“Horror films are the present-day version of the epic poems and ballads told round the fires of our ancestors.”
Do you feel the chill in the air?
Pumpkins sit on porches with their twisted grins, carved and hollowed and lit from within. Cobwebs cover most trees in my neighborhood, and inflatable monsters stalk the yards.
Yup. Here in the US, Halloween Season is officially in full swing!
Are you a fan of October’s spooky thrills? Surprisingly, your answer actually may be influenced by your genes. In 2008, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany found that people’s proclivity for all things horror may be linked to a variant of the “COMT” gene “that affects a chemical in the brain that is linked to anxiety”. Specifically:
“People who have two copies of one version of the gene are more easily disturbed when viewing unpleasant pictures, the scientists discovered. That version of the gene weakens the effect of a signaling chemical in the brain that helps control certain emotions.
The scientists found that those carrying two copies of it were significantly more startled by frightening images than others.
By contrast, those who had one copy of the gene and one copy of another version were able to keep their emotions in check far more readily.
The study… also found that those with two copies of the latter gene were also able to keep a lid on their anxiety more easily.”
But in film, horror does more than delight and disgust. When we step back and consider the genre’s rich and storied history, we begin to realize that horror films reflect society’s collective anxieties throughout the decades, holding a mirror up to contemporary concerns.
For example, in the 1950s, the fear of invasion and atomic war fueled films in which the effects of radiation created larger-than-life monsters. In the 1970s, Hollywood looked inward, inventing threats that sprung from within.
More recently, an uptick in prestigious “elevated horror” films is tackling modern social issues head-on, such as 2017’s Get Out, an examination of racism that blew up at the box office and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay:
But let’s back up, here.
If, like me, you’re a child of the 1980s and 90s, then it’s likely you’ve encountered R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books (and now movies) somewhere along the way. But of course, the horror genre has roots that go back much further. Literature helped establish it with the “gothic novel” – dark stories with supernatural elements unfolding in gothic settlings, like castles with winding hallways and trapdoors. The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764, is widely regarded to be the first true gothic horror story:
Of course, the gothic novel laid the foundation for future film adaptations featuring classic characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, Jeckyll and Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera!
But as Karina Wilson of Horror Film History points out, horror predates even this:
“As long as there have been stories, there have been stories about the Other, the unrealities we might categorize today as speculative fiction. Early creation myths in all cultures are populated by demons and darkness, and early Abrahamic and Egyptian mythology resounds with tales of a world beyond the physical, a realm of the spirits, to be revered and feared. Classical mythology is replete with monsters – Cereberus, the Minotaur, Medusa, the Hydra, the Sirens, Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis to name but a few – and heroes must navigate safely through the land of the dead on frequent occasions. Ancestor worship and the veneration of the dead begins with the Zhou dynasty in China, 1500 years BC.”
Film is just one of the mediums we’re using today to tell stories that have been told since time immemorial – or as Wilson puts it, “Horror films are the present-day version of the epic poems and ballads told round the fires of our ancestors.”
So, at risk of over-generalization, let’s take a quick look at how this film genre has evolved!
The 1900s: From the Fire to the Screen
The history of horror in cinema dates back to Georges Méliès’ The Haunted Castle (en français, Le Manoir du Diable) in 1896:
For a fun watch, also check out Le Squelette Joyeux, a short film made by the world-famous Lumière Brothers shortly after The Haunted Castle came out:
In the early 1900s, German filmmakers advanced the genre considerably. Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1915), Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) are outstanding examples of onscreen innovation, (arguably) inspired by Germany’s ban of foreign films during World War I. Shares Wilson:
“German filmmakers had plenty of opportunities to develop a national style, which was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement in German fine arts. Artists moved from the theatre into film and applied the same thinking to their set designs. They believed movie sets should represent an artificial reality, distorted landscapes reflecting the interior state of the characters or the emotional themes of the story rather than natural locations. Given the national mood in wartime Germany, this led to some nightmarish designs.”
Meanwhile, over in America, gothic novels were getting the big screen treatment. Edison Studios released its first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus in 1910 as a short film (a feature version would come in 1931 from Universal Pictures, considered by some to be the most iconic horror film in history). Across the pond, Hammer Film Productions helmed adaptations of classics including Dracula and The Mummy.
To put this proliferation of supernatural movies in context, film scholars have speculated that the fear of death and the possibility of resurrection in gothic novels and their movie counterparts reflected contemporary society’s fear of premature death and illness, before the advent of modern medicine.
Of particular note from this period is Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Following a test screening, a woman threatened to sue the studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), claiming that the film had caused her to suffer a miscarriage! It was flat-out banned in the UK for 30 years. This New York Times review from 1932 provides some insight into why:
“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer definitely has on its hands a picture that is out of the ordinary. The difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto – where it opened yesterday – or in, say, the Medical Centre. Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion. Its first audience apparently could not decide, although there was a good bit of applause. Based on the life of “these strange people” of the circus sideshow, the picture is excellent at times and horrible, in the strict meaning of the word, at others. There are a few moments of comedy, but these are more than balanced by tragedy. Through long periods the story drags itself along, and there is one of the most profound anti-climaxes of them all to form the ending. Yet, despite this, Freaks is not a picture to be easily forgotten. The reason, of course, is the underlying sense of horror, the love of the macabre that fills the circus sideshows in the first place.”
Freaks experienced a resurgence of interest and respect beginning in the early 1960s, as audiences became more accustomed to shocking onscreen depictions (Bonnie and Clyde, anyone?)
Fear of the Atomic, Theatrical Gimmicks, and Pushing the Envelope
As Europe recovered from World War II, the spectre of invasion and atomic war cast a long shadow over the horror genre. For example, Godzilla was a product of radioactivity, and aliens invaded in 1953’s The War of the Worlds and 1958’s The Blob and I Married a Monster from Outerspace.
Generally speaking, audience reactions to such films were positive, inspiring the movie business to experiment with a variety of theatrical gimmicks intended to attract even more people: hypnotism, life insurance policies, free vomit bags… Director William Castle in particular was known for his gimmicks – he once purchased “fright insurance” for audiences during screenings of his film Macabre, guaranteeing that if someone died of fright, their family would receive $1000!
Gimmicks notwithstanding, the 1960s was a decade of revolution in Hollywood. As film technology became more accessible and the studios’ big-budget tentpoles flopped, independent and independently-minded filmmakers seized the opportunity.
George Romero was foremost among them with his landmark zombie film Night of the Living Dead in 1968, stirring controversy that resolved with the introduction of the MPAA Film Rating System later that year. Today, it is considered a commentary on race and also the Vietnam War. Like many of its contemporaries, Night of the Living Dead helped expose audiences to ever more shocking situations and images, pushing the envelop of what was acceptable to show onscreen.
Threats from Within and the Slasher Sub-genre
The envelope-pushing of the 1960s took a dark turn into the 70s. “After the optimism of the 1960s, with its sexual and cultural revolutions, and the moon landings, the seventies were something of a disappointment,” Wilson theorizes:
“By 1970, the party was over; the Beatles split, Janis and Jimi died, and in many senses it was downhill all the way from there: Nixon, ‘Nam, oil strikes, glam rock, feather haircuts, medallions… However, when society goes bad, horror films get good, and the 1970s marked a return to the… respectable horror film, dealing with contemporary societal issues, addressing genuine psychological fears.”
One thematic through-line of the era was children and childbirth. Foreshadowed by 1960s’ Village of the Damned, horror movies began to suggest that children can be scary and capable of terrible things. The family unit was not only vulnerable but also compromised – by supernatural forces in the case of films like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist.
In 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre kicked off the slasher sub-genre that exploded throughout the 1980s, giving birth to classics including Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which a murderer picks off his victims one-by-one. Slasher films became franchises in their own right, bleeding a series of sequels that in some cases continue to this day.
The 1990s’ Doldrums, “Torture Porn”, and Today’s Horror Film Renaissance
Many feel that horror slumped in the 1990s, as audiences burned out on the adrenaline of the slasher era. Filmmakers capitalized on this fatigue, producing parodies that still managed to scare: for example, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer made it big. Other filmmakers decided to tell more grounded, plausible stories. Serial killers featured prominently as antagonists, driving classics like Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and David Fincher’s thriller Se7en (1995).
The turn of the millennium brought about a branching of sorts in horror films. On one path, minimalist, lo-fi storytelling like that in The Blair Witch Project and adaptations of Japanese films including The Ring and The Grudge became popular. On another path, extreme violence featured front and center, constituting the “torture porn” sub-genre. If you’ve seen a Saw or Hostel film, you’re familiar with it. And this is where things get especially interesting for modern audiences.
Wilson theorizes that the direction of the new millennium’s horror films reflects a shift in society that was spurred by September 11, 2001. “The events of that day changed global perceptions of what is frightening,” she argues, “and set the cultural agenda for the following years.” To fit this new era, “the monsters have had to change. Gone were the lone psychopaths of the 1990s, far too reminiscent of media portrayals of bin Laden, the madman in his cave”.
Instead, torture porn depicts atrocities that are so horrible as to feel removed from the viewer. It’s an interesting take on how a time of true global terror may have influenced cinema: make something so scary that, in practice, it’s not worth fearing at all.
While the Hollywood of today throws its weight behind big-budget superhero sequels, auteurs are filling the hole in the market with the aid of smaller distributors (rather reminiscent of the late 1960s into the 70s). The horror genre has long been a good bet for indie filmmakers, with low-budget leanings that tend to afford creative expression and experimentation.
Enter 2017’s Get Out, a sensation that rode a wave of praise from its Sundance debut all the way to the Oscars. Like many films we’ve mentioned here, Get Out is a reflection of society. “It is a very personal story,” director Jordan Peele explains:
“It’s a horror movie that is from an African American’s perspective. It very quickly veers off from anything autobiographical, but I think what interested me most about this movie was dealing with racism, really everything from the subtle racism that many people may not know exists on a day to day basis, or for a lot of people… To the more extreme racism and everything in between. When I talk about movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives, I really noticed that these movies were able to address fears surrounding the women’s lib movement in a way that was engaging, not preachy, but fun. It occurred to me that no one’s really made a thriller about race, since maybe Night of the Living Dead, which was [48 years ago.]”
Of course, there are still bigger-budget horror films coming out these days (The Purge franchise comes to mind), but by and large, we’re in the midst of independently-minded horror films – from Get Out to the smashing success of A Quiet Place; Suspiria to Mandy – produced by visionary directors with something unique to show and say. It’s an exciting time for fans of the horror genre!
It will be interesting to see what kind of horror films society’s fears inspire as the decades march on. Which ones will manifest onscreen? To recap, we’ll leave you with this 12-minute supercut of 122 horror films from 1895 to 2016:
Before we close, though, there’s one story I’m eager to share. While we were working on this article, Lights Film School’s Michael Koehler told me this story, which I think is a fun way to sum up the experience of watching an effective horror film. In Michael’s words:
“After I’d graduated college, a friend told me about the film Paranormal Activity. I scoffed at it – believing it to be a cynical Blair Witch knock off – but decided to give it a chance. I killed the lights while home alone, cranked up the volume, and braced myself. Suffice it to say that I spent that night trying to sleep with the lights on, listening to John Mayer albums, making sure my feet weren’t over the end of the bed so that an evil spirit couldn’t grab them…
Can you relate? Are you susceptible to the thrills and chills of horror films, or don’t they phase you at all? Regardless, what are your favorites… And how do you get to sleep after watching them? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
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