The History of Horror: A DKA Halloween Special

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written by Ian Baxley

Ever since notable neanderthal Grodd Horror pretended to be a saber tooth tiger to scare his tribe at the campfire, horror has been at the forefront of fictional genres.  Like it’s inventor, horror has an undeniable primal hold on audiences. Fear is such a deeply rooted and natural part of human existence, its obvious there would be a genre dedicated to preying on our fight or flight instincts.  In terms of film history, the only history that matters, horror is incredibly important. And on this day dedicated to dressing up, having fun, and being scared, it’s important to do none of those things and instead learn about the history of horror movies, and horror’s place today in current cinema.

Like everyone’s favorite ghost type Pokemon Gengar, horror has significantly evolved over time to become what it is today.  You have your monster movies like Frankenstein and Nosferatu at the dawn of cinema, preying on our fear of anything that’s different than us.  In 1933 you have King Kong preying on the growing fear Americans had of giant gorillas.  Japan gets in on the action years later with Godzilla, a beast created and fueled by atomic energy. These films externalized Japan’s fear of atomic destruction due to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, until being turned into dumb monster fight movies by America, who as we know, has no investment in the world’s perception of the atomic bombing in Japan.   

Then, in 1960, honorary Delta Kappa Alpha member Alfred Hitchcock shocked the world with his film Psycho, a film that made the bold claim “what if the monster...is just some dude?”  In a time filled with so much uncertainty and distrust due to the Cold War and the Red Scare, the idea the monster could be that Soviet Spy next door caught on like wildfire.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre played on the primal fear of being chased by a crazy man with a mask made of literal human skin holding a chainsaw.  More importantly though, Texas Chainsaw Massacre played a huge role in the formation of a sub-genre that continues to this day: the slasher.  

The 70’s saw countless crazy men in masks killing teens with sharp (or sometimes blunt) objects, feeding into the growing animosity old people had towards the youth who played loud music, had unprotected sex, and didn’t vote Republican.  At the same time, monster movies made an unprecedented comeback in the fourth quarter with the release of Delta Kappa Alpha alum Steven Spielberg's film Jaws, which ruined the ocean for like three generations at this point.  No wonder we throw all our plastic in there...anyways, Ridley Scott’s Alien cemented the resurgence of the genre.  It was somewhere around this time studio executives realized something critical.  They realized horror movies cost like seven pennies to make but made absurd amounts of pennies in revenue.  Thus, we get Bee Horror with Wickerman.  And also B Horror, a genre in my opinion best highlighted by the Evil Dead.  Horror became a cathartic experience, preying not only on our primal fear now, but humans insatiable bloodlust and tendencies towards violence.  Due to humankind's denial of this fact, horror was relegated to low brow entertainment, with large directors only occasionally venturing into the genre to make The Shining.  

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Pre-1996, the most important year in all of horror cinema, both subgenres of horror (people horror and monsters horror), were perfected in two seperate films, neither of which were horror anymore.  Monster horror was perfected in Jurassic Park which while scary for the time, is much more important historically for its use of special effects.  People horror was perfected in Silence of the Lambs again, a film that was scary, but is much more intriguing as a character study/drama.  So, the two genres that had stayed with horror most of its life had now grown up, changed their hair, and left horror in a messy divorce.  How would horror recover, and more importantly, what space would in now exhibit in modern cinema?

Scream emerged from the darkness like a glowing goddess to highlight a new path for horror: self parody and comedy.  Scream realized horror as a genre was incredibly formulaic, and that by making fun of and subverting the formula, horror could once again make the big bucks.  Sean of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and Get Out highlight an ever growing direction of horror: Horror comedy.  In the most unexpected crossover since peanut butter and ranch, horror comedy proved itself to not only be the future of horror, but the future of cinema as well.  

At least it kinda did.  You see it turns out in a direct attempt to not give this article a clean conclusion, two other sub-genres of horror became popular.  The Blair Witch Project, a thrilling drama about three people arguing over a map, set the stage for the found-footage genre to emerge.  The found-footage genre did away with the notion that you’re watching a movie, and reignites terror in audience by telling them what they are seeing was real.  The genre also made producers go wild because found-footage films could be made for like five pennies instead of seven. Then, once again preying on humankind's unspoken bloodlust, Saw showed the world you didn’t even have to be scary anymore, you could just be incredibly violent and gory and people will still show up.  Eight times. So what are we left with? What is the point of reading all of this?


Ian Baxley