Horror flicks have their origins in the late 1890’s. Looking back on it now, the first horror film was more like a two minute silent comedy skit. Things remained like that for almost half a century, slow to start but quick to gain popularity. Things in the horror industry can change fast. New trends sweep through and dominate, die out, and are revisited years later when the original thrill is restored. In the last fifty years, this genre that seeks to draw out our deepest fears and makes us face them on the big screen has gained immense popularity and underwent many significant shifts in style and content. Each decade impacting the next and containing remnants of the previous, these are the building blocks of horror.
Silent and stern, horror movies pre 1950 were silent, short, choppy and overemphasized. I don’t serve to discredit them, many horror classics came about as a result of early film and literature dating back to this time period, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein(1931) to name a couple.
The 1950’s was an awkward decade for horror, sort of like an identity crisis. The film industry was torn between traditional horror themes that had dominated the genre since its start and the new wave science fiction themes that were gaining in popularity. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) like many movies of its kind featured a half humanoid- half amphibian creature, a frightening thought in and of itself. Today we tend to see Sci-Fi as a separate genre, though undoubtedly it still shares in the elements of fright and uncertainty that intertwined it with horror for the better part of the 1950’s. That being said, not all horror films emerging from this decade stuck to the trend, titles like The Bad Seed (1956), thematically similar to later versions such as The Omen (1976) tugged at the heartstrings of horror and helped it to pull it through the identity crisis and establish itself as a class of entertainment dedicated to scares. By the 1960’s, otherworldly-alien themed flicks had nestled into their own category and horror had all but returned to its 19th century subject matter; this time with a vengeance.
With its strong emphasis on gore, the 1960’s set the stage for the hack and slash. If you still leave your shower curtain pulled half open while bathing, you’re not the only one. Thanks a lot, Psycho (1960)! Arguably one of the most active decades in horror history, several sub categories were born in the 60’s. The film industry followed suit as horror writers began experimenting with the paranormal, a somewhat untapped fountain of creativity, and saw great success. Zombie panic set its course in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and ran well into the succeeding decade. There’s just something about the finality of death that makes zombies so appealing, even to this very day. A second but briefer genre clash occurred in the 60’s when horror films were being meshed with thrillers. Once again, crime and thriller flicks forked off and ended up in a category of their own, leaving horror to its devices.
When the 1970’s rolled around, the horror industry was booming. Building off the successes of the previous 10 years’ thematic upstages, this new decade saw the success of some truly terrifying movies with some serious realism. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) increased the fear factor of a chainsaw tenfold, something modern haunted house attractions should be thankful for. Gore may have risen in the 1960’s, but in the ‘70’s it starts to stick. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting sliced; diced, minced or laser-beamed, carnage is assured. How could I ever do justice to this article, let alone you, horror fans, if I didn’t mention one of the most frightening horror movies of all time? The Exorcist (1973) had children practically bathing in holy water. It’s not that it was the first movie its kind, it wasn’t. Possession films like the aforementioned The Bad Seed (1956), can be observed in all decades of horror. The Exorcist (1973) just had that special scare.
The 1980’s in all its glory had a profound effect on the movie industry. The focus: Horror. Every bone chilling blockbuster of the ’70s saw its sequel in the 80’s. An unprecedented phenomenon of sequel mania took hold. Before the 1980’s you didn’t see a lot of sequels. There were a fair share of remakes of course; films that were previously silent were remade into voice films, digitally remastered, and enhanced with color. One notable example, H.G. Wells’ ever popular The War of the Worlds was originally released in 1953 but subject to several remakes thereafter. But, remakes aside, there weren’t too many sequels. For the most part good movies were praised then left alone to (hopefully) be rediscovered decades later as cult classics. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) saw four sequels in the 1980’s. When sequel mania takes hold, it clutches at the throat and never loosens its grip. Fast forward to about twenty years in the future:
With more than 130,000 user votes on the International Movie Database, SAW I (2004) blew me away. It was refreshing, original, and intuitive. But five sequels in five years have made the adjectives I once used to describe these movies seem the very things they lack.
It may have started more than twenty years ago, but it hasn’t ended. And as for themes, they didn’t change much, if it was popular in the ‘70’s it was popular in the’80’s.
1990’s and beyond
If I had to describe horror in one word as it relates to the 1990’s and on, I would have to choose ‘technology’. This is the dawn of digital projection, the era of CGI. There are major improvements not just in the way we watch, but in the way we film. Sound quality and video recording are not what they used to be. Technology opened the door for horror. Now more than ever, screenwriters and directors have more power to make their visions a reality on the big screen.
The thematic changes that occurred within the horror genre in and since the ‘90’s really started to shine as the motion picture companies began to recognize their audience: teenagers. Thus emerged a new theme of teenage drama turned deadly. What film could be cited as a better example than Scream (1996)? It had all the pieces, high school teenagers, pretty girls, telephones, and psycho killers; a regular Friday fright-night. There’s no denying the successes of teen based horror.
Stylistic changes occurring within the past fifteen to twenty years have varied greatly; some well known names in horror have been trying out the director’s chair. Tim Burton takes a film and redefines it with a dash of horror. Rob Zombie, in his Halloween series remakes, adds depth to familiar characters while turning up the gore
It took the combination of the previous 50 years of horror to make it what it is today. You never know exactly what is to come, and that’s the thing about horror, you can’t ever get too comfortable…but that’s the way it should be!