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?