Horror Films

The aim of a horror film is to frighten and shock its audience. It can produce fear or revulsion through suggestion or by graphic representation, using themes including the mysterious and unknown, death and bodily violation, and loss of identity. The lure of this genre may be the opportunity to explore the primal emotion of fear in a controlled environment; this paradoxically provides us with a perverse kind of pleasure. Our appetite for the horrific may be the result of a physiological urge. Through horror films, we can explore subjects that would be abhorrent to our normal sensibilities. We may have a rush of adrenaline which produces a sensory experience that is gratifying because it extends beyond the normal range of our emotions. These films provide a fascinating glimpse into the mysteries of the macabre without risk to our personal safety.

Gothic literature such as Horace Waldpole's Castle Otranto (1764) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) no doubt played a part in influencing early horror films and the direction of cinematography. One of the first ever films was an adaptation of Frankenstein made in 1910. In France, director Louis Feuillade's filmed the serial Les Vampires from 1915 to 1916. While early genres such as musicals or gangster films were reliant upon sound, horror films thrived because the atmosphere could be created by visual images alone.

A significant wave of horror films emerged from Germany during the Expressionist movement. The films were shot with an unnatural look that sought to exclude the natural world; it was a reaction to the realism that had preceded it and the films were characterized by extreme angles, distorting lenses, chiaroscuro lighting, and stylized acting. The first of these films was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920, directed by Robert Wiene. This was a hit internationally and was to influence subsequent films in the genre. The movement began to wane in the early 1930s when many of the film directors, as well as actors and other film workers, moved to the United States following the onset of Nazi power in Germany. Their influence can be recognized in American films of the era.

In the early 1900s, some silent horror movies were made in America, for example, The Black Bird in 1926 and London After Midnight, but largely the horror film genre received a negative reaction in the United States. However the success of Dracula on Broadway in 1927 led to greater confidence in the potential of these films and the popularity of the horror film began to increase in popularity. The film version of Dracula directed by Tod Browning premiered in New York in 1931.

In the same year another classical horror film, James Whale's Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, was released. Karloff, alongside Dracula star Bela Lugosi attained iconic status in American popular culture and over the following three decades and a cycle of horror films ensued from Universal Studios. Examples of these are The Mummy in 1932; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the same year; and several Frankenstein spin-offs, including The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Horror films have naturally evolved since they first screened in the 20th century. Part of this evolution coincides with historical events that have captured the imagination of film directors. The movies tend to address universal fears and cultural ones, reflecting the times in which they are made. For example in the 1950s films featured mutated insects and radioactive monsters, mirroring the fear of nuclear attack from Russia which existed in America at the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s the war in Vietnam and the middle-class fear of the growing youth movement changed the focus of the films. In the 1980s the trend reversed and horror films tended towards teenagers becoming the victims; killers would target teens who were engaging in drinking, drugs and sex. The 1990s saw horrors become more ironic, taking on a satirical quality. In the 21st century, horrific world events such as 9/11 resulted in films such as 28 Days Later, depicting random violence and societal collapse. The genre continues to evolve and reflect the cultural climate of its day. The successful horror film tells us much about the world in which we live and the collective fears of our times.

Horror Films: Selected full-text books and articles

A History of Horror By Wheeler Winston Dixon Rutgers University Press, 2010
Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear By Steffen Hantke University Press of Mississippi, 2004
Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen By Robin L. Murray; Joseph K. Heumann University of Nebraska Press, 2016
Introduction to Japanese Horror Film By Colette Balmain Edinburgh University Press, 2008
Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing By Isabel Cristina Pinedo State University of New York Press, 1997
Imagining Murderous Mothers: Male Spectatorship and the American Slasher Film By Genter, Robert Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 33, No. 1, June 2006
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan-- and Beyond By Robin Wood Columbia University Press, 2003
Korean Horror Cinema By Alison Peirse; Daniel Martin Edinburgh University Press, 2013
Spanish Horror Film By Antonio Lázaro-Reboll Edinburgh University Press, 2012
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