Since film industrys debut in the early 1900s, horror movies have been a staple in entertainment, captivating the masses with renditions of books, myths, and fantasies. However, besides providing entertainment, American horror movies reflect societal fears during the time of its creation. From the moral horrors of the 1920s, to the alien invader ’50s and paranormal ’80s, each decade has a defining horror sub genre that shows the evolution of fear through the 20th century.
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In the early 1900s, myth and fairytale adaptations involving werewolves, vampires, and monsters dominated horror films. Movies were often moral lessons about keeping faith, preserving tradition, and realizing the limits of humanity in doing “God’s work”. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Dr. Jekyll creates a potion with the intention of splitting the good and evil sides of himself into separate bodies to maintain the purity of his soul but finds that it only splits his personality, eventually leading to his isolation and death when he can’t control when the evil Hyde appears. As an adaptation of the 1886 book, it gives the lesson that claiming to be without sin leads to evil and self destruction, a sentiment of Christianity. Werewolf of London (1935) shows a similar format and moral lesson with lycanthropy being symbolic of dual nature. Another book adaptation, The Invisible Man (1933), tells of a scientist that discovers the secret of invisibility using a drug that also causes insanity. In his power hungry state, he robs and kills in the town, eventually being mortally wounded by the police and expressing regret over tampering with God’s world before dying. This shows the morality of early movies, as the book does not have the scientist regretting what he did or mentioning
Frankenstein (1931) also gives the lesson of not doing God’s work while the original novel did not. In the novel, the creation acted savagely because he was mistreated due to his appearance, while in the movie the monster is savage because a criminal’s brain was accidentally used, making the novel monster more of a victim compared to the movie monster. Another difference is in depicting the creation of the monster. The creation process in the book is referenced vaguely as a combination of new science and ancient alchemical lore, while the movie depicts the robbing of graves for organs and body parts to create the monster, adding a higher sense of illegitimacy and evil to the process. Finally, Dracula (1931) is arguably the most recognizable horror movie of the period and has a strong religious tone that it shares with Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel it’s based upon. To defeat Dracula and keep their lives, the characters must suspend rational thought and believe in things that go against science, such as garlic necklaces as protection and hypnosis. While the characters have to use superstitions to kill Dracula, they also use technology such as railroads and telegraphs, melding faith and technology. This gives the lesson that some things can only be explained with faith and irrationality but it doesn’t mean that technology has to be abandoned, tying into the fear that technology would crush faith in God.
Alien invasion movies were practically unheard of in the early decades of film, with only six being produced until the late 1940s. However, starting around 1949, alien focused movies flooded the industry with extraterrestrials causing chaos. Even though America was beginning to consider space exploration at this time, the alien horror movies of the ’50s had little to do with outer space curiosity. This alien invasion boom lasted from around 1949 to the late 1950s, coinciding with the Second Red Scare (1947-57) and embodying the fears of communism and espionage. Some movies, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951),
were specifically made to comment on the extreme suspicion towards communism. The Day the Earth Stood Still tells of an alien that visits Earth to warn humans not to bring their violence to outer space unless they want to be destroyed. However, when he is misunderstood, he is hunted by the military and has to find friendly humans to help him return home. The movie was created as an anti-war film, commenting on how quickly the decision to destroy is made. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), however, was not intended to be a cold war film but is usually considered to be the quintessential Red Scare horror movie.
In Body Snatchers, townspeople are being killed and replaced by alien imposters that are indistinguishable from normal people except for their lack of emotion. Body Snatchers replicates the feeling of communists being everywhere, yet unnoticeable until an innocent is converted. Nobody was considered safe from communist influence and nobody could be fully trusted, as was the case in Body Snatchers. A similar plot was used in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), when aliens take over the bodies of human males to mate with human females, another showing of communist suspicion.
The Blob (1958) took a different route compared to the earlier movies in that it was simply an alien blob terrorizing a town, there was no suspicion involved and the Blob destroyed without subtly. The film was in full color, a rarity at the time, and the Blob happened to be red, making it a “Red Menace”. The Blob is eventually dropped in an arctic region, symbolizing the general cold of the USSR where the Red Menace is meant to stay.
The connection between the Red Scare and alien invader boom is strengthened further by the fact that the ’50s produced more alien horror movies than the ’60s and ’70s combined, a time when space travel was most prominent in America. Also, alien movies produced from the mid ’70s onward tend to put space exploration and aliens in a more positive light, with movies such as Star Wars, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and 2001: A Space Odessey diverging
from the horror based ’50s movies.
The release of Psycho (1960) set the tone for the future of horror when psychological
and slasher films became prominent. Psycho tells the story of a mentally ill man that develops a split personality based on his mother to relieve guilt after he murders her in a jealous rage. “Mother” leads him to murder a woman before he is completely controlled by the personality. Psycho was inspired by the story of Ed Gein, a serial killer that garnered incredible media coverage in the late ’50s. At this time, the television was becoming a common fixture in households, extending news reports beyond newspapers and magazines, and allowing stories to be more graphic and easier to spread. Serial killers and murders now went beyond plain text and photographs to graphic video, providing a close look into the darkest reaches of humanity. Psycho would inspire such films as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), preying on the media induced hyper-awareness of violence that continues to this day.
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Paranormal films, centered around spirits, demons and ghosts, gained popularity concurrently with psychological movies, often containing elements of both and blurring the line between the two sub genres. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the story of a woman who gives birth to the child of Satan, marks the beginning of paranormal movies. The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) are included with Rosemary’s Baby to form a ‘demonic child’ movie cycle. The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) involve ghosts and demons that terrorize the victims by turning them against each other. These ghost films could be considered a product of loosening religious beliefs among Americans, making death and afterlife more mysterious compared to the clearly defined afterlife in Christianity. Also, the omnipotence of the spirits is akin to the omnipotence of God, allowing the spirits to constantly
observe and control humans in a destructive way, and disconnecting them from Satan who does not possess such power. This could be seen as a questioning of religion, finding the thought of an almighty power manipulating humans for their own purpose as unsavory and harmful.
In recent years, many horror movies are simply remakes of older films, reviving fears that never seem to go away. As society evolves, new fears will build upon older ones and create new horror sub genres that provide social commentary. However, horror movies will continue to relieve these social fears without the viewer even knowing.
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