Why do we seek out things that scare us? Since the beginning of the film era we have gravitated toward movies with monsters and villains that make our blood run cold and keep us up at night. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush; or maybe it’s to prove to ourselves we are brave enough to handle the terrifying creatures our collective imaginations have cooked up. Whatever the reason, the genre seems to have evolved with us through the decades.
Film makers began producing horror movies when the movie business was still in its infancy. Early horror saw the rise of the golden age of monster movies, such as classic characters like Dracula (1931), a vampire Count who drank the blood of his victims, and the monster that Dr. Frankenstein created (1931), who was the reanimated remains of many men stitched together. The Mummy (1932) is another tale of the dead coming back to torment the living, after archeologists dig up the cursed tomb of an ancient pharaoh. Other popular films from that era included King Kong (1933), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Wolf Man (1941).
The horror films made during the 1950’s reflected the fears of invasion felt by many during that time. The rise of the nuclear age also provided inspiration for many mutant-monsters. A giant lizard type creature storms through downtown Tokyo in the classic Godzilla (1954). Even creatures that wouldn’t normally be scary become terrifying once a mad scientist enters the picture, like in The Fly (1958)
Social revolution during the 1960’s led to the production of more edgy films, often featuring increasingly controversial levels of violence. Legendary horror movies from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock, who gave us Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), were popular with not only then but even now. Zombie movies also came into their own during this time, with the cult classic Night of the Living Dead (1968).
The 1970’s pushed the envelope even further, upping the shock factor, and breaching previously taboo subject matter with films like The Exorcist (1973) about demonic possession. Increasingly sophisticated special effects also made their way into horror films of this period, making movies like Jaws (1975) possible, and with it a whole generation of swimmers who would never look at the ocean quite the same way again.
Slasher movies became very popular in the early 1980’s, with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) sending its serial killer villain Freddy Krueger into the dreams of many terrified viewers. Even toys got into the slasher action; Chucky from Child’s Play (1988) made even dolls something to be afraid of. Despite some hits later in the decade, like Hellraiser (1987) which spawned numerous sequels, 80’s horror movies did less well at the box office than in prior years.
Suspenseful thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) were a big hit during the 1990’s, although not many truly innovative horror flicks were released during this decade. Many of the horror movies released were remakes of past hits. One original however was the very successful Scream (1996), which was a runaway success that spawned not only sequels but a spate of copycats and parodies.
Most recently violence even more graphic than in previous decades has been popular. Better special effects made possible by advances in CGI make torture flicks like Saw (2004), Final Destination (2000), and Hostel (2005) incredibly gory. Another recent trend is movies featuring multiple villains, as in Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Villains from different movies sharing the screen together have become common as filmmakers look to capitalize on well-known characters from past hits.
The question of where the horror genre is heading is almost impossible to answer. Movies have evolved with our culture throughout the years, reflecting whatever scares us most at the time. That trend shows no signs of stopping now. The only limit to how terrifying these stories will be is our imagination. Now that’s a scary thought.