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A Brief History of Horror in Golden Age Hollywood

Written by Kerry at The Film Detective

There is something enduring about sharing harrowing tales over a campfire or using a friend as a human shield as the undead emerges on the television screen. In controllable doses, horror movies allow us the catharsis of watching our greatest fears manifest on screen right before our eyes. It's comforting to know that we can watch Frankenstein’s monster rise from the operating table, knowing we can just as easily step away and get more popcorn without the threat of a monster lurking in our kitchen. A long way to say, a controlled adrenaline rush is just, plain fun.

Our greatest fears melt into entertainment when we know they aren’t directly happening to us. A genre that has often rested in the periphery of Hollywood and critics' kind eyes, horror has seen quite a few ebbs and flows over the years. Credited by many as one of the earliest horror shorts captured on film, Georges Méliès spins up a frightful tale in “Le Manoir Du Diable” (or “The House of the Devil”, 1896), where Mephistopheles conjures bats, skeletons, and you name it, using a magical cauldron. Horror movies were in play long before the advent of sound in film. Throughout the 1890s and 1900s, a time when filmmakers were unburdened by conventional “scary structure” in movies and tropes, filmmakers began taking their first crack at works from Gothic greats like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe.

The 1920s: It would be impossible to even whisper the words “silent horror movies” without mentioning “Nosferatu” (1922). F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897), stars Max Schreck, a man whose name quite literally means fright, as the Vampire Count Orlok. Containing eerie shots, “Nosferatu” (1922) has roots in German expressionism, often named alongside frightful flicks like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). The silent era of horror film was characterized by the terrifying literary works that came before it. With novels like Gaston Leroux's “The Phantom of the Opera,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” ripe for the picking, we have books to thank for some of the decade’s greatest scares.

Silent Horror fans can catch “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920) here.

The 1930s: Throughout the 1930s, filmmakers really began to sink their teeth into the horror genre and nothing says “sinking your teeth” quite like the 1931 “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi. Here is a man so dedicated to the Count Dracula role that the actor would be buried in a cape upon his death in 1956.

With monsters causing mayhem throughout the 1930s, vampires, mummies, werewolves, and rampaging animals were stirring up audiences like never before. Director James Whale got his money’s worth out of the 1930s, directing “Frankenstein” (1931), “The Invisible Man” (1933), and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) to name a few.

This decade of terrifying titles offered viewers a brief escape from the real-world horrors of the Great Depression. With “The Mummy” (1932), “The Black Cat” (1934) and “The Raven” (1935) also released, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were rising the ranks of Hollywood’s “most frightening” list of the decade. Meanwhile, Fay Wray was building her name as a “scream queen” throughout the 1930s, starring in “King Kong” (1933) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933).

Let us not forget the infamous “Freaks” (1932), a tale of revenge after a beautiful trapeze artist who agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers for his money, banned from the United Kingdom for 30 years after its release. If you’ve seen any of these 1930s horrors, you may just be “One of us! One of us!”

For 1930s horror, we recommend "White Zombie" (1932) starring Bela Lugosi.

The 1940s and 1950s: By the time the 1940s came around, the well of terrifying Hollywood monsters began running dry. With reboots and monster mashups running about, filmmakers turned to combining the frightening with the funny, with a series of horror comedies. Abbott and Costello led the charge for works like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) and “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (1949). Lugosi even joined in on the fun, appearing alongside the East Side Kids for “Ghosts on the Loose” (1943). That’s not to say the 40s were completely devoid of horror, “Cat People” (1942), “The Uninvited” (1944), and “The Wolf Man” (1941) being among the notable standouts.

With the rise of television in the 1950s, filmmakers began flexing their creative muscles to keep audiences in theaters. Famed director and producer William Castle knew a thing or two about keeping the audiences in seats, particularly keeping viewers on the edge of them. For “House on Haunted Hill” (1959), when a skeleton rises on screen, Castle has a plastic skeleton swoop over the audiences in theaters. In “The Tingler” (1959), buzzers were placed underneath seats to coincide with the film, incidentally with both films showcasing the talents of Vincent Price.

However, the 1950s wasn’t all plastic skeletons and buzzers. With real-world fears of the Cold War, invasion, and nuclear weapons plaguing audiences, on-screen mutated monsters, mad scientists, and denizens of the deep began popping up. Notable titles include “The Blob” (1958), “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), “The Fly” (1958), and “Godzilla” (1954).

For a taste of the 1950s, we recommend “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “Monster from the Ocean Floor” (1954).

The 1960s: The 1960s tapped into the horror of the mind. With a social and sexual revolution happening just outside of theater doors, horror continued to match the realities of its time. Two major players of the 1960s included Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman. Hitchcock started the decade with one of the most shocking films of all time, “Psycho” (1960), which betrayed audiences with its mid-movie plot twist and showered us in fear. Meanwhile, Corman was churning out horror and schlock titles with wild abandon, including “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960), “The Terror” (1963), and “Creature from the Haunted Sea” (1961).

Independent filmmaking got the upper hand in 1968 with George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Despite never actually using the word “zombie” in the film, NOTLD has served as a building block for the zombie sub-genre for decades to come. Additional notable works throughout the 1960s include “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ “Blood Feast” (1963).

For 1960s horror, check out "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) and “The Terror” (1963).

In more recent decades, there still seems to be an everlasting quality to horror films. We have since seen the rise of the occult in the 1970s, Stephen King and shark blockbusters, slashers of the 1980s, a return (from the dead) of the zombie sub-genre, torture porn, and critically acclaimed works like “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Get Out” (2017). Whether it be the anticipation, crafty camera angling, acting prowess, or, let’s just come right out and say it, the instrumental use of sound, horror has shown us that we are united as generations based on an unyielding commonality: fear and insatiable desire to watch it on-screen.

(PS - For instrument nerds like me, here is an interesting look at the unseen star of horror films like “Poltergeist” (1982) and “Aliens” (1986), the waterphone: demonstration here)

Then, check out The Film Detective's collection of 31 Days of Horror titles!


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