From Chaney to Chainsaws: The Origins and Development of Horror in Film and Television
“I never drink... wine”. Those immortal words, first uttered by Bela Lugosi in Universal's 1931 classic Dracula, are arguably four of the most influential words in horror cinema. Horror in film had existed long before then, it's origins lay within German Expressionism, and early examples include 1919's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and 1922's Nosferatu, but it was with Lugosi that horror went mainstream. Never had horror's mission statement been so clearly put. He doesn't drink wine, he drinks blood, and he's going to scare the pants off you doing it!
The first horror movie to feature sound, Universal's Dracula, based on a stage-play adapted from Bram Stoker's seminal novel, kick-started an entire industry and shook the very foundations of film to its core. Cinema was never the same again, and its influence can be felt all the way through film history. But just what is it about the horror genre that keeps it so timeless?
Horror is a genre that is ever evolving and changing as societies fears and tastes grow and change. Unlike any other genre, is one that seeks to upset. It is a genre that, by its very nature, attempts to tap into our most primal urges; to terrify us and delight in doing so. In this regard horror films are often a direct response to the time in which they were made and the society that served as its audience.
Perhaps it is no surprise that so many writers and directors eventually find themselves drawn to the horror genre. Horror films are allowed to be rough and cheap and confined, and often they are encouraged to move against the norm and challenge audience conceptions. What a tantalising prospect for any auteur. George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead gave us the first zombies, and with the undead came a subtext of race relations in America, while John Carpenter's Halloween challenged the idea of home being a safe space and kick-started the entire slasher sub-genre. Mary Harron took down yuppie culture with her adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, while even the great Alfred Hitchcock shaped the horror film into his own terrifying nightmare with Psycho, forcing audiences to question whether that boy next door is really as innocent as he seems.
Horror is an all encompassing genre, and much like Frankenstein's monster, a creator can breath life into it how they see fit. More recently Jordan Peele has used his horror film, Get Out, to explore everyday racism, and Jennifer Kent used horror as a way to explore depression and grief in The Babadook.
It's true that horror, more so than any other genre, changes and develops with the times. As society's fears morph to reflect current issues so too must horror, but that's not to say everything about it changes. In fact, there are an awful lot of techniques and “rules” that feature within horror movies, going right back to the beginnings of the genre.
The very first horror films were surreal and disturbing. Lon Chaney, the man responsible for the iconic 1925 silent-era Phantom of the Opera, introduced Western audiences to all kinds of ghastly characters – the unmasking sequence in Phantom is often sighted as one of the key moments in horror history – and it was thanks to his work that Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle agreed to take a chance with Dracula.
Despite the earlier silent-era movies retrospectively being placed under the “horror” canon, at the time they were never seen as their own separate genre. It wasn't until Universal's Dracula that film-makers began to create and produce films designed with the express purpose of scaring the audiences who watched them. Dracula was a huge success and lead way to what is arguably the most influential of all horror movies, James Whale's Frankenstein. Unlike Dracula, which had largely rejected the multiple locations and action featured in Stoker's tale in favour of more staged settings, Whale gave Frankenstein a visual edge. The movie opens with two figures unearthing a freshly dug grave and it continues to deliver on the unsettling and macabre imagery. With Frankenstein came a clear message, horror is a genre unto it's own. Suddenly all the studios wanted in on the game and, fascinatingly enough, it was it's detractors that gave the genre its name. By calling these films a horror on cinema, the very people hoping to stamp it out found themselves breathing life into it.
It became clear, after the success of Universal's other monster movies, that horror wasn't going anywhere, and in fact belongs on screen. Nothing can unsettle quite like a horror movie can.
Horror seldom works on the small screen. At it's most effective horror is around just long enough to scare the pants off you, and then off it goes again, done in 90 or so minutes. This is why there are so few successful long form horror narratives on television. Shows as diverse as The Simpsons through to Game of Thrones will often employ tropes and styles familiar to horror fans, but very rarely to they settle into a purely horror setting. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer focused heavily on the drama and comedy aspects, while shows like The X Files drew on their horror influences each and every week, but would also be sure to wrap up the story by the end of the episode.
This “monster of the week” approach to horror on television is perhaps a response to the struggle it can be to maintain an unsettling and frightening atmosphere for too long a period of time. The most successful horror shows in televisions history have been those that hold an anthology format. Rod Sterling's The Twilight Zone may be the best known example of this, but HBO's Tales From the Crypt series and, more recently, the BBC's own Inside No. 9 have all employed an anthology format to tell spooky and unsettling tales. It works because horror is at it's most effective when it doesn't stick around long enough for you to think about it. Even successful shows like American Horror Story are wildly agreed to feature three to four purely filler episodes, and totally reboots itself every season, and shows like The Walking Dead, while horror in theory, focus heavily on the drama aspects to draw itself out and, in more recent series, have actually been called out for featuring very little horror.
As Dracula and Frankenstein proved, horror had a big pull at the box office. While Universal unleashed their monsters onto a unsuspecting public, so too did the other Hollywood studios begin to dabble in the genre. Warner Bros. gave it a go with Doctor X while Paramount entered the fray with their underrated Mystery of the Wax Museum. But for all their differences in setting, characters, monsters and appearance, through these movies a consistent and clear framework was beginning to form. The “rules” of horror were coming to the fore, even if people hadn't quite realised it yet.
On a surface level all horror is remarkably similar, you have a villain, you have your victims and you have the hero who will eventually save the day. Film critic Robin Wood describes all horror as being as simple as “normality is threatened by the monster”. This is surprisingly accurate and fits into almost all horror movies. Even those that appear to subvert the idea (such as Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby) still conform to this general summary.
Exposition is seldom given in a horror movie (usually it's saved for the sequels) and when it is given, it is often given in the form of an investigation, like The Ring or even The Wicker Man. Characters will often find themselves or their love ones threatened and then will attempt to discover the nature of the threat in the hopes of destroying it. They uncover the “rules” of the “monster” as the audience do. Sometimes the exposition will be delivered in the form a story, in The Burning it is delivered around a camp-fire, in Hellraiser we are delivered exposition from several sources, including a shop-keeper who sells a cursed item.
Settings in horror movies are often secluded and far away from help; an old Castle in Transylvania, a cabin in the woods, an Antarctic Research Outpost. Characters are cut off from the outside world in one way or another, by the weather, like in Stanley Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation The Shining, or simply by remoteness of location, such as Blood on Satan's Claw, or sometimes the villain itself will cut the characters off, like in Sam Raimi's excellent debut The Evil Dead.
But when our protagonists aren't cut off physically they are often cut off in other ways. Often times you have locals who either refuse to acknowledge the terror happening under their noses or whom are complicit with it. Take both the villagers from Hammer's classic Taste the Blood of Dracula and the parents from Wes Craven's box-office behemoth A Nightmare on Elm Street. Both know the secret that haunts the protagonist, both refuse to help, and both pretend they have no knowledge of the situation. Two drastically different films, and yet they both feature similar narrative structures. Horror movies will often feature a simple character arc, that of the “final girl”, which is at it's most base level a boy to man (or girl to woman) story.
Both the original Friday the 13th and the recent folk-horror The VVitch featured this kind of arc, and once again these films are wildly different. Even horror-comedies, such as Shaun of the Dead, often draw on these techniques. This may be why so much horror seems so similar. Horror as a genre can often trap itself in a stale cycle of knock-offs, repeats and sequels. Look at the slew of slasher movies from the '80s or teen horrors from the '90s, and even more recently with the ever growing craze of found footage horror – a response to a society obsessed with realism and smartphones. And yet, despite all this, horror has an incredible ability to also remain fresh and relevant.
The real success of the horror genre, in my opinion, is in it's ability to adapt and evolve with the times. After the horrors of World War Two, when ghostly goings on and mythological creatures couldn't quite stand-up to the real life terrors, films such as 1954's Them! and 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man focused more heavily on science gone wrong, while in Japan horror gave birth to the giant nuclear metaphor that was Godzilla.
Hammer Horror's first foray into the genre, 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein, captured the mood of society at the time with it's movies drenched violence, sex, and glorious Technicolour blood. In The Curse of Frankenstein Christopher Lee's The Monster receives a gunshot to the eye, and as he clasps his hand to his face a gush of blood pours out from the wound. It was a moment that forever changed cinema. Audience gasped, the censors went wild, horror and gore became inseparable and many a young film-maker was inspired.
During the Cold War paranoia horror focused heavily on the fear of the neighbour or the friend, with television shows like the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller or Alfred Hitchcock Presents telling the stories of everyday people with dark secrets. Later, after Watergate big-budget horrors such as The Exorcist or Jaws would bring malevolent forces into safe spaces and the people in charge would be unable, or downright refuse, to help.
Tobe Hooper gave birth to “torture-porn” with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a direct reaction to the real-life horror witnessed on the news each night during Vietnam, and then in the '80s, as society feared infection and diseases, body-horror was brought to the forefront, with David Cronenberg leading the way with movies like Videodrome and The Fly.
And even more recently we've seen Saw and Hostel spark a resurgence of “torture-porn” in reaction to Iraq and The Blair Witch Project spark a “found-footage” sub-genre that captured the imagination and attention of the so-called YouTube generation. Streaming platforms have had a large effect on the horror genre in recent years. With Netflix and Amazon Prime has come the ability for lesser known horror movies to get out into the mainstream, AMC's own streaming platform, Shudder, focuses solely on horror and there is a wide “community” of horror fans and film-makers on websites such as YouTube and Vimeo releasing horror shorts the world over. We've seen fan sites like bloodydisgusting.com or crypttv.com producing their own shorts, and film-makers like David Sandberg and Ben Wheatley have moved from producing viral content to working on feature films within the genre.
The unique ability to evolve and grow with society is the very essence of the horror genre, it taps into our deepest, darkest fears and because of that it never really goes out of style.
It's almost impossible to tie down exactly what makes a good horror movie because it is the most subjective genre, everyone is terrified of something different. Often people will dislike horror for succeeding in scaring them, others will be disappointed when it doesn't. Jump-scares, a trope often employed in horror movies (to groaning effect more recently) are looked down upon as “cheap” and used to gauge how scary a film is by different people. Sometimes people will cite the declining quality of sequels in franchise films such as Child's Play as an example of why horror is bad, while others will actively seek out the “worst” instalments and take great pleasure from the bad acting, poor dialogue and laughable visual effects.
Supposedly horror movies are perfect date-night movies, but they can be an exciting and rewarding group experience, often seen through the slasher and comedy-horror subgenres; films designed to scare and excite in equal measure, and also be a terrifying solo experience, in which you turn out all the lights, sit on the sofa and clutch tight to that pillow.
Audiences are large and varied, and while many people say they dislike horror, the truth is that there is a horror for almost everyone. Of all the genres horror is perhaps the most encompassing, taking under it's wing everything from psychological “thrillers” to outright gross-out terror and everything in between. Slashers, ghost stories, killer aliens, blood-thirsty sharks and demonic children, there's something for everyone. So, grab the popcorn, turn out the lights and settle in for a bumpy ride. And pour me a drink, just don't make it wine.