Horror films were originally based on the works of expressive
painters, myths, and stories. This meant that it was mainly ghost
stories and vampire movies as that was the stories were based on.
Although these early films belong to the Horror genre, this was not the
case in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s instead being classed as spooky
tales. They were also silent. Some examples are;
Le Manoir du Diable
Released in 1896, and directed by early film maker George
Melies, this three minute short film includes a range of different
elements typical to horror film such as ghosts, smoke and bats.
1922. This is the first vampire movie, based on the highly popular
book Dracula by Bram Stoker. This silent movie uses backing music
as well to create more of an atmosphere, as due to the lack in technical
advances it was hard to visually show the horror aspects. To help
narrate the movie, there is also text that comes up on screen as to what
the characters are saying.
The Early Years
Sound became available to use in films, and this changed horror films
greatly, as sound added a new dimension to the fear, with screams and
sound effects. This not only changed technicalities, but also the stories
behind the films. Although still based on stories and myths, they were
based more on monsters such as werewolf's and Frankenstein. This
was because they could use the sound effects such as roars and groans
which relate to these monsters. During this period of the Great
Depression, horror films being so surreal and exciting acted as an
escape, and cinemas as a whole became lot more popular, with 65% of
the US population visiting the cinema on a weekly basis.
Released in 1931, it was the first talking horror and was somewhat
revolutionary in horror films, showing detailed mise en scene which
became typical of horrors; the European setting, fog, forests and
Released by Universal in 1931, another classic horror film that has
become part of pop culture, exploring a new idea that monsters are
man made, reflecting cultural events of the time such as war. Still
based on a novel, this used strong mise en scene and used effective
sound effects to bring it to life.
During this period, Hollywood was producing movies for a
domestic audience that slightly reflected the wars going on at the
time. As America was trying to distance themselves from the war
that was mainly happening in Europe. Although this was the
case, Americas European roots started to seep through. This led
to a development in the horror genre to people turning into more
Werewolf of London (1935)
This movie shows the first example of a werewolf being used in
a horror film. Linking to the idea of negativity in Europe at this
time, the film is set in London. It also reflect concerns
surrounding the war and class, gender distinctions.
Cat People (1942)
This film takes on a more realistic approach with the
characters, instead opting for human images instead of the idea of
mythical creatures and monsters. This as with previous horror
films looks to existing popular stories for inspiration, with this
film being dubbed as “Voodoo Jayne Eyre”.
After the war, the idea of horror and evil changed
dramatically due to the events that took place and what
people were exposed to. This transference meant that people
were no longer as frightened my fantasy creatures, instead
evil now began to take a more human form. Due to the
technology around the atomic bomb and the first sighting of
UFO’s, people also began to fear technology.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by Don Siegel, this films fear factor was the fact
that those who’s bodies were controlled were everyday
people that make up a neighborhood or a typical day. This
reflects ideas of both alien invasion and political aspects
about who can be trusted.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
This includes the use of atomic technology which relates to
the previous use of the atomic bomb. This was one of the
top grossing movies of 1953 and encouraged the
investigation and production of more monster films.
Dubbed as the era of sexual revolution, the 60’s became
more open to exploring different ideas in society such as
sex, drugs and violence and these were fed to the audience
– mainly teenagers - through film. The genre of horror
had evolved more as well, with monsters not looking
scary or realistic anymore, now instead looking at even
more realistic horrors relating to social ideas such as
stereotypes and how much you really knew about
anything that was perceived as every day life. Alfred
Hitchcock led the way with horrors in this decade with
iconic films, Psycho and The Birds.
Norman Bates became a notorious “monster” in horror
after this. On the outside, he looked like a normal
everyday guy, when in reality he was a murderer. This
went onto inspire other horror films, and even a TV series.
The Birds (1963)
This film explores a new idea, with the female being the
antagonist instead of being portrayed. This relates to
social circumstances at the time where women are not all
acting how men wanted the too – ie, housewives and do
what they are told. Instead women are going against this
and acting out which is shown in this film.
Once again, horror reflected ideas in society and due to the negative
events that happened such as Nixon, and more eccentric styles such
as glam rock. These may not have been seen in a good light, but
impacted the horror genre well. Horrors also returned to bigger
budgets will bigger productions. Themes that are evident are once
again the fear of people, but mainly the fear of children.
The Exorcist (1975)
This is dubbed as one of the most popular and scary horror films as
all time. It was revolutionary, with mechanical creative effects
exceeding its time. It looks at very religious ideas about the devil
and God, as well as its serious feel, without using humor as previous
horror films of the time did. It was seen as so shocking, that it was
banned from being released on video until 1999 in the UK.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
This looks at more sci-fi, and ideas and not knowing who your
neighbors really are. Also looking at more cultural issues about
women becoming more powerful for example, having jobs rather
than being housewives. This was seen as shocking and scary in its
time as it was so realistic in the sense of it being set in an idyllic
town, and the idea of a perfect housewife which was common in
A major theme in horror films in this time period was
the use of new technologies for special effects and
special effects makeup which both together helped bring
horror ideas to life a lot more.
The Shinning (1980)
This is a cult classic horror adaption by Stanley Kubrick
based on Stephen King’s book. This features ideas about
isolation, a haunted hotel and mind tricks that
eventually turned Jack insane. Unlike some other horror
films of this time, this is still considered scary due to the
fact it concentrates on more psychological, realistic
ideas rather than special effects and monsters.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
This is another iconic cult horror film to come from the
80’s from Wes Craven who directed other popular
horror films in the 1970s such as Hills Have Eyes. This
focuses on the use of special effects makeup to create a
monster (Freddy Kruger) that looks human in form.
This was such a popular film due to the fact it goes
against certain conventions. For example, a lot of the
film is set during the day in a dream, however, there is
nothing distinguishing the dream from reality in most
cases until the end.
The theme that run through this decade of horror films was
the idea of serial killers, as more monster focused horror
films were now repeating themselves and becoming
increasing unbelievable and humorous. Due to the nature
of the serial killer themes, there was a lot of cross over
films featuring ideas of both horror films and thriller films.
Silence of The Lambs (1991)
Although this is technically a horror film, it does look
towards ideas from thriller films. It also is very realistic in
the fact that it contains real issues and the issues are
presented realistically, and not in the form of special
effects. This is a widely popular film, popularizing its two
lead actors as well who also received Oscars.
This looks back to how previous decades created horror
films, with the use of teen characters that get killed off one
by one. This film in a away created a new sub genre of
horror films in some respect, as it was the first horror that
actively looked towards comedic themes as well. This
drew in a big teen audience who seemed to prefer the
slightly lighter themes.
Everything changed for horror movies, due to the world
changing event that was 9/11/. This resulted in filmmakers
being wary of releasing films that would effect, shock, and
disrespect a world that had seem the tragic events. When
horror did start to come back, gone was the psychopathic
killers that were shown. As with the Great Depression in
the 1940’s, horror movies were once again an escape from
the events of the real world.
28 Days Later (2002)
This zombie apocalypse film set in England uses
surveillance style filming, very real themes that touched
on the time the film was brought out to create a new style
of zombie horror film. These realistic themes are why it
was so popular, creating a fear that it could potentially
This along with many other horror films released in this
time shows a lot of blood, guts, and torture. Although it
does not feature any real, deep story line such as in 28
Days Later, it does borrow some themes, such as the
realistic feel. This also is helped by the fact the movie is
advertised as “inspired by true events”.