Happy Halloween! It’s time to dress up as a zombie HVAC Contractor and go haunt the mechanical rooms of the world! I heard that lead Sales Guy Scott’s dressing up as Dracula’s sale’s guy (someone has to sell those vampire books). We’re going to take today to look at a crucial part of Halloween culture: the history of the horror movie.
The First Fright
Nailing down the first ever horror movie is a challenge. Few films survive from the earliest days of movies. We can only really call a particular movie the first with a tremendous grain of salt. A grain of salt the size of an entire mine. We’re peering across cultures and time. It’s possible that other horror movies predated this or you could argue this isn’t horror.The French movie Le Manoir du diable, released as The Haunted Castle and The Devil’s Castle in English speaking countries, is generally considered the first horror movie.
The Devil’s Castle was created by Georges Melies, one of the grandfathers of visual effects. He worked on movies before green screens and before color. The movie runs at just 3 minutes, but that was considered long when it came out in 1896. It focuses on the Devil essentially haunting a castle, with skeletons, bats, and other things appearing and disappearing. It’s not even scary (but it IS out of copyright, so enjoy).
The 1910s and 20s brought along Hollywood and the major film studios. Movies were a massive business. They would thrive in the great depression. The Horror Genre didn’t quite exist yet, no one would call these horror movies, they were dark melodramas. They were things like Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. These were movies that would carry a creepy or a spooky feeling by our modern conceptions, but they weren’t going to invoke the terror that sends you running from the theater.
Innovations in film production also meant these movies were bigger, longer, and better. Where The Devil’s Castle was essentially a recording of a play, with lots of camera tricks, these later movies employed bigger sets, multiple camera angles, more elaborate acting, better film stock, and more elaborate stories. It wasn’t a nickelodeon movie any more, it was a theater experience where you could spend an hour watching something play out.
We’re lucky in that most of these movies remain out of copyright and we can give you some lovely, free entertainment. To get an idea of how creepy some of these movies could get, we’ve dug up The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German made silent movie from 1920. If you saw this in the theater, there’d be live musicians playing. As the movie moves on, you can see the weird set designs they used. They didn’t use a regular house or office for a single scene. They built up these weird, distorted sets. It looks like something you would expect to see in a stylized video game, or in a book. The world of Caligari is a fun house of peculiar, offset shapes straight from a book. There’s no pretense of realism.
The End of an Era
The 30s and 40s would be the end of these simply creepy movies. Movies from this era are the last of the Gothic Horror golden age. The genre had hit its peak and now technology and people were moving on. We’ve moved from silent actors to sound, big sets, and more involved stories full of character interaction. The silent era was held back by the lack of sound. Too much talking would turn a movie into a book, but not any more.
This gives us movies like Spooks Run Wild, a comedy horror. We can think of it like Scary Movie or Scooby Doo. It wasn’t quite meant to be scary, it might carry a good little scare or two, but your audience was still meant to laugh it all off.
Playing On Your Fears
The 50s and 60s finally started to introduce things we might finally understand or relate to as horror. The House of Wax came out in 1953, hitting audiences with a serial killer who used his victims bodies to create wax sculptures. Alfred Hitchcock would put out Vertigo, The Birds, and Pyscho all in these little era of movies. The shrieking violins and the long, drawn out, edge of your seat plot of Pyscho would revolutionize the horror and thriller genres.
These movies could hit at audiences with real world settings, a neighborhood just like your own. A coworker or a girlfriend like your own could get into trouble. That guy behind the counter could be a serial killer. And on the bigger scale, radiation could create monsters, aliens could invade, or the dead could come back to life. It was the height of the cold war, science was leading to new discoveries every day. If it wasn’t nuclear war, it was aliens from the moon or mars that people were afraid of.
We’re just about out of public domain movies we can share, but we do have one final, famous piece to embed: Night of the Living Dead. It’s a zombie movie, it was criticized for being too gory. I think by modern standards, it’s probably pretty tame.
The Current Era
We’re going to group the rest of horror into what we have today. It’s a bit lazy, but the farther forward in time we move, the shorter an era really lasts. The horror of the 80s is distinct and different from the 90s, and we can probably even draw a line in the horror of 2000-2008 and 2009 forward. The technology and our fears are evolving and changing over time. It’s an unavoidable part of being scared and wanting to really scare people.
The 1970s really kick off this boom in terror. When Star Wars comes out in 1977 it creates the blockbuster and it reinvigorates the scifi genre. This is going to get wild. The runaway success of Star Wars played a role in creating 1979’s Aliens. It’s a golden age for space flight and everyone believes we’ll be living on the moon and Mars in another 30 or 40 years. We’re going to meet aliens some day soon. It’s 2018 and the Alien franchise is still popular and well known.
The 80s bring out the Thing, the Fly, and Child’s Play, among many others. You might never have seen these movies, but you know those names. When we say “chucky’s a sick little doll,” you know exactly who we mean and you might even immediately hear that little voice going “come out and play.” This is the era that brought us the Shining and the Steady Cam. Other film producers watched the famous scene with the kid on the trike and spent months asking: “HOW THE HELL DID THEY JUST DO THAT?” Because it was an impossible shot without new technology. And the studio had just that, new technology, that would change everything.
The 90s start to bring us bits and pieces of super natural horror. We have the Blair Witch Project that popularizes the found-footage horror movie. We get the cult movie Event Horizon about a demonically possessed space ship from hell. There’s Sleepy Hollow, House on Haunted Hill, and more.
There are a host of reasons why we love horror movies. There’s the thrill and the shock of something new that is meant to disturb you. Sometime’s it’s the adrenaline that gets people hooked. We don’t live our lives in fear, seeing these strange new sights brings out a rush that we can’t easily get elsewhere. Sometimes it’s just to experience emotions that few other genres will bring you, horror can terrify you, excite you, relieve you at the end, and twist your insides with love and loss along the way.
This roller coaster of terror is in many ways unique to horror. Action movies get you on the edge of your seat, cheering at massive explosions, but you don’t feel that sense of relief at the end. Romance movies will make your heart stop at a tense moment, but you know everything will work out in the end. A sci fi movie will dazzle you with strange, new worlds and new civilizations, but you’re not going to go boldly running from the theater at the sight of a cyborg queen.
Halloween is a time for horror, terror, and things that go bump in the night. Enjoy yourselves and don’t get too spooked.