The Historical Case of the Horror Film: Part 1


We often find February to be frightfully boring. It’s cold, dark, and lacking in fun holidays (I’m looking at you, Valentine’s Day). So, we’re jazzing this February up with some episodes on Horror! 

Ever since there has been life, there has been fear. It’s a constant, a truth, something that unites us all. And when humans gathered together to share their fears, those horrors became stories. Eventually, those stories made their way onto film. 

Horror is tricky. It’s a genre that many people love or hate–with no in-between. Some people write off many films belonging in the genre as low-budget and lacking in worthwhile stories or development. Others will simply say that they prefer not to be scared, and leave horror unexplored. Although scary movies are popular, they still sit on the fringe of mainstream filmmaking. Horror films rarely win prestigious awards. It’s a genre built for the masses; born in counterculture, and thriving in social deviance. 

So today, we’re exploring the history of this fascinating film genre. Things might get a little hairy…or slimy…or just downright grotesque. If you are faint of heart, gather close, and remember: it’s only a podcast…it’s only a podcast.


  • Horror is everywhere, and it has existed as long as humans began telling stories. You will find it in ballads, folklore, and mythology. Some of our favorite stories today were once horror stories, but time and technology have dulled the fears of the past. Horror is ever-evolving, and it’s shaped by whatever is the prevailing fear of the day. 
  • Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where it started, it is easy to see who refined the genre and shaped it for the coming generations.


  • Edgar Allen Poe is considered by many to be the father of Horror. He used literary techniques that enhanced the anxiety of the reader. One of these was first-person narration, which added a layer of realism by drawing the reader into the character’s account of the story. These situations are far scarier when we feel like they are happening to us.
    • Poe shaped horror literature with stories like, “The Tell-tale Heart,” a first-person account of a man going mad with guilt. The common themes of guilt and madness give the story a lasting appeal, and it is still adapted today (Spongebob being a notable example.)
    • Because the themes of Poe’s works were so universal, he has been adapted more than any other horror author.
  • But other authors around the same time also made an impact on the horror we know today. Horror writer Stephen King has cited three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the foundation of horror. These stories are perfect examples of the three types of monster: man-made, self-made, and back-from-the-dead. 


  • Moving pictures changed the world. Early filmmakers astounded audiences with the concept. But as time went on, audiences got used to the marvel of the moving image. Not long after viewers were famously cowering at the footage of an oncoming train, they were happily spending time in picture houses, handing over money to see the latest creations from artists like George Méliès, Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers. 
  • The shock had worn off, and creators could no longer rely on the sheer novelty of movies. So, they started using it to tell stories; and some of the most popular stories were the scary ones. Film was remarkable in that it could simulate life. And once audiences got used to that, it was only natural to simulate things beyond life–the fantastic, the unbelievable, and the horrific. 
    • Horror made its way into movies during the very early days of film history. You see, for many people, just the idea of moving pictures was horrifying. For the first time they saw real people that were moving and living their lives…but that weren’t actually there. They were stuck in some sort of black and white realm, without sound or escape. In this sense, every early film was terrifying; and it meant film and horror were a perfect match.
  • The Lumiere Brothers, two of the most influential film pioneers, made several short “spook tales” (they weren’t called horror movies back then) in the 1890’s. Spook tales were often created with the same techniques that spirit photographers had been using for a couple decades, and also drew influences from expressionist painters. Remember the word expressionist, because it has a strong tie to the horror genre. 
  • George Méliès, the stage-magician-turned-filmmaker who was renowned for his pioneering visual effects (listen to that episode please) is credited with the first narrative horror film! It was three minutes long and has a few titles, but we know it as, “The Haunted Castle.” 
    • Méliès continued to shock audiences with his incredible advances in special effects, making the impossible a reality for movie-goers. He created his pieces of art in his special glass studio, employing groundbreaking techniques like stop-motion and coloring his film.
  • Do you remember Stephen King’s trilogy of horror novels, mentioned earlier? Well, those stories were also some of the first narratives to make it to film as well. In 1908, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde got its first film adaptation, though like many early films, it has been lost. 
  • Thomas Edison also got in on the fun, and is also credited with some early horror as well, even if not intentional. Some will point to his infamous film depicting the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant as another example of early horror. The film was intended to show the dangers of Alternating Current. This is an example of someone using graphic imagery to instill real world fears into an audience. It’s important to note that Edison also electrocuted other animals for this purpose, though Topsy is the most famous. 
    • In 1910, Edison created the first adaptation of Frankenstein. At this time, there started to be resistance to horror, an unfortunate and ultimately predictable response from those that felt it insulted their delicate sensibilities. Because of this, Edison cut the story to fit a 14 minute runtime, and published a press release stating that changes to the story were made so the film wouldn’t offend audiences. The movie was a commercial failure.
  • Horror, as a genre, responds to the times. It’s ever-evolving, changing to meet the fears of its audience. The history of horror films is a history of the world, but more than that, it’s a history of human response to the events of the world. 
    • Much like early horror stories, the earliest films focused on the themes of religion and good vs evil. The word monster even has the latin root “Monstrum” which translates to “divine warning.” These movies harnessed the fear of eternal damnation, with monsters committing sins on screen, and the heroes using religious talismans to defeat them.
      • For example, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows the consequences of interfering with God’s design. 
    • Another prominent fear of the time was science, especially since science seemed to interfere with religious ideals. A mad scientist creating a man from the mutilated corpses of other men? That doesn’t seem to be in God’s plan. 
    • By the mid-1910’s, the world was engaged in a terrible war that wiped out an entire generation of young men. Suddenly, reality became more terrible than anything that a screen magician could create. The so-called “War to end all Wars” was so instrumental in the development of Horror films, the aftermath of the conflict is still affecting movies today. 
    • In an article for Vice, Seth Ferranti interviews historian W. Scott Poole about the effect the war had on the genre. Veranti writes: “A whole conceptual world died. Certain ideas about the nature of the human being, and optimism about the human future became impossible in a world of poison gas, machine guns, and shells that could tear a human being in half.” 
    • When asked why he believes that the war was responsible for modern horror, Poole explains: “What I have seen in the writings of veterans, including those who became some of the first horror auteurs, is a desire to compulsively relive the trauma over and over again. Horror is a language of trauma.”
      • The war introduced new kinds of fear: Mutilation, dismemberment, and the ghosts of those that died in horribly tragic ways. Film monsters would have missing limbs, reflecting injuries that many sustained in the war. 
  • Due to a ban on foreign films, the German film industry boomed during and directly after the war. The horror films that came from this period were heavily influenced by German expressionist arts. The sets were abstract, representing emotional themes and the mental state of the characters.
    • This concept has lasted throughout horror. Have you ever noticed the scenery change in a horror movie based on the mood of a character? Sometimes it even happens when we’re afraid in real life, when our senses are heightened. 
  • The German expressionist films of the 1920’s featured prominent fears of the time. Mental illness and losing control over your mind or body were more fears caused by the war, and the PTSD that soldiers now dealt with.
    • “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” dealt heavily with mental illness, as it deals with a protagonist wrongfully imprisoned in a mental hospital, facing an evil doctor. However, the film is framed in such a way that the audience doesn’t know who is sane. This kind of uncertainty gives the audience a feeling of unease, and is a technique still used today as well. Does everyone remember the Leonardo D’Caprio movie Shutter Island?
      • Roger Ebert in his review of Caligari: ”A case can be made that ‘Caligari’ was the first true horror film. There had been earlier ghost stories and the eerie serial ‘Fantomas’ made in 1913-14, but their characters were inhabiting a recognizable world. ‘Caligari’ creates a mindscape, a subjective psychological fantasy. In this world, unspeakable horror becomes possible.”
    • Building on mental illness, the screenwriter for Dr Caligari famously plagiarised Bram Stoker’s Dracula and created the horror classic: Nosferatu. 
      • Although the story was completely lifted from Dracula, director F.W. Murnau essentially created the movie vampire archetype, and his features have been famously used again and again.
      • This particular film had a heavy dose of realism with some of its scenes, and it reflected fears relating to sex and women. Of course, the nature of Dracula is sexual, and we will talk about that more later. But Nosferatu also showcased the fear of women in power, of women not being under control (sleep walking), and also explored disease, since the Spanish Flu epidemic was still fresh in everyone’s mind. 
    • Because the sensation of going to the movies felt so much like sleeping (dark room, strange images) sleep was a common topic as well. Monsters in these movies often strangled people in their sleep, which was effective to an audience seated in the dark.
    • Many of these films also reflected sexual politics. Like the issues of promiscuity, especially from women. The German film “Warning Shadows” is about a woman being stalked by shadows, warning her of the consequences of flirting with party guests (sheesh.) 
  • As German filmmakers immigrated to the US, Expressionism followed, influencing horror films for decades to come.AMERICAN FILMS OF THE 1920’S
    • The films of the 1920’s showed the truths of the time. These truths showed the doubt that the film-makers felt towards the sentiment that all men were created equal. The KKK and war were two of the most forthright examples of this inequality.
    • Lon Chaney
      • We’ve talked about The Man of a Thousand Voices, Mel Blanc, but now we can talk about someone many refer to as The Man of a Thousand Faces, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney. At this time looks were everything because it was still the time of silent film. Lon mastered disappearing into roles, with the help of make-up and physical performance. Since his parents were deaf, he had learned to amplify his emotions through facial expressions and movement. 
      • Lon is known as America’s first horror movie star and the monsters that he often played on screen were ordinary men turned outwardly monstrous by cruel fate and inwardly monstrous by the cruel actions of humankind. 
      • Loss was a fear among this time. It was the loss of family members from the war and the loss of limbs (and the loss of alcohol due to Prohibition.) American life was tough at this time and Lon Chaney’s outsider personas represented the dark side of life.
      • Two of Lon’s movies that survived and are excellent examples of this are: the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1925 Phantom of the Opera.
        • These movies also gave rise to the romantic love viewed as what we would call today… a Beauty and her Beast. 
      • Towards the middle and late 1920’s silent films would begin to become a thing of the past and “talkies” the new form of cinema. 
    • After facing the horrors of war just before the 1930’s America would be hit hard again but this time by the Stock Market crash of 1929. It was then that Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
    • In the 1930’s, horror got a new voice when Tod Browning’s Dracula took America by storm. This was the first of the Universal movie monsters, and it is a perfect example of the types of film audiences were yearning for. It was quickly followed by Frankenstein, an incredibly successful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work, starring a fairly unknown Boris Karloff. American horror in the 1930’s took place in far off lands, and featured supernatural elements. While the horror of the 1920’s expressed how people were feeling, the horror of the 1930’s served as escapism for depression-era audiences. 
    • The first four years of the 1930’s is considered the Golden Age of Horror, as films produced villains that viewers identified with, and created stories that sparked imaginations.
    • A combination of that escapism and the novelty of the talking picture skyrocketed horror into the mainstream. Audiences’ mental health had been ravaged by the depression, so this type of horror seemed “safer,” lacking the grotesque and uneasy sensibilities of the 1920’s silent horror. The ability to hear a monster changed everything about how audiences would perceive them, and the advent of sound forced filmmakers to reinvent horror.
    • On her site,, Karina Wilson says about this time: “Filmmakers of the time were drawn to the Genre That Didn’t Have A Name Yet because of the opportunities these dark tales offered to break taboos, exploring the lurid and sensational as well as probing deep into the sexual and criminal elements of the human psyche. The characters in these movies lived in out-of-the-way and out-of-time-places, outside the usual boundaries set by moral conventions or even the laws of physics. On screen, they had the freedom to run amok, flirt (even with the same sex), consume all manner of illicit potions, use violence to get their way, kill and — most blasphemously — create new life. It was inevitable someone would come along to spoil the fun.”
    • In 1934, all film changed forever with the introduction of the Hayes Code. The code unsurprisingly focused some rules at the horror genre, specifically stating that all movie monsters must die by the end of the film. (This explains why every disney villain got got.) 
      • Moral leaders of America (that we talked about in our MPAA episode please listen) were outraged by this type of entertainment, and argued against characters committing heinous acts in an entertaining way.
      • Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein showcased the concept of sympathetic monsters. Although audiences may have grown to love the characters, the film killed them off due to the Hayes Code.
    • Increasing censorship and lack of new ideas caused the American horror film to grow stale as the 1930’s marched on. Increased anxiety about turmoil in Europe hearkened back to the ghosts of WWI, and the fears of real life began to creep onto the screen. At this time, film’s most horrible monsters were human.
    • By the end of the 1930’s, horror had declined drastically, a long fall from the golden age of Dracula and Frankenstein. The production code even removed lines from previous movies that it deemed too offensive. The early 1940’s was a rough time for horror. This shows how detrimental censorship can be to art. When horror wasn’t allowed to reflect the times, the art suffered.
    • The 1940’s horror started with the mad scientists, villains that seemed just vanilla enough to not be too upsetting. In these types of films, the villain was science, not the scientist. They often seemed like victims of pride, a lesson audiences grew tired of learning. 
      • These films also introduced more romantic plots in horror movies, which was very different from the loveless depictions of sex and promiscuity of the 1920’s.
    • Screenwriter Curt Siomak had a Jewish background and fled Germany. He penned the screenplay for The Wolf Man, creating a story about someone who feels unwanted and outcast. The story was heavily influenced by his feelings of the war.
    • By 1941, the fear of the looming war was completely realized for Americans, and the memory of the not-so-distant Great War sat at the forefront of viewers’ minds. For this reason, the monsters of the past were given a little bit of a make-over to seem more campy and less horrific. 
      • Most of the time when war happened horror would try to keep up in shock value, but this time was different. Some Film-makers realized the immense real fear and horror at the images and video of the holocaust. Not only could they not compete with that but they knew their audience had changed. In order to accommodate this they jived the genre up by releasing more light hearted horror where old monsters were made to be just a bit sillier. An example of this would be that the Invisible Man became the Invisible Agent(1942.)
      • The most upsetting imagery to come from the 1940’s was from the aftermath of the Holocaust. There was absolutely nothing that movies could show audiences that would be nearly as terrifying. Hitler’s rise and his atrocities rocked the world. 
    • Since WWII was costly, many studios had to approach film with a minimalistic style. This would not only save them money but also be an artful approach to how films would be made. In the darkest imagery Americans could imagine their own worst fears coming to life.
    • Horror in children’s films
      • Due to the change in audience for horror, especially with some being toned down, horror began to be thought of as something for children. It began to trickle into animation. Walt Disney would even dabble in its use with smaller scares. An example of this would be in Pinocchio when the children are being turned into donkeys. This scene is actually quite harrowing for some children, but for those that enjoyed this scene it was clear that they would be prone to enjoying more horror.

The history of horror is as long as the history of film. Today, we talked about how it went from the outskirts of popularity to the mainstream, and then how it suffered from censorship and lack of ideas. But as years went on, past the 1940’s and beyond, horror continued to evolve. Sure, you could say there are mainstream horror films, but horror isn’t made for the mainstream. Horror is a genre of outcasts, and appeals to the outcast in all of us. As Horror evolves still today, it is quite possibly the most studied of all genres because it’s such a clear picture of the human experience. 

This was just part one of our exploration into the realm of the Macabre. Don’t fear, we have more frightening history on the way…


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