Halloween is upon us. It’s that wonderful time of year where being a cosplayer has its advantages, toilet paper becomes a weapon, and it’s acceptable to take candy from strangers. While some enjoy the holiday because it marks the changing of the seasons, others enjoy it for its more terrorizing feature: horror films. We all know what they are. They often deal with the viewer’s nightmares, hidden fears, terrors, and revulsion of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage, commonly of supernatural origin, into the everyday world. Popular elements in horror films include ghosts, aliens, vampires, werewolves, curses, satanism, demons, gore, torture, vicious animals, monsters, zombies, cannibals, and even killer clowns from outer space.
At one point or another, one question has crossed everyone’s mind – Why do people like watching scary movies? There are a number of theories as to why. Some theories suggest that scary movies are our way of experiencing fear in a controlled setting, while others say that the real appeal to scary movies is the feeling of relief when they are over. Whatever your reason for sitting in a dark theater getting the snot scared out of you, watching horror films is likely to remain popular.
The Birth of a Phenomenon
In 1896, film pioneer Georges Méliès (best known for his film A Trip to the Moon) created a three minute film called Le Manoir du Diable (The Manor of the Devil aka The Haunted Castle), which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. The film starts off with a large bat flying into a medieval castle. Once in, the bat circles slowly while flapping its monstrous wings before suddenly changing into Mephistopheles. After preparing a cauldron, the demon produces skeletons, ghosts, and witches from its bubbling contents before one of the summoned underworld cavaliers holds up a crucifix and Satan vanishes in a blast of smoke. This short film was the start of a cultural phenomenon.
During the early period of talking films, Universal Studios began a successful Gothic horror film series. In 1931 Tod Browning’s Dracula, with horror icon Bela Lugosi, was quickly followed by James Whale’s Frankenstein. Some of these blended science fiction films with Gothic horror, such as 1933′s The Invisible Man and, mirroring the earlier German films, featured a mad scientist. These films, while designed to thrill, also incorporated more serious elements. Frankenstein was the first in a series which lasted for many years, continuing with Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). In 1932 The Mummy introduced Egyptology as a theme for the genre. Universal’s horror cycle continued into the 1940s, with The Wolf Man (1941). Although it wasn’t the first werewolf film, it is certainly the most influential.
The Horror of Nature
In the 1950′s, advances in technology brought along a change in the tone of horror films. Movies started losing their Gothic feel and shifted towards more contemporary concerns. Two sub-genres began to emerge: the horror-of-armageddon film and the horror-of-the-demonic film. A stream of usually low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats from “the outside” such as alien invasions and deadly mutations to people, plants, and insects. In the case of some horror films from Japan, such as Godzilla (1954) and its sequels, mutation came from the effects of nuclear radiation. Filmmakers continued to merge elements of science fiction and horror over the following decades. A masterpiece of the era was 1950s The Incredible Shrinking Man, based on the novel by Richard Matheson. While more of a science-fiction story, the film conveyed the real life fears of living in the Atomic Age and the terror of social alienation.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), was the first “slasher” movie, while his 1963 film, The Birds, stems from nature gone mad. His contribution to the suspense and psychological thriller genres has made him one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, and he is widely regarded as one of cinema’s most significant artists.
The “Kings” of Terror
One film moved the horror genre away from the Gothic horror trends of earlier eras and brought horror into everyday life. I’m talking, of course, about George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead – the film credited with starting the zombie craze we still have today.
Ghosts and monsters still remained a frequent feature of horror, but many films used the supernatural premise to express the horror of the demonic and led to more occult themes in the 1970s. The Exorcist (1973), the first of these movies, was a significant commercial success and was followed by scores of horror films in which the Devil represented the supernatural evil, often by impregnating women or possessing children. Also in the 1970s, horror author Stephen King debuted on the film scene as many of his books were adapted for the screen. The first of which was King’s first published novel, Carrie (1976). Next, was his third published novel, The Shining (1980).
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, three cult classics were created: John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street. The popularity of these films has endured over the years, with each one seeing a number of sequels.
Low Budget Scares and Splatterporn
The 2000s saw an explosion in the zombie genre of horror movies. Another large trend is a return to the extreme graphic violence that characterized much of the type of low-budget, exploitation horror from the post-Vietnam years. An extension of this craze was the emergence of a type of horror with emphasis on depictions of torture, suffering, and violent deaths (sometimes referred to as Splatterporn) seen in the Saw film series, which holds the Guinness World Record of the highest-grossing horror franchise in history. The Blair Witch Project‘s “found footage” genre saw a resurgence with 2009′s low-budget film, Paranormal Activity.
So there you have it. Horror Films 101. It’s interesting to see how the popularity of horror films have grown over the years and how the genre has changed. I wonder if Georges Méliès had any idea what he was starting back in 1896.
Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection
Between 1923 and 1960, Universal Studios has made countless horror films and brought to life many of our favorite movie monsters. The Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera, Count Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man are just a handful of monsters that made their debut on the silver screen thanks to Universal. The “Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection” brings together the iconic films Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon all in one place for your enjoyment (you can order the collection on Amazon).