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A Brief History of the Horror Film

Updated on September 30, 2015
A screenshot from "Nosferatu"
A screenshot from "Nosferatu"

Horror movies are unique among film genres. They desire to create a negative, visceral emotional response from viewers. Most horror films are intended to frighten and disturb their audiences, while others are known for having cheesy, campy qualities that make them entertaining but not particularly scary. It seems counterintuitive that people would pay to see something that would frighten or disturb them, but many people (including me) love horror movies. There seems to be an innate human fascination with the grotesque. Or maybe people just love a good scare. Whatever the reason, horror films have endured for over a century and show no signs of fading away.Their popularity continues to endure.

"Phantom of the Opera" poster
"Phantom of the Opera" poster

1896-1929 - The Silent Era

Horror films have been around for about as long as there have been motion pictures. One of the first genre films was “The Haunted Castle” (1896), a very brief (and silent, of course) French film featuring a demon summoning witches and other monsters from a bubbling cauldron. “The Haunted Castle” is in the public domain and can be seen on You Tube.

As filmmaking became more sophisticated, the first well known, full length horror movies were created. The first film version of “Frankenstein” was released in 1910. In 1922, the acclaimed German vampire movie “Nosferatu” was released. It was loosely based on Bram Stroker’s novel “Dracula”. “Nosferatu” had a significant impact on future horror films, especially vampire movies. To this day, many film critics consider it to be one of the finest horror films ever made. Like “The Haunted Castle”, it is in the public domain and can be downloaded and viewed for free.

Another classic early silent horror film was “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) starring Lon Chaney. The film is known for the horrific makeup Chaney wore, making his face look hideously disfigured. Theater audiences reportedly were terrified by his portrayal. Many patrons fainted upon seeing the phantom’s face for the first time. Chaney became one of the first movie stars to be associated with horror films.

The Haunted Castle

"Freaks" poster
"Freaks" poster | Source

The 1930’s and 1940’s - The Rise of “Talkies”

Horror movie monsters gained in popularity during the 1930's. Universal Pictures would become a staple of the horror genre during this era. The studio released the first of its many “Frankenstein” films during this era, with Boris Karloff starring as the monster. Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi played the title role in another Universal film, “Dracula” (1931). Universal also released the original “Wolfman” in 1941, starring Lon Chaney. Other famous Universal films were “The Mummy” (1932) and “The Invisible Man” (1931). Universal would use all of these characters frequently, sometimes teaming them up in the same movie, for many years.

The controversial movie “Freaks” was released in 1932. It featured real sideshow circus “freaks” and involved a plot by a “normal” woman to marry one of the freaks so that she can steal his inheritance. The film was considered shocking at the time and remained controversial for many years before experiencing a reputation rehabilitation starting in the 1960’s.

An early film version of the novel “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” was released in 1931. It was known for its transformation effects, which were very impressive for the time. Frederic March received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the title character(s).

"Psycho" poster
"Psycho" poster | Source
"Night of the Living Dead" poster
"Night of the Living Dead" poster | Source
"Blood Feast" poster
"Blood Feast" poster | Source

The 1950’s and 1960’s - A Move to More Graphic Content and Realistic Themes

In the 1950’s, many horror films had themes related to contemporary societal concerns. There were movies about the dangers of nuclear weapons (Godzilla) and about society being covertly subverted by an alien force (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Thing from Another World”). Gothic tales and outlandish monsters were gradually replaced by allegories and social themes.

It wasn’t all bad news for classic movie monsters during this era, however. Hammer Films began to release the first in a long series of movies starring iconic characters like Dracula and Frankenstein. Actors such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing became famous for starring in many Hammer-produced films. Also, Universal continued to churn out horror flicks, sometimes using the new gimmick of 3-D. A prominent example was “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954).

The suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock also became popular during this era. Hitchcock released several films in the ‘50’s, including “Rear Window” (1954) and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956). In 1960, he released his most famous film, “Psycho”, starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. “Psycho” later spawned a series of sequels in the ‘80s, after Hitchcock’s death. A pointless and poorly received remake was released in the ‘90s. "Psycho" is sometimes regarded as the first “slasher” film, a genre that would become very popular in the early 1980’s. Its shocking shower scene remains an iconic representation of the horror genre.

The 1960’s also saw the rise of the first gore films. Herschel Gordon Lewis’s gleefully demented “Blood Feast” was released in 1964. Lewis would go on to make many more gruesome films. Another very violent, albeit in black and white, film that was released during this era was George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). Although it was not the first zombie movie, it is very likely the most influential. Most, if not all, subsequent zombie films and television series have modeled their zombies after the ones introduced in this film. The plot involves a group of people, most of whom did not know each other before the zombie outbreak, holed up in a house together in a desperate attempt to survive. The movie’s shocking and nihilistic ending (no one survives) stunned audiences. “Night of the Living Dead” became one of the most critically acclaimed and historically significant horror movies ever made and spawned a very convoluted series of sequels, remakes, and spinoffs.

"The Exorcist" poster
"The Exorcist" poster | Source
"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" poster
"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" poster | Source
"Jaws" poster
"Jaws" poster | Source
"Halloween" poster
"Halloween" poster | Source
"Alien" poster
"Alien" poster | Source

The 1970’s – Demonic Girls, Chainsaw Massacres, and Evil in a William Shatner Mask

The graphic content that began to appear in horror films in the late ‘60s continued into the ‘70s. This decade contained several horror movies that had a profound effect on the evolution of the genre. William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973), based on a bestselling novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, had an enormous impact on audiences and out-grossed “The Godfather” to briefly become the highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation) in history. “The Exorcist” was also showered with praise from critics. It received several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It was followed by two sequels, two prequels, and many rip-offs. The demonic possession trend that started with “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968 really began to take off after "The Exorcist". Most of these flicks were quickly forgotten, but Richard Donner’s “The Omen” became a hit in 1976. It featured the antichrist as a young child, using supernatural powers to destroy anyone who tries to stop him. It was followed by its own series of sequels.

Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was released in 1974. Although not as grisly as its title suggests, the film horrified audiences and quickly earned a reputation for being one of the most shocking movies ever made. Curious crowds made this low-budget film a hit. Like “The Exorcist”, it was eventually followed by a series of unsuccessful sequels in the ‘80s.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) is arguably the most influential horror movie of the last thirty-five years. The film’s villain, Michael Myers, had a major impact on audiences and became a horror icon. His plain white mask was actually a William Shatner mask that the crew had modified and painted. The film featured the debut of Jamie Lee Curtis, who earned fame as a scream queen in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before breaking into the mainstream. Famed British actor Donald Pleasence played a psychiatrist who doggedly pursues Michael. “Halloween” won critical acclaim and respect for emphasizing suspense over gore. “Halloween” was another film that spawned a long series of sequels. “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” never really worked as franchises. Most of their sequels had little to do with each other, and none of them were particularly commercially or critically successful. “Halloween”, on the other hand, became a legitimate, long-running franchise. Although the first film is certainly the most well-known and respected, the “Halloween” franchise remained profitable well into the early 21st century.

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” was another ‘70s movie that frightened audiences. Its terrifying shark attacks riveted moviegoers. “Jaws” was, of course, the first of many huge hits for Spielberg. As usual, its success led to many inferior rip-offs and crappy sequels.

Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) was yet another '70s movie that spawned its own franchise. Although just as much of a science fiction film as it is a horror flick, "Alien" did contain many of the conventions of horror films, such as a seemingly unstoppable monster killing off the cast one by one, an isolated location, lots of sudden jump scares, and a final confrontation between the monster and a tough female heroine.

It should be noted that most of the sequels that these films spawned weren’t made until the ‘80s or later. The modern concept of a film franchise didn’t exist in the ‘70s. The idea of making a sequel to virtually every popular movie was something that, unfortunately, would be mastered in the next decade.

Other notable horror films of the ‘70s include George Romero’s zombie sequel “Dawn of the Dead”, Wes Craven’s controversial low budget shocker “The Last House on the Left”, and Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (the first of many Stephen King novel adaptions). Stephen King novels would continue to be adapted throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, but most of them were widely regarded as low quality films.

The 1970’s and early ‘80s also saw the release of many hardcore exploitation films. Along with “Last House on the Left”, films such as “I Spit on Your Grave” (1980), “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980), “Last House on Dead End Street” (1974), and “Snuff” (1976) shocked and titillated audiences at grungy grindhouse theaters and midnight drive-in showings.

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    • Mitch Alan profile image

      Mitch Alan 4 years ago from South Jersey

      Nice chronology of fear...Was not aware that "Nosferatu" was public domain...good to know. The original "Halloween" is a classic and one of my favorites. While I agree that there are too many bad sequels to to too many classics, we've got to watch them all.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yep, we really do have to watch them all. I am addicted. I have seen every Halloween, every Friday the 13th, every Nightmare on Elm Street, every Scream, every Saw, etc.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Fantastic review from the first talk-less version to today's stellar scares. I clearly was terrified when watching the original "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff as well as "Night of The Living Dead". Both scared me senseless when I was younger. But none compared to the psychological thrillers by Hitchcock such as "Rear Window" and "Psycho." Truly masterful to use our own imagination.

      Rosemary's Baby was another fine reflection of a terrifying movie that still manages to disturb me today - and I love it!

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Yeah I like Rosemary's Baby too and Night of the Living Dead. I haven't seen the original version of Frankenstein, maybe I will have to check that out sometime!

    • Geekdom profile image

      Geekdom 4 years ago

      Great Hub. A group of friends were actually discussing the history of horror film while waiting inline for a Haunted Hay Ride.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      That's cool! I've never been on a haunted hay ride, sounds fun!

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