The Evolution of Horror in Film

Bela Lugosi as Dracula By Anonymous (Universal Studios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October.  As the leaves start to turn and the air takes on that certain crispness, we do not yet turn to our knitwear and baked goods and a pervasive desire to hibernate.  First we must celebrate the changing of the seasons with monsters, ghouls, things that go bump in the night!  But in perusing my local Halloween store I noticed a time warp (puns not yet intended), a not-so-sudden shift from the monsters I once knew next to their counterparts of today.  Lugosi-style vampires, the reigning classic for decades, now competing for space alongside vampires that sparkle and pout and make for lousy boyfriends.  Werewolves that were previously as much hair as you could glue to any exposed bit of skin have also become pouty and are inexplicably found in the same love triangles as vampires (though are notably less sparkly).  Frankenstein’s monster, at one time evoking the pain of rejection, the fear of the unknown, the taboo act of man controlling nature, is now…battling demons in nightclubs?  Why couldn’t we just be happy with how things were?

As I strolled among my fiendish friends, I flashed back to film school and one of the earliest examples of horror in film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which thankfully has not seen a glammed-up modernization).  Caligari weaves a dark tale of being out of control of one’s own mind and insanity, reinforcing the image of a warped world with dark, jagged imagery and nonlinear storytelling.  It is only after you’ve traveled through an increasingly horrifying and twisted tale that you learn (94 year old spoilers ahead) you were inside the mind of an institutionalized man all along, suddenly distrusting your own perception of reality thanks to one of the earliest examples of an unreliable narrator.  While it’s clever and unsettling in 2014, taking a step in to the early decades of the 20th century shows a real-world basis for the horror.  Asylum populations were growing fast, and well-meaning doctors began “treating” their patients’ conditions (with things like electricity).  Not readily being able to tell between truth and fiction would certainly be fearsome.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari By Goldwyn Distributing Company (US) (Heritage Art Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t long until our classic monsters appeared - mummies, vampires, zombies, oh my.  Add in our aforementioned Frankenstein’s monster and we see some similarities: strange, humanoid (but not human), supernatural, foreign.   What made them fearsome also made for some great perks – these creatures were generally slow moving and completely avoidable if one stayed out of strange places like sites where the dead are buried, or Europe.  As the US reeled from the reality of the Depression, epidemic, and an impending war, audiences found escape in havoc wrought in a world of fantasy.  When we consider the perfect storm of real world problems facing the US at the time, combined with the worldwide political climate, it makes sense that these creatures don’t strike the same chord of fear and were completely reimagined for modern audiences.  Might as well make them…pretty, I guess.

A crash – and I’m pulled from my monster trance.  In my daydream walk through the store I seem to have tripped over a skeleton chip & dip.  I envision dressing up as a zombie Pete Campbell, and getting two.  I’m thoroughly entertained at how absurdly hilarious I am.

Sputnik By NSSDC, NASA[1] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As the ‘30s brought scary-things-from-distant-places to big screens, the growing ease of international travel in the 1950s and ‘60s (and the large groups of soldiers that had just returned home from distant lands) forced us to look further for the unfamiliar.  We soon were introduced to aliens, robots, BAAAD GUYS FROM SPAAAAAACE!!!  The Space Race was in full effect, and the public’s imagination running wild with what may exist and be close to discovering us in that vast unknown.  As before, reality was again more fearsome that it had ever been, with the Space Race being far more crucial to technological superiority and national security than is discussed in modern classrooms (“we went to the Moon first!  For science!”).  Far more entertaining than the thought of shellshocked veterans and atomic duck & cover drills were the images of technologically advanced creatures (FROM SPAAACE) that humans were able to triumph over with the use of fairly simplistic things, like landmines, bright headlights, or germs.  There’s something empowering about defeating such an overly powerful enemy with low-tech, readily accessible items.

But with how rapidly horror evolves, how quickly Hollywood needs to find the next thing to be afraid of – what comes next?  Now that we’ve been to space, how do we go further and to a more distant fear?  Perhaps it’s not what’s far, but what is near.  The 1970s and ‘80s brought fear back to us, our neighborhoods, homes, and dreams violated.  1980 started us off with The Shining, the evil being stored within the walls of an empty and seasonally abandoned resort, eventually (or always?) manifesting in a family’s husband and father.  Claustrophobic corridors gave minimal means to escape the evil, leading to more and more troubling discoveries throughout the Winter.  Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame similarly stalks his victims away from the eyes of civilization, and sometimes infiltrates his victims’ most private world of dreams.  Freddy Krueger functioned almost entirely in the Nightmare-world, causing damage that transcended in to his victims’ reality, and Halloween taught us that staying inside and locking our doors sometimes just isn’t enough.  A cultural shift from the generation before, we no longer have clean, triumph-over-evil endings.  When the bad guy does die, often his body seems to walk away when no one is looking, and sometimes he’s still alive and murderous as the credits begin to roll!  So much for happy endings…

So where does that leave us now?  Fear still haunts us at home, though through possession and haunted objects like mirrors and dolls.  Bonus points for reality TV camera setups (which, in and of itself, is quite scary).   Where does that take us next?  We’ve been terrorized at home for quite a while now, but we’ve already been to the far reaches of space, and also Europe.  Horror has been in our minds, and to places we can only dream about, and back.  Ever evolving, cyclical yet different depending on how the world is behaving, what scares us now will be the next cheese factor 20 years from now when we’ve moved on completely.  Will ‘80s stalkers soon become beautified and “sparkly” by Hollywood?  Can we expect our current favorite distractions (i.e. beer, bacon, and cats) to become our newest fear factor?  While so many genres have stayed so very consistent over time (Romeo & Juliet is still a legit romance, or a legit comedy, depending on how cynical you are), horror is ever-evolving.  We never know what will scare us tomorrow.