There’s a reason why, in 2020, Contagion became one of the most-watched movies in the US. Fans of the viral thriller actually reported lower anxiety levels regarding Covid-19 than those who hadn’t watched it. Another study found that horror fans fared better, psychologically speaking, over the many months of pandemic.
Horror is a strange genre; it exaggerates our greatest fears to the level of “active threat” but often remains grounded in a recognizable reality, even at its most extreme. Its domestic settings, relatable protagonists, and universal fears ask the audience to imagine: what would I do if I was in that situation?
Horror offers community, shared fear as common ground. It helps us work through the anxieties we feel in the day to day in an environment that is both safe and intense.
So, if you’re looking for horror that really scratches that pandemic itch, I’ve got just the thing. Here are 17 of the best pieces of horror to read, watch, or otherwise consume post-2020, not because they are an escape from our current reality, but because they are eerily similar to it.
Plot: A late-night television host and her cinematographer follow first responders to an apartment building where an elderly woman is infected with a virus that grants her superhuman strength
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 2/10; sure, there are obviously parallels between zombie movies and a global pandemic, but I personally think that zombies are a terrible metaphor for coronavirus because they imply that there is no point to following protocols since nothing you do can fix the world.
Why you should watch it: It’s a criminally underrated Spanish horror film that combines shaky cam with a tight, claustrophobic plot that keeps you on edge the whole way through.
16. Warm Bodies
Plot: After a terrible plague has divided all the world’s population into either zombies or scattered survivors, a young zombie develops a relationship with Julie, a human.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 5/10; unlike most zombie movies, Warm Bodies focuses primarily on exploring the possibility of life after an outbreak and destigmatizes those afflicted with illness.
Why you should watch it: It’s light-hearted, fun, and offers an interesting take on zombie mythology.
15. The Drowning, Co
Format: Web comic
Plot: As a beauty vlogger experiences her first brush with social media success, a strange Lovecraftian creature awakens from the depths.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 5/10; with quarantine amping up the role that screens play in everyday life, the tale of a social media mogul confronting cosmic horror seems apt.
Why you should read it: It has a slow creeping pace that keeps you at the edge of your seat. Plus, it’s set in a post-Covid world and, honestly, that’s just nice to think about.
Side bar: As far as I understand, this comic is, as of yet, unfinished. Or possibly, its ending is a little abrupt. Or I have no idea where to access the final chapters. If anyone figures it out, please let me know at enquiries@SlowBurnHorror.com because I am very invested in this story.
14. “Who Goes There?”, John W. Campbell
Plot: Paranoia ravages an Antarctic research camp after the team uncovers a hostile shapeshifting alien deep in the ice.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 6/10; Isolation. Alienation. Mistrust of the people in your immediate circle. Sound familiar? The only thing that breaks with this story’s Covid-19 vibes is that at the start, there are 37 people living under one roof. Imagine that! 37 people inside a single location. Absolute madness.
Why you should read it: “Who Goes There?” is the source material for John Carpenter’s The Thing so, if you like the movie, it’s worthwhile checking out where it came from (especially with quarantine time on your hands). If you haven’t seen the film (which is also worth watching), the novella stands on its own as a tense, psychological piece of sci-fi horror.
“Norris is afraid that we may release a plague, some germ disease unknown to Earth, if we thaw those microscopic things that have been frozen there for twenty million years.”“Who Goes There, John W. Campbell
13. A Quiet Place
Plot: After the Earth is invaded by deadly aliens that hunt using sound, a family must learn to live in complete silence.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 6/10; by operating in the domestic sphere, A Quiet Place really nails how day-to-day life must continue even in times of extreme crisis
Why you should watch it: A Quiet Place was an absolute hit when it came out in spring of 2018 for good reason. Its proposed hope of a continued future really amps up audience tension and fear for the characters’ survival. Plus it does some really interesting things with sound.
12. The Lighthouse/”Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs”
Format: Movie/Episode of a TV show
Plot: Two men try to maintain their sanity while sequestered in a remote location, isolated from everyone but each other.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 7/10; the tension between the protagonists after several weeks of seeing only each other is, frankly, a mood.
Why you should watch it: As these two are basically the same story, you can either watch them side-by-side to draw some interesting parallels (it’s what I did) or you can pick the one that seems the most interesting to you. The Lighthouse is set in the 1890s on a New England island; “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs” is set in 2010s suburbia. Both pieces do a great job breaking down the psychological effects of isolation and social distance.
Plot: An online group call between high school friends turns sinister when a mysterious supernatural entity joins in.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 7/10; between overlapping conversations, inescapable lag, and the overwhelming sensation of distance even when virtually connected, Unfriended really captures that frenetic 2020 Zoom call energy.
Why you should watch it: Unfriended is fun in the way that reading creepypastas at 1 AM is “fun”. It’s like a YouTube horror short reproduced with an urban legend to the tune of $1 million USD (which is legitimately the budget of Unfriended). It’s the kind of movie you can imagine watching at a sleepover (you know, when we actually went to other people’s houses), at 2 A.M., over a bowl of Act II microwave popcorn and a pack of sour gummies.
Plot: A cam girl tracks down the mysterious doppelganger that has stolen her channel.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 7/10; between work from home and virtual group hangs, our online identity during Covid-19 has become pivotal to the day to day. Cam asks us to wonder what would happen if that identity’s security was threatened.
Why you should watch it: Written by Isa Mazzie, former cam girl, Cam offers an interest deep dive into the world of online sex work. Its high-octane plot moves at breakneck speed, unveiling truths about the importance of boundaries, the limitations of parasocial relationships, and the isolation of operating in an industry that is traditionally looked down upon by wider society.
9. “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Format: Short story
Plot: After a mental breakdown, a woman is sent away to “heal” in isolation, where she spends most of her time locked in her room.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 8/10; after nearly a year of on-again-off-again quarantine law, we too may start seeing unearthly patterns in our wallpaper.
Why you should read it: Many consider “The Yellow Wallpaper” one of the greatest short stories ever written. It is a highly empathetic look at the relationship between mental illness and isolation. The author herself struggled with mental illness, basing this short story on her real-life brush with “utter mental ruin” caused by isolation and bad advice from a specialist (who recommended said isolation).
“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”
8. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Plot: Four “spectrally sensitive” people agree to live in and investigate the reportedly haunted Hill House.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 8/10; The Haunting of Hill House really captures that “I haven’t left the house in seven days, not even to get the mail, but now I’m wondering if it was actually seven months” vibe
Why you should read it: The Haunting of Hill House cleverly creates an environment that is simultaneously hostile and hyper-familiar. It’s a quick read with a long digestion period, gnawing away at the back of your mind. It stays with you long after you’ve closed the book and shoved it to the very back of your bookshelf. (There’s also a Netflix adaptation of it, but I preferred the book)
“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
7. It Follows
Plot: A young woman falls victim to a sexually transmitted curse that follows her everywhere she goes.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 8/10; between heightened anxiety and country-wide lockdowns, the sexual landscape during Covid-19 has been sparse. It Follows showcases how relating intimacy to fear of suffering can have long term ramifications on mental health.
Why you should watch it: It Follows is a movie that rewards careful watching; there’s always something in the background to set the audience on edge. The movie’s monster generates a stomach-churning dread that turns each scene into a protracted nightmare. The threat looms over both audience and characters, insidious, constant, death by a thousand cuts.
6. “Long Dream”, Junji Ito
Plot: A man whose dreams feel like they last months, or even years, is confined to a hospital as doctors race to find a cure
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 9/10; the protagonist’s lived experience differs drastically from objective time, which is highly relatable in a world where April 2020 lasted around four months, but Sept-tob-ember went by in just over a week and somehow it’s already the end of January 2021 as though January 2020 didn’t happen just a few months ago.
Why you should read it: If you love horror and you love creepy imagery, Junji Ito is your guy. Ito is a master of horror, combining base human fears, both physical and spiritual. “Long Dream” juxtaposes existential dread against overwhelming near-psychedelic body horror.
5. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Plot: A young woman finds herself trapped in an underground bunker with two men who warn her that the outside air is toxic.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 9/10; 10 Cloverfield Lane is a wonderful exploration of cabin fever, understanding that life in quarantine is simultaneously pure anxiety and maddening dullness.
Why you should watch it: It’s tense, well-acted (featuring John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Goodman), and, despite technically being a Cloverfield movie, easily stands on its own two feet.
4. “Patient Zero”, Tananarive Due
Format: Short story
Plot: In a world ravaged by a deadly virus, a young orphan and the only known survivor to the illness is obsessively studied by doctors trying to find a cure.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 9/10; from cancelled football to plastic face masks, many of the details in “Patient Zero” elicit a stomach-clenching deja vu. I kept having to scroll back to the top to check that it was definitely published in 2010.
Why you should read it: “Patient Zero” is creepy in the way so many “diary-based” pieces are (think “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Flowers for Algernon”). You’re forced to unravel the horror of what’s happened to the world guided by a perspective that is heartbreakingly innocent. It’s worth a read, not only because it is eerily prophetic, but because it is well-paced and fascinating.
3. The Others
Plot: A young mother waits for word from her missing husband while secluding herself and her children inside to protect them from their rare and deadly photosensitivity disease.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 10/10; The Others is the story of a family set aside to rot, trapped inside as endless days flit by.
Why you should watch it: The Others is one of my favorite movies of all time. The Others is the kind of horror story that I wish I had thought of. It is a slow-burning piece of Gothic horror that draws you bit by bit into its clutches. Unlike most of the movies on this list, The Others isn’t set in the modern day; it takes place post World War II. If you are looking for Covid-esque horror that captures your day-to-day housebound existence but are still interested in some degree of escapism, this is the one.
2. Bird Box, Josh Malerman
Plot: In an apocalyptic world filled with creatures that drive anyone who sees them insane, a young mother must brave a river blindfolded in hopes of finding a better life for her two four-year-olds.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 9.5/10; apart from the obvious “Covid-esque” aesthetic of needing to wear masks to go outside, Bird Box gets at the feeling of being in a global pandemic better than anything else I’ve read. Its theme of survival versus thriving is eerily familiar, especially when it comes to trying to raise a child during a time of unprecedented chaos.
Why you should read it: My friend recommended Bird Box to me because she began reading it on the train one day and couldn’t put it down. I’m recommending Bird Box because I began reading it during a recent holiday and ended up finishing it on the same day. It’s almost too easy to read, with a tense tight narrative moved forward by exacting prose. It’s a really good book. The movie… eh. It made a lot of adaptational choices that I don’t necessarily agree with, and was definitely less engaging.
1. “The Masque of the Red Death”, Edgar Allan Poe
Format: Short story
Plot: Amid a deadly plague that ravages the country, the wealthy Prince Prospero invites all his friends over and locks his doors in an attempt to stay safe.
Covid-19 Relatability Score: 10/10; a terrible illness ravages the country. The mortality rate is dizzying, the air tense. We are told to social distance, to avoid large gatherings. We are told that isolation is safety, that we must work together by staying apart. Then some rich asshole throws a super-spreader party because they somehow think they’re above it all. Ta-dah: you have the plot of “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Why you should read it: Prospero is the perfect emblem for the frustration of living in a time where we fear for the lives of our loved ones and follow strict quarantine guidelines for their sake, then log onto Instagram to see someone we went to high school with at a nightclub. It’s a story about plague and privilege, showcasing how no amount of money can convince a virus to halt in its path. Like all Poe short stories, it is an eerie, easy read that gets at deep-rooted human fears of death and suffering, as relevant today as it was in 1842.
“The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.”
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”
(Art by Anastasia in Red, who does a lot of funky horror and dark art you should definitely check out)
From a once-in-a-century global pandemic to the unending bouts of isolation, 2020 proved to be quite the psychological thriller. Whether you’re trying to kill time or reflect on the horrors of the past year, the options on this list are definitely worth checking out.
“[After watching my first slasher movie], I felt two things: pride at having made it through the movie—and an immediate sense of relief tinged with euphoria.”Nicole Johnson, on using horror as a coping mechanism