Meta, derived from metafiction, is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the film world, but most people only have a vague understanding of the term. That’s partially because the meta concept encompasses a wide variety of characteristics, making its true meaning hard to pin down.
A strict definition of meta only goes so far in demystifying the subject, but the term generally applies to movies that purposefully make the audience aware that they’re watching a movie and then use that awareness to comment on reality, fiction, or both.
If you’re interested in the study of metafiction, it’s helpful if you pick an established genre to study, like horror, which has rules, conventions, and tropes that pop up everywhere. Knowing the rules makes it much easier to see when they’re being broken, as they are in meta-horror films.
Start with these 10 horror movies if you want to know what makes meta-horror tick. With enough movie-watching and immersion in the tropes and concepts of these film, you can become an expert on meta-horror.
Meta-Horror: A 10 Movie Primer
The meta-concept most in play in the original Scream is genre savviness. The characters in Scream have seen horror movies and know how they work. This first movie even lays out rules derived from the generation of slasher movies before Scream, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Even though this genre savviness typically does not end up helping the movie’s characters, Scream went on to spawn a franchise that has become the basis for many meta-horror movies on the market today.
Fright Night (1985)
Like Scream, Fright Night deals in genre savviness, but where Scream loves to hate horror movies, Fright Night simply loves them, giving rise to a different meta-concept: ascended fanboy.
You can probably guess what this entails, but basically, fanaticism serves a character well when they find themselves living their dreams – or in Fright Night’s case, nightmares, when obsessive horror fan Charley Brewster finds himself living next door to a vampire.
Charley also enlists his mentor Peter Vincent, an actor who played a vampire hunter in many movies who now has to fight a real vampire – a very meta concept indeed.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead flips genre savviness on its head. In fact, genre-blind Shaun and Ed don’t even notice right away that they’re in the middle of a zombie movie. But boy, do the filmmakers and audience notice.
One of the things that makes Shaun of the Dead work as a horror-comedy is the fact that the filmmakers know the zombie genre inside and out, paying homage to such classics as Night of the Living Dead. The equally genre-savvy audience is in on the joke. We know things are going to go horribly wrong, therefore it’s funny when they do.
The Faculty (1998)
When you talk about movies that know their tropes, they typically fall into either parody or pastiche. The difference between the two is that parody mocks the source material in some way – think Scary Movie – while pastiche celebrates it.
As a genre-savvy pastiche, The Faculty makes it pretty obvious that it’s drawing inspiration from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Unlike many other pastiches, The Faculty, while funny at times, largely plays it straight – or in other words, it uses tropes without making fun of them.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Sometimes The Cabin in the Woods plays with audience expectations to comedic effect, like Shaun of the Dead, but more often, the movie acknowledges those expectations and the audience’s desire to laugh at them by making the trope-based deaths particularly gruesome.
The back half of the film moves even further into meta territory by deconstructing horror movie tropes and the genre itself. Deconstruction means taking apart a trope so that the audience can understand it better. Ultimately, The Cabin in the Woods asserts these tropes exist because someone – i.e. the moviegoers – want them to.
It Follows (2015)
Where The Cabin in the Woods spends its time deconstructing many tropes, It Follows hones in on a specific one: death by sex. The movie asks us to look at the number one horror rule and why it exists or even if it should.
It Follows may not provide concrete answers, but it gives the audience the bones to build a theory on the rule themselves. That makes it meta, particularly since the movie strives to blur the lines between real and fictional. Perhaps that blurring was why many critics hailed It Follows as the scariest movie of 2015.
Another movie that blurs the lines between real and fictional, Candyman questions the concept of “fictional” as it deals with urban legends. Meditating on the nature of story itself, Candyman asks its audience to think about why these legends have such power over us.
The fact that the movie’s main character is studying urban legends as part of the plot makes for even more meta-goodness. As she talks about her study and why people need legends, it’s easy to make the leap from fiction to reality and interrogate how a movie like Candyman came to be.
Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000)
As a movie about making movies, it’s hard to get more meta than Urban Legends: Final Cut. This movie knows its tropes and plays with them, has genre savvy characters, and continuously blurs the lines between fiction and reality.
Because the movie deals with the movie-making industry and also exists within that industry, Urban Legends: Final Cut also gives its audience a fun look at a behind-the-scenes world that doesn’t exist in most horror films.
Sinister also gives us legends and movies within the movie, using them to comment on story-telling and to ask why these things have power over us. This movie is different from many of the others on this list – except Shaun of the Dead – because its characters don’t seem to know anything about horror movies. If they did, Sinister would have ended much differently.
But as it is, it’s the ending of the movie that gives us a new meta-concept: the meta-twist. Sinister actively works against its audience’s expectations to deliver an unexpected ending.
The Final Girls (2015)
The Final Girls is a master class in meta-horror. After Max loses her actress mother in a car crash, she and her friends find themselves sucked into her mom’s most famous movie, a parody of Friday the 13th.
The literal movie within a movie angle is played with constantly, with genre-savvy characters who comment on nearly every horror trope imaginable and even interact with things like flashbacks and credits.
If you’re interested in meta-horror and want to see just how far filmmakers can push the concept, The Final Girls is definitely the movie to watch.
Meta-horror has been a popular concept in horror for at least the last 20 years, and it’s showing no signs of going away any time soon. That’s a good thing because what makes meta-horror so interesting is that it can tell a complete story in many different ways. These movies can make you laugh, make you cry, and make you scream. And isn’t that what we’re looking for in our favorite stories?
Spend some time with these movies, and you’ll better appreciate the horror genre, meta concepts, and movies in general.