Ever sat down comfy in a coach waiting for a 2-hour experience of being scared? Well, this article is for you. Not to say this is going to be a guide for watching horror movies, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people are just as interested as I am in how one genre of art form came to be. After all, it doesn’t just show up from nowhere: everything has a history, and history means the flow of a trend has origins, divisions, and patterns. If you happen to have these urges to dig more about horror movies, and not wanting to just sit there staring at the theater screen trembling in awe, keep reading.

So, horror movies. You probably wonder why it’s a topic worth discussing. Well, seeking for something exciting is human nature. Hands sweating, heart pounding, and breath quickening are the signs through which one feels extra alive. Feeling alive is a good thing after all, and feeling something extra while never needing to experience real life-threatening events is such a good idea to kill the numbness after a day’s tedious work. In this sense, one must be thinking that the director of the first-ever horror movie, Georges Méliès, was a genius. To some degree, he was. But in fact, the film The House of the Devil (1896) was more about evoking amusement and wonder instead of fear. In a comedic fantasy way, it depicted a dramatic encounter between a man and a bunch of devils and spirits. The reason why it is now defined as horror is mostly due to its theme – vampires. 

It’s natural to associate vampires with horrors. But have you ever questioned the concept? Think about it: the first time someone watches a story of humans being bitten by vampires, it is a natural causation to be scared since people are afraid of death. But when it’s the 10th time watching vampires and you still feel somewhat scared? That’s more likely because first, the theme activates the past memories of being scared, re-evoking the feeling of scariness, and second, the association strengthens itself by repeating. After repetitions of the process from generation to generation, vampires finally became a trope, naturally bringing out the sense of horror in media. Since people are looking back at the old movies and labeling them at the present time, it’s reasonable that The House of the Devil is categorized as “horror” because of its association with vampires. 

Actually, earlier “horror movies” were not so horrifying due to the limited technology filmmakers had in hand. It was not until the 1930s when the image quality became better and smoother that horrors really got into a phase of scaring people. Dracula, which came out in 1931, was the one to expand the influence of the vampire trope and to serve as the paving stone for the flourishing of this classic genre. During the period of the Great Depression, people were craving content like Dracula that shifted their minds from the gloomy reality to something surreal–something that terrified or even absorbed them to an extent that within a short amount of time, they could just escape. As a result, Dracula was a smooth success.

As people experienced World War II during the 40s-50s, fears of nuclear fallout ran rampant. Horror movies began to feature elements that were less supernatural in nature–radioactive mutations became a common theme. Movies like Them! (1954) and The Cosmic Monsters (1958) are good examples of this.

The post-war era was the time when the horror genre came to prominence in Japan. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japanese horror movies consisted mainly of vengeful ghosts, radioactive mutants, and monsters starting with Godzilla (1954). But long before that time, Japanese culture had a rich heritage to support this genre. As a country, Japan has a relatively small geographical region, and as an island country, it has a rather isolated environment. Because of the frequent natural disasters and lack of natural resources, the literature and artworks containing tragedy and philosophical thoughts are usually thorough in a unique way. Instead of portraying horror plainly and directly, J-horrors often prioritize psychological elements, building and maintaining the atmosphere. 

However, getting stimulated by plain bloody scenes is easy and universal, while understanding certain psychological horrors sometimes requires a shared sense of culture. For example, the essence of Chinese horror is often the fear of feudal rituals. Chinese horrors concretize the directors’ distortion of the hard-to-disobey “feudal iron laws,” such as clan systems and various misogynistic traditions. There is often something hard for the protagonists to see or touch that’s heavy above the sky; the protagonists feel the burden, but can hardly trace where the weight comes from.The trope derives originally from Chinese superstitious terms gui daqiang 鬼打墙 (ghosts pounding the wall), and gui yachuang 鬼压床 (ghosts pressing the bed) which is a superstitious explanation of sleep paralysis. If someone doesn’t relate to the helplessness under certain old and overwhelming authority, they would not feel as immersive, emotional, and real as those who do.

In contemporary times, horror movies are also finding their way to connect to social conditions. Jordan Peele’s movies (which aren’t necessarily horrors but still scary in some sense) often pay attention to topics of systemic racism and awareness of social justice, while at the same time provide real and innovative horror experiences for the audience. And from the perspective of the medium of creation, since people are getting more accessible digital tools and devices, short horror videos are easier to make nowadays than at any other time, resulting in a burgeoning of horror content creators like Molly Moon (famous for the eerie editing), OmarGoshTV (upload recordings of scary travel adventures), and more.

What we sense as horror depends on how we pick up the association of elements and the scary aspect of them. Hypothetically, the pool of horror tropes is always expanding. I personally did not find Soviet elements scary until watching the live-stream recording of the game Atomic Heart and all those creepy robots in the game. It was not until The Mummy came out did ‘mummies being scary’ gain a wide impression. Pure geometric space could be scary, ancient ruins in jungles could be scary, a garden in which everything stays forever and time doesn’t exist could be scary, deep sea with silence could be scary… everything is potentially a horror trope. It’s inspiring to see how creators find horror in small details that we never expect and exciting to witness how horror movies interact with the age.