The funny thing about horror is that it’s only ever really good when everything around is going to Hell in a handbasket. Perhaps it fitting for a genre that’s designed from the ground up to tap into our cultural fears and anxieties to only work when there’s enough raw materials to mine out of our collective psyche. Maybe there simply needs to be a critical mass of fear for all the cogs in the machine to get greased up and running. But it’s true.
The first great wave of horror movies came in the early 1930s, ushered in by Universal’s classic cadre of monster movies. Although they and others certainly made horror movies before this, they were never this good before the one-two punch of Dracula and especially Frankenstein in 1931. Perhaps due to the primitive technology of early Hollywood or the limited film vocabulary of the silent era, or maybe filmmakers themselves hadn’t quite figured what made for a great horror story on the big screen yet, but these first, tentative forays into classic, Victorian-rooted monster movies swelled in the coming years into something of a breaking point that threatened to swallow up audiences whole. But between them, The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1932) and The Wolf Man (1941) sequels like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and rival studio’s output like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and the illustrious work of shock producer Val Lewton in the 1940s, there were spooks and specters aplenty to rattle audiences at the local multiplex.
The thing was, though, that none of this was a coincidence: some chance occurrence divorced from the economics, politics and social unrest of the wider world. This horrific movement was born out of the malingering Great Depression, pre-World War II anxiety and, at the very end, the realities of war itself. It ended not just because of increasingly rigid censorship standards that disproportionately punished “low genres,” but also because of the generic shift from fictionalized horrors of latent Victorian imagination to the actual horrors of the mid-twentieth century, the rise of science fiction as the most appropriate mirror of atomic age anxieties and the post-war economic (and baby) boom that generally placated the movie-going masses.
Through much of the 1940s, the 1950s and the early and mid-1960s, horror lay dormant as a cultural force: kept down by censorship standards, shiny new genres and the general indifference of the Hollywood studio system. But then things took a turn for the worse, and horror once more had an in with the American people.
As television rose to prominence as the entertainment medium of choice and studios became increasingly eager to push the boundaries of good taste in order to entice audiences into theaters, the Hays Code — which rigidly controlled what was and was not allowed on the big screen since the mid-1930s — was first ignored and then rescinded entirely. The studio system, which ground fiercely individualistic filmmakers down into smooth-edged company men, collapsed under its own burgeoning weight and waning significance, allowing a new, eager generation to put to film the kind of idiosyncratic (and often quite horrific) experiences that they’ve been living through since the end of the second world war. And, of course, there were increasing racial tensions (culminating in the not-so-civil Civil Rights Movement) and a floundering economy that could no longer support all of the spiraling post-War consumption.
What began first in low-budget exploitation flicks and other transgressive, horror-adjacent fields soon blossomed into a renaissance for the beleaguering genre. From films that tapped into the displacement of orthodox religion — Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) — to those that challenged the soundness of the nuclear family itself — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Halloween (1978) — to the emerging (and soon monolithic) slasher films of the 1980s, horror was ideally positioned to tap into the disillusionment of the incoming counter-culture and the perceived death of the American dream.
And then the 90’s happened. The closing years of twentieth century were the only years in living memory whose trajectory was not dictated by hegemonic global conflict. There were wars, to be sure, but these were minor territorial spats that failed to in any way measure up to World War I, World War II and the various incarnations of the Cold War. In fact, due to the absence of these domineering outside forces, some observers went so far as to call it “the end of history” itself.
Yes, there were horror movies. Yes, even good ones. But between the genre chasing trends of the emerging blockbuster market and a lack of any substantive anxiety to tap into, we more often received duds like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and House on Haunted Hill (1999) than legitimate gems like New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996). The decade perhaps deserves more credit than it gets in that regard, but I can’t really blame people for writing the whole ten years off when it comes to great horror films. Because outside of the first few rumblings of the New French Extremity in the European arthouse, there really isn’t much to recommend here.
But, of course, that didn’t last. September 11, 2001 changed everything, and its affect on the film world was both immediate and shook the floundering horror genre to its core.
First came the resurgence of zombie movies, which had been one of the major casualties when the American Slasher cycle first reared its head on the scene. 28 Days Later (2002), which was filming during the terrorist attacks, and Dawn of the Dead (2004) popularized the fast zombie. Resident Evil (2002) became a massive blockbuster hit: spawning a score of equally popular sequels and increasingly stagnant copycats. Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) gave us something to laugh at when the genre peaked in popularity. And movies like Pontypool (2008) and the most recent Train to Busan (2016) reminded us that there were still avenues left for these flesh-eating ghouls to explore.
Then came the torture porn, born of American anxieties about their increasingly questionable place in the world, the now-fully developed New French Extremity and the uniquely horrific Australian brand of Outback horror. Abandoning any semblance of “good taste,” these distinctly nationalistic brands of terror shocked audiences the world over with their increased focus on violence, human depravity and the malingering effects of unaddressed trauma.
And, of course, we have the current wave of arthouse feminist horror movies, which I have already discussed in-depth elsewhere. Perhaps starting with the viscerally uncomfortable to watch Antichrist (2009) and increasingly dominating the horror scene with movies like It Follows (2014), The Babadook (2014), The VVitch (2015), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), The Neon Demon (2016), Mother! (2017) and Hereditary (2018) — and, to a lesser extent, Don’t Breath (2016) and Lights Out (2016) — their success appears to be rooted more in the aftermath of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis of 2007, the subsequent Great Recession and the pre-#MeToo anxieties of women and their allies than it is in the all-consuming terrorist attacks of the early aughts.
It has historically borne out that horror as a dominant cinematic genre can only exist in a climate of anxiety, fear, political turmoil and economic strife. While exceptions, of course, abound in any time period and compounding outside forces affect what can and cannot be shown on-screen, the foundational roots of the genre demand a widespread discord to tap into and express on the big screen. Without that, the genre withers on the vine.