The history of horror is a vast and perhaps foolhardy thing to tackle. No matter how hard you try, there are films and horror subgenres that will slide through the cracks..
But horror is somewhat unique among the film genres in that there is a recognizable pattern that happens again and again. A film will come along and terrify an audience capturing their imaginations and making bank- Filmmakers flock to the cash cow like vampires to blood which leads to sequels and imitators – sometimes better than the original. But eventually the sequels run out of steam and the subgenre created by the original smash hit fades into memory lurking in the corners of history waiting to be rediscovered and reborn- this process is commonly referred to as cycles. Although other genres behave similarly, the unique appeal of horror from its low budget requirements to broad multinational appeal, make horror especially susceptible to these boom and fade cycles.
But as we look at how the genre changes over time, we must not think of the history of horror as being a rigid one way street. New films borrow from old films all the time, a constant remix of subgenres and new techniques to make something for the contemporary culture.
So who did the first horror films borrow from? Monsters, murderers, demons and beasts have been around since antiquity, ghost stories told round camp fires since we learned how to talk. But the roots of filmed horror were an extension of a genre of literature that got it’s start in the late 1700s: Gothic Horror. Developed by writers in both Great Britain and the United States the Gothic part of the name refers to pseudo medieval buildings that these stories took place – think of a old castle on a dark and stormy night – gloomy forests, dungeons and secret passage ways.
In 1896 Georges Méliès would go on to create what is considered to be the first horror film ever made, The Haunted Castle. Up until the 1930s all horror movies were silent films, but one of the greatest horror films of all time would be relased during the silent era. This movie was none other than Nosferatu. If one of the greatest horror movies of all time was made when movies had no sound you can only imagine how the industry changed when sound was implemented.
In the tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, there was one studio that would be responsible for the first cycle of horror films – Universal Pictures. One rung beneath the big five were the little three: Universal, Columbia and United Artists who made and distributed pictures but didn’t have any theater holdings. During the silent era, Universal was responsible for the few achievements in American horror most notably The Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame both starring Lon Chaney. But in the 30s, Universal really sunk their teeth into horror, kicking off the Universal Gothic horror cycle. The first of many of these hits was Dracula; followed by Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Werewolf In London, and Dracula's Daughter. With great hits like those you gotta ask yourself how do you get better. Well lets see what happens when hollywood goes into the nuclear boogey man era.
The Icy Soviet-American arms race meant the nuclear boogey man was always top of mind. Horror films tapped into this cold war fear of invasion blending into a Pulp Science Fiction cycle with films like The Thing From Another World, The Day The Earth Stood Still both from 1951, and Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both in 1956. Still whats the big bad monster of this time??? That would be Godzilla the King of Monsters. So what happens when the 1960s bring the greatest horror visonary of all time.
No discussion of the horror film could be even self respecting without the mention of the Maestro himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Honing his precise abilities to play an audience like a musical instrument, it was 1960’s Psycho that shocked audiences into believing horror could be more than B-Film Fare. Psycho is credited with being one of if not the greatest horror movies of all time. It brought about films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and other slasher films.
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, based on the plot of serial killer Ed Gein who was also the inspiration for Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, was shot on a skeleton budget in the sweltering Texas summer heat. Mired in money issues, the cast and crew didn’t see much financial reward from the film’s success, but the rawness of the teenagers in peril inspired many more teen horror slasher imitations. Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be the grandfather of slasher films now. It spawned many films such as Halloween.Halloween is the first of it’s kind Hitchcock inspired slasher film.. Unlike many of it’s followups and imitators, Halloween actually contains very little graphic violence or gore. Without much money to spend on sets and props, Carpenter constructed his horror inside everyday suburbia.
That is all for this history stay tuned for the 1980s-2000's. Where we explore the likes of Jason and Freddy and modern ghost/demon movies.