Learning Objective: 
to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of horror in cinema 

Success Criteria:
- understand the conventions of the horror genre
- explore the history of horror in cinema
- complete case studies that explore the processes of production, distribution, and marketing
- explore the impact of technology on the relationships between audiences and institutions


Watch this video and make detailed notes about the history of horror. Note:-

- origins and evolution
- sub-genres
- codes and conventions
- important films/production companies/cycles/directors

You will use these notes, along with the ones on this page, AND some independent research, to create a timeline of the history of horror in film.

The history of horror is not a rigid one-way street. New films borrow from old films all the time, and a constant remix of sub-genres and new techniques continue to reimagine the genre for the contemporary culture.


The roots of filmed horror were an extension of a genre of literature that got its start in the late 1700s: Gothic literature. Developed by writers in both Great Britain and the United States, the Gothic part of the name refers to pseudo-medieval buildings that these stories took place – think of old castles, dark and stormy nights, gloomy forests, dungeons and secret passages. It was from Gothic literature that the first horror films found inspiration

The term 'horror' did not come into use for film until the 1930s, however, the following film, The Haunted Castle (Melieres, 1896) shares many elements we associate with the genre. Watch the silent film and note elements you consider associated with horror films of today.


German Expressionism was a style of cinema that emphasised expression over realistic depictions. Starting off as a rising movement throughout Europe, German filmmakers and artist developed their unique style as the result of embargo in place during World War I. 

Painting the set for The Cabinet Of Dr. CaligariFor example, electricity was scarce and German industries were allotted power on a quota basis. In 1910, the Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) had used up almost all their quota, so the filmmakers decided to paint the shadows on the set rather than try to create them naturally with electric light.

This technique combined with the sharp angles and bizarre perspective distortion created an unforgettable look that established German Expressionism both artistically and as a commercially popular style of cinema.

German filmmakers continued the tradition of Expressionist horror films with The Golem: How He Came into the World (Freund, 1920) and Nosferatu (Freund, 1922).


The German film industry did well in the immediate post-war era. Fortunately for the film industry, people flocked to the movies because it was the only form of entertainment that people felt they were getting their money’s worth, and Berlin became the cultural centre of Europe despite the shaky economy.


In the late 1920s, sound transformed cinema. It was a radical artistic leap, and probably more so for horror than any other genre – just try turning off the sound on your favourite horror film – it just wouldn’t have the same impact. Compare these two classic horror examples with and without the sound...

Saw 2 ( Bousman, US, 2005)


Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, US, 1974)

During the silent era, Universal was responsible for the few achievements in horror; The Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame for example. But in the 1930s, Universal really sunk their teeth into horror, kicking off the Universal Gothic Horror Cycle.

Their first hit was Dracula (Browning, Freund, US, 1931), followed by Frankenstein (Whale, US, 1931), The Mummy (Freund, US, 13932), The Invisible Man (Whale, US, 1933), Werewolf in London (Walker, US, 1935), and Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, US, 1936). Victor Halperin's White Zombie was released in 1932 and is often cited to be the first zombie film (although technically, Frankenstein's monster could be considered a zombie...).  Common horror monsters include: werewolves, zombies, vampires, and mummies.

Film Facts: Pre-Code

These early horrors were produced in Pre-Code Hollywood.

Pre-Code refers to the brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines in 1934, usually labelled, albeit inaccurately, as the "Hays Code". 

Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously enforced until July 1, 1934, with the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA). 

Before this, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the major studios, and popular opinion, than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.

As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendo, miscegenation,profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality. 

Beginning in late 1933 and escalating throughout the first half of 1934, American Roman Catholics launched a campaign against what they deemed the immorality of American cinema. This, plus a potential government takeover of film censorship and social research seeming to indicate that movies which were seen to be immoral could promote bad behaviour, was enough pressure to force the studios to enforce the codes more rgouroulsy.

Moving into the 1940s, the Universal Gothic Horror Cycle began to lose steam and fall into the pit of self-parody with titles like The Invisible Man Returns (May, US, 1940), The Mummy’s Hand (Pivar, US, 1940), and Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (Neill, US, 1943). 

With the even of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, US, 1948) - a horror-comedy hybrid - Universal retired their first string of monsters from serious horror filmmaking.

While Universal’s offerings slipped from horror to formula, a small division at RKO, the smallest of the big five studios, began to lay stylistic foundations for low budget horror films to come
Val Lewton, a journalist, novelist and poet turned story editor for David O Selznick, was put in charge of a low budget division at RKO to produce horror films for a $150,000 a piece. The studio would provide the title, Lewton would develop the story.

The first title was Cat People (Tourneur, US, 1942).

Using leftover studio sets and creating the scares by using mood and shadows rather than makeup and monsters – Cat People was truly a glimpse at the more psychologically scary films that would become popular in the decades to come.


forbidden_planet_poster_03The period between the post-World War II years and the 1950s was perhaps the most difficult time Hollywood had ever gone through, not least due to the introduction of television, which became a direct competition for cinema-consumers.

Horror films got relegated to strictly B-film status as Hollywood preserved its A-list talent for lavish epics. But the horror film was still popular with the teens who wanted thrills even if the plot lines were ludicrous.

The Icy Soviet-American arms race meant the nuclear boogey man was always top of mind. Horror films tapped into this cold war fear of invasion blending into a Pulp Science Fiction Cycle with films like The Thing From Another World (Nyby, US, 1951), The Day The Earth Stood Still (Wise, US, 1951), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, US, 1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, US, 1956) (see how this is used in the 1955 setting in Back to the Future (Speilberg, US, 1985).

But monsters didn’t only come from outer space, Creatures also emerged from the deep like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourie, US, 1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (Arnold, US, 1954) and, of course, the Japanese nuclear monster Godzilla (Honda, Japan, 1954).
By the mid 1950s the Pulp Sci-Fi Horror cycle would start to wear down and be taken over by exploitative producers like William Castle who relied on gimmicks to sell tickets.
For example, in marketing and distributing Macabre (Castle, US, 1958), a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to each customer in case he/she should die of fright during the film! In House on Haunted Hill (Castle, US, 1959) used a technique called “Emergo”. In some theatres that showed the film, an elaborate pulley system allowed a plastic skeleton to be flown over the audience at the appropriate time. Tingler, (Castle, US, 1959) employed a a gimmick called "Percepto!" - buzzing vibrating devices in some theatre chairs which activated with the onscreen action.


From the 1960s on there was a huge explosion of styles and cycles into the horror genre as it gained both in popularity, prestige and freedom, as the restrictive censorship of the Production Code (see Film Fact box above) was abandoned in 1964.

This era also introduce us to the Maestro himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Honing his precise abilities to play an audience like a musical instrument, it was Psycho (Hitchcock, US, 1960) that shocked audiences into believing horror could be more than B-Film Fare.

Unlike the monsters of previous horror cycles, the protagonist of Psycho, Norman Bates, is rooted in reality – an everyday human on the outside but a psychological monster on the inside. Hitchcock would deliver another natural horror with The Birds in 1963.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Hammer Films Productions in The United Kingdom began rebooting Universal’s Gothic Monsters – but adding sex and gore

Film Fact: Hammer Horror UK

Between 1957 and 1974, Hammer cranked out seven Frankenstein movies, six Draculas, nine other vampire outings, two Jekyll & Hydes, and three Mummy films. 

The Hammer Studio, located on the banks of the River Thames, even became the setting oit’s own parody – as it’s country style Down Place mansion was used as the set for Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, a film that in itself is a parody of the Hammer Horror style.

Shot in full color, Hammer’s first Gothic horror reboot was The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, UK, 1957) with Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster. 

For the first time in a Frankenstein film, blood was shown on screen and in full chilling colour

Can you believe that there had been no blood in horror until then? 

Can you imagine modern horror without it? 

Watch this video, which details The Cinematic History of Blood. Not for the squeamish.

Back in the US, inspired by the success of Hammer’s approach, was the legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. Whereas Alfred Hitchcock meticulously storyboarded his films and enjoyed studio financial backing, Corman pumped out films as fast as he could – Little Shop of Horrors (US, 1960) was shot in just under three days with a budget of just $30,000 using sets that had been left over from Bucket of Blood (Corman, US, 1959). 

Corman knew what audiences wanted, blood and babes and he delivered. His greatest acclaim as a director came with his Edgar Allan Poe Cycle released between 1959 and 1964 collaborating with screenwriter Richard Matheson and actor Vincent Price in films like House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963) (see how horror comes full circle).

At this time in cinematic history, Horror as a genre was starting to be taken seriously both at the highest craft of film production and at the lowest, paving the way for the many sub-genres that arrived in the following decades.

The Occult – Satan and the Supernatural

These were popular big budget films and started  with Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, US, 1968), which was actually a William Castle project. Then came what many consider the greatest entry in the Occult Cycle: The Exorcist (Friedkin, US, 1973), followed by The Omen (Donner, US, UK, 1976) and The Amityville Horror (Rosenberg, US, 1979).

The Film school generation – a group of filmmakers who grew up on and formally studied horror began to inject B-movie horror devices into their mainstream work. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 made creature horror big business – igniting not only a Shark Cycle but the whole summer blockbuster style of production and marketing. 

Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 1976 set the stage for a Teen Horror Cycle by turning Stephen King’s first novel into big box office and Oscar Nominations for the leads. 1979’s Alien, by Ridley Scott, made a huge success of the horror and sci-fi hybrid, as did John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, in 1982 which was a neither a box office or critical success but has stood the test of time to be one of most terrifying special-effects films ever made. 

Spielberg returned to horror in 1982 with Poltergeist, where he worked with Tobe Hooper to create a masterful ghost story which was released only a week away from Spielberg’s other 1982 hit: E.T.

The Shining (US, 1980) by Stanley Kubric is a horror film in a class of its own and defies categorisation or imitation. Whilst not a critical or mainstream hit, it is an absolute must watch for any student of horror and is one of our case studies.


Horror has been a staple of the low budget world since the Universal Creature days and, as film production technology progressed and costs steadily declined, the rise of independent filmmakers meant a rise of new takes on horror.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, US, 1974) was based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein - who was also the inspiration for Psycho and Silence of the Lambs (Demme, US, 1991) - was shot on a skeleton budget in the sweltering Texas summer heat. Full of financial problems, the cast and crew didn’t see much monetary reward from the film’s success, but the rawness of the teenagers in peril inspired many more teen horror slasher imitations (see Social Realism in British Horror). Halloween (Carpenter, US, 1978) was one the most successful independent slasher films ever made. Many critics credit the film as the first in a long line of slasher films inspired by 
Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).

Produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossing nearly $240 million dollars as of 2012, Halloween is unlike many of it’s follow-ups and imitators, as it contains very little graphic violence or gore. Without much money to spend on sets and props, Carpenter constructed his horror inside everyday suburbia – the Michael Myers mask was just a $2 Captain Kirk mask painted white.

Terror in the backyard worked. Friday the 13th (Cunningham, US, 1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, US, 1984) were both studio-backed slasher films that followed the similar horror in the backyard formula to tremendous success and numerous sequels.

But independent horror wasn’t just about the slasher.

In 1981, Bruce Campell, Sam Raimi, and Robert Tapert released a small independent film which they had made by raising $150,000 from local investors. The film, The Evil Dead was heavy on splatter effects and stop motion gore, and gained a cult following especially after being released in the relatively new Home Video Tape market in 1983. The promise of distribution through the new technologies of video-tape and cable unleashed a flood of blood-soaked horror films that were never made for the theatre.


When the 90s came around, the Slasher Cycle had pretty much run its course and was starting to fall into parody. Even Raimi’s Magic Spell Zombie Cycle was being parodied by Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) in 1992. 

Wes Craven’s self-aware meta-slasher film Scream (US, 1996) about a killer among a group of teenagers who are aware of all the rules of slasher films rebooted a new Teen Horror Cycle which led to I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespie, US, 1997) and Final Destination (Wong, US, 2000). These began to fade with the release of the parodies, Scary Movie (Wayans, US, 2000), which mimicked the meta-slasher teen horror films.

Monster films turned increasingly to CGI effects for scares, but there was a re-imagining of both vampires and werewolves through the Twilight Saga (US, 2008-2012), and the Underworld series (US, UK, Canada, Hungary, 2003–present), a
s well as new versions of Shelley's classic Gothic horror: I, Frankenstein (US, Australia, 2014) and FRANKƐN5TƐ1N (Rose,US, 2015), and, due for release this month,  Victor Frankenstein, (McGuigan, US, 2015).

Psychological Horror and Thrillers, as well as Ghost/Supernatural sub-genres, have remained popular throughout the 90s and 2000s including films like Silence of the Lambs (Demme, US, 1991), Se7en (Fincher, US, 1995)
The Sixth Sense (Shayamalan, US, 1999)The Others (Amanabar, Spain, US, France, Italy, 2001), The Ring (Verbinski, US, Japan, 2002), The Grudge (Shimizu, US, Japan, 2004), Insidious (Wan, US, 2010), The Conjuring (Wan, US, 2013), Babadook (Kent, Australia, Canada, 2014), Oculus (Flanagan, US, 2014) - coming right back to Gothic Romance with Crimson Peak (Del Toro, US, 2015).

Three modern horror film cycles arose in late-1990s and into the 2000s that are unique to our modern era. Torture Porn as it is disparagingly labelled, is the modern reboot of the Splatter films going back to the Hammer Horror era. This latest cycle emphasises intense gore, grunge and often tortuous violence. The Saw franchise, the most successful horror film franchise of all time, is considered the first in the latest crop of splatter films with its first instalment in 2004, by James Wan. This was followed by Eli Roth’s Hostel in 2005 – where the moniker torture porn was coined by critic David Edelstein.

The Blair Witch Project (Sanchez and Myrick, US, 1999) represents the first major film in the modern found footage horror sub-genre. Through a borrowed idea from Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato, Italy, 1980), The Blair Witch Project used the device of piecing together first-hand footage to reconstruct the last terrifying moments of the original eye-witness. It was also one of the first films ever to be marketed almost entirely through the internet. 

The found footage device then made it into common use: Paranormal Activity (Peli, US, 2007) and, large creature film, Cloverfield (Reeves, US, 2008).

The history of horror comes up to date with the latest Zombie Cycle. Originating with George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (US, 1968), the modern Zombie Apocalypse Cycle began when Danny Boyle breathed a new life into the undead genre with 28 Days Later (UK, 2002). This is when zombies began to RUN!

Recent Zombie films feed our fears of a medical pandemic and the break-down of society - brought on by the financial meltdown in the mid-2000s following the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, in 2001. This genre is still going strong with films like World War Z (Forster, US, 2013) and the TV series, The Walking Dead (AMC, US, 2010 - present). The new Zombie Cycle may be seeing its fade-out, however, as comedic versions like Zombieland (Fleischer, US, 2009) and Shaun of the Dead (Wright, UK, France, US, 2004) have poked fun at the formula, which, as we have seen, marks a decline in the sub-genre.

What is next for the horror genre? Based on the history of cycles, what do you think is next?