With 100 years of movies to choose from, is it possible to pick horror films that best represent western culture during each decade of cinema’s history? Is there such a thing as a fright zeitgeist?
From the forgotten art of the silent film to the twenty-first century gimmick of “real” 3D, horror movies of the last 100 years have delivered many a shock and nightmare to audiences around the world. But choosing a representative one from each decade to reflect cultural, political and social tensions of the time is no easy task.
The challenge is not to necessarily provide the genre’s finest, but the best representative horror film from each decade — something that could be said to reflect popular culture at the time of its release — from the shadows of the First World War to the current climate of cameras everywhere. To that end, I give you ten films that may not be the best of the genre, but those that say something about western civilization — the spirit of the age, be it political, social, cultural, even sexual — at the time of their release.
1920s: Nosferatu (1922)
The most atmospheric of adaptations of Dracula from the great German expressionist F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is notable not so much for what it takes from Stoker’s vampire, but instead for what it adds to vampire lore. Here for the first time we find sunlight destroying the undead, and while Dracula was able to command rats in the novel, it is Nosferatu that suggests that rats —and by extension, vampires — carry plague.
The titular character (aka Count Orlok), has often been seen by critics as an immigrant — or more specifically, a Jewish immigrant. Released at a time when anti-semitism and anti-immigration was gathering momentum in the corrupt Weimar Republic (especially among Hitler’s supporters), Nosferatu can be seen as reflecting extreme xenophobia. Intentional or not (the film was actually penned by a Jewish screenwriter named Henrik Galeen), the undercurrents of anti-semitism are undeniably there in Nosferatu. As such, fear in the film is not just one of a bloodsucking monster, but of an infiltration of the eastern-european other. It is a theme that would go on to have great political significance when coupled with the economic collapse that came with the Great Depression.
When Henry Frankenstein cries out “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” nineteen thirties’ audiences were shocked. Frustrations rising out of the depression, coupled with the rise of totalitarianism and a distrust of intellectualism had many questioning the social order; and science was chief among the culprits seen to be whittling away at religion and morality.
After all, this was only six years after the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, and science posed a threat to traditional values. Sure, there were vaccines and penicillin; but there were also cure-all electromagnetic contraptions like the Theronoid and the Magnetone. Elixirs and tonics that promised good health but delivered poison. Was it any wonder that doctors would be distrusted?
Where May Shelley’s novel was about the dangers of blind ambition and the nature of being human, Universal’s 1931 adaptation with Boris Karloff was more directly — as one advertising poster made clear — about “a monster science created but could not destroy.”
Frankenstein is effective because it raises questions of ethics in science. The world was changing rapidly in the nineteen thirties; and science, spurred faster onward by a looming Second World War, would usher in the new world of gods and monsters (as Dr. Pretorius would say in the films’s arguably better sequel).
Cat People (1942)
Arguably the first horror film to make explicit the power of female sexuality, producer Val Lewton’s Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) is the story of Irena, a Serbian girl who believes herself to be a descendant of a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused.
Notable for its cinematography, Cat People is most compelling because of its suggestion that a woman’s sexual urges have an element of danger to them — a power that men cannot contain or control. Played with equal parts innocence and seduction by the sensual Simone Simon, Irena is a threat to men only when she becomes the object of desire or an agent of jealousy. In many ways, she is both feminist hero and failure, as it is through her control of the animal within that there is ultimately a happy ending (of course, not for Irena, who is presumably torn to shreds, off camera, by a panther in a cage).
Yes, there were femme fatales before and after Irena, but with Cat People, Lewton gives us a character that not only threatens male dominance, but renders men unable to contain or even confront the threat; its themes would resonate later in a century that saw the women’s liberation movement and rise of feminism.
The Thing (1951)
Howard Hawks was a peculiar director who managed to make films of almost every genre: from the slapstick comedy of Bringing Up Baby to the western noir of The Outlaw to the war-hero world of Sergeant York. Each classics in their own right, these films are joined by Hawk’s foray into the world of horror with The Thing From Another World.
“Tell this to everybody, wherever they are,” is the radio report sent back from the isolated arctic outpost at picture’s end. “Keep watching the skies.” And were it not for the combined efforts of a band of soldiers and scientists putting aside their differences and working together to fend off and kill an alien that they themselves unearthed from a frozen crash site, the entire expedition would have been wiped out: food for alien seed pods.
Filmed during the Korean War at the height of tensions with communist China and Soviet Russia, The Thing is, in many ways, a comment on the Cold War — even more so, fighting a war with an enemy we do not understand. With scientists and soldiers working together to stave off a mindless (anti-individual) menace that will reproduce without their combined intervention, the film none too subtly implies that Americans, too, must pull together to combat a similar threat that may come from the skies.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s seminal zombie classic may very well be the most political picture on this list. “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything” says Helen, the woman whose townhouse becomes the refuge for her nuclear family of headstrong husband Harry, their daughter and another couple PLUS the black man, Ben Huss, who arrives uninvited with the white girl, Barbara, that he saved from a zombie hoard.
Had it just had moments of racial tension alone, Night of the Living Dead could have made this list of essential horror films, but it is its shock ending that says much about the fear of a black man in nineteen-sixties rural America. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending for you. But go watch it. Now.
White flight of the nineteen seventies helped usher in a golden age of suburbia. Factor in the fear that came in the wake of the discharge of many mentally ill patients in the late sixties and early seventies (due to court decisions in some states limiting commitment powers of the state) and you had the ingredients for one hell of nightmare steeped in urban legend: what if a mental patient escaped from the hospital and threatened the safety of our suburban homes?
Originally entitled “The Babysitter Murders,” Halloween made it clear that suburbia was not as safe and secure as middle america has been led to believe. That underlying message, that poster! (one of the most effective movie posters of all time) and the blank stare of Michael Myers, scared the hell out of a teen audience whose parents had always kept them safe from harm.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven’s first and best Freddy Krueger outing, Nightmare on Elm Street, took the “suburbs are not safe” theme to a whole new level. In the wake of Halloween, many a slasher movie was made, but none had the balls to suggest that you could be killed in your dreams.
What’s worse was the reason you were being killed. For a disillusioned Generation X —the children of the eighties who would be the first, in the history of the nation, to not do as well economically as their parents — the message was clear: your parents have secrets, and you’re gonna be the generation to pay for it. Freddy Kreuger isn’t killing teens because of their promiscuity as they were in endless Friday the 13th sequels; no, his nocturnal visitations were motivated by revenge. And what it told audiences in a time of nineteen-eighties excess is that Mom and Dad couldn’t be trusted.
Blair Witch Project (1999)
While arguably the most over-hyped and therefore disappointing films on this list, Blair Witch Project holds the distinction of being the first “found footage” film that also took advantage of early internet viral marketing. The result was a stark (albeit grainy) realism that transcended the screen and affected the audience on a visceral level of questioning — even for a moment — if what they were seeing was real.
Technology in the nineteen nineties was in a state of flux unlike any decade previous. The demise of VHS, the rise of DVD, the ubiquity of the handheld camcorder and the explosion of early “reality” programming like MTV’s Real World and America’s Funniest Home Videos meant that by the time the decade was nearing its end, Generation X was already aging, giving way to (what was once called) Generation Y (now part of the Millennials); these new kids on the block measured an events’ importance by its ability to be captured on camera. Certainly, YouTube and Facebook, which would radically change the landscape of “social media”, were still four to five years away, but the end of the nineteen-nineties was a critical turning point; it was the dawn of democratization of who now created content for mass consumption — and how it was created. The tool of the masses was the video camera. Weddings, births, birthday parties: all had to be captured. The Blair Witch Project may have signaled the coming of a cultural shift now manifest in high speed internet and smartphones. No longer were we concerned if a tree falling alone in the forest made a sound; now could we truly know if an event happened if it weren’t captured on video?
More than cinema vérité, Blair Witch Project established found-footage as an effective device for storytelling, cleverly turning the reality of artifice on its side.
28 Days Later (2003)
The events of 9/11 changed everything, including our understanding of true horror. In a post 9/11 world, it is arguable that nothing can be as scary as the ever-present threat of terrorism. From anthrax-tainted mail to shoe-bombs, the dangers of the early “naughts” were made 24/7 news. The escalation of fear was inescapable. Could we all be wiped out by a biological weapon? Were there hidden weapons of mass destruction that could be used on us? Could our own government be trusted — not only to protect us, but to tell us the truth?
28 Days Later — on the surface a zombie film — tapped into a post-9/11 paranoia of constant threat from a faceless enemy. Its poster said it all: Day 1: Exposure. Day 3: Infection. Day 8: Epidemic. Day 15: Evacuation. Day 20: Devastation. Its message: fear your neighbors as they can bring infection and death; fear the military as they may not be operating in your best interest; fear walking the streets during the day as you don’t know who or what is out there.
Each of these fears play out in the course of 28 Days Later, and while it may be the animalistic undead that rush the screen and provide the majority of the jolts, it’s the dread that comes from living in a world gone mad that is the true horror.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
If Blair Witch questioned the existence of an event if it weren’t captured on camera, then a little over a decade later, Cabin in the Woods made it clear that in this age of smartphones, high speed internet, the NSA, and security cameras, we are always being watched.
In Cabin in the Woods, the traditional genre tropes are all there, almost comically: from the titular cabin, to the attractive teens, to the use of practically every known monster in horror history! But these are merely a means to an end. Here, technology serves the beast. An apt metaphor? Perhaps.
Is that, then, the spirit of this age? Only time will tell. What’s remarkable about horror movies is that many wear their age well, and the themes are timeless.
Don’t believe me? Go back and read only the bits in orange and tell me how many of these issues still resonate all these many years later. You’ll be surprised as to how far we’ve come but how we’re still only beginning to understand the issues horror movies have had us confront in the times in which we have lived.
The scares may be short-lived, but the real impact of these films is how much their themes become part of the cultural Frightgeist.