Consider the first time you experienced the horror genre. Maybe it was on Halloween night, watching a young Michael Myers creep with a kitchen knife toward his sister’s bedroom. Maybe it was through the static of a VHS tape when you saw the sinister body of a girl emerge from a dark well and inch toward your TV screen. Or maybe it was under the covers with a flashlight as you nervously turned the page to reveal Danny’s fate as he ran for his life through the snowy hedges outside the Overlook Hotel.
Horror narratives have told tales of fear and explored the darkest depths of our minds. Generations of audiences have watched, read, and listened to these stories — often through covered ears and one closed eye — as authors and directors unearthed topics of the unsettling, unordinary and unforgettable.
Gothic literature, a stylized form of horror writing, emerged during the Enlightenment, a time defined by European society’s widespread fascination with science and philosophical reason. Gothic writers such as Horace Walpole challenged these ideas by writing tales of the supernatural. In 1764 he wrote The Castle of Otranto, evoking fear in readers with his depiction of a haunted castle. This element of the “uncanny” — taking something that was once familiar and safe, like a home, and making it unfamiliar and unreal — underlies most horror plots today.
Skip ahead to the mid-19th century and horror shifted from external fears, such as ghosts in a castle, to internal ones. Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with the subconscious caused him to create a different type of horror — one based in the minds of “mad” individuals. Poe’s characters appear to be insane, paranoid, nervous, and overwhelmed with guilt, making them more relatable than readers would find comfortable. This emphasis on the human mind and body continued with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which explored pseudoscience of the age and the devolution of humans into monsters.
The birth of cinema at the end of the 1800s provided a new medium for horror, allowing audiences to view their deepest fears on a screen. After World War I and as part of Germany’s “Expressionist Movement,” The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu epitomized visual terror. The films were influenced by Germany’s isolation from the rest of the world following the war and the shadowy, nightmarish qualities of the films significantly influenced horror for years to come.
Hollywood celebrated its “golden age” of horror through the 30s and into the 40s. Classics such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and King Kong all debuted during this time, delighting movie-goers with unprecedented visual effects and new interpretations of age-old stories. Monster movies dominated popular culture, giving viewers clearly defined heroes to cheer for and villains to hunt and kill — something which resonated during another World War.
Region and regional tropes also influence horror, and famously, the American South became a platform for more realistic depictions within the genre. Although southern gothic appeared as early as the 20s in literature by authors like William Faulkner, it didn’t reach its height until the 50s. The genre incorporates grotesque violence and dark humour to address problems in the American South like crime, poverty, racism, and questions of morality. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” introduces readers to a bitter grandmother who represents problematic Southern values. But a disturbed, merciless killer “The Misfit” subverts the order of things by shooting her point blank. This Misfit archetype is also seen in characters of later novels like Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
Civil rights movements and the Vietnam War pushed horror into uncharted territories — edgier, more violent, and controversial narratives became popular. George A. Romero used zombies in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead to comment on racism and consumerism while ultra-violent films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Cannibal Holocaust continued to test how far movies could push moral boundaries.
It was also during this period that masters of horror Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King made lasting influence on the genre. Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in 1960 and went on to become widely considered the greatest horror film of all time, and from his first release Carrie in 1974 to this past summer’s End of Watch, Stephen King has remained the biggest name in horror writing.
I find zombies creepy but too unrealistic, I faint at the first droplet of blood from a paper cut, and I jump when my hair falls the wrong way on my shoulder. Despite this, I enjoy the twisted discomfort of torturing myself with gothic literature. Reading horror allows me to envision the words on the page without having them interpreted for me on screen. The special effects and eerie music that are neatly packaged for you in horror flicks only extend so far, but the familiar yet disturbing ideas you form after reading horror can elicit a greater fear.
Imagine being a 12-year-old kid and having someone spill the details of a brutal murder they committed. What’s more terrifying: the crime itself, or the fact that you know this person’s darkest secret and most morbid sin? That’s how uncomfortable I felt the first time I read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It’s written confessionally; the killer speaks directly to you as if a good friend is confiding in you with their gruesome crime. You don’t get the privilege of simply being a distant observer. Instead, you’re almost an accomplice to the murder and you find yourself in a personal relationship with the villain.
It’s been 10 years, but I still read Poe’s work, and it still makes me uncomfortable. Only now I can appreciate the insight it gives me into the human mind. It’s the dark thoughts that form in someone’s mind — thoughts that you’re privy to as a reader — that intrigue me. It’s the same thoughts that go through the characters’ minds in these situations, authors’ minds as they create such inhumane plots, and readers’ minds as they reach for another twisted story. I don’t think external things like ghosts and vampires are nearly as scary as these internal hauntings. After all, who could possibly think up such horrors?
— Ashton Mucha
I was watching horror movies well before I should’ve been. As a kid, I’d sit with my Bubby on her couch watching Halloween movie
marathons, in awe of the creatures that would jump from the darkest corners of the TV. We’d walk through the horror aisle at Blockbuster, examining the gruesome titles while searching for the most promising VHS/ DVD cover — the image of a snarling werewolf was usually enough to satisfy me. Even when the toy alien (I’m talking about the shit-your-pants one from the movie Alien, not the wimpy green with big eyes type) she bought me had to be hidden in her room because I couldn’t look at it after the lights went off, I would obsess over what feat of horror I’d see next.
As I got older, my passion for fear on film intensified. Hours of binging trailers teased me to what glorious guts-and-gore fests were out there, even when I wasn’t old enough to watch them in a theatre. When I saw Halloween for the first time in grade 10 film studies, I was enlightened by the idea that the same movies I knew could provoke intense shock and terror could also inspire deep thought.
To this day, my Bubby and I continue our pursuits of a horror film fixes. Her Netflix list is a smorgasbord of D-grade demon flicks and silly slashers, and her PVR is religiously loaded with the newest episodes of The Walking Dead. As for me, you can find me taking in a monthly midnight scare at the Metro (now that I’m old enough to actually watch in theatres), scouring blood-loving film blogs for the latest scoops and stories, or simply sitting alone on the couch in a dark room, waiting to see what amazing thing, beast, or maniac will find its way onto my screen and into my horror-loving heart.
— Sam Podgurny