As much as fear and shock are thought to be negative emotions, people love to be scared when it comes to films, literature and onstage performances. While your instincts tell you to scream and cover your eyes, you can’t help but peek through your fingers and anxiously await the next terrifying scene.
A study from the American International Journal of Contemporary Research states that horror as a popular entertainment genre can be dated back to gothic literature in the 18th century. It became a popular theme in many books and has been attracting readers and viewers ever since. While horror is hard to define because of its many subgenres (like rural horror, occult horror and psychological horror), there are a few works of horror fiction that paved the way for what you know and love about the genre today.
An early 19th century work, “Frankenstein” is one of the first successful horror tales that also takes a deeper approach to explaining the so-called monster. While the monster terrorizes villagers and creates chaos, it is Dr. Frankenstein who created and abandoned the monster, making him an antihero. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” introduced the public to a new sort of monster: human beings.
From legendary horror flicks like “Friday the 13th” to world-renowned plays like “The Phantom of the Opera,” think of any movie you’ve seen that features an abused or discarded subject who comes back to seek revenge and terror, and you are seeing Shelley’s influence. She sparked a fire for complex monster stories and paved the way for other classics, such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841
Edgar Allen Poe is known for his dark and unnerving work. While his poems and short stories were unappreciated and undervalued in his time, Poe’s innovative style set the stage for many common themes found in today’s horror and mystery stories. In fact, Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” can be credited as the first modern detective story as well as Poe being the first to use psychoanalysis in a literary format. Whether you are a fan of Poe or not, you can see his signature style in many works today.
While horror and thriller movies have been on screen since films were invented, no one has shaped the genre quite like Alfred Hitchcock. While many of his films provide inspiration for modern works, “Psycho” might be his most iconic. With this film, Hitchcock broke the mold for storytelling by pulling the rug out from under his audience. Killing the main character in one of the first scenes, for example, or leading you to believe the plot is going in one direction and then violently jerking it the other way is something many filmmakers have copied from Hitchcock and probably always will.
“The Night of the Living Dead,” 1968
Best known for being the film that inspired the now overused zombie theme, “The Night of the Living Dead” was so much more. When it came out, it was a time of immense social strife and a struggle for human rights. Viewers were shocked when they saw that, first of all, the protagonist of the film was a black man and also that he defeated a horde of vicious zombies only to be gunned down by a gang of merciless white men. A Vanity Fair article that examines the film’s past suggests that it took an abrupt turn from fantastical creatures and unbelievable villains to relatable and accessible events. The gore and horror were still there, but so was a social statement of real horrors going on at the time, and that was just as terrifying, if not more.