Horror Movies, Why We Love [Some of] Them

Why [do we pay to watch horror films]? Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show we can, that we are not afraid, that we can survive the roller coaster…We also go to reestablish our feelings of essential normality.

It is a right of passage. The first horror film. Every Halloween, millions sit down to watch or rewatch movies where people are vivisected. Foolish teens meander down dark corridors. Vampire bite virgins in their beds. In the 1930’s, people trembled as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff occupied the silver screen, bringing Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster to life. However, it may be hard to believe that Dracula and Frankenstein frightened anyone from our modern standpoint, after nearly a century of fictitious and real world horrors.

It is no secret that some horror films lose their power over the years, and, while the aforementioned films are undeniably great, they may no longer be “scary.” But what is scary? Surely not just a series of “Boos!” and dark corridors. People can handle more than that. If anything, overexposure removes the fear from a spooky monster or trope.

Only the very best films rise to prominence in history. Films that are both good and scary. Films that capitalize on something a little more than just jump scares. There have been numerous films that found success in their day, but failed because they failed to capitalize on true, underlying terrors.

But what does that even mean?

Look at Years Past

Like most love affairs, the public’s love for horror is inherently conditional. Looking at the scope of horror will establish that trends come and go out of style.

Boris Karloff in James Whale's 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein
Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein

In the 1920’s, the greatest horror films dealt with physical deformity. Phantom of the Opera featured a man twisted on both the outside and inside. Nosferatu‘s Count Orlock had more in common with a rodent than a human being. During the 30’s, elements of this remained, but had taken a slightly more metaphorical approach. Universal’s vast catalog of horror films dealt with monsters that perverted human nature, but could very well look normal. Dr. Frankenstein played God. Dracula corrupted purity. Im-Ho-Tep defied death and tradition to find his own happiness. The Invisible Man–well, obvious explanation as to why he’s out there. Even lesser known films like The Black Cat dealt with very clear perversions of nature. Boris Karloff’s character is essentially a devil worshiping necrophiliac. And the hero (Bela Lugosi) skins him alive in a cruel, sadistic fashion.

The clear conclusion here is that horror films capitalized on different societal fears in different eras.

But why is this?

Take a look back at the 20’s. Post-World War I. People went to war whole, but came back broken and damaged. Some lost limbs, but many more came back with invisible scars. Emotional scars. While today we understand PTSD and trauma far more, back then the soldiers were essentially told to man up and deal with it. This caused many to go into deep depressions, disconnecting from society.

And the movies served as a means to capture the distrust and pain.

Then comes the 1950’s–with the Atomic Age, the Cold War, and McCarthy Hearings. People feared that science would bring about the end times, or, if not science, then the end times came in the form of groups of people different from them. A “colder, unified” people. When one looks back at the horror films from that era, one finds horror films capitalizing on these societal anxieties. For those fearing science, you have Godzilla and Them, monsters birthed from atomic warfare. On the Cold War front, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Throw in the infamous Roswell Incident and UFO Mania, and now aliens pop up. The Thing From Another World. Why not combine it all and get the masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still?

Shrugging off 50,000 volts.
Unstoppable nuclear destruction…

The 70’s were a world unraveled. Post-Vietnam, post-Charles Manon, post-MLK assassination. Nothing felt right. Order that had dictated society for years fell away. 1968 saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, both obvious responses to real-world trauma at the time. This continued with The Exorcist, where even the innocence of a child is no longer safe.

Again, these are the master pieces. The ones that stand the test of time. And, again, one can do this with every decade. And many have. But, while that is captivating, perhaps what is more interesting is when horror films don’t connect.

Or, at least, might not connect at the time.

Disconnected

There are many reasons why horror films may fail. One of the most obvious being that they might just suck. Ed Wood made a career (or at least tried to) making low-quality horror films, many of which paid tribute to his favorite films growing up. Bride of the Monster is a z-grade movie where Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist making monsters in a laboratory. This contains all the elements of a horror film from the 30’s, from the set design to casting Lugosi. Sure, the production values are awful and the acting is wooden, but, had this been released 20 years earlier, it might have found success. But he tried making a 30’s horror film in a very un-30’s environment. Even his later “classic” Plan 9 from Outer Space had a 1930’s and 40’s sensibility while trying also to capitalize on 50’s tropes (aliens, most notably). Yet, even in an era where low-quality horror films found some traction, these films remained forgotten until after Ed Wood’s death.

The fact that Wood’s films failed to impress critics is almost irrelevant as to why they failed financially. A lot of lame films found success in their time by finding an audience who, at that time, wanted what they offered. In the 1980’s, Friday the 13th stood atop all the competition. The films are fun popcorn films, but aren’t really that well-written, well-acted, or anything. The appeal comes from watching teens get sliced up, and most of those teens are fairly forgettable. Meanwhile, a movie like John Carpenter’s The Thing, itself a remake of The Thing From Another World, failed at the box office and with critics. No one liked it…at the time. Now, most horror fans regard it as one of the greatest horror films ever made. At the time, no one cared.

A blockbuster flop.
A blockbuster flop.

Why is that?

Perhaps the greatest example of an undeniably great horror film failing at its time is Peeping Tom. The film came out in 1960, the same year as Psycho. Both are remarkably similar films, except that Peeping Tom ruined the career of its director, failed to impress critics, but succeeded at disturbing audiences. Only years later did anyone actually admit the film was pretty good.

If one accepts the theory that horror films thrive on the cultural fears of their era, then the reasons why these films all failed in their day becomes obvious. Ed Wood made nostalgic movies from a time past. Only when ore people became nostalgic for the past did anyone discover his films. John Carpenter’s remake came a few years too early, and only now in an era where paranoia has overtaken our society, in a post-AIDS era, can we truly fear a movie about a microscopic alien that can turn the people you trust into Lovecraftian monstrosities. And only now, after the hardship of the 60’s, can people appreciate a film detailing the cruel underbelly of crime.

This happened even in the 30’s. After making Dracula, Tod Browning had the chance to make his dream project: Freaks. The film nearly destroyed Browning’s career. The world wouldn’t be ready for that film until years later.

All of these films are “great” movies. Plan 9 from Outer Space may be the most poorly made film before The Room, but it is hard to forget it once one sees it. The rest are part of the classic horror pantheon. They all had either memorable characters, memorable dialogue, memorable visuals, or something else that kept them stuck in the public consciousness for years.

But in their day no one saw them.

If one takes into account that great horror films exploit the fears of their era, this is logical. But what about the opposite? What of horror films that lacked anything beyond the exploitation of fear in their day?

Faded Glory

Have you seen Dracula lately? Most of Universal’s Horror films hold up (the scene from Frankenstein where the monster innocently drowns a young girl is still a profoundly disturbing moment), but Bela Lugosi’s star-making role feels…underwhelming. From a technical standpoint, it is filmed like a stage play and the whole thing feels stilted. Whenever Bela Lugosi isn’t on screen, the film is dull.

Let’s move forward in time. The 50’s brought a ton of Creature Features to the cinema. Films like The Crawling Eye and Tarantula filled the tropes of the great horror films…but were only walking in the footsteps of titans. They lacked something else, something truly scary. While successful in their day, now they’re mostly forgotten.

Hard to be afraid of a thing that's scared of crosses...
Hard to be afraid of a thing that’s scared of crosses…

They pioneered something society feared at that time. They traversed territory that WAS unknown, but now no longer is. Unless you have characters, scenes, imagery, etc to keep a story memorable, it fails to move a person. If horror films are reactions to societal issues, there needs to be an element of universal fear that keeps things potent. Not just the fear of its time, but the fears of all time.

Universal Fear

Frankenstein is a universal morality tale that never loses its potency because man will always fear what science will bring next, but the film presents everything in a manner that feels meaningful. The audience is shown Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession. Shown is clear ignorance of the risks and flaws. But also is shown that he genuinely believes he is onto something amazing. The monster in turn isn’t evil, but actually an innocent child rushed into a world that cares little for it. Society hates him because of his nature. That is something profound, and that is something that remains with the audience after they go home.

The Exorcist succeeds where so many other similar horror films fail because the first half of the film tries to rationalize the supernatural elements of its film with science. Only when science fails do they suggest “maybe take Reagan to an exorcist.” And, even then, the church doesn’t take her seriously. Compare this to literally every other exorcism film since, where the first solution is “grab the holy water and let’s go!” There is no sense at any point in these imitations that the authorities won’t know exactly how to treat the possessed victim from the get-go. There is never any doubt about what is going on. The closest a modern horror film has come to this is The Taking of Deborah Logan, where the symptoms of possession are confused with dementia, and, until the serious supernatural stuff starts happening, it isn’t even clear if the film IS a possession movie. Think of how often in this world people go undiagnosed with serious symptoms until it is too late, and, even then, the possible cure for the individual’s ails is either “experimental” or “unsafe.”

The point is that these films that survive age well. They tap into more than just the fears of their day. The films that exist only in their era can no longer survive outside it. And, therefore, fade away.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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48 Comments

  1. Peace
    0

    I’m a big fan of horror movies that doesn’t involve too much violence or creepy jumpy scenes.

  2. Handi
    0

    If I’m gonna watch a horror film at home, everything has to be set. Bladder emptied so I don’t have to risk going to the bathroom and experiencing the ludicrous and deliberate thrill of frightening myself by not turning on the light, snacks, a smoke, booze and my fella. Oh and the duvet. Even in summer. If I’m watching a proper horror film then yes the duvet – it could be 35 degrees in the shade (at night!) and I will still need something to hide under.

    Human fear of horror may be unique to us as a species. I’m not sure if there are any other creates who deliberately terrify themselves for entertainment (as if humans haven’t created enough real life terror) but then humans ARE strange.

  3. fraser
    0

    Supernatural, paranormal, satanic horror – yes.
    Gore-fests like Saw or Hostel – no.

  4. North
    0

    My main reason for my love of horror movies is the fact that I never outgrew my love of fairy tales.

  5. aaron
    0

    I’d rather watch a movie that disturbs me and not one that depresses me.

    • Atwood
      0

      So true. A good fright vs. a good cry? I’ll take horror any day.

  6. Ivy
    0

    The last horror movie I watched was The Blair Witch Project. My cousin and his girlfriend picked it out. I watched it against my better judgement,and sure enough after the movie when they were going home, I remembered that we were going hunting the next morning. At 4 o’clock in the morning the woods are spooky, add a scary movie to the mix and you’ve got a terrified hunter. Every sound was just like the movie. I was scared out of my mind. When finally the sun began to rise, I was beyond relieved. I vowed to never watch another horror movie, and I haven’t.

    • The Blair Witch Project is also the last scary movie I intentionally watched. I remember returning home after and being alone in the house. I went out and stood in the street so other people could see me.
      More importantly though, I think what works in movies that scare us is the belief that even though it may be unlikely, it might actually happen. this seems to agree with the article in that the movies that remain enjoyable and appreciated are those linked to themes that we continue to fear and therefore we still think they might happen.

  7. The desire for real thrill after watching horrifying and disturbing images without actually being in danger is why people like such movies.

  8. Tamm
    0

    I hate horror films. Even listening to the audio track of a trailer for a horror film upsets me, and I avoid doing so. I have felt this way all my life (I am now in my late 50s). I am sure there are other people like me. I

    • Sofia
      0

      I cannot stand horror, at all. And I do not understand why others do, despite reading articles like this to find out their reasoning. I see the reasons given, but cannot seem to accept them as such. These reasons do not make sense to me, at all. I understand what is talked about but I just can’t see those things as a reason to like horror. I want to understand but I just can’t do it.

    • Erika
      0

      There is nothing worse than watching a horror film. I agree the sound tracks set the mood and even if I’m not watching a horror movie just the soundtrack can scare me.

  9. flex
    0

    I find myself laughing a little after I have been frightened, it’s like a shock to the system in a way.

  10. DUKE
    0

    I think people like a variety of things from mind altering substances and masochism.

  11. homage
    0

    I think I craved to watch horror films as a child in order to endure fear and survive it, Perhaps subconsciously I was training myself to better endure the real-life chronic psychological terror of my home; my mother would unpredictably trigger into a rage state and become violent towards us (she had an at the time undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder.). She was as scary as any film monster, to a small child.

    I was quite terrified of my own mother, so watching the horror films in which the victims survived and triumphed over the scary monster was gratifying: horror films with happy endings, like fairy tales, gave me hope.

  12. Dario
    0

    @agramugl you are a great writer thank you for this piece. Is there a way to get in contact with you via email / social media? I didn’t dig too much into the piece admittedly but I am interested that you’ve gone into the roots of the genre and are able to ask some pointed and important questions (like whether horror is bound to culture). You should look into the documentary on the making of ‘The Thing’, they actually discuss why the film wasn’t successful (iirc it had a lot to do with their release schedule as I think it premiered with some very heavy hitters). Its hard for me to say culturally what is a ‘timeless’ horror classic but maybe it starts with the atmosphere? Its possible horror stories originated around the fire at night as this adds to the spoken word, but a true story that is horrifying can be just as much during the day time without a fire and interesting voice. So yeah sorry about hijacking your thoughts and insights here just wanted to share what was on my mind.

  13. It was q good article, but your examples were a bit overwhelming at points. This is a flaw I share as well in writing. If I could recommend, do a compare and contrast with each era, explaining one ones still scary and the other isn’t.

  14. klik
    0

    I either find horror movies hilarious or terrifying there is no in between

  15. Twelve
    0

    Horror games are much scarier than movies.

  16. Shumate
    0

    I love horror: fascination about the unknown, it represents what you fear, but you are in a safe, comfortable environment to expel your fears.

  17. Sawye
    0

    i love scary movies and one time i was watching a movie and when i was walking home one day i thought i was going to die

  18. SarahKnauf

    I adore horror as a genre. Comparing real world events to the horrors we see in the movies is a fascinating concept; it always occurred to me to compare headlines with events in other genres but for some reason never horror. Ironically as I make this comment I’ve got Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” playing in the background; an ode to 1970s horror but more of a fetishization of violence than true horror. I’m wondering what your thoughts on recent acclaimed films like “It Follows” or “Don’t Breathe” are.

  19. Beal
    0

    It’s like the feeling of jumping out of a plane, without actually having to jump out of a plane.

  20. Arlean
    0

    Suspense is the thing that excites us.

  21. I love horror movies! They are my favorite genre of movies, by a mile. There are a lot of crappy horror movies out there, but the good ones are just so good that I can’t help but love them. I’ve recently fallen into a rabbit hole of watching old B horror movies that are just so terribly made. I love it.

  22. I feel like any movie has to appeal to its era and its audiences in order to be successful at its release. Even though horror movies are a great example of this, there are many movies outside of this genre that follow the pattern of failure at their release, but become successful years down the road when their story becomes relevant.

  23. Emily Holter

    Scary movies allow us to excite our darker imagination and still come out alive.

  24. Emily Holter

    Scary movies allow us to excite our darker imagination.

  25. I could never get into the horror film genre, but I appreciate the historical/societal context you give for why different types of horror films succeeded or failed in their day. One suggestion I would have for your future articles is to indicate what the images you chose are from.

  26. Andre Fernandez

    I agree, and I also believe that this can be applied to many movies outside the horror genre. For example, Rocky IV that was released during the Cold War era. There are many movies that you mentioned that I haven’t seen and will take a look at them.

  27. I loved this insight into one of my favorite movie genres. I couldn’t agree with this more.

  28. Horror is very much a genre of film that goes through the most rigorous criticism by society. As the article discusses, it is very easy for a horror movie that might be terrifying at a specific period in time to be later regarded as very corny and goofy. That is why the “best of the best” horror films, which manage to appeal to so many generations and a variety of cultural differences, justify their high regard. They are able to withstand criticism, continuing to tap into our primal human fears.

  29. Horror films definitely capitalize on us. On whatever fears we have and or whatever fears are prevalent in era. Essentially it is a master mindful plan – we pay you to scar us, you just have to know how.

  30. I saw “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” two Christmases ago for the first time, and I was amazed at how well a film from the late 70s could hold up to modern horror standards. It truly understood how to make a film that was continually unnerving, not just “eh throw the lights off and make a spook happen.”

    Most modern horrors fail because they have such inflated budgets, they’re pretty much resigned to show that cash as much as they can on screen, ruining subtlety.

    • I also had the chance to watch the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” for the first time a few months ago. I went in knowing that the film is what truly inspired many modern day slasher flicks, even if it was not highly praised by critics of the time. On top of that, the film caused a great deal of controversy which is understandable for its time of release. Keeping this in mind while watching the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” allowed me to appreciate and thoroughly enjoy every single aspect of the film, regardless of how cheaply made it was.

  31. I used this King article a number of times to show students that reading requires active work when looking at every thing. I used the the period of of the Old universal Monsters and compared it to then more modern horror movies. Students were able to see the deeper themes that both sides used. This article brought back those memories..

  32. Marshall Jenkins

    If the films can survive outside their release era is an interesting way to critique them. It Follows intentionally masked its timeperiod to project that this story is universal outside of societal norms of the time. Stories that rely on tech or a cultural zeitgeist (Unfriended, The Ring) have unconciously instituted a timed decay where an audience will not be able to connect to a characters plight if they cannot relate to the restraints of their ability to survive a situation (cell phone failures, dropped skype calls.)

  33. Interesting article. It’s never crossed my mind to ask if a film has survived outside of its era, but now I feel like going back through the lengthy list of horror films I’ve watched and doing some research.

    “The Thing” is my all-time favourite horror film, and now, asking myself your article’s question, I believe it has survived. Its harrowing theme of complete isolation and its limited makeup techniques for the given time period, such as using microwaved bubbled gum to represent bloody viscera -something now that would most certainly be CGI, are just so concrete. It makes sense that its upheld as the best of the best.

  34. Interesting. I do agree that the zeitgeist of the time can play a lot into the success and failure of horror films and their overall effectiveness as time passes. The ones that transcend and become classics usually take on those subjects while taking on more universal themes that can be terrifying at times.

    I kind of wish foreign horror was brought up more, though. To compare the sensibilities of different cultures and how they view what’s scary for them.

  35. The horror genre has become so saturated there needs to be some serious innovation.

  36. I’m obsessed with the classic horror movie films such as Friday The 13th or the original Alien. I truly believe that horror movies in this day in age focus on the gory aspect and not much of the thrills. I can also predict what is going to happen while I’m watching the film for the first time because they make them all the same now. We need more diverse characters, plot twists and thrills a.k.a not the typical demons taking over a kid’s body and killing the family one by one. Millennials needs to get more creative in the horror genre.

  37. Horror films have always been my number one pick during movie hour. I love the thrill it gives me and the built up suspense. I can watch films from 20 years ago and still experience the same chill i had the first time i watched the movie. Horror films will never lose that with their audience because its always something that keeps you guessing. Friday the 13th has been out for decades and has been made over and over many times, but i still go back to the original and i am still scared straight.

  38. Agreed. I love to watch horror movies.

  39. shazia
    0

    Interesting

  40. Very true. I would so much rather watch something “scary” than sad. It touches some of my fears that I didn’t even know existed

  41. Horror movies have always been my favorite genre of movie. Maybe we all love horror because humans all feel fear the same way, whereas emotions such as happiness or love are all experienced in different ways.

  42. I enjoy watching horror movies.

  43. This film category is successful because it strums at universal elements within all people. Just as everyone dreams of the perfect love story, who hasn’t entertained the thought of superhuman strength that affords the bearer his just revenge, or the ability to transcend natural limits? From animal-like (Dracula) transformation to machine-based (Terminator) alter states, the unthinkable and the unimaginable will always astound and surprise.

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