13 Days Of Horror: Day 1 – A Brief History of the Horror Film

Today begins Inertia’s 13 Days of Horror, where we explore sub-genres and films that make up the horror genre and discuss what truly makes it the dark hero of the film world. To kick off the season, today we’ll look at the history of the genre itself from its bloody beginnings to its current trends.

Horror is a marmite genre: you either love it or you hate it. Those that seek thrills outside in the modern world will invariably be the ones that aren’t too thrilled about seeing a horror film. Those that like to play it safe tend to be the ones that prefer to hide behind their pillow every night with a good horror film. I love horror, and my DVD collection is chock full of classics as well as some duds. When choosing a film to watch for the night I will always think of horror before I turn to any other genre. I can watch pretty much any film without feeling too affected by it. I am desensitised to media violence but this doesn’t mean I am desensitised to violence. Recently, a friend of mine shared a video on Facebook that I couldn’t watch. An Indian student fell into a tiger enclosure at the New Delhi Zoo and was attacked and killed. The video – taken by an onlooker which makes it even more macabre – shows the student in the enclosure then the attack itself. I could only watch the first five seconds as the student cowered in the corner then I had to switch it off. I couldn’t watch a human life being taken because I knew it was real. Yet that’s what is great about the horror genre because when it gets it right, it holds a mirror up to us and shows us what we fear the most.


Since before the spoken word it has been intrinsic for the human psyche to engage with fear. From the hunter becoming the hunted in his quest for food to accidentally liking your crushes Instagram photo from 42 weeks ago, the effects of being scared are what continue to draw us to dark literature.

Horror in its most basic form has been prevalent since fables and religious tales were told and has consistently evolved by tapping into modern day fears as well as those that will always haunt the dark recesses of your wardrobe. The popularity of Gothic literature in the 18th Century became a natural source point for filmmakers at the turn of the 20th Century with the invention of the moving picture. Celluloid barely had time to breathe before filmmakers were casting their dark eye on bringing our unimaginable fears to life.

As with any genre there is some debate of what was the first true horror film. Some cite Georges Méliès’ 1896 short Le Manoir Du Diable, where as for me it is a 50-second silent film called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat made in 1895. The film shows a train pulling into the station, however according to legend ths film had people running from the theatre in sheer panic as they truly believed that the train was about to come through the screen and into the theatre. So although George Méliès created the first film to feature supernatural elements, L’Arrivée achieved the main aim of a horror film: to scare the shit out of people.

Horror has evolved dramatically since the early years as filmmakers have continued to push the boundaries of taste to quench the thirst of the audiences’ blood lust. We’ll charter the history of horror from the silent beginnings to the current trends, detailing the waves of sub-genres and the bodies they have left in their wake.

1920 – 1959

Horror’s prominence began in the 1920’s with a wave of German expressionist films that introduced infamous horror characters to the big screen. From Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, iconic horror characters were being brought to life from page to screen. Nosferatu to this day always finds itself on Top 100 lists across the globe with it’s horrendous depiction of Bram Stoker’s infamous character. The film removed the romanticism of eternal life, replacing Dracula’s intriguing demeanour with one of crippling, demonic disfigurement. These films focused on the core of horror: to show what lurked in the shadows…


The 1930’s brought more of a polished, Hollywood focus on horror as Universal Studios became the first true pioneer of horror film. Studio contracted actors became iconic anti-heroes as they translated the Gothic horror fiction into the moving picture. The 1930’s showed the success of horror, with several sequels to popular films such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy highlighting the potential for horror franchises. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi became the poster boys for the disfigured, delayed monsters.

From the 1940’s the horror movie became more of a B-Picture, with films like The Wolfman becoming the alternative rather than the official selection. Horror started to blur boundaries in the late 1940’s as it blended with science fiction, tapping into the psyche of a post-war generation that feared the next unknown threat around the corner.

The Wolfman (1941)

The 1950’s played heavily on this – the advent of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction changed the role that horror played in the landscape of cinema. The Gothic themes of the supernatural were replaced with the natural as the antagonists of the 50’s horror films echoed the alien threats from abroad. The battle of east VS west and democracy VS communism became on celluloid the battle of humanity VS alien invasion – the known VS the terrible unknown. Though film was not being used as a propaganda tool a la the days of World War II, it’s subtext was rife. Meanwhile, as America continued to cross horror with science fiction as a form of social context, Britain was bathing the screen in blood. Hammer Studios pioneered the re-birth of Universal Studios’ long ago classics, bringing Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein back to audiences with a renewed vigour; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee stepped into the iconic shoes of these characters, well and truly making them their own.


1960 – 1979

Roman Polanski, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock – the 1960’s were the birth of the modern horror film. Social subtext attacked the inner workings of America as opposed to threats from outside its four walls. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is now infamous for its damning portrait of racism in America – the zombie genre was well and truly born. The 1960’s was the decade of transition for the horror genre, as the classic monster movies and reliable traits made way for exploitation and experimental films that pushed the boundaries beyond what was considered audience taste; they craved more, and more was what they got. The birth of the slasher – an argument between Psycho and Peeping Tom (both 1960) – occurred in this decade but didn’t really pick up until the 1970s. Towards the end of the decade, horror was shaping its path for the future. Religious horror and themes of demonic possession and exorcism began in the late 1960’s, particularly with Rosemary’s Baby as filmmakers focused on a primitive fear to engage with audiences’ psyche.

Ahh, the 1970s. For me, horror starts here. I think it starts here mainly because my diet of horror consisted of films that were made from this decade onwards but the sub-genres, Grindhouse features and exploitation pictures really evolved in this decade. It set the benchmark for horror and showed that you could do anything with a limited budget as long as you had the imagination. Audience’s appetite only increased and the revenue produced from these films paved way for a slew of sequels and similar pictures. Halloween and Black Christmas pioneered the commercial success of the slasher film and began to change the way in which horror was produced; though not completely devoid of subtext, they survived on a basic premise because the films were produced in order to make money. The 70’s undoubtedly produced some of the most commercially successful films of the 20th Century, with films produced in this decade making the majority of the ‘Top 100’ lists. The nature of the beast in these films became more human, as films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House On the Left made the evil a real person capable of despicable things, echoing the growing trend of serial killers in America. At the same time, religion continued to play a huge role in films such as The Exorcist and The Omen which chronicled the effects of demonic interference. The box office success of these cheaply produced fear flicks meant only one thing for the money-churning industry of Hollywood: sequels would be made…


1980 – 1999

The 1980’s horror scene is synonymous with sequels and copycat reproductions in the slasher genre. Within this decade the horror genre hit dizzying heights but with limited creativity and the primary focus on profit it soon spiraled and by the close, horror had become a laughing stock with productions moving to cater for the home video market. The video nasties era was heavily documented during the 1980’s which led to its increased popularity as audiences sought to see the films that were labelled as too despicable to watch. When the decade begins with a film produced solely to capitalise on the success of Halloween with no thought or consideration given to characterisation or plot, it kind of gives an indication of what’s to come. Friday the 13th, released in 1980, kick-started the low budget crowd pleasing slew of horror films to come. It’s not fair to blame the demise of horror solely on the filmmakers as it is the audience that produce the revenue that inspires the expanding wallets, but when it comes to surpassing creativity in search of profit then there’s an issue to address. Friday the 13th produced no less than seven sequels during the 1980’s as it chased the dollar, altering its lead antagonist to suit the continuation of the series. Surprisingly it took until the third film for the iconic Jason we know today to mask himself. In Jason’s wake lay not only a slew of diversely murdered teenagers but also several low-budget slasher film copycats that catered to the audiences’ blood lust. April Fool’s Day, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday To Me mirrored both the cheap kill-by-numbers thrill as well as using a familiar calendar date for its setting/justification. The Friday the 13th series, though entertaining and embarrassing in equal measure, perfectly encapsulates the 80’s trend for horror and as audience’s tired of the endless sequels and became bored of the antagonists they had briefly rooted for, it spelled the end for this once bucking trend. Jason died in the early 90’s but horror died long before then.

Friday the 13th Part 4

Let it not be said though that the 1980’s produced some phenomenal horror with a returned focus on holding the mirror up to society’s primal fears. Greatest of all was the body horror sub-genre in which Clive Barker, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and most prominently David Cronenberg tore our bodies apart with invading aliens and beings from another dimension. The body horror genre paralleled society’s fears of invading diseases and viruses as HIV spread epidemically across the globe, as well as the self-inflicted destruction of crack cocaine. These films showed the frailty of the human body and the ease with which our bodies could be invaded. They also sought to push the boundaries of taste once again, specifically in the case of Hellraiser as it portrayed in detail the destruction and subsequent resurrection of the human body from bone to flesh.

Do a Google search of ‘horror film 1990s’ and you’ll struggle to find films of the same calibre as previous decades. There are iconic greats such as Scream, The Blair Witch Project, Gremlins and Dracula, but the list feels tame in comparison. Horror died in the mainstream in the 1990’s thanks to the high body count of the 1980’s. However, horror across the pond was as fresh as ever. Spanish and Japanese horror produced terrifying classic tale ghost stories; splatter film was being revitalised with comic effect in New Zealand and Germany was re-evaluating the zombie. It took a few years for horror to find its feet again by adopting new ways of telling a story (examples being the self-referential and self-aware slasher gem Scream and the first person claustrophobic narrative of The Blair Witch Project) and this brought horror back to the attention of audiences. The 90’s saw horror take a well deserved break, ready for its dominance to reign once again in the Millennium.

Scream Poster

2000s – Present

Horror’s resurgence in the noughties didn’t start with the same enthusiasm as Microsoft after the panic of the millennium bug. World cinema still dominated with Japanese horror pioneering unique ghost stories, but Hollywood took awhile to cotton on to it’s next bums-on-seats guarantee – remakes. Rather than look at past horror films to see what they did right and semi-plagiarise from them to produce new material, they just remade them instead. As a passionate horror fan with an appreciation for its history it was a big struggle for me across the early 2000s to accept the new way that horror was headed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Amityville Horror were all remade in the first half of the 2000s. As the Hollywood machine delved further into the canon of horror to find more susceptible films, other producers realised the potential of remaking the successful horror films from across the world. The translation of America remaking their own horror films was bad enough (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example – the remake was still set in the 1970’s as they struggled to modernise the context of the Vietnam War); the translation of Japanese ghost stories to Western culture fell way short of the mark. Though the remakes of J-Horror and Spanish horror contain their fair share of scares, the fables don’t fair well with a Western slant. Japanese ghost stories are traditional in their Eastern philosophy and sadly they don’t have the same impact across the pond.


Meanwhile, as remakes continued their trend into the late 2000s by destroying further classics such as The Omen, Friday the 13th, and even The Wolfman, a new sub-genre was cutting its way through the annals of horror history and bringing with it a critical and social reaction akin to the days of the video nasty. The inconsiderately named ‘torture porn’ became the focal point for the genre in the mid-2000s as films like Saw, Hostel and French films Frontiere(s) and Martyrs depicted graphic and violent scenes of torture. Horror’s subtext shone through once again: though not directly intentional, the graphic scenes these films featured directly visualised the scenes of torment broadcast on news stations in the wake of the War in Iraq. These films showed violence against man committed by man – a mirror image of war.

As it neared the end of the decade horror continued to remake its own catalogue, both domestic and abroad. Foreign films were being remade within a year of their release date, almost belittling audiences by assuming that foreign films would not do well with them. The found-footage sub-genre has become the leading storytelling device since the success of Paranormal Activity and has adapted this narrative style across various stories. Ghost stories and haunted houses are also making their way back in to the mainstream, cementing the idea that the old stories are the best.


The future of horror

Horror seems to have reached a comfortable plateau for now, with a steady stream of remakes, found-footage films, ghost stories, possession and postmodern slashers filling the multiplexes for at least the next year to come. But where next for the genre? Stylistically speaking, there’s not much more the genre can do in terms of what it can and can’t show on screen. Audiences have pretty much become desensitised to the violence we see on screen, with perhaps only a couple of films that have pushed the boundaries of taste even further but have only been met with disdain (The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence is a vile film). It is in the narrative and the storytelling devices that filmmakers will ensure the longevity of this marmite genre. Recently, films such as V/H/S and ABC’s of Death as well as TV series like Masters of Horror have proven that the anthology format is the way to go. Short, visual, innovative and unique are the common traits of the entries that make up an anthology film. Who knows where it is headed but one thing is for certain: we are only five or so years away before we start remaking or ‘reimagining’ the films that dominated the late 90’s and early 2000s.

ABC's of Death

TOMORROW: The Found Footage Sub-Genre


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