The History of the Hollywood Horror Film

Happy Spooky Season!


It should come as no surprise to anyone who casually lurks on this blog that I love Halloween. Like, a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Maybe a little too much...?


But what can I say!? It's the one time of year when it's socially acceptable to be a little weird and appreciate the slightly off-kilter things in life. I also enjoy film history, so I thought this would be the perfect time for another blog installment of "History of..."* However, before delving into the history of horror films, we first have to take a look at their primary inspiration.



Things that Go Bump in the Night: Horror's Origin Story

Throughout the history of man, we've used storytelling to entertain, educate, and explain the unknown. Every civilization has passed down oral histories to explain everything from weather phenomenons, the creation of landmasses, etc. However, the most popular campfire stories were about the dark and mysterious. According to historians, the earliest examples of "ghost stories" can be traced to the ancient Romans. The earliest known recorded account comes from author and statesman Pliny the Younger. Pliny described in his letters the specter of an old man with a long beard, rattling chains, haunting his house in Athens.


Scholars believe that these recounted "visitations" from the recently deceased were used to instill respect for the dead, almost like a ghost story fable. The tradition of ghost stories also helps to explain the different death rites and funeral rituals from different cultures and societies. Many believe that a person's spirit exists independently from the body and exists even after death. Funeral rituals or ceremonies are a way of ensuring that the dead person's spirit would not return to "haunt" the living. Despite attempts to rationalize our greatest mystery—death—the ghost stories themselves became darker and more wicked. Oral histories inspired folklore which in turn inspired urban legends.

However, horror as entertainment in the West was popularized in the late 18th century with the surge in gothic fiction. Gothic literature, and later, film, is associated with the mystery and intrigue surrounding the supernatural and the unexplained. During this period, novels like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) were equally terrifying and engaging readers.


Bringing Horror to the Silver Screen

At the turn of the 20th century, new technology was enthralling audiences: motion pictures. The first known horror film (which was rediscovered in 1988 at the New Zealand Film Archive) is Georges Méliès' The House of the Devil [Le Manoir du diable] (1896). While the film is more fantastical than fearful—at least to modern audiences—film scholars consider it a horror film because of its themes and gothic characters. The silent film tells the story of an encounter with the Devil and various attendant phantoms, complete with cauldrons, animated skeletons, ghosts, and transforming bats.



With the rising popularity of this modern marvel, filmmakers turned to popular literature to adapt to film. From the early 1900s to the mid-1920s, popular gothic classics-turn-films included Selig Polyscope Company's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), Edison Studios' Frankenstein (1910), and Bison Film Company's The Werewolf (1913); unfortunately, only Frankenstein survived the era.



Gilded Fangs: The Golden Age of Horror

Just as Hollywood had its own "Golden Age" from the 1920s to the 1960s, the horror genre had its own moment to shine. From the 1920s to the 1930s, filmed studios pumped out horror films at a surprising rate. Classics like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) solidified horror filmmaking as its own distinct genre. It became common practice for studios to market these films as "horror" instead of "gothic melodramas."


Thanks to the addition of sound in the mid-to-late 1920s, filmmakers could create a creepy atmosphere for audiences: ghostly, ethereal music, jarring sound effects, and a damsel in distress' screams completed the immersive experience. Advances in technology in the 1930s also saw the rise in "monster movies," including the first color adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) directed by Rouben Mamoulian, James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), and Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932).


The genre's growing popularity also created its own stars, such as Lon Chaney (of The Phantom of the Opera fame), Bella Lugosi (of Dracula fame), Boris Karloff (of Frankenstein fame), and Lon Chaney Jr. (of The Wolf Man fame). Lugosi was arguably the first to specialize solely in the genre.

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Universal's Monster Madness

I would be remiss in not acknowledging Universal Studios' influence on the genre. By the end of the 1930s, Universal Studios had established itself as the premiere horror studio based on its legacy of monster films, including Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and their resulting franchises.


From the 1960s to 1970s, Universal aggressively pushed its monster lineup onto consumers through merchandising, including Halloween costumes, Aurora model kits, paperback novelizations, makeup how-to manuals, T-shirt patches, posters, and trading cards. In 1990, Universal Studios Florida produced the live Universal's Horror Make-Up Show, featuring characters from the Universal Classic Monsters franchise. In 1991, Universal Parks & Resorts started its annual Halloween Horror Nights event; they feature characters from the Universal Classic Monsters franchise.

In the late 1990s, Universal Studios attempted to reboot several of its classic franchises with varying success, including Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999), Sommers' Van Helsing (2004), Joe Johnston's The Wolfman (2010), Gary Shore's Dracula Untold (2014), and Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy (2017).

Gimmicky Jumpscares vs. Sophisticated Thrillers

From the 1950s onward, the genre began to struggle. It splintered into two distinct categories: cheap, campy thrills and psychologically-driven thrillers.

During the atomic race following World War II, the threats of everything from nuclear fallout to the Soviet "red scare" were palpable and reflected on the big screen. Films like Ishirō Honda's Godzilla (1954), Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Irvin Yeaworth and Russell Doughten's The Blob (1958) capitalized on these fears.


To up the fear factor, studios tried 3D glasses, electric buzzers installed into theater seats, and hiring actors planted among audiences to scream and pretend to faint. These scare tactics didn't last long past the 1960s due to their high costs, but studios tried just about everything to keep the scares going. American audiences didn't need the extra theatrics, however. The appetite for horror, especially among teens with expendable income, was so strong, studios were able to produce slashers for under $1 million and spawn dozens of B-movie sequels and crossovers.


On the other end of the spectrum, filmmakers like Mario Bava, Terence Fisher, Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Ki-young, and Nobuo Nakagawa brought a level of sophistication to the genre. Unlike the jumpscares from popular B-movies, their films were a slow burn, building suspense.



The Rise of Mysticism & Slashers

From the 1970s to the 1980s, supernatural horror, particularly horror focused on the occult, grew popular. For some reason, these two decades were dominated by stories about creepy houses and demonically-possessed children. Particularly, William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Richard Donner's The Omen (1976), and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), spawning franchises of their own.


Similar to the early 1900s to the 1930s, filmmakers were often turning to literature for adaptations. However, directors and screenwriters checked the contemporary best sellers list instead of looking to the past. Authors like Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Ray Bradbury's works with supernatural overtones were adapted for film throughout the two decades. Examples include Barker's Hellraiser (1987); King's Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), and Pet Semetary (1989); Koontz's Demon Seed (1977); and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and The Ray Bradbury Theater (1985-1992).

As the draw of the occult started to wane, a new fear came into focus: the slasher film. Arguably, the first modern slasher film was Tobe Hooper's Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Still, it wasn't until the 1980s that the subgenre really took off. Other popular titles include John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), all of which produced more sequels.



Upping the Ante: Leaving the Audience Wanting More

As they say, all good things must come to an end. In the case of horror, let Hollywood beat it senseless until nothing is scary anymore. In its attempts to keep pace with horror productions as it had in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood encountered a new problem: cynical audiences. Moviegoers were weary of CGI-heavy bombs like Anaconda (1997), Deep Rising (1998), and Deep Blue Sea (1999) and tired of sequels like The Exorcist III (1990), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995).

The genre struggled to land significant hits in the 1990s and early 2000s, with few exceptions like Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992), Wes Craven's Scream (1996), and Paul W. S. Anderson's video game adaptation of Resident Evil (2002).


Resident Evil inspired a resurgence of the caliber of zombie movies George A. Romero established with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Soon, theaters were inundated with movies like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004), Romero's Land of the Dead (2005), Francis Lawrence's I Am Legend (2007), Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009), and Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan (2016).


The Future of Spooks and Shocks

From the late 2000s through the 2010s, the horror genre saw a shift in storytelling—specifically, who is telling the story? More women and POC filmmakers have made their mark on the genre, including Ana Lily Amirpour, Nia DaCosta, Rose Glass, Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Andy Muschietti, Jordan Peele, Guillermo Del Toro, and James Wan. Representation makes for greater storytelling with innovative ideas, something desperately needed in this genre.


Do you think the horror genre will change or evolve moving forward? What's you're favorite horror film? Let me know in the comments!




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*Please note, I am not an expert, just a film and history geek. This is in no way a comprehensive review of horror as a genre. There are tons of films and filmmakers associated with this genre, and I would encourage you to learn more about it if you're interested.