The Evolution of Horror Cinema

By Savannah Barrow | Contributor

Playing on our fears, nightmares, paranoia and vulnerabilities, horror films have illuminated the darkest recesses of our imagination. Since the publication of the first horror film in 1896, Le Manor du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) which lasted just over three minutes, the genre has found innumerable ways of holding our attention when we want to look away, arousing the need to continually check behind our shoulders and underneath our beds. Here is a breakdown of the genre through the centuries: 

1920s-1930s: The paranoia of foreign invaders coming into and infecting one’s country loomed in the collected conciseness of the global spectrum during this era of expansion. This fear was represented by monster films, particularly vampire films resulting in classics such as Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931) and Vampyr (1932). Classic literature from was also adopted by directors and the monster genre began withFrankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), Freaks (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Moving towards a second global war, the genre would shift again. 

1940s: America joined WWII in 1941 and studios were busy cranking out horror films to entertain the homeland. The idea of anything outside the U.S. being a threat, the proverbial ‘Big Bad Wolf,’ (the Axis Powers) loomed on the outskirts of the country, intending to pounce at the opportune moment. This idea coupled with the shapeshifting legends of the werewolf was promoted through horror flicks such as Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941). RKO took the feline approach, with Cat People (1942).

1950s: WWII birthed the nuke. This helped launch science fiction horror. The fear of global onslaught and nuclear radiation led to movies such as Godzilla (1954), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Blob (1958).

1960s: The so-called ‘traditional family’ was shifting. The real horror was close to home. This led to movies that made people fear places and things they once sought comfort in. People were no longer the heroes they were depicted as in previous decades. Watching horror films in this decade was like looking at yourself in a mirror and realizing the mirror reflected the true monster. What humankind was truly capable of was questioned. While every decade got the monster that fit best, the audience of the ‘60s were shown their potential selves: Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Blood Feast (1963) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

1970s: After the radical social upheaval of the ‘60s the end of the nuclear family unit became undeniable. The youth were protesting and the new stars of the horror genre were freak children. The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Halloween (1978) and Carrie (1976). The peak of the dysfunctional family was in The Shining (1980).  The first blockbuster was a horror film that made people equally scared of the ocean and their bathtub; Jaws (1975).

1980s: With advances in animatronics and stage make up (such as foam and liquid latex), monsters were able to be deformed and simulated in a more realistic fashion. Film makers were able to create a new culture in horror films. The Thing (1982), Re-Animator (1985), Gremlins (1984) and The Fly (1986), The Lost Boys (1987) are examples of astounding SFX technique.

1990s: Folks became bored by over the top effects. Horror film creators explored a concept not yet explored extensively in previous films: the serial killer. A new lust for blood and tapping into the mind of the serial killer and their victims was more satisfying horror experience. Classic horror films such as Silence of the Lambs (1991), Seven (1995) and Scream (1996) provided a new way to be scared. 

2000s-2010s: The 2000s continue to offer a wider range or horrowwr films than ever. What is there left to entertain us? The fear of an apocalyptic future is what. One of the most popular television shows, The Walking Dead, and movies such as 28 Days Later (2002), Saw (2004), Cloverfield (2008), The Road (2009) and The Mist (2007) challenged people to ask themselves how far they’re willing to go to stay alive.

The 2000s also experimented in films about body distortion, but not in the same way the ‘80s did. Creators from this decade played with combining bodies and ripping them apart as demonstrated in movies similar to The Human Centipede (2009) and The Collector (2009). 

Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014) brought back the dead, making people scared to turn the lights out. What lies down that dark and winding road in the near future? Only time can tell. Whatever it is, it will scare the daylights out of you.