By Gabriel Franco, Contributing Writer (‘21)

The themes dealt with in horror have changed throughout its history along with societal fears.  Often, the stories in these movies seem fantastical and other worldly, but audiences have found truths in the themes explored in horror movies for the past century.  Using historical context and the filmmaker’s own views can lead to what these filmmakers could have meant.

The highly influential German Expressionist movement had a big horror subgenre. 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a mad scientist who creates a somnambulist, or sleepwalker, named Cesare to do his dark bidding and who later defies his master. This story conjures up images of the widespread fear of Jewish masterminds pulling the strings behind the scene. Similarly, the film Nosferatu depicts a foreign, bloodsucking creature who comes to Germany, puts people in a trance to make them his slave, and brings a plague with him. Before decrying these as xenophobic propaganda, take into account that Caligari star, Conrad Veidt, fled the Nazis and played a villainous Nazi in CasablancaCaligari director Robert Weine (of Jewish descent) was exiled from Germany. The director of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau, was a gay man who later emigrated to the U.S. to escape the rise of the Nazi party.  All of a sudden, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is no longer fear mongering, but transforms into an anti-fascist statement. Caligari is the dictator, and Cesare represents the brainwashed soldiers. The racist undertones of Nosferatu were not Murnau’s intention, but derived from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though they are blockbusters on the surface, German expressionist films were directly influenced by the interwar period in Germany’s history.

The Great Depression devastated the U.S. economy, followed shortly by the horrors of WWII. Facing true horror, many wanted to turn to films for optimism. With that came the evolution of the monsters into sympathetic characters. Universal’s hit franchise began with Dracula. Gone are the vampire’s pale skin, sharp teeth, long nails, pointed ears, and long nose. Dracula is portrayed as a suave Transylvanian businessman traveling to London, who instead of acting fiendish for blood, appears calm and collected. This film, again, caters to the fear of outsiders trying to infiltrate society and enchanting “our” women. This sentiment is reflected in the treatment of leading man, Bela Lugosi, by the film industry. He was typecast due to his accent and wasn’t billed as high as his English contemporaries, such as Boris Karloff, another horror star. Frankenstein, in which Karloff starred, tells the story of a creature created in a lab, who was very quickly seen as a monster and driven out of his village. He was an innocent being who was persecuted for being different. Director James Whale would know what it’s like to be an outsider, being a gay man in 1930’s America. This is when the switch to sympathetic monsters was finalized. In The Mummy, Imhotep wants to find the reincarnation of his wife and kill her so that she can be immortal. Though he is a killer, the longing for romance makes the audience relate. In no other Universal horror film is the tragic hero utilized better than in The Wolf Man where Lyle Talbot is bitten by a werewolf and inherits the curse. It is not his choice to kill, making him completely sympathetic. These films featured much more of the supernatural to create a world of escapism, but still had sympathetic main characters, both of which captivated audiences of these times.

The Cold War in the 1950’s ushered in a whole new fear of invasion and nuclear devastation. To adjust to the Atomic Age, horror movies shifted their focus. The Red Scare was driving Americans to paranoia, and alien invaders played on those fears. War of the Worlds, The Thing, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers all fit into this category. The aliens typically try to destroy mankind and/or assimilate themselves as humans. The Day The Earth Stood Still was about an alien whose goal was to prevent humans from destroying each other. Films like The Fly and Forbidden Planet were about the dangers of scientists playing God, a real fear that came with the development of the Atomic Bomb. Movies like Them, and The Blob personified the Soviets in the form of a monster. These films were campy in nature, especially when compared to the films made by those who experienced nuclear horror firsthand. Toho Studios’ Gojira (or Godzilla in the U.S.) is about a monster that is awakened by the atomic bomb, emerges from the ocean and destroys the city of Tokyo. The symbolism is apparent. Godzilla is a force of nature which is taking its revenge on mankind, not unlike the radiation still affecting through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Elephant’s Foot (the large mass of extremely radioactive material, corroding through the bottom of a power plant, caused by the Chernobyl disaster). This film, ironically, was a hit in America due to our newfound fears of nuclear annihilation, albeit from a different source.

The 60’s and 70’s were years for America. Leaders were shot dead in the streets, young people began to fight for social change, and people were forced to realize the atrocities of war, corruption, and murder due to increasingly transparent news coverage. The horror films made in this era began to focus on the horrors that human beings were capable of. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho explores multiple taboos. There are various scenes where the main character, Marion Crane, is in her underwear.  In the first act, she is murdered in the shower. The film’s shocking imagery and serious depiction of mental health are still discussed today. The antagonist is loosely based on the serial killer, Ed Gein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was about a more malicious and sadistic killer, also based on Gein, who wore the flesh of his victims after chasing them with a chainsaw. Night Of The Living Dead broke boundaries by having a black man in the lead role. Director George Romero intended for the zombies to represent hippies demanding change, but upon editing the film, he recognized the racial subtext of the film.  You aren’t sure if Barbara is more scared of the zombies, or if she is hostile due to her bigotry. With Martin Luther King assassinated that same year, it is impossible to ignore racial tensions. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s second zombie film, the characters take shelter in a mall during a zombie apocalypse.  They still have a drive to buy, an impulse that leads to their fate to join the living dead.  The social commentary, comparing mall shoppers to zombies, adjusts to the consumerism that plagued the 1970’s. As much as reality influenced horror, so did superstition. The satanic panic started in the 60’s due to the rising coverage of cults such as the Manson family, and the publishing of the Satanic Bible. In Rosemary’s Baby, the lack of knowledge and control that Rosemary has over her own child is analogous to the patriarchal society that oppresses a woman’s life. The classic story of good vs. evil was explored in both The Omen and The Exorcist which both played on the fears of youthful innocence being corrupted by evil forces.  

The 80’s was the decade of the AIDS epidemic, trickle down economics, and a rejuvenated Red Scare. The way that the Red Scare was resurrected is reflected in the remakes of 1950’s films. John Carpenter’s The Thing changed the alien into a shape-shifter, which is horrifying since there is no way of telling if your friend is really a monster. The film ends bleakly with the possibility that the monster will take over the rest of the planet. The alien mirrors the fear that Soviet influence would spread throughout the world by the use of Communist spies. This subgenre, though successful, didn’t persevere like the slasher films. Franchises such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, focus on a killer who preys on teenagers, most often after they have been drinking or being promiscuous. The killers are glorified along with the main character, the trope of the innocent and pure, final girl. The killer punished teenagers the same way AIDS spread by drug use or sexual contact. Reagan’s ignorance regarding the AIDS epidemic paired with his wife’s ineffective anti-drug campaign created the environment for the slasher genre and the revival of the B-movie.

The fears that society takes on with every decade and every crisis are reflected and exploited in horror films. Though an alien or a ghost might be terrifying, and one might never truly know what lurks in the dark, what really looms over our heads are wars and epidemics. We view movies as escapism, but rarely do we realize that they reflect our own fears and desires. They are not only inspired by culture, but become part of our culture.  So the next time that someone tells you that it’s just a movie, tell them they’re dead wrong.