The Roots and History of the Horror Film


Linda Blair in "The Exorcist"
"The Exorcist"

                Each genre has a specific effect on the viewer. When it comes to the horror genre, that effect is fear. The horror genre has a very unique history, for unlike genres like the film noir or the gangster genre, the horror genre originated in Germany with the expressionistic movement. World War I affected numerous lives. The decade following the war was crucial for the horror film genre. It was in the 1920’s that saw German Expressionism develop into full form. Prior to that period (during World War I), all studios were controlled by the German government in order t produce propaganda films. Foreign movies were banned till 1916 but this ended in 1921 and German cinema benefited a lot from the situation. The reason for that being is, after the First World War UFA (Germany’s major studio at the time) was fully capitalized and hired the most talented German filmmakers to put cinema back on its feet. From that moment on, the horror genre was changed forever.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"

  It was the decade that saw German Expressionism in the form of film (it was already dominant in many other art forms). German Expressionism was a movement that had movies focusing on the mood and atmosphere of a movie which would be central and crucial to the future horror film. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was the first horror film and the first step triggering the movement. The movie which came out in the formative period (period when genres are formed) of the genre had a huge influence and impact on world cinema. Unique angle shots, exaggerated sets, theater like acting, and unusual makeup were the main elements that defined the expressionistic movement. For the first time in cinema history, these elements combined, or the mise en scene in general was there to reflect the psychological state of mind of the characters. The movie was basically expressing the pain and confusion Germany was going through at the time. It reflected the times and the state of confusion Germans felt following the war. According to film historian, Rick Worland, Dr. Caligari represented authority as he ordered his companion to go on a killing spree. Just like the Germans a few years back were ordered by authority to go and kill the enemy. All the elements and conventions associated with the genre can be traced to that crucial moment in horror history, the moment when “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” first hit theaters.

A creepy score, dark atmosphere, haunting mood and the fact that the movie reflected its time were the main conventions that triggered what would in the future be considered a horror film. The success of the movie inspired more of the same, movies like “The Golem, “M”, “Metropolis”, and “Nosferatu” followed. However with the start of Nazi Germany and the end of the 20’s, many of these revolutionary German filmmakers fled to the United States. Once there, these same filmmakers did what they did before, they changed cinema forever, only this time it was in America.

John Carpenter's "Halloween"

Universal Studios saw great success in the early 30’s, with “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” coming out in 1931. Again, the most obvious reason for the success of these horror films in the US was the times. It was the era of the Great Depression and fear was spread across the nations. Many viewers could identify with that emotion when sitting through a horror film. What’s most fascinating is how similar to German Expressionism both movies were. The shared the mood, the score, the idea of the other (a person different from everyone else in society, in this case the monster), and of course the element of fear mirroring that period. The horror genre soon became the most controversial and argued over genre in film. Especially with Cracaur’s first book on the horror genre ever released, “From Caligari to Hitler” being published in the 1940’s. He argued that German Expressionism was a way to promote and encourage fascism. The basis of his argument was that it was a way for the audience to escape reality yet mock it at the same time. “From Caligari to Hitler” had a huge message behind it and from that moment on, horror films were always associated with the ideological or political status of the period.

"Night of the Living Dead"

  Robin Wood was also very important in the periodic development of the genre. His theory was that there were two aspects underneath ever horror film. The first was Freudism and how we as viewers have certain things in our subconscious that we tend to block or repress due to what society taught us. What made horror films scary was that these aspects were forced upon the viewers and the spotlight was on the strange and “un-talked” about.  The second element under Wood’s theory was the Marxist idea of how each society had a ruling class. This ruling class had an ideology that was applied on the entire society. (I’ll give an example later on how this can be applied on horror films such as “Night of the Living Dead”) In order to fully understand his theory we have to break the horror genre into periods, and so while “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” came out in the formative period, horror films such as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein are considered to have come out in the golden age of horror film or the classical period (the period when horror films and their conventions were all set and not tested upon, people knew what they were in for when watching a horror film). It is movies like “Blood for Dracula”, and “Night of the Living Dead” that are considered to be part of the revisionist period (the period when people played with the horror conventions and toyed with where they could go with the genre). Anyway the idea of the working class being presented as zombies attacking the higher class in “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and many other George Romero films are perfect examples of Wood’s theory. Wood’s argument of basically “revenge of the repressed” was proven to be very much true. The idea of “the other” was argued over and Wood believed that how the issue in the plot of the horror film was resolved established the movie’s ideological message. For example if by the end of the movie, the zombies or “the repressed” take over the city then that’s exactly what the message the filmmaker is sending to the world.

"The Others"

To this day with the many phases of the horror genre from the slaughter phase to the slasher phase in the 70’s and 80’s, the horror film was never the same again. Instead of being there to primarily scare audiences, they were taken seriously for the themes and messages they expressed. In “Halloween”, teenagers are the victims for there was a sudden explosion of unsafe sex and drug use with the under aged which explains how most of them are killed while committing any of these two acts or taboos. After the birth of the slasher genre in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, it was “Halloween” that influenced and triggered the movement and “Friday the 13th”, “Nightmare on Elm Street” and their many sequels followed. By the nineties, the phase was dead till Wes Craven came out with a mocking of the subgenre in 1997’s blockbuster “Scream”. During the second half of the nineties there was a brief shift and focus on supernatural ghost stories with movies like “The Sixth Sense”, The Others”, and “Stir of Echoes” dominating the period. The decade ended with the huge success of “Blair Witch Project” which triggered the handheld documentary like horror film. Movies like “Open Water”, “Quarantine”, “Cloverfield” and this year’s “Paranormal Activities” shared the same idea as their sub genre creator. Unfortunately, the shift the horror genre is taking is what many would consider the downfall of the genre. There only seems to be two types of horror movies, remakes (“Texas Chainsaw massacre”, “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, “Halloween”, the upcoming “Birds” remake, etc.) By remakes, Japanese remakes are included as well (“The Grudge”, “The Rings”, their sequels, etc.); the second type being the documentary handheld horror film which only proves to be worth our time once every twenty failures. A genre that was once respected and hailed for its brilliance (ex. “The Exorcist”) is going downhill faster than any other genre in film. The conventions are still there, the horror isn’t. Back then the idea of the movie was what scared us all, now “the idea” has been replaced with “jump out of your seat” moments. Hopefully this will change in the future. Who knows, maybe the great Martin Scorsese will put the genre back on its feet with his upcoming original horror mystery, “Shutter Island”. There is still reason to hope. 



27 thoughts on “The Roots and History of the Horror Film

  1. I think one thing that is slowly killing the horror genre is, instead of focusing on mood, most of these films are focusing on shock value. The original Nosferatu doesn’t scare me, but it’s eerie. The same goes with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, though one version I saw had a score that made me jump at one particular scene. If you watch any movies before the 1970s, they all focus on mood and plot. Halloween may be the last film to focus on mood, though the plot is simple (which is not necessary, in this case, because the whole movie is focused on mood and on its characters, something that most later horror movies overlook for cheap scares).

    Another thing that hurt more recent horror films (and this I take from Ebert) is the advent of sound, though I would argue that it’s not the advent of sound so much that hurt horror movies, but the use of too much sound. Notice, for example, how little sound there is in the opening to Halloween. Perhaps that is why John Carpenter did not put words into his villain’s mouth, knowing that words would ruin the horror.

    Interesting that you categorize Metropolis as a horror film; most people would categorize it as a science fiction film. Yet there are elements of horror in the film, and indeed, Fritz Lang shows a fear of mob mentality in this film. And, of course, it is a high point in German Expressionism (with a new, longer version to be released soon).


    1. To clarify: Halloween doesn’t need a complicated plot, because its horror comes from its mood and its characters. I just read my above comment and realized that what I wrote might be taken as meaning that the plot doesn’t need to be simple because of its focus on mood, which makes no sense.


      1. Hi there…welcome back..I’ve been looking forward to your comment on this article. I haven’t heard the “new” score of Dr. Caligari…is it any good? I’m not a fan of people butchering classics though. I totally agree with you on the Halloween comment. The film is simply perfect when studying mood. No matter what you feel prior to wtching Halloween, you will end up feeling what the movie demands…You were right on the shock value killing the genre. I think Ebert’s comment on the sound is true as well for whenever there’s this “loud” jump out of your seat moment, it reminds me of when a movie tried to scare us based on the atmosphere and creepy characters rather than loud noises and over done violence. In order to do that they had to develop the characters. Michael Myers is one of my favorite villains and part of the reason was that he was so silent and yet I felt like I knew how messed up he was. In the new Halloween we get too many scenes explaining his childhood and why he is the way he is, at the end he just becomes plain boring and not scary at all. I’d love to hear your take on both of the Halloween movies…maybe you should rewatch them and write a blog entry on them hehe…you seem like an expert when it comes to the original must felt terrible hearing tha it would be remade into utter crap.


  2. You can see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (w/ updated musical score) on Youtube. I believe this is also the version that Ebert recommends in his Great Movies section.

    Here’s the Youtube link:

    And Ebert’s Great Movies essay:

    As for Halloween, the ending was perfect. PERFECT. So why did they make a second movie? Well, the first one made money. Among other asinine additions to the series found in the sequel is apparent proof that Michael Meyers went to medical school (notice how he kills his victims in the hospital), and a plot “twist” that allowed filmmakers to make several more crappy sequels. Its only positives were that the nurse in the makeshift hot tub had very nice breasts, and it wasn’t as bad as any of the Friday the 13th movies–though, in that case, the bar is set quite low (with the possible exception of the 2nd movie, which is still nowhere near as good as the original Halloween).


    1. Very well said! I agree the original Halloween ending has got to be one of the greatest endings in cinema history. I felt the same way about the endings of films like Some Like It Hot and believe it or not Heat. Simply perfect endings. Anyway, I will check out the updated version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. What are some of your favorite horror movies?


  3. Well….. you first mentioned “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” , “Holloween”, and other classics. These are great ones.

    And there are other fabulous ones. “‘The Shining”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “La chute de la maison Usher “, “Don’t Look Now”, “Alien”…..

    At least, some remake is better than you expect. Although being less satisfying, “The Uninvited”(remake of Korean horror movie!) emphasizes on atmosphere, not on cheap shocks.


    1. Of course some remakes work but most of the time they fail to impress me. “The Uninvited” was a good horror movie due to the good acting but still I wouldn’t consider it a great one. The days of great horror movies seems to be over…would you classify any horror movie of the past decade as a great movie?


      1. Yeah, it is quite funny that movies from other genres are more scary nowadays, like “No Country for Old Men” or “Inconvenient Truth”.

        By the way, I will watch “Collapse” someday. Judging from Mr. Ebert’s review, it seems the movie has everything I have worried about and more. Even reading the review was quite frightening for myself.


      2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was very scary! As for “No Country for Old Men” I agree there were times I was this close to just leaving my seat..Chigure is one hell of a character. Two scenes that were scary in that sense are the supermarket scene at the gas station and the taking out the lightbulb in the corridor scene…it gives me chils just thinking of that scene.

        I still haven’t seen “Collapse” but I’ll check it out as soon as I get the chance. Documentaries are much harder to get your hands on in Egypt…even for a movie critic :S


  4. ” The days of great horror movies seems to be over…would you classify any horror movie of the past decade as a great movie?”

    What about Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth? Its on Ebert’s Great Movie list. It doesn’t come across as a horror movie to some people because it focuses not only on the horror but also the poetic– graveyard poetry as Charles Baudelaire would have it. The Pale Man scene, however, did scare Stephen King. His movies are important to the direction of the horror genre because he draws ideas from the literature and the visual art of that genre. Del Toro will also be remaking Frankenstein, and I think he is either producing or directing Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness”. Needless to say that I am a Del Toro fan.


    1. Holden Francois you have a point and I’ll admit you proved me wrong. I don’t know how I missed that one. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is one of the greatest movies regardless of the genre. It does include some scary and creepy bits and even though it isn’t the traditional horror film, i would still classify it as a fantasy horror war drama hehehe. I also thought of “The Others” recently…I think it too is a great horror film and in my opinion the best ghost story ever told..still if yu think about it..look at us…we’re naming two maybe three horror movies out 10 years of filmmaking. It’s still a decline in the genre based on its history. I mean honestly speeaking whenever I go into a horror film my expectations are very low and I leave with them barely meeting those low expectations. They rarely succeed. I didn’t know Del Toro will be directing a remake of “Frankenstein” wasn’t the mvie remade a mere decade ago starring Robert De Niro? Anyway, it may be interesting and better than the hrrible 90’s version. I know nothing about “At the Mountains of Madness” though.

      Btw isn’t Del Toro supposed to be directing “The Hobbit” next or was it postponed?


  5. No doubt the horror genre is dying. Twilight and New moon was a real killer for the vampire story. Del Toro will be directing the Hobbit next certainly. Frankenstein is still in a long line up of other projects and so is At the Mountain of Madness. I hear the projects talked about in web-articles and interviews a lot so I’m not indulging too much in my expectations. I was actually in anticipation for Pan’s Labyrinth to be released for months before it came out and had to drive an hour away because it was only shown in few cinemas. The Orphanage was a superb ghost-story, maybe not a great movie but one of the best horror films of the decade. And what do you think of the ” The Descent”? I thought it was good in the traditional sense (the ending being similar to the ending of “the Thing”,) and it somewhat pushed bounderies by placing women characters in stronger roles that men would normally take on. I don’t get all hyped out with a lot of the new horror films myself.


    1. While I did like “The Orphanage” and thought it was excellently told I still didin’t think it was scary. It may be one of the best of the decade but that in itself isn’t that impressive coming in such a weak decade for the horror genre.

      “The Descent” was horrofying and reminded me a lot of “Aliens” combines with the dark atmosphere of “Alien” so yeah I liked it a lot. It was a very good horror film but I wouldn’t call it a great one. Great horror films are those that make me think about them long after I’ve left the theater. “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Others” are the only horror films this decade that had that effect on me.

      Can you tell me more about “At the Mountains of Madness” project because I can’t find the plot of that upcoming movie anywhere…


      1. The Descent was creepy, and probably the best of the recent batch of horror films. Cloverfield wasn’t bad, either, but it was good, not great. I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth or The Others yet, so I have to say that the last great horror film I saw was The Blair Witch Project, with The Descent being a slightly lesser film in comparison.


      2. Literarary Dreamer..i know you love literature and urge you to get yourself a copy of “The Others”. The movie feels like one of those J.S. Le Fanu ghost stories written in the 1800’s..a time when people believed in ghosts more than ever. I love that movie…and I’m positive you’ll love it too. The cinematography, acting, screenplay, and directing blend so well together…it’s truely a rarity in the genre.


  6. Apparently news about an ATOM movie started at 2006. The last bit of news about the continuation of it’s developement was in 2008.– here is the link. One can also wiki GDT, as I have done, and find a bit of info about his upcoming projects. If the link doesn’t work, I just searched ATOM in the GDT fan site.
    I saw “The Others” a long time ago and remember seeing it more than once. I am encouraged to see it again. I may find something new that I didn’t see before.


  7. hello,i have been stuck trying to connect the evolution of horror with the evolution of history, can you explain how each decade from 1900s 1930’s 1940’s so on to 2000’s major events have influenced the change of horror films, i have one example i have figured out like in 1940’s horror was fading out because of WW2 everyone had seen real horror no one wanted to watch filmed horror.
    so could you please help me with explaining how the 1950’s events like teenager, atomic age, cold war etc changed that year of horror and also the major events for 1960’s 1970’s 1980’s 1990’s and 2000’s, i need help , hope you can help 🙂


    1. Your question can only be answered in book form. 🙂 It would take me thousands of words to give you a reliable answer. I can however, point you to the right direction. “The Horror Film” by Rick Worland is perfect for you as it looks at the horror film’s evoltion based on the historical times. Hope that helps.

      Best Regards,
      Wael Khairy


      1. thankyou for your reply, i was wondering if you know atleast one point for each ?
        if not i should check out the book do you know where i will find it , like would my uni library have it? ta


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