The Evolution of Horror

An article by Matthew Ahlborn

What is it about scary movies that actually scares us?  Is it seeing the deranged killer raise the knife?  Or is it seeing the knife plunge into the victim?  Or is it the suspense leading up to the act, which might not even appear onscreen?  Light and shadow, out-of-focus figures, creepy sounds and chilling music all play a role in creating an atmosphere designed to put the viewer in a heightened state, fearful of what may happen to the characters they’re seeing.  The techniques used to create such an environment have seen many changes, both practical and technological, so let’s take a look at the evolution of horror movies over the decades.

In the beginning, everything was visual.  Movies were silent, so the only medium the filmmakers had to work with was the image on-screen.  Of course, there was often live music to accompany screenings (usually piano and/or strings) and many silent films had intertitles (also called title cards) that assisted in exposition, but there was no audible dialogue or sound to add value to the production.  Directors had to get creative with visual images.

How did they do that, you ask?  With whatever they could, and there wasn’t much to work with.  Consider this: motion picture technology was developed in the 1870s, but electricity wasn’t a readily accessible commodity until the 1920s.   The first horror films appeared in the late 1890s, at the dawn of the film age, so lighting rigs and microphones hadn’t even been invented.  There was simply no way to capture those aspects, so directors had to make the most of what they had, which was basically sets, props, wardrobes, and the ability to cut.

Take the first horror film ever produced, the 1896 French short “Le Manoir du Diable” (“House of the Devil”).  If it looks like someone set a camera on a tripod and pointed it at a stage, that’s because that’s exactly what they did.  For just over 3 minutes, the camera never moves and there is only one set.  In order to create any drama, director  Georges Méliès has to rely on jump cuts to give the illusion that the devil is using sorcery to make objects and characters appear and disappear.  At the time no one had ever seen such a thing, so it likely appeared as though it was truly witchcraft, which was certainly the desired effect.  

When films were first produced, the stage mentality reigned.  Many nascent film directors were stage production veterans who applied their knowledge to their film productions, so movies were little more than filmed acts (of plays).  Stage production sensibilities and elements were simply the way it was – until it wasn’t.

Early films were simply candid recordings of everyday life, and that quickly evolved into narrative filmmaking.  Artists saw film as a way to tell stories, and as narrative concept advanced so did filmmaking methods – cuts on action, exterior shots, even something as simple as framing became tools for directors to tell their stories.  But they were still limited by the technology of their time, as evinced by one of the most famous horror films of all time.

German director F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”) was released in 1922 and by all rights was the first horror blockbuster.  Murnau’s use of contrast (light/dark) was played with haunting mastery, and the environment was essentially the film world’s introduction to goth culture.  So what’s so impressive about what Murnau did?  Many viewers don’t realize that even though scenes take place in both day- and night-time, the film was shot entirely in daylight.  There were neither lights nor electricity to power them, so Murnau used focused light and deliberate shadows to convey time of day/night.  Add in a little suspension of disbelief and you have yourself a contemporary visual masterpiece.  

Making the contrast even more effective, the stark light/dark dynamic took place in some inherently creepy settings: old European castles and villages.  And on top of all that, consider Murnau’s design of the otherworldly Count Orlok: a ghostly white creature cast against shadowy backdrops with a sinewy visage that certainly engaged viewers’ uncanny valleys.  It was the perfect marriage of production design, set design and character design.  And it was all done without sound or full dialogue.

Eventually, technology would advance and many additions would be added to films.  Lights, sound, tracking and panning devices, and improvements on cameras themselves would add to the arsenals that filmmakers had at their disposal.  Perhaps the most effective advancement for horror films in particular was the development and improvement of make-up, specifically prosthetics.

Costuming was always important in theater.  In large theaters, everything had to be bigger and more pronounced: actors had to overenunciate and gesticulate, and wardrobe and make-up had to be visible so patrons in the last row of the balcony could see and hear what was going on.  In films, cameras could pick up very minute details so make-up effects had to improve to be effective.  When it came to horror movies in the 1940s, most featured some terrifying creature set loose upon innocent victims, so obviously the single most important aspect of the entire production was the monster.

In 1941 the world was introduced to “The Wolf Man,” directed by George Waggner, and with it a new special effects feature: lap-dissolve progressive make-ups.  Lap-dissolves are essentially a sequence of graduated successive layovers of the same shot, with progressive changes.  As seen near the end of the film, after Lon Chaney’s wolfman is killed he is shown transforming from the beast back to a man.  For the process, Chaney had to sit entirely motionless for hours at a time while make-up and prosthetics were applied to achieve the effect.  While the effect had been attempted in earlier films, with the great success of The Wolfman this was the first time it had been seen by broad audiences and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  Audiences were introduced to a whole new means of depicting an unimaginable situation, and it both frightened and enthralled them.

As special effects progressed, so did storytelling.  And with each advancement comes the potential for overuse.  By the mid-1950s such effects had become commonplace and had lost their effectiveness.  So what were directors to do?  How could they scare their audiences?  The answer was a new angle on the maxim “less is more,” and it was perfected by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock enjoyed his greatest success from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and his auteur style reinvented and rejuvenated the horror/suspense genre.  He did not rely on garish images to instill a sense of fear, he used creative direction and production elements to masterful effect.  From claustrophobia-inducing close-ups to vertigo-inducing camera angles to nightmare-inducing sequences of non-gory violence, Hitchcock relied on another maxim to ratchet up his audiences’ tension: fear of death is worse than death itself.  By slowly, steadily, deliberately building to perilous crescendos, viewers were brought to fear what wasn’t shown on-screen, so Hitchcock was able to draw on the greatest resource available: the imagination.  Audiences had no idea what was lurking in the shadows, and he wasn’t about to show them until the last moment, if ever.  Horror was no longer about monsters, it was about fear itself.

And so it went until audiences wanted more – more blood, more gore and more carnage.  So to meet that demand, the 1970s saw a major shift in horror sensibilities. In 1974, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was one of the vanguard to usher in a new era: the slasher movie.  The movie boasted up-front, in-your-face, unapologetic slaughter, but most important was the realistic aesthetic: it looked and seemed real.  Whereas in the past horror was either fantastic (centuries-old monsters) or suspenseful (see: the shower scene from 1960’s “Psycho”), “Massacre” was gruesome and strangely close-to-home.  The characters weren’t well-to-do travelers or eccentrics, they were regular people trapped in nightmarish situations with no escape.  They were at the mercy of mankind’s basest impulses, and those impulses led to many a grisly demise.  The shift from suspense to gore didn’t exactly happen overnight, but it certainly landed with a resounding thud.

That thud would result in another, quicker evolution.  Once on-screen gore was in vogue, appetites were insatiable and audiences wanted more.  Not necessarily to see more blood-and-guts, but to see more stories about it.  It was almost like directors were given permission to include gore in their suspense-filled stories.  Gore had become a wonderful tool to underscore terrifying circumstances, and a spate of films were released that captured the best of both worlds: creative storytelling and shocking images.  What were these films about?  The unstoppable killer.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) combined elements of suspense, horror, family drama, and hormone-fueled teenage irresponsibility.  At the time of its release, audiences were certainly used to seeing bad guys get taken down at the end; however, when Carpenter chose to close his film out with the disappearance of unrelenting killer Michael Myers, it not only gave the audience one last fright before the house lights came up, it paved the way for sequels to build on the mythology.  Audiences wanted more, so more they would receive.

The next decade would see a spate of “unstoppable killer” franchises, including Jason Voorhees in “Friday the 13th” (1980), Freddy Kruger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), and Matt Cordell in “Maniac Cop” (1988).  Each installment escalated the violence and gore until it reached near-comic proportions, rife with preposterous circumstances (Jason in space!), snarky zingers (Freddy saying “It’s the chair for you, kid” to a victim in a wheelchair), and over-the-top kill totals (Cordell killing 19 police officers in one sequence).  This excess led to another dial-back, albeit not a visual one.

The 1990s saw an interesting introduction to the horror genre: intentional humor.  Tremors” (1990) was a monster movie that features several instances of genuine hilarity, “Army of Darkness” (1992) was as much a comedy as it was a gore-fest, and Carpenter struck gold again with the self-aware “Scream” (1996), which poked a little fun at the genre he helped create.  

“Scream” also ushered in an era of gore-fests featuring unusually attractive 20-somethings on the run from otherworldly forces and unstoppable killers, including “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997), “Urban Legend” (1998), and “Final Destination” (2000).  Many of these films saw multiple sequels and experienced the same spiral into ludicrousness as the unstoppable killer phase, but as the new millennium approached, so did a marked diversion in the approach to horror.

One branch was truly minimalist: found footage.  1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” blew audiences away with its “is-this-real?” vibe and spawned an entire genre that allowed aspiring filmmakers to produce low-budget movies with surprising quality of storytelling.  Eventually, “Paranormal Activity” (2007), “REC” (2007) and its American counterpart/remake “Quarantine” (2008), and “Cloverfield” (2008) would all become franchises in their own rights, inspiring dozens of similar movies.

The second branch was the supernatural kill-fest, which included many American adaptations of foreign films.  In these films, people find themselves stalked by some unseen, unrelenting supernatural force that is hell-bent on killing anyone involved (for… reasons, I guess?).  The common trait was the unstoppability of the murderous force, and many sequels ensued.  In the US this included remakes like “The Ring” (2002), “The Grudge” (2004) and “One Missed Call” (2008) that spawned not only sequels but in some cases reboots.  These were basically suspense films filled with jump scares and disturbing images.  But they were tame compared to…

The third branch of new horror featured highly produced, incredibly graphic complex stories, with the emphasis on the incredibly graphic part.  Commonly referred to as “splatter” or “torture porn,” these movies not only tried to scare the viewers with terrifying circumstances, they tried to gross them out with indulgent gore.

When “Saw” was released in 2004, it was both simple and complex: it was full of ultra-realistic gore but the graphic visuals were woven into a complex story that was equal parts drama and psychological thriller.  Some people enjoyed the grisly aspects, while others were impressed by the strong story, but ultimately it was a fantastic combination of elements delivered by strong storytelling.  This paved the way for other similar fare, such as “Hostel” (2005), “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005), “The Strangers” (2008), and “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” (2009).  And while the strength of story varied they all shared an aggressive visual style that was unabashedly grisly.  

Eventually the stylistic elements of these types of movies would be toned down to maximize on commercial potential in action movies like “Law Abiding Citizen” (2009) and in franchises such as “The Purge” (2014), and as the divergence solidified, another, more traditional method of horror storytelling would emerge (reemerge?) and rule the 2010s: supernatural horror (or good, old-fashioned ghost stories).

Ghost stories have always been around.  From campfire tales to dime store novels to movies and TV, they are as much a part of the fabric of creativity as romances and comedies.  A few examples from over the decades: “13 Ghosts” (1960), “The Amityville Horror” (1979), “Poltergeist” (1982), “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “The Others” (2001), with countless more in-between.  In the 2010s, ghost stories became all the rage with “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), and expanded to include possession-based stories like “Annabelle” (2014) and “The Boy” (2016).  As each of these films has generated – and is still generating – sequels, the genre shows no signs of slowing down.

Of course, there have been all kinds of genre-mixing horror movies along the way.  The 1950s saw a spate of scary alien invasion movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956).  In the 1970s horror and action combined in disaster movies like “The Towering Inferno” (1974).  In the 1990s psychological horror went mainstream with Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).  In the late 2000s even video games found their way onto the big screen with “Silent Hill” (2006).  

As long as there are people who want to take a break from reality and be scared in a safe setting like a movie theater or their own living room, there will be filmmakers who find ways to mix genres and create new ways of thrilling, shocking and disgusting their audiences.  Who knows what the 2020s will bring?  Will it be a return to the monster movie craze of the ‘40s and ‘50s or the suspense-driven horror of the ‘60s?  Will it be more attempts at redoing/modernizing the campy excess of the ‘80s, rebooting familiar characters like Jason and Freddy?  Or will it be something entirely new, a genre-bending expectation-defying paradigm shift like we’ve seen many times?  

One thing is for sure: it will be exciting – and terrifying – to see.

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