Don’t go check out that noise in the dark. Don’t pick up that hitchhiker. Don’t read from that weird demonic-looking book. Certainly, don’t go to a campsite when a hockey-masked maniac is on the loose… Whether shouting at the heroes or jumping out of your skin, the horror movie is king when eliciting a visceral response from an audience.
The driving force behind horror has always been to draw inspiration from mythology, urban legends, fairy tales, and literature. Early European and Hollywood films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Universal Studios’ Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932) began to establish horror as crowd-pleasing spectacles.
Britain’s Hammer Horror became a major producer in the 1950s with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) – all of which were extremely successful, and notably launching the career of Christopher Lee.
Psycho (1960) emphasised Hitchcock’s exquisite touch for psychological horror; with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) shifting towards the occult, and paving the way for The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982). The supernatural left its lasting trademark on horror films with Stephen King’s adaptations Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) providing playgrounds for Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick to showcase their unique styles.
The supernatural and the abstract work of H.P. Lovecraft has consistently provided a platform for all generations of filmmakers to experiment with their own styles. Roger Corman, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Guillermo Del Toro all carry distinctly Lovecraftian peculiarities.
The extreme, disturbing violence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was particularly transgressive, and groundbreaking in helping to usher in the intense gore-fests prevalent in the 1980s. A host of controversial ‘video nasties’ emerged in that period, with British social activist Mary Whitehouse leading a crusade to heavily cut or ban the films altogether.
Horror is the one genre regarded of being overly repetitive in terms of themes and motifs. Teenagers are often the lead characters, and very often sliced apart to the delight of the audience. High school is a setting for inner and physical change for horror protagonists, and teens and children are portrayed as the paragons of innocence, particularly girls. The titular character in Carrie expels ferocious power on her classmates when humiliated; while Ginger Snaps (2000) synergises hormonal changes with a transformation into a werewolf.
Empathy is arguably the most powerful tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal, yet horror’s most popular characters are the sadistic villains Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers. While Halloween’s (1978-2002) Michael deals with his family issues rather dramatically; Friday the 13th’s (1980-2001) Jason stalks generations of summer campers; and Freddy Krueger kills teens in the one place their parents can’t protect them, their dreams, in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-1994).
Religion, vulnerability and semiotics as simple as ‘don’t trust strangers’ routinely pad out the genre. Modern interpretations of fear brought about by racism are satirised cleverly in Get Out (2017), and The Witch’s (2015) internalised horror of a family in crisis drives the narrative alongside supernatural elements. The Omen is another good example of a story that gets under your skin because the horror is supplemented with real world fears and anxieties. Ghost stories such as The Woman in Black (2012) are often allegorical tales of coping with loss.
Codes and conventions
While susceptible to cliche, and often playing on it to manipulate audience expectations or provide twists, horror relies on providing a shocking, intense or blood-curdling experience. Classic horror devices are twisted into something different, for example, Insidious (2010) is a contained thriller disguising itself as a haunted house story. Tension and dramatic irony are pushed, with the audience left to fill in the eerie gaps, and being let in on the killer’s search for his victims. Phone-lines are mysteriously cut (updated now with no signal) and cars don’t start.
Helplessness and loneliness are universal fears capitalised on, only to be more terrifying, and dramatically satisfying, when you discover you’re not alone. Vulnerability is taken to another level in Hush (2016) when a deaf writer must deal with the masked killer at her window.
The ghosts, entities, and outlandish villains exhibit irregular, otherworldly movement; which is often complemented with camera work creating a sense of confusion, and jump cutting to add to the tension. Children are at the centre of hauntings, possession, or are just downright creepy. Their parents never believe their stories about the monsters under the bed, in the closet, or peaking into their windows. Who’s going to believe little Andy when he tells you his toy Chucky (Child’s Play (1988)) is the one behind it all?
Memorable set pieces are especially prevalent in modern horror. The Saw (2004) franchise is built around its selection of torturous ‘games’; while some narratives are created entirely through shock value such as Hostel (2005) or The Human Centipede (2009).
Directors, Actors & Crew
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) crafted an extremely popular template with its own zombie mythology. Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and 28 Days Later… (2002) all homage and expand upon Romero’s vision.
The proliferation of Stephen King’s work continues forty-plus years strong, with the acclaimed writer’s own horror mythos created in his adaptations Carrie (1976/2013), The Shining, Creepshow (1982), Children of the Corn (1984/2009), Pet Sematary (1989) (which he also wrote the screenplay), It (1990/2017), and dozens more.
Tobe Hooper was revolutionary in pushing the boundaries of horror with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; helming seminal occult horrors Salem’s Lot (1979) and Poltergeist, and bringing us vampires from space in Lifeforce (1985).
The works of Wes Craven (Scream (1986), The Hills Have Eyes (1977)), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead (1981), Drag Me to Hell (2009)), and James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring (2013)) have all touched horror milestones through satire, and ingenuity of concept and technique. While John Carpenter’s Halloween spawned a hugely popular franchise; The Thing (1982) is regarded as one of the great shapeshifter horror movies. Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) and Dark Water (2002) are at the forefront of the hugely unsettling ghost stories of Japanese horror.
There’s not necessarily a correlation between popularity and acclaim within the horror genre – more so than other areas of Film – with some films inexplicably going on to cult status ahead of others. The aforementioned films are all works achieving notoriety through their concepts, villains, atmosphere, or iconic moments of terror.
Hellraiser (1987), Candyman (1992), House of Wax (1953/2005), The Purge (2013), Let the Right One In (2008), all span the various levels of tension, fun and evil. Don’t Look Now (1973) tackles grief to unnerving, slow-burning success.
‘Found footage’ horrors such as Paranormal Activity (2007), Quarantine (2008), and The Blair Witch Project (1999) elicit a strong response through perceived realism and the camera work providing a sense of confusion. The Blair Witch Project was a rousing box office hit due in part to its innovative ‘true story’ marketing.
David Cronenberg is synonymous with ‘body horror’, featuring graphic destruction or mutation of the human body, in his works The Fly (1986), Scanners (1981), and Videodrome (1983)
Sci-fi horror capitalises on the anxiety of the unknown, with Apollo 18 (2011), Alien (1979), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), and The Thing all raising notable scares.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) helped define the Italian Giallo horror movement – with mystery and crime blended into the atmosphere – and eventually giving providing the backdrop to the Slasher movie.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Prom Night (1980) underline their action with fun and cliche, in the slasher sub-genre propped up by A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th.
And with cliche comes parody: The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Scream, Shaun of the Dead, Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and the Scary Movie franchise (2000-2013).