Exploring the Elements of the Cult Horror Film
The world of horror is a vast and diverse playground of chills, thrills, and (blood) spills. As one of the most enduring and popular genres in cinema, it has many branches that make it so effective. While slashers, ghost stories, and vampire pictures have their place, one subgenre in particular seems to leave a lasting psychological effect that most of its sister subgenres don’t. It goes by many names, from folk horror to pagan horror to fanatical horror, but it is most easily surmised as the cult horror film.
When the phrase “cult film,” is bandied about, it’s often in reference to films with a cult following like The Room or up and comer Cats. There are many horror films that are cult films in this context, but the cult film discussed here are films centered around cults and the occult. The cult horror film is a very specific and nuanced subgenre of horror that is one of the most effective and underappreciated. But what makes a cult horror film? What are the nuances, rules, and archetypes? Join us, as we journey from Summerisle to Hårga and explore the elements that make the cult horror film so effective.
Welcome to Summerisle — Heroes, Villains, and Location in The Wicker Man
The most important element to any film, especially a cult horror film, is establishing your world and your characters. The protagonist in the cult horror film is oftentimes a complete outsider, intruding on the equilibrium of the world and becoming our connection to it. This forces the perspective of the cult horror film to be one of abject solitude as we are tethered to the protagonist and learn as they learn. They are our only connection to the events that unfold, whether we like it or not.
The most beloved, referenced, and (in case of the horrendous 2006 remake) parodied examples of the cult horror film is Robin Hardy’s 1973 The Wicker Man. The film follows Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) as he arrives at the remote and strange Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. As he searches the isle and questions its citizens, he is deeply disturbed by the free-wheeling rituals of the community that causes him to question his faith and honor. Little does he realize it’s all part of a grander scheme of horror and sacrifice.
The location of The Wicker Man, Summerisle, is a completely isolated location, which gives the viewer an instant sense that we are on our own. It forces us to connect instantly to Howie as he is our only connection to reality. The film opens with Howie’s long plane ride to Summerisle, a lone crusader venturing into a vast unknown. There will be no backup, no support, this is a world in which those visiting need to tread lightly. Which they often do not.
Howie is a terrific example of an outsider protagonist and a deeply flawed one. He is one man on a mission, both from God and from the authorities. He represents an old, archaic society that is at odds with the peace and love fanaticism of the late 1960s into the early 1970s. He extolls values that are out of fashion and the deeper he tries to impose those values in a place where he is always outnumbered and surrounded only puts him more on the outside.
Howie constantly struggles with the citizens of Summerisle due to a complete lack of understanding of their beliefs and their society. He remains incredibly steadfast in his beliefs towards Christianity and is appalled by the hedonistic society he has visited. The citizens of Summerisle though, are not nasty back to him. In fact, they are compliant and kind, even if they’re not explicitly forthright with Howie at any given moment.
The antagonists of the cult horror film often don’t appear as such. They are usually very kind, supportive, and humorous. Life is good and they want to express it as such. Their amicable demeanor presents a conundrum with the viewer, causing them to question who is truly good or bad in this world. The fact that nine times out of ten the viewer knows they’re watching a horror movie; the cheerful demeanor of the antagonists is all the more disturbing. It acts against what kind of movie it is, which makes it all the more terrifying.
The Wicker Man cemented the ground rules for what the cult horror film would become. From a flawed, but solitary protagonist, to the cheerful antagonists, to the pure sense of isolation. Isolation is the bread and butter of the cult horror film. The protagonists are completely on their own and are often framed as such. This representation is usually a physical one based on location, but it can also be more metaphorical. In Hereditary, the characters are all isolated in their own grief. But most of the time it is physical isolation, made all the more apparent by most of these films taking place in broad daylight. It shows that there is nothing hiding in the shadows or the dark. Everything is on the table and the monsters don’t exclusively come out at night.
It’s Just for the Night — Atmosphere and Pacing in The House of the Devil
Cult films are all about drawing you into a specific world, lulling you into a false sense of security. Oftentimes, cult horror films don’t feel like a horror movie at all, things just appear to be going along as they normally do. That is, apart from the feeling that something isn’t quite right. All a sudden, the audience squirms in their seat, a feeling of dread slowly creeping up on them. They’re not fully sure why, but they’re squeamish.
The cult horror film’s greatest strength lies in getting under the viewer’s skin in a way other subgenres can’t. The only other one that comes even close is its sister subgenre, the ghost film. However, even that relies on certain jump scares (legitimate or fake) to keep the audience on its toes. However, the cult horror film doesn’t opt for that. It relies on a sense of unease that can only be achieved thanks to deliberate pacing. Cult horror films take their time, not offering up a kill every few minutes like a slasher film to keep the audience interested. Instead, the cult horror film chooses to use that time establishing its characters, its world, and its mood in order to provide an experience for the viewer that will stick with them long after the lights come back up.
Ti West’s 2009 film The House of the Devil asks the most for the audience’s patience. In it, broke college student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) takes a questionable babysitting job from an equally questionable family in order to afford a new apartment. It’s a job that seems too good to be true and it is. But she doesn’t know that yet. It will take her a lonely evening by herself before the gradual unease gets the better of her and she discovers she was chosen for more than just a babysitting gig.
The House of the Devil presents the slowest burn imaginable as West takes his time with Samantha throughout the course of a single, haunting, day. It’s the slow and deliberate pace that helps establish Samantha so she is fully formed and motivated to take such a creepy job. West does everything in his power to slow down The House of the Devil. He even goes so far as to hire Tom Noonan, the most encroachingly unnerving actor you could hire, to deliver unsettling exposition as the man who hires Samantha.
West uses all the narrative tools to make Samantha’s seemingly boring evening into an edge of your seat thrill ride. West follows the most mundane of tasks as Samantha explores the house (and giving the audience a comprehensive layout of the space), eats pizza, and dances around listening to her Walkman. All the while, West often uses the camera to either pull back from or encroach on Samantha to highlight her isolation and the sense of impending doom. It makes it all the more uneasy for the audience as all of a sudden, they feel more uneasy than they would’ve expected.
Long game suspense is the bread and butter of the cult horror film. Spectacular and gory deaths are not to be found here with the expectation of a couple of films, The House of the Devil among them. Instead, it’s the little moments have the greatest impact on the audience. The slow pacing of the cult horror film is a deliberate tool in digging into the audience’s subconscious. When it seems like nothing is happening, it makes those moments when something does happen, no matter how small, seem monumental. Every creak, every noise, perks the audience right up. The cult film isn’t worried about the audience losing interest, it knows it will pay up in the final act. It’s what makes the cult horror film so effective: it rewards the audience for paying attention.
Kill the Hunchback — The Ending of Kill List
The slow pacing of the cult horror film is a deliberate move on the part of the subgenre to make the conclusion all the much more jarring. The finales of cult horror films are when everything the film has built up to comes crashing down in delirious and spectacular fashion. It is here that the films tend to go from 0–60 and there’s no slowing down. This is perfectly exemplified in Ben Wheatley’s 2011 film Kill List.
Kill List follows Jay (Neil Maskell), a former soldier now turned contract killer in the midst of a flailing economy. He and his partner Gal (Michael Smiley) are contracted to kill three people, but things are amiss from the jump. As each of their targets thank them, Jay and Gal are forced to question who hired them and why they were hired. Little do they realize, they are cogs in something much greater.
Kill List is a deliberately withholding picture, letting the audience in on only what it needs to know to keep the story going forward. Like all cult horror films, there is that sense of unease permeating throughout. It starts out as this dark hitman story that morphs into a paganist conspiracy thriller. It keeps the viewer in the dark, literally having a character say at one point “The past is gone. The future is not yet here. There is only ever this moment.” Kill List, like many cult horror films, forces you to live in the moment, which can be frustrating at first, but makes it all the more terrifying once the other shoe finally drops.
As they are about to fulfill their last kill, Jay and Gal stumble upon a sacrificial ritual. Though they are vastly outnumbered, Jay decides to open fire on the cultists. The cultists chase after them and eventually kill Gal in the process. Jay returns home to his wife Shel (MyAnna Burning)and son Sam (Harry Simpson) but is besieged and captured. He is awakened, surrounded by cultists, and forced to kill a cloaked hunchback. He does, but he is horrified to pull the cloak back and see Shel with Sam strapped to her back.
Kill List takes its time getting to its endpoint and when it does it comes out of nowhere. It’s a specific nature of the cult horror film. Oftentimes, you don’t realize you’re watching a cult horror film until the last act, but it turns out it could only lead this way all along. At the beginning of the film, Jay playfully attacks and “stabs” Shel and Sam with a toy sword foreshadowing the end. Just like Sergeant Howie seeing the beetle in the desk in The Wicker Man, in the movie is telling you exactly where we’re headed, but we are so deep in, we don’t realize what’s right in front of us. By the time you realize it, it’s too late. You are the king for the day and fool forever.
The endings of cult horror films are the dessert after eating your veggies. Everything finally culminates and the grand scheme of the movie is unearthed. It can often be the most nihilistic and existential of any horror film and that is what makes them stick in the mind of viewers. Viewers always remember the ends of these pictures most. The rug is pulled from the audience and they hit the floor hard. They think they’re finally going to get some answers, only to be left with even more questions. It’s the kind of ending that ruminates and haunts the viewer for years to come.
Hail King Paimon and the May Queen — Thematic Resonance in the Films of Ari Aster
The best horror films are often symbolic and allegorical. From It Follows’ discussion of safe sex to The Babadook’s exploration of grief and motherhood, these are what bring the nuance to the seemingly cheap thrills that horror provides. The cult horror film is one steeped in spirituality and therefore becomes the most overtly symbolic and metaphorical of the horror subgenres. They are often presented as dark fables, an eerie moral tale filled with vivid imagery and recurring themes.
The films of Ari Aster have become not only some of the best horror films of recent years, but also excellent examples of the thematic and allegorical power of cult horror films. Hereditary and Midsommar are both very different films with Hereditary observing a family overcoming an overwhelming loss and Midsommar exploring a young woman’s slowly nightmarish trip to an ancient Swedish celebration. However, both films are implicitly connected due to their strong thematic through lines and symbolic imagery.
Hereditary is a film filled with symbols and shapes. The symbol of the cult itself is seen multiple times, tethering the Grahams to this dark and seemingly incredible power. Another recurring shape throughout Hereditary is the triangle. Triangles are everywhere in Hereditary from the pointed roof of the Graham house (and treehouse) to the position of characters in the frame, to literally the way characters are dressed. Trinities are everywhere and add to the symbolic depth of Hereditary’s goals.
Symbols carry a lot of thematic weight to them and are critical to setting up future events in ways that dialogue cannot. In the cult horror film, symbols are crucial to laying out the foundations of the story, hinting that there is something else at work. They are markers along the road, each one a new dot that will eventually connect. Early in Hereditary, a character remarks on the legend of Heracles, “He literally refuses to look at all the signs that are literally being handed to him the entire play.” Aster, like many directors of cult horror films, is doing just that: giving you everything you need if you only choose to look.
Hereditary is no less forthright with its foreshadowing. From the recurrence of the cult’s symbol to the miniatures Annie (Toni Collette) constructs throughout the film, to Chekhov’s nuts, Hereditary gives the audience everything it needs to put the pieces together. It telegraphs exactly where it’s going by having its opening shot be of the final location: the treehouse. From the very beginning, Aster shows the audience where this story is headed and it is all too clear the power that triangular building holds. Peter (Alex Wolff), and the audience, cannot help but be drawn to it and before you know it, we are trapped in an unholy trinity, with no signs of escape.
The true horror in Aster’s films stems from his uncanny ability to explore deeply prevalent themes through a frightening lens. Hereditary may be a film about a pagan cult, but it is also a rich film with a lot to say about the nature of grief, mental illness, and parenthood. Part of what makes the film so effective is the surreal and horrific presentation of reality. Aster’s particular skill is to craft these haunting allegories, presenting stories that feel true to our own world, only to have them descend into a horrifying nightmare. Nowhere is this better done than in Midsommar.
Midsommar is among the more overtly allegorical of the cult horror films. Not only is it the story of a hellish trip to a paganist ritual by a group of young outsiders, but it is also so clearly the story of a relationship on the rocks, ready to break open like a body plummeting from a cliffside. Throughout Midsommar, the relationship between Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) is gradually picked apart over the course of the nine-day celebration, culminating in a fiery conclusion to a dying relationship.
From the start, Dani and Christian’s relationship appears to be dead and cold. The audience is introduced to them in the winter, already complaining to their friends about the other, but neither having the backbone to end the relationship. Their dynamic is one of dominance and submission, with Christian often minimizing Dani’s feelings and shifting the blame for their problems squarely on her. The first fight we see between them, regarding Christian not telling Dani about the trip to Sweden, Dani is rightfully upset, but Christian shuts down, causing Dani to place the blame on herself and not on him.
The couple’s arrival at Hårga only demonstrates the growing divide between them. Day by day, Christian drifts away from Dani, as she struggles with her own grief and inability to be honest with herself. He even forgets her birthday, but she forgives him anyway. As things start to get suspicious, however, Dani grows more and more concerned, and Christian drifts further and further away, only caring about himself. As the days continue, Dani sees something deeper in the rituals that seem to speak only to her.
The rituals throughout Midsommar speak to Dani as they unearth her own developing sense of self-worth and advocacy. The second ritual, seen in the Director’s Cut, showcases a young girl about to be thrown into the water to be drowned in order to appease the gods, a rock placed on her chest to ensure she sinks. It is only when Dani steps forward to stop it that the girl is spared. This is Dani’s first step towards self-actualization. She calls out the injustice of having another woman let a crushing weight drag her down to her destruction.
The people of Hårga present a kind and welcoming community for Dani. The friend who brought the group there in the first place, Pelle, is a genial guide to ingratiating Dani into a world that rushes to the aid of those in pain. He is the only one of Christian’s friends (including Christian) to really check in on how Dani is. This reflects on the deeply empathetic nature of the community he was raised in. All the citizens of Hårga echo the suffering of those who cry out. They help shoulder the burden, indicating that they are not alone in their suffering and their recovery.
Once Dani is crowned May Queen, she is fully accepted into the community and no longer the outsider. Instead of sitting off to the sidelines with Christian, she sits at the head of the table. She is Queen for the day, but thankfully she’s the one spared this time, now making the final judgment call for sacrifice. When faced with the choice to either sacrifice Christian or someone from Hårga, she chooses to sever her ties with the man who has caused her nothing but suffering and choose the people who have reminded her that she is someone worth loving.
Midsommar is a film exploring the horrific feeling of getting your heart smashed into pieces. Aster said he sought to create “a breakup movie that felt as cataclysmic as a breakup feels,” and the finale of Midsommar is as cataclysmic as it gets. As Dani watches the temple burn with Christian inside, she is finally taking control of her own life, embracing a community that actually cares about her. With that final acceptance, she can finally be at peace.
The cult horror film’s endurance as a beloved subgenre of horror is due to its unconventional approach compared to its counterparts. It presents a very singular and unique world that it eases the viewer into while unnerving them at the same time. The cult horror film keeps the viewer engaged through its slower pacing by providing rich thematic through lines, stark symbols, and an often unforgiving and unforgettable finale.
The cult horror film is not for all lovers of the genre, but it is one of the most fascinating and delicate subgenres out there. They are the films that stick with you longer than most, even though you don’t want it to. They burrow themselves deep, keeping you up, making you feel like a beetle going ‘round in circles, slowly becoming more and more entrapped until it’s too late.
The House of the Devil, Hereditary, and Midsommar are all available to stream on Amazon Prime. The Wicker Man is available to stream on Criterion Channel. Kill List is available to rent wherever you rent your movies!