A History of Horror Films
A horror film is a film that seeks to elicit fear for entertainment purposes. Initially inspired by literature from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, horror has existed as a film genre for more than a century. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes. Horror may also overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction, and thriller genres.
Horror films often aim to evoke viewers’ nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage into the everyday world. Prevalent elements include ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, Satanism, evil clowns, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, giant monsters, zombies, cannibalism, psychopaths, natural, ecological or man-made disasters, and serial killers.
Some sub-genres of horror film include comedy horror, folk horror, body horror, found footage, holiday horror, psychological horror, science fiction horror, slasher, supernatural horror, gothic horror, natural horror, zombie film, and teen horror.
The first depictions of the supernatural on screen appeared in several of the short silent films created by the French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès in the late 1890s. The best known of these early supernatural-based works is the 2 and a half minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (1896), known in English as both “The Haunted Castle” or “The House of the Devil”. The film is sometimes credited as being the first ever horror film. In The Haunted Castle, a mischievous devil appears inside a medieval castle where he harasses the visitors. Méliès’ other popular horror film is La Caverne maudite (1898), which translates literally as “the accursed cave”. The film, also known by its English title The Cave of the Demons, tells the story of a man stumbling over a cave that is populated by the spirits and skeletons of people who died there. Méliès would also make other short films that historians consider now as horror-comedies. Une nuit terrible (1896), which translates to A Terrible Night, tells a story of a man who tries to get a good night’s sleep but ends up wrestling a giant spider. His other film, L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), or The Bewitched Inn, features a story of a hotel guest being pranked and tormented by an unseen presence.
In 1897, the American photographer-turned director George Albert Smith created The X-Ray Fiend (1897), a horror-comedy trick film that came out a mere two years after x-rays were invented. The film shows a couple of skeletons courting each other. An audience full of people unaccustomed to seeing moving skeletons on screen would have found it frightening and otherworldly. The next year, Smith created the short film Photographing a Ghost (1898), considered a precursor to the paranormal investigation subgenre. The film portrays three men attempting to photograph a ghost, only to fail time and again as the ghost eludes the men and throws chairs at them.
Japan also made early forays into the horror genre. In 1898, a Japanese film company called Konishi Honten released two horror films, both written by Ejiro Hatta. These were Shinin No Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse), and Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook) The film Shinin No Sosei told the story of a dead man who comes back to life after having fallen from a coffin that two men were carrying. The writer Hatta played the dead man role, while the coffin-bearers were played by Konishi Honten employees. Though there are no records of the cast, crew, or plot of Bake Jizo, it was likely based on the Japanese legend of Jizo statues, believed to provide safety and protection to children. In Japan, Jizō is a deity who is seen as the guardian of children, particularly children who have died before their parents. Jizō has been worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, namely stillborn, miscarried, or aborted fetuses. The presence of the word bake—which can be translated to “spook,” “ghost,” or “phantom”—may imply a haunted or possessed statue.
Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón is also one of the most significant silent film directors in early filmmaking. He was popular for his frequent camera tricks and optical illusions, an innovation that contributed heavily to the popularity of trick films in the period. His famous works include Satán se divierte (1907), which translates to Satan Having Fun, or Satan at Play; La casa hechizada (1908), or The House of Ghosts, considered to be one of the earliest cinematic depictions of a haunted house premise; and Le spectre rouge (1907) or The Red Spectre, a collaboration film with French director Ferdinand Zecca about a demonic magician who attempts to perform his act in a mysterious grotto.
The Selig Polyscope Company in the United States produced one of the first film adaptations of a horror-based novel. In 1908, the company produced the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Otis Turner and starring Hobart Bosworth in the lead role. The film is, however, now considered a lost film. The story was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published 15 years prior, about a man who transforms his personality between two contrasting personas. (The book tells the classic story of a man with an unpredictably dual nature: usually very good, but sometimes shockingly evil as well.)
Georges Méliès also liked adapting the Faust legend into his films. In fact, the French filmmaker produced at least six variations of the German legend of the man who made a pact with the devil. Among his notable Faust films include Faust aux enfers (1903), known primarily for its English title The Damnation of Faust, or Faust in Hell. It is the filmmaker’s third film adaptation of the Faust legend. In it, Méliès took inspiration from Hector Berlioz’s Faust opera, but it pays less attention to the story and more to the special effects that represent a tour of hell. The film takes advantage of stage machinery techniques and features special effects such as pyrotechnics, substitution splices, superimpositions on black backgrounds, and dissolves. Méliès then made a sequel to that film called Damnation du docteur Faust (1904), released in the U.S. as Faust and Marguerite. This time, the film was based on the opera by Charles Gounod. Méliès’ other devil-inspired films in this period include Les quat’cents farces du diable (1906), known in English as The Merry Frolics of Satan or The 400 Tricks of the Devil, a tale about an engineer who barters with the Devil for superhuman powers and is forced to face the consequences. Méliès would also make other horror-based short films that aren’t inspired by Faust, most notably the fantastical and unsettling Le papillon fantastique (1909), where a magician turns a butterfly woman into a spider beast.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, artists and engineers were all pushing the boundaries of film. Artists like Méliès, first achieved fame as a magician. During the time, stage magicians entertained large crowds with illusions and magic tricks, and decked out their sets with elaborate sets, costumes, and characters. While filmmakers like the Lumière brothers were tinkering with motion picture devices and shot documentary-like films, Méliès, and to an extent, Segundo de Chomón as well, were developing magic tricks on film. They created sophisticated sight gags and theatrical special effects to either entertain or scare the audience.
In his autobiography, Méliès recalled a day when he was capturing footage on a Paris street when his camera jammed. Frustrated, he fiddled with the hand crank, fixed the problem, and started shooting again. When he developed the film later, and played it back, he discovered a new trick. The shot started with people walking, children skipping, and a horse-drawn omnibus workers trundling up the street. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Men turned into women, children were replaced by horses, and – spookiest of all – the omnibus full of workers changed into a hearse. Because of this, Méliès had found a way to perform actual magic with editing, to fool an audience and pull off illusions he’d never been able to do on stage. This was the birth of trick films.
Most of the early films in cinema history consist of continuous shots of short skits and or scenes from everyday life [i.e., The Kiss (1898) or Train Pulling into a Station (1896).] Filmmakers doing trick films attempted to do the impossible on screen; like levitating heads, making people disappear or turning them into skeletons. Trick films were silent films designed to feature innovative special effects. This style of filmmaking was developed by innovators such as Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón in their first cinematic experiments. In the first years of film, especially between 1898 and 1908, the trick film was one of the world’s most popular film genres. Techniques explored in these trick films included slow motion and fast motion created by varying the camera cranking speed; the editing device called the substitution splice; and various in-camera effects, such as multiple exposure. Double exposures, especially, achieved to show faded or ghostly images on screen.
The spectacular nature of trick films lives on especially on horror films. Trick films convey energetic whimsy that make impossible events seem to occur on screen. Trick films are in essence films in which artists use camera techniques to create magic tricks or special effects that feel otherworldly. Other examples of trick films include 1901’s The Big Swallow in which a man tries to swallow the audience, and 1901’s The Haunted Curiosity Shop in which apparitions appear inside an antiques shop.
In 1910, Edison Studios in the United States produced the first filmed version of Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, the popular story of a scientist creating a hideous, sapient creature through a scientific experiment. Adapted to the screen for the first time by director J. Searle Dawley, his movie Frankenstein (1910) was deliberately designed to de-emphasize the horrific aspects of the story and focus on the story’s mystical and psychological elements. Yet, the macabre nature of its source material made the film synonymous with the horror film genre.
The United States continued producing films based on the 1886 Gothic novella the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a classic tale about a doctor or scientist whose evil persona emerges after getting in contact with a magical formula. New York City’s Thanhouser Film Corporation’s one-reel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) was directed by Lucius Henderson and stars future director James Cruze in the title role. A year later, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913) came out. This time it was independently produced by IMP (the future Universal Studios) and stars King Baggot as the doctor.
In March 1911, the hour-long Italian silent film epic L’Inferno was screened in the Teatro Mercadante in Naples. The film was adapted from the first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and took visual inspiration from Gustave Doré’s haunting illustrations. It remains the best adaptation of The Inferno and is regarded by many scholars as the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s works to date. The film became an international success and is arguably the first true blockbuster in all of cinema. L’Inferno was directed by three artists; Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Their film is well-remembered for its stunning visualization of the nine circles of Hell and special effects that convey haunting visuals. The film presents a massive Lucifer with wings that stretch out behind him in front of a black void. He is seen devouring the Roman figures Brutus and Cassius in a display of double exposure and scale manipulation. According to critics, L’Inferno is able to capture some of the manic, tortuous, and bizarre imagery and themes of Dante’s complex masterwork.
In the 1910s Georges Méliès would continue producing his Faustian films, the most significant of this period was 1912’s Le Chevalier des Neiges (The Knight of the Snows). It was Méliès’ last film with Faustian themes and the last of many films in which the filmmaker appeared as the Devil. The film tells a story of a princess kidnapped by Satan and thrown into a dungeon. Her lover, the brave Knight of the Snows, must then go on a journey to rescue her. Special effects in the film were created with stage machinery, pyrotechnics, substitution splices, superimpositions, and dissolves. It is among a few of the best examples of trick films that Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón helped popularized.
In 1912, French director Abel Gance released his short film Le masque d’horreur (The Mask of Horror). The film tells a story of a mad sculptor who searches for the perfect realization of “the mask of horror”. He places himself in front of a mirror after smearing blood over himself with the glass of an oil lamp. He then swallows a virulent poison to observe the effects of pain.
In 1913, German directors Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener made the silent horror film Der Student von Prag (The Student of Prague) loosely based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The film tells a story of a student who inadvertently makes a Faustian bargain. In the film, a student asks a stranger to turn him into a rich man. The stranger visits the student later in his dorm room and conjures up pieces of gold and a contract for him to sign. In return, the stranger is granted to take anything he wants from the room. He chooses to take the student’s mirror. Upon moving it from the wall, a doppelgänger steps out and causes trouble. (In Western culture, a doppelgänger is a supernatural or ghostly double or look-alike of a specific person. It is usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck.) Cinematographer Guido Seeber utilized groundbreaking camera tricks to create the effect of the doppelgänger by using a mirror double which produces a seamless double exposure. The film was written by Hanns Heinz Ewers, a noted writer of horror and fantasy stories. His involvement with the screenplay lent a much needed air of respectability to the fledgling art form of horror film and German Expressionism. From November 1915 until June 1916, French writer/director Louis Feuillade released a weekly serial entitled Les Vampires where he exploited the power of horror imagery to great effect. Consisting of 10 parts or episodes and roughly 7 hours long if combined, Les Vampires is considered to be one of the longest films ever made. The series tells a story of a criminal gang called the Vampires, who play upon their supernatural name and style to instill fear in the public and the police who desperately want to put a stop to them. Marked as Feuillade’s legendary opus, Les Vampires is considered a precursor to movie thrillers. The series is also a close cousin to the surrealist movement.
Paul Wegener followed up the success of The Student of Prague by adapting a story inspired by the ancient Jewish legend of the golem, an anthropomorphic being magically created entirely from clay or mud. Wegener teamed up with Henrik Galeen to create Der Golem (1915). The film, which is still partially lost, tells a story of an antiques dealer who finds a golem, a clay statue, brought to life centuries before. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the antiques dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders. Wegener made a sequel to the film two years later. This time he teamed up with co-director Rochus Gliese and made Der Golem und die Tänzerin (1917), or The Golem and the Dancing Girl as it is known in English. It is now considered a lost film. Wegener would make a third golem film another three years later to conclude his Der Golem trilogy.
In 1919, Austrian director Richard Oswald released a German silent anthology horror film called Unheimliche Geschichten, also known as Eerie Tales or Uncanny Tales. In the film, a bookshop closes and the portraits of the Strumpet, Death, and the Devil come to life and amuse themselves by reading stories—about themselves, of course, in various guises and eras. The film is split into five stories: The Apparition, The Hand, The Black Cat (based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story), The Suicide Club (based on the Robert Louis Stevenson short story collection) and Der Spuk (which translates to The Spectre in English). The film is described as the “critical link between the more conventional German mystery and detective films of the mid 1910s and the groundbreaking fantastic cinema of the early 1920s.”
Robert Wiene’s 1920 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) became a worldwide success and had a lasting impact on the film world, particularly for horror. It was not so much the story, but the style that made it distinguishable from other films, “Dr. Caligari’s settings, some simply painted on canvas backdrops, are weirdly distorted, with caricatures of narrow streets, misshapen walls, odd rhomboid windows, and leaning doorframes. Effects of light and shadow were rendered by painting black lines and patterns directly on the floors and walls of the sets.” Critic Roger Ebert called it arguably “the first true horror film”, and film reviewer Danny Peary called it cinema’s first cult film and a precursor to arthouse films. Considered a classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped draw worldwide attention to the artistic merit of German cinema and had a major influence on American films, particularly in the genres of horror and film noir, introducing techniques such as the twist ending and the unreliable narrator to the language of narrative film. Writing for the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, horror film critic Kim Newman called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari “a major early entry in the horror genre, introducing images, themes, characters, and expressions that became fundamental to the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whales’ Frankenstein, both from 1931″. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also a leading example of what a German Expressionist film looks like.
In October 1920, Paul Wegener teamed up with co-director Carl Boese to make the final Golem film entitled Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, known in English as The Golem: How He Came into the World. The final film in the Der Golem trilogy, The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) is a prequel to Der Golem from 1915. In this film, Wegener stars as the golem who frightens a young lady with whom he is infatuated. The film is the best known of the series, as it is the only film that is completely preserved. It is also a leading example of early German Expressionism.
F. W. Murnau arguably made the first vampire-themed movie, Nosferatu (1922). It was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula. In Nosferatu, Murnau created some of cinema’s most lasting and haunting imagery which famously involves, shadows of the creeping Count Orlok. This helped popularized the expressionistic style in filmmaking. Many expressionist works of this era emphasize a distorted reality, stimulating the human psyche and have influenced the horror film genre.
For most of the 1920s, German filmmakers like Wegener, Murnau, and Wiene would significantly influence later productions not only in horror films but in filmmaking in general. They would become the leading innovators of the German Expressionist movement. The plots and stories of the German Expressionist films often dealt with madness and insanity. Arthur Robison’s film, Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (1923), literally Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination, also known as Warning Shadows in English, is also one of the leading German Expressionist films. It tells the story of house guests inside a manor given visions of what might happen if the manor’s host, the count played by Fritz Kortner, stays jealous and the guests do not reduce their advances towards his beautiful wife. Kortner’s bulging eyes and twisted features are facets of a classic Expressionist performance style, as his unnatural feelings contort his face and body into something that appears other than human.
In 1924, German filmmaker Paul Leni made another representative German Expressionist film with Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, or Waxworks as it is commonly known. The horror film tells a story of a writer who accepts a job from a wax museum to write a series of stories on different controversial figures, including Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper in order to boost business. Although Waxworks is often credited as a horror film, it is an anthology film that goes through several genres including a fantasy adventure, historical film, and horror film through its various episodes. Waxworks contain many elements present in a German Expressionist movie. The film features deep shadows, moving shapes, and warped staircases. The director said of the film, “I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence, no idea of reality.” Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before heading to Hollywood to make some of the most important horror films of the late silent era.
According to Wisecrack’s episode on How Horror Movies Changed, “the horror genre blossoms anywhere there was pain and national chaos. So it’s more than fitting that the genre’s real boom took place in the mega-depressing Post-World War I Germany. During the war (1914–1918), Germany banned all foreign films, inadvertently throwing all film nerds a boom. Combine that embargo with the general despair of the era, you’ll see why German Expressionism took place.” German Expressionism was a film genre that was “all about coping with economic and social fallout via dream-like horror films, filled with subjective shots, funky angles, high-contrast spooky lighting, and frequently, sympathetic monsters.”
Universal Classic Monsters (Silent Era)
Though the word horror to describe the film genre would not be used until the 1930s (when Universal Pictures began releasing their initial monster films), earlier American productions often relied on horror and gothic themes. Many of these early films were considered dark melodramas because of their stock characters and emotion-heavy plots that focused on romance, violence, suspense, and sentimentality.
In 1923, Universal Pictures started producing movies based on Gothic Horror literature from authors like Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe. This series of pictures from Universal Pictures has retroactively become the first phase of the studio’s Universal Classic Monsters series that would continue for three more decades. Universal Pictures’ classic monsters of the 1920s featured hideously deformed characters like Quasimodo, The Phantom, and Gwynplaine.
The first film of the series was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney as the hunchback Quasimodo. The film was adapted from the classic French gothic novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo in 1833, about a horribly deformed bell ringer in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films.
Two years later, Chaney stars as The Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House in 1925’s silent horror film, The Phantom of the Opera, based on the mystery novel by Gaston Leroux published 15 years earlier. Roger Ebert said the film “creates beneath the opera one of the most grotesque places in the cinema, and Chaney’s performance transforms an absurd character into a haunting one.” Adrian Warren of PopMatters called the film “terrific: unsettling, beautifully shot and imbued with a dense and shadowy Gothic atmosphere”. Included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera is lauded for Lon Chaney’s masterful acting, Universal Pictures’ incredible set design, and its many masterly moments including the unmasking of the tragic villain’s disfigured skullface, so shocking that even the camera is terrified, going briefly out of focus.
In 1927, German director Paul Leni directed his first of two films for Universal Pictures. His silent horror film The Cat and the Canary is the third film in the Universal Classic Monsters series and is considered “the cornerstone of Universal’s school of horror.” The Cat and the Canary is adapted from John Willard’s black comedy play of the same name. The plot revolves around the death of a man and the reading of his will 20 years later. His family inherits his fortunes, but when they spend the night in his haunted mansion they are stalked by a mysterious figure. Meanwhile, a lunatic known as “the Cat” escapes from an asylum and hides in the mansion. The film is part of a genre of comedy horror films inspired by 1920s Broadway stage plays. Paul Leni’s adaptation of Willard’s play blended expressionism with humor, a style Leni was notable for and critics recognized as unique. Alfred Hitchcock cited this film as one of his influences and Tony Rayns called it the “definitive haunted house movie.”
Paul Leni’s second film for Universal Pictures was The Man Who Laughs (1928), an adaptation of another Victor Hugo novel. The film, starring Conrad Veidt is known for the bleak carnival freak-like grin on the character Gwynplaine’s face. His exaggerated smile was the inspiration for DC Comics’ The Joker. (A graphic novel in 2005 exploring the origins of the Joker was also titled Batman: The Man Who Laughs in homage to this film). Film critic Roger Ebert stated, “The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film”.
The fifth and last film of the Universal Classic Monsters series in the 1920s is The Last Performance (1929). It was directed by Paul Fejos and stars Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin Veidt plays a middle-aged magician who is in love with his beautiful young assistant. She, on the other hand, is in love with the magician’s young protege, who turns out to be a bum and a thief. The film received mixed reviews and a 1929 New York Times article even said that “Dr. Fejos has handled his scenes with no small degree of imagination.” A Letterboxd reviewer called it a “backstage melodrama with eerie intimations of horror.
Other productions in the 1920s
The trend of inserting an element of the macabre into American pre-horror melodramas was popular in the 1920s. Directors known for relying on macabre in their films during the decade were Maurice Tourneur, Rex Ingram, and Tod Browning. Ingram’s The Magician (1926) contains one of the first examples of a “mad doctor” and is said to have had a large influence on James Whale’s version of Frankenstein. The Unholy Three (1925) is an example of Tod Browning’s use of macabre and unique style of morbidity; he remade the film in 1930 as a talkie. In 1927, Tod Browning cast Lon Chaney in his horror film The Unknown. Chaney played a carnival knife thrower called Alonzo the Armless and Joan Crawford as the scantily clad carnival girl he hopes to marry. Chaney did collaborative scenes with a real-life armless double whose legs and feet were used to manipulate objects such as knives and cigarettes in frame with Chaney’s upper body and face.
1928’s The Terror by Warner Bros. Pictures was the first all-talking horror film, made using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. The film tells a simple story of guests at an old English manor being stalked by a mysterious killer known only as “The Terror”. The plot centered on sound, with much of the ghost’s haunting taking place in vis-a-vis creepy organ music, creaky doors and howling winds. The film was poorly received by audiences and critics. John MacCormac, reporting from London for The New York Times upon the film’s UK premiere, wrote; “The universal opinion of London critics is that The Terror is so bad that it is almost suicidal. They claim that it is monotonous, slow, dragging, fatiguing and boring.”
Other European countries also, contributed to the genre during this period. In Sweden, Victor Sjöström created Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) in 1921. This is what the Criterion has to say about the film; “The last person to die on New Year’s Eve before the clock strikes twelve is doomed to take the reins of the Death’s chariot and work tirelessly collecting fresh souls for the next year. So says the legend that drives The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen), directed by the father of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström. The story, based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, concerns an alcoholic, abusive ne’er-do-well (Sjöström himself) who is shown the error of his ways, and the pure-of-heart Salvation Army sister who believes in his redemption. This extraordinarily rich and innovative silent classic (which inspired Ingmar Bergman to make movies) is a Dickensian ghost story and a deeply moving morality tale, as well as a showcase for groundbreaking special effects.
In 1922, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen created the Swedish-Danish production Häxan (also known as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages), a documentary-style silent horror film based partly on Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century German guide for inquisitors. Häxan is a study of how superstition and the misunderstanding of diseases and mental illness could lead to the hysteria of the witch-hunts. The film was made as a documentary, but contains dramatized sequences that are comparable to horror films. To visualize his subject matter, Christensen fills the frame with every frightening image he can conjure out of the historical records, often freely blending fact and fantasy. There are shocking moments in which we witness a woman giving birth to two enormous demons, see a witches’ sabbath, and endure tortures by inquisition judges. The film also features an endless parade of demons of all shapes and sizes, some of whom look more or less human, whereas others, are almost fully animal—pigs, twisted birds, cats, and the like.
French filmmaker Jean Epstein produced an influential film, La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) in 1928. It is one of multiple films based on the Edgar Allan Poe Gothic short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Future director Luis Buñuel co-wrote the screenplay with Epstein, his second film credit, having previously worked as assistant director on Epstein’s film Mauprat from 1926. Roger Ebert included the film on his list of “Great Movies” in 2002, calling the great hall of the film as “one of the most haunting spaces in the movies”.
Il mostro di Frankenstein (1921), one of a few Italian horror films before the late 1950s, is now considered lost.
Universal Classic Monsters (Golden Age)
In the 1930s Universal Pictures continued producing films based on Gothic horror. The studio entered a Golden Age of monster movies in the ’30s, releasing a string of hit horror movies. In this decade, the studio assembled several iconic monsters in motion picture history including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man. Each movie starring these monsters would go on to make sequels and each of the characters would go on to cross over with one another in a cinematic shared universe. The films would retroactively be classified together as part of the Universal Classic Monsters series.
Universal Pictures created a monopoly on the mainstream horror film, producing stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and grossing large sums of money at the box office in the process. Not only did Universal bring the subgenre of “creature features” into the limelight, they also gave them their golden years, now reflected back on as “The Monsters Golden Era.” In the 1920s, the studio only put out five features, in the 1930s however, they produced about 21.
In the year 1930, Universal Pictures released the mystery film The Cat Creeps. It was a sound remake of the studio’s earlier film, The Cat and the Canary from three years ago. Simultaneously, Universal also released a Spanish-speaking version of the film called La Voluntad del Muerto (The Will of the Dead Man). The film was directed by George Melford who would later direct the Spanish version of Dracula. Both The Cat Creeps and La Voluntad del Muerto are considered lost films.
1931: The two Dracula movies and Frankenstein
On February 14, 1931, Universal Pictures premiered their first film adaptation of Dracula, the popular story of an ancient vampire who arrives in England where he preys upon a virtuous young girl. The film was based on the 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which in turn was loosely based on the classic 1897 novel by Bram Stoker. February 1931’s Dracula was an English-language vampire-horror film directed by Tod Browning and stars Bela Lugosi as the Count Dracula, the actor’s most iconic role. The film was generally well received by critics. Variety praised the film for its “remarkably effective background of creepy atmosphere.” Film Daily declared it “a fine melodrama” and also lauded Lugosi’s performance, calling it “splendid” and remarking that he had created “one of the most unique and powerful roles of the screen”. Kim Newman, writing for the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, said that Dracula signaled the “true beginning of the horror film as a distinct genre and the vampire movie as its most popular subgenre.
Two months later on April 24, 1931, Universal Pictures premiered the Spanish-language version of Dracula directed by George Melford. April 1931’s Drácula was filmed at night on the same sets that were being used during the day for the English-language version. Of the cast, only Carlos Villarías (playing Count Dracula) was permitted to see rushes of the English-language film, and he was encouraged to imitate Bela Lugosi’s performance. Some long shots of Lugosi as the Count, and some alternative takes from the English version were used in this production. In recent years, this version has become more highly praised than Tod Browning’s English-language version. The Spanish crew had the advantage of watching the English dailies when they came in for the evening, and they would devise better camera angles and more effective use of lighting in an attempt to improve upon it. In 2015, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
On November 21, 1931, Universal Pictures released another hit film with Frankenstein. The story is about a scientist and his assistant who dig up corpses in the hopes to reanimate them with electricity. The experiment goes awry when Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant accidentally gives the creature a murderer’s abnormal brain. 1931’s Frankenstein was based on a 1927 play by Peggy Webling which in turn was based off Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 Gothic novel. The film was directed by James Whale and stars Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in one of his most iconic roles. A hit with both audiences and critics, the film was followed by multiple sequels and along with the same year’s Dracula, has become one of the most famous horror films in history. “Universal’s makeup genius Jack Pierce created the main look of the monster, devising the flattop, the neck terminals, the heavy eyelids, and the elongated scarred hands, while director James Whale outfitted the creature with a shabby suit.”
1932: Edgar Allen Poe Double Feature and The Mummy
On February 21, 1932, Universal Pictures released a double-feature. The first one is Murders in the Rue Morgue. It stars Bela Lugosi as a lunatic scientist who abducts women and injects them with blood from his ill-tempered caged ape. The film was loosely based on an 1841 short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Universal Pictures would release two more Poe adaptations later in the decade. The second film in the double-feature is the James Whale-directed The Old Dark House. It’s a mystery horror story starring Boris Karloff. Five travelers are admitted to a large foreboding old house that belongs to an extremely strange family. The story was based on a 1927 novel by J.B. Priestly.
In December 1932, the studio released The Mummy starring Boris Karloff as the Egyptian monster. The film, based on an original screenplay, is about an ancient Egyptian mummy named Imhotep, who is discovered by a team of archaeologists and inadvertently brought back to life through a magic scroll. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports a 93% score, based on 27 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10. The site’s consensus states: “Relying more on mood and atmosphere than the thrills typical of modern horror fare, Universal’s The Mummy sets a masterful template for mummy-themed films to follow. The Mummy character was so popular that it spawned sequels and remakes over the next decades.
Make-up artist Jack Pierce was responsible for the look of the Mummy. After studying photos of ancient mummies, Pierce came up with the look bearing a resemblance to the mummy of Ramesses III. Pierce began transforming Karloff at 11 a.m., applying cotton, collodion and spirit gum to his face; clay to his hair; and wrapping him in linen bandages treated with acid and burnt in an oven, finishing the job at 7 p.m. Karloff finished his scenes by 2 a.m., and another two hours were spent removing the make-up. Boris Karloff found the removal of gum from his face painful, and overall found the day “the most trying ordeal I [had] ever endured”. The image of Karloff wrapped in bandages has become one of the most iconic images in the series. Jack Pierce would also come to design the Satanic make-up for Lugosi in the independently produced White Zombie (1932).
1933: The Invisible Man debuts
In 1933, after the release of The Mummy, Universal Pictures released two pictures. The first one was in July. It was a murder-mystery film called The Secret of the Blue Room. The plot of the film is that, according to legend, the “blue room” inside a mansion is cursed. Everyone who has ever spent the night there has met with an untimely end. Three men wager that each can survive a night in the forbidding room. In November, the studio premiered another iconic character with Dr. Jack Griffin, aka the Invisible Man in the classic science fiction-horror The Invisible Man. The film was directed by James Whale and stars Claude Rains as the titular character. The movie was based on a science fiction novel of the same name by H. G. Wells published in 1897. The film has been described as a “nearly perfect translation of the spirit of the book”. It spawned a number of sequels, plus many spin-offs using the idea of an “invisible man” that were largely unrelated to Wells’ original story.
The Invisible Man is known for its clever and groundbreaking visual effects by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, whose work is often credited for the success of the film. When the Invisible Man had no clothes on, the effect was achieved through the use of wires, but when he had some of his clothes on or was taking his clothes off, the effect was achieved by shooting Claude Rains in a completely black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining this shot with another shot of the location the scene took place in using a matte process. Claude Rains was claustrophobic and it was hard to breathe through the suit. Consequently, the work was especially difficult for him, and a double, who was somewhat shorter than Rains, was sometimes used.
1934: “The Black Cat” premieres
In 1934, Universal Pictures released the successful psychological horror film The Black Cat. It stars both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was the first of six movies Universal Pictures paired the two iconic actors together. The Black Cat became Universal Pictures’ biggest box office hit of the year and is considered by many to be the one that created and popularized the psychological horror subgenre, emphasizing on atmosphere, eerie sounds, the darker side of the human psyche, and emotions like fear and guilt to deliver its scares, something that was not used in the horror genre before. Although it was credited the film was based om Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1841 short story, the film actually has little to do with Poe’s story. In the film, American honeymooners in Hungary become trapped in the home of a Satan-worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident. The film exploited a sudden public interest in psychiatry. Peter Ruric (better known as pulp writer Paul Cain) wrote the screenplay.
1935: “Bride of Frankenstein” premieres
In 1935, Universal Pictures released four pictures from February to July. The first picture they released in 1935 was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a mystery drama film starring Claude Rains. The story revolves around an opium-addicted choirmaster who develops an obsession for a beautiful young girl and will not stop short of murder in order to have her. The film was based on the final novel by Charles Dickens in 1870.
In April 1935, Bride of Frankenstein premiered. The science-fiction/horror film was the first sequel to the 1931 hit Frankenstein. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest sequels in cinematic history, with many fans and critics considering it to be an improvement on the original film. As with the original, Bride of Frankenstein was directed by James Whale and stars Boris Karloff as the Monster. In the film, Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate, often referred to as the Monster’s Bride. Makeup artist Jack Pierce returned to create the makeup for the Monster and his Bride. Over the course of filming, Pierce modified the Monster’s makeup to indicate that the Monster’s injuries were healing as the film progressed. Pierce co-created the Bride’s makeup with strong input from Whale, especially regarding the Bride’s iconic hairstyle, which was based on the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Actress Elsa Lanchester portrayed the Monster’s Bride. The bride’s conical hairdo, with its white lightning-trace streaks on each side, has become an iconic symbol of both the character and the film.
A month after the release of Bride of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures premiered the influential werewolf movie Werewolf of London, the first Hollywood mainstream movie to feature a werewolf, a creature of folklore who shape-shifts from a human into a wolf. The film stars Henry Hull as the titular character. In the movie, he is a botanist who gets attacked by a strange animal. The bite causes him to turn into a bloodthirsty monster. Jack Pierce created the make-up for the creature. Screenwriter and journalist Frank Nugent, writing for The New York Times, thought the film was “designed solely to amaze and horrify.” He continued by writing, “Werewolf of London goes about its task with commendable thoroughness, sparing no grisly detail and springing from scene to scene with even greater ease than that oft attributed to a daring young aerialist. Granting that the central idea has been used before, the picture still rates the attention of action-and-horror enthusiasts.”Six years later, Universal Pictures would release the second werewolf picture, The Wolf Man, which would garner a greater deal of influence on Hollywood’s depiction of the legend of the werewolf.
In July 1935, Universal Pictures paired Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together for a second time in the studio’s third Edgar Allan Poe picture. The film was The Raven. The film was not actually a direct adaptation of the classic 1845 poem, but rather inspired from it. In the film, a brilliant surgeon, played by Bela Lugosi, is obsessed with the writer Edgar Allan Poe. He saves the life of a beautiful dancer, but goes mad when he can’t have her. Meanwhile, Boris Karloff plays a fugitive murderer on the run from the police. 1935’s The Raven contains themes of torture, disfigurement, and grisly revenge. The film did not do particularly well at the box office during its initial release, and indirectly led to a temporary ban on horror films in England. At the time, it was beginning to look like the horror genre was no longer economically viable, and paired with the strict production code of the era, American filmmakers struggled to make creative works on screen, and horror eventually went out of vogue. This proved a devastating development at the time for Lugosi, who found himself losing work and struggling to support his family. Universal Pictures changed ownership in 1936, and the new management was less interested in the macabre.
1936: “Dracula’s Daughter” premieres
In 1936, Universal Pictures continued to make films for the series. In January, the studio premiered the science fiction melodrama The Invisible Ray. The film pairs Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff a third time. In the film, a scientist creates a telescope-like device that captures light waves from the Andromeda Galaxy, giving him a way to view the distant past. He and several colleagues go to Africa to locate a large, unusual meteorite that the light-waves showed fell there a billion years earlier. After discovering that the meteorite is composed of a poisonous unknown element, “Radium X”, he begins to glow in the dark, and his touch becomes deadly. These radiation effects also begin to slowly drive him mad. Critics noted the tone of the film to be somber, dignified, and tragic. The Invisible Ray is a morality play, particularly given the film’s final lines of dialog, uttered nine years before the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by Madame Rukh: “My son, you have broken the first law of science…Janos Rukh is dead, but part of him will go on to eternity, working for humanity”.
In May 1936, Universal Pictures released a sequel to 1931’s Dracula. The film was called Dracula’s Daughter and stars Gloria Holden in the title role. Dracula’s Daughter doesn’t feature Bela Lugosi or his character, but instead tells the story of Countess Marya Zaleska, the daughter of Count Dracula and herself a vampire. Following Dracula’s death, she believes that by destroying his body, she will be free of his influence and live normally. When this fails, she turns to a psychiatrist, played by Otto Kruger. He, in turn, has a fiancé, Janet. The Countess kidnaps Janet and takes her to Transylvania, leading to a battle between Dr. Garth and the Countess. While not as successful as the original upon its release, the film was generally well-reviewed. In the intervening decades, criticism has been deeply divided. Contemporary critics and scholars have noted the film’s strong lesbian overtones, which Universal acknowledged from the start of production and exploited in some early advertising. Universal would complete their initial Dracula trilogy seven years later with Son of Dracula.
1937-1939: The decline of the studio’s Golden Age
In 1937, Universal Pictures only released one film in the series. The film was Night Key, a science fiction, crime thriller starring Boris Karloff. In Night Key, Karloff plays an elderly inventor of a burglar alarm who attempts to get back at the man who stole the profits to his invention. Later, his device is then subverted by gangsters who threatens him and use his own device to facilitate burglaries. Letterboxd users call the film “a delightfully corny, old-fashioned thriller” and praised the film for Karloff’s performance.
In 1938, Universal Pictures did not release any film related to horror, thriller, or science fiction. Instead, they made re-releases of their previous Dracula and Frankenstein films. It was only in January 1939, a full year and a half after the release of Night Key that the studio continued putting out original horror movies. On January 7, 1939, Universal Pictures premiered their 12-part serial The Phantom Creeps. It stars Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who attempts to rule the world by creating various elaborate inventions. In a dramatic fashion, foreign agents and G-Men (government men) try to seize the inventions for themselves. A 78-minute feature film version of the film, cut down from the serial’s original 265 minutes, was released for television ten years later. The Phantom Creeps was Universal Pictures’ 112th serial and 44th to have sound. The innovation of the scrolling text version of the synopsis at the beginning of each chapter was used for the Star Wars films as the “Star Wars opening crawl”.
On January 13, 1939, Universal Pictures released Son of Frankenstein, the third entry in the studio’s Frankenstein series and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster. It is also the first to feature Bela Lugosi as Ygor. The film is the sequel to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and stars top-billed Basil Rathbone, Karloff, Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Son of Frankenstein was a reaction to the popular re-releases of Dracula and Frankenstein as double-features in 1938. In the film, one of the sons of Frankenstein finds his father’s monster in a coma and revives him, only to find out he is controlled by Ygor who is bent on revenge. Universal’s declining horror output was revitalized with the enormously successful Son of Frankenstein, in which the studio cast both stars (Lugosi and Karloff) again for the fourth time.
In November 1939, Universal Pictures released their last horror film of the 1930s with the historical and quasi-horror film, Tower of London. It stars Basil Rathbone as the future King Richard III of England, and Boris Karloff as his fictitious club-footed executioner Mord. Vincent Price, in only his third film, appears as George, Duke of Clarence. Tower of London is based on the traditional depiction of Richard rising to become King of England in 1483 by eliminating everyone ahead of him. Each time Richard accomplishes a murder, he removes one figurine from a dollhouse resembling a throne room. Once he has completed his task, he now needs to defeat the exiled Henry Tudor to retain the throne.
Other productions in the 1930s
Other studios followed Universal’s lead. MGM’s controversial Freaks (1932) frightened audiences at the time, featuring characters played by people who had real deformities,. The studio even disowned the film, and it remained banned in the United Kingdom, for 30 years. Paramount Pictures’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is remembered for its innovative use of photographic filters to create Jekyll’s transformation before the camera. And RKO created the highly successful and influential monster movie, King Kong (1933). With the progression of the genre, actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were beginning to build entire careers in horror.
Early in the decade also, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer created the horror, fantasy film Vampyr (1932) based on elements from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection of supernatural stories In a Glass Darkly. The German-produced sound film tells the story of Allan Gray, a student of the occult who enters a village under the curse of a vampire. According to the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Vampyr’s “greatness derives partly from Dreyer’s handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism, and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look.”
Universal Classic Monsters (Numerous Sequels and the debut of The Wolf Man)
Despite the success of The Wolf Man, by the 1940s, Universal’s monster movie formula was growing stale, as evidenced by desperate sequels and ensemble films with multiple monsters. Eventually, the studio resorted to comedy-horror pairings, like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which met with some success. In the 1940s, Universal Pictures released 17 feature films, all of which were sequels and reboots to their popular monster movies from mostly in the 30s.
In the year 1940, Universal Pictures released three movies. In January, the Vincent Price-starring The Invisible Man Returns premieres in theaters to commercial success despite its production being plagued with problems. The special effects in the movie received an Oscar nomination in the category Best Special Effects.
In September, The Mummy’s Hand was released. Although it is sometimes claimed by fans as a sequel or follow-up to The Mummy, it does not continue the 1932 film’s storyline, or feature any of the same characters. The Mummy’s Hand was the first of a series of four films all featuring the mummy named Kharis, the sequels being The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944). Tom Tyler played Kharis in this film, but Lon Chaney, Jr. took over the role in the following three sequels. At the film’s release, film critic Bosley Crowther wrote for The New York Times, “It’s the usual mumbo-jumbo of secret tombs in crumbling temples and salacious old high priests guarding them against the incursions of an archaeological expedition”.
In December, The Invisible Woman was released. It is the third film in the Invisible Man film series. This film was more of a screwball comedy than other films in the series thus is considered a comedy more than a horror film. The film stars Virginia Bruce in the lead role and the aging John Barrymore in a supporting role. Reviews from critics were mixed. Theodore Strauss of The New York Times called it “silly, banal and repetitious”. Two more films from the Invisible Man series would be released in the decade. The 1942 propaganda war-horror Invisible Agent, which featured a mad scientist working in secret to aid the Third Reich, and 1944’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge.
Other notable sequels during this era include 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1943’s Son of Dracula, 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse, She-Wolf of London, and the screwball comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
In 1941, Universal Pictures released a reboot of sort to the studio’s 1935 werewolf picture Werewolf of London, which starred noted character actor Henry Hull in a quite different and more subtle werewolf makeup. 1941’s The Wolf Man, however, was more popular and influential. The character of Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man is considered one of the best classic monsters in the series. The title character has had a great deal of influence on Hollywood’s depictions of the legend of the werewolf. He was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1941 picture and in the four sequels, all the released in the 1940s, including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Dracula (1945), where in the latter Larry Talbot and Dracula seek a cure for their respective afflictions.
Other productions in the 1940s
In the 1940s, Val Lewton became a well known figure in early B-horror cinema for making low-budget movies for RKO Pictures, including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943) directed by Jacques Tourneur, Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher (1945) directed by Robert Wise, a film deemed by the United States’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The decade also sees the continuation of Universal Pictures’ consistent releases of horror, suspense and science fiction films. This comes to be later known as the cult classic Universal Classic Monsters series, which began in the 1920s and would later dissipate in the 1950s. In this decade Lon Chaney Jr. became the studio’s leading monster movie actor supplanting the previous decades’ leading stars Karloff and Lugosi by a wide margin in terms of the number of leading roles that he played. Chaney is best known playing Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941) and its sequels and crossover films. He also played Frankenstein’s monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), taking over Boris Karloff in the main role. The Mummy series was also continued with The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944) all starring Chaney Jr. as the Mummy.
Paramount Pictures also made horror films in the 1940s, the most popular of which is The Uninvited. The film has been noted by contemporary film scholars as being the first film in history to portray ghosts as legitimate entities rather than illusions or misunderstandings played for comedy. It depicts various supernatural phenomena, including disembodied voices, apparitions, and possession. MGM’s best horror genre contribution of the 1940s would be Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was popularly known for its interesting use of color insert to show Dorian’s haunting portrait.
In 1945, Great Britain contributed the anthology horror film Dead of Night. In the film house guests tell at least five supernatural tales, the last of which being the most remembered. The film’s last story, titled The Ventriloquist’s Dummy features a ventriloquist tormented by a malevolent puppet.
The popularity of movie genres of the 1940s were mostly film noir, melodrama and mystery. It would then arguably be a stretch to point out that some mystery and thriller films can be considered horror genre contributions of the decade. These movies include The Spiral Staircase (1946) which tells the story of a serial killer targeting women with “afflictions”, like the mute and blind; The Seventh Victim (1943), a horror/film noir story of a woman stumbling upon a Satanic cult while looking for her missing sister; and John Brahm’s The Lodger (1944), where a landlady suspects her new lodger to be Jack the Ripper.
The Queen of Spades (1949) is a fantasy/horror film about an elderly countess who strikes a bargain with the devil and exchanges her soul for the ability to always win at cards. Wes Anderson ranked it as the sixth best British film. Martin Scorsese said that The Queen of Spades is a “stunning film” and one of “the few true classics of supernatural cinema.” And Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews called it “A masterfully filmed surreal atmospheric supernatural tale”.
With advances in technology, the tone of horror films shifted from the Gothic towards contemporary concerns. A popular horror subgenre began to emerge: the Doomsday film. Low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats such as alien invasions and deadly mutations to people, plants, and insects. Popular films of this genre include Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Blob (1958).
1956’s science fiction/horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers concerns an extraterrestrial invasion where aliens are capable of reproducing a duplicate replacement copy of each human. It is considered to be the most popular and most paranoid films from the golden age of American sci-fi cinema.
The Arrival of 3-D
In the 1950s, television had arrived and the theatrical market was changing. Producers and exhibitors found new, exciting and enticing ways to keep audiences in theaters. This is how Hollywood directors and producers found ample opportunity for audience exploitation through gimmicks. The years 1952 through 1954 is considered the “Golden Era” of 3-D movies. In a three-dimensional stereoscopic film, the audience’s brains are tricked into believing the images projected onto a flat cinema screen are coming to life in full three-dimensional glory. Through this way, the audience’s fright factor is enhanced. Those who came to see a 3-D movie inside a theater were given the familiar disposable cardboard anaglyph 3D glasses to wear which will allow them to see the images come to life.
In April 1953, Warner Bros, presented the horror-thriller House of Wax, the first 3D feature with stereophonic sound. The film, which stars Vincent Price, tells a story of a disfigured sculptor who repopulates his destroyed wax museum by murdering people and using their wax-coated corpses as displays. House of Wax was the film that typecast Price as a horror icon. A year later, he played a trademark role as a round-the-bend illusionist bent on revenge in the 3D film noir/horror The Mad Magician (1954). After the release of that film, Price would be labeled the “King of 3-D” and would later become the actor to star in the most 3D features. The success of these two films proved that major studios now had a method of getting film-goers back into theaters and away from television sets, which were causing a steady decline in attendance.
William Castle and Promotional Gimmicks in Theaters
Aside from 3-D technology, different forms of promotional gimmicks were used to entice film-goers into seeing the films in theaters. One great example is during the screening of 1958’s The Lost Missile, a science fiction film in which scientists try to stop a mysterious missile from destroying the Earth. Audiences who saw the film in theaters were given “shock tags” to monitor their vitals during the movie. They were promised that anyone who would get shocked into a comatose state by the film would get a free ride home in a limousine.
Film director and producer William Castle is considered the King of the film gimmick. After directing a cavalcade of B movies (low-budget commercial films) for Columbia Pictures in the 1940s, Castle set out on the independent route. And to help sell his first self-financed film Macabre (1958), he not only hired girls to stand in as fake nurses outside theater doors just in case anyone needed medical attention, he also passed out a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy to each member of the audience in case anyone would happen to die of fright from watching his film. This kind of promotional gimmick would later make him famous. Other gimmicks Castle utilized in his films include EMERGO which was used during the screening of his 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill starring Vincent Price. Throughout the promotion of this film, Castle explained that through EMERGO, “ghosts and skeletons leave the screen and wander throughout the audience, roam around and go back to the screen”. Of course, in actuality, a skeleton with glowing red eyes was attached to wires above the theater in order to swoop in and float above audience members’ heads to parallel the action on the screen. Another Castle/Price production was The Tingler (1959) which tells the story of a scientist who discovers a parasite in human beings, called a “tingler”, which feeds on fear. In the film, Price breaks the fourth wall and warns the audience that the tingler is in the theater, which then prompts the built-in electric buzzers to scare audiences in their theater seats.
The 1950s are also well known for creature feature, or giant monster movies. These are usually disaster films that focus on a group of characters struggling to survive attacks by one or more antagonistic monsters, often abnormally large ones. The monster is often created by a folly of mankind – an experiment gone wrong, the effects of radiation or the destruction of habitat. The monster can also be from outer space, or has been on Earth for a long time with no one ever seeing it, or released (or awakened) from a prison of some sort where it was being held. In monster movies, the monster is usually a villain, but can be a metaphor of humankind’s continuous destruction. Warner Bros.’ The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is considered to be the film which kick-started the 1950s wave of monster movies and the concept of combining nuclear paranoia with the genre. In the film, a beast was awakened from its hibernating state in the frozen ice of the Arctic Circle by an atomic bomb test. It then begins to wreak a path of destruction as it travels southward, eventually arriving at its ancient spawning grounds, which includes New York City. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first ever live-action film to feature a giant monster awakened/brought about by an atomic bomb detonation, preceding Godzilla by 16 months. The film is also remembered for its influential stop motion model animation created by visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen. One of the best movies during these years was Night of the Demon (1957).
Ray Harryhausen created his own form of stop motion model animation called Dynamation. It involved photographing a miniature against a rear-projection screen through a partly masked pane of glass. The masked portion would then be re-exposed to insert foreground elements from the live footage. The effect was to make the creature appear to move in the midst of live action. It could now be seen walking behind a live tree, or be viewed in the middle distance over the shoulder of a live actor — effects difficult to achieve before. Harryhausen’s innovative style of special effects in films inspired numerous filmmakers, including future fantasy and horror directors Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, and Guillermo del Toro. In the 1963 fantasy film Jason and the Argonauts, there is an iconic fight scene that involves skeleton warriors. That scene spurred on numerous homages in many horror films in subsequent years, including 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, 1992’s Army of Darkness and 2014’s Game of Thrones’ Season 4 episode entitled The Children.
Other notable creature films include It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Tarantula (1955), and The Giant Behemoth (1959). Japan’s experience with Hiroshima and Nagasaki bore the well-known Godzilla (1954) and its many sequels, featuring mutation from the effects of nuclear radiation. This kick-started the tokusatsu trend known as Kaiju films, a Japanese film genre that features giant monsters, usually attacking major cities and engaging the military and other monsters in battle. Other films in this genre that isn’t about Godzilla include Rodan (1956) and The Mysterians (1957). Besides Kaiju films, Japan was also into ghost cat/feline ghost movies in the 1950s. These include Ghost-Cat of Gojusan-Tsugi (1956), and Black Cat Mansion (1958), which tells a story of a samurai tormented by a cat possessed by the spirits of the people she killed.
Science Fiction and Horror in the 1950s
Filmmakers continued to merge elements of science fiction and horror over the following decades. The Fly is a 1958 American science fiction-horror film starring Vincent Price. The film tells the story of a scientist who is transformed into a grotesque creature after a common house fly enters unseen into a molecular transporter he is experimenting with, resulting in his atoms being combined with those of the insect, which produces a human-fly hybrid. The film was released in CinemaScope with Color by Deluxe by 20th Century Fox. It was followed by two black-and-white sequels, Return of the Fly (1959) and Curse of the Fly (1965). The original film was remade in 1986 by director David Cronenberg.
Considered a “pulp masterpiece” of the 1950s was The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on Richard Matheson’s existentialist novel. The film tells the story of a man, who after getting exposed to a radioactive cloud, gets shrunk in height by several inches. The film conveyed the fears of living in the Atomic Age and the terror of social alienation. It won the first Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was named in 2009 to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
The independently produced sci-fi film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was made in 1958. The storyline concerns the plight of a wealthy heiress whose close encounter with an enormous alien causes her to grow into a giantess, complicating her marriage already troubled by a philandering husband. The film has become a cult classic and is often referenced in popular culture. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a variation on other 1950s science fiction films that featured size-changing humans: The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), its sequel War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
The United Kingdom began to emerge as a major producer of horror films around this time. The Hammer company focused on the genre for the first time, enjoying huge international success from films involving classic horror characters which were shown in color for the first time. Drawing on Universal’s precedent, many films produced were Frankenstein and Dracula remakes, followed by many sequels. Christopher Lee starred in a number of Hammer Horror films, including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which Professor Patricia MacCormac called the “first really gory horror film, showing blood and guts in color”. His most influential role was as Count Dracula, with Lee’s portrayal becoming the archetypal vampire in popular culture. The academic Christopher Frayling writes of Lee’s 1958 film, “Dracula introduced fangs, red contact lenses, décolletage, ready-prepared wooden stakes and – in the celebrated credits sequence – blood being spattered from off-screen over the Count’s coffin.” Lee also introduced a dark, brooding sexuality to the character, with Tim Stanley stating, “Lee’s sensuality was subversive in that it hinted that women might quite like having their neck chewed on by a stud”. Other British companies contributed to a boom in horror film production in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s.
Horror Anthology Series in 1950s Television
Horror has been a mainstay of television programming since the 1950s. In the 2013 book TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, observed that television has helped shape many generations of horror fans and filmmakers because it provided them their first exposure to cinematic horror as children cowering behind their sofa or peering out from under their blanket In the 1950s, multiple anthology series that feature suspenseful horror stories were broadcast on television. The Veil (1958) is one notable anthology series that starred Boris Karloff as the horror host and characters in the episodes. Ten of the 12 episodes begin and end with Karloff standing in front of a roaring fireplace and inviting viewers to find out what lies “behind the veil”. Hailed by critics as “the greatest television series never seen”, The Veil was never broadcast. Troubles within the studio resulted in production being cancelled after only 10 episodes were produced. The number of episodes was considered to be too small to justify sale to a network or to syndication. Ten episodes were released to the public in their entirety for the first time in the 1990s, and have subsequently been released on DVD by Something Weird Video.
Premiered on October 1955 is the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) which featured dramas, thrillers, mysteries, horror and crime. It was created, hosted, and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, who by 1955 had already directed films for over three decades. Some of the stories in the show were original, some adaptations of writers like H. G. Wells, and always had knotty twists and often came to macabre endings, as in the December 4, 1955 episode “The Case of Mr. Pelham,” in which a businessman is stalked by a perfect double who usurps his life and drives him insane. Time magazine named the series as one of “The 100 Best TV Shows of All Time”.
The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) has become a staple in horror fiction since its premiere on October 1959. Each episode presents a standalone story in which characters find themselves dealing with often disturbing or unusual events, an experience described as entering “the Twilight Zone”. Although predominantly science-fiction, the show’s paranormal and Kafkaesque events leaned the show towards fantasy and horror. The phrase “twilight zone,” is used today to describe surreal experiences. An iconic episode, which premiered on November 20, 1959 is Time Enough at Last which tells the story of a bank teller who yearns for more time to read and gets his wish when he becomes the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. In 2009, TV Guide ranked this episode #11 on its list of the 100 Greatest Episodes.
Other notable horror anthologies in the 1950s include The Vampira Show (1954-1955), which was presented by Maila Nurmi, considered to be television’s first horror host, dressed as her iconic campy Vampira character, and 13 Demon Street (1959-1960), which was hosted by Lon Chaney Jr. who, as a condemned criminal, introduces crime stories to convince viewers that the crimes presented were worse than his.
Released in May 1960, the British psychological horror thriller film, Peeping Tom (1960) by Michael Powell, is a progenitor of the contemporary “slasher film”, though Alfred Hitchcock cemented the subgenre with Psycho released also in the same year. Hitchcock, considered to be the “Master of Suspense” didn’t set out to frighten fans the way many other traditional horror filmmakers do. Instead, he helped pioneer the art of psychological suspense. As a result, he managed to frighten his viewers by getting to the root of their deepest fears. One of his most frightening films besides Psycho is The Birds (1963), where a seemingly idyllic town is overrun by violent birds.
France continued the mad scientist theme with the film Eyes Without a Face (1960). The story follows Parisian police in search of the culprit responsible for the deaths of young women whose faces have been mutilated. In Criterion’s description of the film, they say it included “images of terror, of gore, [and] of inexplicable beauty”.
Meanwhile, Italian horror films became internationally notable thanks to Mario Bava’s contributions. His film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), marketed in English as The Mask of Satan then wound up being known as Black Sunday in the United States and Revenge of the Vampire in the United Kingdom. In this film, Bava turned a Russian folk legend into a beguiling fairly tale about a young doctor who finds himself stranded in a haunted community and falls for a woman whose body become possessed by a woman executed for witchcraft. Three years later, Bava went on to make the horror anthology film Black Sabbath (1963) known in Italy as I tre volti della paura, literally ‘The Three Faces of Fear’.
In the United States, gimmicks continued to be used to entice film-goers into theaters. William Castle’s 1960 horror film 13 Ghosts was shot in “Illusion-O“, where audiences were given a “supernatural viewer” that they could wear to see hidden ghosts in the film. In 13 Ghosts, a family searches for fortune inside the mansion of a reclusive doctor who died. They will need to search the house to find the doctor’s fortune, but along with the property they have also inherited the occultist’s collection of thirteen ghosts. In 1961, Castle made Mr. Sardonicus. It tells the story of a man whose face becomes frozen in a horrifying grin while robbing his father’s grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. During the promotion of the film, Castle introduced the “punishment poll” where the audiences decide what happens to Mr. Sardonicus in the film. All they had to do was hold up a “thumbs up” ballot if they wanted Mr. Sardonicus go free or “thumbs down” if they want to punish him. Supposedly no audience ever voted for life over death, so the film continues as if the audience’s majority verdict was seriously counted. Also in the same year, William Castle made Homicidal, which follows a murderous woman in a small California town. A “fright break” was featured during the film where the audiences are shown a timer over the terrifying climax. The audiences who are too frightened to see the end of the film are given 25 seconds to walk out of the theater and into the “coward’s corner” where they could get a full refund of their ticket and a free blood pressure test.
Francis Ford Coppola in his feature debut also used gimmicks in the screenings for his 1963 horror/thriller Dementia 13. Before you could see the film in the theaters, you had to pass a 13 question test that included such questions as “Did you ever do anything seriously wrong for which you felt little or no guilt?” and “Have you ever been hospitalized in a locked mental ward… or other facility for treatment of mental illness?”. If audiences failed any of the questions they wouldn’t be allowed inside the theater. In Dementia 13, a scheming widow hatches a daring plan to get her hands on her late husband’s inheritance, unbeknownst to her that she is targeted by an axe-wielding murderer who lurks within the family’s estate.
The American International Pictures (AIP), in the early 60s, made a series of films based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, most of which star Vincent Price, who became well known for his performances in subsequent horror films of the time. His success in House of Usher (1960) led him to do other Poe adaptations like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Other popular Vincent Price horror films include House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), War-Gods of the Deep (1965) and The Last Man on Earth (1964) where Price becomes a reluctant Vampire hunter after becoming the last man on earth.
The British horror film The Haunting (1963) was directed and produced by Robert Wise. It is an adaptation of the 1959 horror novel The Haunting of Hill House by famed horror writer Shirley Jackson. Robert Wise’s The Haunting is considered by a great many critics, aficionados, and casual fans of the horror genre to be one of the scariest films of all time. The film is best known for its brilliant use of canted frames, mirror reflections, fisheye lenses and uncanny sound and image editing.
Roman Polanski made his first film in English with Repulsion (1965), which is considered to be his scariest and most disturbing work. Polanski’s “evocations of sexual panic and masterful use of sound puts the audiences’ imagination to work in numerous ways”. This psychological horror film tells the story of a young withdrawn woman who finds sexual advances repulsive and who, after she is left alone, becomes even more isolated and detached from reality.
Horror films of the 1960s used the supernatural premise to express the horror of the demonic. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) tell the story of a governess who fears that the children she is watching over are possessed by ghosts haunting the estate they are staying. The story was based on Henry James’ 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw. A few years later, Roman Polanski wrote and directed Rosemary’s Baby (1968), based on the bestselling horror novel by Ira Levin. The highly influential film tells the story of a pregnant woman who suspects that an evil cult wants to take her baby for use in their rituals. Meanwhile, ghosts were a dominant theme in Japanese horror, in such films as Kwaidan, Onibaba (both 1964) and Kuroneko (1968).
Another influential American horror film of the 60s was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Produced and directed by Romero on a budget of $114,000, it grossed $30 million internationally. Considered to be the first true zombie movie, the film began to combine psychological insights with gore. Distancing the era from earlier gothic trends, late 1960s films brought horror into everyday life.
Low-budget splatter films from the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis also gained prominence in the 1960s. It’s the precursor to “torture porn” movies that would become popular in the following decades. Some of Lewis’ notorious works include Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) which follows a group of Northern tourists savagely tortured and murdered during a Confederate celebration of a small southern community’s centennial; and Color Me Blood Red (1965), a story about a psychotic painter who murders civilians and uses their blood as red paint.
In television, the animated mystery Hanna-Barbera series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was broadcast from 1969 to 1970. The series centers on a group of teenagers and their dog who go to abandoned places to solve mysteries involving supposedly supernatural creatures through a series of antics and missteps. The animated series’ simple formula had a major impact on future slasher films, especially of its portrayal of villains in masks.
The 1970s began a new age for horror films with the transition from “classic” to modern horror. Horror films started to focus more on aggressiveness and ruthlessness while also focusing more on artistic qualities and societal themes. This era of horror films has been regarded as a “golden age” that transformed the genre by having it “grow up” while showing that horror can be artistic.
The 1970s was an era dominated by American horror films. Unlike the past, which was influenced heavily by European film-makers, Americans breathed a new life into the genre. Modern horror films took the expected roles of characters in the films and changed them.
This era changed the usual setting for horror films, using everyday settings. Along with this came a change from focusing on defeating evil every time to having some instances where good fails before succeeding. The critical and popular success of Rosemary’s Baby, led to the release of more films with occult themes in the 1970s, such as The Omen (1976), wherein a man realizes that his five-year-old adopted son is the Antichrist. Invincible to human intervention, demons became villains in many horror films with a postmodern style and a dystopian worldview.
Don’t Look Now (1973), an independent British-Italian film directed by Nicolas Roeg, was also notable. Its focus on the psychology of grief was unusually strong for a film featuring a supernatural horror plot. Another notable film is The Wicker Man (1973), a British mystery, horror film dealing with the practice of ancient pagan rituals in the modern era. In the 1970s, Italian filmmakers Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, and Dario Argento developed giallo horror films that became classics and influenced the genre in other countries. Representative films include: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Twitch of the Death Nerve, and Deep Red.
The ideas of the 1960s began to influence horror films in the 70s, as the youth involved in the counterculture began exploring the medium. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972) along with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) recalled the Vietnam War; while George A. Romero satirized the consumer society in his zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Meanwhile, the subgenre of comedy horror re-emerged in the cinema with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and An American Werewolf in London (1981) among others.
Also in the 1970s, the works of the horror author Stephen King began to be adapted for the screen, beginning with Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie (1976), King’s first published novel, for which the two female leads (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie) gained Oscar nominations. Next, was his third published novel, The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was a sleeper at the box office. At first, many critics and viewers had negative feedback toward The Shining. However, the film is now known as one of Hollywood’s most classic horror films.
This psychological horror film has a variety of themes: “evil children”, alcoholism, telepathy, and insanity. This type of film is an example of how Hollywood’s idea of horror started to evolve. Murder and violence were no longer the main themes of horror films. In the 1970s and 1980s, psychological and supernatural horror started to take over cinema. Another classic Hollywood horror film is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Poltergeist has been ranked the 20th scariest movie ever made by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Both The Shining and Poltergeist involve horror being based on real-estate values. The evil and horror throughout the films come from, where the movies are taking place.
The Amityville Horror is a 1979 supernatural horror film directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Jay Anson’s 1977 book of the same name. It stars James Brolin and Margot Kidder as a young couple who purchase a home they come to find haunted by combative supernatural forces. The Changeling is a 1980 Canadian supernatural psychological horror film directed by Peter Medak.
Steven Spielberg’s shark horror film, Jaws (1975), began a new wave of killer animal stories, such as Orca (1977) and Up from the Depths (1979). Jaws is often credited as being one of the first films to use traditionally B movie elements such as horror and mild gore in a big-budget Hollywood film. In 1979, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm was the first of the Phantasm series.
A cycle of slasher films began in the 1970s and 1980s with the creation of Halloween by John Carpenter. “Halloween” was a significant influence on the horror industry and has become one of the quintessential forerunners of commercial horror films, grossing 70 Million USD on a shoestring budget of $300,000–325,000. Its influence and inspiration can still be seen in films today.
Other notable 1970s slasher films are Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Sleepaway Camp (1983) is known for its twist ending, which is considered by some to be one of the most shocking endings among horror films. My Bloody Valentine (1981) is a slasher film dealing with Valentine’s Day fiction.
The boom in slasher films provided enough material for numerous comedic spoofs of the genre, including Saturday the 14th (1981), Student Bodies (1981), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), and Hysterical (1983).
This subgenre would be mined by dozens of increasingly violent movies throughout the subsequent decades. Sean S. Cunningham made Friday the 13th (1980), Wes Craven directed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Clive Barker made Hellraiser (1987).
Some films explored urban legends such as “The babysitter and the man upstairs”. A notable example is When a Stranger Calls (1979), an American psychological horror film directed by Fred Walton starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning.
Alien (1979), a British-American science-fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott was very successful, receiving both critical acclaim and being a box office success. John Carpenter’s movie The Thing (1982) was also a mix of horror and sci-fi, but it was neither a box-office nor critical hit, but soon became a cult classic. However, nearly 20 years after its release, it was praised for using ahead-of-its-time special effects and paranoia.
The 1980s saw a wave of gory “B movie” horror films – although most of them were poorly reviewed by critics, many became cult classics and later saw success with critics. A significant example is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, which were low-budget gorefests but had a very original plotline which was later praised by critics. In the Philippines, the first Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984) was released. The horror anthology film spawned a series of films in the country over the subsequent decades.
Day of the Dead is a 1985 horror film written and directed by George A. Romero and the third film in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series.
Vampire horror was also popular in the 1980s, including cult vampire classics such as Fright Night (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and Near Dark (also 1987). In 1984, Joe Dante’s seminal monster comedy horror Gremlins became a box office hit with critics and audiences, and inspired a trend of “little monster” films such as Critters and Ghoulies.
David Cronenberg’s films such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), and The Fly (1986) dealt with “body horror” and “mad scientist” themes.
Several science fiction action horror movies were released in the 1980s, notably Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987). Notable comedy horror films of the 1980s include Re-Animator (1985), and Night of the Creeps (1986).
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a 1986 psychological horror, crime film directed and co-written by John McNaughton about the random crime spree of a serial killer who seemingly operates with impunity. Pumpkinhead (1988) is a dark fantasy, horror film, which is the directorial debut of special effects artist Stan Winston.
In the late 1980s, the horror genre suffered in the television market. Most viewers leaned toward safe material, such as soap operas, sitcoms, and fictional tellings of real-life events, and any horror content that did air on television suffered from network censorship, commercial breaks, low budgets, and “cheesy execution.” However, ABC’s 1990 two-part telefilm version of Stephen King’s It garnered ratings incredibly rare for a television horror program of its time to receive. It was the biggest success of 1990 for ABC, raking in thirty million viewers in its November sweeps month run. Most of its cast included stars not popular in horror, including Pennywise actor Tim Curry; and the Broadcast Standards and Practices’ restrictions on showing graphic content influenced It to be very focused on character development and psychological horror over blood and gore. Curry’s rendition of Pennywise has been called by several publications and scholars one of the most terrifying clown characters in film and television, set the standard for the evil clown trope, and made the character a horror icon.
In the first half of the 1990s, the genre still contained many of the themes from the 1980s. The slasher films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Child’s Play, all saw sequels in the 1990s, most of which met with varied amounts of success at the box office, but all were negatively reviewed by critics, with the exception of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), and the hugely successful film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The latter, which stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, is considered a major horror movie of all times. Misery (1990) also deals with a psychopath, and the film received critical acclaim for Kathy Bates’s performance as the psychopathic Annie Wilkes. Seven (film), the 1995 Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey film, New Nightmare, with In the Mouth of Madness (1995), The Dark Half (1993), and Candyman (1992), were part of a mini-movement of self-reflexive or metafictional horror films. Each film touched upon the relationship between fictional horror and real-world horror. Candyman, for example, examined the link between an invented urban legend, and the realistic horror of the racism that produced its villain. In the Mouth of Madness took a more literal approach, as its protagonist actually hopped from the real world into a novel created by the madman he was hired to track down. This reflective style became more overt and ironic with the arrival of Scream (1996). In Interview with the Vampire (1994), the “Theatre de Vampires” (and the film itself, to some degree) invoked the Grand Guignol style, perhaps to further remove the undead performers from humanity, morality and class. The horror movie soon continued its search for new and effective frights. In the 1985 novel, The Vampire Lestat, by the author Anne Rice (who penned Interview with the Vampire‘s screenplay and the 1976 novel of the same name) suggests that its antihero Lestat inspired and nurtured the Grand Guignol style and theatre.
Two main problems pushed horror backward during this period: firstly, the horror genre wore itself out with the proliferation of nonstop slasher and gore films in the eighties. Secondly, the adolescent audience, which feasted on the blood and morbidity of the previous decade grew up, and the replacement audience for films of an imaginative nature were being captured instead by the explosion of science-fiction and fantasy films, courtesy of the special effects possibilities with advances made in computer-generated imagery. Examples of these CGI include movies like Species (1995), Anaconda (1997), Mimic (1997), Blade (1998), Deep Rising (1998), House on Haunted Hill (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and The Haunting (1999).
To re-connect with its audience, horror became more self-mockingly ironic and outright parodic, especially in the latter half of the 1990s. Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) (known as Dead Alive in the United States) took the splatter film to ridiculous excesses for comic effect. Wes Craven’s Scream (written by Kevin Williamson) movies, starting in 1996, featured teenagers who were fully aware of, and often made reference to, the history of horror movies, and mixed ironic humour with the shocks (despite Scream 2 and Scream 3 utilising less use of the humour of the original, until Scream 4 in 2011, and rather more references to horror film conventions). Along with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (also written by Williamson) and Urban Legend (1998), they re-ignited the dormant slasher film genre.
Event Horizon (1997) is a British-American science fiction horror film directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. The Sixth Sense (1999) is a supernatural horror film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, which tells the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who is able to see and talk to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him.
House on Haunted Hill is a 1999 horror film directed by William Malone which follows a group of strangers who are invited to a party at an abandoned asylum, where they are offered $1 million each by an amusement park mogul if they are able to survive the night. It is a remake of the 1959 film of the same title. Other horror films of the late 1990s include Cube (1997), The Faculty (1998), Disturbing Behavior (1998), Stir of Echoes (1999), Stigmata (1999), and Existenz (1999).
Monster horror was quite popular in the 1990s. Tremors (1990) is the first installment of the Tremors series. Lake Placid (1999) is another monster horror film, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Steve Miner.
Another successful horror film is Ring, a 1998 Japanese supernatural psychological horror film about a cursed videotape, after the person watches it, the phone rings, and someone tells them that they will die in seven days, directed by Hideo Nakata. Around this period, Japanese horror started becoming popular in English speaking countries.
In South Korea, the success of supernatural horror film Whispering Corridors (1998) by Park Ki-hyung, sparked the explosion of Korean horror.
The film The Last Broadcast (1998) served as inspiration for the highly successful The Blair Witch Project (1999), which popularized the found footage horror subgenre. The theme of witchcraft was also addressed in The Witches (1990), starring Anjelica Huston, and The Craft (1996), a supernatural horror film directed by Andrew Fleming. Wolf is a 1994 romantic horror film following the transformation of a man (Jack Nicholson) into a werewolf.
Ravenous (1999) starring Guy Pearce and directed by Antonia Bird is a “quirky” and gruesome movie based on the real life horror story of the Donner party that got stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847 due to snow.
The decade started with American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron starring Christian Bale as a charismatic serial killer and Manhattan business mogul. The movie was highly controversial when released and remains a cult classic today. Scary Movie (2000), a comedy horror directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans parodied of the horror, slasher, and mystery genres. The film received mixed reviews from critics. By contrast, Valentine (2001) was a conventional horror film. It had some success at the box office, but was derided by critics for being formulaic and relying on foregone horror film conventions. The Others (2001) was hugely successful, winning and being nominated for many awards. It is a 2001 English-language Spanish gothic supernatural psychological horror film. It was written, directed, and scored by Alejandro Amenábar. It stars Nicole Kidman and Fionnula Flanagan.
Sequels, such as Jason X (2001) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) also made a stand in theaters. Final Destination (2000) marked a successful revival of teen-centered horror and spawned five installments. Jeepers Creepers series was also successful. Films such as Hollow Man (2000), Cabin Fever (2002), House of 1000 Corpses (2003) (the latter an exploitation horror film written, co-scored and directed by Rob Zombie in his directorial debut) and the previous mentions helped bring the genre back to Restricted ratings in theaters. Van Helsing (2004) and Underworld series had huge box office success, despite mostly negative reviews by critics. Ginger Snaps (2000) is a Canadian film dealing with the tragic transformation of a teenage girl who is bitten by a werewolf. Signs (2002) revived the science fiction alien theme. 28 Days Later (2002) is a British post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, it’s about a highly contagious virus that devastated Great Britain, four survivors are going for a safe haven in Manchester, a critical and commercial success, the film helped revitalize the zombie horror subgenre and introduced the new concept of fast zombies. The Descent, a 2005 British adventure horror film written and directed by Neil Marshall was also successful. Another notable film is Drag Me to Hell, a 2009 American supernatural horror film co-written and directed by Sam Raimi. The Strangers (2008) deals with unprovoked stranger-on-stranger violence. The House of the Devil (2009) is inspired by the “satanic panic” of the 1980s. Trick ‘r Treat is a 2007 anthology horror film written and directed by Michael Dougherty and produced by Bryan Singer. Black Water (2007) is a British-Australian natural horror film. Another natural adventure horror film is The Ruins (2008), which is based on the novel of the same name by Scott Smith. 30 Days of Night (2007) is based on the comic book miniseries of the same name. The story focuses on an Alaskan town beset by vampires as it enters into a 30-day long polar night. Comic book adaptations like the Blade series, Constantine (2005), and Hellboy (2004) also became box office successes. The Resident Evil video games were adapted into a film released in March 2002, and several sequels followed. Other video game adaptations like Doom (2005) and Silent Hill (2006) also had moderate box office success.
Some pronounced trends have marked horror films. Films from non-English language countries have become successful. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is such an example. It is a 2001 Spanish-Mexican gothic horror film directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras. A French horror film Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) became the second-highest-grossing French language film in the United States in the last two decades. The Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008) was also successful. REC is a 2007 Spanish zombie horror film, co-written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Martyrs (2008), a French-Canadian horror film, was controversial upon its release, receiving polarizing reviews. Another notable film is The Orphanage (2007), a Spanish horror film and the debut feature of Spanish filmmaker J. A. Bayona. A Tale of Two Sisters is a 2003 South Korean psychological drama, horror film written and directed by Kim Jee-woon. Shutter (2004) is a Thai horror film, which focuses on mysterious images seen in developed pictures. Cold Prey is a 2006 Norwegian slasher film directed by Roar Uthaug.
Another trend is the emergence of psychology to scare audiences, rather than gore. The Others (2001) proved to be a successful example of a psychological horror film. A minimalist approach which was equal parts Val Lewton’s theory of “less is more”, usually employing the low-budget techniques utilized on The Blair Witch Project (1999), has been evident, particularly in the emergence of Asian horror movies which have been remade into successful Americanized versions, such as The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), and Pulse (2006). In March 2008, China banned the movies from its market. Credo (2008) and Triangle (2009) are two British psychological horror films. What Lies Beneath (2000) is a supernatural horror film directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple who experience a strange haunting of their home. The psychological horror film, 1408 was released in 2007, it is based on Stephen King’s 1999 short story of the same name. Two Australian horror films that deal with teenagers are Lake Mungo (2008) and The Loved Ones (2009).
The films I Am Legend (2007), Quarantine (2008), Zombieland (2009), and 28 Days Later (2002) featured an update of the apocalyptic and aggressive zombie genre. The latter film spawned a sequel: 28 Weeks Later (2007). An updated remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) soon appeared as well as the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Spanish -Cuban comedy zombie film Juan of the Dead (2012). This resurgence led George A. Romero to return to his Living Dead series with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Cannibals were present in horror films such as Dahmer (2002), Wrong Turn (2003), Tooth and Nail (2007), and Dying Breed (2008). Jennifer’s Body (2009) starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama brings a succubus into a suburban American high school.
The Australian film Wolf Creek (2005) written, co-produced, and directed by Greg McLean revolves around three backpackers who find themselves taken captive and after a brief escape, hunted down by Mick Taylor in the Australian outback. The film was marketed as being “based on true events”, the plot bore elements reminiscent of the real-life murders of tourists by Ivan Milat in the 1990s, and Bradley Murdoch in 2001, and contained more extreme violence. An extension of this trend was the emergence of a type of horror with emphasis on depictions of torture, suffering, and violent deaths, (variously referred to as “horror porn”, “torture porn”, “splatterporn”, and “gore-nography”) with films such as Ghost Ship (2002), The Collector (2009), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and their respective sequels, frequently singled out as examples of emergence of this subgenre. In 2010 the Saw film series held the Guinness World Record of the highest-grossing horror series in history. Finally, with the arrival of Paranormal Activity (2007), which was well received by critics and had an excellent reception at the box office, minimalist horror approach started by The Blair Witch Project was reaffirmed. Cloverfield (2008) is another found footage horror film. The Mist (2007) is a science-fiction horror film based on the 1980 novella of the same name by Stephen King. Antichrist (2009) is an English-language Danish experimental horror film written and directed by Lars von Trier, and starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a 2005 legal drama, horror film directed by Scott Derrickson, loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel. The Children (2008) is a British horror film focusing on the mayhem created by several children. Another 2008 British horror film is Eden Lake.
Remakes of earlier horror films became routine in the 2000s. In addition to the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), as well as the remake of both Herschell Gordon Lewis’ cult classic, 2001 Maniacs (2003), and the remake of Tobe Hooper’s classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), there was also the 2007 Rob Zombie-written and -directed remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The film focused more on Michael’s backstory than the original did, devoting the first half of the film to Michael’s childhood. It was negatively reviewed by most critics, but was a success in its theatrical run, spurring its own sequel. This film helped to start a “reimagining” riot in horror filmmakers. Among the many remakes or “reimaginings” of other horror films are films such as Thirteen Ghosts (2001), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Friday the 13th (2009), Children of the Corn (2009), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008), The Omen (2006), Carrie (2002), The Wicker Man (2006), Day of the Dead (2008), Night of the Demons (2009), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Willard (2003), Black Christmas (2006), The Amityville Horror (2005), April Fool’s Day (2008), The Fog (2005), The Hitcher (2007), It’s Alive (2009), When a Stranger Calls (2006), and The Last House on the Left (2009).
Remakes remain popular, with films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), Poltergeist (2015), and Suspiria (2018). The 1976 film, Carrie, saw its second remake in 2013, which is the third film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 novel of the same name. Child’s Play saw a sequel with Curse of Chucky (2013), while Hellraiser: Judgment (2018) becomes the tenth installment in the Hellraiser film series. Halloween is a 2018 slasher film, which is the eleventh installment in the Halloween film series, and a direct sequel to the 1978 film of the same name, while effecting a retcon of all previous sequels. The 2013 Evil Dead is the fourth installment in the Evil Dead series, and serves as a soft reboot of the original 1981 film, and as a continuation of the original film trilogy.
Serialized, found footage style web videos featuring Slender Man became popular on YouTube at the beginning of the decade. Such series included TribeTwelve, EverymanHybrid, and Marble Hornets, the latter of which has been adapted into a feature film. Slender Man (2018) is a supernatural horror film, based on the character of the same name. The character as well as the multiple series is credited with reinvigorating interest in found footage as well as urban folklore. Horror has become prominent on television with The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and The Strain, and an online streaming services like Netflix’s Stranger Things and Haunting of Hill House. Also, many popular horror films have had successful television series made: Psycho spawned Bates Motel, The Silence of the Lambs spawned Hannibal, and both Scream and Friday the 13th had a TV series in development.
You’re Next (2011) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) led to a return to the slasher genre. The latter was intended also as a critical satire of torture porn. The Green Inferno (2015) pays homage to the controversial horror film, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The Australian psychological horror film, The Babadook (2014) directed by Jennifer Kent received critical acclaim and won many awards. It Follows (2014) subverted traditional horror tropes of sexuality and slasher films and enjoyed commercial and critical success.
The Conjuring Universe is a series of horror films which deal with the paranormal. The series includes The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019) and Annabelle Comes Home (2019). Sinister (2012) is a British-American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Insidious is another series of supernatural horror films and includes Insidious (2010), Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), and Insidious: The Last Key (2018).
The Witch (2015) is a historical period supernatural horror film written and directed by Robert Eggers in his directorial debut, which follows a Puritan family encountering forces of evil in the woods beyond their New England farm. Get Out (2017) received universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Its plot follows a black man who uncovers a disturbing secret when he meets the family of his white girlfriend. Adapted from the Stephen King novel, It (2017) set a box office record for horror films by grossing $123.1 million on opening weekend in the United States and nearly $185 million globally. Gerald’s Game (2017) is a psychological horror film based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Other horror films include Frozen (2010), Black Swan (2010), Devil (2010), The Innkeepers (2011), Oculus (2013), Under the Skin (2013), Mama (2013), Green Room (2015), The Invitation (2015), Hush (2016), Lights Out (2016), Don’t Breathe (2016), The Endless, Revenge (2017 film), Mother! (2017), It Comes at Night (2017), and Unsane (2018), Upgrade (film) (2018), Overlord (2018 film), Mandy (2018), Suspiria, Apostle, CAM, Wildling, Ghost Stories, Cargo, Terrifier, Pyewacket, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Lowlife, Marrowbone, Downrange, and Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum.
A Quiet Place (2018) is a critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic science-fiction horror film with a plot that follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from extraterrestrial creatures that arrived on earth on fragments from their exploded home planet, and which, hunt exclusively by sound. Annihilation (2018) is another successful science-fiction horror film. Hereditary (2018) follows a family haunted after the death of their secretive grandmother. Assassination Nation (2018) follows a group of teenage girls who are targeted in a social media witch hunt that spills the darkest secrets of the entire town’s residents, leading to mass riots and violent killings among the citizens. The film is a socio-political horror thriller that attempted to address issues such as Toxic masculinity, Trigger Warnings, Slut-shaming, Sexism, Violence against Women and Transphobia.
2018 and 2019 saw the rise of Jordan Peele as a director of allegorical horror-thriller films. Get Out addresses modern racism and the concept of slavery by following an African-American man as he makes a chilling discovery regarding his white girlfriend’s upper-class family. Get Out received four Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay) at the 90th Academy Awards, of which Peele won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Peele’s sophomore film, Us, addresses, social class and privilege as it follows a family terrorized by their murderous doppelgängers. Lupita Nyong’o was nominated for the SAG Award for Best Actress for her role in the film.
Several notable found footage horror films were produced, including The Last Exorcism (2010), V/H/S (2012), Unfriended (2014), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), and The Visit (2015). Various themes were addressed in the horror of this period. Horror films which deal with troubled teens include Excision (2012) and Split (2016). The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) depicts coroners who experience supernatural phenomena while examining the body of an unidentified woman. The Purge is an action horror film series, consisting of four films and a television series, which are based on a future dystopian United States, where all crime is made legal once a year. Contracted (2013), Starry Eyes (2014), and American Mary (2012) deal with body horror. Kill List (2011) is a British crime drama, psychological horror film which deals with contract killers. The Hallow (2015) follows a family who go to a remote rural place in Ireland and have to deal with demonic creatures living in the woods. Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) address extraterrestrial themes. Friend Request (2016) and The Den (2013) are examples of cyber horror. The Neon Demon (2016) follows an aspiring model in Los Angeles whose beauty and youth generate intense fascination and jealousy within the industry. #Horror (2015) depicts a group of wealthy 7th grade girls who face a night of terror together after a social network game spirals out of control. The Other Side of the Door (2016) deals with a mother who attempts to use a ritual to meet her dead son for a last time to say goodbye, but misuses the ritual. Truth or Dare (2018) follows a group of college students who play a game of truth or dare? While on vacation in Mexico, only to realize it has deadly consequences if they don’t follow through on their tasks. Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) focuses on a widow and her family adding a Ouija board to their phony seance business where, unbeknownst to them, they invite a spirit that possesses the youngest daughter. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (also known as February) is a 2015 American-Canadian supernatural psychological horror film, which follows two Catholic schoolgirls who get left behind at their boarding school over winter break, where the nuns are rumored to be Satanists.
The success of non-English language films continued with the Swedish film, Marianne (2011), while Let the Right One In (2008) was the subject of a Hollywood remake, Let Me In (2010). South Korean horror produced I Saw the Devil (2010) and Train to Busan (2016). Raw is a 2016 French-Belgian horror drama written and directed by Julia Ducournau, and starring Garance Marillier. Goodnight Mommy (2014) (German: Ich seh, Ich seh) is an Austrian horror film. Verónica is a 2017 Spanish horror film loosely based on real events. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour is a vampire film in Persian that transcends simple vampire and horror categorization. Untamed (2016) directed by Amat Escalante is a unique psychological-sexual thriller.
The 2017 slasher film, Happy Death Day follows a college student who is murdered on her birthday and begins reliving the day repeatedly, at which point she sets out to find the killer and stop her death. It grossed $125 million worldwide on a $4.8 million budget and received generally positive reviews, with critics deeming the film entertaining while acknowledging the familiar premise, and describing it as “Groundhog Day meets Scream“. A sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, was released in February 2019.
In late 2018, Netflix premiered the post-apocalyptic thriller film Bird Box which became an internet sensation even well into January 2019. The film follows a woman, played by Sandra Bullock, who, along with a pair of children, must make it through a forest and river. They must do so blindfolded, to avoid supernatural entities that seemingly cause people who look at them to die by suicide. The hashtag #BirdBox trended for weeks. People shared memes in regards to the movie, even inspiring the “Bird Box blindfold challenge” in which participants wear blindfolds while trying to do day-to-day activities.
By the late 2010s, horror became the most lucrative genre for independent films in the US. Changes in distribution strategies, such as the shrinking American home video market, hit other genres harder than horror, and breakout successes proved theatrical distribution to be viable. Although hardcore horror films remained a niche, crossover films appealed to both horror and arthouse crowds, driven by positive critical reviews and word-of-mouth. At the same time, video on demand became a potentially profitable market for low-budget and no-budget horror films. Films with a novelty concept can capitalize on viral media coverage to receive enough views on ad-based sites that it covers their costs even if viewers only watch to the first commercial.
List of various Wikipedia articles written on horror movie themes. We are living through the 2020’s, life is currently a HORROR MOVIE!
- Lists of horror films
- Bollywood horror films
- Cannibalism in popular culture
- Chinese horror
- List of disaster films
- German underground horror
- Japanese horror
- Horror and terror
- Horror fiction
- List of ghost films
- List of horror film villains
- List of natural horror films
- Misogyny in horror films
- Monsters in fiction
- Monster movie
- Social thriller
- Survival horror games
- Universal monsters
- Urban Gothic
- Vampire film
- Werewolf fiction
Comedy horror combines elements of comedy and horror film. The comedy horror genre often crosses over with the black comedy genre. It occasionally includes horror films with lower ratings that are aimed at a family audience. The short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is cited as “the first great comedy-horror story”.
Folk horror typically includes a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.
Found Footage Horror
The found footage horror film “technique” gives the audience a first person view of the events on screen, and presents the footage as being discovered after. Horror films which are framed as being made up of “found-footage” merge the experiences of the audience and characters, which may induce suspense, shock, and bafflement. Examples of first-person horror include Nightcall, The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Noroi: The Curse (2005), and Devil’s Due (2014).
Gothic horror incorporates elements of Gothic literature, including romance, dread, and the supernatural.
Natural horror is a subgenre of horror films “featuring nature running amok in the form of mutated beasts, carnivorous insects, and normally harmless animals or plants turned into cold-blooded killers.”
Teen horror is a horror subgenre that victimizes teenagers while usually promoting strong, anti-conformity teenage leads, appealing to young generations. This subgenre often depicts themes of sex, under-aged drinking, and gore. It was most popular in 1964 and 1965.
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Neurocinematics – the subconscious effect of horror films on the audience
In a study done by Uri Hasson et al., brain waves were observed via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This study used the inter-subject correlation analysis (ISC) method of determining results. It was shown that audience members tend to focus on certain facets in a particular scene simultaneously and tend to sit as still as possible while watching horror films. In another study done by Glenn Sparks, it was found that the audience tends to experience the excitation transfer process (ETP) which causes a physiological arousal in audience members. The ETP refers to the feelings experienced immediately after watching a horror film, specifically in which audience members’ heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all increase. Audience members with positive feedback regarding the horror film have feelings similar to happiness or joy felt with friends, but intensified. Alternatively, audience members with negative feedback regarding the film would typically feel emotions they would normally associate with negative experiences in their life. Only about 10% of the American population enjoy the physiological rush felt immediately after watching horror films. The population that does not enjoy horror films could experience emotional fallout similar to that of PTSD if the environment reminds them of particular scenes.
Different techniques employed by horror films on the audience
In a study by Jacob Shelton, the many ways that audience members are manipulated through horror films was investigated in detail. Negative space, is one such method that can play a part in inducing a reaction, causing one’s eyes to remotely rest on anything in the frame – a wall, or the empty black void in the shadows. In an ideal horror film, there is a perfect balance of negative and positive space. Another method is a subversion of classic horror tropes – the jump scare. In classic horror films, the jump scare is right after an individual closes the bathroom mirror with their reflection shown or other such situations. Alternatively, it is when there is no jump scare that causes the audience to feel more unease and discomfort because they do not know when it will happen, only that it is anticipated.
The meaning of mirrors in horror films is that they create visual depth that builds tension. Audience members have ingrained the fear of mirrors due to the use of them in classic horror films. Even if there is no jump scare succeeding a mirror scene, individuals are still trained to fear the mirror no matter what. Mirrors illustrate the characters’ duality and “real” version of themselves. In any case, mirrors altogether make the audience anxious, while patiently waiting for a jump scare that may or may not occur.
Tight framing is another technique used, where an entire scene can be created with a close-up. Tight framing can be terrifying as they induce anxiety by not allowing the viewer to see what’s directly around the protagonist. The suspense of not knowing builds on the unknown and the tension of the audience.
Physical effects of horror films on the audience
In a study by Medes et al., prolonged exposure to infrasound and low-frequency noise (<500 Hz) in long durations has an effect on vocal range (i.e. longer exposure tends to form a lower phonation frequency range). Another study by Baliatsas et al. Observed that there is a correlation between exposure to infrasound and low-frequency noises and sleep-related problems. Though most horror films keep the audio around 20–30 Hz, the noise can still be unsettling in long durations.
Another technique used in horror films to provoke a response from the audience is cognitive dissonance, which is when someone experiences tension in themselves and is urged to relieve that tension. Dissonance is the clashing of unpleasant or harsh sounds. A study by Prete et al. identified that the ability to recognize dissonance relied on the left hemisphere of the brain, while consonance relied on the right half. There is a stronger preference for consonance; this difference is noticeable even in early stages of life. Previous musical experience also can influence a dislike for dissonance.
Skin conductance responses (SCRs), heart rate (HR), and electromyographic (EMG) responses vary in response to emotional stimuli, showing higher for negative emotions in what is known as the “negative bias.” When applied to dissonant music, HR decreases (as a bodily form of adaptation to harsh stimulation), SCR increases, and EMG responses in the face are higher. The typical reactions go through a two-step process of first orienting to the problem (the slowing of HR), then a defensive process (a stronger increase in SCR and an increase in HR). This initial response can sometimes result in a fight-or-flight response, which is the characteristic of dissonance that horror films rely on to frighten and unsettle viewers.
Horror films can cause a variety of side effects, depending on the individual. One of the most noticeable side effects is sleeplessness. A person may have trouble sleeping or toss all night due to the residual fear and anxiety from watching a horror movie. They can cause trauma if their content is similar to real life events. For example, if a person went through a serious car accident, a film such as Final Destination 2 could be harmful for the person’s mental health.
Influences on society
Horror films’ evolution throughout the years has given society a new approach to resourcefully utilize their benefits. The horror film style has changed over time, but, in 1996, Scream set off a “chain of copycats”, leading to a new variety of teenage, horror movies.] This new approach to horror films began to gradually earn more and more revenue as seen in the progress of Scream movies; the first movie earned $6 million and the third movie earned $101 million. The importance that horror films have gained in the public and producers’ eyes is one obvious effect on our society.
The horror films’ income expansion is only the first sign of the influences of horror flicks. The role of women and how women see themselves in the movie industry has been altered by the horror genre. Early horror films such as My Bloody Valentine (1981), Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980) were produced mostly for male audiences in order to “feed the fantasies of young men”. This idea is no longer prevalent in horror films, as women have become not only the main audience and fans of horror films but also the main protagonists of contemporary horror films. Movie makers have also begun to integrate topics more broadly associated with other genres into their films in order to grow audience appeal.
Many early horror films created great social and legal controversy. In the U.S., the Motion Picture Production Code, which was implemented in 1930, set moral guidelines for film content, restraining movies containing controversial themes, graphic violence, explicit sexuality and/or nudity. The gradual abandonment of the Code, and its eventual formal repeal in 1968 (when it was replaced by the MPAA film rating system) offered more freedom to the movie industry. Nevertheless, controversy continued to surround horror movies, and many continued to face censorship issues around the world. For example, 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, an American rape-and-revenge exploitation horror film written, co-produced, directed, and edited by Meir Zarchi, was received negatively by critics, but it attracted a great deal of national and international attention due to its explicit scenes of rape, murder and prolonged nudity, which led to bans in countries such as Ireland, Norway, Iceland, and West Germany. Many of these countries later removed the ban, but the film remains prohibited in Ireland.
While horror is only one genre of film, the influence it presents to the international community is large. Horror movies tend to be a vessel for showing eras of audiences, issues across the globe visually and in the most effective manner. Jeanne Hall, a film theorist, agrees with the use of horror films in easing the process of understanding issues by making use of their optical elements. The use of horror films to help audiences understand international prior historical events occurs, for example, to depict the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Holocaust and the worldwide AIDS epidemic. However, horror movies do not always present positive endings. In fact, in many occurrences the manipulation of horror presents cultural definitions that are not accurate, yet set an example to which a person relates to that specific cultural from then on in their life.
The visual interpretations of films can be lost in the translation of their elements from one culture to another, like in the adaptation of the Japanese film Ju on into the American film The Grudge. The cultural components from Japan were slowly “siphoned away” to make the film more relatable to a western audience. This deterioration that can occur in an international remake happens by over-presenting negative cultural assumptions that, as time passes, sets a common ideal about that particular culture in each individual. Holm’s discussion of The Grudge remakes presents this idea by stating, “It is, instead, to note that The Grudge films make use of an un-theorized notion of Japan… that seek to directly represent the country.”
- Lists of horror films
- Bollywood horror films
- Cannibalism in popular culture
- Chinese horror
- List of disaster films
- German underground horror
- Japanese horror
- Horror and terror
- Horror fiction
- List of ghost films
- List of horror film villains
- List of natural horror films
- Misogyny in horror films
- Monsters in fiction
- Monster movie
- Social thriller
- Survival horror games
- Universal monsters
- Urban Gothic
- Vampire film
- Werewolf fiction
- Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film
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- Inner Carousel Image Credits: 1) Ladies in Lab 2) Female Vampire w/ victim 3) Salem Witch 4) Possessed Woman 5) Evil Clown – (all images are license owned/non royalty images)
- Worland, Rick (2006). The Horror Film: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 73, 176–178, 184.
- Dixon, Wheeler Winston. A History of Horror. (Rutgers University Press; 2010), ISBN 978-0-8135-4796-1.
- Steffen Hantke, ed. American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium (University Press of Mississippi; 2010), 253 pages.
- Petridis, Sotiris (2014). “A Historical Approach to the Slasher Film“. Film International 12 (1): 76–84.
- Horror genre on IMDb
List Results Coming Soon…
As part of our contest coming in the middle of July, we will be collecting information on your favorite horror films. We will post the top 10 results after the contest as ended.
‘Michelle coffeyJune 21, 2020 at 6:10 am
This is amazing bby… so much information and just ?
Goth BarbieJune 21, 2020 at 6:17 am
Thank you girl! It’s a lot of information but sets you up for my interview next week.