History of Horror Movies

This page looks at the vocabulary of Horror Movies through their history, people and styles. (Words in bold are listed in Wordchecker below.)

Movie poster for Night of the Living Dead If you like scary movies about ghosts and monsters and crazy killers, you're a fan of horror movies. Many early horror movies were based on old stories about scary creatures like vampires. Classic horror movies like 1922's Nosferatu and 1931's Dracula were based on Bram Stoker's vampire novel Dracula. Like all vampires, Count Dracula terrifies his victims by biting their necks and drinking their blood. We see him again in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, but in 1994's Interview With the Vampire we see stylish vampires played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt who are more handsome and youthful than Dracula, but just as deadly.

Picture: Poster for George A. Romero’s classic 1966 zombie movie Night of the Living Dead (Public Domain)

Some of the scariest creatures in horror movies are flesh-eating corpses called zombies. One of the first zombie films was 1932's White Zombie, but it was George A. Romero's zombie classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead that set the pattern for later zombie films like 2003's 28 Days Later and for Frank Darabont's popular TV series The Walking Dead.

Movies about scary monsters have always been popular and one of the first was 1931's Frankenstein about a scientist who tries to make a human body from the body parts of corpses. Since the early 80s most monster movies have featured CGI monsters like those in sci-fi horror movies like John Carpenter's The Thing, David Cronenberg's The Fly and James Cameron's Aliens. In Frank Darabont's 2007 movie The Mist terrifying monsters drive people crazy with fear and in 2008's Cloverfield giant monsters tear down skyscrapers and huge spiders run through subways.

Horror movies about nature's scary creatures can also be terrifying. If you're afraid of sharks you shouldn't watch Steven Spielberg's Jaws, if you have a fear of spiders you shouldn't see Arachnophobia, and if you're afraid of being attacked by flocks of angry birds you'd better not watch Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds either. If you see 2005's The Descent you might have nightmares about being trapped underground in a cave full of scary creatures, and if you see the classic Australian horror movie Long Weekend you might never go camping again.

Films about supernatural beings like ghosts and spirits and movies about spooky places like haunted houses can be very scary as well. The classic horror movie The Haunting is an early example, and more recent examples include The Babadook and 1408 in which a writer of books about haunted houses is driven crazy by a hotel room's evil power. These movies use sound effects like banging doors and sudden screams to scare us, and they often use spooky music as well. Some of the finest music in a horror movie score can be heard in 1977's Suspiria in which young dancers are terrorized by evil witches who run a ballet school.

In paranormal horror movies we see forces and powers that can't be explained by science. In Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist we see objects being moved by invisible forces and in Brian De Palma's Carrie we see a teenage girl using her telekinetic powers to control objects with her mind whenever she's angry. In David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone a teacher wakes from a coma with the power to see into the past and the future, and in M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense we see a boy with special powers talking with spirits until a twist at the end changes the story.

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Supernatural movies with religious themes are often the scariest of them all, and The Exorcist is widely-regarded as the most terrifying movie ever made. It begins with a girl becoming possessed by Christianity's most powerful demon and ends with a Catholic priest performing an exorcism. In Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby we see witches arranging the birth of a very special demon, and in The Omen we see a powerful demon possess the body of a young boy.

Video: Trailer for The Exorcist, widely-regarded as the scariest movie ever made

2002's Frailty is about a mentally-ill Christian who "talks to God" and kills neighbours because they're "demons". It has a religious theme but it's a psychological horror movie because the supernatural elements arise from a mental illness. The 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is about a mentally-ill woman who mistreats her disabled sister, and Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining is about a mentally-ill writer who sees supernatural beings as his illness worsens. The Shining is based on a horror story by the American writer Steven King, as is 1990's Misery in which a mentally-ill nurse terrorizes one of her favourite writers after finding him injured in a car accident.

People who do terrible things without feeling pity or shame are called psychopaths. Not many psychopaths are as bad as the polite and pretty little eight-year-old girl in 1956's The Bad Seed, or as cruel and crazy as the teenage psychopath who terrorizes his family in 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin. But the most famous film about a psychopath is Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror masterpiece Psycho. Hitchcock is widely-regarded as one of cinema's greatest directors, and studying the shots, the editing, the sound effects and the music in the shower scene from Psycho can help us understand why.

At first we hear the gentle sound of running water as a woman takes a shower in a motel bathroom. Then a shot filmed from in front of the woman shows a shadowy figure sneaking up behind her - a classic horror movie angle. Suddenly we see the curtain torn open and hear violins screaming as the killer attacks her with a knife. Over thirty quick close-ups draw us into the scene; close-ups of the knife cut to close-ups of the woman as she fights her killer off, and close-ups of her hand pulling the shower curtain down are edited together with shots of her slowly sliding down the wall as she dies. The music stops and we hear the sound of running water once again as her blood drains away and the camera pans back from a lifeless eye.

Video: The shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 horror movie Psycho

The psychopath in Psycho is a serial killer who murdered many victims before attacking the woman in the shower. Famous movies about serial killers include 1990's The Silence of the Lambs starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins and 1995's Seven starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. In 2004's Saw we see a clever psychopath playing deadly games with his terrified victims, and in American Psycho we see a crazy young New York banker killing his victims "for fun".

Many horror movie fans love slasher films in which extremely violent psychotic killers use weapons like axes, knives, hammers and chainsaws. One of the first was Tobe Hooper's low-budget 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others include John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's slasher classics A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. There are countless sequels and remakes of these films, but the originals are often much better.

Movies in which people are terrorized for money or for fun are often called horror dramas. In The Night of The Hunter we see two young children being hunted for money hidden by their father before he went to jail, and in the 2010 film Buried we spend ninety terrifying minutes with a man who's been kidnapped and buried alive. In Funny Games and Eden Lake we see teenage bullies terrorizing people for fun, and in 2011's You're Next we see a wealthy family being terrorized by a gang of hired killers in animal masks.

The makers of the low-budget 1999 horror movie The Blair Witch Project wanted moviegoers to think it was made with video footage they'd found in a haunted house. The Blair Witch Project was so cheap to make and so successful that it started a new subgenre called found footage horror movies. Some of the scariest are Paranormal Activity in which video cameras record paranormal events while a young couple sleeps, and the Spanish films [REC] and [REC] 2 in which a TV crew records terrifying footage while they're stuck inside a quarantined apartment building.

Video: Trailer for the terrifying found footage horror movie [REC] 2

In recent years many of the scariest horror movies have been made in Asia. They include paranormal thrillers like Ringu and Pulse in which evil forces travel through television signals and telephone lines, supernatural thrillers like Thailand's Shutter and Japan's Ju-On: The Grudge, and shockingly violent movies about psychopaths and serial killers like Japan's Audition and Confessions and South Korea's A Tale Of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil. If you're brave enough to watch these movies, at least make sure you're not alone...

Recommended horror movies

  • Classic: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Vampyr (1932), Cat People (1942), The Haunting (1963)
  • Vampires: Horror of Dracula (1958), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Let Me In (2010)
  • Zombies: Night of the Living Dead (1966), Dawn of the Dead (1978), 28 Days Later (2003), Train to Busan (2016)
  • Monsters: The Fly (1986), Aliens (1986), The Host (2006), The Mist (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Monstrum (2018)
  • Creatures: The Birds (1963), Jaws (1975), Long Weekend (1979), Arachnophobia (1990), The Descent (2005)
  • Supernatural: Suspiria (1977), 1408 (2007), Insidious (2011), The Babadook (2014), Us (2019), His House (2020)
  • Paranormal: Carrie (1976), Poltergeist (1982), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Conjuring (2013), Hereditary (2018)
  • Religious: Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Frailty (2002), Saint Maud (2019)
  • Psychological: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Shining (1980), Black Swan (2010), Midsommer (2019)
  • Psychopaths: The Bad Seed (1956), Psycho (1960), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), It (2017), The Invisible Man (2020)
  • Serial Killers: The Silence of the Lambs (1990), Seven (1995), American Psycho (2000), Saw (2004), Zodiac (2007)
  • Slasher: Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), Candyman (2021)
  • Horror Drama: The Night of the Hunter (1955), Funny Games (1997), Eden Lake (2008), Get Out (2017), Coming Home in the Dark (2021)
  • Found Footage: The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), [REC] (2007), Host (2020), V/H/S/94 (2021)
  • Asian: Ringu (1998), Audition (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), I Saw the Devil (2011), The Wailing (2016), One Cut of the Dead (2017)

angle (noun): the position of the camera in a shot - The angle allows the viewer to see something the victim can't.

close-up (noun): a shot taken from very close to the subject - There's a close-up of her eyes while she's screaming.

corpse (noun): the body of a dead person - That scene of a corpse rising from the grave is really scary!

creature (noun): anything that's alive except for people and plants - The scariest creatures I've ever seen are bird-eating spiders.

demon (noun): a powerful evil spirit - A demon was crawling along the ceiling, snarling and hissing like a snake.

edit (verb): to combine different shots when making a movie - I love the way they edited that scene.

evil (adjective): extremely bad or wicked - They think there's something evil in the house.

exorcism (noun): a ritual that forces a spirit to leave a possessed person - Priests don't still perform exorcisms, do they?

found footage (noun): footage of real events, or footage that looks real - We're making a found footage horror movie.

ghost (noun): the spirit of a dead person - Have you ever seen a ghost?

haunted (adjective): occupied by ghosts or evil spirits - The house could be haunted, you know.

horror movie (noun): a movie that frightens and shocks people - You'll have nightmares if you watch too many horror movies.

mentally-ill (adjective): having an illness that affects a person's mind - Her mentally-ill mother did some terrible things to her.

paranormal (adjective): strange and unexplained by science - It's about people who investigate paranormal events.

possessed (adjective): controlled by an evil spirit - They don't really think she's possessed, do they?

psychological (adjective): related to or affecting the mind - His problem's psychological, so he needs to see a therapist.

psychopath (noun): a person with a mental illness that makes them violent and cruel - I think my boss is a psychopath.

scary (adjective): frightening or causing fear - We sat around the campfire telling scary stories.

serial killer (noun): a psychopath who often kills people - On the news it said that the serial killer has already murdered four young business women.

shot (noun): a view of something in a movie - The films opens with a shot of children playing in a park.

slasher film (noun): a film about a very violent psychopath - I’m terrified of chainsaws because of a slasher film I watched as a child.

sound effects (noun): recorded sounds used in films, TV shows, etc - Spooky sound effects like footsteps and creaking doors are often used in horror movies.

spirit (noun): a supernatural being without a physical body - In Thailand they build little houses for spirits to live in.

spooky (adjective): makes you think of scary things like ghosts - He told us a scary story about a spooky old house.

supernatural (adjective): related to an invisible world of ghosts and spirits - They think he has supernatural powers.

terrify (verb): to make someone feel very frightened - The thought of being buried alive terrifies me.

terrorize (verb): to use threats or violence to keep someone scared - The kidnapper terrorized his victims, so they didn’t try to escape.

twist (noun): an event that changes a story's meaning - Don't tell us what the twist is. You'll spoil the movie!

vampire (noun): a scary creature that bites necks and drinks blood - It's about a vampire who lives in an old castle.

witch (noun): a person who uses magic or supernatural powers - There was a coven of witches living in the apartment building.

zombie (noun): a dead body that comes alive - After a week of studying for exams with no sleep, we all looked like zombies.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.