Given the current state of the world, it’s safe to assume the only festive activity happening this Halloween will involve being snuggled on the couch inside your own home, probably enjoying a marathon of horror films.
Maybe your choices include the first film that scared you as a child or one you can passionately discuss with like-minded individuals. They might be films you traditionally watch every October 31st. Whatever the reason, these films have stayed with you.
Over any other film genre, you can often rely on horror films to reflect society’s real-life terrors and fears, evolving with the times in which we live — just like the expansion of technology and the use of nuclear weapons inspired films about giant radioactive insects and space invasions in the postwar 1950s. The Cold War was our reality and seeing our fears fictionalized on screen brought an eerie type of solace.
As themes of horror organically changed, the seeds of contemporary horror as we know it were firmly planted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 with the release of Psycho.
In the film, Janet Leigh is Marion Crane, a real estate secretary-turned-thief on the run, plagued by paranoia and a guilty conscience. When she stumbles upon the Bates Motel and takes the mother of all showers, she single-handedly births the modern horror film.
Gone are the days of creature features and mythological beasts. With Psycho, the real monster was now your next door neighbor, that person behind you in the grocery store, or, in this case, a harmless-looking motel manager named Norman Bates.
Directly influenced by Psycho, John Carpenter gifted us the enduring holiday horror classic aptly titled Halloween in 1978. Like Norman Bates, masked killer Michael Myers is a flesh-and-blood human who escapes an insane asylum to terrorize his idyllic suburban hometown on Halloween night.
Friday the 13th, released two years later, took the budding slasher genre that Halloween sprouted and watered it with Miracle-Gro. Set in rural New Jersey at fictional Camp Crystal Lake, the hapless counselors who have arrived from the city are stalked by a mysterious unseen killer and picked off one by one. With even more on screen gore and violence, the horror genre was now geared up and ready for the decadent Reagan era in a post-Vietnam world.
It’s not proven that these filmmakers were intentionally setting out to make a statement on pop culture, but is it worth noting that the popularity of Halloween, Friday the 13th and other slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s came at a time when reports of real-life serial killers Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramírez were headline news.
Although Friday the 13th is ultimately a film about vengeance, you can’t ignore the themes of urbanite fears of rural areas. These themes are also explored in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and several other notable releases of this time period (see also: Tourist Trap, I Spit on Your Grave, Mother’s Day and even the quasi-horror Deliverance) where city outsiders were not welcomed kindly by the rural locals.
At a time in society when city dwellers were escaping crime-ridden cities for the suburbs and the country, the question asked by these films could very easily be: Is the countryside any safer?
By the 1990s it felt as though everything had already been done and there was nothing new left to scare us. So, the only way forward was to reinvent the formula.
That’s where Wes Craven’s 1996 game changer Scream comes in. With a vibrant cast of self-aware teenagers up against a masked killer, these kids were no sitting ducks. They were well-versed in the world of horror movies because they grew up watching them and could quote the dialog as well as keep track of the body count.
References to Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street pepper the script (Wes Craven himself even directed the original A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984). They knew the formula and how to outsmart the killer. The perfect mix of nostalgia and originality, Scream was a fitting endcap to the horror genre of the 20th century.
In the two decades since the release of Scream, the evolution of horror had been caught in a cycle of rinse and repeat, minus the brief but intense torture sub-genre that included Saw and Hostel.
All that seems to have changed within the past few years with what can be considered “woke horror,” movies that explore the topics of systemic racism and awareness of social justice in a horror setting (see: Get Out). Additionally, I predict an onslaught of isolation and plague-themed horror films in the immediate future thanks to Covid-19.
As horror continues to evolve, the one constant is that the terror on screen will always mirror our real life fears and I think we like it that way.