History of the Horror Film: lurking, waiting, evolving

The horror genre has had more twists and turns than a Mexican highway. Today, horror is filled with blood splatter, torture chambers, and cheap Syfy movies that think CG is a substitute for actual plot and characters. I’m being overly general, of course, but it’s hard to not look at my beloved horror, the genre that helped pass many a dark nights and many dates with Mary, and not think that something has gone massively awry.

Where did we go wrong? It helps if we look at horror from its humble beginnings to today’s pop version.

Okay, let’s talk about old horror. There is no such thing.

I’m serious. What we might consider horror was, to many people for many years, ordinary fiction. Looking through Grimm’s fairy tales, even stories from religious sources like the Bible, might make for an evening of nightmares. Even something like angels, those fluffy little winged babies, are described as something that could only be called eldritch abominations from beyond time and space. Grimm’s fairy tales? The originals have people dying, slashing, and committing acts of Saw-like barbarism.

But that didn’t last long…

In the 18th century, Gothic horror took off with novels such as The Italian and The Monk. They were typically marketed to women and later influenced 19th century authors like Mary Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. These authors tried to create dread and tell stories. Horror had to be actual concern for characters, about putting the audience in a position to feel intensively without anything happening. As Hitchcock said a hundred years later, people aren’t scared by the “boo.” They want to feel the excitement at not knowing when the “boo” is going come.

As horror entered the 20th century, the genre had to compete with the very real horror of World Wars. By that time, the gothic horror of the previous century seemed quaint and old-fashioned. The vampire lurking in the shadows was no longer as threatening or inhuman as the men in brown shirts escorting millions into ovens and gas chambers. Reality had, for a brief time, surpassed horror in terms of, well, horror.

But horror came back in a strong way thanks to film. While film had already produced classics like The Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and of course the classic Universal monster films like Frankenstein, the rise of technology and new fears made horror look outward. For a while, we were worried about the Other, about something else coming to take us out. The enemy, we were told, was already here.

Something strange happened next.

Horror, people like George Romero and Alfred Hitchcock told us, was already here. The menace was not some spy in a trench coat with a miniature camera. The danger was already here, in our homes, in our cities. The Birds, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead showed us that we were not safe in our homes anymore. We never really were safe. Any one of us could stay at a motel run by a serial killer. Civilization could break down as the living dead came back to life.

In ancient times, the stories of demons and ghosts were not just stories. People believed them. A faerie could swap a child for a changeling. Demons tempted mortals and dragged them into the woods. Horror was a part of our lives. While the World Wars had ravaged nations, for many people, the horror was confined to news reports. True horror came when something breached that wall of security and we reverted to the feelings of survival.

Hitchcock more than anyone made horror something real and tangible. His films set the trend for the next forty years. The slasher films of the late 70’s and 80’s can be traced to the iconic shower scene in Psycho, the moment where our heroine was cut down in an orgy of chocolate syrup. That scene alone can be credited with creating an entire generation of moviegoers who wanted to feel that rush again.

For a while, the formula was fairly basic: introduce characters, introduce the threat of a psycho, and let them run. It was a quick, easy way to create tension, and while based on the work of directors and writers who knew what they were doing, these horror films missed something.

They lacked heart. This would, unfortunately, move horror to the level of bubbly co-eds with axes in their faces and virgins running from chainsaws. Horror would, for a long time, not be seen as something serious. Of course, we still had Stephen King, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, and many other wonderful writers putting out truly horrifying work, but for most of the world, anything in the horror section was aimed at and consumed by a small, isolated subset of the population. The industry, sadly, peddled sugar to hyperactive children.

And then that all changed in the late 90’s.

Love it or hate it, Scream actually helped make people aware not just of horror movies, but the conventions of horror movies. For years, perhaps decades, horror had stuck to a very strict formula, but actual horror, the real terror that made the genre famous, was absent. The readers knew the tricks. We could see the man behind the curtain, and we were so hungry we ate everything in sight. Horror movies came out by the dozens, hundreds almost, and we were simply happy we had something, anything, to watch or read.

And then Wes Craven taught us a few simple rules.

By lampshading, not mocking, the genre, Craven showed how it was possible to be smart about horror. As many others have pointed out, Scream broke down the genre, deconstructed it, then built it back up. Unfortunately, this brought new energy to the genre and we got back on the same old cycle: everyone wanted to make the new Scream.

It did, however, make the public aware of horror and how tired it had become. This, for many writers, was a challenge.

So, where is horror now?

It’s hard to say. The last ten years have seen a rise of what is commonly called “torture” porn, or rather movies that delight in gory deaths or sensationalized torture. Likewise, the last ten years have seen a boom of remakes of both old American and foreign movies. The Ring kicked off the trend, and although One Missed Call seems to have finally ended it, remakes are still ago. It’s moved beyond horror and we’re remaking everything from Red Dawn to Judge Dredd to our own classic horror films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.

Independent film and literature are making a big splash, so fans and writers who wish to try their hand at the genre can certainly try it. While Sherlock Holmes may have once lamented that there is nothing new under the sun, I beg to respectfully disagree.

There is plenty good and new. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, for example, was a nice twisted fairy tale for adults. The Horde was a cops and robbers movie that just happened to intersect with a zombie apocalypse. Trick ‘r Treat took the conventions of 80’s and 90’s horror movies and turned them on their head. The list goes on and on.

Horror isn’t dead. We just fed it sugar and candy and it’s now a bloated, spoiled child who thinks it doesn’t have to do anything because no matter what happens, it will survive.


But I’m not willing to take that chance. There’s a place for cheesy horror. Mystery Science Theater 3000 taught us that much. But we need to demand a better product. We need to demand stories that feel as real as those ancient stories of ghosts and demons felt to our ancestors. We must demand characters. If no one is willing to make them, we must make them ourselves. It’s time we realized the group of dumb college kids camping out in the middle of nowhere is no substitute for the kind of terror we can create if we put our minds to it.

Who’s with me?

Michel Martin del Campo is a writing consultant and occasional instructor at Texas A&M International University. He created and writes for Randomology and contributes to Political Groove. At Randomology, he covers everything from teaching, writing, and gaming, all from a language-based perspective. His upcoming book is Charcoal Streets, an anthology of Chicano urban fiction that brings Hispanic mythology to the forefront instead of traditional European fantasy.

He enjoys tabletop gaming, drawing, tequila, and geeking out.

This article is part of the Haunted October blog tour featuring Specter Spectacular and The Haunted Housewives of Allister, Alabama. Hosted by World Weaver Press.

About World Weaver Press Guest Blogger

World Weaver Press invites many guest bloggers to join us in our discussion of fantasy and science fiction. Opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of World Weaver Press, its staff, or authors.

Posted on October 6, 2012, in guest blogger, horror, World Weaver Press and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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