< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1960s

Horror movies in the 1960s: Psycho, The Birds, Carnival of Souls, Blood Feast, Night of The Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Hammer Horror, Roger Corman, Herschell Gordon Lewis

Horror Movies in the 1960s: Bad Girls and Blood Freaks

The beat generation. Kennedy. Cuba. Thalidomide. Acid. Vietnam. The sexual revolution. Between Psycho in 1960 and the Manson Family murders in 1969, the 1960s saw a great sea change in what the public perceived as horrible. The social stability that had marked the post-war years was gone by the end of the decade as a huge rethink occurred in everything from hemlines to homosexuality. Horror movies, usually made for low budgets outside the mainstream studio system, offered the counterculture opportunities to debunk old taboos and explore new ways of perceiving sex and violence. Underground cinema dodged scrutiny, and therefore censorship. As well as being more open to nudity, onscreen violence, and other tropes that challenged social mores, the drive-in teen audiences of the 1950s were growing up, and becoming wise to the empty promises of lurid titles and titillating posters, immune to the scare factor of rubber suits and miniaturized sets. They wanted horror that was more rooted in reality, more believable, more sophisticated, that dealt with some of the issues they faced in a rapidly changing world.

Despite the often tragic events of this era, there was a seeming feeling of optimism, the sense that humanity was moving forward, onward and upward. The concept of Cold War lost heat, and, in 20-odd years without nuclear holocaust, the threat of mass-death-by-radiation had receded. The mutant monsters of the 1950s now looked a little silly. No aliens had turned up either - well, they hadn't announced their presence to the masses although maybe a few MIBs knew a thing or two. Rather than focusing on external threats, counter-culture thinking involved a re-examination of the social psyche — traditions, stereotypes, prohibitions. If every generation gets the monsters it deserves, then the horror movie goers of the 1960s got... themselves. Going to the cinema to be scared at this time was the equivalent of gazing in the mirror, and noticing, for the first time, that there was something a little... strange about your own face.

Thriller To Chiller

Horror films and thrillers had intertwined way back in the days of the Old Dark House (1932) and Cat People (1942). However, horror's relegation to the B-movie zone in the 1950s meant that those directors who were interested in thrillers had concentrated on producing glossy, stylish, film-noir stories with no taint of the supernatural, the monstrous, and therefore the drive-in. It is interesting to compare the original Cape Fear(1962) with its 1991 remake. Robert Mitchum's Max Cady is a nasty man indeed, but he is very much a man, while Scorsese and De Niro present a Max who is almost from beyond, with his bizarre tattoos, his habit of appearing out of nowhere, his taste for human flesh and his habitation of a little house in the woods.

And yet... The undisputed master of the thriller, Alfred Hitchcock, chose the 1960s for his two main ventures into the horror genre. Although there are moments in all his major works that cross the line between horror and thriller it is only Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) that can truly be described as horror films. Inspired by the no-frills, low budget approach of William Castle, he proved himself expert at scaring audiences with both an internal and external threat. One monster is carefully delineated and explained ("Oh Mother! "), the other is an unnatural, inexplicable presence, watching and waiting somewhere beyond normal human experience.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho presented us with Norman Bates, the monster so close to normal it was only in the final section of the film that he revealed how monstrous a man could be. Based on the real- life story of Ed Gein, which has since proved fruitful for movies as diverse as Silence of The Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho has become iconic in a way few other movies have ever become. In 2013, it even spawned a TV show, Bates Motel, which explores the relationship between a teenaged version of Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), many years before Marion Crane took her fateful turn off the highway.

Everyone "knows" the story; the name Norman Bates is familiar to those who have never seen the film. The Bates Motel continues to leer at visitors to the Universal Studios theme park. The screeching soundtrack and the flashing of the knife blade in the shower scene seem condemned to perpetual rerunning in horror films to this day. If ever a movie cast a giant shadow over the genre then this is it. And it only cost $800,000 – which the director, Alfred Hitchcock paid out of his own pocket.

Further Reading

The Birds (1963)

The Birds, Daphne du Maurier's short story (Hitchcock had already filmed Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940)) was originally set in Cornwall. Hitchcock transposed it to Bodega Bay, California, and turned a simple tale of the malevolence at the heart of nature into a morality play. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a bad girl. The extent of her badness is never fully revealed, but we know that she has spent her time frolicking naked in fountains in Rome, and impersonating pet shop assistants in San Francisco. She is also prepared to clear her diary and follow home a man she fancies. Her arrival in Bodega Bay, in hot pursuit of Mitch, coincides with the beginnings of strange behaviour from the birds. Later in the movie a townswoman screams at her "What are you?", blaming her for the catastrophe. Melanie does not answer.Whoever or whatever has caused them to attack, the birds are fearsome opponents. A variety of special effects (much blue screen work and some animation provided by Disney technicians) plus the spooky soundtrack - a combination of deathly silence and artificial bird noises - create a many-headed monster, flapping and screeching and pecking. The corpses that are a by-product of their rampage (farmer Dan and schoolteacher Annie) are grotesque mannequins presented to us in still life. You can almost sense Hitchcock's smile as the audience recoil from Dan's sightless eyes or Annie's splayed legs. And the way the film ends, with resolution for our antagonists, shows that Hitchcock was aiming squarely for an adult audience, who would think about the film for long after the final shot had faded from the screen.

Michael Bay's company, Platinum Dunes, have a remake slated. While some of the special effects could be improved upon, there is no reason to remake this other than as a soul-less, creatively bankrupt, audience-insulting money-making exercise.

Further Reading

Things That Go Bump

“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts”. —ITALO CALVINO, The Literature Machine

A number of ghost stories hit the screen in the early 1960s that still have the power to startle today, transcending their black and white photography and minimal special effects. These films can be seen as a reaction against the elaborate creature features of the late 1950s. They are simple stories that only require the audience to suspend disbelief in increments, and often, as in The Haunting (1963) operate from a position of skepticism. The characters do not believe that they are being affected by supernatural forces until too late (if at all) and the horror lies in the journey the protagonist takes between sanity and psychosis. Can the hero believe what he/she (it's usually a woman) is seeing? Reality unravels in textbook (Freudian) style, as familiar, safe mise en scène disintegrate, revealing aspects of another dimension. When the protagonist resists or complains, the causes of her terror can be explained away by a (it's usually a man) kindly doctor or other authority figure in Act Two, but the forces of madness – whether internal or external – always triumph by the end. These screen stories reflect a preoccupation with change, with women on the frontlines, the first (and often the only ones) to be destroyed by the erosion of the old order. Were these movies subliminal warnings to women, an exhortation to behave, or suffer the consequences? These ghost stories depend on more than an ambiguous spectral presence for their thrills; they throb with psychosexual tension, and take a sadistic satisfaction (Hitchcock made it fashionable) in the suffering of the beautiful heroine. The protagonist is a final sacrifice rather than a Final Girl.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

“Thank you, but I'm never coming back.” — Mary, to the organ factory owner

Mary in Carnival of Souls
Mary emerges from the river

This extremely low budget gem was directed by Herk Harvey, a film-maker with plenty of "industrial documentaries" (i.e. training films) under his belt, but no other fiction features. Shot in Lawrence, Kansas (at, and using the crew from the industrial film company, Centron) and around the abandoned Saltair amusement park in Utah for a supposed $33,000, the film is long on atmosphere and short on warm human relationships. From the opening drag race (which could in itself be a PSA warning teens against this dangerous activity entitled "The Chicken Run Straight To Hell" ) to the muddy finale, every frame is pervaded with a sense of isolation and disassociation.

Candace Hilligoss (described by Roger Ebert as "one of those worried blonds like Janet Leigh") plays Mary Henry, church organist and only survivor of the car crash at the top. From the moment she crawls from the river, an inexplicable survivor, she is dazed and disconnected. Now, she might be tagged as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but that diagnosis was not available in 1962. She doesn't seem to care about anything, from visiting her parents on the way to her new job in Utah, or the spiritual responsibilities of being a church musician once she gets there ("It's just a job... I'm not taking the vows, I'm only going to play the organ."). The only things that rattle her unconcern are the appartitions which follow her: ghoulish, hollow-eyed humans in dirty clothes that clearly influenced Romero's depiction of zombies in Night of the Living Dead. One in particular appears in her car window as she's driving, in the stairwell at her boarding house and at the autoshop. He seems intent on luring her out to the abandoned pavilion, a structure which fascinates her, notwithstanding the specific warnings of her boss, the vicar. Ultimately, she answers the call of the undead.

Ghouls on the bus in Carnival of Souls
Fellow travellers

En route, she has several strange episodes, where the people around her suddenly disengage totally from her world: she cannot be seen or heard (even by a burly motorcycle cop), despite her frantic pleas for acknowledgement and help. It's as though she doesn't exist in their sphere, the only ones who can see her are the ghouls, a bus full of them, who reach for her with open arms. Desperate for some semblance of human connection, she endures a date from Hell with alcoholic, lecherous fellow lodger John Linden (Sidney Berger). He practically humps the doorframe at their first encounter, and tries to pour whiskey in her morning coffee - he's no dream lover. But even his salacious attentions are better than being left alone (take note, single women the world over) with the apparitions: when she finally kicks him out of her bedroom she seals her doom by severing her last human connection.

Carnival of Souls is an eerie experience, one that resonates long after the last frame has faded. The organ music (Mary plays, hears it on the radio) and absence of dialogue give long sequences the rhythms of a silent movie, and it is sometimes startling to hear diegetic sound (including human voices) return. The special effects are minimal, but the atmosphere is palpable: Harvey makes admirable use of the Saltair location, with the pavilion continually glowering on Mary's near-horizon so that it's impossible for her to escape. The ghouls, a combination of simple make up and old clothes, are nightmarish, especially in the speeded up sequences (is this the first use of fast zombies, predating 28 Days Later by forty years?). The final kicker, which might seem predictable today, offers a bluntly supernatural explanation for Mary's fugue state, but 1962 audiences, familiar with loved ones returning from war, would have recognised the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder without being able to name the psychological condition. The screenplay draws on Ambrose Bierce's civil war short story, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge — a direct film adaptation of the story won the Best Short Film Oscar in 1963 — which also served as the inspiration for Jacob's Ladder (1990). Avoid the 1998 "reimagining", which somehow involves a pedophile clown in the story.

Cheap Thrills

Hitchcock was a meticulous worker, obsessive about planning & storyboarding. Although he had a reputation for cruelty towards his actors, those who worked for him agree that he managed to extract career-best performances, however he went about it. He would pick and choose his crew from the most talented craftspeople available, and he had major studio backing for his pictures (with the notable exception of Psycho, where he had to stump up the $800,000 himself). At the other end of the film-making scale is writer/producer/director Roger Corman, no less iconic a figure in the world of horror movies. Corman is perhaps the most successful independent movie maker ever, whose pragmatic approach to film-making (2-5 day shoots, actors/writers being asked to direct second unit camera crews, filming two movies on the same set with the same actors) proved incredibly profitable. He recognised that horror, sex and laughter are never very far apart, and managed to imbue his pictures with all three.

His delicious sense of irony comes out in some of the titles: Bucket of Blood, She Gods Of The Shark Reef. Corman spent just enough on his movies to get them in the can, but managed to provide audiences with what they wanted to see (buxom women, blood, a bit of monster make-up). He churned out B movies, at an incredible rate, always pulling in enough cash to finance his next venture, and kickstarting the careers of various Hollywood luminaries (Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme et al) along the way. The title of his 1990 autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost A Dime says it all: he did not restrict himself to horror films, but ventured into 'women's pictures' (no... not starring Meg Ryan, but women in some sort of uniform - student nurses were a particular favourite), biker drug flicks, blaxploitation movies and what have been termed 'rural dramas', which generally involve rednecks. Fighting rednecks. However, with films like Little Shop Of Horrors, The Raven and The Masque of The Red Death he has had a profound influence on the horror genre.

Blood Feast (1963)

Another influential film (although not in the same class as Corman) of the time was Blood Feast, the first ever splatter movie. Directed by pornographer Herschell Gordon Lewis, with a budget of $24,500, this tale of an Egyptian caterer who specialises in maiden's body parts grossed over $4 million. Whereas Psycho had shocked just three years previously by offering glimpses of a knife and someone falling down the stairs, Blood Feast served violent and bloody murder up on a well-lit plate. The story is almost non-existent - the gore is the reason why people (still) watch this movie. It was the first in the considerable subgenre of splatter movies, and paved the way for directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven in the 1970s and Rob Zombie today.

Hammer Horror

In Britain, Hammer Films, a company founded in 1934 with a spotty track record of success, adopted the tactics of Corman and Lewis and produced a slew of horror pictures between 1955 and 1979. In their golden years, during the 1960s, they achieved considerable success thanks to a reliable formula of melodramatic story-telling; beautiful, scantily-clad women; graphic violence (for the era); barely subdued eroticism and solid craftsmanship. The British Board of Film Classification introduced the 'X' certificate in 1951 (suitable for those aged 16 or over) and Hammer chased that rating for every picture, often outraging the censors.

Although their first real success was The Quatermass Experiment(1955), a sci-fi venture, they soon decided that monsters in human form were better... and cheaper! Also, the glut of monster pictures in the 1950s meant that audiences, as ever, sought a new direction. or an old one. Hammer began to rehash all the gothic horror stories so beloved of Universal in the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy etc etc, but added a touch of erotica in keeping with the mood of the times. Whereas the Universal movies were wholesome family fare, Hammer prided themselves on their 'X- ADULT ONLY' certification. That X-rating was earned by a soft-focus erotic flavour which seems curiously chivalrous to us now, but was very daring in a world that had not long left the Hay's Code behind. Actors like Virginia Wetherell, Madeline Smith, Ingrid Pitt, Janina Faye, Vera Day, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, Carol Marsh, Yvonne Monlaur, Valerie Leon made their names as Hammer heroines (and villainesses), and were collectively known as the Hammer Glamour Girls.

Male Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were direct heirs of Lugosi and Karloff, and played a similar succession of villains and monsters. They too have become paradigms of the genre (along with Vincent Price, who was busy with low-budget Corman and Castle fare in America).

From 1951 to 1966, Hammer Film Productions made their home at Down Place, a 1750s-built country house on the banks of the River Thames between Bray and Windsor. The elegant mansion provided the ideal setting for many Hammer films, including The Old Dark House, the St Trinians series, while The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile were shot back to back using the same sets. The location became an integral component of the typical look of a Hammer production. Over the years, Hammer added facilities included four soundstages, ancillary buildings and a permanent 'Village' set. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in itself a tribute to Hammer production style and values, was filmed here in 1975.

Although Hammer Horror from the 1960s seems tame by today's standards, and sometimes a little too camp in tone, the movies did deal with some serious topics, and ventured into controversial territory, setting new standards for their day. Hammer Films proved that horror could be aimed at an adult audience and still turn a profit. The movies and their stars are remembered with great fondness by generations of fans. Various attempts were made in the 2000s to bring back the Hammer banner, and 2010 saw their first theatrical feature of the millennium, Let Me In. This was followed by The Resident and Wake Wood, and, in 2012 The Woman In Black (starring Daniel Radcliffe) became the most successful British horror film in over 20 years.

Night of The Living Dead

George A. Romero gathered together his buddies in Pittsburgh in June 1967 and embarked on shooting a movie with the working title "Monster Flick". $114,000 and six months later they had produced Night of the Living Dead, an incredibly influential horror film which, in its deadpan approach to its subject, blew camp horror out of the water, and signalled the beginning of the searing social comment which horror films were to provide on the up-coming decade. Made on a scale that Corman or Lewis would have approved of, this film nonetheless contained some tight performances, excellent make-up and special effects, and yes, those genuinely terrifying moments.

The narrative follows Barbara, and her brother Johnny, who have gone to visit their father's grave. They are interrupted by the first of the Living Dead, a recently deceased corpse reanimated by a strange space virus. The rest of the story is simple - Johnny gets his and Barbara manages to hole up in a house with six other refugees, trying to battle the marauding zombies who want to suck on their brains.

Whilst NOTLD works on a visceral, shock horror level (there are some manic shots of zombies munching on the barbecued remains of Tom & Judy) it also functions as serious social satire. The living people barricading themselves in against the shambling dead represent all that is/was unhappy about American society. Barbara, catatonically dazed and confused, sits immobile on a sofa staring at the TV set. Harry vents all his middle American frustrations on the unfortunate Ben, who's trying his best to be a hero, in difficult circumstances. The living don't know what to do. Beyond defending their space against an external threat they really don't have much of a plan. So they fight, and bicker, and, inevitably, succumb to zombiedom themselves. The movie signalled a new, darker, direction in horror, away from the campy tones of Corman and Hammer, thus preventing another slide into the Abbott & Costello meets... territory of the late 1940s. Although a lot of the camerawork was the result of economics. the continuously canted angles, the lurching (as opposed to tracking) movement, and the off-kilter composition all contribute to the unnervingness of the film, and established techniques to be copied by subsequent low-budget entries to the genre. The Living Dead themselves have come to be agents of satire in many pictures since, their stiff-legged shuffle representing mindlessness - be it racism or consumerism - and mob mentality. Romero's sequels, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead, explore what has gone wrong in a civilisation that requires of its citizens that they simply be and buy. The final instalment - for now, anyway is Land of the Dead (2005).

Further Reading

Zombie Movie Links

Whilst people had been making zombie movies since 1932's White Zombie (starring Bela Lugosi as an evil sugarmill owner who zombifies his workers), Romero gave us the zombie splatterfest, and, despite NOTLD essential seriousness, kickstarted a whole subgenre of comedy horror flicks, where the humour is derived from what you can do with decomposing body parts.

  • -NOTLD was remade in 1990 by Tom Savini, Romero's long-standing friend who missed out on the making of the original as he was on a tour of duty in Vietnam. Savini is a special effects and makeup maestro, and collaborated with Romero on the latter two instalments in the trilogy. Find his official homepage here.
  • -A list of zombie movies & some comments

Rosemary's Baby

Night of the Living Dead dealt with what happened when our nearest and dearest turned against us. But what if your family were never particularly 'near and dear'? What if, like the cuckoo, some entity left one of its hatchlings in your unsuspecting nest? What if some monster was growing among you, inside you; every outward inch an innocent child, every inner molecule an abomination? This was reality for the thousands of women who had taken Thalidomide to ward off morning sickness, who found themselves giving birth to armless, legless, twisted little torsos. It was also reality for the war generation, who had fought to build a better world and found they had produced... hippies. It was also reality for the families of Vietnam conscripts, whose sons, brothers and husbands went away for a tour of duty and came back... different.

Rosemary's Baby (1968), begins a thread of horror movies which continues well into the 1970s, and picks up on the anxieties expressed in Village of The Damned (1960), an adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is the ultimate 1960s naïf, fluffy haired, big-eyed, married to manly actor Guy (John Cassavetes) and desperate to Be Nice To Everyone. Poor Rosemary! When she & Guy move into a new apartment, one slightly beyond their means, all sorts of strange things start happening. Only no one really sees fit to tell Rosemary what they mean. Guy gets successful, suddenly, owing to another actor mysteriously being struck blind. Rosemary gets pregnant, after a strange dream. The Castavets, their elderly neighbours, get all parental, and start feeding Rosemary herbal drinks. Rosemary gets the best obstetrician in New York, at mates' rates. All should be rosy for the mother-to-be, but she starts reading all sorts of strange things into the events around her. As she sinks deeper and deeper into a state of paranoid terror, Polanski plays deftly with the audience's sensibilities - is Rosemary subject to a hormonal mania brought about by her pregnancy? Or is she really the victim of a satanic plot, the unknowing sacrifice in her husband's quest for fame?

The steadily tracking camera on a permanently low angle that keeps missing vital faces and expressions (we sense Rosemary's reactions by the movement of her feet, half the time) contributes to the audience's share in Rosemary's paranoia. Farrow's haunted and haunting performance (could those dark circles under her eyes get any bigger?) is central to the horror in this film. In real life she was undergoing a messy divorce from Frank Sinatra (to whom she had been something of a child bride) and the shot of a nurse giving Rosemary a vitamin injection early on is real. This film tells us that no one can be trusted, that 'They' are all around us, and that 'They' will win in the end. Rosemary is not the skilled opponent to Satan that, for instance, the Duc de Richlieu (Christopher Lee) is in Hammer's The Devil Rides Out; instead she represents a lost generation of sinners, no authority or ritual or morals to protect them, stumbling into the arms of a coven because there is nowhere else to go. Although Rosemary is presented as The Innocent, in childish short dresses, flat shoes, little make-up and THAT $5000 Vidal Sassoon haircut, she is not entirely stainless. She is greedy and ambitious, doggedly giving the impression that Guy is a more successful actor than he is to everyone they meet in the first half hour of the movie. She is lustful too, her "Let's make love" on the bare floor of the apartment leads to clammy sex on the floorboards (at least Guy takes his socks off). Ultimately, it seems that Rosemary is punished for her own stupidity (YOU ACCEPTED MARITAL RAPE!!!! YOU DRANK THAT HERBAL STUFF!!!), although she is very much a character of her times in her fearful passivity.


What is the best horror film of the 1960s?

  • Rosemary's Baby(1968)
  • The Innocents (1961)
  • Night of The Living Dead (1968)
  • The Haunting (1963)
  • Blood Feast (1963)
  • The Witchfinder General (1968)
  • Repulsion (1965)
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
  • Peeping Tom (1960)
  • The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The 1999 remake, The Astronaut's Wife starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron, replaces a coven of Satanists with a brief encounter in outer space. Spencer Armacost (Depp) returns from space "somehow different", quits his job as an astronaut, moves to a swanky apartment in New York and there brutally impregnates his wife (again, marital rape - the lady doth protest). Jillian (Theron) is too strong a character to ever sink to Rosemary's helpless levels, but she does her fair share of wide-eyed shocked looks when she comes to some new realisation about The Thing That Is Now Her Husband. Rand Ravich (writer/director) does not have Polanski's mastery of suspense, and the film is a little slow in the first half. Worth a watch, just for the comparisons, and some insight on how two different directors pull different aspects of horror from essentially the same story.

Look What's Happened To Rosemary's Baby was a dire TV movie that in no way approached the chilling original. However, several films in the 1970s explored very effectively what did happen next - The Omen trilogy follows the fortunes of the anti-Christ from birth to adulthood, whereas The Exorcist and Carrie deal with adolescence and the Devil. It becomes clear that sociopathy starts young. Yet if Satan is the father of your child, then you can in no way be responsible for their behaviour. Unlike Norman Bates, who clearly puts the blame for the way he is on his mother at the beginning of the decade, Rosemary's Baby is going to grow up into his own person, regardless of his mother's ineffectual witterings. And there is nothing she, nor any teacher or policeman can do to prevent it.