Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, horror history

“If movies are the dreams of the mass culture… horror movies are the nightmares”

Stephen King, Danse Macabre

If you’re exploring the history of horror movies, you need context. Horror films don’t exist in a vacuum, nor are they based on a fixed set of ideas. They evolve with the zeitgeist, reflecting and provoking pop culture discourse. Horror offers us a fictional space in which we can share and evaluate our collective fears – whatever they may be at the time. Scary movies allow us to stare down whichever one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Pestilence, War, Famine, Death – is currently leading the charge. They also let us examine the darkest possibilities of new concepts in science and technology. Despite religious and government censorship, they serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing social taboos and demonstrating the macabre fate of those who transgress against our collective rules.

Audiences, especially the youthful 15-24 demographic that has shaped horror since the 1950s, evolve too. We continually seek out new thrills and fresh scares. New horror movies must be relevant, or risk losing their bite: what was terrifying yesterday might seem a non-issue tomorrow. Generation by generation, we work through our shared traumas and move on to the next iteration. In the 1970s, people worried about mutations in unborn babies triggered by thalidomide or Agent Orange. Today, that threat is forgotten and we’re much more concerned about the damage caused in utero by microplastics.

Despite frequent hand wringing about its demise, the horror genre is a cultural constant. 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 flock to sadistic storytellers to be scared witless –and remain happy to pay for the privilege. Over the past century or more, horror movies have consistently succeeded at the box office. As the horrors of climate change, over-population, income inequality, and who knows what else loom on the horizon, they won’t be fading away any time soon.

How to use this Site

The best way to study and appreciate the history of horror films is, of course, to watch them. However, it’s also important to have some sense of a film’s wider socio-historical background and its place within the genre. Where did the writer and director get their ideas from? Who did they copy? How did they innovate? This site will help you make those connections.

  • The Decade by Decade menu takes you to a historical overview of each decade
  • Use the Categories menu to see analysis of individual movies from each decade, and a couple of subgenres
  • Try Tags to find connections between horror movies
  • Use the Search This Site function for everything else

Decade by decade :

Let’s begin, however, at the beginning. The horror genre has always looked to the past for inspiration. Before the movies magicked themselves into being, 18th and 19th century authors were busy establishing the tropes of the genre in novels and short stories.

Further Reading