The Historical Case of The Horror Film: Part 2

So last week, we started Frightening February with a horrifyingly historical episode on Horror Film History. Well, this week, we’re continuing to look at how the genre evolved through the decades. 

Art often imitates life, and vice versa. If there’s anything we learned from last week, Horror art is no exception. Follow these films, and you will find the history of our fears, and how we responded to them. This week, we’re starting in the 1950’s, when the fears of communism, war, and radiation poison were ruling the lives of the American public. This week’s discussion will stop at the end of the 1980’s. But don’t worry, after this month, we won’t be closing the book on Horror history forever. 

So snuggle up with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. And just so you don’t forget: 

It’s only a podcast. 

Last week we ended our discussion in the 1940’s, when vampires and werewolves were the least of the world’s concerns. A great depression ended in a world war, bringing old fears from The Great War back into the light. Hollywood took notes, and instead of trying to compete with the real-world horror of the atomic bomb and The Holocaust, they lightened up on horror films. But, as the decade went on, new fears guided the pens of screenwriters and the lens’ of directors; and the horror films of the 1950’s were on the horizon. 

  • A TRAUMATIZED AMERICA
    • Although the second world war appeared to be over, it left some nasty scars. 
      • After America caused devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of the atom bomb and the effects of radiation started to manifest at the local cinema. 
        • This led to films about giant monsters, huge insects, large people, and even gelatinous blobs!
          • The truth was, audiences were no longer interested in horror that took place in far-off and non-existant lands. They wanted to be shown the dangers of their own society. 
          • So, the movies of the 1950’s delivered. But, instead of giving audiences terrifying realism, they comically exaggerated the common fears of the American people.
          • This was the time period where horror fell further out of the mainstream and into B-movie territory. The plots seemed silly, but the scares were real. The stars of these films weren’t considered for the A-list, and you wouldn’t see a movie like, “The Blob” on the Oscar shortlist either.
            • Also in the 1950’s, theaters started employing gimmicks to get people to pay the price of admission. One of these was 3D viewing, which was really popular with horror audiences.
          • But no matter how popular (or unpopular) the genre was, it always served its most loyal fanbase: the outcasts. It was the people that didn’t fit in that flocked to the theaters to watch the lives of on-screen conformists get ripped apart by hideous monsters.
        • Monster movies didn’t just come from fears of radiation poisoning. In 1952, courts ruled that films were free speech, and censorship from local and state committees ceased (Seriously, please listen to our MPAA episode if you haven’t). This was incredible news for horror, as monsters could run amok on-screen once more.  
        • In Japan, filmmakers harnessed the destructive power of radiation and created the king of 1950’s monster movies: Godzilla (Go listen to that episode, please.) 
      • The atom bomb also forced Americans to consider the possibility of the end of days, and what kind of world humans would leave behind. The 1955 film “The Day the World Ended” was the first to address this existential question, and stories concerning the end of man-kind would carry over into the next decade.
      • Americans (and the world for that matter) had been trained to watch the skies for signs of attack. A current arms race and Cold War with the Soviet Union only heightened the fear that something would be coming from above.
        • In 1947, there was a mysterious crash in Roswell, NM. A local rancher gathered the debris from the site, which was then seized by the government. A press release referred to the downed object as a flying saucer, and a later press release corrected that statement to say it was a weather balloon. 
        • It’s well known that humans fear the unfamiliar, and nothing was more alien than…well aliens from outer space. Of course the fear of an alien invasion was not new in the 1950’s (hence the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in the 1930’s) but it was clear that this fear had returned and wasn’t going anywhere. So, spacemen were a popular subject matter in many 1950’s Sci-fi/horror films.
      • In the early 1950’s, aliens were depicted as a terrifying threat. The Thing From Another World (1951) was an example. John Carpenter, who would remake the film in 1982, was drawn to the ending and how they destroyed the creature with flame. Another example came in 1953, when aliens appeared on-screen in HG Wells’ sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds.
        • These films enhanced the mentality that we should destroy that which is different. It was much more popular for film aliens to be invaders, not lost species’ looking for a way home.
    • Sure, a great big monster with several eyes and sharp teeth seems pretty scary. But, do you know what’s even scarier? The monsters that we can’t see. After a depression and a war, America seemed to be on the mend (if you were white). Americans were desperately afraid of losing the picturesque ideals they had been promised. They were terrified of losing the American Dream. And in that sense, nothing was a greater threat than communism. 
      • The Red Scare instilled the fear of invaders, posing as regular folks, living in the same pink houses as they did, sitting ticky-tacky all in a row.
      • By the mid and late 1950’s, films started utilizing this concept. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” (1956) masterfully combined the dangers of mob mentality with the fear of alien takeover–all while serving as a metaphor for the red scare. They look like us, they talk like us, they could BE us.
    • These fears penetrated the perfect society that Americans wanted to believe in, exposing the darkness that lay beneath the apple pie and lemonade.
  • 1960’S 
    • Bob Dylan said it best when he sang, “The Times, they are a-changin’.” And boy, was there a lot of change in the 1960’s. Every decade brought about its own shifts in technology or world events, but the 1960’s were all about reform. Of course, this meant the movies changed as well.
    • The 1960’s were marked by the civil rights movement, sexual revolution, violence, and anti-war protests (especially against Vietnam.) 
    • We mentioned that the death of the Hollywood Production code meant less censorship in the 1950’s, but the effects really started to show in the 1960’s. In the Supreme Court Case of Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson in 1952, it was found that a movie could not be banned because it is deemed sacrilegious. It was declared that, “Expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guarantee of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” By 1968 the Hollywood Production Code was completely abandoned, which allowed filmmakers to really explore taboo topics like sex and violence. Horror started by challenging social norms, and it could finally return to its roots.
    • Much like the 3D of the 1950’s, early 1960’s horror also featured the gimmicks of Williams Castle. He issued special glasses to viewers of his film “13 Ghosts,” which he called, “Illusion-O,” in 1960. In 1959, he installed something called, “Percept-O” in his theater for the showing of a film called “The Tingler.” Random theater seats were set up to charge with electricity to simulate audience panic during the film.
  • Back in the 1940’s, noir thrillers were quite popular. One filmmaker, Val Lewton, created films that walked the line between a noir thriller and a horror film–supernatural creatures with human situations. Psychological thrillers didn’t make it into the 1950’s, against the creature features and gimmicks. But in the 1960’s, a filmmaker emerged that brought this type of scare back to the cinema, and changed modern horror forever.
  • It’s impossible to talk about 1960’s film, without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock. While movie restrictions faded, film-makers became bolder and began seeing how far they could push the limits, and Hitchcock was no exception. His movie Psycho (1960) would change the genre (and film) forever. The film was based on a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. After Hitchcock bought the film rights, he famously bought as many copies of the book as possible, to prevent people from reading it and learning the ending. This ensured his film was be as shocking as possible.
  • Before Psycho, the majority of horror focused on Gothic Romances. Psycho would bring in ideas that are closer to the horror that we have today. It displayed sexuality, depicting a woman in her undergarments, implying that she had sex outside of marriage (TV shows were still showing married couples sleeping in separate beds at this time). Although there is some debate about whether it was the first American film to show a flushing toilet, it was still groundbreaking for doing so. The shower scene showed that nobody was safe, even someone who had more screen time at that point in the film than any other character. It also played on audience expectations with a twist, showing that even the most ordinary of people could be diabolical. 
    • We can even thank Hitchcock for having set movie times. Since Psycho was so dependent on being seen from beginning to end, Hitchcock was insistent that nobody be permitted into the theater after it began. At the time it was common practice that the movies would be on a sort of loop and you could walk in whenever, finish the movie, and then stay to watch what you had missed in the beginning. If Psycho had been seen that way, the ending would ruin the affect of the beginning. 
      • Three years later, Hitchcock continued to push the boundaries of what audiences were willing to watch with The Birds. This film was also psychological, but it shook audiences with a new kind of movie villain that they would never be able to control: nature. The most disturbing part of the film is that there’s no explanation for the attacks, showing that the characters live at the complete mercy of the beasts.
        • Copycat Movies
          • Since these two movies were such big hits and pushed the limits on what crowds were willing to see, many other film-makers tried to upstage them by creating bigger shocks or more violence. One director, Herschell Gordon Lewis, took this direction so far that he is responsible for a horror subgenre known as “splatter.” These films focus on graphic portrayals of blood, as the name suggests.
  • In the 1960’s, ghost stories were another form of horror on the big screen. Another monster that falls into the psychological category, some films never explicitly state whether the journeys of the protagonists are “real” or not. But, their survival usually hinges on their recognition of what’s happening, and their mental state. These films often featured female protagonists. At this point, it was popular to show a beautiful woman in terror or agony in horror films. You could argue this was popular as early as the 1920’s, but Alfred Hitchcock is credited with making this a prominent trope. 
  • Another product of the psychological thriller era, was Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone. Many episodes of the classic show preyed on abstract fears of its audience; like loneliness, and the capability of men turning on each other. 
  • Due to its B-movie-status in the 1950’s, there weren’t a lot of well-known actors that were considered horror stars. In the 1960’s, Vincent Price was possibly the most popular horror actor.
    • Vincent Price has been known and remembered for his work in horror films even though this made up a small portion of the films he starred in.
      • Some of his most well-known are, “The Last Man on Earth” and “The Tingler,” which we mentioned earlier! His distinctive voice and ability to bring an unsettling presence to the screen left a mark on horror fans everywhere.
  • The late 1960’s is still known as one of the most tumultuous times in American history. It was filled with violence and fear, along with a rise in counterculture. Now that films could show blood, filmmakers didn’t hold back. They used the medium to spread messages to their audiences. Looking through the horror films of each decade, you can see the warnings that filmmakers desperately wanted to express; from environmentalism to racism to xenophobia to war. 
    • George Romero was one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time, and is fondly known as the Father of the Zombie Film. Although his 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was not technically the first zombie movie, it is the most influential in what would become a zombie trend and set most of the lore that is held behind them.
      • George Romero was a big fan of making statements within his works. However, one that he didn’t mean to tackle was the problem of Racism in America. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” he says, “Why do you do horror? Well you do it to upset the uppercut. But in the end it kind of gets set back up again. We kill the monster, and I didn’t wanna do that.” In order to accomplish not killing the monster, Romero (spoilers) instead kills the main character who happens to be a black man.
  • 1970’S
    • It’s safe to say, the horror genre only got bloodier as it ventured into the 1970’s. Filmmakers built on the fundamentals of horror that had already been created, mixing psychology with gore, using horror to send a message or to express themselves. In terms of history, the 1970’s seemed to be a more mature 1960’s. Building on the pain and turmoil of the previous decade, the violence in Vietnam continued on–as did the sexual politics of the time.
      • Some films still focused on the topical issue of war, like Deathdream (1974). This film follows a soldier that was presumed dead, as he returns home from the war and starts to exhibit strange behaviors. 
    • George Romero sure did start a trend with his flesh-eaters. Audiences gobbled up zombie films, as more and more were produced. 
      • Copycat zombie movies took over an entire section of horror. Over the years many more continue to be added with many of the same “rules” that began with “Night of the Living Dead.” The major contributing factor in this is surprisingly a lapse of copyright! Originally the movie was to be called “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” When the title was changed, the distributor failed to put the copyright on the final print and it entered into the public domain. This unfortunate accident would be in the end a happy one, for it has grown the zombie horror genre exponentially. 
    • As the war in Vietnam raged on, Americans felt divided. It was a type of class warfare in the states: Rich vs Poor, Young vs Old, Us vs Them mentality. 
      • Larry Cohen’s film, “It’s Alive” focused on the alienation that parents felt from their children. What happens when you’re afraid of the thing you love most? 
      • This also perpetuated the “keep it in the family” concept of horror films, where the family’s secrets are best kept as secrets.
    • As horror films included more sex and violence, they became known as Savage Cinema. Films like “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes” used graphic violence in a meaningful way. They depicted horrific acts that should insult viewers, to great effect. 
      • In The Last House on the Left, we see a naked kind of violence. Films often justify revenge violence, but this film promoted the message that violence is always ugly. The protagonists act just as violently as the antagonists, and it does not undo the harm that the antagonists caused to begin with.
    • One of the most iconic of these films is the Texas Chainsaw massacre from 1974. Many horror films begin with a sense of calm to lure in the viewer and make them feel comfortable before traumatizing them. Texas Chainsaw Massacre did no such thing. This film told audiences what it was from the very beginning, by bringing them into a world unafraid of gore. This film gave audiences the sense that there was something wrong with America.
    • Much like the 1950’s, 1970’s horror still had roots in the American Dream. Films like The Stepford Wives created a reality where that dream was manufactured, turning something that Americans strived toward, into a nightmare.
      • The Exorcist was a film that traumatized audiences by letting them connect with the lives of the classic American family. Nothing is more precious than a young child, and watching a demon destroy the dreams of a law-abiding American family, filled audiences with dread.
    • Since sex was previously a taboo subject, the 1970’s tackled it with reckless abandon. The proposal of The Equal Rights Amendment ignited conversations about sex, and women were becoming more powerful on screen. Just 10 years before, women were often the victims, and now they could be the heroes or the antagonists–they could be anyone.
      • Sexual liberation was a prominent theme in the film Shivers (1975) where a group of people spread parasites through sexual contact. The parasites make them essentially sex zombies, definitely something new for major motion pictures.
      • Among other horror themes, sex is prominent in 1979’s Alien as well. The aliens hijacked the human reproductive cycle, with graphic imagery that mimics that of giving birth, and seems to show the violation of the human body.
    • In 1975, film changed forever when Steven Spielberg debuted the first summer blockbuster: Jaws! Spielberg tapped into the sentiment that Hitchcock attempted with The Birds a little over 10 years before. Against man, nature is an unstoppable monster. He utilized the uneasiness and suspense, paired with John Williams’ iconic score–just as Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” theme helped make that film a masterpiece.
      • Jaws was an important moment for horror, because it brought it back to the mainstream. The film was high budget, and showed that the genre was growing in popularity.
      • It was another instance of American middle class life getting shredded. 
    • The horror of the 70’s was a beautiful culmination of fears and concepts from the years before. Movie-goers were still dealing with The Cold War, with Vietnam, with the shock of Charles Manson and the still-developing concept of the serial killer (they weren’t called that yet, though). So John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween, built on the films of the past while also forging ahead where no film had gone before.
      • In an homage to Psycho, Carpenter cast Janet Leigh’s daughter as the lead in his low-budget slasher film. It ended up being a break-out role for Jamie Lee Curtis, as she plays the timid virgin that fights her way to the end of the film. 
        • Halloween took the concepts of Psycho (pre-marital sex, unmasked killer, and even a similar score) and applied them to teenagers. Horror stories had been used to dissuade teens from having sex for generations, and here was an updated example. 
        • Carpenter later said that he was “punished for killing sexually promiscuous girls” in the film. 
        • Producer Debra Hill pointed out that the character who isn’t promiscuous ends up being the one to “penetrate” the killer with the knife. She has no sexual release, and this is her character’s outlet.
      • Filmmaker John Carpenter said of the horror movie process: “Audiences don’t want something too horrible. That’s not entertaining for them, they wanna be entertained. They wanna have a good time. They don’t mind some of the characters on the screen getting bumped off even if in terrible ways but you can cross a line and the audience will turn against you. And if you’re a filmmaker you can sometimes use that to your benefit by teasing the audience. The audience will be like God are they gonna show me something I don’t want to see? It’s great because then the audience provides most of the action for you in their heads.”
    • By the end of the 1970’s, Zombie movies were still going strong. They were like the tofu of the horror film world, sending any message and holding any meaning necessary. George Romero is often remembered for using his zombie to parody consumer culture. In 1978, he brought us Dawn of the Dead, a continuation in his Zombie series that he would make several installments in throughout his career. 
      • And as we know, Zombies would never die.
  • 1980’S
    • The 1980’s were a call back to traditional values. A new President, Reagan came into office and while many felt that his new policies would help the country, others felt like they were restrictions on freedoms. The horror movies of the 80’s would address this by bringing horror into the normal everyday suburban American life.
    • Film-makers would even be able to do this more convincingly as technology, animatronics, and liquid latex were improving SFX and VFX. It would be a decade of excess. Excess of consumerism, horror, and Stephen King (lol).
    • Building off John Carpenter’s Halloween, films like Friday the 13th continued to place teenagers in murderous situations. This film followed some of the same tropes that had been built and perpetuated in the 60’s and 70’s in regards to sex and horror.
    • To further bring home the American ideal, it was quite popular to go after the Soviets, as the Cold War neared its end after forty years. Americans still clung to their dream of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, striving for the picturesque moments captured in Norman Rockwell paintings. 
      • The concept of something sinister lurking in the most unexpected of places certainly hearkened back to the 1950’s and 60’s, and would explain why films like “Little Shop of Horrors” got remade at this time.
      • This concept was also promoted in the film Poltergeist, even in its trailer.
      • Because history repeats itself, there were plenty of horror remakes in the 1980’s. But one of the most prominent was John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. Carpenter said that the film was a bleak look into the future. He was inspired by communism and the fact that no one seemed to trust each other. This was true in the 50’s, and it was true in the 80’s.
    • Stephen King
      • Stephen King’s novels and short stories lended themselves well to the cinema. In the 1980’s, many filmmakers took advantage of these stories and brought them to the screen. Some of the most notable of course being The Shining, Creepshow, Cujo, Pet Cemetery, and Firestarter. 
      • In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White and Blue,” Mick Garris says, “Stephen King is the horror version of Norman Rockwell. His characters live in your neighborhood.”
      • It’s impossible to cover the amount that Stephen King has contributed to horror cinema, and we will talk about him more later. But it’s important to note that these stories are still influencing movies and shows today. (Stranger Things?) 
    • If it feels like we’re repeating ourselves when we draw parallels from the 50’s to the 80’s, it’s because we are. Just like in the 1950’s, Horror became a spectacle again, with horror camp films becoming cult classics and fun spectacles to enjoy with friends. It became clear that filmmakers could have fun with these films, and that horror could be lighthearted. 
      • Some films walked the line of camp and horror, like “Nightmare on Elm Street.” One of the most iconic characters of the decade was Freddy Kruger, with his striped sweater, fedora, disfigured face, and hand with razors. He would often have funny one-liners that would bring a little lightheartedness to the horrors that he was committing. In the documentary “Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue” Freddy is compared to FDR. Freddy kills the children of those that murdered him, bringing the punishment of the parents’ sin down on the children. FDR during the arms race brought debt onto the children of America.
      • The Evil Dead was meant to be a serious delve into the horror genre. It was edgy and excessive and ended up being cut by 49 seconds in the UK version for its obscene visuals. When it was released into the public, the over the top scenes, blood, etc made the film comical even though this was not the intent.
        • Since the first Evil Dead had become seen as comical, Sam Ramey leaned into this and created Evil Dead 2. He went all out with shaky moving cameras and over the top effects. If a normal amount of blood in a scene would call for one gallon, Ramey would insist on 10 gallons. 
      • These films receive a lot of recognition, but a lot of horror camp stayed out of the mainstream. These were the movies that garnered cult followings, and explains why the 1980’s is synonymous with campy horror films. One of these was Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It’s one that we (Robin and Marci) remember seeing as kids.

And horror camp of the 1980’s is probably a good place to stop for now, you know, before things get too scary. We will get to the 1990’s and beyond someday soon…

Remember, history often repeats itself, as does horror. It’s incredible to think that we can be afraid of the same things that people feared many years ago. Horror can transcend generations if it taps into the fears that make us human. Sometimes we don’t find something as scary as we once did, and that type of horror will dip out of the mainstream, only to find its way back years later when old fear reignites. 

Our journey through Horror Film History will be stopping here for now, at the end of the 1980’s. Sure, there is a lot more to talk about, and a lot more to go back and dive into. In terms of the genre, we’ve just grazed the surface. The best way to learn about horror films is to watch them. So get out that remote, friends, and come back and see us soon! 


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