A social thriller is a film genre that uses social commentary in its storytelling. Specifically, it uses elements of horror and suspense to comment on societal oppression and the injustices in everyday life.

It’s been around for a long while, but has only recently gained mass exposure because of the 2017 film Get Out, a film that uses horror as a tool to explore racism against black people in America.

The Social Thriller

Social thrillers are social critiques in cinematic form. They can tackle a wide variety of issues about race, sexuality, politics, religion, environmentalism, and class. They’re often embedded in genre films such as drama, comedy, and especially horror.

The horror genre has always made people feel like something’s crawling under their skin by way of unearthly creatures, horrible people, and the concepts of death and self-preservation. Social thrillers do much the same; the only difference is that society itself is the villain of the story.

As far back as the 1970s, the term “social thriller” was used in film criticism to describe films that created dramatic tension using social inequity. It wasn’t used to denote a specific and cohesive genre.

All of that changed in 2017, when director Jordan Peele gave it its modern incarnation. He defines it as “thriller/horror movies where the ultimate villain is society.” The social thriller, as a modern genre, is then about confronting the evils that humanity is capable of collectively.

Examples of the Social Thriller

Social thrillers have always been an important part of cinema, but in recent years, attention to it has reached an all-time high. Below are a few excellent examples of this popular genre.

Spoiler Alert! In explaining why these films are social thrillers, it was necessary to include minor and major details from their plots.

1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In the fictional California town of Santa Mira, an extraterrestrial invasion is budding. Alien spores fall from space and grow into large seed pods that can produce a near-perfect replica of a human, albeit with no human emotions. As the humans are slowly outnumbered, a local doctor sets out to uncover and stop the invasion.

Why it is a social thriller:

The film was released just over a decade after World War 2, however, America was already facing a new problem: the Cold War. One of the biggest fears of Americans at the time was the spread of communism, not only to their country’s allies, but also at home.

Considering this atmosphere of suspicion, it’s easy to see the film as an artistic take on the fear of an “other” infiltrating the community.

2. Parasite

The Kims live in a shabby, cramped apartment, are used to operating small scams to get by, and do the minimum work required in their jobs. Meanwhile, the Parks are wealthy, live in a modern house designed by a famed architect, and have everything the Kims want.

As both families form a symbiotic relationship, differences, greed, and discrimination threaten to destroy both of their worlds.

Why it is a social thriller:

Parasite is a study on class conflict, social inequality, and wealth disparity. It juxtaposes how the rich and poor utilize their resources and live their lives, particularly when it comes to education, employment, and property acquisition.

Perhaps the biggest example of the divide is the monsoon scene. The Kim’s semi-basement apartment is flooded with sewer water, forcing them to shelter in a gymnasium. The Park’s simply consider the rain as a blessing that washes away pollution.

3. The Stepford Wives

Joanna Eberhart and her family move from busy New York to the idyllic suburb of Stepford in Fairfield County, Connecticut. She quickly finds that all the women in the neighborhood look flawless, are obsessed with housework, and live only to please their husbands.

When her husband succumbs to the other men’s way of thinking, Joanna discovers that the Stepford husbands have replaced their wives with android duplicates, and she’s the next target.

Why it is a social thriller:

The Stepford Wives is a commentary on sexism and women’s liberty. It parodies the mistaken thinking of the time that every woman should be fashionable, have curvy figures, know how to cook and clean, and always submit to the husband—a vision that ultimately fails.

4. The People Under the Stairs

Poindexter “Fool” Williams needs money to pay for his mother’s surgery and avoid being evicted. Desperate. he and two others break into their landlord’s house.

But soon after breaking in, Fool’s associates quickly die from what they find inside. With nowhere to run, Fool must play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with cannibalistic children and a pair of deranged, money-obsessed siblings.

Why it is a social thriller:

At surface level, the story seems like a hodgepodge of horror tropes but underlying themes poke fun at society’s many problems. The landlords’ aggressive takeover of the neighborhood (gentrification), their obsession with money (capitalism), and their willingness to take advantage of the less fortunate (class warfare) are explored throughout the film.

The ending even offers somewhat of a solution to these issues. Fool sets of explosives and demolishes the house, the landlords die, and their hoarded money is blown into the streets by the explosion, leaving them for the people.

5. Red State

Three teenagers drive all the way to Cooper’s Dell for the promise of sex from an older woman. However, their fantasy turns into a trap when they’re drugged and caged by a fanatical preacher with so much hatred, even the Nazis stay away.

The preacher and his church terrorize the teens before eventually murdering them for their “sins.” But the unexpected arrival of a federal agent derails their plans, giving the boys a slim chance to escape.

Why it is a social thriller:

Red State is a commentary on religious fanaticism and its capacity for destruction. It shows how people may look normal but have extreme convictions that drive them to hurt other people.

The film doesn’t hide its satirization of a real-world example of absolute bigotry. It pokes fun of the Westboro Baptist Church and its previous leader, Fred Waldron Phelps. The church is famous for its views against Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ+ community, and is known for its aggressive picketing against these groups.

6. His House

A couple flees from war-torn South Sudan in search of a better and more peaceful life. Granted probational asylum, they are assigned a house and strict restrictions they need to follow or risk being deported.

As they settle in, they are visited by strange visions and disturbing phenomena around the house. Believing that an evil entity has followed them all the way from Sudan, they begin to look for ways on how to vanquish it.

Why it is a social thriller:

The film explores the challenges of assimilation and displacement that many immigrants experience, delivered side-by-side with the supernatural aspect of the film’s horror.

On one hand, the husband hides the supernatural violence going on inside the house, fearing its effect on their asylum. On the other, the wife wants nothing more than to leave and is honest about what’s really going on inside their walls.

Added to this is the constant racism they experience from their neighbors, along with the general dismissiveness exhibited by the government.

Movies as Social Commentary

Many movies tackle socially relevant topics, regardless of whatever genre they may be. But social thrillers have an almost exclusive relationship with the thriller and horror genre. If you look close enough, they’re full of social commentary, their subtext loaded with humanity’s shared traumas and fears.

Take Night of the Living Dead as an example. Ben (the only character played by an African-American actor in the film) is shown to be smarter, more resourceful, and generally better than those he interacts with. He even defies the cliche that people of color always die first in a horror film.

Then you get to the end, where he wrongly dies because a posse mistakes him for a zombie. It’s an unfair ending made more tragic when you consider that the film is one of the first few mainstream films to feature an African American lead.

A key component to understanding these social thrillers is awareness. While some of them can be in-your-face about the societal issues they discuss, many are also subtle in their storytelling.

The topics they tackle are emotionally, politically, and socially charged—subjects that go viral or things that are relevant to a large number of people. These are things you would most likely know about. They don’t require you to do research, they only ask that you listen.