It was a morning like any other, bright and sunny, and I was home alone getting ready for the day. I walked past the dark corner of our laundry room on my way to the bathroom when I had the terrifying sense that I was being watched. I tried ignoring it, as I am an anxious person and prone to such fantasies (every once in a while I am compelled to pull back a shower curtain or peek into a dark, empty room to dispel the horrors my imagination wills to life). I couldn’t shake my discomfort, however, and was instantly reminded of the scene from Insidious where the mother is walking through the house and the camera tracks by a spirit standing against the wall. Nothing happens, but the idea of something hiding in plain sight set my heart pounding. I couldn’t let it go. I stuck my head in the laundry room to make sure a dark entity wasn’t crouched among the bras and knit sweaters. A pair of sultry yellow eyes gazed back. My roommate’s cat was sitting on top of the dryer.
Not the scariest interaction I’ve had in my life, but it got me thinking about that scene, a similar one in 2017’s It, and how they differ from the shock and gore of more classical horrors like The Exorcist or Psycho. How has Hollywood changed the ways it scares the audience over the years? Are people still afraid of the same things? To find out, I started by combing the Internet for the most popular horror films of all time. The five movies that topped everyone’s lists–Psycho, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Shining—only spanned two decades, with a lot of heavy-hitters coming out of the 70s. Comparing these canonical flicks to popular scary movies from the 80s onward, I’ve analyzed how the horror genre has evolved, and how it’s stayed the same. Spoilers ahead (if you count discussing 40-year-old movie plots as “spoiling”).
Every theme in every scary movie can ultimately be categorized under two major fears: the unknown and a lack of control. Death, the most common theme in all horrors, spans both these fears–we are unsure of what happens to us after we die, and we are afraid of not dying on our own terms. So when a huge man in a chainsaw comes charging at us, we are terrified (also because of our survival instincts and, as sentient beings, because we want to avoid suffering, but I have so many movies and so little time to delve into that).
Insanity is another common theme addressed in all of the Top Five in one way or another. Norman Bates is murderous and has multiple personalities. The Exorcist suggests early on that Regan is mentally ill rather than possessed by a supernatural entity. Both Michael Meyers and Leatherface’s characters were partially inspired by real patients in mental institutions. And Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining slowly devolves from loving father to homicidal maniac. The taboo surrounding mental illness certainly plays a factor with including it in so many scary movies, but I believe Hollywood also enjoys inflating stereotypes that the mentally ill are violent and volatile. Unpredictability in a character is frightening because it stokes our fear of the unknown, while the idea of losing our own minds to madness plays on the fear of not being in control.
As the years progressed, popular horror focused less and less on insanity as a scare tactic. In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs introduced us to Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill, two drastically different serial killers. Hannibal’s scenes are arresting and the audience finds themselves wanting more from his character, despite the fact that he eats people and cuts their faces off. Buffalo Bill is repulsive in contrast, a reclusive man who draws out his victims’ suffering. His transvestism is also off-putting in that it was something rarely depicted in film at the time, and not well understood. But it becomes problematic by reinforcing the idea that all men who wear women’s clothes are disturbed.
By the 2010s, horror had shifted away from the ‘crazy-people-are-scary’ trope to more classic good-versus-evil themes. Get Out showed the world that evil doesn’t have to exist in a demon or mental disability–sometimes people are just bad. And although It is a story dating back to the 80s, setting the record for the highest-grossing horror proved that audiences today are still interested in seeing a bunch of kids fight a scary monster.
The 2017 feature-length version of Stephen King’s It fascinated me when it first came out–after I recovered from being so terrified, of course. The film is well-deserving of its R-rating with a fair share of jump scares and frightening imagery. But what I loved about the movie was the more subtle details that flew under the radar. For instance, the scene reminiscent of Insidious occurs with a librarian ominously staring down Ben as he flips through a historical book of the town of Derry. She is not the focus of the shot, and so blurry you can’t see her face, but she appears to assume the posture of Pennywise, and the dark features of her face make you think she could be grinning frighteningly at Ben. It’s so subtle that many viewers missed it the first time around, but it had me squirming in my seat. Also in the scene, a wagon advertising “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” can be seen hidden in one of the photographs Ben flips through, along with Pennywise himself standing in a group shot. In another part of the movie, his face can be seen on a mural the Losers are standing in front of, and there are at least two instances of a children’s show playing in the background, with the cheerful kids telling the host how much they love playing in the sewers with clowns. Pennywise never blinks and often has one eye trained on the camera while the other looks elsewhere. Altogether, these subtle details set a sinister tone that It is everywhere, and you cannot escape. This is done to a degree that not many other filmmakers have achieved, with the exception of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.
Numerous details in The Shining (another Stephen King classic), don’t necessarily relate to the overall tone of the film, but have been attributed as Kubrick’s commentary on things such as Native American genocide, the Apollo moon landing, and the Holocaust. They’re harder to spot than an orange pom-pom or a menacing grin, but it adds to the depth of the movie. Hitchcock, on the other hand, employed his details in Psycho similar to It in that they gave clues to the plot and helped set the tone. While Norman and Marion are having supper in the parlor, they are surrounded by taxidermy birds, one of which is an owl in the corner, poised to attack its prey. Norman compares Marion to a bird watching her eat, and then goes on to discuss his favorite hobby of “stuffing birds.” Besides the sexual double entendre, the setting of the parlor makes the viewer uncomfortable in spite of the pleasant conversation. The use of mirrors or reflections in Psycho also suggests the duplicity of both Norman and Marion (because Marion is an innocent victim, but also stole $40K), a common theme in Hitchcock films.
Certain points-of-view also share commonality in horror, many times as a way to put the audience in the characters’ shoes. For instance, the found footage style of movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity turn the viewer into a voyeur in Katie and Michah’s home, or into another student lost in the woods. Since handheld cameras weren’t as common (or existed) in previous decades, this style of filming isn’t used in any of the Top Five, but they do employ tracking shots to the same effect–the first scene in Halloween is from the point of view of Michael Myers himself, and the iconic scene of Danny riding his tricycle through the halls in The Shining lets the audience see the horrors as Danny sees them.
Part of the reason the Top Five are where they are is because they were shocking and original for their time. No one expected Norman Bates to kill off Marion so quickly, and while she was in the shower no less! Psycho’s dissonant music and slasher-theme inspired many movies to come, including Halloween, which also took from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Shining uses random and disturbing imagery to shock the viewer, and nowadays it’s not unusual to consider inanimate objects like hotels and houses to be evil or possessed. Meanwhile, The Exorcist shows a teenager masturbating with a cross while screaming, “Fuck me, Jesus,” and everyone since then has said, “Yeah, we don’t need more of that.” For The Exorcist, a lot of its frightening material is also wrapped up in its shock value. We watch a sweet girl turn ugly and vulgar, projectile vomit, spin her head around, and shove her mother’s face between her legs. It’s all so unheard of. And although heavily parodied, I have yet to come across a movie that dares to cross the lines that William Friedkin did with that film.
Looking at the movies I’ve discussed so far, they all divide up fairly evenly into two categories: supernatural stories and stories based on reality. It seems audiences don’t have a preference on the plausibility of a scary movie, as long as it’s good. But looking closer, even the supernatural films draw from reality. Psycho, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill all took inspiration from real-life serial killer Ed Gein. The Exorcist was based on a novel of an actual exorcism of a 12-year-old boy. Michael Myers had a muse in a mental ward. The Overlook Hotel from The Shining is based off the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which likes to boast of its haunted hallways. Jack Torrance’s character arc was also Stephen King’s way of exploring the horror of a parent abusing their child. Supernatural themes are scary because they link back to the fear of the unknown, but when they are mixed in with real-world terrors, it’s all the more frightening.
The Exorcist demonstrates this well. Regan is an innocent girl possessed by the devil–she loses control of her body and mind to an entity we don’t fully understand and can’t really see except through her. The film exploits our two main fears and also smacks a warning across the face of every God-fearing viewer: this could happen to you. Possession and demons are real, so don’t fuck around with any Ouija boards, mk?
Get Out also steeps its scares in the reality that the US is a racist country. For decades, Hollywood has leaned on the trope of Magical Negroes who have no autonomy and exist only to help the White protagonist. Jordan Peele took this trope and made it into a movie where Black people’s labor and bodies are used to help White people. It reimagines slavery in speculative fiction, and the idea that this could happen in some form is terrifying.
Almost every horror film will use our fear of the unknown and fear of losing control for scares. Insanity was one way Hollywood preferred to frighten people in the past, but in more recent years we have pulled away from associating the mentally ill with evil. Although technology has changed and improved, attention to detail and POV shots are still relied on to intensify a flick’s creepiness. And with so many classics pioneering their way in with shock value, more modern movies have moved to psychological terrors as opposed to making the most offensive film they can. Which makes sense, as the best scary movies are the ones that take from reality, no matter what decade it was made in. The way Hollywood delivers horror has changed, but in the end, people are still afraid of the same old things.