The History of Horror: The Way We Were Frightened

The roots of the horror genre go deeper into the time immemorial. Even before films appeared it was not a rare phenomenon to terrify people with stories – that's why these movies can tell us a lot. Throughout their long history, horror films have been reflecting the concerns and anxieties of contemporary society, as well as developing in terms of the new technologies used in film making.

by Diana Ushkar


Gothic novels
The origins of horror as a film genre traces us back to the beginning of the 20th century and first movies. Film directors used to turn to classic literature books as the main source and to «gothic novels» in particular. These are the dark Victorian stories with supernatural elements unfolding in gothic settings and mysterious atmosphere. Gothic stories were chosen as source material because they contained the fear of death and the possibility of resurrection which reflected society's fear of premature death and illness.
The film which is often considered to be the first horror movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an adaptation of a homonymous novel. It premiered in Chicago in 1908. Though there are no known existing copies of the film we can predict that its popularity and positive reviews made a push towards producing works in the horror genre.
Fourteen years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Nosferatu (1922) was released. It is known for being the first movie based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, even though it was an unauthorized re-creation. The unique style and manner of story depiction made Nosferatu one of the best films in history – it is hitting the tops even nowadays. We can see the influence of this style in many modern adaptations of Stephen King's works.

Movies about dark novel monsters gave birth to supernatural horrors that were dedicated to the stories of ghosts, Dracula, Frankenstein and many others. This genre became extremely popular after The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was realized. It was the first color horror movie and also the first film to show blood and guts on screen. This made the movie much more realistic, the viewers could feel the horror in a different way – it got scarier and darker.
As for realism, after everyone saw the success of The Curse of Frankenstein directors began to develop movies based on real life.
Three years after The Curse of Frankenstein, Psycho (1960) cut into the big screens. It was one of the first horror films based on a true story, so it was scary in a new way. The perception of the horror movie changed. It became a story that could possibly happen in reality, so the viewers were frightened as they could imagine themselves being the main character of such a film one day..
Apart from this, Psycho is also credited as the creator of the slasher genre in horror movies that was about to develop during the next decades.
In the 80s the slasher format was on top of its popularity. Such films often have quite the same plot: a relentless antagonist is hunting and killing a bunch of kids, students or wanderers in various cruel and extraordinary ways.
In 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out. It was exploring the concept of using a horror movie as a vehicle for social commentary (dedicated to the Vietnam war and Watergate) while increasing the blood quotient. The movie was also the first to introduce a new type of character - a «horror hero» (Leatherface), an antagonist that would appear in numerous sequels. All these things together made a dizzy blend that was really impressive for that time, so the output of the slashers became prolific over the next decade. Quite a few films became cult classics even if they did not have many good reviews from critics.
Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) were among the most successful works and spawned their own long-running franchises. That was the first time in history of the genre of horror that multiple sequels became commonplace.
Another important phenomenon of the 70s and 80s was occult. Supernatural horror was now vague, and as far as there were too many slashers, the horror cinematography needed something new.
One of the themes of that era was children and childbirth. After reading some religious literature horror film directors thought that children themselves could be scary and capable of terrible things. That was the time when The Exorcist (1973) came out. It is quite often named the scariest and the most shocking movie. The film was that successful because of its terrifying effect. The director William Friendkin managed to achieve great and impressive visuals, for example in the iconic shot of Regan's head spinning. The Exorcist changed the horror films reality, making the movies dark and shocking.
However, that was not enough, so the directors decided to go back to the origins and chose the literature as the source material again, but it was not about «gothic novels» this time. The inspiration was hidden in the works of Stephen King. So, Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) came out. Those films followed the best traditions of the occult film visuals, though were not always dedicated to the devil. They had great success as well. Due to that impact, Stephen King's film adaptations are still being produced nowadays.
The 2000s are associated with the zombie subgenre movies. The world saw such franchises as Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later... (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009). The main feature of these films is action. The movies strive not to scare, but to impress you. The main characters who are now protagonists use their brutality,charm and ability to fight in every clash with the enemies.
One of the most significant changes to modern horror started in 2013, with The Conjuring. This movie was based on the real paranormal investigation of Ed and Lorraine Warren which took place in the farmhouse at Rhode Island. It created the interconnected universe that the horror movie industry hasn't seen since 70 years prior. This new wave of realistic and mysterious horrors trapped in The Conjuring universe includes three "Annabelle (2014)" films, The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2018) and The Crooked Man (2016).
The modern horror industry develops in many ways at the same time. The occult and supernatural movies are still popular. Many slashers are still being produced. Horrors follow the best traditions of dark realism of Psycho and the shock of The Exorcist, but strive to be extremely extraordinary and impressive thanks to visuals and plot twists.
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