The Evolution of Horror Films: A Look a Horror Movies from the 19th to 21st Century

By Emily Walsh

When you think of horror movies, what comes to mind? Horror films try to evoke the viewer’s worst nightmares as a form of entertainment. The ghosts, demons, murderers, and supernatural beings combined with some gore, torture, and jump-scares manipulate the audience into experiencing psychological thrills and fun. For a film to be included in the horror genre, it must incorporate incidents of physical violence and psychological terror. These acts of violence and terror can express themselves differently from film to film and create sub-genres within horror itself.

Although films produced today boast the newest technology to make the theatrical elements more lifelike and realistic to their audiences, the genre of horror predates the film industry. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. Since the genre’s conception, the horror industry has always found ways to incorporate new technology and themes.

In 1896 filmmaker Georges Méliès, who is best known for his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, created what is now called the first horror film by film scholars. Released 6 years before A Trip to the Moon, Méliès’s three-minute movie, Le Manoir du Diable (released in the U.S. as The Haunted Castle) showcased new and cutting-edge special effects, like a fake flying bat and realistic ghosts, which made it terrifying for viewers at the time. Méliès’s movie tells the short story of a bat that turns into the demon Mephistopheles, a plot that may not resonate with viewers now but surely spooked 19th-century audiences.

Thanks to Méliès’s influence, the horror genre entered what is now known as the “Golden Age of Horror” in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and the first color adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) scared audiences worldwide. According to the New York Film Academy, this period also marked the first time in the industry that the word “horror” was used to describe the genre. With this “new” genre having a name, many horror stars were born. The 1940s and 50s saw the rise of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and actors such as Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, and Edith Barrett. These creators helped redefine the horror genre. Films of this time are best known for their melodrama, stage-like and over the top acting, and attempts at comic relief.

Instead of using the hallmarks of the 1920s and 30s horror film, Hitchcock’s films Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Frenzy (1972), focused on amplifying the audience’s psychological thrill and opened doors for many classics that came out of the 1970s and ‘80s. Hitchcock added elements of suspense to his movies, separating him from the Golden Age of Horror in a way that deserves its own category. Thanks to Hitchcock, the plot lines of future horror films deepened, and themes became darker.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, many horror films involved ideas of the “occult,” particularly when it came to demonic possession of homes and children. The fascination with the occult determined this period of horror films and created, according to some critics, the best period of horror ever. Two incredible films that arguably defined horror for the rest of time came out of this period: The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).

These films incited a rediscovered obsession with supernatural horror that complimented the rise of author Stephen King and led to many slasher films that continue to redefine the genre. The film adaptations of Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980) made way for films like Poltergeist (1982), The Thing (1982), the Halloween franchise (1978- present), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and even the genre parody Scream (1996).

However, as new technology develops and monsters, ghosts, and gore get more realistic on-screen, the current state of horror is widely contested amongst film critics. Although remakes and reboots are the new normal (how many Halloweens can they actually produce?), the 2000s have seen some fantastic new films that may create a new type of horror genre as we know it. Films like The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and Us (2019) have given a new meaning to the genre and set the bar high for what’s next to come because of their more modern plotlines that reflect every-day life and society in more subtle ways, creating a bigger commentary on the intersection between horror and reality.

Life has changed drastically for people all over the world due to the pandemic and we are faced with new horrors every day. When film production can once again safely resume, who’s to say a new era of horror won’t begin that’s even more terrifying than the last?

Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day

by Emily Walsh

What is Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Do you remember the words: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”? Mythology about Columbus and the “discovery” of the Americas continues to be many American children’s first lesson about encountering different Indigenous cultures. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. It is celebrated across the United States on the second Monday in October. This year Indigenous Peoples’ Day is today, October 12th.

The holiday originated in 1977 as a counter-celebration of Columbus Day, which honors Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native American people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. Ultimately, the holiday urges Americans to rethink history by learning about Indigenous cultures in the United States.

In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas suggested that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Today more than 10 states across the United States recognize the holiday.

How Can You Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

Teaching more accurate and complete narratives and differing perspectives is key to our society’s rethinking of history and is important in celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Watching films with Indigenous actors, directors, and plots that highlight Indigenous issues is another great way to celebrate the holiday. The AU Library’s Indigenous Peoples of America streaming guide is a great resource and a great place to start looking.

What to Watch on Indigenous Peoples’ Day?

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, consider learning more about Native American cultures through movies at the AU Library. These lists of documentaries and feature films created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers that discuss Indigenous issues are a great resource and excellent place to start. If you’re interested in learning more about Indigenous experiences outside of the United States, the National Film Board of Canada has a collection of over 200 films created by Indigenous filmmakers that can be accessed for free online.

Feature Films and Documentaries Made by Indigenous Filmmakers Available via the AU Library

Reel Injun, Directed by Neil Diamond (Cree)

Documentary, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“Hollywood has an impressive track record, one that spans more than 4,000 films, of blatantly misrepresenting Native people and their cultures. Featuring interviews with filmmakers and activists such as Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch and Russell Means, Reel Injun delves into the fascinating history of the Hollywood Indian with razor-sharp insight and humor, tracing its checkered cinematic evolution from the silent film era to today.”

This May Be the Last Time, Directed by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek)

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

This May Be the Last Time traces the heartfelt journey of award-winning filmmaker Sterlin Harjo as he interweaves the tale of a mysterious death in 1962 with the rich history of the powerful hymns that have united Native American communities in times of worship, joy, tragedy, and hope. Investigating the stories of these songs, this illuminating film takes us on an epic tour as we travel with the power of the music through Southwest America, slavery in the deep South, and as far away as the Scottish Highlands.”

Drunktown’s Finest, Directed by Sydney Freeland (Navajo)

Feature Film, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“On a beautifully desolate Navajo reservation in New Mexico, three young people, a college-bound, devout Christian woman; a rebellious and angry father-to-be; and a promiscuous but gorgeous transsexual woman, search for love and acceptance. As the three find their lives becoming more complicated and their troubles growing, their paths begin to intersect.”

On the Ice, Directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (Iñupiaq)

Short Film, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“In Barrow, Alaska, teenagers Qalli and Aivaaq find their bond tested when a seal-hunting trip goes wrong, resulting in the death of their friend.”

Miss Navajo, Directed by Billy Luther (Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo)

Documentary, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“Reveals the inner beauty of the young women who compete in the Miss Navajo Nation beauty pageant. Not only must contestants exhibit poise and grace as those in typical pageants, they must also answer tough questions in Navajo and demonstrate proficiency in skills essential to daily tribal life: fry-bread making, rug weaving and sheep butchering. The film follows the path of 21-year-old Crystal Frazier, a not-so-fluent Navajo speaker and self-professed introvert, as she undertakes the challenges of the pageant.”

Kanehsatake: 270 years of resistance, Directed by Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki)

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

“On a hot July day in 1990, an historic confrontation propelled Native issues in Kanehsatake and the village of Oka, Québec, into the international spotlight and into the Canadian conscience. A powerful feature-documentary emerges that takes you right into the action of an age-old aboriginal struggle. The result is a portrait of the people behind the barricades, providing insight into the Mohawks’ unyielding determination to protect their land.”

Smoke Signals, Written by author Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene)

Feature Film, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“Story of the journey of two Coeur d’Alene Indian boys from Idaho to Arizona. Victor is the stoic, handsome son of an alcoholic father who has abandoned his family. Thomas is a gregarious, goofy young man orphaned as an infant by a fire which Victor’s father accidentally started while drunk. Thomas is a storyteller who makes every effort to connect with the people around him; Victor, in contrast, uses his quiet demeanor to gain strength and confidence. When Victor’s estranged father dies in Arizona the two young men embark on a journey to recover his ashes.”

Feature Films and Documentaries About Indigenous Life, History, and Issues Streaming via the AU Library

Amá, Directed by Lorna Tucker

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

“Amá is a feature length documentary which tells an important and untold story: the abuses committed against Native American women by the United States Government during the 1960’s and 70’s: removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, forced relocation away from their traditional lands and involuntary sterilization.”

Spirits for Sale, Directed by Folke Johansson

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

“When Annika is given an eagle feather by a Native American visiting Sweden, she realizes it is a sacred object which should probably not be in her hands. These days Native American ceremonies are being commercialized for “outsiders,” arousing resentment in the Native community. Annika sets out to find the feather’s rightful owner, a quest which takes her to American Indian communities in Albuquerque, San Antonio and to Bear Butte in South Dakota. She meets many Native Americans who are bitter, believing they are “the forgotten people.” But others are fighting to preserve their culture and their faith as well as to protect their land.”

The First People: The Last Word, Produced by Torsten Jansen and Hanne Ruzou for the Danish Broadcasting Service

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

“For the first time since their land was taken, many Native American tribes have the opportunity to take over the rights to the land they live on and create a cultural consciousness. The filmmakers travel around the United States, talking to an Indian attorney, a movie director, an artist, a nurse, and others. The question remains – will Native Americans be able to maintain their unique culture now that they are participating in the American dream?”

Roma, Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Feature Film, streaming via Netflix and DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“With his eighth and most personal film, Alfonso Cuarón recreated the early 1970s Mexico City of his childhood, narrating a tumultuous period in the life of a middle-class family through the experiences of Cleo, the indigenous domestic worker who keeps the household running. Charged with the care of four small children abandoned by their father, Cleo tends to the family even as her own life is shaken by personal and political upheavals.”

Standing on Sacred Ground, Directed by Christopher McLeod

Documentary, streaming via the Library website

“Native Hawaiians and Aboriginal Australians resist threats to their sacred places in a growing international movement to defend human rights and protect the environment. In Australia’s Northern Territory, Aboriginal clans maintain Indigenous Protected Areas and resist the destructive effects of a mining boom. In Hawaii, Indigenous ecological and spiritual practices are used to restore the sacred island of Kahoolawe after 50 years of military use as a bombing range.”

Honorable Mention:

 También la Lluvia (Even in the Rain), Directed by Icíar Bollaín Pérez-Mínguez

Feature Film, DVD available at the Library through curbside pickup

“In the year of our Lord 2000, Spanish director Sebastián and his executive producer Costa are shooting a motion picture about Christopher Columbus, his first explorations, and the way the Spaniards treated the Indians. To get the film made within the limitations of their modest budget, Costa has chosen the Cochabamba area of Bolivia, the cheapest and most Indian of Latin American countries as the location. They hire many supernumeraries, local actors, and extras, and things go more or less smoothly until a conflict erupts over the privatization of the water supply, sold to a multinational. The trouble is that one of the local actors is a leading activist in the protest movement. 500 years after Columbus, a David vs. Goliath conflict erupts into the infamous Bolivian Water War, catching the filmmakers firmly in the middle.”

In Spanish or Gallego (Galician) with optional subtitles in English