Aren’t they scary anymore? Or can’t we get scared like before?
People who love horror movies, and have known them since the very beginning, have surely realized that horror movies have been getting worse in the last few years since they aren’t scary anymore. Is this true? Or have we changed so much that we can’t get scared like before?
The very beginning
Horror movies were born almost with the beginning of cinema. In the 20s we already have a confirmation of this genre, even though films were without the narrative structure we have today: they were mostly short and silent. However, we can remember Nosferatu by Friedrich Willhelm Murnau (1922), and The cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene (1920) as a symbol of German expressionist cinema.
Thanks to the cinema of the United States, in the 30s horror movies get popular bringing to the screen characters of the literary world such as Dracula by Tod Browning (1931), Frankenstein by James Whale (1931), The mummy by Karl Freund (1932), etc… this current still goes on in the 40s with the theme of monstrous creatures like in The wolfman by George Waggner (1941).
The consolidation of a genre
In the 50s, themes change from gothic literature to science-fiction where creatures coming from other worlds, such as aliens, pose a threat. It’s still well-known Invasion of the body snatchers by Don Siegel (1956). The theme of invasion by other creatures is strongly influenced by the Cold War period and the communist threat. By the end of these years, some production companies start producing exclusively horror movies. Fear, in these years, comes from the real world such as science and the current political context.
In the 60s themes moves towards psychology: from monsters as creatures to monsters in our head. An example of this is surely Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960). However, some previous themes are not abandoned (monsters, ghosts, ect…), but becomes more contemporary blending into the ordinary life like in Night of the living dead by George A. Romero (1968) which is a pioneer of zombie movies.
The golden age
In the 70s the interest is also for the occult. So we have films like Rosemary’s baby by Roman Polański (1968); The exorcist by William Friedkin (1973); The omen by Richard Donner (1976); in Italy we have Deep Red by Dario Argento (1975). These are also the years for movies drawn from Stephen King‘s books such as Carrie by Brian De Palma (1976). We cannot fail to mention Halloween by John Carpenter (1978) which introduced the theme of the killer hunting victims, but also the slasher subgenre. With Alien by Ridley Scott (1979), the science-fiction and horror come back together with more violent scenes. Besides, in these years we have a lot of Italian directors producing horror movies, apart from the already mentioned Dario Argento also: Pupi Avati, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, etc… Gradually fear becomes something familiar like in The last house on the left by Wes Craven (1972) and The Texas chain saw massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974). Some real facts of these years such as the Vietnam war or crime news (the butcher of Plainfield) have surely influenced these stories.
In the 80s we have some successful horror icons we still know, thanks to several sequels of the previous years. Here some titles: Friday the 13th by Sean S. Cunningham (1980); Nightmare on Elm Street by Wes Craven (1984); Hellraiser by Clive Barker (1987); Child’s play by Tom Holland (1988); Evil dead by Sam Raimi (1981); The shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980); Poltergeist by Tobe Hooper (1982); The thing by John Carpenter (1982); a pioneer of the body-horror subgenre is certainly Videodrome by David Cronenberg (1983) and confirmed by the remake of The fly by David Cronenberg (1986). In these years horror movies spread more because of VHS tapes and little production companies, but also for a new subgenre like splatter for which we can remember Cannibal holocaust by Ruggero Deodato (1980), which is the first movie using the mockumentary technic.
In the 90s the same themes of the previous years make their way. As a matter of fact, there are several sequels of movies of the 80s (Nightmare, Halloween, Hellraiser, Friday the 13th, Child’s play, ect…), but also remakes (Dracula, The mummy, etc…). A significant title is surely The silence of the lambs by Jonathan Demme (1991) which is inspired by the same crime news references of The Texas chain saw massacre and Psycho. We can also remember In the mouth of madness by John Carpenter (1994) which takes inspiration from Lovecraft’s literature. Misery by Rob Reiner (1990) is another success from a tale of Stephen King. Another famous title is Scream by Wes Craven (1996) where, for the first time, a horror movie mentions itself and is self-deprecating. Still on the style of the mysterious killer, we have I know what you did last summer by Jim Gillespie (1997) and Urban legend by Jamie Blanks (1998): slasher movies recalling somehow Candyman by Bernard Rose (1992). The Blair witch project by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (1999) starts the period of mockumentary movies.
From 2000, it starts the trend of successful oriental films like The ring by Gore Verbinski (2002). The obsession for prequels and remakes becomes stunning and even when a movie is original tends to be inspired bypassed themes. So, with movies like Resident evil by Paul W. S. Anderson (2002) and Silent Hill by Christophe Gans (2006), the zombie theme comes back, taking inspiration from videogames, creating a mixture of horror and action. Among the original titles we have Final destination by James Wong (2000) which will have a lot of sequels. Horror and science-fiction come back together in Signs by M. Night Shyamalan (2002). In these years, with Saw by James Wan (2004), a new saga starts introducing the torture-porn subgenre, just like in Hostel by Eli Roth (2005). The others by Alejandro Amenábar (2001) is another example of psychological horror along with 1408 by Mikael Håfström (2007) which is still a Stephen King‘s tale. From 2007 starts the Paranormal activity by Oren Peli (2007) saga. A Serbian film by Srđan Spasojević (2010) brings to the screen the violence of torture-porn pushing it beyond the limits of legality and immorality. The only new theme is the fear coming from the web which appears in movies like The Den by Zachary Donohue (2013) or Unfriended by Levan Gabriadze (2014). Then we have a lot of remakes of classics but there are also original films, for example, Babadook by Jennifer Kent (2014); It follows by David Robert Mitchell (2014); etc… From 2013 starts the series of films born with The conjuring by James Wan (2013). Next in The boy by William Brent Bell (2016), horror blends with thriller. The year after, a classic by Stephen King is brought back with IT by Andrés Muschietti (2017), a character which appeared for the first time in a miniseries for TV in 1990.
Over the years, we have seen how horror movies changed and the same way how their themes do. We started from a concept of fear belonging to folklore and gothic literature, to science and its monsters. We saw how fear in movies was bound to the historical background of the period. The fear of scientific development was reflected in the films, just like aliens were a metaphor of a communist invasion during the Cold war.
Then, fear also becomes psychological, monsters are less folkloristic and more modern, being close to daily life, like trying to be more realistic. So, this feeling also moves towards occult and supernatural. Crime news is also a cue to create iconic characters we still know. In the same way, the character of a killer hunting victims becomes a classic.
It’s not easy to make a clean break among the different themes of horror movies over the years. Sometimes the same themes are used more than once in different years but tend to be more modern. Since the 80s, horrors are inspired by different themes, sometimes are remakes of very old films when there wasn’t color. A very important contribution to spreading this genre was made by VHS, and little production companies specialized in horror movies. In the 90s, it happens the same, as well as a lot of sequels of successful movies from the past ten years. However, we also have original titles. In these years, fear is from the real world or from the supernatural, and often films play on this ambiguity.
From 2000 we have a change of course. The trend of the 90s dims and movies try to terrorize by using shortcuts that have nothing to do with real fear such as jump scares. Stories are less original and the trend is to try to satisfy the audience with less effort possible, basing all on visual effects and aesthetics. Themes are always the same and aren’t deepen. Where there would be a cue for new themes, like the fear for the web, they address this issue superficially. Besides, all the remakes produced are only a few years from the original movies. This breaks the atmosphere for which they were born, also because of the constant use of CGI (Computer-generated imagery) at the expense of the old special effects. The point is that because of technological development, everybody can make a movie with limited resources, but this happened before too. The difference was that before, directors wanted to tell a story, not just to show something aesthetically pleasing.
Returning to the original question: “What does scare us today?”. It’s true, we got used to violence, but the real problem is that cinema has stopped involving us and making us feel scared from inside ourselves. We cannot feel scared if we can’t believe a scene may happen in real life, or if certain circumstances may be real. In the 80s, our consciousness of the world made us scare more easily because our knowledge of what’s real or not, was different. Today we have a lot of information, especially thanks to the internet, so our consciousness is greater and we need more realism, not intended as special effects but as depth of the topics. Today fear is closer and real, it comes from society and people: it’s what happens behind and inside of us. This is the horror that movies should show today.