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.