that horror films can never *be* that (enjoying gore-heavy movies isn’t bad—I’m a fan of them, too!). But in reality, many horror films serve as miniature explorations of grief and other all-too-human issues.

 It’s no surprise that horror films, past and present, are go-to entertainment when it comes to exploring personal grief, terror, and mourning. 

After all, the horror genre has a long history of providing nuanced social commentary. Night of the Living Dead critiqued American society, The Last House on the Left critiqued the Vietnam war, and Funny Games invites society to examine its less-than-savory rubbernecking mentality. And let’s not forget writer and director Jordan Peele, whose genre contributions (Get Out and Us) explore modern-day racism and class warfare. So, it’s no surprise that horror films, past and present, are go-to entertainment when it comes to exploring personal grief, terror, and mourning.




For example, in a Talkhouse article, Steven Sheil, screenwriter and director, details how death transformed how he views the world, approaches filmmaking, and interprets horror movies.

In the piece, Sheil writes that “Death is transformative; for those left behind, the experience of grief and loss opens up another world. It’s a world where the violence of death is not just an ever-present possibility, it’s an inevitability. And there’s no telling where or when it might strike – it’s unmindful, implacable, remorseless. It’s every unkillable Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees – and there’s always a sequel.”

In this article, we’ll discuss three horror movies that show how death can release one of the most feared terrors of all: Grief. And although these movies *do* contain some epic kills, each story expertly weaves grief into the plot, making every film on this list unforgettable.

*Major film spoilers ahead* Click here to skip the spoilers

How Horror Movies Show the True Terror of Grief

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary starts with a shot of a newspaper-like obituary for Ellen (Kathleen Chalfant) and leads into a funeral ceremony eulogy given by Annie (Toni Collette), the recently deceased’s daughter.

The eulogy’s content, paired with the next 25 or so minutes worth of film, clues the audience in on the reality that life with Ellen wasn’t easy for anyone in the family. Everyone’s fraught relationship with the family’s former matriarch creates a portrayal of strained, uneasy grief I’ve rarely seen depicted in film.




As time progresses, Ellen’s family’s lives move forward, giving way to a sudden tragedy. After a series of small yet regrettable events, one of Annie’s children, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), dies in an accident involving Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s son.

The tension and sadness that the family, specifically Annie and Peter, feel after Charlie’s death are utterly gut-wrenching and 100 percent varied from the grief depicted in the wake of Ellen’s death. The emotions felt by the characters include pain, sadness, anger, and every other difficult human emotion.

As the film’s tension builds towards its climactic conclusion, the audience bears witness to how ugly grief and the feelings and actions it can trigger can be.

Note: If you watch Hereditary and enjoy it, I recommend checking out Midsommar. Midsommar features a captivating grief-heavy plot and is Ari Aster’s second film (Hereditary is his first).

The Invitation (2016)

In The Invitation, the audience observes how grief can take a person’s life down very diverse and sometimes dangerous paths.

At the film’s start, it’s established that Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is adept at thinking quickly in stressful, sad situations when he chooses to kill an animal he accidentally hits with his car while on-route to a dinner party being hosted by his ex-wife. Unfortunately for Will and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the evening does not get less stressful once they arrive at Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) house.

Upon entering his former home, Will begins to have flashbacks of a young boy, who we soon find out is he and Eden’s dead son. Years ago, Ty (Aiden Lovekamp) died in an accidental drowning in the couple’s pool.

As the evening progresses, we begin to see how Will and Eden’s grief journey has diverged. It appears that Will has become cautious, while Eden has developed a new, more open relationship with her emotions and thoughts thanks to a group called The Invitation.

Although Will is often perceived as the party’s paranoid buzzkill, his concern for Eden feels valid to the viewer. Eden does seem off. Did her grief make her easy prey for a cult, or is The Invitation simply a helpful albeit unconventional lifestyle? It’s this off-kilter vibe that leads the audience on a tension-filled journey that has grief at its heart.

We are Still Here (2015)

Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) are grief-stricken parents who have bought a house in the New England countryside.

Although the couple isn’t shying away from their recent loss, it’s apparent that the move may be partially due to their desire to “get away” from the reality that their son died in a car accident.

As the film continues, the audience is privy to minor, potentially supernatural occurrences. A photograph crashes to the floor in one scene, while Anne “feels” something that’s “not there” in another.




While Anne appears to be hyper-aware of the house’s quirks, Paul is less convinced. We see that the parents’ varying receptiveness to possible other-worldly communication is distinctly different. This plot point allows us to see the unique ways Anne and Paul respond to their grief.

We are Still Here *does* contain a few genre tropes. For example, an obviously “bad man” shows up in the first act to tell the couple their home “needs a family”. But Anne and Paul’s grief concerning their son is what drives the plot of the film until its final scene.

The Horror Genre and Grief

In addition to serving as a vehicle to examine death, horror films also serve as a place to confront grief face-to-face.

For example, in Christine S. Davis and Jonathan L. Crane’s 2015 paper, “A Dialogue with (Un)Death: Horror Films as a Discursive Attempt to Construct a Relationship with the Dead,” the researchers compare modern horror fiction to the mourning rooms of yesteryear:

“Death may be exiled from the living room as we no longer keep parlors as dedicated space for ritual goodbyes and communion with our shrouded dead, but banished death has reappeared with a vengeance in our books, kindled and original paper, and channelled through our home entertainment centers, allowing us to once more meet our nemesis on common ground.”

Davis and Crane posit that “death is a root metaphor in horror fiction … these depictions of death suture the gap between the cultural—political, social, economic, genetic, scientific, hegemonic—and the personal.”

 It’s each of these film’s characters’ relatable reactions to death that make these stories stick with the viewer… 

What Davis and Crane argue is that horror movies offer a way to examine how death is treated and understood in the modern West. Humans have “an elemental human preoccupation to comprehend and accept our dark Other.” In other words, horror movies act as a mirror to our very natural human concerns, including the pain brought about by losing the loved ones in our lives.

This “dark Other” is expertly addressed and examined in Hereditary, The Invitation, and We Are Still Here, as well as the other films that were briefly referenced at the top of this piece. It’s each of these film’s characters’ relatable reactions to death that make these stories stick with the viewer long after the films’ end credits roll—not the blood or the body count.

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