Monsters, Slashers, Torturers & Invaders: The Evolution of Horror

Beasts, blood, and ghosts. The enigmatic genre of horror has inevitably manifested people’s worst nightmares for many years—and it seems filmmakers and fans will get to live on these dark fantasies for as long as atrocity lives. From creeping slashers that halts you to blink, to macabre tales of troubled families, horror has definitely redefined itself through time.

evolution of horror in film - backstage tales

The Movies of the Pre-War

People have utilized entertainment in the form of “horror” since the 1890s long before the historic troubles of the world erupted. It is believed that George Melies was the pioneer behind what was said to be the first “horror” silent film, Le Manoir du Diable (1896).

1920s – 1940s: Going Gothic

In the time where The Great Depression and World War II has greatly tapped into everyone’s social anxieties, the monster was right before their eyes—in fictional form.

The 1930s produced a lengthy of gothic, monster movies adapted from classic horror literature. With Hollywood’s studio system being on its stage of emergence, Hammer Film Productions and Universal reincarnated these literary characters who would then on be cemented in history as some of the most memorable movie figures: Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Mummy (1932).

evolution of horror in film - backstage tales

But Ted Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a film that garnered was what was considered “shock value” at the time. With medical advancements that treated fatal injuries after World War I, bodily disfigures became a common sight. Thus becoming a challenge for audiences to compromise on screen. Due to the attitude veered towards humans with physical deformities, Freaks was banned in many countries including its origin, Great Britain.

1950s – 1960s: The Hitchcock Era

War has ended and the Hitler regime has fallen—the world was not prepared for what was in store for the horror genre.

Alfred Hitchcock’s black-and-white stunner Psycho has aged like fine wine since its release in 1960. Accomplished at a time where horror was considered a “B-movie”, Hitchcock masterfully crafted inarguably the most unforgettable shower scene in film accompanied by a haunting score. But it’s not only man versus man (or other-wordly beings) that Hitchcock limited himself into, his other notable thriller The Birds (1963) proved that the enemy is harmless in sight.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho

The first installment of George Romero’s 1968 trilogy Night of the Living Dead was the film that made people realize that movies aren’t made for everyone. Hence the enabling of the MPAA rating system to take effect.

Children have also become a parent’s nightmare as this era, up until the beginning of another decade, saw kids as more than just a tiny weeping thing to feed. Roman Polanski reimagined this in his classic family horror Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

1970s: The Birth of “Slasher”

Teenagers’ obliviousness to the dangers of the world became the hot topic for 1970s horror. Society was progressing on its own and adolescents are taking part in their own revolution. From a young girl falling prey to a demon in The Exorcist (1973), a group of murdered teenagers holiday in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to the exploration of puberty in Carrie (1976), the 70s was a gruesome time to be young and free—at least in the movies

evolution of horror in film - backstage tales

A scene from The Exorcist

Although it only took $325,000 to finance John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, the film went on to make a whopping $250 million and baptized Jamie Lee Curtis as the “scream queen” (but it must run in the blood given that her mother is Janet Leigh). Halloween was the birthmother of murderous kitchen knives, thus establishing a subgenre of horror that producers and writers will take into succession decades later: the “slasher”.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

1980s: Shinings and Supernaturals

More teens, more murders. The slasher genre continues to inculcate itself into the scene with Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) in which director Wes Craven introduced one of the most memorably named villains in horror: Freddy Krueger.

A scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street

A scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street

The decade also spawned more youngsters to be more susceptible to unexplainable forces of nature, like a young girl communicating with dead spirits through a television in Poltergeist (1982), the demonic book from Evil Dead (1981), or with a cursed doll in Child’s Play (1988),

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a psychological horror tale that sets itself apart from other horror films—creepy, cryptic, and vivid. It is no surprise that with this, Kubrick has “auteur” attached to his name, albeit his pre-Shining credits like A Clockwork Orange.

A scene from The Shining

A scene from The Shining

1990s: The Video Format

It seems like horror has finally piqued the cinephile with the Stephen King-adapted Misery (1990), in which Kathy Bates, who played a psychotic fan who held her favourite novelist captive, bagged the Oscar for Best Actress the following year.  

This progressing decade has realized that the evil is not dead but are alive and well. And if the horror genre forces its antagonists to come uninvited, it goes the other way around in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). This five-time (as in winning the big five in one night) Oscar-winning psychological horror/thriller introduced Hannibal Lecter as a cannibal who wears his smarty-pants to unease Clarice Sterling, played by Jodie Foster.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

While Wes Craven’s Elm Street shook the audience’s nerves, the director shifted the mood in Scream (1996). With the “slasher” element still intact, Scream felt like a satirical, self-parodied ode to horror—cleverly executing horror clichés within the mystery.

But the success of The Sixth Sense (1996) proved that horror also has the ability to grip into one’s emotions. Mixing both elements of drama and mystery, M. Night Shyamalan pulled the audiences in to the story. One line was all it took for everything to make sense. Genius.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was perhaps the most game-changing horror film to shake up the later part of the 1990s. If studios were flocking to make an excessively-budgeted scare, the “found footage” film took only $60,000 to make along with a promotional campaign that marketed the events as “real”. It is also thought to be the first film that made use of the Internet to go viral.

Part of The Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign was a missing persons report of the three film students who took part in the project.

Part of The Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign was a missing persons report of the three film students who took part in the project.

2000 – 2010: Torture Porn

If the sinister of “slasher” films weren’t enough, audiences everywhere were hungry for more. Therefore, “torture porn” morphed into popularity. This subgenre heavily relies on blood-splatting, mutilating, graphic violence—the type that would make you want to skip dinner. Although Texas Chainsaw has been dubbed one before, the SAW franchise was the crackerjack of torture porn for its young following upon its initial release in 2004.

The first installment of the SAW franchise

The first installment of the SAW franchise

J-Horror or “Japanese Horror” were also on the verge of making skins crawl around this time. With the success of Ringu in 1998, Hollywood adapted the morbid Japanese flick in 2002 and renamed it The Ring. Who could possibly forget the image of Samara, with her long black hair masking her face, crawling out of a television?

The “found footage” horror has creeped its way back to haunt audiences in the 2007 phenomenon Paranormal Activity (2007). Much like its predecessor to the style Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity set itself in stone as one of the scariest horror franchises of the decade. The film was produced on an $11,000 budget but has grossed over $190 million worldwide.

The “found footage” in Paranormal Activity

The “found footage” in Paranormal Activity

2010s: A Decade of James Wan

Original SAW director James Wan seem to have re-claimed his horror crown at the beginning of 2010 with Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

If worn out dolls weren’t frightening enough, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (based on the real life Ed and Lorraine) enabled Annabelle to become a horror household name. Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) was the exorcism hit of the early 2010s, thus launching its own cinematic franchise with The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), and most recently, The Nun (2018).

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring

Today: “Smart Horror”

The world is in chaos and the system is in crisis. As society drifts into social consciousness, horror went along with it and faced the ever-changing world for survival.

While the politically-charged The Purge (2013) franchise that depicted America’s dystopic future delivered, audiences grew tired of the usual blood-splatters and jumpscares. Less has become more. No longer just an embodiment of fright, but one that sparks an insightful exchange. Hence the debut of a new horror subgenre, the “smart horror”.

Two of the Purge installments

Two of the Purge installments

It only took one man to ignite this said conversation. Jordan Peele’s 2018 buzzed-about film Get Out solidified him as the new maestro of modern horror. Peele unabashedly dramatized the institutionalized prejudice that is present, made it cinematic, and put black actors at the forefront of his film—to which he has no plans of changing. With his new critically-acclaimed masterpiece Us (2019), it looks like the era of Jordan Peele has only begun.

Lupita Nyong’O in Us

Lupita Nyong’O in Us

Other filmmakers have now taken the creeps into their own hands with this new take on a classic genre. John Krasinski’s surprise box-office smash (and directorial debut) A Quiet Place (2018), with its gripping sound design proved that sometimes, silence screams louder.

Horror has also turned into obscure and almost “artsy” in form. As shown in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) and the Oscar-winning The Black Swan (2010), along with Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria (2018), and Ari Aster’s future cult favourite, Hereditary (2018). evolution of horror in film - backstage tales

Television has also stepped up its horror game in its own unconventional ways. With Netflix hits Stranger Things, The Hunting of Hill House, Birdbox, and even Black Mirror (which is being classified as “tech-horror”), the genre will continue to re-bend itself with formidable unforeseen realities that only society has the power to rewrite.

What other movies/series would you consider horror today?


Text: Audrey Vibar

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