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The History of Horror

Breaking Down Genre

By Alexandrea CallaghanPublished 10 months ago 9 min read

One of my favorite things about studying film is studying genre, tropes and patterns. I feel like it makes me a better screenwriter and a better critic. Studying these things helps us understand structure, pacing, expectations and how to subvert them. We are going to start with a genre that I’ve been fascinated with since I was a relatively young child, Horror. My obsession with horror movies began when I was 9 years old and I sat on the couch to watch a movie with my father, he assured and reassured me that the movie was rated PG13, the movie was The Ferryman and I spent the next few hours watching him play video games because I was terrified to walk down the 5 foot dark hallway by myself. But that experience set off a scary movie kick that lasted a few years and followed me into adulthood. So what I would like to do is lay out the history of the horror genre and study how it has evolved, some of its most iconic installments and its best and worst additions.

As with any genre there are several subgenres. Some resources will say there are 10 subgenres, some will say 30, I will only be listing the ones I think are relevant enough to warrant their own subgenre.

Phycological: The terror of this genre focuses more on the characters state of mind than anything else. It focuses on Mental Illness, or loss of stability due to circumstance.

Noteable movies in this subgenre are The Shining and The Purge. I find these the most creepy because they are the most tied to reality. And I find anything terrifying that could really happen a lot more terrifying.

Killer or Slasher Films: This subgenre thrives off of gore. Lots of murder, lots of blood and where a lot of horror tropes come from.

Think Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw. This is where we get tropes like teenagers that have sex in the woods, die in the woods. The running away from the killer and tripping over something. Slasher films are arguably a huge core of the genre.

Monster Films: Also a very popular subgenre monster films are arguably what built Universal Studios. Almost always based off of Folklore or written fiction monster movies are the core of the horror genre.

Dracula, Mummy, Frankenstien, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Jaws, Godzilla, Gremlins are another huge genre staple. In fact this genre is really how Universal studios made their name. On monster movies. They are classic, they are what the entire genre was really built on and honestly they are few and far between nowadays.

Paranormal: Hauntings, Ghosts and Spirits. Paranormal horror movies focus more on the afterlife or beings that can’t move on. Occasionally supernatural power also plays a part. Characters are imbued with some sort of ability that causes them to take out a bunch of people.

Poltergeist, Beetlejuice, Amityville Horror, Carrie. This brand of horror plays on belief systems. If you don’t believe in ghosts they really aren’t that scary, if you do they can be terrifying. Some are done really well but this particular subgenre can get worse then the others if the movie isn’t executed well.

Folk Horror: This subgenre is more rooted in community and how we relate to each other and the earth. It's more primitive and far more frightening because it's rooted in truth.

Midsommer, Lamb, or Killing of a Sacred Deer (super side tangent but I hate that movie). I think this genre is also really close to the psychological one, a lot of times the plot is more of a mind fuck than anything else.

The Horror genre timeline:

The horror genre started in 1896 with a short film called The House of the Devil. It was a French silent film that was recovered by the New Zealand film archive in 1988.

In 1920 Universal Studios started to stake their claim as the horror genre studio with The Phantom Melody.

The next major contribution to the Horror genre was 1922 with Nosferatu. Also considered the first vampire film, launching a genre all its own. It was a very unauthorized Dracula adaptation and later lost a lawsuit when the Stoker estate sued, getting most copies of the film destroyed yet the copies that survived allowed it to become an influential film even today.

The first actual adaptation of Dracula was done in 1931. It was Universal’s second classic horror monster movie. Bela Legosi played the title role and continued to be typecast after the release of the film.

Also in 1931 was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story that has spawned many adaptations and media references throughout the years. This movie won Fredric March an academy award for best actor, arguably the last time the academy acknowledged horror movies as a legitimate genre.

Now there were plenty of horror movies made in the intermediate 30 years but the next one that withstood the test of time was Psycho released in 1960 directed by the king of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.

1968 brought us the first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead. It served as the blueprint for the many, many zombie movies and tv shows to come.

This year also brought us the art house genre of horror films in Rosemary’s Baby.

In 1973 The Exorcist was the first horror film nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. It was actually nominated for 10 Academy Awards as a whole, winning two of them. Now we are going to take a quick break for this short rant. For the last several decades the Academy has not dignified horror as a legitimate genre when they were once highly decorated films. Pearl was one of the greatest movies released last year and both the film as a whole and Mia Goth were completely screwed over. Ana De Armas and Blonde were both nominated in their respective categories despite being a sexist piece of garbage that spits on the legacy and memory of a real life person who literally begged people to not exploit her, played by a woman who wasn’t even talented enough to shake her original accent while playing an iconic movie star while Mia Goth who delivered a passionate, haunting, terrifying and incredible performance in a film that was well written, tightly paced and full of all kinds of emotion were snubbed. What the fuck academy?

Anyway Jaws was released in 1975 making it the most financially successful horror movie at the time.

1978 brought Halloween, cementing the genre of Slasher horror, grossing an insane amount of money and becoming the blueprint of all slasher movies to come after it.

In 1979 Alien became another one of the most successful horror films of all time, it was right around here that another genre was merged with horror, of the sci-fi variety.

The original Friday the 13th was released in 1980, and it became the longest running horror franchise of all time (not necessarily a good thing).

Again plenty of films were released between 1980 and 1991 but the next notable addition was Silence of the Lambs. Also an Academy Award winner for Best Picture. It also won Best Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

In 1996 Scream did an excellent job of condensing horror tropes into a single film successfully satirizing the genre as a whole.

The Blair Witch Project brought a grounded view to the horror genre in 1999 with first person camera work that gives me a headache but making the horror seem all that more real for the audience.

Saw furthers the slasher genre in 2004 starting a new wave or torture horror movies. Though there are not that many groundbreaking horror movies still being made, there are plenty of incredible and innovative stories being told in the horror genre and we are going to talk about those too.

Us and Get Out are revolutionary additions to the horror genre as Jordan Peele very clearly understands the fundamentals of the genre and as such is more than capable of adding his own twists. I would like to argue that Jordan Peele is currently what the general public and M. Night Shyamalan thought he was. A king of twists.

Even newer additions to the genre that remind us of how amazing the genre can be are X and Pearl. I was amazed when I saw Pearl, truly it was an incredible film. Well written, tightly paced, wonderful character study that was tied to another film but you didn’t need to know that.

Horror Tropes and Tricks:

The Jump Scare, music builds to a loud noise or a character appears out of nowhere in order to startle the viewer. This is occasionally subverted in order to build tension and cause unease in the audience.

Mirrors are often used as an aid in these jump scares or used to build tension and anxiety.

Found Footage as used in the Blair Witch Project serves as a documentary-like depiction of supernatural events.

“Let’s split up” are some very famous last words, normally spoken by teenagers shortly before they are killed in the woods.

Creepy ass kids, as used in the Shining small children are often used as ominous omens, the juxtaposition of a small innocent child and a creepy and sometimes violent end to whatever character they are confronting makes them the perfect creepy vessel.

The clumsy escape character is running away from the psycho killer and falls down or is running to their car and they drop their keys. Because we all know imminent death is a great time to fuck up.

The final girl, otherwise known as the birth of scream queens which we’ll get into right now.

Scream Queens:

The term Scream Queens wasn’t really coined until the 1970s when there was a rise of several brilliant women.

Sandra Peabody starred in her first horror film The Last House on the Left in 1972, in the same year she starred in Voices of Desire. And two other horror films in 1973.

Marilyn Burns starred in Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, following that up with Helter Skelter and Eaten Alive.

Olivia Hussey also started in 1974 with Black Christmas.

And the most famous of the scream queens being Jamie Lee Curtis, starring in Halloween, The Fog, Terror Train and my personal favorite Prom Night. A film that was remade actually quite well, was one one of my first horror movie experiences and we will be doing a side by side comparison of.

Heather Langenkamp from Nightmare on Elm Street, Linda Blair and Sheryl Lee have all been deemed Scream Queens.

Personal Journey Through Horror

My personal journey through Horror movies began when I was 9. I walk out into the living room after my bedtime while my father is watching a movie. I sit down next to him and ask him what he’s watching, he lets me sit. I verify 3 times with this grown man that this movie is only PG13 right? He says yes, we watch the movie, he then goes to play video games and I proceed to watch him for 2 hours because I could not walk the very short but very dark hallway by myself. That movie was Ferryman.

The feeling of being terrified was apparently a pleasant one because that experience set off a great bonding experience for my father and I. Around that time the Prom Night remake with Brittany Snow had come out so my father rented it and we just went down a horror rabbit hole. This then kicked off a Stephen King round of films. My first was Children of the Corn, then The Shining.

And then we graduated to one of my favorite horror films of all time, the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

I continue to be a fan of the horror genre though most newer films released are a little lackluster. I actually did a podcast episode on this with a friend who I definitely consider an expert on the genre, on an abandoned podcast that I hope to have time to pick up one day. But feel free to check out the Heart of Film podcast and I’ll pick it up soon.

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About the Creator

Alexandrea Callaghan

Certified nerd, super geek and very proud fangirl.

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran10 months ago

    Oooo, I'm a huge fan of horror and this was so fascinating!

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