Horror Films: Why We Like To Watch

"If movies are the dreams of the mass culture... horror movies are the nightmares"
— Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Horror is an ancient art form. We have tried to terrify each other with tales that trigger the less logical parts of our imaginations for as long as we've told stories. From the ballads of the ancient world to modern urban myths, audiences willingly offer themselves up to sadistic storytellers to be scared witless, and they are happy to pay for the privilege. Theories abound as to why this is so; do we derive basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which fear brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and showing the macabre fate of those who transgress?

Horror movies have long served both purposes. They deliver thrills by the hearseload, as well as telling us stories of the dark, forbidden side of life (and death) – cautionary tales for grown ups. They also provide a revealing mirror image of the anxieties of their time. Nosferatu (1922) is not simply a tale of vampirism, but offers heart-rending images of a town beleaguered by premature and random deaths, echoes of the Great War and the Great Flu Epidemic fatalities. At the other end of the century Blade (1998) is not just a tale of vampirism either, but reflects a fear of the powerful yet irresponsible elements in society, a lawless elite, echoes down the corridor of the growing invincibility of those at the top. Horror movies of the early 21st century cogitate on global concerns of contagion (28 Days Later), or sound reactionary warning notes about the dangers of leaving moral absolutism behind (The Last Exorcism, The Conjuring). Horror movies provide a unique space for free discourse about the moral, political and societal shifts in our communal paradigms.

Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat. In the early 1940s, a world living under the shadow of Hitler's predatory tendencies identified a part-man, part-wolf as their boogeyman, whose bestial nature caused him to tear apart those who crossed his path. In the 1990s however, there was no need for a part wolf component: Jonathan Doe (Se7en 1994) and Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter 1986, Silence of the Lambs 1991, Hannibal 2001) were entirely human in their calculated and stylised killing methods. As we move on into the twenty first century, the ghosts and zombies are back in vogue as Eastern and Western superstitions converge, and once more we yearn for an evil that is beyond human. In an era of war and waterboarding, supernatural terror is more palatable than the fear inherent in news headlines.

Or perhaps it's genetic? Recent research has shown that the COMT gene dictates whether horror makes us laugh or scream:

Horror Film Gene - Daily Telegraph, 11 August 2008

And what's creepy anyway? Vsauce explores the basic triggers for fear.


How To Use This Site

The best way to study and appreciate horror films is, of course, to watch them. However, it is also important to have some sense of a film's context, both the wider socio-historical background against which it was made, and also its artistic framework. Use the menus at the top of each page (or the list below) to take you to sections that will provide you with background information and pointers on where to investigate further. If you are looking for something specific, use the site search boxes (Google Search) that appear at the top and bottom of each page - and to the right here. Also check out the Links page for external sites that will give you additional information.


The site is organised roughly in terms of decades - not an ideal approach, but a convenient one.

Roots of the Horror Genre - background in myths and gothic prose
The First Horror Movies - the silent era (1920s)
Horror Begins To Talk - And Scream - the mad-scientist-and-monster dominated 1930s
Horror Eats Itself - reinvention and the war years (1940s)
Creature Features, Drive In Gimmicks and Visitors from Outer Space - mutant madness in the 1950s
Bad Girls and Blood Freaks - revolution in the 1960s
Nightmare Decade: In Front Of The Children - waking up to the 1970s
Inside Out - body horror in the 1980s
Psychokillers - bad men in the 1990s
Contagion and Global Convergence - contemporary horror (2000s)