Horror is the one of the most popular genres in film. There is no other genre that can tap into the subconscious quite like one filled with demons and monsters. However, despite its popularity, it is becoming a lot rarer to find a horror that becomes an iconic masterpiece – the days of ‘Psycho,’ ‘The Shining,’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ are long behind us. Are audiences just becoming harder to scare or has modern horror hit a creative wall?
Despite not being introduced into film until the early 1900s, the genre dates back to the late 18th century. Demons and monsters have been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that ‘Gothic Horror’ arose. Writers such as Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe were beginning to pave the way for the first filmed stories a century later. Take a look at the Lumiere brothers’ short film, ‘Spook Tale’ (1895). It may not possess the spine-chilling spookiness of today’s big screen horrors, but back in an era where the genre was almost unheard of, it was certainly food for thought. The dancing skeleton was shortly followed by what is considered the first horror film to be created, ‘Le Manoir du diable’ (1896) – or ‘The Haunted Castle’ – consisting of supernatural elements. The era of silent film began to truly thrive though in Germany after the First World War. German Expressionism primarily focused on expression rather than realism. The unique style was created within a ‘cultural bubble’ due to embargo and saw films such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), ‘Der Golem’ (1920) and ‘Nosferatu’ (1922). After this era of silent film, the first cycle of horror films didn’t occur until the 1930s after Hollywood Studios took a hold of the genre. Universal Pictures brought to life the classic monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein, giving audiences a bigger picture of these menaces than they had before. This ‘Gothic Horror’ cycle lasted all of around 10 years before falling victim to parodies including ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948). In the years that followed the Second World War, Horror was downgraded and strictly seen as a B-film status. They became less-monster driven which is seen through Val Lewton’s studio work including ‘Cat People’ (1942) – a film that focuses on a woman’s fear of turning into the ‘cat person’ that her homeland fables suggest. However, the genre still proved popular with the younger generation. The 50s saw the ‘Pulp Science Fiction’ cycle of horror with films such as ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951) and ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956). It was the time where monsters such as Godzilla were feared across the land. This beast was a metaphor for nuclear weapons and represented the recent nuclear incidents the Japanese were exposed to in the 50s including the nuclear contamination of the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5. Soon the genre would explode in popularity and a huge variety of styles were explored. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’ (1960) saw the beginning of a cycle that focused on the fear of more realistic subjects. ‘The Birds’ (1963), ‘Piranha’ (1978 with two remakes in 1995 and 2010) and ‘Anaconda’ (1997) are all films that created a fear of nature itself. Since then different cycles have came and went. Teen Horror first arose in the late 70s with films such as ‘Carrie’ (1976) and ‘Halloween’ (1978) with ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997) and ‘Scream 4’ (2011) in later years. Psychological horrors have been around as early as the 30s, but have become more popular in later years with the likes of ‘The Ring’ (2002) and ‘The Babadook’ (2014) while ’28 Days Later’ (2002) and remakes of the 1968 film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ have boosted the popularity of the modern zombie cycle. These cycles are one of the key elements of the genre. Horror films tend to borrow ideas from their predecessors and it’s difficult in this day and age to find a modern film that doesn’t take something from one before it. If a film is successful, it’s natural for filmmakers to imitate and follow a similar idea until the audience want something new. However, they tend not to be fully forgotten and the cycle is usually revisited in the future.
Another consistent element of horror is the overall structure of the story. 9 times out of 10, it can easily be predicted what is going to happen – a group of teens being killed one by one, it appears the demon has been banished when the reality is quite the opposite – and while this would tend to drive an audience away, the horror genre is an exception. It pulls the audience in further and is what adds to the leading popularity of these films. University of Wales’ Film, Media and Visual Culture lecturer, Dr. Steven Gerrard, explains. “People like familiarity – it’s what Hollywood and genre cinema thrives on. But there must be a variation on occasion, otherwise it all gets very stale. Horror is a great safety valve – it lets us really let off steam, angst, fright – and fright is a good thing. As far as fans are concerned, they like their horrors a certain way: blood and gore, suspense, style, etc. are all staple ingredients.” Secondly, people enjoy being scared. It’s all about the sub-conscious. Human kind have a survival instinct ingrained into them. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense and blood pressure strikes. Studies show that the interest in gory films, particularly with males, relates back to tribal times. Due to the changes in society and changes to manhood, watching these films fulfil their ‘hardship’ – something that has diminished in this day and age. There is also more excitement in watching a horror than there is in a comedy or a romance. Damian McCarthy, an award winning Irish horror filmmaker, elaborates. “I think the predictability strangely adds to the enjoyment of horror films. Take the classic horror trope of someone alone in a house in a horror movie. They hear a noise in the basement. So they open the door and down they go into the dark to investigate. The audience wants them to go down there. They have seen this before and they know something is going to happen when the character goes down there. It’s that build up before it happens is what I think keeps people coming back to the same structure again and again.”
Technology has allowed the horror genre to develop over the years. We’ve come a long way from the days of dancing skeletons and Frankenstein. The question remains, however, whether or not these advances have improved the genre or not. Special effects have been known to make or break films. Recent ‘Star Wars’ films have been previously criticised for being over reliant on CGI. Damian makes it blunt that use of a computer can eliminate the fear. “The better horror films are still the ones being produced by young filmmakers with smaller budgets. Any of the real polished looking bigger budget horror movies just don’t work. Anything with some computer generated monster or ghost just isn’t scary.” Dr. Gerrard also has similar views. “‘The Babadook’ was great, up to the SFX throwing one character around the place – daft. Likewise, ‘It Follows’ was terrifically frightening until a few SFX popped up.” It doesn’t help that audiences are becoming harder to scare either. Going back to the predicticality of the genre, audiences have a general idea of when they’re going to be scared. “Horror filmmakers do have to try harder now as audiences are harder to scare as they know the tricks. They know when the camera pans away to an empty hallway or whatever that there’s going to be something standing there when it pans back.” This can be used to an advantage however. “In some ways though I think this familiarity audiences have with these tricks can be used against them to catch them out or to misdirect them.” Like most films though, not everyone is going to like the same thing just as there’s not one thing that scares everyone. It all comes down to personal preference.
Horror is a genre that doesn’t seem to be going out of fashion anytime soon. It breaks all the rules as a repetitive and predictable genre. Filmmakers frequently borrow ideas and revisit previous stories while the crowds continue to flock to see the latest ‘scary movie.’ There is no denying that the genre has come a long way since the early 1900s, but the elements remain the same now as they did back then – don’t go down into the basement.