©2021, by M. Keith Booker
The roots of modern horror lie in the eighteenth-century rise of the Gothic novel, but the horror film, in particular, seems to have gained momentum in the twenty-first century, which has seen, not only an increase in the popularity of horror films with movie-going audiences, but the production of a number of the greatest horror films of all time. This confluence of popularity and quality is not, incidentally automatic. The 1980s, for example, saw a boom in the popularity of horror film, but most critics have not regarded as having produced particularly high-quality horror films, as a rule. The reasons for the boom in horror in the twenty-first-century are many and have to do, among other things, with the maturity of the genre: the makers of twenty-first-century horror films have a rich legacy to draw upon and can learn from past in ways that their predecessors were unable to do. But it is also the case that horror film seems to thrive in periods of great public anxiety and social distress. Most film historians would probably agree that the two “golden” decades of horror film in the twentieth century were the 1930s (the decade of the Great Depression) and the 1970s (the decade of the end of the Vietnam War and the unraveling of the Nixon presidency due to the Watergate scandal). These were decades of crisis and instability, of fear and uncertainty, and the horror films of those decades reflected that situation perhaps better than any other genre.
Life in the United States is generally safer and more stable than it is virtually anywhere else on the planet. Yet, in the U.S. alone, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have already seen the trauma of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the near collapse of the world economic system in 2008, a seemingly endless stream of mass killings in schools and elsewhere, and a rising realization that we are entering a climate crisis that poses an existential threat to human civilization as we know it. Granted, many aspects of American life are better than they have ever been anywhere at any time in human history. But the world seems a complicated, confusing, and dangerous place, and improvements in certain aspects of life (unprecedented ease of communication and access to information, consumer goods, and entertainment) only serve to make it seem that we have more to lose.
The startling success of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” presidential campaign in 2016 made it clear that an increasing number of Americans have a sense that America is no longer as a great as it once was. Americans have a sense of being surrounded by large and sinister forces far too complex and shadowy for us to confront or even identify, leading to an increased hostility toward perceived threats that we can identify, even if those are not the real problem. Don’t understand why America’s manufacturing system seems to be in its death throes? Blame China. Don’t understand why our school systems and justice system no longer seem to work? Blame immigrants. Don’t understand why America is increasingly regarded around the world as a dangerous rogue nation rather than a champion of righteousness? Blame Muslims. Americans are confused. Americans are worried. Americans are afraid.
Such a climate of anxiety and fear can have numerous ramifications. It’s a perfect climate for the rise of fascism, a fact that only serves to make many Americans more afraid. It’s also a perfect time for the rise of the horror film industry to unprecedented heights. One could, of course, see this development as a simple case of opportunism, as greedy Hollywood moguls gleefully rub their hands together in anticipation of the wealth than can be gained by exploiting this climate of fear through the production of horror films. I will argue, however, that the current horror film boom (though it has produced a number of problematic works that many might regard as sick and twisted) is largely therapeutic and in fact represents one of the best ways we have of dealing with the current crisis in public confidence.
It is probably useful, before discussing the horror film in any great detail, to stop for a moment to consider just what we mean when we say that a film is a horror film. It is, however, probably not worth spending too much time on this topic, partly because no amount of consideration is likely to lead to definitive result and because in practice most viewers understand that a horror film is a horror film when they see it, even if they have never given much thought to defining the category. Some, for example, would equate the horror film with the general category of the “scary movie.” Yet most also regard horror as a genre involving extreme situations (supernatural or not) that go beyond what might normally be expected to occur in the real world, while some highly realistic movies can be quite “scary,” at least to some viewers.
I myself have elsewhere have attempted to differentiate among the nonrealist genres of science fiction, horror, romance, and fantasy in the most compact way possible (without, I hope, being excessively glib or simplistic), based on the kinds of fictional worlds in which they are set:
The worlds of science fiction generally operate according to the same physical principles as our own, but they subordinate those principles to changes caused by rationally explicable developments, primarily scientific or technological. Horror fiction is also set in a universe similar to our own, but involves monstrous intrusions of into this world of supernatural (or at least extraordinary) beings or events. Romance, which usually is a story of a purposeful quest, projects a world in magical or supernatural powers also intrude—but those powers are more intelligible, and some are more beneficent, than those in horror fiction. Fantasy operates entirely according to principles of its own, differing from our world in ways that are not limited by the laws of physics, and responding to whatever variations (usually magical or supernatural) the author chooses to invent. (Booker, “The Other Side” 252).
Such a compact definition of course has its limitations, but it does provide us with a starting point. Perhaps the simplest way to expand upon this definition is through providing a typology of subgenres of horror such as the one around which this project is designed, thus providing specific examples of films that might be considered horror films. I should note, however, that no definition of the horror film can be absolute. There are always going to be borderline cases of films that display many horror film characteristics but do not fit comfortably within the genre. Similarly, no typology can be absolute: many films display characteristics of more than one subgenre, just as (no matter how extensive the typology) there will always be films that do not quite fit within any of the proposed categories. The final category in this project, for example, is an inherently hybrid category including films that combine science fiction elements with horror elements. And, of course, one can always quibble with any categorization scheme. I believe that this one is as good as any and that it functions well as a practical introduction to the horror film genre.
Perhaps more than any other film genre, horror film has inspired puzzlement among many observers. Why, after all, would anyone want to watch a film designed to immerse viewers in the experience of horror, which is presumably an unpleasant one? Many scholars have attempted over the years to develop theoretical explanations for why audiences might be attracted to horror films, with a particular boom in such attempts having begun in the late 1980s when the clear audience appeal of a number of not-particularly-good horror films seem to cry out for explanation. In his tellingly entitled book The Pleasures of Horror (2005), Matt Hills usefully summarizes many of the earlier attempts to explain the ongoing popularity of horror as a genre, finding most of them lacking. For example, among important predecessors, he lists James Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures (1985), which sees the horror genre as essentially didactic, providing warnings to its viewers (especially adolescent ones) of the consequences of certain transgressive behaviors. Meanwhile, for Hills, Yvonne Leffler’s Horror as Pleasure (2000) is somewhat tautological in its explanation of why horror is pleasurable: horror is pleasurable because it is designed as a genre to please and entertain viewers. And Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990), which draws upon cognitive philosophy to argue that the horror we experience in relation to fictional works (“art-horror”) is a different emotional experience than the “natural horror” we might experience in relation to real events or phenomena.
Among the most common explanations for why we continue to turn for horror for entertainment are Freudian/psychoanalytic ones. Such approaches typically draw upon either Freud’s notion of the “uncanny” or upon his theory of repression. In basic terms, the uncanny is something that seems eerily strange, yet uncomfortably familiar, bringing about a contradictory mixture of emotions that can be quite powerful and disturbing, creating anxieties that what we previously thought to be true about the world might not be. According to theories based on the uncanny, horror provides us with an opportunity to sort through these unsettling experiences at a distance as it were, making them easier to manage. Repression, on the other hand, involves the removal of certain images or experiences that are too unpleasant for the conscious mind to deal with by submerging them in the unconscious—though the energies of these repressed memories will eventually have to return to the surface in one way or another in a sort of release of pressure. For theories of horror based on repression, viewing a horror film provides us with an opportunity to release these pressures via the emotional experience of viewing the film.
One influential study based on psychoanalysis is Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine (1993), which draws particularly upon Julia Kristeva’s theorization, in Powers of Horror (1982), of the notion of the abject, a theorization that is itself based largely on Jacques Lacan’s re-readings of Freud’s notion of the uncanny. For Kristeva, abjection is a process through which certain objects or ideas are identified as wholly foreign to us, then regarded on the one hand with horror and revulsion and on the other hand with an odd sort of fascination, both aspects of this twinned response going well beyond what is rationally justified (and having to do with a fear that what we regard as totally foreign to us might not be so foreign after all). The fascination aspect of this formulation helps to explain the attractions of horror. Creed, in particular, uses Kristeva’s theory to argue that horror as a genre gives us opportunities to “bring about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order finally to separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability” (14).
One influential account described by Hills that draws in important ways upon Freud is that of Robin Wood, whose account is the one I find most useful for my purposes. Seeking a structure within which to contrast what he sees as the high point of 1970s horror films with the low point of 1980s horror films, Wood begins by suggesting that horror films in general provide a mechanism for dealing with the repressed anxieties brought about by life under “patriarchal capitalism” (63–65). According to Wood, the concept of repression is closely linked to the concept of “the Other,” which “represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with” (65). Wood then proceeds to outline various categories of Others, which generally have to do with differences based on gender, ethnicity, class, culture, ideology, or age, though for Wood the most basic category of Other is simply other people in general, given that the dynamics of capitalism encourage us to regard all other people as foreign to us in some way (66–67). The monsters and other alien entities and forces that we encounter horror movies are then the representatives of these various sorts of Others, of a sort of return of the repressed, and by watching them in the movie we can in some sense deal with some of our repressed fears. “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror, and the happy ending (when it exists) typically signifying the restoration of repression” (68).
This ability to call attention to all that our society’s official structures seek to keep out of sight, for Wood, gives the horror film a special subversive potential that challenges us to revise our notions about the Other, about what is normal vs. what is abnormal, about the basic structures of Us vs. Them thinking. On the other hand, Christopher Sharrett, beginning with Wood’s basic conceptualization of horror as driven by the return of the repressed, argues that, in the Reaganite era of neoconservatism (which, I might note, has now morphed in to the era of globalized neoliberalism) the ability of capitalist ideology to colonize the consciousnesses of its subjects extends to a co-optation of the seemingly subversive energies of horror for use in the interest of capitalism.
Sharrett, incidentally, couches his dire warnings within the context of postmodernism, so that his argument largely jibes with Fredric Jameson’s better known and more thorough theorization of the lack of subversive energies in postmodernist culture. For now, let me simply say that I think Wood’s vision of horror as built on a return of the repressed (whatever the political implications) is basically sound and has the advantage of being fairly compact and elegant, as well as locating the source of horror in specific social and historical forces rather than simply in universal psychoanalytic ones, despite the fact that Freud’s theory of repression is his starting point. I will address Wood’s scheme further below, but this mention of social and forces fist brings me to another useful framework within which to consider the attractions of horror that Hills does not mention—the elaboration by Jameson in The Political Unconscious of the inherent utopian potential popularity of nonrealist genres in general, with a special focus on romance. Jameson, via this elaboration, is in fact trying to answer very much the same sort of question that I have been discussing above. Noting that the modern world has turned to scientific and rational ways for understanding reality in general, he asks why a genre that seems to run against this tendency would still be attractive to us.
Jameson here builds upon the foundational work of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who argued that the historical process of capitalist modernization had led, by the beginning of the twentieth century, to a rationalized world devoted to logic, efficiency, and the generation of profit. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—originally composed in 1904 and 1905, just as the modern, consumerist phase of American capitalism was kicking into high gear—Weber describes how capitalism (with Protestantism as its accessory and ideological ally) has produced a world bereft of magic, in which everything makes sense, everything has a price, and nothing has real value.
For Jameson, this process has only gone further by the late years of the twentieth century, leading to a world even more stripped of magic and even more devoted to capitalist logic. Meanwhile, he argues that romance and other nonrealist genres have remained popular, not in spite of this process, but because of it. Jameson concludes that, in the imaginatively impoverished and routinized world of consumer capitalism, individuals naturally desire something different and less impoverished, making the otherworldliness of romance attractive as a sign of other possible ways of living in and viewing the world. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (104).
According to this view, the life world of modern capitalism is so impoverished, so strangling and suffocating and limited in its view of the possibilities offered by experience, that virtually anything out of the ordinary has the potential to produce an exhilarating declaration that there is, in fact, more to life than is admitted to within the worldview of capitalism. At first glance, of course, the possibilities suggested by horror might seem to be worse than capitalism, but that is largely because they imply dangerous and destructive forces that are not encompassed within capitalism and cannot be conscripted by it.
In this sense, audiences enjoy horror films for the same reason they enjoy apocalyptic and postapocalyptic films, despite the horrific wholesale destruction they imply. Indeed, many horror films (especially those in the zombie subgenre) are also apocalyptic in nature. Particularly relevant here is Jameson’s meditation on the recent prominence of the postapocalyptic genre, which he sees as a key sign of the failure of historical imagination in the contemporary world. In his essay “Future City,” Jameson argues that the postmodern loss of historical sense makes it difficult to imagine a historical process that moves into a future that is fundamentally different from the present. As a result, the only way to imagine such fundamental change is through a vision of an apocalyptic event that wipes out civilization altogether. Or, as Jameson puts it, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (76).
One can amend Jameson’s remarks here to suggest that the apocalyptic and postapocalyptic genres are popular because they allow viewers to experience, in their imaginations, a way out of the morass of capitalism, even if it is a way that no one would want to experience in reality. Horror, in general, offers a similar compensation. No one wants to experience in reality most of the events that occur in horror films, but the very fact that these events are exterior to the rationalized world of modern capitalism offers a certain imaginary compensation. Perhaps we cannot imagine the destruction of capitalism, but horror allows us a substitute for that destruction in which we can at least imagine something that is different from the routine of our daily lives—which is, in a sense of course, the compensation that is offered by all fictional genres, of which the horror then becomes the paradigm.
Jameson’s vision of the imaginative alternative offered by nonrealist genres is thus applicable to all forms of horror, and possibly to all forms of fiction. Wood’s suggestion that horror allows us to confront certain sorts of basic fears, on the other hand, allows for the development of a typology of horror films that is parallel to the one upon which this project is based. For my purposes, however, I think it is more useful simply to restructure Wood’s scheme by arguing that the fears and anxieties that we experience in the modern world are of three basic types, noting that any given subgenre of horror can respond to more than one type of fear. First, and most obvious, is fear of the Other, a fear that those who are different from us pose a threat to us in some way. Various forms of horror monsters—vampires, zombies, mutants, aliens, rebellious robots, and so on—clearly fit within this category, which thus encompasses the majority of the subgenres covered by the Horror Film Project. This first category can also be rather easily linked with real-world fears of those who are unlike us in terms of class, race, religion, gender, or worldview. Many horror films, for example, can be seen as illustrations of some part of the frequently-quoted dictum: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Muslims, immigrants and racial Others of all kinds, hillbillies, deranged scientists (often as stand-ins for intellectuals in general), and so on all fit in this category of Other.
The second category is a more nebulous fear of something out there that cannot be named or specified. This second category is perhaps the hardest to define and understand, which is perhaps why, throughout history, human civilizations have tended to displace this vague fear onto a fear of more specific Others, thus shifting it into the first category of fear, with which human beings are better equipped to cope. For example, the sense that there may be malevolent forces in the world becomes, in all of the great monotheistic religions, a more specific vision of Satan as the source and embodiment of these forces. In the contemporary world, however, I would argue that this vague sort of unspecified fear—which in horror films generally translates into invisible threats from demons, ghosts, and other sorts of ill-understood supernatural forces—often arises from an undefined sense of being surrounded by forces that are larger and more powerful than ourselves and that the central instance of this sort of force is multinational capitalism itself. Thus, my fourth subgenre of horror films, postmodern horror, often fits into this category because the more easily a work can be identified as postmodern, the more easily can it be traced back to its source in globalized capitalism, though horror films typically feature a more comprehensible stand-in, such as the technology that often becomes a threat in science fiction horror.
The final basic category of fear is fear of Oneself—the fear that there is something deficient, even evil, inside us that can lead to our own destruction. Various possession narratives can fit both within this and the first category of fear, as can various “demon child” narratives, while many forms of psychological horror clearly focus on this kind of fear. Similarly, slasher films, which deal primarily with the first kind of fear, sometimes also encourage us to ask whether we ourselves might harbor murderous impulses. Stories featuring inhuman monsters that were once human, such as vampire and zombie narratives, are also related to this category of fear, because these stories suggest that we, ourselves, might suddenly flip from the category of Self to the category of Other. Various forms of body horror ask us to imagine the more abject implications of the physicality of our own bodies.
I will keep these basic kinds of fear in mind as I move through this project, and readers should keep them in mind as they read through various sections of the project. I will not be so mechanical as to try to develop a list of the types of fear addressed by each of the films I discuss: in most cases it will be obvious. But it might be useful to have this typology in mind as we ask ourselves why certain films dealing with seemingly unpleasant material appeal to so many people—and perhaps to ourselves.
A Brief History of Horror
Each volume of the Horror Film Project will include a succinct but detailed historical overview of the particular subgenre of horror with which that volume deals, including succinct discussions of key individual films. This section is attended to supplement those focused histories with a broad general overview of horror film as a whole, including less detailed discussions of individual films. And the history of horror film is a long one, indeed. Horror films frequently depend more on images and atmosphere than on spoken dialogue, so it is not surprising that horror as a genre was a prominent element of silent film. German Expressionist horror films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) have exercised a lasting impact on the horror genre of cinema and are regarded as being among the greatest silent films ever made. Horror did not quite reach such heights in American silent cinema, but there were nevertheless several successful examples, with Rupert Juilian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925) being perhaps the best known. It was, however, with the advent of sound, followed by the quick introduction of Universal Studios’ classic monster films, that the modern horror genre can be said to have been born. With the release of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein within months of one another in late 1931, the dramatic possibilities of horror film in the sound era were immediately demonstrated. These early classics were followed by a flood of horror films that sought to extend the success of these early films. Many of these early films—such as Browning’s Freaks (1932), Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933)—are themselves classics of the horror genre, helping to lay a strong foundation for a genre that still thrives today.
The evolution of horror cinema was seriously curtailed with the beginning of the full enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934. This program of film industry self-censorship seriously limited the kind of material that could be put on screen, with an especially strong impact on horror film, which depends so centrally on shocking and disturbing material of the kind banned by the code. As a result, Paramount was virtually driven out of the horror business, though Universal continued to attempt to extend its monsterfranchises, with mixed results. MGM, meanwhile, attempted to maintain its glossy reputation by developing horror films that didn’t seem like horror films, such as Browning’s The Devil-Doll (1936) or Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935). The latter, particularly, has some merit, but these films lacked the punch of truly effective horror.
Nevertheless, there continued to be highlights, and one of the first post-Code Universal films—Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) from Universal—is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of the entire 1930s. In general, though, attempts to abide by the restrictions of the Code led to a general decline in the genre over the next decade or so, with the dominant force being a continuation of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein franchises through a series of sequels, mostly with problematic results, though there are still moments of value in these films. Robin Wood, for example, sees Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939) as the “most intelligent” film of the entire Universal Frankenstein sequence (72). Films such as Freund’s The Mummy (1932) and Curt Siodmak’s The Wolf Man (1941) also became the founding works of franchises, but by the 1940s, Universal’s attempts to squeeze very last bit of potential out of all of its monster franchises had led to a mostly disappointing series of mash-ups, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). At least one comic highlight did emerge from these mash-ups, however, in the form of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), regarded by many as a comic classic.
Through the 1940s, horror film continued to be hamstrung by the Code, but at least one series of films of that decade, produced for RKO Studios by Val Lewton, actually seemed to make a virtue of necessity. Using techniques (and aesthetics) similar to those of early film noir (which also struggled to evade the Code), the Lewton-produced films were highly atmospheric thrillers that managed to achieve their effects more through suggestion than through direct display, and thus were able largely to succeed, despite Code restrictions. Films such as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944) are all still regarded as important, though the first of these probably has the most distinguished ongoing reputation.
Moving into the 1950s, American monster films came to be dominated by films that seemed more like science fiction than like horror, though the line between the two was never very clear and always quite porous. For example, The Thing from Another World (1951), one of the first of the decade’s many alien-invasion films, is at least as much horror as science fiction. The “monsters from the id” of Forbidden Planet (1956), are perfect examples of horror creatures, as well, while the alien-invasion classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is an example of almost pure horror, despite its ostensible science fiction premise. Science fictional monster horror also went truly international in the decade, with the release of such films as Japan’s Godzilla (1954), a classic example of the way so many monsters of the 1950s were produced by radiation or other effects related to Cold War fear of nuclear holocaust. Occasional examples of more classical versions of horror did emerge in America—such as Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (1953), a remake of the 1933 horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum, which made a star of Vincent Price. It was also the first color film from a major U.S. studio (Warner Bros) to be released in 3-D, marking the beginning of a trend in which American studios tried a number of gimmicks to make horror films more attractive to moviegoers in light of the new competition from television.
By the late 1950s, new trends in American horror emerged as television forced the film industry to begin to depend more and more on youthful audiences, who were still willing to go out to movies as a part of dating culture. Thus, films of the late 1950s began to feature youthful protagonists who could appeal to such audiences, with examples such as Gene Fowler, Jr.’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958) leading the way. During this same period, Roger Corman also had an eye toward young audiences as he developed efficient methods for ultra-low-cost production of horror films, realizing that teenagers on dates were perhaps not terribly concerned with the aesthetic merits of the films they were attending. Some of Corman’s early films, though, are nevertheless classics (if offbeat ones), and examples such as A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960) remain imminently entertaining today.
The true 1950s heirs of the Universal monster films of the 1930s, though, were produced not by Universal, or even in the United States, but by England’s Hammer Film Productions, which resurrected the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy franchises in lurid full color—and with considerable success. Hammer produced its own extensive versions of these franchises, which were widely distributed in both England and the U.S. Many are fondly remembered classics in their own right—partly because they were able to achieve levels of bloodiness and mayhem that went well beyond what the Code would have allowed in the U.S.
The end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s also saw the emergence of a series of effectively scary haunted-house films, beginning with William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959), a Vincent Price vehicle that possibly succeeded more despite than because of Castle’s gimmicky “Emergo” system of pulleys designed to make it appear that ghosts were flying off the screen and into the theater. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), meanwhile, was an effective adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. And Robert Wise topped off this flurry of big-screen ghost stories with The Haunting (1963), which adapted Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1963). Both The Innocents and The Haunting were British-produced, suggesting the influence of the strong British ghost-story tradition, despite being based on the works of American-born authors.
As the 1960s proceeded, the Code began to lose its grip on American film, opening up new possibilities there. Indeed, the 1960s began with the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking Psycho (1960), the granddaddy of all slasher films, though it was not immediately obvious at the time that this would become the founding text of a subgenre. Psycho also demonstrated the importance of marketing, its success buoyed by a brilliant marketing campaign. In contrast, Michael Powell’s somewhat similar Peeping Tom, produced in Britain in the same year Psycho was produced in America, was poorly marketed and essentially ruined the career of one of England’s greatest filmmakers, though it has gained a following over the years.
Psycho’s full influence would not be felt until the 1970s, however.Perhaps the most important phenomenon in American horror film of the early 1960s was the series of loose adaptations from the work of Edgar Allan Poe made by Corman and featuring Price in a starring roles. This sequence, produced in lavish color, began with House of Usher in 1960 and ultimately ran to a total of eight films, of which The Masque of the Red Death (1964) was probably the most memorable and successful. 1964 also saw the release of the lurid Two Thousand Maniacs, by Herschell Gordon Lewis, a founding work of the subgenre of “hillbilly horror” and one of the key works of ultra-violent horror that earned Lewis the nickname “The Godfather of Gore.” In this darkly comic spectacle, Confederate flag-waving, banjo picking, shit-kicking redneck Southerners capture Northerners, horribly murder them, then cook them up and eat them to celebrate the glories of Southern culture.
Two Thousand Maniacs was heavily cut to win Code approval and showed mainly in drive-in theaters at that. By 1968, though, the Code had collapsed, and the floodgates were opened for all manner of bloody extravaganzas, making horror a key element of the grindhouse film boom of the 1970s. The French-Polish director Roman Polanski had already demonstrated his facility with psychological horror in the British-produced Repulsion (1965). Then, 1968 saw the release of Polanski’s powerfully compelling Rosemary’s Baby, a high-budget, A-list American film with production qualities far beyond that previous seen in horror cinema. Rosemary’s Baby was one of the best and most important films of the 1960s and is still regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But 1968 was also the year of an equally important film that was on the opposite end of the budget spectrum but was nevertheless just as compelling and important. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead brought new life (so to speak) to the zombie subgenre, taking it in a whole new direction with its hordes of shambling, rotting, cannibalistic walking corpses. The film directly addressed the fear of death, perhaps the most basic of all human fears, but it also showed the potential for horror film to address social and political issues in sophisticated ways, making some important statements about gender, race, and ideological manipulation.
Rosemary’s Baby opened the way for a spate of “demon-child” films in the 1970s, many of which (thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby itself) also had much higher budgets than the typical horror film. Of these, the one most directly related to Rosemary’s Baby is probably Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), featuring megastar Gregory Peck (not to mention a small child who is the son of Satan). Another huge hit, The Omen inspired a franchise of its own, including three sequel films, a 2006 remake, two television series, and a sequence of novels. But the biggest horror phenomenon of the early 1970s was clearly William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), a story of the demonic possession of an innocent young girl that transfixed movie audiences and became one of the top-grossing films of all times. It also became a crucial element of American popular culture and contains a number of the best remembered scenes in movie history. The Exorcist also spawned its own franchise of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, not to mention boosting the entire subgenre of possession films and inspiring a number of spoofs, including Repossessed, a 1990 parody that featured Linda Blair, the star of the original film. Still, one could argue that the most important influence of The Exorcist was not on possession/exorcism films, but on slasher films and other horror films that turned to increasingly shocking and violent scenes in the coming years.
If Rosemary’s Baby thus exercised an important ongoing impact on horror film, then the same can certainly also be said of Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s own Crazies (1973) is a zombie film of sorts, for example, but the true followup to Night of the Living Dead was his Dawn of the Dead (1978), widely regarded as the greatest zombie film of all time. Here, a greatly expanded budget and the use of color allow for a significant increase in the bloody mayhem shown on screen relative to the original, but the real genius of Dawn of the Dead lies in its social satire, especially of consumerism. Romero’s vision here of zombie hordes shambling through a shopping mall remains one of the most striking images ever put on film. In addition, Romero would go on to make a whole sequence of additional zombie films that constitute a sort of subgenre of their own, including Day of the Dead (1985), which completes the original “Dead” trilogy. Also notable is the much later (and higher budget) Land of the Dead (2005), one of the most overt satires of class difference in all of American film.
One of the biggest cinematic events of the 1970s was a very different sort of horror film, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Essentially a monster film, Jaws is sometimes not regarded as a horror film because it involves a real animal species; however, it was in fact one of the founding works of a new subgenre that is often referred to as “animal horror,” though this subgenre already had such predecessors as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). But Jaws, a colossal box-office success, triggered a spate of imitators that kicked animal horror into gear, as a variety of killer sharks, bees, ants, spiders, snakes, alligators, bears, and so on quickly began to fill America’s movie screens. Such films have gained a mostly negative critical reputation, but a few animal horror films have had genuine merit, including the Stephen King adaptation Cujo (1983), which has become something of a minor horror classic, showing that even man’s best friend could be horrifying. Still, in recent years, the animal horror cycle has led mostly to over-the-top self-parodies, such as the blood-and-boobs extravaganza Piranha 3D (2010) and the preposterous Sharknado (2013), which combines shark horror with the natural disaster film, a category that can itself be considered a type of horror film.
Psychological horror was strong in the 1970s as well, especially in Europe. In 1976, Polanski return to complete his “Apartment” trilogy with the French-produced The Tenant (in which he also stars). This trilogy thus features three effective films, each produced in a different country. 1973, meanwhile, had seen the release of British director Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a British-Italian co-production. A moving meditation on grief that has been widely regarded as one of the greatest British films of all time, Don’t Look Now is also a highly effective psychological horror film—with hints of supernatural elements thrown in as well.
One of the most important trends in early-to-mid 1970s horror involved a number of films that followed directly in the footsteps of Psycho to help define the subgenre of the slasher film. The Canadian Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was a particularly notable contribution to this phenomenon, while films such as Charles B. Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Alfred Sole’s truly creepy Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) made significant contributions as well. The most important film among these early slashers, though, was undoubtedly Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which took the relatively mainstream hillbilly horror of John Boorman’s then-recent Deliverance (1972) into much darker territory by adding a number of elements that would later become staples of both hillbilly horror and the slasher subgenre. Described by Robin Wood (not particularly fond of slasher films as a whole) as having the “authentic quality of nightmare,” Hooper’s film triggered an extensive franchise of sequels and remakes, as well as supplying important inspiration to the whole subsequent traditions of both the slasher film and hillbilly horror (80).
Many other things were going on in 1970s horror film as well, leading Wood to declare the decade a golden age of American horror. Wood is especially impressed by the work of low-budget horror master Larry Cohen, beginning with It’s Alive (1974), a mutant monster baby film that addresses both the natural fear of parents that their children might turn out badly and the specific then-current fear of birth defects caused by drugs such as Thalidomide. But, as Wood notes, it is also a powerfully political film that addresses a much broader range of anxieties that “encompass the entire structure of our civilization, from the corporation to the individual, and the film sees that structure as producing nothing but a monstrosity” (91). It’s Alive definitely struck a note with audiences, whether they saw it in this way or not, and the film inspired two sequels: It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). It was also remade (with the same title) in 2009 in a film that joined the spate of mostly undistinguished remakes of classic horror films that were made in the first part of the twenty-first century.
It might be noted that the 1970s were a golden era in Italian horror film as well. The ultra-violent giallo film (something like a combination of the slasher film and the murder mystery, with a liberal dash of freely-flowing, bright-red fake blood), can be dated back to Mario Bava’s Hitchcock-inflected The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). But it reached its peak in the 1970s, especially in the work of Dario Argento, beginning with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Argento’s Deep Red (1975) is also particularly notable and might be Argento;s finest giallo film. Argento also made influential supernatural horror films, most notably in the “Three Mothers” trilogy, which began in 1977 with Suspiria, perhaps still his best-known horror film. Argento’s films were greatly influenced by American horror, but also influenced American horror in turn. Argento himself sometimes worked in American film, as when he collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead. He has remained a force into the twenty-first century, completing his “Three Mothers” trilogy in 2007 with Mother of Tears, a U.S.-Italian co-production. He also attempted, not very successfully to revive the giallo subgenre as late as 2009 (with a film entitled Giallo, in fact).
The anarchic zaniness of Cohen’s films and the lurid strangeness of Argento’s films were both typical of certain tendencies in 1970s horror film, though those tendencies faded in the 1980s as horror became bigger and bigger business (often with bigger and bigger budgets). This development was not all bad, of course, and the decade began with an A-list production that still ranks as one of the great horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). A complex and artful film, The Shining is fundamentally a haunted-house ghost story (or, in this case, a haunted hotel). It stands at the center of a spate of such films that appeared around the early 1980s, though one might locate the beginning of this phenomenon in The Amityville Horror, released in 1979, while films such as The Legend of Hill House (1973) and Burnt Offerings (1976) had kept the ghost story alive through the 1970s. Along with The Shining, meanwhile, 1980 also saw the release of The Changeling another a highly effective haunted-house chiller, meaning that both Jack Nicholson and George C. Scott, two of the great actors of the era, starred in ghost stories in the same year. This trend toward haunted-house films reached its commercial peak in 1982 with the release of the Steven Spielberg-Tobe Hooper collaboration Poltergeist (1982), which became one of the most successful films of the early 1980s, though some horror purists have decried its commercial slickness, seeing it as much more Spielberg than Hooper.
Ultimately, though, the most important phenomenon of early-1980s horror film (for better or worse) was the rise of the slasher film, eventually leading to the propagation of several slasher franchises. The success of Halloween (1978) triggered a spate of ultra-bloody, low-budget slasher films in the early 1980s, including such notable examples as William Lustig’s Maniac (1980), Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981), and Joe Giannone’s Madman (1982). This list also includes Joseph Zito’s The Prowler (1981), which probably wins the award for the most spectacular blowing off of a head via a shotgun moment in all of film. But the real impact of Halloween could be seen in the way it triggered its own franchise of sequels and (eventually) remakes, beginning with Halloween II in 1981. In turn, the success of this franchise helped to inspire the rise of other slasher franchises as well.
Wood sees the slasher boom of the 1980s as a decided turn for the worse (both aesthetically and, especially, politically). Even Halloween, generally the most admired of slasher films other than Psycho, draws his disdain. However, the slasher franchises did big business at the box office, especially relative to their often-meager budgets. Halloween, for example, was made for $325,00 and took in over $47 million at the U.S. box office. The profitability of such films helped the 1980s to become a decade of unprecedented commercial success for horror film as a whole. Wood’s low regard of the original film notwithstanding, the Halloween franchise, which has now stretched to a total of eleven films (including a notable sequel in 2018 featuring the original film’s final girl, Jamie Lee Curtis), has had considerable staying power and probably remains the best of the slasher franchises in terms of overall quality. In addition, the franchise founded by Friday the 13th (1980), featuring hulking hockey-masked slasher Jason Voorhees, has produced even more films and other products, though some are of highly questionable value. And the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, beginning with Wes Craven’s original 1984 film, added new elements of psychological and supernatural horror to the slasher tradition.
If far too many of the makers of 1980s slasher films seemed to be armed primarily with cookie cutters, there were some genuinely innovative horror films in the decade, many of them with science fictional resonances, as the science fiction boom of 1977–1987 spilled over into horror as well. Indeed, both the Alien (beginning in 1979) and the Terminator (beginning in 1984) science fiction franchises were themselves made up of slasher films of sorts. In addition, though John Carpenter’s The Thing is nominally a remake of the science fiction classic The Thing from Another World, it is in fact one of the most innovative horror films of the 1980s, punching up the horror elements of the original with a healthy dose of graphic body horror. Almost exactly the same thing can be said for David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of the 1958 science fiction horror film The Fly, though the body horror elements of Cronenberg’s film are even more powerfully foregrounded—as one might expect fromthe maker of such body horror films as Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1983). Meanwhile, there were at least two science fiction horror films in the second half of the 1980s that were veritable masterpieces of anti-consumerist satire. Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985) is an unremitting exploration of the willingness of corporations to do anything in the interest of making greater profits—even if it means addicting their customers to their products, turning them into brainless zombies. Carpenter’s They Live (1988), meanwhile, achieves even more effective levels of satire by equating the manipulation of consumers by corporations to mind control by invading aliens.
Such satires of consumerism within horror films can, among other things, be read as satires of the growing commercialization of the horror film industry itself. A similar awareness of this commercialization (as well as of the excessive tendencies of horror film as a genre) also showed up in the 1980s in horror parodies such as Return of the Living Dead (1985), which spoofed Romero’s zombies so successfully that it triggered an entire franchise of its own and became a founding work in what would come to be known as the “zom-com” (“zombie comedy”). Outrageously over-the-top 1980s horror films such as Re-Animator and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) also commented on the excessive tendencies of the industry as a whole, the former becoming a cult favorite and the latter founding an entire franchise of cult hits, with its first sequel, Evil Dead II (1987) as the centerpiece. Along these lines, special mention should also go to Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992), two early films by New Zealander Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) that are among the most delightfully bizarre and inappropriate horror films ever made.
The spoofy nature of such films suggests that, by the end of 1980s, the horror film boom of the decade had about run its course. The major slasher film franchises, in particular, had by this time become repetitive and derivative and seemingly had nowhere left to go. There were, however, signs of new energies afoot in horror film. 1987, for example, saw the release of two innovative vampire films—Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark—that opened up new possibilities in that subgenre, which had struggled for a while to come up with anything truly new. These two films (combined with the AIDS scare) helped to revive that subgenre, leading to glossy, high-budget efforts in the 1990s such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994). Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), written by Quentin Tarantino, then brought a touch of ultra-violent postmodern cool to the vampire film that was not quite like anything that had come before, suggesting that there was still new ground to be explored in the subgenre.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh (who also stars as Victor Frankenstein), gave that venerable franchise a facelift as well, partly by upping the budget and partly by attempting to be more faithful to the original novel than other film adaptations had been. Such glossy productions indicated a general uptick in production values of horror film in the 1990s, partly as a result of the dramatic advances in CGI technology made during the decade. Many of these advances fed particularly into science fiction, of course, but then Frankenstein itself had always had strong science fictional elements. CGI also made combinations of horror and science fiction much easier to do well—as in the case of the outer space supernatural thriller Event Horizon (1997).
Even Wes Craven gave horror film a shot in the arm with two unusually overt political satires around the beginning of the 1990s: Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991). The latter of these has become a cult favorite, partly for certain hilarious scenes, but also because its extensive exploration of the intersection of race and class is highly unusual in American film. Shocker, however, was largely bashed by critics (who saw it as too derivative of A Nightmare on Elm Street) and has never fully recovered. Indeed, Shocker’sserial killer Harold Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) does have a lot in common with Freddy Krueger, but Shocker is a far zanier (and more postmodern) film than anything that had previously appeared in the Nightmare franchise. For example, in the final sequence of Shocker,Pinker possesses TV Land after he is zapped in a satellite dish; protagonist Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) follows, leading to a truly wacky battle in which Parker and Pinker hop from the worlds of one television program after another (including one featuring Timothy Leary as a TV evangelist).
Speaking of strange films, Craven wasn’t the only past master of horror who still had a few tricks up his sleeve in the 1990s. For example, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1995) was one of the strangest horror films of the 1990s. A Lovecraftian apocalyptic fantasy that blurs the boundary between fiction and reality, this film completed Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” which began with the alien apocalypse of The Thing and continued with the quasi-Christian apocalypse of Prince of Darkness (1987). In the Mouth of Madness was largely ignored by audiences and scorned by critics upon its initial release, though it has since gained something of a cult following. At the same time, supernatural horror did achieve mainstream critical and commercial success at the end of the 1990s with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, one of the major cinematic events of the century’s end. Japanese horror also made a major contribution to the supernatural subgenre with Ringu (1998), which took the ghost story in some genuinely new and frightening directions. Remade by Gore Verbinski in 2002 (as The Ring), this film helped to usher in a whole new wave of Japanese influence on American horror films, as when the superb 2001 Japanese ghost-story film Pulse was remade in America in 2006, triggering two sequels.
End-of-the-century Japanese horror also took a turn toward graphic violence in the 1999 film Audition, a sort of the predecessor of the American turn from slasher films to torture porn in the early twenty-first century.Meanwhile, Craven also took the slasher film itself into new territory through a turn to postmodern self-consciousness in films such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), the latter founding a franchise and becoming one of the most influential horror events of the 1990s. But the slasher film also trod new ground in the 1990s with Bernard Rose’s racially charged Candyman (1992) and with such ultra-serious A-list films as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—which swept the year’s major Academy Awards—and David Fincher’s Seven (1995), a truly disturbing A-list thriller.
Despite such glossy efforts in the 1990s, the decade was topped off with a low-budget indie film that would set one of the most important horror-film trends of the early years of the twenty-first century. Made for $60,000 with inexperienced actors and handheld cameras, The Blair Witch Project grossed an astounding $250 million worldwide and was widely declared to be one of the most frightening films in years. Here, a documentary film crew travels into the woods of Maryland investigating the Blair Witch, a local legend. The film itself consists of the footage they shot, which had been discovered after the crew itself disappeared. The Blair Witch Project not only grew into its own multimedia franchise, but also helped to inspired numerous other roughly-shot found-footage horror films in the following years. Paranormal Activity (2007), for example, is a highly effective supernatural thriller made in this mode; it has thus far grown into a franchise of six films, though none have matched the success of the first. Indeed, 2007 was a big year for found-footage films. Even George Romero used the technique with his trademark vampires in that year in Diary of the Dead, while the 2007 Spanish zombie film REC also used the technique to good effect. In 2008, the apocalyptic monster movie Cloverfield was a big found-footage hit as well and has now grown into a franchise of three films, though there are signs that this franchise and the found-footage craze as a whole are losing steam.
While many have decried the turn to graphic bodily destruction in torture porn franchises such as Saw (beginning in 2004) and Hostel (beginning in 2005), the first two decades of the twentieth century have been strong ones in almost every subgenre of horror. For example, Raimi returned with a strong followup to the Evil Dead trilogy with the highly inventive Drag Me to Hell (2009), discussed below in detail. But new directors have gained considerable attention as well. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), for example, points in some fresh new directions while drawing extensively on familiar motifs and proudly displaying its postmodernism.
Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro (working extensively in the U.S.) has been an especially important force in horror film of the early twenty-first century, though he actually began his career in horror with Cronos (1993), a relatively understated (but highly interesting) Spanish-language vampire film, but he moved into much more visually graphic horror with the American film Mimic in 1997. Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is a truly haunting Spanish-language ghost story—as is The Orphanage (2007), which del Toro helped produce, but did not direct. Del Toro has directed several American comic-book adaptations with horror intonations, including Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Meanwhile, his Spanish-language fantasy horror film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is one of the most visually compelling films in the entire horror genre. The Gothic horror story Crimson Peak (2015) was widely considered a misfire by del Toro’s lofty standards, but then The Shape of Water (2017), a sort of love-story remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) won the Academy Award for Best Picture and netted del Toro the Oscar for Best Director. It was thus the first film that could be considered a horror film to win those awards since The Silence of the Lambs, though it is really more of a fantasy-romance than a monster movie.
Among other things, del Toro’s success is indicative of the genuinely international turn made by horror film in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. One might consider, for example, the Belgian-French horror thriller Amer (2009), which is essentially a postmodern pastiche of an Italian giallo. The Australian supernatural thriller The Babadook (2014) became one of the most critically respected horror films of the first decades of the new century and was part of a general surge in Australian horror. The Malaysian-born Australian director James Wan (who directed Saw), turned to supernatural horror, creating two successful franchises, beginning with Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013).Korean horror film joined Japanese horror in making strong contributions, with director Park Chan-wook emerging as a major force with the “Vengeance” trilogy, comprising Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005). His truly original vampire film Thirst (2009) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, while Oldboy was remade in an American version by Spike Lee in 2013. That same year, Park himself moved into American film with Stoker, a Hitchcock-influenced psychological slasher film.
In a very different vein, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) took the zombie film in a very different direction, moving away from the familiar slow, shambling zombies of Romero to a new form of fast, vicious, and even more deadly zombie. The film was a major success that has exercised a lasting impact on horror, including on its own sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), directed by Spain’s Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. The frenetic, fast-action attack scenes of 28 Days Later have even influenced other subgenres of horror, as when the vampires of 30 Days of Night (2007) show many of the same moves as Boyle’s zombies.
Overall, the hallmark of early-twenty-first-century horror films has been variety. For example, Boyle took zombies to a new level of terror, and the Spanish REC did much the same. But Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), while actually being a fairly effective zombie movie proper, also made the zombie phenomenon funnier than ever before, ushering in a whole new wave of zom-coms, including two new entries in the Return of the Living Dead series, after that franchise had been resting in its grave for more than a decade. The Canadian film Fido (2006) stands out from most zombie comedies in the extent to which it effectively achieves social and political satire. Later, Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) scored some very British satirical points, following directly in the footsteps of Shaun of the Dead, but involving some different demographics. It also includes some quite effective action sequences, as does the relatively big-budget mainstream Hollywood zombie comedy Zombieland (2009). Finally, Juan of the Dead (2011) even took the zombie comedy to Cuba, where a group of slackers become reluctant zombie hunters, somewhat in the mode of the core characters in Shaun of the Dead, from which this film obviously derived more than its title.
With the torture porn phenomenon at the forefront, horror films often became decidedly more brutal and graphic in the early twenty-first century. Notable in this regard are the films of heavy metal rocker Rob Zombie, who burst on the scene with House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), drawing such clear inspiration from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and similar films that they have a quality of postmodern nostalgia (but ramping up the level of mayhem beyond that of its predecessors). Zombie also resurrected the stumbling Halloween franchise with his own Halloween reboot (2007) and a sequel, Halloween II (2009).
Graphic bodily destruction was also the order of the day in the films of Eli Roth, a major contributor to torture porn with Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007). However, Roth still probably remains best known in horror film circles for Cabin Fever (2003), an entry in the cabin-in-the-woods genre in which vacationing college students fall prey to a spectacularly destructive flesh-eating virus. Roth also directed a faux trailer for the nonexistent film Thanksgiving as part of the Grindhouse (2007)project of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The main films in this double feature, looking nostalgically back to the grindhouse films of the 1970s, are Tarantino’s exploitation film Death Proof and Rodriguez’s zombie film Planet Terror.
Works such as Zombie’s Halloween films or the Grindhouse films show an intense awareness of the horror films that came before them. This sense of belatedness has led, in the 2000s and 2010s, to a seemingly endless stream of remakes of classic horror films, most of which have not, unfortunately, improved on the originals. Some films, on the other hand, have self-consciously drawn upon their predecessors in genuinely inventive ways, producing such outstanding efforts as Adam Wingard’s slasher-in-the-woods film You’re Next (2011), Andy Muschietti’s del Toro–produced Mama (2013), and Jordan Peele’s science fiction horror satire Get Out (2016). Some recent horror films, though, have paralleled Zombie in going beyond their predecessors by producing more spectacular violence or more disgusting visceral imagery, as in the case of the notorious Dutch Human Centipede sequence of films, beginning in 2009. Meanwhile, Canadian sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska became Cronenberg’s heirs in pushing the envelope of body horror with films such as American Mary (2012).
Still, not all horror films of the early twenty-first century have relied on graphic violence and horrific visuals to explore new territory. Recent horror film has also been marked by a number of thoughtful, restrained horror films that nevertheless deliver quite a punch, from the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008), to Jim Jarmusch’s indie-style vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), to the elegantly-crafted period witchcraft film The Witch (2015). Then again, films such Darren Aronofsky’s controversial Mother! proved that horror films could be both aesthetically sophisticated and viscerally shocking. In any case, in 2018 alone, three of the most talked-about films of the year could be categorized as horror, including the supernatural thriller Hereditary, the postapocalyptic monster movie A Quiet Place, and the science fictional satire Sorry to Bother You, further indicating the overall health of the genre.
While diversity was a key characteristic of early-twenty-first-century horror films, some trends can be discerned, though these are not necessarily new. For example, since classic horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining (and even before), horror film has often identified the nuclear family as a key source of horror. Films such as Stoker, The Witch, Mother!, and Hereditary similarly locatedhorror within the family, while films such as A Quiet Place and It Comes in the Night (2017) revolved around the family as well. At the same time, while such films had typically cast women as victims, a number of films also featured women in stronger central roles. All of the main roles in Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005) are filled by strong, brave women, for example, and they put up a fierce battle against some truly original and genuinely frightening monsters.
Finally, the important place of horror film in American culture of the early twenty-first century can also be seen in the way in which motifs typically associated with horror film have made their way into highly respected films that are not normally considered to be horror. For example, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the shockingly cold-blooded killer of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Academy Award–winning No Country for Old Men (2007), is very much a slasher figure, displaying many of the characteristics of predecessors such as Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Similarly, in the same year, one of the most highly regarded films of the early years of the twenty-first century, David Fincher’s Zodiac, began with an opening segment that might have been taken almost directly from a classic slasher film, before settling into a combination police procedural and newspaper film.
The films of David Lynch also deserve special mention in the category of respected horror-inflected films, though in his case this phenomenon goes all the way back to the early Eraserhead (1977), which contains a great deal of horror imagery and atmosphere. Blue Velvet (1986), one of the most important films of the 1980s, also carries strong resonances of horror, and few horror villains are scarier than the Frank Booth of that film. The television series Twin Peaks (1990–1991) also often veers into horror territory—and even more so in its cinematic followup, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Those elements also remain strong in Lynch’s impressive resurrection of the franchise on television with Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Lost Highway (1996), Mullholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006) are also laced with nightmarish imagery that might have been very much at home in a horror film. All of these films have, in fact, been regarded by at least some critics as actually being horror films.
As of this writing in early 2019, the future of the horror film
seems brighter than ever before. For one thing, streaming platforms such as
Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video offering exciting new opportunities to
bring horror films to their potential audiences. Meanwhile, established horror
filmmakers such as Rob Zombie, Elie Roth, and James Wan are still active and
probably relatively early in their careers. British, French, Australian,
Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and other filmmakers continue to
make horror more and more international in scope. There are signs that the
horror field is broadening in other ways as well. First time African American
directors such as Boots Riley of Sorry to
Bother You and Jordan Peele of Get
Out have recently taken horror in exciting new, politically-potent
directions (Peele’s second horror film, Us,
debuted in March of 2019). Up-and-coming women directors are also adding
important new dimensions to horror as well. For example, in their different
ways, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009,
a darkly comic film about demonic possession) and The Invitation (2015, about a murderous cult), Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014), and Ana Lily
Amirpour’s Iranian-American vampire film A
Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) have all enriched the horror genre in
the new century. All-in-all, it seems likely that, while the first two decades
of the twenty-first century have been very good ones for horror, the coming
years will be even better.
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Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. Updated edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
 For those seeking a more encyclopedic reference source for horror films (with less critical apparatus), the volume by Kim Newman is good on films of the past half century. David Skal has some very interesting information on the cultural history of the horror film in America, while the volumes by Peter Hutchings and Rick Worland are useful overall introductions to the genre. Murray Leeder’s critical introduction to the genre is particularly good as a joint introduction to the genre and its critical history.
 In Lacan’s linguistic version of Freudian psychoanalysis, the symbolic order is the order of rational, meaning-based language use. It roughly corresponds to Freud’s notion of the ego, or the conscious mind.
 See Tony Williams for a detailed study of the role of the family in American horror films. Williams. Incidentally locates the intersection of family life and horror in the flawed nature of the bourgeois nuclear family itself: “Whenever individuals are forced into continuing an institution that causes them great personal unhappiness, one in [sic] which they were born into and had no escape from at a vulnerable age, then great pathological damage can occur” (3). First published in 1996, Williams’ study was update in 2014 in response to the growing importance of family horror in American culture.