Horror Movies Through the Decades

From the 1930s to the 2000s, how did horror films respond to the social and political happenings of their times?

Horror films are both loved and loathed for their scares, gore and thrills and they have produced many villains that have gone on to become cult favourites. However much it may seem, the horror genre’s monsters aren’t simply born out of arbitrary writing choices and commercial success; its narratives and characters are seemingly inspired by what is going on in the world, society and politics. Here, Roobla travels through the decades to examine the Hollywood horror films of the time, and just what their villains may truly represent.


The 30s was the decade of horrific fairy tales, stories set in exotic lands and countries far away. In the wake of synchronised sound which was introduced in 1927, these horrors used sound effects to scare spectators who looked for escapism and distractions whilst dealing with the Great Depression. Dramatic music was used to frighten and strange accents emphasised the exoticism of its monsters (Dracula 1931). The villains of the 30s were sure to be found in foreign countries, from Transylvania (Dracula) to Germany (Frankenstein 1931) and the Indonesian jungle (King Kong 1933).


Although greeted with the ever-looming presence of World War 2, Americans thought of themselves as safe and separated from the uncontrolled and dangerous Europe. The horror films of the 40s appear to focus on animal vs man, such as The Ape (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), The Black Cat (1941) and Cat People (1942). It also produced a vast amount of films featuring reanimated monsters, from the zombies in Revenge of the Zombies (1943) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) to the bandaged creatures in The Mummy’s series (1940-44).

It is not entirely clear why the monsters of the 40s predominantly appear to be animals and the living dead, but while they don’t explicitly represent Hitler, we’re sure there is some inspiration from his evil.


Faced with the possibility of nuclear war during a tense Cold War with the Soviet Union, America’s horror films started to display obvious anxieties about communism and the atom bomb.

Horrors featured disgusting creatures with atomic elements, Tarantula! (1955), The Fly (1958), Them! (1954) and aliens warning about impending world wars (Plan 9 from Outer Space 1956). But most significantly, the monsters came to represent fears and anxieties about brain washing and the communists themselves. Small towns are invaded by mind controlling aliens who turn innocent American citizens into conformist, evil killers (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956); a not-so-subtle representation of their communist enemies.


Cold War fears died down and a nuclear war was no longer looking inevitable; the 60s was the decade of cultural revelations, and, more open to sex and violence, audiences wanted believable and realistic horror films.

The first major change came with the integration of the monster into the everyday life of the American; gone are the aliens from outer space and the bug men created in fantasy basement laboratories, the killers are lurking in motels (Psycho 1960), flying above heads (The Birds 1963), living next door (Rosemary’s Baby 1968) and they are families turning into brain-munching zombies (Night of the Living Dead 1968).


The US’s controversial involvement in the Vietnam war put a dampener on the 70s, and, perhaps influenced by the introduction of the contraceptive pill, horror films produced plenty of freaky, evil children.

Kids got possessed in The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), turned into psychotic killers in Halloween (1978) and unwillingly displayed fatal powers in films like Carrie (1976). In addition, carrying on from the domestic threat of the 60s, young people and families stumbled upon crazed killers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).


With technical advancements in special effects and animatronics, the 80s produced an abundance of graphic, realistic looking horror films. With a focus on gore grossing out their audiences, filmmakers reintroduced aliens (Aliens 1986), werewolves (An American Werewolf in London 1981) and disgusting creatures (The Thing 1982).

In addition, images of blood, guts and sex were maximised in slasher films such as Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween II (1982) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The 80s goes hand in hand with graphic depictions of wounds, flesh and deformities.


The 1990s was a relatively calmer calm period but international threat from the Middle East was increasing. Organisation and planning were the weapons of terrorists, from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre to the domestic terrorism of the Oklahoma City bombing.

It’s not surprising then, that horror’s most popular villains of the 90s were intelligent psychopaths who planned their killing with intricate details (Se7en 1995, Silence of the Lambs 1991 and Scream 1996)


The horrific acts of 9/11 have left an imprint on horror films of the noughties; from 2001 to 2004 they were received badly due to the nature of their content, but their popularity soon returned and made way for a whole new type of horror film.

News reports and headlines described acts of torture on both American citizens by terrorists and the CIA on terrorists. The controversial act made its way into cinema, and freakishly realistic and graphic images now dominate our screens. “Torture porn” films such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005) all leave little to the imagination, detailing acts of torture in vivid close ups and long scenes.

There’s no cut-aways here, no distortion of violent acts… audiences are seemingly obsessed with these disturbingly graphic films that are far from the video nasties of the past.

What do you think in in store for the horror films of the future? Let us know below!

Source: www.horrorfilmhistory.com


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