A Brief History of Horror

Roots of Horror

The history of horror is a vast and perhaps foolhardy thing to tackle. No matter how hard you try, there are films and horror subgenres that will slide through the cracks..

But horror is somewhat unique among the film genres in that there is a recognizable pattern that happens again and again. A film will come along and terrify an audience capturing their imaginations and making bank- Filmmakers flock to the cash cow like vampires to blood which leads to sequels and imitators – sometimes better than the original. But eventually the sequels run out of steam and the subgenre created by the original smash hit fades into memory lurking in the corners of history waiting to be rediscovered and reborn- this process is commonly referred to as cycles. Although other genres behave similarly, the unique appeal of horror from its low budget requirements to broad multinational appeal, make horror especially susceptible to these boom and fade cycles.

But as we look at how the genre changes over time, we must not think of the history of horror as being a rigid one way street. New films borrow from old films all the time, a constant remix of subgenres and new techniques to make something for the contemporary culture.

So who did the first horror films borrow from? Monsters, murderers, demons and beasts have been around since antiquity, ghost stories told round camp fires since we learned how to talk. But the roots of filmed horror were an extension of a genre of literature that got it’s start in the late 1700s: Gothic Horror. Developed by writers in both Great Britain and the United States the Gothic part of the name refers to pseudo medieval buildings that these stories took place – think of a old castle on a dark and stormy night – gloomy forests, dungeons and secret passage ways.


Famous gothic writers include Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker and of course Edgar Allan Poe.

Horror in the Silent Era

It was from Gothic literature that the first horror films found inspiration. And why not? The genre was popular in both books and theater at the time. Although the term horror did not come into use for film until the 1930s, early filmmakers and film goers certainly showed an interest in the macabre as evident In this snippet of a “Spook Tale” from 1895 created by the Lumiere brothers.

In 1896 Georges Méliès would go on to create what is considered to be the first horror film ever made:

The Manor of the Devil” – with bats, castles, trolls, ghosts, and a demon – played by Georges Méliès himself, you can see the elements of gothic horror are already firmly entrenched by this time in the public psyche.

Silent films in the teens and 20s were still exploring the possibilities of this new filmmaking medium. Several experiments were conducted including the first Frankenstein adapted by Thomas Edison’s studios in 1910 and Dante’s Inferno by Giuseppe de Liguoro in Italy in 1911. But the heart of horror in silent films would start to beat only after conclusion of the first world war and in ashes of the tattered country of Germany.

German Expressionism

German Expressionism was a style of cinema that emphasized expression over realistic depictions of reality. Starting off as a rising movement throughout Europe, German filmmakers and artist developed this unique style inside a cultural bubble that was the result of embargo in place during World War I. Without the influx of an already internationally powerful Hollywood, the German cottage film industry grew quite quickly and creatively. A consortium of German industries came together and convinced the German military of the importance of a German film unit – this would become the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft – the UFA. But by the time the company was operational, Germany had lost the war, and the UFA turned it’s goals to producing films for profit.

On the slate in 1919 was a film written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz with Robert Wiene set direct. The result would be a film that would be go on to be the Great Grand Daddy of all horror films: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In the first few years of the Wiemar Republic, electricity was still scarce and German industries were allotted power on a quota basis. UFA had used up almost all their quota that year so the filmmakers decided to paint the shadows on the set rather than try to create them naturally with electric light.

Painting the set for The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari


This technique combined with the sharp angles and bizarre perspective distortion created an unforgettable look that established German Expressionism both artistically and as a commercially popular style of cinema.

German filmmakers continued the tradition of Expressionist horror films with The Golem: How He Came into the World in 1920 which was lensed by Karl Freund who also shot Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu In 1922.


The German film industry did well in the immediate post war era… much better than the rest of the German economy which was mired in runaway inflation due to the War reparations Germany was obligated to pay under the Treaty of Versailles. Fortunately for the film industry, people flocked to the movies because it was the only form of entertainment that people felt they were getting their money’s worth. Berlin became the cultural center of Europe despite the shaky economy.

To stabalize the currency, the WWI allies offered Germany the Dawes Plan in 1925 which was a system of loans and agreements aimed to try to get the economy back under control. Unfortunately the Dawes plan also curtailed German film exports – the result was many independent studios lost financing shut down for good.

Even the national studio UFA was at the brink of collapse in 1925. A good oppurtunity for Hollywood to swallow up a once powerful foreign competitor. Paramount and MGM lent $4 million in exchange for collaborative rights to UFA Studios, theater, and personnel establishing the Parufamet Distribution Company in 1926.

This agreement effectively moved German Expressionism into Hollywood as scores of artist traveled to the US to work in Hollywood studios. Many German artists decided stay permanently, some even returning as refugees from the growing German Nazi movement in the 1930s. The German Immigrant contribution would leave a lasting mark on the style of films in the coming years.

Horror Films Learn to Scream

It’s hard to overstate the effect that sound had on transforming cinema in the late 1920s. It was a radical artistic leap, and probably more so for horror than any other genre except perhaps the musical – just try turning off the sound on your favorite horror film – it just wouldn’t have the same impact.

In the tightly controlled Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, there was one studio that would be responsible for the first cycle of horror films – Universal Pictures. One rung beneath the big five were the little three: Universal, Columbia and United Artists who made and distributed pictures but didn’t have any theater holdings. During the silent era, Universal was responsible for the few achievements in American horror most notably The Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame both starring Lon Chaney. But in the 30s, Universal really sunk their teeth into horror, kicking off the Universal Gothic horror cycle:

Their first hit was Dracula, directed Tod Browning and lensed by UFA cinematographer Karl Freund starring the Hungarian Bela Lugosi in 1931.

James Whale continued the cycle with Frankenstein with Boris Karloff also in 1931.. Karl Freund even got a shot at the director’s chair with The Mummy in 1932. Followed by James Whale again with the Invisible Man in 1933, Stuart Walker’s Werewolf in London 1935 and Hambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter in 1936.

But the Universal Gothic Horror Cycle began to lose steam and fall into the pit of self parody with titles like The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand, and Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Moving into 1940s, the Universal Monsters stable started to be treated like Batman villains bringing all the characters together in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula. And by 1948 when Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in a surprising popular comedy outing, Universal would retire the first string of monsters from serious horror filmmaking.

While Universal’s offerings slipped from horror to formula, a small division at RKO, the smallest of the big 5 studios would start to lay stylistic foundation for low budget horror films to come. Val Lewton, a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O Selznick was put in charge of a low budget division at RKO to produce horror films for a measly $150,000 a piece. The catch? The studio would provide the title, Lewton would develop the story.

The first title? Cat People - which would be directed by Jacuqes Tourneur and photographed by film noir veteran Nicholas Musuraca in 1942.

Using leftover studio sets and creating the scares by using mood and shadows rather than makeup and monsters – Cat People was truly a glimpse at the more psychologically scary films in the decades to come, Costing $141,000 but bringing in over $4 million in the first 2 years Lewton’s low budget horror division was practically saving the always cash strapped RKO.

Mutated Monster Mash

The period between the post World War II years and the 1950s was perhaps the most difficult time Hollywood had ever gone through. From Supreme Court rulings ripping apart the studio system to a death match against television for patrons, this time period saw an increasingly protective Hollywood trying desperately to stay relevant. Horror films got relegated to strictly B-film status as Hollywood preserved it’s A-list talent for lavish epics. But the horror film was still popular with the teens who wanted thrills even if the plot lines were ludicrous.

The Icy Soviet-American arms race meant the nuclear boogey man was always top of mind. Horror films tapped into this cold war fear of invasion blending into a Pulp Science Fiction cycle with films like The Thing From Another World, The Day The Earth Stood Still both from 1951, and Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both in 1956.


But monsters didn’t only come from outer space, Creatures also emerged from the deep like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and of course the Japanese nuclear monster Godzilla also 1954.

By the mid 1950s the Pulp Sci-Fi Horror cycle would start to wear down and be taken over by exploitative producers like William Castle who relied on gimmicks to sell tickets to low rent horror outings.

William Castle


In Macabre 1958, Castle promised every customer a $1,000 life insurance policy should they die of fright. House on Haunted Hill in 1959 was filmed in “Emergo” which triggered a skeleton that would fly around the theater suspended on wires. Once kids knew this was coming they’d bring their slingshots and see who could be the one to shoot it down. And the Tingler, also in 1959, wired up movie theater seats with joy buzzers and encouraged the audience to scream as a way of calming down the spine monster that was let loose in the theater.

Psychology, Sex, and Gore

From the 1960s on we begin to see a massive explosion of styles and cycles into the horror genre as it gained both in popularity, Prestige and freedom once the restrictive censorship of the Production Code was abandoned in 1964.

Alfred Hitch

No discussion of the horror film could be even self respecting without the mention of the Maestro himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Honing his precise abilities to play an audience like a musical instrument, it was 1960’s Psycho that shocked audiences into believing horror could be more than B-Film Fare.

Unlike the monsters of previous horror cycles, Norman Bates was rooted in reality – an every day human on the outside but a psychological monster in the mind. Hitchcock would deliver another natural horror with The Birds in 1963.

On the other end of the Atlantic Ocean, Hammer Films Productions in The United Kingdom began rebooting Universal’s Gothic Monsters – but adding sex and gore. Shot in full color, Hammer’s first Gothic horror reboot was Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster. For the first time in a Frankenstein film, blood was shown on screen and in full chilling color.

Between 1957 and 1974, Hammer cranked out 7 Frankenstein movies, 6 Draculas, 9 other vampire outings, 2 Jekyll & Hydes, and 3 Mummy films. The Hammer Studio, located on the banks of the River Thames between Bray and Windsor even became the setting of it’s own parody – as it’s country style Down Place mansion was used as the set for Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, a film that in itself is a send up of the Hammer Horror style.

Roger Corman

Roger Corman

Back in the US, perhaps inspired by the success of Hammer’s approach to sex and gore was the legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. Whereas Alfred Hitchcock would meticulously storyboard his films and often times enjoyed studio financial backing, Corman pumped films as fast as he could – Little Shop of Horrors in 1960 was shot in just under three days with a budget of just $30,000 using sets that had been left over from Bucket of Blood. Corman knew what audiences wanted, blood and babes and he delivered. His greatest acclaim as a director came with his Edgar Allan Poe Cycle released between 1959 and 1964 collaborating with screenwriter Richard Matheson and actor Vincent Price in films like House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963).

Horror was starting be taken seriously both at the highest craft of film production and at the lowest: setting the stage for important horror films sub-genres that come in the following decades.

The Occult – films about the Satan and the Supernatural – were popular big budget subjects starting with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 which was actually a William Castle project. Then came what many consider the greatest entry in the Occult cycle 1973’s: The Exorcist directed by William Friedkin, followed in 1976 with Richard Donnor’s The Omen and Stuart Rosenberg’s Amnityville Horror in 1979.

The Film school generation – a group of filmmakers who grew up on and formally studied horror began to to inject B-movie horror devices into their mainstream work. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 made creature horror big business – igniting not only a Shark cycle but the the whole summer blockbuster style of production and marketing. Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 1976 set the stage for a Teen Horror cycle by turning Stephen King’s first novel into big box office and Oscar Nominations for the leads. 1979’s Alien by Ridley Scott successful remixed horror and science fiction as did John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing in 1982 which was a neither a box office or critical success but has stood the test of time to be one of most terrifying special effects films ever made. Spielberg would return to horror with 1982’s Poltergeist working with Tobe Hooper to create a masterful ghost story which was released only a week away from Spielberg’s other 1982 hit: E.T.

And then there’s 1980s The Shining which in true Kubrick fashion, defies any category or imitation. Again, not a critical hit -it won Kubrick a Razzie Nomination for worst director – and only a mild box office success in its time The Shining would go on to become an absolute must watch for any student of horror.

Independent Horror and the Slasher

Horror has been a staple of the low budget world since the Universal Creature days and as film production technology progressed and costs steadily declined the rise of independent filmmakers meant a rise of new takes on horror.

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, based on the plot of serial killer Ed Gein who was also the inspiration for Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, was shot on a skeleton budget in the sweltering Texas summer heat. Mired in money issues, the cast and crew didn’t see much financial reward from the film’s success, but the rawness of the teenagers in peril inspired many more teen horror slasher imitations.

Then in 1978 came John Carpenter’s Halloween one the most successful independent horror film ever made.

Produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossing nearly $240 million dollars as of 2012, Halloween is the first of it’s kind Hitchcock inspired slasher film.. Unlike many of it’s followups and imitators, Halloween actually contains very little graphic violence or gore. Without much money to spend on sets and props, Carpenter constructed his horror inside everyday suburbia – the Michael Myers mask was just a $2 Captain Kirk mask painted white.

But terror in the backyard worked.

Friday the 13th directed by Sean S. Cunningham in 1980 and A Nightmare on Elm Street by Wes Craven in 1984 were both studio backed slasher films that followed the similar horror in the backyard formula to tremendous success and numerous numerous sequels.

But independent horror wasn’t just about the slasher.

Young uns


In 1981 a group of young kids Bruce Campell, Sam Raimi, and Robert Tapert released a small independent film which they had made by raising $150,000 from local investors. The film, The Evil Dead. was heavy on splatter effects and stop motion gore, gain a cult following especially after being released in the relatively new Home Video Tape market in 1983.

In fact it was the promise of distribution through this new technology video tape and cable that unleashed a flood of blood soaked horror films that were never made for the theater.

The 90s and Modern Horror

When the 90s came around, the slasher cycle had pretty much run its course and was starting to fall into parody. Even Raimi’’s Magic Spell Zombie cycle was being parodied by Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) in 1992 which racheting up the Evil Dead splatter effects to a comical 11.

Wes Craven’s self aware slasher film Scream in 1996 about a killer among a group of kids that already know all the rules of slasher films rebooted a new Teen Horror cycle which led to I Know What You Did Last Summer directed by Jim Gillespie and Final Destination directed by James Wong.

Monster films turned increasingly to CGI effects for scares such as Species, and Anacoda..

Psychological Horror and Thriller have remained popular throughout the 90s and 2000s including films like Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Se7en, The Others and The Ring.

But there are Three modern horror film cycles arose in late nineties and into the 2000s that are somewhat unique to our modern era. Torture Porn as it is disparagingly labeled, is the modern reboot of the Splatter films going back to the Hammer Horror era. This latest cycle emphasizes intense gore, grunge and often tortuous violence. The Saw franchise, the most successful horror film franchise of all time, is considered the first in the latest crop of splatter films with it’s first installment in 2004 by James Wan. This was followed by Eli Roth’s Hostel in 2005 – where the moniker toture porn was coined by critic David Edelstein.

The Blair Witch Project directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick and released in 1999 represents the first major film in the modern found footage horror sub-genre. Though a borrowed idea from Cannibal Holocaust from 1980, The Blair Witch Project used the device of piecing together first hand footage to reconstruct the last terrifying moments of the original eye witness. Blair Witch also holds the title of being one of the first films ever to be marketed almost entirely through the internet. The found footage device would go into common use from small films like Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity in 2007 and even large creature films like Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield in 2008.

And finally, we cannot end this overview of horror without the most recent Zombie Cycle. With roots going back to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 the modern Zombie Apocalypse Cycle began when Danny Boyle breathed a new life into the undead genre with 28 Days Later in 2002.

Recent Zombie films feed our fears of a medical pandemic and the break down of society fears brought on by the financial meltdown in the mid 2000s. Still going strong with films like World War Z and the long form Television melodrama The Walking Dead, the Zombie Cycle may be seeing it’s fade out as comedic outings like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead have poked fun at the formula.

There’s something about horror films that can transcend national and cultural boundaries. As the digital democratization of filmmaking continues horror will be a genre that can delight or terrify people no matter where they are from or what language they speak. This is because horror works on us differently than other genres- a topic I’ll explore in the next video on the psychology of horror. But as we’ve seen in this detailed but no way exhaustive survey of the history horror, the next big scary movie can come from anywhere, no matter the budget, stars, or the country of origin. Horror is very much a director’s genre – All that matters is if can you make an audience shiver with fright? Go out there and make something scary.


History of Horror Quiz