The Evolution of the Horror Genre: How Did We Get Here?

By: Gideon Small

The newly released horror film It is an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror book about a clown who uses his childlike persona to lure kids in and eat them up. It is also the newest addition to a growing group of big budget horror films whose primary purpose is to scare as many people as possible. Along with It, Hollywood producers have invested millions of dollars in other horror films such as The Conjuring, The Cabin In The Woods, and The Purge. Today’s moviegoers are paying top dollar to get a good scare. The recently passed Friday the 13th is the perfect time to look back at the horror genre and ask ourselves how it became what it is today.

The genre of horror films can be dated back to the likes of the 1910s and 20s and movies such as Nosferatu and Dracula. However, due to the great advancement in technology from that time, as well as the limited word count eligible for this article, we are going to fast forward some thirty years to movie director Alfred Hitchcock, AKA the master of suspense.

        Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work ranges from the 40s to the 70s, but he truly made his first mark on the horror genre in 1960 with his first horror film, Psycho. When Psycho came out, it was considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. People didn’t want to take showers after watching the movie due to its infamous shower scene in which the protagonist is brutally murdered in a sketchy hotel bathroom. That scene, and the movie at large, has blood spewing everywhere, brutal fatalities, dangerous weapons, and an antagonist with a severe mental disorder. This was the real first slasher-horror film. Hitchcock took already uncomfortable and off-putting subjects such as severe mental illness and murder and intensified them to horrific proportions to scare the audience as much as possible. And the best part was, people ate it up. It grossed nearly $500 million (adjusted for inflation).

          This is the first real example that demonstrates that people enjoy and will pay to be frightened to extreme extents. Psycho set a trend that continued to gain traction for years to come. Not only did subsequent horror movies look to scare people with blood and guts, but they also went as far as identifying specific aspects of what society was most scared of at the time the movie was being made, like Hitchcock’s use of mental illness, and attempted to amplify that specific fear in the movie. For example, in the late 1970s, the rape count in America was at its highest in history. The fear that you would be molested was prevalent in America, so what did movie makers do? They made one of the most lucrative horror movies of all time about an alien creature preying on crew members on a spaceship. In 1979, the horror film Alien was released. The plot is about a group of astronauts stranded on a spaceship 10 months away from earth, trying to fend off an eight foot alien with a hunger for human flesh. What made the movie especially scary for audiences in the late 70s were the overtones of rape within the movie. In the beginning of the movie, a smaller alien creature boards the ship uninvited, rapes one of the male crew members orally, and gives birth to a smaller, soon to be more vicious man-eating creature through the chest of the raped male crew member, killing him. To put a cherry on top of the whole idea, the tagline used to advertise the film was, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The movie made both women and men cross their legs, and the craziest part of this whole story? It made nearly 200 million worldwide.

        We can continue to look back in time and find dozens of examples of movies preying on people’s worst fears and exaggerating them to scare the audience as much as possible, reaping high profits in response. But, if you ask a teenager or young adult today whether Psycho is as terrifying as it was for the people who saw it nearly 60 years ago, nine times out of 10 they will tell you they were either a little frightened or not frightened at all. However, if you ask those same people whether or not they thought It was scary, nine times out of 10 they will tell you they were scared.

          Over time, movies have gotten progressively scarier, as if we as a society continue to become numb to what initially was considered terrifying. We have already established that a proven method for box office success is to scare the audience as much as possible, so horror films’ only way to keep up with people’s demand for nightmares is to continue to make movies scarier and scarier. Why do we have this thirst for terror? Why is it that we as a nation continue to need more and more thrills to stay hooked on horror movies? What is our addiction to the adrenaline rush we experience every time we step into a movie theater to watch a horror flick? Our growing numbness to violence and brutality is perhaps caused by our constant access to real-life horror stories from the Internet. Violence and crime is commonplace, and because we’re now able to hear about it more often, the fear factor of these things have lost their impact. Because of our continuous request for more and more thrills, and horror movies consistently doing whatever they can to meet our demands, we know that scary movies aren’t going away anytime soon. Surely, they will only get more frightening from here on in.

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