Horror movies can tell us a lot about changes in society. Changes in the execution and themes of films designed to both frighten and entertain usually reflect how the things a society mistrusts vary over time. From the German Expressionist films of the silent movie era to the modern “slasher” movies, there has been a shift in what people look for in scary entertainment. The mad scientists and body-snatchers of the early years give way to radiation-spawned nuclear terrors and monsters from outer space, which, in turn, are replaced by masked, unknown killers.
In the earliest days of film, people were just beginning to get over the skepticism of science and medicine. Prior to the 20th century, there was a widespread prohibition against the use of cadavers in medical research. This led to grave-robbing to obtain specimens. Organized religion was traditionally at odds with science and medicine. In fact, Claudius Galen, who wrote books on human anatomy from the study of pigs and apes, was the standard reference from ancient Rome until the end of the Middle Ages. Men who turned to science to solve the mysteries of life and death were considered heretics, and society mistrusted them. Mary Shelley, when only nineteen, wrote Frankenstein, a novel in which the main theme is the danger of man using science to usurp the powers of God. Although the novel is still read and filmed, it is less potent than it was when it was written in 1816, since today the average person has more faith in science and the scientific model of the universe. (No one who espouses the theory of global warming attributes it to an angry deity.)
The people of the Middle Ages were very superstitious and many actually believed in the legends of vampires, werewolves, and ghouls. The Church strongly encouraged the belief in witchcraft, and witch hunts were widespread across Europe and North America. Gradually, a combination of scientific advances and the new communications technologies to spread those advances in knowledge, such as the telegraph and telephone, eroded the beliefs of earlier times. But vampires and werewolves made the transition from oral folklore to literature and then into early films.
The classic horror movies of the first half of the 20th century can be divided into two general types – the mad doctor or mad scientist films, like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and the undead/possessed films featuring vampires, mummies, zombies, and werewolves, such as White Zombie (1932), Dracula (1931), or The Wolf Man (1942). These films were generally moody and atmospheric, evoking images of an older Europe where superstitions stilled held sway. The great German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) displayed a similar mistrust of those with advanced knowledge. Caligari, a highly recommended movie, used lights and shadows painted unto the backdrops to create a surreal landscape.
The period following World War II was a time when the fears of the world changed. No longer were doctors and werewolves a prime concern. Now mankind feared nuclear devastation and was so absorbed by the race to conquer space that little men from Mars took the place of experiments on dead bodies. Nuclear tests and the radioactive fallout begat such screen monsters as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla (1954), and Them! (1953), a giant ant movie that is widely considered to be the best of the giant insect movies of the ’50’s. Godzilla, or Gojira as it was known in Japan is actually a critique of the use of nuclear weapons by the US in WW II. With tensions rising between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was a great concern over which country would establish itself in space. In 1947, Kenneth Arnold witnessed several strange flying craft near Mt. Rainier. He described them as “flying like a saucer would.” This was the origin of the term “flying saucer” and led to widespread UFO hysteria. Films quickly took advantage of this and such movies as Invaders From Mars (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), which featured great special effects by Ray Harryhausen, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which featured normal people being replaced by “pod people,” neatly encapsulating our fears not only of aliens, but of the growing “Red Menace,” which threatened America from within as well as from outside. Body Snatchers worked especially well because it captured a paranoia about our own friends and neighbors being part of a vast conspiracy. The theme remained contemporary enough for two remakes, one in 1978 and one in 2007.
Stephen King once said, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” After giant monsters and space aliens started to lose their power to terrify, film directors started to fling blood and body parts around the screen in order to attract the horror movie audience. Herschel Gordon Lewis is widely credited as originating the “gore film” with Blood Feast (1963.) Other more visceral horrors followed, including the excellent Night of the Living Dead (1968), which never uses the word zombie. The premise is that a strange meteor has awakened the recently deceased and given them a thirst for human brains!
By the 1970’s, the scariest thing that most people in America had regular contact with was the nightly news. There is an old saying in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Violent and graphic footage of the Kennedy assassination, the war in Viet Nam, and the Manson family murders kept folks glued to their TV’s. So the next generation of horror movies, such as Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) eschewed mad scientists and giant insects for masked killers wielding deadly weapons, along with plenty of guts and gore.
So what will be the next evolution in the horror movie business? Who knows, but it will reflect whatever we are fear in our homes, in bed, late at night.
The one constant through each of these generations of horror films is the vampire. The undead blood-sucker never seems to go away. Proof of immortality? Probably not. Maybe the vampire is sexual, or stylish, or people are just fascinated by the idea of immortal life. Whatever the reason the vampire hangs around, that’s a debate for another day.