George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, described horror as “the genre that never dies”.
He’s right. Ever since the first silent ‘spook tales’ of the late 1890s, horror films have had a special hold over audiences.
Early silent films drew heavily on Gothic literature such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From there, the baton was picked up in Germany in the 1920s. German Expressionist filmmakers took to the genre with verve and imagination, producing classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.
The advent of sound in the late 1920s had a huge impact. After all, a scream is rather more effective when you can hear it. Many of the first horror ‘talkies’ had a Gothic element, with Frankenstein and Dracula again at the forefront.
Filmmakers quickly realised that the appeal of horror lay in showing the audience its own fear, and moved beyond Gothic. As Nightmare on Elm Street actor Wes Craven put it: “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.” The best horror movies don’t just frighten us out of our wits, they shine a light on our hidden anxieties.
For this reason, horror films reflect people’s concerns about what is going on in the world. It’s no coincidence that the golden age of German horror coincided with the depression of the Weimar Republic.
The prevailing cultural fear drives innovation. Assassinations in 60s America resulted in films such as Psycho and Cape Fear that show how seemingly normal people can become dangerous, even in broad daylight. In the post-baby boom 1970s, films centred on child nightmares. This lead to a raft of similar movies such as Halloween, Carrie and The Exorcist.
Most recently, films such as Unfriended and Ex Machina reflect a society worried about the power of technology. Looking ahead, you can be certain that today’s anxieties around fake news and conspiracy theories, and fear of foreigners will be reflected in horror films.
This shift in themes also changes the way frights are delivered. Slasher movies were the go to of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. As we moved into the late 1990s the trend was for less explicit, creepier horror of the kind found in The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and The Others.
For filmmakers, one of the attractions of horror films is that they are relatively inexpensive to make. You don’t need star-name actors or even high production values, as successes such as Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity show. A girl spouting blood will be no less frightening because she’s an unknown actress rather than Jennifer Lawrence.
The low production costs explain why the return on investment (ROI) on horror films can be exceptional. Paranormal Activity is the stand out example of this, grossing $194m against a budget of $450,000 – a return of 431 times its budget. It also spawned a franchise. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, released in 2015, is the sixth in the series.
But even leaving aside this once-in-a-lifetime cash cow, horror films consistently offer filmmakers outstanding rewards. In an article on website fivethirtyeight.com, Walt Hickey claims that scary movies are the best investment in Hollywood. He analysed data for 202 movies released between 1999 and 2014 and compared it to 180 romantic comedies and 338 action films. Then he worked out how many times over budget each movie made.
Hickey found that 28 horror movies made back more than 10 times their budget. Only six romantic comedies out of 180 and four action movies managed the same ROI. What’s more, 5% of horror movies made their budget an astonishing 38 times over. In contrast, the top 5% of action movies made their budget only six times over.
Another bonus for filmmakers is that horror is an international language. As horror is driven largely by visuals rather than dialogue, it is an easy sell overseas. Sometimes this is in its original form, at others in a rehashed version. Both The Ring and The Grudge were remakes of Japanese films.
There’s no guarantee that every horror films will be a success, but it is one genre filmmakers have no reason to be afraid of.