The History of Horror
After hearing my mom speak of the horrific Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, I needed to see it. She said that this movie left her covering her eyes and ears in her room as a child. After laughing my way through this thriller, it made me wonder. How and why are the movies that terrorized our parents not nearly as scary as the movies that scare us today?
There has always been things that scare us. Some people are scared by spiders, some people are scared by zombies and the paranormal, but horror started way before zombies and ghosts were even considered to exist. Some of the first horror existed in mythology. The Greeks heard tales of horrific creatures like a woman who has snakes as hair, and if looked in the eye would turn you to stone (Medusa). The Greeks also heard tales of one-eyed giants that eat humans. The giants were locked in the underworld. On rare occasion, they would escape and terrorize the people.
The Greeks were not the only ones to have horrific mythology. The Romans are also known to have horror based myths. These myths did not start as myths; most of them started as narrated stories of monsters and wild beasts. Some of these were made into novels in the 1800s. In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote the first version of Frankenstein. This was the kick off of a whole new era of writing. In the 1890s, the first silent horror films were created.
Georges Melies was one of the first to produce these supernatural shorts. One of Melies’ most famous shorts was titled A Trip to the Moon. Melies was an inspiration to later film makers, because of what he discovered. Melies found out that he could make objects appear and vanish off film using certain techniques he invented. In the 1900s, there were films featuring monsters which soon inspired F.W. Murnau. In Germany in 1922 F. W. Murnau decided to direct a movie based on a night-dwelling creature that feeds on the blood of humans. This was the first vampire movie, known as Nosferatu. This was the start to a world wide love for vampire movies.
In 1910, there was a new creation. This was the creation of the zombie. J. Searle Dawley brought Frankenstein to life with sheer brilliance in the film world. Since then, Zombies have come a long way, and are now thought of as diseased walking dead that are out to get you.
The 30s was responsible for several discoveries with film. Films tended to based in far off lands as exotic fairy tales. Films then had sound leaving people covering their eyes and ears in cowardliness. Dracula not only was not only American Movie Studio Universal Pictures way of starting a new Gothic theme, it was also one of the first horror films with sound. Some of the classics include Freaks, The Mummy, and a re make of Frankenstein. Another memorable moment in horror history was when Paramount used color filter in their making of the Jekyll.
In 1941 the Wolf Man was produced with howling reviews! This movie started a new desire for werewolf movies. In the 40s there were also some reoccurring actors like Boris Karloff and Bella Lugosi that started careers in acting in horror movies. In the late 40s and early 50s again the style of horror shifted from Gothic to contemporary. Horror was also split up into two sub genres, horror-of-armageddon, and horror-of-the-demonic.
Horror-of-the-armageddon is apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. This includes some zombie movies, and movies featuring creatures that survived nuclear warfare, and so on. Horror-of-the-demonic is based on the idea of vengeance, and the corruption of innocence. It also has a lot to do with demons and the devil, and thus the name.In 1950 Great Britain began producing horror. One of the most famous British horror writers is Alfred Hitchcock. In 1954 there began a new thing for low budget films. A great example of this is the Japanese film Godzilla. In 1968 George A. Romero’s movie Night of the Living Dead cost only 114 thousand dollars to make and made close to twelve million dollars box office USA, and close to thirty million internationally. These were only two of the several successful low budget films.
In the late 50s to early 60s there was a break through in movie technology. The invention of movies with color came out. A few years later, filmmakers found out how to make movies three dimensional. This sent movie theater lines through the door. The thrilling picture of an axe getting thrown at your head was just what the public wanted to see. Some theater companies didn’t stop there. The movie The Tingler had theaters install speakers under the seats to make the viewer think they were feeling a shock, but it was actually just a small vibration. When the Tingler was near the main character in the movie, you thought he was near you too.
A few years later, in the 70s, magic became popular, leading film makers into an occult-themed time period. This involved magic, astrology, and knowledge or use of supernatural powers. Later in the 70s people started fearing the devil, so the number of movies about evil children possessed by the devil went way up. In 1975 beaches were almost abandoned because of Stephan Spielberg's hit movie Jaws. There were several shark attacks along the coastal areas right around the same time Jaws came out making Jaws a must see for beech dwellers.
In the 80’s the slasher movie was taken to a whole new level. There was now way more blood, and way more on camera killing dew to a whole new level of skill by the makeup artists. The prop creators now had access to all sorts of plastics and gels, like ballistic gel. Ballistic gel simulates human flesh. It is very cheap and easy to make, making it a must have for film makers that want an arm chopped off, or ripped out of its socket. Because of this and the invention of the DVD in the 90s, lots of remakes were being filmed. Later, in the 2000s zombies, ghosts, and possessed children were starting to scare people.
One of the main reasons that horror is scary is that it triggers less logical parts of our imagination. Some people are afraid of snakes, just like some people are afraid of death. Most of the time when people are scared of something it is because they do not know anything about it. If some who knows nothing about snakes sees a harmless garter snake, they might freak out. This is because they might think that are snakes are venomous and can kill you. Other fear could be connected to a personal experience. For example, if you were hiking in Arizona with your dad when you were a kid, and he got bitten by a rattle snake, you might jump to the conclusion that all snakes are bad. If you have ever watched the movie, I Am Legend with Will Smith, the first scene with zombies might freak you out and make you cover your eyes. If you were to keep a tally of zombies through out the movie, you will notice that the quantity of zombies grows. We get used to one or two zombies very quickly, but is is harder to comprehend the fact that there are 40 or 50 zombies.
One of the main reasons why people watch scary movies is because of the rush of adrenaline it brings. Fear brings adrenaline and thrills. Another reason that people watch horror is because it tells about the dark, forbidden side of life, which is something that most people do not experience. Humans are scared about things that we do not know about. That is why death plays a huge role in a lot of horror movies.Some scientists believe that that being scared has nothing to do with things you don’t know about. These scientists say that the COMT gene is responsible for whether we laugh or scream at horror. COMT gene provides instructions for making the enzyme known as the catechol-O-methyltransferase. Catechol-O-methyltransferaes enzymes degrade catecholamines such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters transmit nerve impulse which can be part of fear, for example shaking or quivering. Enzymes are proteins that allow chemical reactions in our bodies to take place much quicker than would occur on their own. The COMT gene produces these proteins that create chemical reactions which can be responsible for these nerve impulses.
When you break down a horror movie there are several things that make it scary. One of these things is the plot. One thing that the audience loves in a horror movie is when there is room for them to try to figure out the plot. This leaves room for suspense, and gives the viewer something to do rather than just watch a man in a mask kill people. For example in the movie Devil there is a group of people in an elevator. The elevator stops and the lights go out for a split second. When they come back on, on person in the elevator is all scratched up and bloody. This leads you to believe it is someone in the elevator that did this. All the viewer needs to find out is who. Another part of what makes horror movies scary is the environment in which the movie takes place. Old abandoned buildings in a run down town seem to always be scary because to the viewer they might have seen an abandoned building before. Abandoned buildings are also seen as forbidden or off limits creating a sense of curiosity. To people in the city, an old creaky house at the end of a long dirt road is scary. They believe that if the power were to ever go out, an axe murderer would come out and hack them to death. To most everyone in Vermont, these are issues that we face almost daily, so they are not going to scare us nearly as much as the city folk.
The next large part in what makes movies scary is the characters. Character helplessness also establishes fear for those characters. This also leaves some people screaming at their televisions telling the characters to just get up and grab the gun conveniently placed just out of reach. The character is so caught up in the fact that there is someone trying to kill them that they cannot even get up and run to get a knife or other object that could be used as a weapon. For the killer, or feared character in the movie, violence establishes the threat. Knowing that Freddy Krueger slices and dices people with his knife like fingers creates tension in the audience, because they know what he is capable of. As much as seeing exactly what the character looks like, and knowing their back round, only seeing the silhouette of the character can be even scarier.
With the approach of a creature or other character you are warned that you might want to plug your ears as well as cover your eyes. This is because of the music and sound track. Lots of horror music consists of sounds played backwards, slowed down, sped up, or combinations of all of those. In the Jurassic Park movies, they recorded chickens and other birds, and slowed it down to create the dinosaur noises. Also heard in horror music are a lot of clam notes. These are notes that do not fit, or were not added in intentionally. These are all sounds that are unfamiliar to the listener. Deeply-pitched music with sudden shrikes of loud high-pitched notes startles the viewer, and when combined with a frightening or sudden image, can create the scariest scenes.
Along these lines there is also lighting. If a scene consists of a bright sunny day in a house that is very well lit, the shot is not going to be scary at all. The reason why most scary movies take place at night, or in a dark area is because there are places for people to jump out of. In the day time, if someone were to jump out it could just be a common misunderstanding. In the dark it gives you the sense that you are the only one around, and that this person meant to jump out at you. Also, most the time you watch a scary movie, it is night time. This instantly gives you something that you can relate to from the movie. You are alone, the character is alone - wow this could happen to me.
If you look at the creatures and people from older horror movies and compare them to the movies now, you will see that the most recent characters look more like real people. This seems to make every tall slender German man look like the crazy scientist that attached humans mouth, to rectum, to form a human centipede. The more realistic the characters look, the easier it will be for you to imagine yourself into the victim's position.
With a great character, lighting, and music, you still need to have scary camera angles. One of the most used, but still very scary camera angles is the classic shot of the killer from over the victim's shoulder. Another classic is the character’s perspective. This makes the viewer feel like they are in the victim’s body. One thing I noticed about horror is that there are very few close-ups on the killer/monster. The directors do this to keep the audience from getting to know the killer or monster. In some cases this is okay if it is an anonymous killer, and you have no idea who it is.
After learning about all of this, I could start to see how it fits into horror movies. I have also noticed that I am less scared of them because I know some of the tricks the directors use to scare the viewer. Even if you don’t handle scary movies very well, I suggest watching some of the classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Though it does not seem scary to people these days, it is fun to see what scared people in the late 20th century. If you are feeling up to the challenge, take a stab at watching a more recent horror movie and see the differences.