The Secret Societies of Horror Films
So much of horror is about the hidden secret, the deadly truth that is revealed far too late to be of any help, so it only adds insult to the injury of the violence and death that surrounds the characters in any great horror film. Often, it is a family secret or a past trauma, something brief and punctuated that altered a life forever.
Sometimes, however, the secret is more complicated and elaborate, and it is held among a group rather than an individual. Whole societies are built around these secrets, and these cabals and secret societies operate under cover of darkness and ignorance. They act as a hidden civilization running concurrent to our own, making subtle changes and decisions that steer people without their knowledge.
Horror films are great at exploring these secret societies because they can plumb the depths not only of the psychology of the group, but also the violent response they have in trying to remain secret. This is a list of ten of horror film’s most secret societies. (NOTE: Secret Societies and Cults are slightly different things, so for the majority of this list, groups with a cult-like status have been left out)
10. Eyes Wide Shut
First things first: this is not a horror film, which is why it only made #10 on the list. However, even though the film is more of a thriller, the film unquestionably contains one of the creepiest secret societies in film history.
From the moment that Tom Cruise’s Dr. Harford steps into the secret gathering, it’s clear that he is in over his head. From the blindfolded pianist to the haunting single-key piano accompaniment to the participants in masks which strip away all individual identity, the group is as disturbing as it is mysterious.
They know he is an intruder, and when a woman seemingly sacrifices herself so he can leave unscathed, he starts to look into the group. It is much darker and more complicated than he ever could have imagined…
9. Night Watch
In Timur Bekmambetov’s Russian horror-thriller Night Watch, he and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis envision an elaborate battle taking place over hundreds of years between the forces of darkness and light. Knowing that they would eventually destroy each other, a truce was made. The beings, called Others, formed groups called Night Watch and Day Watch, guardians who monitored the opposing side to keep the balance.
The job of the Night Watch is revealed through Anton, a man the Night Watch recruits after discovering that he is also an Other. One of the most stunning elements of Night Watch is The Gloom, a strange shadow world that only the Others are able to access.
Visually stunning and darkly comedic in places, the film launched Bekmambetov to Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and brought writer Kalogridis to Hollywood’s attention, where she scripted Pathfinder and Shutter Island.
8. Les Vampires
The oldest film on the list by a long margin, 1915’s Les Vampires from director Louis Feuillade is a French serial that clocks in at just over seven hours. Since the assumption is that most viewers won’t go back and watch the whole thing, here’s the idea.
The story revolves around a journalist in Paris who is trying to solve the mystery of a roving masked gang called Les Vampires (that is simply their name, they’re not actually vampires). The gang is based on the real Apache gangs of the era, violent underworld criminals who plagued the streets of the city.
The film’s revelation, that it was the city’s elite masquerading as common criminals, was a clever twist for the time, and the storytelling and thriller techniques of the serial influenced many great filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock.
7. The Village
While it is far from a perfect film, The Village was the last of the decent works that director M. Night Shyamalan made before his descent into mediocrity for five films that was mercifully brought to an end with 2016’s Split.
While a viewer might think that the strange creatures in the woods are the secret society that gets this film on the list, that would be a cheat, since (SPOILER ALERT) they are a fabricated race designed simply to keep the citizens of the village from asking too many questions or straying too far.
No, the secret society in this film is actually the village itself. Though revealed late in the film, the truth is that the village was hidden from the rest of society, an attempt to start over without the corruption and violence of the outside world. The secret society was itself so secret that the people within it didn’t even know.
The world of the new flesh was brought to the mainstream by David Cronenberg in 1983’s Videodrome. The film was in keeping with Cronenberg’s consistent obsessions with the evolution of the human body due to technology, but the added bonus in this film is the element of the secret society.
In this case, there are actually two! The organization of Brian O’Blivion (the strange man who will only appear in public on a television screen), Cathode Ray Mission, has the goal of incorporating television into every human interaction in life. Though their desires are strange, they’re not the most dangerous organization.
Spectacular Optical, the producer of the TV series “Videodrome,” is using the broadcast to give brain tumors to people they deem questionable because of the content they consume. It’s a complicated idea with prescient concerns for our modern time, and worth seeking out.
Filmmaker John Frankenheimer made some of the most illuminating films about America in the 1960s, and Seconds ranks as one of the most insightful, disturbing, and accurate. In the film, a middle-aged man feels frozen in his dead-end life, until a mysterious organization called the “Company” offers him surgery to make him a whole new person with a whole new life.
It works, and he comes out the other end looking like Rock Hudson. He is welcomed into an entire community of these re-created people, all escaping their previous lives. When he decides he doesn’t want to be a part of it anymore, he finds out that leaving isn’t so easy.
The black and white cinematography from James Wong Howe is stunning, and the film is far ahead of its time in depicting the phenomena of plastic surgery, isolated communities, and an allegory for midlife crises.
Martyrs is one of the most brutal and unrelenting horror films in recent years, but the film’s themes are as unsettling as its violence in their own way. A young woman discovers that her friend was kidnapped as a child and systematically abused by a secretive group, but she only learns the truth because she becomes their newest focus.
The strange philosophical society who has her captured is frightening in that their zeal for violence is masked in a scientific curiosity about the afterlife. The mysterious woman who leads the group is unnervingly calm in her explanation for the group’s existence.
Though the 2015 American remake does touch on the same themes, the visceral nature of the original cannot be matched. The film will stay in your mind long after it has ended, and its ramifications are worth considering.
3. Brotherhood of the Wolf
This film is a hybrid of so many different things that it should collapse in on itself under the weight of its various subgenres. Equal parts martial arts, horror, fantasy, and historical epic, the film somehow weaves it all together under the sure-handed direction of Christophe Gans, who later went on to make the visually arresting Silent Hill.
The interesting surprise of this film is that the secret society within the film is actually the title of the film! The Brotherhood of the Wolf as depicted in the film is a group using the fear of a rampaging wolf to undermine the authority of the king and take over the country.
Beautiful, haunting, and with an ending that both satisfies the mystery and still surprises with its revelations, the movie was unfortunately lost on mainstream audiences during its American release. It deserves to be found again by appreciative horror hybrid fans.
2. The Conspiracy
A terribly underrated found footage horror film that got lost in the glut of fake docs that have filled the marketplace in the last decade, The Conspiracy is a smart, taut thriller with horror overtones that builds slowly to a strange and uncomfortable crescendo that will have viewers questioning exactly what transpired.
The most traditional of the secret societies on the list, the film revolves around two filmmakers discovering that a supposed crackpot spouting conspiracy theories was right, but only after he vanishes entirely. Starring Aaron Poole (recently from The Void), the movie uses the hidden camera conceit to excellent effect.
Unfairly lumped in with bad entries in its subgenres, the film is well-made and the performances are excellent. This film is a satisfying secret society film for discerning horror viewers.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
The film needs absolutely no introduction. Directed by Drew Goddard from a script by him and Joss Whedon, the film skewers the clichés of the subgenre after which it is named. Clever, shocking, and determined not to be pinned down, the movie is best viewed by well-versed fans of horror.
The secret society in the film is the piece that raises this film from a standard teen horror entry to a smart satire of the genre itself. Great performances from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins keep the film from becoming a bloodless commentary on horror, instead embracing the silliness and self-awareness.
For those who haven’t seen it, seek it out now. For those who have seen it, watch it again to enjoy all the roads not taken, the creatures glimpsed in the corners and the background or described on the dry erase boards.