Within the context of traditional horror, the role of the hero/heroine is to defeat the threat the monster poses and return the narrative to normalcy. Certainly, the locus of the horror manifested in the monster is dependent upon the era in which a film is made. In the wake of 9/11, horror films underwent a metamorphosis in which the dread central to the horror film was permanently altered. In a return of horror tropes popular during the Cold War and Vietnam eras, slasher films and reflexive horror with pronounced elements of humor gave way to an apocalyptic horror now situated in realism courtesy of the nightly evening news. This move away from films such as Camp Blood (1999), Final Destination (2000) and Ginger Snaps (2000) and toward films such as Quarantine (2008), Hostel (2005), and Saw (2004) is pronounced and requires of the audience an intimate association with the terror being expressed.
Cloverfield (2008) straddles the line between horror and science fiction and creates a new breed of terror unique to post 9-11 audiences that speaks to this shift. Employing the same found footage technique seen in Ghostwatch (2002) and The Last Broadcast (1998), Cloverfield tells the story of a group of friends who attempt to survive the fallout when a monster lays waste to New York City. Although not a great film, Cloverfield is worth a watch both for its imagery as well as for its re-imagining of terror tropes.
The destruction of recognizable New York City landmarks in film as a means of creating a narrative of fear is nothing new. From an avalanche of water obliterating the New York City skyline in When World Collide (1951) to the Statue of Liberty buried in sand in Planet of the Apes (1968) to meteors annihilating the Chrysler & World Trade buildings in Armageddon (1998), images of the most recognizable city in the world left in ruins offer an audience easy entree into a post-apocalyptic world.
Yet, these worlds created prior to the events of 9/11 had as their basis of fear a sense of dread related to the unknown. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, however, the trigger point of fear for American audiences was no longer hypothetical: real terror had made its way into every American home as news coverage of the terrorist acts of that fatal day unfolded. The end result was an American public whose notions of fear and terror were inextricably tied to a replication of 9/11 news coverage. Once the domain of big budgeted, mainstream “action film” fare, terror derived from the fear of an impending (and quite realistic) apocalypse has now become the domain of the horror genre.
The imagery used in Cloverfield is deliberate to the point of distraction. It is worth considering whether this reliance upon scenes of real life horror to encourage feelings of dread is a positive one. Does it allay our fears by forcing us to confront them? Or is it a product of shoddy storytelling wherein it is just easier to tap into already pronounced fears rather than tapping into more hidden ones? In rewatching Cloverfield, I’m wondering if perhaps it is a little bit of both.
The world experienced September 11th via the images flickering across their screens and as such, the horror of that day is indelibly tied to images of New York’s destruction. Cloverfield situates its narrative in New York City and uses the devastation of this well-known landmark to play upon the audience paranoia stemming from a single day in 2001. The film, though surprisingly unsentimental, is nevertheless highly affecting and deserves a watch by horror fans.