Horror movies have been a staple of film since the dawn of the medium. Scary movies have graced the silver screen for more than a hundred years. Whether you’re looking for a psychological thriller or a gore-filled slasher, you won’t need to look too hard to find something to satisfy your scary movie itch. There is a large history of horror movies, essentially meaning you can find a movie you’ll love. Even if it was made nearly 100 years ago.
Every October, we like to watch as many scary movies as we can fit into the month. The days leading up to Halloween are filled with frights on the big screen or your TV at home. Classics like The Blob or Psycho make their way back into rotation. New films like Barbarian and Nope breathe life into a timeless genre.
As we celebrate one of our favorite movie genres, it’s fun to reflect on the origin or the history of horror movies. In some ways, the path from early films to the genre as it is today seems clear. Still, how did this genre come about in the first place? After all, in real life horror is, well, horrific.
Why, then, are we drawn to horror films and stories? Let’s dive into the history of horror from early novels to present-day films.
Origin Of The “Horror Story”
The history of horror goes back centuries, but what was the first horror story? It’s impossible to say for sure. Most likely, horror stories go all the way back to folk tales.
There is a deep history of horror among all cultures from around the world. These often feature monsters such as witches and ghosts. They also may tell stories of psychological fear. Some would argue that even religious texts such as the Bible feature elements of horror narratives!
Although texts before the 18th century feature horror elements (such as Beowulf or Dante’s Inferno, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth), the genre started to become its own thing around the mid-1700s.
Before this time, moralistic stories and fables used horror to preach a message. In the 1700s, writers started to explore the horror genre for pure enjoyment. Horace Walpole’s 1765 story, Castle of Otranto, is often called the original horror novel.
In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which is arguably one of the best examples of a horror novel. The novel was written thanks to a competition between friends to write the best scary story. Shelley competed against poets Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley.
To this day, readers praise Frankenstein as one of the greatest horror stories ever written. It’s also considered the first work of science fiction!
The genre continued to evolve, with writers like Edgar Allen Poe exploring psychological horror in his short stories. H.P. Lovecraft went a different route with his horror: he wrote short stories about the unfathomable and fantastic.
To this day, authors still explore the macabre and grotesque within horror literature. For example, everyone in the world knows the name Stephen King, the modern author of novels like The Shining, Carrie, and It.
Why Do We Love Horror Stories?
Before we go too much further into this history of horror, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why do readers and viewers enjoy horror movies and stories so much?
Of course, no one wants anything horrible to happen to us, or anyone, in real life! Why, then, do we enjoy watching and reading about such things?
For an answer, we can turn to psychologists at Concordia St. Paul. These doctors presented several different theories as to why we love horror movies. All of these theories are pretty compelling. One theory is that:
Horror entertainment can trigger the fight-or-flight response, which comes with a boost in adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine. The brain can then process surroundings and conclude that the experience is not a genuine threat.
In other words, horror movies give movie viewers a sort of “high” once we process the danger as hypothetical, not literal.
Another theory is that horror movies turn on the viewer’s fight-or-flight reaction. This triggers the same part of the brain that other types of thrill-seekers yearn for. This sort of adrenaline rush is pleasurable to some viewers, like how skydiving is fun for some people.
In other words, these vicarious near-death experiences make people enjoy being alive.
The First Horror Movie
In 1896, Georges Méliès directed and produced Le Manoir du Diable, the world’s first horror movie. The next year, studios released the film in the United States as The Haunted Castle and in England as The Devil’s Castle. However, the original French title of the film translates to The House of the Devil, and most references to the film today refer to it as such.
In this film, the Devil, either some random demon or Satan himself, terrorizes two gentlemen wandering around a castle. He turns himself into a bat, summons skeletons and witches, and even appears to make a woman from a cauldron. The Devil forces one of them to fling himself from a balcony, presumably to his death.
The film ends when the other man finds a cross in the castle and puts a stop to the Devil’s terror by brandishing the crucifix at him.
While the film isn’t particularly “scary,” it is still a horror movie. The film presents the audience with the elements of terror and has no purpose other than to explore these elements. To this day, these films are critical to the history of horror because they set the groundwork for what was coming after.
Is It Worth Watching?
Since the film is free on YouTube and only about three minutes long, we recommend giving this film a watch sometime. Although, if you have no interest in the history of cinema or horror films at all, don’t bother. In that case, though, why are you reading this article? Turn back!
Of course, while this is a horror movie, we’ve gotta admit this film is anything but scary. The Devil’s antics are slapstick at best. Really, Wes Anderson’s flicks are scarier than this one!
The only reason to watch this film is for the little movie history lesson it gives viewers. We think that’s worth anyone’s time for that reason alone. Just make sure you’re not going into this expecting a masterpiece from the past, or a horror classic that will keep you up at night.
Horror Movies At The Turn Of The Century
Méliès low-budget horror film sparked the inspiration for other filmmakers in Hollywood. This would set up some of the biggest movies in the history of horror. More and more scary short films began finding their way onto the big screen. Unlike Méliès however, most of these films were not original tales. Instead, they were adaptations of novels and short stories.
In 1910, J. Searle Dawley wrote and directed Frankenstein. Thomas Edison produced the film. Yes, that Thomas Edison. It turns out that, alongside inventing lightbulbs, Edison made films and even had his own production studio!
The 12-minute adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is one of these productions. You can see for yourself here, thanks to the Library of Congress.
Dawley was right to describe his film as “a liberal adaptation” of the novel. He even uses this description at the start of the movie. While clearly inspired by the novel, the film is not a faithful representation of Shelley’s classic horror story.
In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates the Monster using body parts from corpses. He sews them together in a lab. However, in the movie Frankenstein puts some components in a cauldron that then creates the “Creature.” As a result, the story loses its science-fiction nature. Instead, it gains fantasy undertones.
Additionally, and arguably most offensively, the Creature in the flick is just plain evil. Once it’s created, it immediately begins terrorizing Frankenstein.
One of the defining themes of Shelley’s novel is that the Creature is not evil at all but merely perceived as such. The Creature in the novel shows remorse for its actions and sensitivity to life and beauty. However, the version in the film doesn’t show any sort of empathy or humanity.
Other Notable Early Horror Movies
Between 1900 and 1920, filmmakers continued to adapt famous horror novels and short stories for the big screen. In 1912, Thanhouser Company adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s science-fiction and horror novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
This 12-minute film, simply titled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is another example of a… liberal adaptation. The antics of Mr. Hyde are cartoonishly mischievous instead of evil like in the book. However, some of the practical effects are impressive for its time.
Other notable early horror movies include Faust and Marguerite from 1900. This is another film made by Edison’s film company. This 60-second film is inspired by Charles Gounod’s play Faust. There’s also 1913’s The Student of Prague is loosely based on a few different works, including Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson, Alfred de Musset’s The December Night, and Gounod’s Faust.
One of the few feature-length films in the genre was 1911’s L’Inferno, an Italian film based on The Inferno by Dante.
In the early days of film, many features in all genres were also adaptations from books and short stories. Perhaps this was because the medium and genre were both so new. However, around 1920, horror started to become a tour de force. This is when the history of horror began to really get interesting for many horror buffs.
The Golden Age Of Horror Movies
Most people refer to the 1910s through the 1960s as the Golden Age of movies. To this day, horror movies from this era are some of the most iconic films ever. This is also when filmmakers started to make more original and feature-length scripts for the genre.
One of the first horror films of this era was F.M. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu. Although this film is based on Bram Stocker’s classic novel Dracula, the film stands on its own as a fairly original piece. Plus, it’s arguably the greatest vampire movie ever made.
Nosferatu reimagines what movie monsters should look like. In fact, Nosferatu’s iconic silhouette is recognizable to almost anyone. The film even continues to inspire the genre to this day. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth formed several of its character designs on it!
Filmmaker Robert Eggers is currently working on a remake of this iconic film. The reboot will star Bill Skarsgard and Lily-Rose Depp.
In 1931, director James Whale gave the world perhaps the most recognizable version of Shelley’s Frankenstein. This film still takes many liberties with the plot. Regardless, this adaptation sticks to the themes of the novel. The Creature is a more sympathetic character.
It examines “nature vs. nurture” and the question of whether people are born evil. Lastly, this adaptation created the Creature’s signature bolts-in-neck look!
Other iconic monsters from this era are the Phantom from 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy, King Kong, the Invisible Man, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Thing, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Golden Era of Cinema was also the Golden Era of supernatural monsters coming to life!
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
In 1960, the end of The Golden Era, Alfred Hitchcock created Psycho. This picture undeniably changed horror movies forever. It is truly one of the most important movies in the history of horror. To this day, Psycho is one of the most iconic and important films ever made.
Even people who haven’t seen the feature recognize the shower scene and music from the feature.
Alfred Hitchcock had a fairly impressive portfolio even before Psycho. He started making films way back in the 1920s. Many people recognize his other films The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and Vertigo. Hitchcock was already a household name at this point.
Still, Psycho is his most notable work for many reasons. In a way, he reinvented horror movies. How?
Up until this point, the genre mainly focused on the supernatural. The villains were witches, zombies, and demons. Psycho is about, well, “a psycho.” The villain is the owner of some hotel in the middle of nowhere.
A key part of Psycho’s horror is exactly that it is no longer from the supernatural. Instead, it’s from the everyday. Who knows if the next person you see will also be your killer?
Slasher Films & Movie Violence
Hitchcock’s Psycho also created a new subgenre in horror movies: the “slasher” picture.
These films follow a typical plot structure. First, a person or group of people is stalked by the villain. This antagonist is usually not supernatural, but this isn’t always the case. Second, members of this group, or the characters surrounding the protagonist, start getting picked off one by one. Eventually, only one remains.
These movies usually end with a standoff: the last hero standing, often the “final girl”, against the villain. Sometimes our girl succeeds. Other times, not so much.
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a low-budget 1974 flick, is lauded as a masterpiece by fans. It’s also ridiculed as murder porn to those who don’t like the genre. However, no one can deny the influence this film has on the industry. There’s a certain poetry in the violence in it, and it’s easy to miss given the sheer terror viewers get from it.
While Psycho is the original slasher film, the genre found its stride with John Carpenter’s Halloween. John Carpenter’s popularity skyrocketed with this cult classic.
The film follows a babysitter working on Halloween night, who is suddenly stalked and terrorized by escaped lunatic Michael Myers. The original Halloween starred a young Jamie Lee Curtis, who continues to make appearances in the franchise to this day.
Upon its release, Halloween became the most successful indie movie of all time. It inspired several different horror movies, including Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th and Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. Both of these went on to inspire even more moviemakers!
Gorecore & Horror Movies
“Gorecore” is a fairly straightforward concept. This movie genre covers everything that shows more gore than a typical slasher film. To some, this is a dark era in the history of horror. For others, it only enhanced the genre.
Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street is arguably the lightest form of “gorecore.” If you find that too disturbing, you might wanna skip this section. Gore in movies become more mainstream in the 1980s. With advancing filmmaking technology, pictures are becoming even more bloody.
These movies take their inspiration from features like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Cannibal Holocaust, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Dead Alive are some of the most recognizable works of this subgenre. Although many people avoid these films, most know James Wan’s Saw series.
Other notable movies are the Hostel series, Audition, and Cube.
These films aren’t necessarily the most artful or complex movies. Still, they rake in tens of millions at the box office, so clearly, there’s an audience for them.
Anthology Horror Movies
Anthology horror movies make up an interesting and niche subsection of film. These movies are made up of several different stories. Think of it like picking up a short-story collection instead of a novel. Sometimes these stories are connected.
Often they are not. Sometimes the movie has a narrator who guides us from one scene to the next. Sometimes, they don’t.
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors from 1965 is one of the first examples of this movie type. Creepshow from 1982 is another early example. Tales from the Crypt, although television, is likely one of the most recognizable series in the subgenre. The subgenre gained even more attention from filmmakers in the early 2000s.
Cult classics like Trick ‘r Treat (2007), VHS (2012), and The ABCs of Death (2012) are all examples of this.
From a filmmaker’s standpoint, there’s an appeal to making these films. A single movie with a few different stories opens up a lot of possibilities. Several different directors and actors can be involved in the project. VHS and The ABCs of Death have multiple directors.
Plus, anthology films are a good way to experiment with the camera and narrative styles. For example, using a phone’s camera to shoot a scene can work well in this kind of movie.
However, with these shorter scenes, writers can’t make characters too complex. However, this film style calls back to the short stories of writers like Poe and Lovecraft. There’s a certain charm and dread that comes along with these shorter narrative styles that fans enjoy.
Found Footage Horror Movies
Right before the new millennium in 1999, The Blair Witch Project hit theaters. The movie presented itself as investigative journalism that has gone horribly wrong.
At the time of its release, some moviegoers weren’t entirely convinced that the film was a work of fiction. Other viewers complained that the movie lacked action and the horror they expect from scary movies. Nowadays, the film is celebrated as the first example of found footage horror.
When referring to “found footage film,” most people mean any movies filmed using a handheld camera. While this typically makes for a lower-quality film, it heightens the sense of terror in the movie itself. It makes the entire story feel like a point-of-view experience. In other words, the viewer feels like they are part of the action.
It was new, inventive, and only possible to do in an updated time period like the late 1990s. This made movies like it critical to the history of horror. Yet when something is undeniably good, people try to copy it too. These days, the market is saturated with found footage films.
Most people recognize the apocalyptic 2008 movie Cloverfield, or the haunted house modern classic from 2007 Paranormal Activity.
Many amateur filmmakers make found footage films. After all, you don’t need a big budget when you have a camera on your phone. Found footage movies are a way to get your foot in the door of filmmaking on a shoestring budget!
Horror Movies & The Academy
When awards season rolls around, the Academy tends to leave these films out. To be fair, horror movies don’t tend to highlight the greatest acting or scripts. They don’t usually have the highest budget or the most seasoned staff. In fact, some rely simply on an attractive cast, especially women, to tell an okay story that happens to be scary.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Way back in 1931, Fredric March won an Academy Award for Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll. In 1968, Ruth Gordon won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in Rosemary’s Baby (which also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay).
In technical categories, horror movies have had more success. Movies like Alien from 1979 won for Best Visual Effects, The Fly from 1986 won for Best Makeup, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 won for Best Costumes.
Best Picture Horror Nominees…And Winner
Only a few horror movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture, though.
Highly controversial (at the time) The Exorcist received the nomination back in 1973. It lost to The Sting. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws received the nomination in 1975 but ended up losing to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense received this and five other nominations.
It lost to American Beauty. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was nominated but lost to The King’s Speech. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out lost Best Picture to The Shape of Water.
Only one horror movie has ever won Best Picture: The Silence of the Lambs won in 1992. It also won four more awards that night: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Anthony Hopkins), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster).
To this day, the film is celebrated not only as one of the best horror movies ever but as one of the best films of all time. It’s even been preserved in The Criterion Collection for its importance in film history. The history of horror is not filled with a ton of award-winning movies.
Yet when horror does cross over into the mainstream like this, you know the movie was freakin awesome!
The State Of Horror Movies Today
While you can’t beat the works of Wes Craven and John Carpenter’s classics, filmmakers these days are creating some of the finest films in the genre. We’re living through what some people are referring to as the Horror Movie Renaissance.
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when this renaissance began. However, we would say that Jordan Peele’s unexpected gem Get Out is a good place to start. As previously mentioned, the film received several Academy Award nominations. It even won Best Original Screenplay.
Peele went on to make several other instant classics, including Us, Antebellum, and most recently Nope. Peele’s work is credited as a resurgence of Black Horror, a subgenre that tackles the horrors of racism and bigotry through a horror lens.
Ari Aster also deserves credit for this new wave of horror movies. His feature film debut Hereditary was an instant hit with audiences. The film’s subtle storytelling paralleled with shocking violence makes for a chilling experience. It also features masterful acting from Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Gabriel Byrne.
Aster’s second film Midsommer is another excellent movie. Midsommer turns some horror tropes on their heads for a truly unsettling experience.
In addition, Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch is an excellent example of folk horror. It blends early American folktales with modern ideas. His follow-up film The Lighthouse is another shining great film. It even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
At the time of writing, moviegoers are raving about films like X, Pearl, and Barbarian in theaters. It remains to be seen whether or not these films stand the test of time. Either way, filmmakers are still making new and exciting films in the genre.
We’re excited to see what new horror comes next!