For ten decades, horror movies have haunted cinema screens and have been one of Hollywood’s longest-running genres alongside the western. Since Nosferatu (one of the earliest movies in the genre) was released in 1922, the blood and gore, the suspenseful and unsettling music, and the iconic scary villains that followed have been historic trademarks in movies that have terrified several generations of movie-goers.
From silent vampires in castles to clowns dressed in make-up scaring pre-teens, the horror film has moved through many phases over the course of a hundred years. Popular among audiences, these fright favorites have not only shaped and influenced the genre in seismic ways but have defined the decades they live in.
1920s: ‘Nosferatu‘ (1922)
When Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is ordered to Transylvania to finalize a sale with Count Orlok (Max Schreck), it is soon revealed that Orlok is a vampire who has his eyes on the estate agent’s wife.
An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu was one of the earliest horror movies to be released along with Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Through its use of shadows and staging, Nosferatu also played a big part in defining the German Expressionist film during the decade and beyond. Finally, the lack of sound along with Schreck’s haunting performance added to the chilling nature of the film; which, since its release, has inspired a number of remakes.
1930s: ‘Bride of Frankenstein‘ (1935)
Following the events of 1931’s Frankenstein, scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) decides to leave his experiments behind. However, when The Monster (Boris Karloff) he created kidnaps his wife, Frankenstein is forced to make a new creature to save her.
Picking up where the first one left off, the seminal science-fiction horrorBride of Frankensteinwas one of the first ever movie sequels to be made. Masterfully directed by James Whale, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein told a compellingly rich horror story of loneliness and humanity that was amplified by Karloff’s sympathetic performance as The Monster. As a result, the movie received glowing praise and, arguably, single-handedly shaped 1930s horror cinema.
1940s: ‘The Wolf Man’ (1941)
After being bitten by a wolf in a vicious attack, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) transforms into a werewolf. Causing chaos and mayhem, some villagers set out to hunt the beast as Larry seeks to leave the town.
Directed by George Waggner and containing classically atmospheric fog, 1941’s The Wolf Man followed the cycle of Universal monster movies that dominated the 1930s. In fact, following the film’s success, it would generate future sequels that would populate the ’40s as well. Whilst the signature werewolf make-up and design frightened audiences at the time, The Wolf Man has also influenced future filmmakers like John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and Joe Johnston (The Wolfman, a modern remake of the 1941 film).
1950s: ‘Them!’ (1954)
In 1954, giant ants roamed cinema screens in Gordon Douglas’ science-fiction horror Them!. As an army of mutated ants terrorizes citizens, it is up to a team of scientists and military soldiers to end this uprising before the ants threaten civilization on a global scale.
Widely regarded as one of the first nuclear monster movies of the 1950s, Them! is an entertaining creature feature that is sure to leave any viewer terrified of big bugs. Also starring Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street) as an informative scientist, the film contained one of the most hauntingly enigmatic opening sequences of sci-fi horror as a little girl wanders the desert alone looking shell-shocked.
1960s: ‘The Haunting’ (1963)
When paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) invites two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodore (Claire Bloom), to a haunted house, strange events occur that put the lives of everyone involved in grave danger.
Eerie and creepy, The Haunting was one of the scariest movies audiences had seen in the 1960s that had them asking one question: do you believe in ghosts? Featuring inventive and dynamic camerawork and stellar direction from Robert Wise, the supernatural horror film has endured and frightened ever since. The screams of terror from Harris, the unsettling sense of dread, and the chilling use of sound make The Haunting an effective horror that helped define the decade.
1970s: ‘Halloween’ (1978)
On one night in Haddonfield, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends are babysitting some kids in the neighborhood whilst the parents are away. However, unknown to them, a killer is on the loose murdering teenagers one by one.
Whilst 1960’sPsycho and 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced horror fans to the ingredients of a slasher, John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween was arguably the formal birth of the horror-slasher sub-genre. With a hypnotic, catchy, and suspense-filled score, a terrified final girl, a bunch of horny teenagers, and a masked killer, Halloween was iconic and defined ’70s horror (and beyond).
1980s: ‘The Shining’ (1980)
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family move to the Overlook Hotel for the winter. But, whilst living in isolation, Jack begins to go crazy which threatens the safety of his family.
Containing creepy twins that will haunt viewers’ dreams and striking visuals (most notably, the blood pouring from the elevator doors), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was and still is influential. Amazingly, however, Stephen King has famously been outspoken against the film and how much it differs from his novel of the same name. Regardless, Kubrick’s psychological horror, to some, helped further produce more 1980s film adaptations of King’s novels including 1986’s popular crowd-pleaser Stand by Me.
1990s: ‘Scream’ (1996)
After brutally attacking and killing a girl, Ghostface targets Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her high-school friends. Alongside officer Dewey (David Arquette) and news reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), they track down Ghostface who is behind all the murders in Woodsboro.
In 1996, legendary director Wes Craven introduced audiences to the reference-filled slasher-horror Scream. Consequently, the movie helped shape the next era of parody movies and teen horror films. From the iconic, memorable, and subversive opening sequence to Campbell’s portrayal of an iconic bad-ass final girl, Scream proved to be a box-office success and a hit with critics. Actually, it proved to be even more popular with fans of the genre as the movie is packed with references and nods to horror films of the past, whilst also innovating the genre in new and interesting ways.
2000s: ‘Paranormal Activity‘ (2007)
When Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) move to a new house, mysterious things start to happen. As the nightly disturbances begin to intensify, the young couple, who fear that they are in the presence of a demonic spirit, decide to install security cameras.
Injecting an aura of authenticity, Paranormal Activity terrified audiences when it was released in 2007. The Oren Peli-directed film helped reignite fan interest in the found-footage horror film with its number of tense sequences and chillingly realistic images. Spawning sequels in the process, Paranormal Activity’s highly effective and long-lasting marketing campaign resulted in the film becoming a box-office phenomenon. It has left a mark on the genre and 2000s cinema ever since.
2010s: ‘It’ (2017)
After his brother is eaten by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a killer clown that lurks in the sewers, Bill (Jaeden Martell) and his group of bullied friends band together to track down the clown to prevent more pre-teen murders from happening.
Featuring a star-studded cast of teen actors (Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jack Dylan Grazer amongst others), It was a blockbuster hit with audiences back in 2017. Along with several frightening and edge-of-your-seat tense sequences, Skarsgard’s chillingly creepy performance as Pennywise made clowns scary again. Breaking box-office records and rightly earning “iconic” status, Andy Muschietti’s It also generated a sequel with 2019’sIt: Chapter Two.