A History of Modern Horror


According to King (2010), horror cyclically enjoys increases in popularity and visibility due to economic and/or political strains in society that create anxieties for horror to incorporate into texts. Society’s fears of the 60s 70s and 80s were definitely influenced by what was happening around them and horror utilised these fears as a way to scare and entice audiences.

The 60s were a time of American cultural upheaval (Eggerton, 2010). The horrors of the Vietnam war were being broadcast on television, the peace and love protests of the hippie movement were gaining visibility as well as the civil rights movements of the time. The televised violence of the Vietnam war as well as the chaos of events like the 1965 Watts riots began desensitising audiences to violence. As a result, films like Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock would begin to push the boundaries of graphic content on screen. While not nearly as graphic as the horror films that would follow, the violence depicted in Psycho was a shock to audiences at the time.

The grim reality of events during the 60s was also reflected in George Romero’s Night of the living dead (1968). The film’s disheartening ending can be viewed as a reflection of the  destructive ideologies of society overpowering the attempts of peace and love of the 60s. This can be seen through the films lead character, Ben, an African-American, who despite managing to survive the countless zombies of the film ends up being accidentally shot and killed in the final scene. 

Horror in the 70s reflected a breakdown of the nuclear family as well as the idea that monsters were not foreign, they could be inside any of us (Eggerton, 2010). Last House on the Left (1972) was a definitive example of this. The parents of the main character Mari, express concerns over her desire to attend a concert with her undesirable friend for her seventeenth birthday. Their opinions suggest that they stand on the moral high ground. However, by the films end, Mari’s parents starch moral code is broken when they become as brutal and monstrous as the criminals who murdered Mari. This was a theme also demonstrated in other 70s films such as Halloween (1978) where Michael Myers, at just six years old brutally stabbed his sister to death at the start of the film. These horror movies reinforced the fear that anybody could be capable of extreme violence in society.

The 80s was a time of excess and rampant materialism, where tangible tokens of success became a verification of value in society (Wilson, 2005). This resulted in a social climate where seeing is believing. Once again, this coincided with what was being shown in 80s horror. After the horrors of the Vietnam War being so publicly televised in the 60s and 70s, it would take something more visually grotesque or nasty to shock and entertain desensitised audiences. Despite release in 1979, Alien was one of these pioneering films that set the tone for horror films in the 80s. Aided by advances and innovation in special effects, visually repulsive and graphic mutations became a prevalent element in horror. The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986) were also prime examples of the 80s aesthetic of horror.

The horror films that stand out during my lifetime include self-aware films such as Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). The films are meta-narratives in the sense that they refer to other horror movies and the characters themselves allude to the commonly overused tropes of horror movies in the past. It was refreshing at the time as the characters reflected the attitudes of horror audiences who had grown tired of the repetitive slasher narratives of the 80s. However, there were only so many horror films you could poke fun at before you run out of material and these films quickly reached that point. 

The focus of horror would then shift in the early 2000s after the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001 and the subsequent Global War on Terror. Despite being released in 2000, Final Destination would remain relevant in horror after the events of 9/11 as it played on society’s fear of unavoidable death. Death was an inevitable and indiscriminate form of horror. The self-awareness of characters in films like Final Destination, meant their anxieties about their inescapable deaths were passed on to the audience. Eggerton (2010) expressed the idea that, anything could kill you, it didn’t have to be a mass terrorist attack or plane crash, just a series of small decisions and coincidence. Audiences took comfort in horror highlighting death as purely coincidental and used it as an escape from the realities of terrorism and war.

Reference list:

Eggerton, C., (2010). 100 Years of Horror: Culture Shock: The Influence of History on Horror. Retrieved on August 1, 2019, from https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/20853/100-years-of-horror-culture-shock-the-influence-of-history-on-horror/

King, S., (2010). Danse Macabre. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Wilson, K., (2005). Horror in History: A Decade by Decade Guide to the Horror Movie Genre. Retrieved August 2, 2019 from http://www.horrorfilmhistory.com/index.php?pageID=about

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