< Horror Film History — Introduction

Horror Films: Why We Like To Watch

"If movies are the dreams of the mass culture... horror movies are the nightmares"
— Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Horror is an ancient art form. We've terrified each other with tales that trigger the less logical parts of our imaginations for as long as we've told stories. From the ballads of the ancient world to modern urban myths, audiences willingly offer themselves up to sadistic storytellers to be scared witless, and they are happy to pay for the privilege. Theories abound as to why this is so; do we get basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which fear brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and demonstrating the macabre fate of those who transgress against them?

Horror movies have long served both purposes. They deliver thrills by the hearseload, as well as exploring the dark, forbidden side of life (and death) — cautionary tales for grown ups. They also provide a compelling mirror image of the anxieties of their time Nosferatu (1922) isn't just a tale of vampirism, but offers heart-rending images of a town beleaguered by premature and random deaths, echoes of the Great War and the Great Flu Epidemic fatalities. At the other end of the century Blade (1998) isn't just about vampires either, but reflects a fear of the powerful yet irresponsible elements in society, a lawless elite, echoes down the corridor of the growing invincibility of those at the top.

Horror movies of the early 21st century cogitate on global concerns of contagion (28 Days Later), or sound reactionary warning notes about the dangers of leaving moral absolutism behind (The Last Exorcism, The Conjuring), or poke at the major racial fault lines running through our society (Get Out). Horror movies provide a unique space for free discourse about the moral, political and societal shifts in our communal paradigms.

Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat. In the early 1940s, a world living under the shadow of Hitler's predatory tendencies identified a part-man, part-wolf as their boogeyman, whose bestial nature caused him to tear apart those who crossed his path.

In the 1990s however, there was no need for a part wolf component: Jonathan Doe (Se7en 1994) and Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter 1986, Silence of the Lambs1991, Hannibal 2001) were entirely human in their calculated and stylised killing methods.

In the first decade of the twenty first century, the ghosts and zombies were back in vogue as Eastern and Western superstitions converged, and people yearned for an evil beyond human. In the era of the War on Terror and waterboarding, supernatural terror was more palatable than the fear inherent in news headlines.There also seems to have been a certain arrogance at play in the zeitgeist - see: those who relished the short-lived reign of Torture Porn, movies focused on the intense suffering of victims. And there was that whole sparkly vampire thing, reflecting perhaps a desire to unite with the gods and become immortal?

No one felt safe or immortal after the Great Recession, even in their own homes. Cue a wave of movies about infections and viruses, home invasions and domestic monsters, like The Babadook or any of the malevolent demons targeted by the Warrens, who like to worm their way into our private spaces and threaten us at our most vulnerable, while we sleep. Weird cannibal families also made a comeback (We Are What We Are) and stories about young couples buying a suspiciously cheap house and then discovering something gross about its previous (or still current) occupants are at an all time high.

Why do scary movies affect us anyway?

Perhaps it's genetic? Research shows that the COMT gene dictates whether horror makes us laugh or scream:

Horror Film Gene - Daily Telegraph, 11 August 2008

And what's creepy anyway? Vsauce explores the basic triggers for fear:

How To Use This Site

The best way to study and appreciate horror films is, of course, to watch them. However, it's also important to have some sense of a film's context, both the wider socio-historical background against which it was made, and its place within the genre. Where did the writer and director get their ideas from? Who did they copy? How did they innovate?

Use the menus at the top of each page (or the list below) to take you to sections that will provide you with background information and pointers on where to investigate further. If you are looking for something specific, use the site search boxes (Google Search) that appear at the top and bottom of each page - and to the right here. Also check out the Links page for external sites that will give you additional information.


The site is organised roughly in terms of decades - not an ideal approach, but a convenient one.

Roots of the Horror Genre - background in myths and gothic prose
The First Horror Movies - the silent era (1920s)
Horror Begins To Talk - And Scream - the mad-scientist-and-monster dominated 1930s
Horror Eats Itself - reinvention and the war years (1940s)
Creature Features, Drive In Gimmicks and Visitors from Outer Space - mutant madness in the 1950s
Bad Girls and Blood Freaks - revolution in the 1960s
Nightmare Decade: In Front Of The Children - waking up to the 1970s
Inside Out - body horror in the 1980s
Psychokillers - bad men in the 1990s
Contagion and Global Convergence - contemporary horror (2000s)