A look into horror filmography
February 25, 2023
The horror genre has existed in some form for thousands of years and has been used to reflect society’s changing fears throughout history. Many creatures and stories from as far back as Ancient Greek and Roman times still exist today as prominent members of the horror catalog. However, modern horror mainly originated during the 18th and 19th centuries through the establishment of Gothic literature.
Gothic literature invented a darker, moodier take on the genre. The genre established common plot points of murders, kidnappings, and imprisonments and dark settings like graveyards, castles, and churches that remain staples of horror. As the medium of film exploded in popularity in the late 1800s, popular stories and ideas from the Gothic era quickly appeared in many works, and horror filmography made its debut.
Though the horror film genre has changed drastically over the decades, interesting cycles have presented themselves throughout its lifetime. Read and enjoy as you learn about history and details from the world of horror filmography.
The history of horror films: Early films
Early film cameras were first produced in the late 1880s by inventors such as Louis Le Prince and Thomas Edison. Though early projection technology was extremely limited, advancements made over the next decade eventually made films more accessible and available to the general public. The revolutionary discoveries attracted the attention of thousands of interested people. Theaters and studios found they did not even need to create feature stories, as audiences would flock to see simple images move on the screen. Once this thrill wore off, however, filmmakers realized they would need to do more to attract viewers bored of watching repetitive gags.
Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), a three-minute short released in 1896, is widely regarded as the first-ever horror film. Other subsequent horror films were typically adaptations of popular literary horror works, many of which were adapted multiple times.
Le Manoir du Diable
The early twentieth century saw an increase in the quality of production and special effects of films. These improvements allowed horror filmmakers to create more effective scares and suspense with their audiences. Additionally, the modernity of feature films resulted in a scattered and chaotic film system with censorship mostly done on the local level. Because of this system, many films in the early 1900s could get away with portraying scenes of violence and taboo material. The horror genre, obviously reliant on darker themes and material, was allowed to flourish during this period. However, lack of dialogue held horror films—and films at large—back from their true potential.
When accompanying dialogue finally did become possible, dozens of classic horror films hit the silver screen. Studios released Freaks, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the first few years of the 1930s, starting what many refer to as the first golden age of horror.
Sadly, a newly introduced censorship code cut horror’s rising success short.
Many religious, conservative Americans grew to detest the risque and violent subject matter that became popular during the Great Depression. As a result, the Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, was established as a set of self-imposed guidelines for the major studios. Because theaters from that period were owned by major studios, audiences had no easy way to watch films with a darker subject matter.
Although all movie genres were impacted by the Hays Code, horror and crime films were especially hurt by the code’s stipulations. The period from 1934 to 1950 saw little innovation in the field of horror, and film studios instead sought to create sequels of the popular monster flicks made during the golden age.
Even into the 1950s, the horror genre remained very inoffensive and stale. The genre became dominated by science fiction influences, as interest in space skyrocketed due to innovations in space technology. The sci-fi genre and monster movie subgenre merged to create dozens of repetitive cheesy flicks that have aged terribly. Thankfully, boundary pusher Alfred Hitchcock took strides to revitalize the horror genre.
Hitchcock’s films, specifically his 1960 classic Psycho, pushed the envelope and contained more layered, nuanced plots than the traditional sci-fi horror of the 50s. Critics regard the 1960s as an era of much-needed experimentation. The subgenres of zombie apocalypse horror, slasher horror, and psychological horror all originated or owe their popularity to the 60s.
The Hays Code
This period of critical and commercial success continued into the 1970s, especially with the removal of the Hays Code in 1967. The code was replaced with the Motion Picture Association rating system, a far less oppressive system that gave more mature films the ability to reach actual success. The process of filmmaking was also becoming increasingly accessible for independent creators, so more films saw production without the threat of studio censorship or cancellation. A diversification of horror and darker, more graphic films were finally able to reach the public eye. With advancements in technology came more realistic and frightening monsters, set designs, and special effects. The horror films of the 1970s, such as Alien, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Carrie, and Dawn of the Dead, continuously rank highly among lists of horror movies.
The horror films of the early 1980s mirrored the quality of the 1970s and continued to capitalize on the rapidly advancing technology of the age. Directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg were able to create grotesquely deformed monsters in their films by combining practical and special effects. The early 1980s also saw the establishment of iconic horror franchises such as the Friday the 13th series, the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, and The Evil Dead series. Though the first installments of these franchises often received critical and commercial praise, the sequels typically saw heavy drops in quality.
While the previous era saw unique experimentation and storytelling techniques, the horror genre returned to tired, unoriginal films during the late 80s and early 90s. Apart from a few horror masterpieces (i.e. The Silence of the Lambs, Misery), studios relied on the successful pre-existing intellectual property rather than original stories. Studios churned out tired properties spurning abominations with ridiculous plots such as Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and Jaws: The Revenge.
In the face of these cheesy sequels and spinoffs, Scream emerged as a smash hit. Ironically directed by Wes Craven, a man who directed many films responsible for horror cliches, Scream’s self-aware nature resonated with teen audiences, and successfully rebirthed the slasher genre. Unfortunately, horror filmmakers looked to copy and capitalize on Scream’s vibe rather than learn the lesson of originality.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, four films marked the genre’s main future subgenres. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense created an obsession with plot-twist horror, Saw created an increased interest in gore horror, The Ring represented Hollywood’s wishes to recreate international horror films, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead revitalized interest in zombie films. While other subgenres achieved popularity, these subgenres marked some of the most important and influential during the 2000s.
Horror as a genre gets harder to track during the 2010s because its effects have not been fully realized and because the genre has expanded so much. However, a few key films and genres are key to note in preparation for the future.
Primarily, paranormal horror found in franchises such as The Conjuring Universe dominated during the 2010s. The Conjuring Universe raked in a combined box office gross of $2.1 billion and ranks as the second-highest-grossing horror franchise of all time. Countless other films and franchises focus on similar supernatural themes and imagery and have also managed to reap enormous box-office profits.
Arthouse horror also emerged and garnered a strong following during the 2010s. Independent film company A24 has been one of the prime distributors of arthouse horror. The company has released almost two dozen horror films, most notably The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Hereditary, The Witch, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Finally, international horror and psychological thriller films, such as Train to Busan and Parasite, have been able to reach widespread global success. Their success may mark a possibility for increased appreciation of international horror in the United States.
Though the genre of horror has always been filled with highs and lows, the medium has been able to change through the decades to represent the things that truly haunt the minds of individuals every day.
Most influential horror films of all time
How to craft an effective jump scare
A jump scare is an iconic technique used in visual horror mediums in an attempt to scare a viewer through an abrupt change in image and/or sound. Even though jump scares have been a staple of horror films for almost 80 years (it was first used in the 1942 film Cat People), an oversaturation of jump scares in many modern horror films has led many critics to label jump scares as a lazy way of frightening an audience. While there are many superior ways of scaring an audience, jump scares–when executed correctly and used in moderation–are effective ways of achieving a scare.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, subtly letting the audience know that a jump scare is coming serves as the first step toward creating a successful jump scare. Famous horror director Alfred Hitchcock best supported this idea when he used an example of a ticking time bomb to explain his views.
Hitchcock asked us to imagine two scenarios involving a bomb beneath a table: one where the audience is aware of the bomb’s existence, and one where the audience is unaware. Hitchcock went on to explain that in the first example, the audience witnesses an explosion and is taken aback and startled for only a moment. When an audience is informed of the bomb’s existence, the tension and importance of the scene are more apparent. After having informed an audience, a filmmaker has the ability to create tension for a much longer period of time. The audience will be aware of the bomb’s existence, but they have no idea when it will detonate. Soon the audience will become extremely invested in every conversation, shot, and sound in the scene, which may have seemed inconsequential to audiences in the first example. When the bomb finally does detonate in this example, the audience will have been kept on the edge of their seats for a much longer amount of time, and the filmmakers will have done a successful job of keeping the audience invested.
Effective jump scares function in a very similar fashion to the second example. A director should inform the audience of the upcoming threat through music or audio cues, framing/camera techniques, and other forms of hints. From then on, the audience will be worried and frightened for the character’s safety until the emotional release of the scene.
Horror filmmakers should also remember that an audience will only feel frightened when they are
genuinely scared for the well-being of a character. Setting a jumpscare in a crowded area in broad daylight will typically fail to scare an audience because that location is viewed as generally safe in our world. Additionally, filmmakers should be sure to create characters that are relatable and reasonable. When an audience feels for and cares about a character, they are more likely to be fearful for that character’s safety. Creating unintelligent characters that make irresponsible decisions will often make the audience lose much of their regard for a character’s safety. By creating likable, rational characters, an audience is much more likely to feel more anxious and frightened when they think a jump scare may be approaching.
If a horror filmmaker is able to follow these simple rules, jump scares are extremely viable ways to make an audience feel frightened and scared throughout the film. However, said filmmakers should always remember to diversify the ways they achieve their scares.