February 25, 2023
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.