The State of Horror: A Brief History and Current Synopsis

By Mike Vernier

Stanley Kubrick once said, “If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” This rings true in the storied history of horror. Beginning with old German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, there was suddenly a new place in cinema for dark and eerie films that conveyed never-before-seen themes. These films, grouped in with the “Golden Age” of horror in the 1930’s, created most of the movie tropes and cliches that we see today. From Lugosi’s Dracula to Karloff’s Frankenstein, this era contained the architects of the genre.

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These original horror films have an atmosphere that was unique and fresh at the time. Whether it was the intricately designed graveyards or the picturesque yet haunting castles, the directors knew how to portray their vision perfectly. Today, some horror fans may find these films boring or slow-paced; they rely heavily on dialogue and set design to create the mood, with jump-scares being few and far between. However, numerous lines, performances, and scenes continue to be remembered and heralded. The famous transformation scene in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster meeting the little girl by the pond, and Imhotep arising in The Mummy are a few of the many that have stood the test of time. And throughout the years, these classics have been remade, not as a disrespect to the originals, but to introduce the stories and archetypes to a new generation.

After the “Golden Age” came the “Silver Age,” known for its monster flicks. These films focused more on building up a monster and creating a sense of dread around it. When audiences finally saw the monsters in all of their stop-motion glory, screams echoed throughout theaters. King Kong, Godzilla and King Ghidorah are few examples that capitalized on this sense of direction. ‘B-Movies’ also became popular around this time, providing cheap entertainment with some sort of ridiculous movie monster (i.e. The Giant Claw) and making the genre more campy in its later years. Now, we often watch B-movies as novelties, yet we have modern versions of them like Sharknado and Birdemic that still attract heavy attention. And remakes of “SIlver Age” classics like 2014’s Godzilla and next year’s Kong: Skull Island bring the era to a new audience.

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After the monster flicks came a more assorted bunch in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They did, however, collectively move towards more serious subject matter. Demonic possession films such as The Omen and The Exorcist redefined the genre, bringing back a dark atmosphere along with new horrifying themes that were bold for the time. They also moved the horror genre into gorier territory with extremely graphic scenes (Omen suicide, The Exorcist head-spinning). The Exorcist, for example, was notorious for having moviegoers either walk out or vomit due to the graphic nature of the film. Still, they were widely popular and critically acclaimed, with The Exorcist having 10 Oscar nominations (two wins in Adapted Screenplay and Sound Mixing), further legitimizing the genre. Today, themes of demonic possession are still frequently seen in films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Paranormal Activity.

“Slasher films” also exploded during this time period. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween became the famous originators of this horror sub-genre. In short, a psychopathic killer terrorized a group of protagonists. The psychopathic killer came in many different forms but established stereotypes about movie killers that would be used for years. Movie villains of the time, like Freddy Kreuger and Norman Bates, had qualities that made them newly unique. Whether it be Freddy’s dream-invasion or Norman’s seemingly normal personality, they struck fear into the hearts of moviegoers by representing a tangible depiction of horror, horror that could happen in any small town. The “slasher” characteristics still remain in more current films like The Hills Have Eyes and a recent remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

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Following the slasher movie craze is the era of modern horror. Films like Scream poke fun at the cliches and movie tropes of the past while still being interesting and scary. Others like The Blair Witch Project introduce entirely new depictions of horror, such as recording on a handheld camera to give the illusion of reality. The latter has become increasingly popular in the last 20 years, with films like V/H/S and the Paranormal Activity series having significant success. Thematically, current horror is centered heavily around ghosts, demons, or supernatural beings, The Conjuring, Ouija, and It Follows all becoming successful films of this nature. Atmosphere and antagonist-development are crucial, along with a healthy amount of jump scares to keep today’s audiences on the edge of their seats.

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Modern horror films borrow ideas from the past and reinvent them to create a new identity. Horror’s growth and development has constantly met our desires as an audience, and as the genre continues to evolve with new expectations, we can count on many more years of terrifying entertainment.