A horror film is a movie that seeks to elicit a physiological reaction, such as an elevated heartbeat, through the use of fear and shocking one’s audiences. Inspired by literature from authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, the horror genre has existed for more than a century. The macabre and the supernatural are frequent themes. Horror may also overlap with the fantasy, supernatural fiction and thriller genres.
Horror films often deal with viewers' nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage into the everyday world. Prevalent elements include ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, satanism, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, zombies, cannibals, psychopaths, natural or man-made disasters, and serial killers.
Some subgenres of horror include action horror, comedy horror, body horror, disaster horror, holiday horror, horror drama, psychological horror, science fiction horror, slasher horror, supernatural horror, gothic horror, natural horror, zombie horror, first-person horror and teen horror.
The first depictions of supernatural events appear in several of the silent shorts created by the film pioneer Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, the best known being Le Manoir du Diable, which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. Another of his horror projects was 1898's La Caverne maudite (a.k.a. The Cave of the Demons, literally "the accursed cave"). Japan made early forays into the horror genre with Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook) and Shinin no Sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse), both made in 1898. The era featured a slew of literary adaptations, adapting the works of Poe and Dante, among others. In 1908, Selig Polyscope Company produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Before and during the Weimar Republic era, German Expressionist filmmakers would significantly influence later productions. Paul Wegener's The Student of Prague (1913) and The Golem trilogy (1915–20), as well as Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Arthur Robison's Warning Shadows (1923), and Paul Leni's Waxworks (1924), were influential films at the time. The first vampire-themed movie, Nosferatu (1922), was made during this period, though it was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Other European countries also, contributed to the genre during this period. Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (Sweden, 1920) is a cautionary tale about a supernatural legend, Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (Denmark/Sweden, 1922) is a documentary-style, horror film, about witchcraft and superstition, and in 1928, Frenchman, Jean Epstein produced an influential film, The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the Poe tale.
Though the word "horror" to describe the film genre would not be used until the 1930s (when Universal Pictures released their initial monster films), earlier American productions often relied on horror themes. Some notable examples include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Unknown (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928). Many of these early films were considered dark melodramas because of their stock characters and emotion-heavy plots that focused on romance, violence, suspense, and sentimentality.
The trend of inserting an element of macabre into American pre-horror melodramas continued into the 1920s. Directors known for relying on macabre in their films during the 1920s were Maurice Tourneur, Rex Ingram, and Tod Browning. Ingram's The Magician (1926) contains one of the first examples of a "mad doctor" and is said to have had a large influence on James Whale's version of Frankenstein. The Unholy Three (1925) is an example of Browning's use of macabre and unique style of morbidity; he remade the film in 1930 as a talkie, though The Terror (1928) was the first horror film with sound.
During the early period of talking pictures, Universal Pictures began a successful Gothic horror film series. Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) was quickly followed by James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Old Dark House (1932), both featuring monstrous mute antagonists. Some of these films blended science fiction with Gothic horror, such as Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and featured a mad scientist, mirroring earlier German films. Frankenstein was the first in a series of remakes which lasted for years. The Mummy (1932) introduced Egyptology as a theme; Make-up artist Jack Pierce was responsible for the iconic image of the monster, and others in the series. Universal's horror cycle continued into the 1940s with B-movies including The Wolf Man (1941), as well as a number of films uniting several of the most common monsters.
Other studios followed Universal's lead. The once controversial Freaks (1932), based on the short story "Spurs", was made by MGM, though the studio disowned the completed film, and it remained banned, in the UK, for thirty years. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931) is remembered for its innovative use of photographic filters to create Jekyll's transformation before the camera. With the progression of the genre, actors like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were beginning to build entire careers in horror. Both appeared in three of Val Lewton's atmospheric B-movies for RKO in the mid-1940s, including The Body Snatcher (1945).
With advances in technology, the tone of horror films shifted from the Gothic towards contemporary concerns. Two subgenres began to emerge: the Doomsday film and the Demonic film. Low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats such as alien invasions and deadly mutations to people, plants, and insects. Japan's experience with Hiroshima and Nagasaki bore the well-known Godzilla (1954) and its sequels, featuring mutation from the effects of nuclear radiation.
Hollywood directors and producers found ample opportunity for audience exploitation through gimmicks. House of Wax (1953) used the advent of 3-D film to draw audiences, while The Tingler used electric seat buzzers in 1959. Filmmakers continued to merge elements of science fiction and horror over the following decades. Considered a "pulp masterpiece" of the era was The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on Richard Matheson's existentialist novel. The film conveyed the fears of living in the Atomic Age and the terror of social alienation.
During the later 1950s, the UK emerged as a major producer of horror films. The Hammer company focused on the genre for the first time, enjoying huge international success from films involving classic horror characters which were shown in color for the first time. Drawing on Universal's precedent, many films produced were Frankenstein and Dracula remakes, both followed by many sequels. Other British companies contributed to a boom in horror film production in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s.
Released in May 1960, the British psychological thriller Peeping Tom (1960) by Michael Powell was the first "slasher" film. Alfred Hitchcock cemented the subgenre with Psycho released later that year. France continued the mad scientist theme, while Italian horror films became internationally notable. American International Pictures (AIP) made a series of Edgar Allan Poe–themed films.
Films in the era used the supernatural premise to express the horror of the demonic. The Innocents (1961) based on the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw. Meanwhile, ghosts were a dominant theme in Japanese horror, in such films as Kwaidan, Onibaba (both 1964) and Kuroneko (1968).
Rosemary's Baby is a 1968 American psychological horror film written and directed by Roman Polanski, based on the bestselling 1967 novel of the same name by Ira Levin. Another influential American horror film of this period was George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Produced and directed by Romero on a budget of $114,000, it grossed $30 million internationally. An Armageddon film about zombies, it began to combine psychological insights with gore. Distancing the era from earlier gothic trends, late 60's films brought horror into everyday life. Low-budget splatter films from the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis also gained prominence.
The financial successes of the low-budget gore films of the ensuing years, and the critical and popular success of Rosemary's Baby, led to the release of more films with occult themes during the 1970s. The Exorcist (1973), the first of these movies, was a significant commercial success and was followed by scores of horror films in which a demon entity is represented as the supernatural evil, often by impregnating women or possessing children.
"Evil children" and reincarnation became popular subjects. Robert Wise's film Audrey Rose (1977) for example, deals with a man who claims that his daughter is the reincarnation of another dead person. Alice, Sweet Alice (1977), is another Catholic-themed horror slasher about a little girl's murder and her sister being the prime suspect. Another popular occult horror movie was The Omen (1976), where a man realizes that his five-year-old adopted son is the Antichrist. Invincible to human intervention, Demons became villains in many horror films with a postmodern style and a dystopian worldview.
During the 1970s, Italian filmmakers Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, and Dario Argento developed giallo horror films that became classics and influenced the genre in other countries. Representative films include: Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Castle of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Suspiria.
Don't Look Now, a 1973 independent British-Italian film directed by Nicolas Roeg, was also notable. Its focus on the psychology of grief was unusually strong for a film featuring a supernatural horror plot. Another notable 1973 film is The Wicker Man, a British mystery horror film dealing with the practice of ancient pagan rituals in the modern era. It was written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy.
The ideas of the 1960s began to influence horror films, as the youth involved in the counterculture began exploring the medium. Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House On The Left (1972) along with Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (based on the Ed Gein case) recalled the Vietnam war; while George A. Romero satirized the consumer society in his zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Meanwhile, the subgenre of comedy horror re-emerged in the cinema with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and An American Werewolf in London (1981) among others.
Also in the 1970s, the works of the horror author Stephen King began to be adapted for the screen, beginning with Brian De Palma's adaptation of Carrie (1976), King's first published novel, for which the two female leads (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie) gained Oscar nominations. Next, was his third published novel, The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was a sleeper at the box office. At first, many critics and viewers had negative feedback towards The Shining. However, the film is now known as one of Hollywood's most classic horror films.
This psychological horror film has a variety of themes; "evil children", alcoholism, telepathy, and insanity. This type of film is an example of how Hollywood's idea of horror started to evolve. Murder and violence were no longer the main themes of horror films. During the 70s and 80s, psychological and supernatural horror started to take over cinema. Another classic Hollywood horror film is Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. Poltergeist is ranked the 20th scariest movie ever made by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Both The Shining and Poltergeist involve horror being based on real-estate values. The evil and horror throughout the films come from where the movies are taking place.
A cycle of slasher films was made during the 1970s and 1980s. John Carpenter created Halloween (1978), Sean Cunningham made Friday the 13th (1980), Wes Craven directed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Clive Barker made Hellraiser (1987). This subgenre would be mined by dozens of increasingly violent movies throughout the subsequent decades, and Halloween became a successful independent film. Another notable '70s slasher film is Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974). Sleepaway Camp (1983) is known for its twist ending, which is considered by some to be one of the most shocking endings among horror films. The boom in slasher films provided enough material for numerous comedic spoofs of the genre including Saturday the 14th (1981), Student Bodies (1981), National Lampoon's Class Reunion (1983), and Hysterical (1983).
Some films explored urban legends such as "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" . A notable example is When a Stranger Calls, a 1979 American psychological horror film directed by Fred Walton starring Carol Kane and Charles Durning.
Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) began a new wave of killer animal stories, such as Orca (1977) and Up from the Depths (1979). Jaws is often credited as being one of the first films to use traditionally B movie elements such as horror and mild gore in a big-budget Hollywood film. In 1979, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm was the first of the Phantasm franchise.
Alien, a 1979 British-American science-fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott was very successful, receiving both critical acclaim and being a box office success. John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing was also a mix of horror and sci-fi, but it was neither a box-office nor critical hit, but soon became a cult classic. However, nearly 20 years after its release it was praised for using ahead-of-its-time special effects and paranoia.
The 1980s saw a wave of gory "B movie" horror films – although most of them were panned by critics, many became cult classics and later saw success with critics. A significant example is Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies, which were low-budget gorefests but had a very original plotline which was later praised by critics.
Vampire horror was also popular in the 1980s, including cult vampire classics such as Fright Night (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and Near Dark (also 1987). In 1984, Joe Dante's seminal monster comedy Gremlins became a box office hit with critics and audiences, and inspired a trend of "little monster" films such as Critters and Ghoulies.
In the first half of the 1990s, the genre still contained many of the themes from the 1980s. The slasher films A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween and Child's Play all saw sequels in the 1990s, most of which met with varied amounts of success at the box office, but all were panned by critics, with the exception of Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and the hugely successful Silence of the Lambs (1991).
New Nightmare, with In the Mouth of Madness (1995), The Dark Half (1993), and Candyman (1992), were part of a mini-movement of self-reflexive or metafictional horror films. Each film touched upon the relationship between fictional horror and real-world horror. Candyman, for example, examined the link between an invented urban legend and the realistic horror of the racism that produced its villain. In the Mouth of Madness took a more literal approach, as its protagonist actually hopped from the real world into a novel created by the madman he was hired to track down. This reflective style became more overt and ironic with the arrival of Scream (1996).
In Interview with the Vampire (1994), the "Theatre de Vampires" (and the film itself, to some degree) invoked the Grand Guignol style, perhaps to further remove the undead performers from humanity, morality and class. The horror movie soon continued its search for new and effective frights. In 1985's novel The Vampire Lestat by the author Anne Rice (who penned Interview...'s screenplay and the 1976 novel of the same name) suggests that its antihero Lestat inspired and nurtured the Grand Guignol style and theatre.
Two main problems pushed horror backward during this period: firstly, the horror genre wore itself out with the proliferation of nonstop slasher and gore films in the eighties. Secondly, the adolescent audience which feasted on the blood and morbidity of the previous decade grew up, and the replacement audience for films of an imaginative nature were being captured instead by the explosion of science-fiction and fantasy films, courtesy of the special effects possibilities with advances made in computer-generated imagery. Examples of these CGI include movies like Species (1995), Anaconda (1997), Mimic (1997), Blade (1998), Deep Rising (1998), House on Haunted Hill (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and The Haunting (1999).
To re-connect with its audience, horror became more self-mockingly ironic and outright parodic, especially in the latter half of the 1990s. Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992) (known as Dead Alive in the U.S.) took the splatter film to ridiculous excesses for comic effect. Wes Craven's Scream (written by Kevin Williamson) movies, starting in 1996, featured teenagers who were fully aware of, and often made reference to, the history of horror movies, and mixed ironic humour with the shocks (despite Scream 2 and Scream 3 utilising less use of the humour of the original, until Scream 4 in 2011, and rather more references to horror film conventions). Along with I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (written by Kevin Williamson as well) and Urban Legend (1998), they re-ignited the dormant slasher film genre.
Event Horizon is a 1997 British-American science fiction horror film directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. The Sixth Sense is a 1999 supernatural horror film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, which tells the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who is able to see and talk to the dead, and an equally troubled child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him.
The 1998 film The Last Broadcast served as inspiration for 1999's highly successful The Blair Witch Project, which popularized the found footage horror subgenre. The theme of witchcraft was also addressed in The Craft, a 1996 supernatural horror film directed by Andrew Fleming.
Valentine (2001), notably starring David Boreanaz, had some success at the box office, but was derided by critics for being formulaic and relying on foregone horror film conventions. Franchise films such as Jason X (2001) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) also made a stand in theaters. Final Destination (2000) marked a successful revival of teen-centered horror and spawned four installments. Jeepers Creepers series was also successful. Films such as Hollow Man (2000), Orphan (2009), Wrong Turn (2003), Cabin Fever (2002), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and the previous mentions helped bring the genre back to Restricted ratings in theaters. Comic book adaptations like the Blade series, Constantine (2005), and Hellboy (2004) also became box office successes. Video game adaptations like Doom (2005) and Silent Hill (2006) also had moderate box office success while Van Helsing (2004) and Underworld series had huge box office success. Ginger Snaps (2000) is a Canadian film dealing with the tragic transformation of a teenage girl who is bitten by a werewolf. Signs (2002) revived the science fiction alien theme. The Descent, a 2005 British adventure horror film written and directed by Neil Marshall was also successful. Another notable film is Drag Me to Hell, a 2009 American supernatural horror film co-written and directed by Sam Raimi.
Some pronounced trends have marked horror films. Films from non-English language countries have become successful. The Devil's Backbone (2001) is such an example. It is a 2001 Spanish-Mexican gothic horror film directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras. A French horror film Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) became the second-highest-grossing French language film in the United States in the last two decades. The Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008) was also successful. Another notable film is The Orphanage, a 2007 Spanish horror film and the debut feature of Spanish filmmaker J. A. Bayona. Another trend is the emergence of psychology to scare audiences, rather than gore. The Others (2001) proved to be a successful example of a psychological horror film. A minimalist approach which was equal parts Val Lewton's theory of "less is more" (usually employing the low-budget techniques utilized on The Blair Witch Project, (1999) has been evident, particularly in the emergence of Asian horror movies which have been remade into successful Americanized versions, such as The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), and Pulse (2006). In March 2008, China banned the movies from its market.
The Resident Evil video game franchise was adapted into a film released in March 2002, and several sequels followed. The films I Am Legend (2007), Quarantine (2008), Zombieland (2009), and 28 Days Later (2002) featured an update of the apocalyptic and aggressive zombie genre. The latter film spawned a sequel: 28 Weeks Later (2007). An updated remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) soon appeared as well as the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Spanish -Cuban comedy zombie film Juan of the Dead (2012). This resurgence led George A. Romero to return to his Living Dead series with Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009).
The Australian film Wolf Creek (2005) written, co-produced, and directed by Greg McLean revolves around three backpackers who find themselves taken captive and after a brief escape, hunted down by Mick Taylor in the Australian outback. The film was ambiguously marketed as being "based on true events"; the plot bore elements reminiscent of the real-life murders of tourists by Ivan Milat in the 1990s, and Bradley Murdoch in 2001; and contained more extreme violence. An extension of this trend was the emergence of a type of horror with emphasis on depictions of torture, suffering and violent deaths, (variously referred to as "horror porn", "torture porn", "splatterporn", and "gore-nography") with films such as Ghost Ship (2002), Eight Legged Freaks (2002), The Collector, Saw, Hostel, and their respective sequels, frequently singled out as examples of emergence of this subgenre. The Saw film series holds the Guinness World Record of the highest-grossing horror franchise in history. Finally, with the arrival of Paranormal Activity (2009), which was well received by critics and an excellent reception at the box office, minimalist horror approach started by The Blair Witch Project was reaffirmed. The Mist (2007) is a science-fiction horror film based on the 1980 novella of the same name by Stephen King. Antichrist is a 2009 English-language Danish experimental horror film written and directed by Lars von Trier, and starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Remakes of earlier horror movies became routine in the 2000s. In addition to 2004's remake of Dawn of the Dead, as well as 2003's remake of both Herschell Gordon Lewis' cult classic 2001 Maniacs and the 2003 remake of Tobe Hooper's classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there was also the 2007 Rob Zombie-written and -directed remake of John Carpenter's Halloween. The film focused more on Michael's backstory than the original did, devoting the first half of the film to Michael's childhood. It was critically panned by most, but was a success in its theatrical run, spurring its own sequel. This film helped to start a "reimagining" riot in horror film makers. Among the many remakes or "reimaginings" of other popular horror films and franchises are films such as Thirteen Ghosts (2001), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Friday the 13th (2009), Children of the Corn (2009), Prom Night (2008), Day of the Dead (2008) and My Bloody Valentine (2009).
Remakes remain popular, with A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), Child's Play seeing a sequel with Curse of Chucky (2013), while Halloween, Friday the 13th and Hellraiser all have reboots in the works. Serialized, found footage style web videos featuring Slender Man became popular on YouTube in the beginning of the decade. Such series included TribeTwelve, EverymanHybrid and Marble Hornets, the latter of which has been adapted into a feature film. The character as well as the multiple series is credited with reinvigorating interest in found footage as well as urban folklore. Horror has become prominent on television with The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Strain, also many popular horror films have had successful television series made: Psycho spawned Bates Motel, The Silence of the Lambs spawned Hannibal, while Scream and Friday the 13th both have television series in development.
You're Next (2011) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) led to a return to the slasher genre; the latter was intended also as a critical satire of torture porn. The Green Inferno (2015) pays homage to the controversial horror film Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The Babadook (2014) was met with critical acclaim. It Follows (2014) subverted traditional horror tropes of sexuality and slasher films and enjoyed commercial and critical success. The Conjuring (film series) deal with the paranormal. Sinister is a 2012 British-American supernatural horror film directed by Scott Derrickson and written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. The Witch is a 2015 historical period supernatural horror film written and directed by Robert Eggers in his directorial debut, which follows a Puritan family encountering forces of evil in the woods beyond their New England farm. Get Out (2017) received universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
Horror films can be divided into the following subgenres, a single film may overlap into several subgenres:
Horror films' evolution throughout the years has given society a new approach to resourcefully utilize their benefits. The horror film style has changed over time, but in 1996 Scream set off a "chain of copycats", leading to a new variety of teenage, horror movies. This new approach to horror films began to gradually earn more and more revenue as seen in the progress of Scream movies; the first movie earned $6 million and the third movie earned $101 million. The importance that horror films have gained in the public and producers’ eyes is one obvious effect on our society.
Horror films' income expansion is only the first sign of the influences of horror flicks. The role of women and how women see themselves in the movie industry has been altered by the horror genre. Early horror films such as My Bloody Valentine (1981), Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980) were produced mostly for male audiences in order to "feed the fantasies of young men". This idea is no longer prevalent in horror films, as women have become not only the main audience and fans of horror films but also the main protagonists of contemporary horror films. Movie makers have also begun to integrate topics more broadly associated with other genres into their films in order to grow audience appeal.
While horror is only one genre of film, the influence it presents to the international community is large. Horror movies tend to be a vessel for showing eras of audiences issues across the globe visually and in the most effective manner. Jeanne Hall, a film theorist, agrees with the use of horror films in easing the process of understanding issues by making use of their optical elements. The use of horror films to help audiences understand international prior historical events occurs, for example, to show the horridness of the Vietnam war, the Holocaust and the worldwide AIDS epidemic. However, horror movies do not always present positive endings. In fact, in many occurrences the manipulation of horror presents cultural definitions that are not accurate, yet set an example to which a person relates to that specific cultural from then on in their life.
The visual interpretations of films can be lost in the translation of their elements from one culture to another like in the adaptation of the Japanese film Ju on into the American film The Grudge. The cultural components from Japan were slowly "siphoned away" to make the film more relatable to a western audience. This deterioration that can occur in an international remake happens by over-presenting negative cultural assumptions that, as time passes, sets a common ideal about that particular culture in each individual. Holm's discussion of The Grudge remakes presents this idea by stating, "It is, instead, to note that The Grudge films make use of an untheorized notion of Japan... that seek to directly represent the country.
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