Like all genre movies, horror films are today’s equivalent of cultural myths. Traditionally, the term “myth” refers to a society’s shared stories, usually involving gods and heroes, which explain the nature of the universe and the relation of the individual to it.
In Western culture, myths, initially transmitted orally, then in print, and now in digitised images and sound, have been disseminated by mass culture since at least the late nineteenth-century. Genre films, with their repetitions and variations of a few basic plots, are prime instances of mass-mediated contemporary myth. As film scholar Thomas Sobchack has written, “The Greeks knew the stories of the gods and the Trojan War in the same way we know about hoodlums and gangsters and G-men and the taming of the frontier and the never-ceasing struggle of the light of reason and the cross with the powers of darkness, not through the first-hand experience but through the media” (Sobchack, 2003: 103).
Stories of fear and the unknown are timeless, no doubt beginning around the prehistoric campfire, just as John Houseman dramatically recounts the scary legend of Antonio Bay to the engrossed children in the opening scene of John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ (1980). In mass-mediated society, we huddle around movie screens instead of campfires for our mythic tales.
Significantly, while other genres have cycled in and out of popularity, horror has been an important part of film history from the beginning. With roots in such pre-cinematic forms such as medieval woodcuts, Grand Guignol theatre and the Gothic novel, horror made a smooth transition to film in the one-reelers of Georges Méliès, the first pioneer of fantastic cinema.
By 1903, Melies had made films with monsters, ghosts, devils, and other assorted spirits — all creatures that were to become central to the horror film as it would develop over time. Unlike such genres as the musical and the gangster film, which had to wait for the technological development of synchronised sound, horror movies were already an important genre in the silent era. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) was filmed as early as 1910 by the Edison Company — and no less than 80 times since. By 1927, before the arrival of sound, audiences were familiar enough with horror conventions that they were being parodied in the first film adaptation of ‘The Cat and the Canary’.
The genre’s history is rich enough that there have been numerous attempts — stabs, one might say — at identifying comprehensive but workable categories for the wide variety of horror films. To mention just two examples: Roy Huss and T. J. Ross offer the broad subgenres of Gothic Horror, Psychological Thriller, and Monster Terror (Huss and Ross, 1972: 1-10), while Will Rockett suggests The Slasher, Bad Science, and Supernatural Horror (Rockett, 1988: 32-43). Still, regardless of the taxonomy, as Vivian Sobchack admits, “The creature film sits (awkwardly, for some) between horror and SF” (Sobchack, 1980: 47), depending in part on the film’s attitude toward or treatment of the monsters. This is undoubtedly true of the two schemes mentioned above, and a point to which I will return shortly.
Horror has been a staple category not only of Hollywood production throughout its history, but of other national cinemas as well. For example, most familiar to North American audiences is probably Hammer Horror, named after Hammer Studios in the UK. Beginning with ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, directed by Terence Fisher in 1957, Hammer went on through the 1960s to produce a substantial series of horror films that revisited the classic movie monsters, including Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, and the Mummy.
The Hammer horror films revitalised the genre by reinterpreting as well as updating its traditional gothic iconography with a bold use of colour and a modern dose of sexual content, including liberal attention to breasts and buttocks. This emphasis on sexuality only brought to the foreground material that before had been more subtextual than overt in the genre.
In Italy, the giallo, graphic thrillers and horror films, flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. Predating slasher films, the giallo (or “yellow” movie) took its name from the colour of the covers of pulp detective novels published in Italy after World War II. The giallo includes both police films (giallopoliziesco) and horror films (giallo-fantastico), featuring an overtly expressionist stylization, as seen in the films of cult directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento.
Japanese horror has a history that well precedes the current wave of J-Horror, beginning with silent films like ‘A Page of Madness’ (1926) and including art films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s ‘Ugetsu monogatari’ (‘Tales of Ugetsu’, 1953). And there is also a pronounced tradition of horror in other national cinemas including Holland, Russia, Thailand, Mexico, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.
In recent years, many of these national horror traditions have become more familiar to international audiences, due to the rise of global film distribution cartels, increased multinational film financing, and the geopolitical decline of rigid national boundaries.
Furthermore, horror, rivalling only SF in this regard, has the most extensive network of extra-cinematic institutions devoted to it of any other genre. These institutions include fanzines, from Forrest J. Ackerman’s ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ in the 1950s to ‘Rue Morgue’ today; annual conventions in cities across North America; a proliferation of websites devoted to horror, including websites exclusively devoted to horror conventions; and social gatherings such as Halloween parties and annual zombie walks.
The zombie walks, often sponsored for charity, included one in 2001 involving more than 1000 participants slouching toward Pittsburgh’s ‘Monroeville Mall’, which had served as the location for George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978).