Understanding Horror Decade by Decade

Trends within popular entertainment always say something about the people that consume the medium. Science fiction can show us our hopes and beliefs about the future, romance reflects what we believe about relationships, and horror exposes what we fear the most. While the essence of human fear relies on base instincts that remain intact from generation to generation, these manifest in new ways depending on the state of the world and our homes.

When looking at trends within horror, it is clear to see what ideas and fears grip both filmmakers and audiences alike at different times throughout history. Whether it is the fear of the unknown of space, the existential terror lurking within our own body, or a deep-seated mistrust of our own society, these terrors are brought to life in the form of monsters, killers, or some other horrific manifestation. By giving them form and shape and expressing them in a way that cannot actually touch us, people are able to embrace their fears. When done right, the process can be cathartic and enlightening.

While there are many different movements within horror and each decade has its own unique trends within it, the following are distinct movements that defined horror within each decade and revealed something about society at the time. By better understanding how humanity grapples with its greatest fears and expresses them through fiction, we can better understand how society is shaped and moved through the decades.

1940s – Monsters from The Unknown

Much like horror of the ‘30s, the stories of terror that defined the 1940’s were known for their iconic creatures who commonly had supernatural origins. Frequently, these monsters were misunderstood and often tragic figures. However, they were still dangerous and prone to acts of deadly violence, whether they are provoked or not. Whether they consciously seek out the deaths of others or are simply compelled to violence by their unwanted nature, these monsters are less malicious and more pitiable than most later horror icons. Frequently, their deaths in the climax put an end to their reign of terror, but are not joyous moments, but instead are sorrowful and inevitable consequences of their monstrous nature. Some ’40s horror icons are victims turned villains by some supernatural process while others are broken people who have turned their backs on society due to their abuse. In any case, their terrifying nature is often mixed with a certain charisma that keeps audiences compelled to care about them.

Touchstone Movie: The Wolf Man – A man is bitten by a werewolf and cursed to be one himself. Haunted by his monstrous form, he is compelled to hunt down and kill the innocent when he morphs under a full moon. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s lycanthrope monster is iconic not just for his terrifying nature, but for the tragic heart of the story, which can only end with the creature’s tragic death.

More from the Movement: Cat People, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Phantom of the Opera

1950s – Extraterrestrial Threats

The 1950s were a time when the public turned its eyes toward space exploration and many pieces of fiction followed suit. While there are countless pieces of fiction that see the depths of outer space as a place of hope and discovery, there are just as many that see it as a place of unspeakable horror. Outer space horror often involved all manner of aliens coming to Earth for nefarious purposes, either in large swarms of conquerors or in smaller invasions that terrified on a more personal level. While there were some pieces of sci-fi horror that saw protagonists travelling to other planets and encountering such creatures, most instances found Earth as the hopeless victims of more advanced extraterrestrial forces. Given that the dream of outer space travel was being discussed at length but was far from reachable, it’s easy to see why the planet was most often at the mercy of space-faring monsters. Just as important, the nuclear fears of the burgeoning Cold War were tied into the origins of many monsters at the time. Most notably, Godzilla embodied Japan’s fears in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombing at the end of World War II.

Touchstone Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Part alien invasion parable, part allegory for The Red Scare, the idea of extraterrestrial invaders that do not arrive with giant spaceships and massive explosions, but rather replace humans with lookalikes brings about a far more creeping and unsettling dread. Anyone could be an alien and nowhere is truly safe when creatures from the inky depths of space decide to rule the Earth, one replaced human at a time. This is both an unknowable threat and an inescapably imminent one that works on both a worldwide and intimate scale at the same time.

More from the Movement: Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Thing from Another World, The Blob

1960s – Sexual Fears

Every movement has a counter movement in culture, and the liberation of an idea always sparks waves of related fears. As the ‘60s was the decade where free love and the hippie movement took over culture, it is easy to see why so many horror films of the decade had an undercurrent of sexuality. While no single type of creature or common origin informed the most influential of the decade’s horror stories, a sense of sexuality and countless forms of sexual fears informed many of the villains’ motives and their effects on protagonists. Whether the terror came in the form of monsters, killers, or creatures who pursued sexuality or in those whose psychoses were tied together with repressed sexuality, many of these ideas burst forth on the screen in a frightening fashion. From the metaphorical to the very literal, these fears were frequently given shape in many terrifying forms. Given that freedom of sexuality was a liberal movement, many of these sexual fears can be seen as a conservative backlash. But sexual motives did not end with the ’60s. In fact, a vast portion of horror movies in the decades since have seen villains target the sexually active, punishing them for their perceived sins on screen.

Touchstone Movie: Psycho – Norman Bates is the epitome of the terrors of sexual repression. It’s clear that this dangerous man child is repressed in so many ways, with his tumultuous relationship with his unseen mother being behind much of his psychosis. He spies on the unsuspecting Janet Leigh through a hole in the wall, dresses up as his dead mother, and stabs the object of his fleeting yet passionate obsession to death as she stands naked and vulnerable in the shower. The stuff of vacation nightmares.

More from the Movement: Rosemary’s Baby, Peeping Tom, Blood Feast

1970s – Terrifying Families

In a mirror of reality, sex gives way to children and the sexual fears of the ‘60s eventually birthed horror films that centered around what terrors could be brought about by the younger generation during the ’70s. But it’s not only young ones who get to terrorize. Fathers, mothers, and all sorts of familial figures morphed into figures of pure terror during the decade. The intimate nature of a parent, child, or other loved one suddenly and violently turning against you has plenty of everyday real world instances, which gives more heft to the ideas explored in the more heightened form of horror fiction. Sure, the familial horror of the ‘70s used ideas of possession, insanity, and aliens to explore the concepts, but their focus on something that happens around the world everyday gave this wave of horror a far more realistic terror to inflict on audiences. Whether these stories featured a loving parent forced to fight a suddenly deadly child or innocent spouses or children being stalked by a previously loving parent or spouse, the idea of a family turned violent in an instance is horrific on a personal level.

Touchstone Movie: The Shining – A father, mother, and young son move into a solitary hotel for the winter, only for ghosts and insanity to drive them to violence and terror. As the father, Jack Torrance, is compelled to slaughter both wife and son, the mother breaks under the mounting insanity and the boy learns how to use his strange telepathic abilities. While the spirits that fill the house may terrify, it’s the father who becomes the most horrific figure, especially once he begins his murderous axe-wielding spree. While it was released in 1980, but the novel’s debut and the film’s formation make it a true product of the ’70s.

More from the Movement: The Exorcist, Halloween, Alien, The Omen

1980s – Body Horror

While many previous pieces of horror had seen normal people turn into monsters, the ‘80s was when these ideas blossomed into something especially macabre and layered. It is no coincidence that this came to be during a decade when sexually transmitted diseases, viral epidemics, and the AIDS crisis were on the minds of people everywhere. Countless horror films of the ‘80s concerned protagonists infected with some manner of disease or possession that slowly turned their bodies against them. Whether they eventually succumbed and became the villain of the piece or were forced into a confrontation with the source of the transfiguration varied from film to film. In any case, terror came from within the human body, not from outer space, another person, or the supernatural. Having the fleshy, rotting inner depths of your own body be the source of horror makes it all the more inescapable and gruesomely effective. Real world diseases don’t turn people into psychotic monsters, but they do force us to confront our own delicate mortality and the real issues of dying loved ones.

Touchstone Movie: The Fly – When scientist Seth Brundle brashly tests out his new teleportation device on himself, he is merged with a fly and slowly sees his body change in the most gruesome ways possible. While the transformation can be seen as an allegory for many different diseases, it is clear the David Cronenberg’s The Flyworks so well due to both the horrifying idea of having your body decay underneath you and the tragedy of seeing a loved one slowly change and die due to his or her disease. While Brundle straddles the line between protagonist and antagonist, the audience can do nothing but watch as he brutally changes into something far from human.

More from the Movement: The Thing, An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome

1990s – Slashers

Again playing on ideas of societal dangers, the ‘90s took the focus off of the monster within and placed it squarely on the monster who could be living next door. Crime waves, killing sprees, riots, and serial killers were frequently the focus of news in every medium during the last decade of the 20th Century, as was speculation concerning the reasons for such terrifying public violence. While slashers were prominent in the ‘80s with characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers, these were larger than life characters who were more like the monsters of the ‘40s than the real life serial killer. In the ‘90s, the killers who made their way onto the big screen were far more real. Although their humanity made them more vulnerable than their predecessors, their real life qualities made them more imminently frightening. Most took the form of a masked figure brandishing a sharp object who would strike at unsuspecting teens for an unknown reason, whether it was justified or not. While the mystery of their identities would propel the narrative, the reveal of who they were often showed that our friends were not who they seemed and that trusting each other was more dangerous than expected.

Touchstone Movie: Scream – Revolutionary thanks to Wes Craven’s meta screenplay that sees horror movie characters all too aware of the tropes of the genre, Screamrevolutionized the niche with its self-conscious nature. As the mysterious killer offs high schoolers one by one, both potential victims and audience members see that the human underneath the mask has embraced his or her sociopathic nature and combined it with a love of horror film. Of course, movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!

More from the Movement: The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Candyman

2000s – Torture

While it may not be far removed from notions of serial killers brandishing all sorts of cutlery, the transition from slashers to torturers is a clear and noticeable one between the decades. The traditional slasher offs his or her victims with a few quick plunges of a knife or other deadly weapon. While the chase may be terrifying, the death is often fast and efficient. The horror on display in the 2000s was far more transfixed with a slow, brutal, and merciless death, often portrayed with little left to the imagination. The horror here is not in the unknown or terrifying notions beyond comprehension. Rather, it’s in the far too real and imaginable. Outlandish or not, the idea of a killer or group of killers kidnapping victims and putting them through all manner of mutilation is scary in a more grounded and repulsive manner. Whether you think it has any merit is up to you. These ideas clearly coincide with the rise of terrorism and abductions at the start of the 21st century. Horrifying public executions and the torture of war criminals clearly seeped into the minds of both fans and creators, leading to great fears concerning what may befall a victim caught by an inventive and endlessly cruel killer.

Touchstone Movie: Saw – The movie that brought the so-called “torture porn” genre to the mainstream, two men find themselves in a filthy bathroom and forced to commit all sorts of violent acts upon each other and themselves in order to escape. The villain Jigsaw may be motivated by the idea that his torture traps turn around the lives of bad people, but his sadistic nature makes both victims and audiences squirm in agony. Whether it was through self-inflicted violence or the heinous acts of another person, the special effects-laden and incredibly gory torture-focused horror films put focus squarely on the immediate and visceral terror, rather than the existential.

More from the Movement: Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, Martyrs, Antichrist

2000s & 2010s – Zombies

For a monster that has been around in one form or another for more than half a century, zombies truly saw their moment in the horror spotlight during the first half of the 2010s. While these shambling voracious hordes of the undead have been used as metaphors for countless ideas, their rise to prominence in the 2010s was due to their identification with worldwide epidemics. In a decade filled with terrorist attacks, viral outbreaks, natural disasters, and worldwide fears that the worst of these are yet to come, the ideas of a singular and small villain seem far less terrifying. Zombies move en masse, topple cities in hours, can’t be stopped by conventional emergency protocols, and are most often caused by unknown means. The modern zombie has more in common with the Ebola virus than their voodoo origins or classic supernatural occurrences. What’s worse than a plague that spreads fast and kills faster? One that turns your loved ones into the instrument of your demise. Whether these horror icons take the form of fast moving tidal waves or the reanimated corpse of a family member, their terror represents a realistic fear that preys on our modern society’s great worries.

Touchstone Movie: 28 Days Later – The first film of the new century to embrace the viral aspect of zombies, 28 Days Later may not be technically populated by the walking dead, but its ravenous and fast rage monsters have all the tropes of zombies while giving them a more real world spin. Their quickness and overwhelming brutality would be adopted by zombies in films that would come to the big screen in the years following. Visions of a decimated and abandoned London, a virus that spreads so fast it is impossible to contain, and the brutality needed to survive in such a world all echo the real world effects of terrorism and viral epidemics that have gripped the world in fear during the new century.

More from the Movement: The Walking Dead, World War Z


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