As I write this, the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic stands at about 809,000 people worldwide, and an astonishing 179,000 deaths in the US alone. We live in a time of plague – perhaps not the plague that swept the globe in 1918 or Europe several times throughout the Middle Ages, but one nonetheless. Our modern plague is distinct from previous iterations in many ways, but perhaps none so much as the way in which we have all become simultaneously connected (by video chat, by phone, by social media) and isolated (by quarantine, by business closures, by social distancing). This alone-together hybrid existence has given rise to many phenomenon including some unique artistic responses, one of which is the subgenre of horror film that has come to be called “QuarHorror.”
What is QuarHorror? As a genre, it has its roots in plague horror, which is at least as old as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (if not older, depending on how one defines “horror”). There have been modern plague horror or contamination horror movies that can be considered early forerunners of QuarHorror, including The Crazies and (especially) the Cabin Fever franchise. To my mind, QuarHorror meets the following criteria: first, it was made during or directly adjacent to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, second, that it deals with themes including isolation, anxiety, contagion, and the breakdown of social ties.
Examples of QuarHorror include Host, The Rental, The Beach House, She Dies Tomorrow, and Sea Fever, each of which brings something interesting to the table. In the case of Host (for my money, the most interesting of the current crop), it’s a very clever horror take on something many of us are now familiar with that we were not before the plague: a Zoom call. The Beach House and Sea Fever offer distinctly Lovecraftian takes on contagion. Both The Rental and The Beach House exist at the intersection of QuarHorror and Airbnb Horror. She Dies Tomorrow could be considered a plague-paranoia successor to It Follows. All have responded to our unique circumstances and challenges with artistry, terror, and attention to the little details that distinguish our lives now from the lives we lived before the pandemic. All of them have also primarily been experienced at home through VOD or streaming services – a departure from horror films’ natural habitat of the movie theatre (although the pandemic has also led to the resurgence of a previously endangered habitat: the drive-in).
It is not surprising that horror has been one of the first artistic forms to deal with COVID in a meaningful way. Horror has usually led the way in commenting on social issues, from Frankenstein (at the dawn of science) to Night of the Living Dead to It Follows and Get Out. In truth there haven’t been many social, political, or biological issues that horror hasn’t tackled at this point. Still, even by horror’s high standards, both the turnaround time and the quality of these QuarHorror offerings are astonishing. They represent a response that has taken place almost literally a real-time and in the face of an ongoing crisis that has rendered every aspect of the endeavor more difficult.
Not only is there ample artistic merit to be found in QuarHorror – it turns out that the unique adaptability of horror to our new reality may have rubbed off on horror fans. As I’ve written before, a growing body of research suggests a correlation between horror movie fandom and an increased ability to cope with the psychological stresses of the pandemic. Correlation is not causation, of course, but the confluence of these phenomenon – horror fans coping better with quarantine, horror itself coping better with quarantine, than the average person or art form – suggests that there’s more value to be had in the macabre than many realize.