The Horror Genre- An Overview
THE HORROR STORY IN LITERATURE arose from Gothic tradition in
literature dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries: tales of terror
and often repressed sexuality in historical setting of dark,
Described at the time as Romantic literature, Mary Shellys
Frankenstein and Bram Stokers Dracula are the most enduring, but
the Werewolf and the Mummy can also be traced back to novels from
Film versions of these stories have been remade many times from
Universal in 1930s, to Hammer in 1950s and 60s to recent versions
by Coppola and Kenneth Branagh and Stephen Sommers Van Helsing.
The American Gothic tradition derives from the work of Edgar
Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Roger Corman made several films in
the 1960s based on Poes novels.
THE FURTHER INPUT OF TWO EUROPEAN ARTISTIC MOVEMENTS COMBINED TO
CREATE THE CLASSIC HORROR FILM OF THE 1930S:
German expressionism was an artistic movement of the early 20th
Century that was characteristic of much architecture, painting and
theatre in Germany during this period. German theatre in particular
featured low key shafts of light, sets that were off-kilter, often
without right angles or with exaggerated perspectives, black and
white make up.
The idea of expressionism was to express emotions rather than
external reality by projecting a characters state of mind onto his
environment. German expressionism is recognisable by its use of
symbolism and by its use of exaggeration and distortion.
In the 1930s films by Universal Studios, expressionism is
evident in the use of shadows and low tilted camera angles and
camera movements, and high-ceiling sets. German and Austrian
emigres working for Universal brought movement over with them to
the United States.
Key names from this movement in horror are Karl Freund and James
Whale. Freund was a German cameraman and later director who had
worked with Murnau (amongst others) before moving to the States for
a contract with Universal. James Whale was a British stage director
who likewise went over to the States
SurrealismThe art movement concerned with representing the
unconscious and dreams. Surrealism drew on psychologist Sigmund
Freuds ideas on sexuality and The Uncanny. This is represented in
the horror film by the flow of disturbing imagery and the presence
of a monster which externalises our personal and group fears.
CLASSIC THEMES OR NARRATIVE CONVENTIONSIn his book Dark Dreams,
Charles Derry charted the emergence of three distinct sub-genres in
the decades following Psycho (1960), but has traced their
historical predecessors in the classic horror movie and other
Hauntings and Demonic Possessions These films play on our fear
of the unknown, superstition and the idea that evil forces exist in
the world. These forces can remain spiritual presences (Dont Look
Now) or can take the guise of witches (Blair Witch Project), ghosts
(The Haunting) or demons (The Exorcist).
The characters fall prey to an evil force that is trying to
victimise them in some way. The evil entity is doing this perhaps
to gain vengeance eg in Blair Witch the witch is taking vengeance
on the characters for trying to expose her.
In Nightmare on Elm Street Freddie is taking revenge on the
people who killed him by haunting the dreams of their children and
stalking them in their dreams. In many haunted house stories the
ghost simply resents the presence of the people who have just moved
Sometimes the evil force wants to corrupt its victims - to make
them do evil. Eg The Shining.
In this case the evil force wants to take control of its victim
- take over his body or his mind or soul. Vampires and werewolves
turn you into one of their own kind.
Often at the heart of these stories is the fight between good
and evil in the Christian sense- temptation and sin. So there is
usually a counterpart to the evil force - a symbol of good. Eg
Draculas counterpart is Van Helsing. In the Exorcist, the Catholic
priests fight the Devil for the soul of the girl
Witches, vampires and demons have their roots in folklore.
Before modern medicine many disorders, blood diseases and
psychological illnesses were attributed to supernatural causes: eg,
epilepsy was thought to be caused by possession by demons. So these
mythologies are in our collective unconscious and are bought to the
surface by horror films.
Apocalypse In this subgenre mankind is threatened with
extinction by inhuman creatures that rise up and take over the
world. Sometimes the threat comes from outer space (Day of The
Triffids, War of The Worlds). Sometimes the threat is a plague or
virus that threatens to wipe out mankind. (Dawn of the Dead, The
Crazies). David Cronenbergs film Rabid depicts an outbreak of
rabies in Montreal. The film was very successful in Britain where
rabies was, at that time (1977), a national phobia.
Sometimes the threat comes from the everyday traditionally
harmless creatures with whom we share the planet. All at once these
creatures decide to gather together against us and take over the
world. The most famous film of this type is Hitchcocks The
In the seventies there was a whole spawn of films featuring all
types of creatures: rats (Willard), bees, worms (Squirm), ants
(Phase 4) even giant rabbits (Night of the Lepus).
The films have a set structure: theres a sudden proliferation of
these creatures as if from nowhere and they descend upon a group of
survivors who have barricaded themselves in a house. Usually the
story ends with the people dying and the creatures winning out.
A characteristic of these films is that there is often no
explicit reason for the creatures suddenly rising up against us.
But there is a subtext there to do with fears of ecological
unbalance, or a sense of revolution with the new order usurping the
The Human Monster Generally dates from Psycho (1960). Deals with
horror of the personality: psychopathology and murder (the serial
killer) or psychosis and insanity. So the audience is taken inside
the mind of a killer (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) or of a
person who appears to be going insane (Repulsion, Jacobs
The monster in the human (eg, Jekyll and Hyde) deals with
mankind s propensity for evil. Often children are the subject (The
Bad Seed, Apt Pupil). The idea that some people are born bad, with
no sense of morality.
The human in the monster (eg Frankensteins monster) deals with
the sympathetic monster. We can feel some kind of understanding for
these monsters because of their loneliness. They did not want to be
created and are vilified by normal society.
ICONOGRAPHY OF THE HORROR FILM Symbolic images which recur
throughout the history of the horror film include:The haunted house
(forbidden chamber)Symbols of deathThe disfigured face or maskThe
screaming victim (in modern horror the final girl)The phallic
murder weapon: knife, stake, chainsaw.Binary oppositions of good
and evil eg Dracula/Van Helsing.Darkened places where the monster
lurks: woods, cellars.Blood and body parts (body horror)
In the documentary, Universal Horror (Kevin Brownlow, 1999),
links are made between the iconography of 1930s horror films and
images from World War 1 such as disfigured troops suffering
horrific war wounds.
Similarly in the documentary, American Nightmare (Adam Simon,
2000), links are made between the iconography of 1970s horror films
and media images from that period of American history: Vietnam,
Kent State, public lynchings in the deep South, assassination of
JFK and Martin Luther King etc.
THE HORROR FILM - PHASES OF POPULARITY The American horror film
can be seen to have phases of popularity linked to periods of
socio-political unrest and upheaval. These are major cycles of
American horror films:
Universal Studios Horror Films (1930-48)The significance of
these films is thought to be linked to working class discontent
arising from the Great Depression which led to mass unemployment
and famine (eg Frankenstein, 1930) and to the horrors of the world
wars. The source of Horror is seen as arising from Europe.
The Cold War Sci-Fi Horror Film (1950s)Linked to cold war
paranoia (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1957), the development of
the H bomb and the national obsession with UFOs. Narrative
conventions from the science fiction genre merged with those from
the horror genre: the monster was commie.
The Modern American Horror Film (1968-79)Linked to American
Civil Rights unrest; Vietnam; the assassination of Kennedy and
Martin Luther King. (Eg Night Of The Living Dead, Last House on The
Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). These films reflect Americas
disillusionment following the Vietnam war.
The Slasher Movie (1978-82)Seen as a backlash against feminism
as women became the main victims of violent and graphic murder;
perhaps horrors lowest ebb. On-screen gore increasingly became the
main ingredient. (eg Halloween, Friday The Thirteenth)
The Postmodern Horror Film (1983 onwards)Starting with The Evil
Dead, horror films became increasingly self-referential leading to
Scream. Then remakes (The Haunting, Psycho, The House on Haunted
THE HORROR GENRE THROUGH TIME
As with any genre, the horror film has changed over time.
Several factors have contributed to the changing face of horror.
Changes in Industry Practices.The 1930s films were
studio-produced. Universal was, at the time, one of five top
Hollywood Studios with its own sound-stages and production
personnel. Although modestly budgeted, the 1930s horror films were
fairly lavish productions filmed in the studio with, for their
time, elaborate sets and special effects.
The horror films of the 1970s, by comparison, were produced
independently , often outside of Hollywood (such as Night Of The
Living Dead - shot in Pittsburgh) for very low budgets, shot on
location with unknown actors.
The input of influential filmmakers
Whereas the directors of the 1930s were mostly inspired by
expressionism, from the 1960s onwards directors adopted the
stylistic conventions of realism: hand-held camera work,
naturalistic lighting, location shooting, direct location sound,
the use of 16mm film stock This was partly due to low budgets. The
main directors - George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, were
independent filmmakers working outside of Hollywood, and had
backgrounds in documentaries.
Changes in Audiences Expectations
Extensive news coverage of the Vietnam war had brought graphic
images into the American home in the 60s, redefining the nature of
screen horror. Realist movements in cinema (such as the French New
Wave) in second half of the 20th Century also affected the
presentation of content.
In the 30s and 40s: shadows and suggestion whereas:-
60s: Vietnam - for the first time the American People saw
graphic war footage on the daily news. From that point onwards
cinema become increasingly graphic in its depiction of horror
THE CLASSIC HORROR FILMProduction ContextStars (Lugosi, Karloff,
Chaney,)Studio Produced (Universal, RKO)Medium budgetsGenre
Narrative Conventions & Formal SignifiersForeign MonsterMonster
is a supernatural beingEquilibrium is restored - good
triumphsSociety ie. religion, science, family is good.The horror is
suggested off-screenExpressionist lighting style, hard
shadowsClassical Mise-en-scene & continuity editing.
The Modern American Horror Film (1968 - 1979)Production
ContextIndependent ProductionsUnknown ActorsFilmed on locationLow
budgetsGenre conventions and formal signifiersIndigenous
monsterMonster is psychopath/cannibalThe horror never ends -
nihilism pervadesSociety is to blame. The family is seen as an
instrument of repression.Graphic on-screen horror Documentary
realism, flat lighting, location sound.Post French New Wave
camerawork and editing.
Why do audiences enjoy being scared to death by horror films so
Carlos Clarens believes that the horror film renders on film the
immanent fears of mankind: damnation, demonic possession, old age,
Ernest Larson believes that horror films that incorporate the
apocalypse theme advance the notion that modern technology is so
overwhelming that it tends to obliterate any possibility of its
liberatory use...science has, in the hand-maiden of capitalism,
created an uncontrollable monster.
Charles Derry believes that films inaugurated by Psycho
represent a response to the escalation of violence in American
Walter Evans attributes the popularity of horror amongst young
audiences to the most universal and horrible of personal trials:
the sexual traumas of adolescence.
Robin Wood argues the monster represents all the things we
repress in order to function as monogamous, heterosexual, bourgeois
patriarchal capitalists, namely sexuality (in its fullest sense)
and creativity. The tensions caused by such repression and the
threatened return of the repressed are siphoned off through the
projection onto the Other (the monster) of what is repressed within
the Self, in order that it can be discredited, disowned and if
SELECTED FILMS (in chronological order):-
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Ger. 1919, Dir. Robert
Weine)Nosferatu, ein Symphony des Grauns (Ger. 1922, Dir. F.W
Murnau)Dracula (USA. 1931, Tod Browning)Vampyr (Den. 1932, Carl
Dreyer)Frankenstein (USA. 1932, James Whale)Cat People (USA. 1942,
Jacques Tourneur)The Thing (USA. 1952, Christian Nyby)Curse of
Frankenstein (UK. 1957, Terence Fisher)Black Sunday (It. 1959,
Mario Bava)Psycho (USA. 1960, Alfred Hitchcock)The Birds (USA.
1963, Alfred Hitchcock)Masque Of The Red Death (UK. 1964, Roger
Corman)Repulsion (UK. 1965, Roman Polanski)
SELECTED FILMS (in chronological order):-
Witchfinder General (UK. 1968, Michael Reeves)Night Of The
Living Dead (USA. 1968, George A. Romero)The Exorcist (USA. 1973,
William Friedkin)The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (USA. 1974, Tobe
Hooper)Shivers (Can. 1975. David Cronenberg)Carrie (USA. 1976,
Brian De Palma)Eraserhead (USA. 1976, David Lynch)Suspiria (It.
1977, Dario Argento)Halloween (USA. 1978, John Carpenter)Alien
(USA/UK. 1979, Ridley Scott)The Shining (USA. 1980, Stanley
Kubrick)A Nightmare on Elm Street (USA. 1984, Wes Craven)Hellraiser
(UK. 1987, Clive Barker)The Silence of The Lambs (USA. 1990,
Jonathan Demme)Scream (USA. 1996, Wes Craven)The Blair Witch
Project (USA. 1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez)Jeepers
Creepers (USA. 2001, Victor Salva)