This week marked the 95th anniversary of the release of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, considered not only to be a staple of German Expressionism but also the first real horror film. However, the genre has changed massively over the last 95 years so I’m taking a brief look at what exactly horror cinema is.
Many examples of early horror cinema were either adaptations of horror and gothic literature or at least inspired by these stories which originated in the 18thCentury before being incredibly popular during the Victorian era, with examples such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula both withstanding the test of time.
However, since the early days of horror cinema the genre has changed and expanded going from being mainly gothic horror adaptations or “creature feature” storylines to incorporate a whole range of terrifying tales. From the supernatural monsters to serial killers, strange diseases threatening the masses and scientific research going too far to dystopian post-apocalyptic worlds. It has been merged with many other genres: science fiction, comedy, thrillers, romance, action, adventure.
But, whatever ways the stories have changed and no matter what other genres horror has flirted with, it always has at its core a sense of discomfort, and an eerie and frightening atmosphere; a horror film must always scare the audience. This one central rule does help to explain the changes in the genre and its plots over the past 250 years since the birth of gothic horror literature through to the modern horror film. Society has changed and developed over time, and so too have the fears of the masses. Horror films have always been seen as reflecting the fears of society upon each recognisable release.
As the world becomes smaller horror films have become less and less about strange monstrous creatures from foreign lands and more about “monsters” in our back yards; the evil hiding in our closets/under our beds. This is because bad news dominates our screens, reinforcing the idea that you can’t trust the people who live next door to you, that psychopaths and serial killers walk among us, blending in with the rest of us, undetectable in a crowd. So no matter how the world changes, as long as the horror genre changes with it, it will continue to survive as one of our oldest film genres, as long as the stories keep us scared and keep us jumping after the credits role.