Establishment of a Genre. Hollywood Horror in the 1930s

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

45 Pages, Grade: 2.1



List of Illustrations


Just a word of friendly warning

Chapter One Review of literature

Chapter Two Horror moves into Hollywood in the 1930s

Chapter Three Gender and Sexuality in the 1930s Horror genre

Chapter Four The Politics of the 1930s Horror genre

Conclusion To a new world of Gods and Monsters

Sources Bibliography, Webography and Filmography


This dissertation will examine film genre and in particular the Horror genre during the 1930s. The question of what defines the genre and how it becomes defined is brought up and in answering it I will look upon the themes and the history surrounding some of the biggest pictures of the decade. Much of the studies into genre, had been previously been rather broad and even the ones that focused upon the horror genre, they too lacked the focus solely towards the Horror genre in the 1930s. This piece, analyses the horror genre of the 1930s with use of genre theory and also the thematic structure and historical information regarding the films.

The study presents that the Horror genre is defined by the era, with the 1930s and the issuessurround the decade structuring and influencing the genre, from the advancements in technology tothe importance of social commentary within the Horror genre. The study elaborates that particularissues and political matters found their way into the genre and helped to define and structure thegenre. Without the issues of the decade the Horror genre would not have been successful and not asinteresting for study

Word Count: 14,780


I would like to thank everyone who helped me during the long process of this dissertation, the friends and family members who listened to my endless Horror movie talk, and put up with all of my constant references to the films that I’d studied.

A special thank you is for Dr. Anna Claydon for all the help and support she has provided me with throughout this piece. Her encouragement and exuberance during our meetings kept me grounded and allowed me to remain focused and optimistic.

And finally the horror film monsters that terrified me as a child, without them my passion for the horror genre and this dissertation would not exist.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

(Lovecraft, 1945: 12)


Just a word of friendly warning

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933)

Fear, terror and disgust; these can be considered three emotions that one can experienceduring a horror film: “[t]he telling of horrifying tales is as old as the human capacity to telltales. The modern horror film is merely the latest form of such story telling” (Weaver &

Tamborini, 1996:15). Famed horror author, H.P Lovecraft (cited in Weaver and Tamborini) suggestedthat horror is created when the natural order and laws have been violated. When this occurs, wehave no control over life and do not understand it, we are then at the mercy of supernatural forcesthat appear to have malicious intent (ibid). Within the mythologies of all known cultures throughoutthe world are laden with products of the human imagination driven by fear and narcissism datingback to the days of great warrior facing off against horrifying monsters and beasts (ibid).

The audience is central to the effect horror films have and most studies of genre begin (such asCohen, 1997) with a narrative situating the author, as a child, watching the films they have come tolove: this is no less the case here͙Films and the cinema have fascinated me since a young age, the very magic of the cinema and the film industry presented another world and somewhere anything could happen. There have been varying genres which have brought me enjoyment and excitementbut none more than that of the horror genre. I found myself terrified by the villains and monsters onmy television screen, yet the fear I felt would never prevent returning for repeat viewings, or lookingfor a new horror picture fix. The earliest memory I have of horror was at a very early age I watched atelevision movie adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. The film petrified me and to this dayand I still find something quite unnerving about clowns. Doherty (1999) discusses the horror genreand states that: “horror is the stuff that nightmares are made of, the dream screen for subconsciousdesires and fears” (Doherty, 1999: 296). Despite feeling the obvious emotions that the horror filmgenerally creates, from shock to trepidation the horror film unlike countless other genres can nevertruly disappoint a fan: “The aesthetic ambition of the horror film is single-minded: it aims to scare”(ibid). This fact alone is why I have a passion for this particular film genre, there is one target andone purpose by endless ways to achieve it.

In order to demonstrate and observe the establishment of the film genre I will be focusing on the Horror genre in the 1930s in my opinion the first point where horror came into its own as a film genre and it was this era that produced some of the classic horror films. I will analyse the themes and aspects that help to create the genre during this time period, with reference to particular films many of which have been studied and cited before as important to the genre but as Horror is a particular and personal passion of mine, I will analyse the films that I personally believe represent what Hollywood Horror was in the 1930s.

Horror in fiction has always had a prominent place within aspects of popular culture, H.P. Lovecraft’spublished stories in the twentieth century brought a great interest into the horror genre, but theworks of gothic authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley in the nineteenthcentury also saw vast popularity in the horror literature genre. Nonetheless it was the cinema thatproved to be the most popular and influential outlet for horror (Jancovich, 1992). Within the earliestdays of filmmaking, elements from horror and science fiction influenced the first filmmakers, GeorgeMéliès’s fantastical films utilised these elements. Furthermore it was from the German filmmakers ofthe early twentieth century that the horror film began to emerge in a distinctive form and style(ibid). These films became known as German Expressionist films and had a vastly important influenceon many of the films that followed in the 1930s (ibid). The Hollywood horror films of the 1930sparticularly those produced by Universal Pictures have had the longest lasting and greatest impact(ibid). However in the present day the horror genre is rarely given the respect that it received in the early part of the twentieth century, these films are regularly studied and in turn read as high culture rather than low culture (ibid).

The purpose of the research is to convey the genre conventions and themes that make up the horrorfilm genre of the 1930s. This will entail a history of particular films from the era and an examinationof the themes that have been produced in Hollywood Horror of the 1930s. There will be a closetextual analysis of the narrative and the themes produced in the films in light of genre theory. Theresearch will look into the varying themes of horror in the 1930s that have been developed and thenestablished.

The chapters of this study will include a review of the primary literature that has provided abackground to this study, this review of literature will demonstrate the era that the study is focussedupon and show how it is relevant. The chapter will also state information about genre theory andmore specifically horror genre theory and elements that construct the genre. The following chapterwill include a history of the chosen films, isolating their influences and why they are important andinteresting to the study. The further chapter will focus on thematic aspects of the 1930s horrorgenre, the themes that helped to define this era for the horror genre. Discussing the representationsof sexuality, gender and furthermore the gender roles from the horror genre of the 1930s. Followingthis will be broader look into the politics of horror at this time, how the era of social issues andpolitical factors defined the very content of the horror films and how reality’s horrors becamecinematic horrors also.

Chapter One Review of literature

The intention of this project is to observe and analyse the establishment of the horror genre,specifically Hollywood horror in the 1930s. The horror film genre is one that has remained apopular and mass produced genre in cinema, although it has had periods of time where it has been less popular and not considered to be the highest quality or an aspect of high culture. The era of the 1930s saw the inception of horror films and some of the biggest films were made and have remained popular with audiences.

There have been many prominent authors and studies into film, cinema of the 1930s and the horrorfilm genre. The genre brings up varying themes and variations of iconography that can be tracedthroughout many different horror movies throughout the decade. This era was one that had muchsocial and cultural upheaval and the films of this time can be noted to represent these issues.However one must establish how cinema got to the position of Hollywood Horror in the 1930s.


Bordwell & Thompson (2003), in Film History: an Introduction, detail the history of filmmaking andshow that the earliest records of films date to the late 1800s. Early stages of development came from Edison and Dickson with their work on the Kinetescope. Although these men were some of the early pioneers in the technology front, some of the first films were produced by the likes of Frenchfilmmakers “the Lumière Brothers” who made short films such as their first, Workers Leaving theFactory (1895). This film is an accurate representation of the early types of films, a realisticmovement of real people. Another French filmmaker was Georges Méliès; known for his more“magical” style he created some of the more famous early films including A Trip to the Moon (1902)and The Impossible Voyage (1904). With many early filmmakers they were still discovering thevarying capabilities of film and the cinema, they were mainly focusing on what could be shown to anaudience rather than the story that they could tell. This is what Tom Gunning in 1985 called the“Cinema of Attractions” with analysing how early films developed a differing relationship with theaudience (Stam and Miller, 2000). Gunning also states that cinema of attractions is attributed to its:“ability to show something” (ibid: 230). The cinema of attractions interacts with its audience; it willstimulate a viewer on a level which is purely exhibitionist. Gunning relates his views of the cinema ofattractions to the early example of film; however the idea of the cinema of attractions can beapplied to varying films throughout the history of cinema. Film took various leaps forward during thefollowing decades with the introduction of greater narrative, to sound and colour, furthermorecomputer generated special effects to create what we now identify as standard with many filmstoday. Nevertheless film has not always been like this there have been great or “golden” eras thatthrived; one in particular is the 1930s.

Within a study into the establishment of the Hollywood Horror genre in the decade of the 1930s it is appropriate to observe how this era has already been analysed on a broader scale. This was an era where the horror genre was truly established and it was a time where the film industry changed significantly throughout various different aspects. Cinema was seen to evolve greatly over this ten year period. The genre cannot be discussed before first looking upon the time that it is being analysed and looking at how it has already been analysed.

Cinema in the 1930s

Ina Rae Hark (2007) in American Cinema in the 1930s discusses the Hollywood film industry alongwith the films that it produced in the 1930s. Hark focuses on varying films from the decade toillustrate the themes, variations and history of cinema in this time. With the transition to, films withsound, developments of colour, issues of censorship and the vertically integrated Hollywoodindustry itself. Hark discusses the varying themes that were associated with cinema and particular films during the 1930s: how through the development of new major technologies, Hollywood movies were able to communicate new messages and create a deeper meaning than previously.

Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman (1996) in Flashback: a Brief History of Film examine cinema in the 1930s in a different way, by focusing on the specifics that defined the era of film. The inception of sound and how it re-established the star of cinema: “No more could stars be worshipped as semi deities because of their ethereal removal from everyday life͙for the first time, the life depicted on the screen was as feisty as merican audiences always had been” (ibid: 140). The new popular genres that came to prominence are also discussed and the major players of the era, the biggest stars, filmmakers and their contributions to this decade of cinema.

Bordwell and Thompson (2003) discuss cinema in the 1930s by focusing their study on a look intothe Hollywood studio system that thrived in this decade. There was a new structure to the filmindustry that had developed in the 1920s but really came into its own in the decade of the 1930s.“Eight large companies dominated the industry. First were the Big Five, also called the Majors͙theywere Paramount, Loew’s, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO. To be a Major, a company had to be verticallyintegrated, owning a theatre chain and having an international distribution operation͙smallercompanies with few or no theatres formed Little Three, or the Minors: Universal, Columbia andUnited rtists” (ibid: 214). Their contributions and works during the 1930s are depicted as well theindependent studios. Bordwell and Thompson prove that this was an era of innovation, withdevelopments in technical elements of film making in sound technology, camera movement,Technicolor, special effects and the styles of the cinematographers evolving. Furthermore Bordwell& Thompson also show the major developments in animation and the transformations in filmgenres.

In American Cinema in the 1930s Hark examines the world beyond the cinema at this time prior tousing this in analysis of the films themselves. With the Wall Street Crash in 1929 (ibid) and thedeclaration of hostilities in the Second World War in 1939, the 1930s was an era that began in agreat depression and the end saw the world seep into another great war (ibid). The 1930s saw theelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as US President in 1932, Adolf Hitler became the chancellor ofGermany in 1933 also The Spanish Civil War played out from 1936 to 1939 (ibid). This was an era ofmuch change throughout the world within the political sphere, new leaders and ideological changesfor countries.

Hark argues that in the 1930s, “[t΁he merican film industry pulled out a lot of punches inconfronting the multiple ills of the thirties, it also redefined the cinema with sound and color and produced polished entertainments that still compare favourably with the output of decades far more technologically advanced” (ibid: 9). Hark continues to detail the inception of paperback books,instant coffee, cheese burgers and even sliced bread which was first sold in 1930. America saw thebirth of the first great American comic book, Superman in 1938, and witnessed Amelia Earhartbecome the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo. The 1930s can be defined as an era of change andvast development throughout politics, sport and popular culture etc. The film industry also tookmany steps forward and Hark states that the film industry although had gained their reputation fortheir major profits but also for their films which became known as “prestige pictures”. These typesof films were: “usually based on works of literature or history and biography, these films inhabitedother places and other times, had lavish production values, and attempted to establish an aura offilms as fine art and conveyors of moral uplift” (ibid: 9).

Hark also points out that the 1930s and the development of new technology created or eveninnovated many of the genres still successful and popular today: “ lthough some of the genres thatpredominated in the decade were not new, the remaking of silents into talkies resulted in a sort ofde novo creation” (ibid: 10). Musicals could not exist without the music to utilise, and although therewere comedies during the silent era, they could not make use of comical dialogue and no longer hadto rely upon physical humour but the comedy actors could employ new material to their comicarsenals. The era was one than developed the genres that could be cited to the times that they weremade. The instability of the 1930s and the failure of honest work witnessed the increase of thegangster film, which many of the most famous gangster pictures were produced by Warner Bros.The use of real life society issues for genre and narrative saw the use of the great depression as amajor source used by filmmakers: “If the terror of the times could easily become the monster at thedoor, it is no surprise that another genre that flourished at the beginning of the decade was thehorror film.” (ibid: 13) Horror films like many other genres grew out of the silent movie era whichlaid the groundwork for all of the horror films that followed. The 1930s was also an era thatproduced some of the most diverse leading actors, such as͙Clark Gable, Fred staire and GretaGarbo: “if sound and color necessitated the reinvention of film genres, they also necessitated the re-creation of the movie star” (ibid: 14). It was this period that helped to create what is identified asstar quality and the horror genre in this period provided some of the most memorable horror stars(ibid).


Genre has been discussed by varying authors and there many different aspects to genre theory thatare detailed. But throughout these writers’ work on genre there is still much agreement onparticular issues. Genre, a word which is originally a French word and is simply defined as type orkind (Bordwell & Thompson, 2003). In terms of the genre of films examples include science-fiction,western, romance, action and Horror. These genres are used to identify a film or group of films andcategorise them into a collection by the genre: “Genre movies are those commercial feature filmswhich through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiarsituations” (Neale, 2000: 9). Genre is something that that cannot always be defined with ease,audiences identify with genre based upon their culture furthermore genre has been defined as: “ avaried and flexible structure, a thematically fertile and ambiguous world of historical material shotthrough with archetypal elements which are themselves ever in flux” (Grant, 2003: 4). One of themost recognisable genres is Horror which usually has a clearly defined subject, theme andiconography that is mainly based upon its emotional affect that it has on its audience: “If a film hasanything to do with the supernatural, cults, monsters, mad scientists, graveyards, old castles, oruncharted islands it is classified as a work of horror” (Grant, 1977: 125).

The Horror Genre

The Horror film genre can be defined in its simplest form by the reaction that it has on the audience,it is this reaction that shapes the genre. What creates this reaction? Or more appropriately whatscares the audience? The horror film traditionally consists of a menace, a ‘monster’ that isthreatening and in many cases breaks the laws of nature or what the audience knows as possible. Itis these two aspects that help form a recognisable aspect of the horror film, the menacing aberrantcreature: “The genre’s characteristic themes also stem from the intended response. If the monsterhorrifies us because it violates the laws of a nature we know, the genre is well suited to suggest thelimits of human knowledge” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008: 330). However Tudor (1989) states (citedin Neale) that: “the source of horror in a horror film is not necessarily a monster, but a monstrousthreat” (ibid: 99). A common thread with Horror is that there are aspects of life that humans are justnot meant to know and therefore unable to understand.

The iconography of the horror film also includes the settings. Dark castles, cemeteries andlaboratories are common place for monsters to dwell. However some filmmakers have reacted tothese conventions set by predecessors and transformed the setting of their horror films. George A.Romero placed his protagonists against the zombies in a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (1978) or in the slasher subgenre of Horror, quiet towns and summer camps have regularly been invaded by sadistic (usually) masked killers (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008).

Paul Wells (2000) in The Horror Genre examines the genre in great detail taking into consideration allwaves of Horror through time and why the horror film excites and arouses emotions to itsaudiences. The responses of the audiences to the horror generally tie into how the horror filminterprets reality into the narrative of the film: “The history of the horror film is essentially a historyof anxiety in the twentieth century. In the way that fairytales, folktales and gothic romancesarticulated the fears of the ‘old’ world, the contemporary horror film has defined and illustrated thephobias of a ‘new’ world characterised by a rationale of industrial, technological and economicdeterminism” (ibid: 3). The Horror genre much more than any other genre responds to the change insocial and cultural life.

Wells discusses that one of the fundamental elements of the horror film is represented as themonster as the archetypal struggle between good and evil but also the presence of a form of orderthat would maintain the idea that there is something to believe in, which can justify materialexistence. Wells also writes that a problem which arises in discussion of the Horror genre is that thegenre does not have many clear boundaries and many of its varying elements can be noted tooverlap with science-fiction and fantasy genres. It can also be said that many of the generic aspectsof the horror genre have become greatly associated with the mainstream contemporary thriller film:“It should be further stressed that there no great uniformity in either narrative or pre-occupations ofthe genre across the years, and that it accommodates a superfluity of topics, which in themselvesdemand different responses and call upon different critical perspectives” (ibid: 8).

Wells discusses the fundamental aspects which help to define what a horror film is. He explains that:“the Horror genre is predominately concerned with the fear of death, the multiple ways in which itcan occur, and the untimely nature of its occurrence.” (ibid: 10) The generic thematic image of thecorpse can remind viewers of extinction, the notion of finality and threatening of humanity.Therefore this theme facilitates the Horror genre to continually remain relevant, as all societies musttackle things that can and will threaten the maintenance of human life. Furthermore Horror hasbeen said to have a basis on many traditional fears such as; fears of the dark, deformity, death andfear for someone else (ibid): “Horror texts are grounded in the reproduction and creation of theemotion of fear which arises from these conditions. The fear of when something life-threateningmay occur, and what may produce it - essentially the deep-rooted fear of the unknown is closelylinked to other primal anxieties” (ibid: 11). Horror creates a complete and total negative response which provides a paralysing effect. In this paralysing effect, the horror text relates to the basic human anxiety of the fear of the unknown, an inherent human trait that is echoed in the fear of the dark, as Wells examines that this is because any potential threat would remain unseen.

Wells discusses in reference to Jancovich that there can be a psychoanalysis application to horrortexts: “The frisson of the horror text for the audience is underpinned by the expressed desire toexperience feelings which relate to taboo agendas and the limits of gratification.” (Wells: 21) It hasbeen vastly argued that that what helps to define the genre of the horror film and its appeal toaudiences is the pleasure of being frightened and the enjoyment of the that emotional response:“The structure of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, move through aperiod of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a pointof closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed andthe original order is re-established” (Jancovich: 9). The pleasure that the audience experiences arebased upon the expectation that the narrative of the text will reach a particular type of conclusion, areturn to the known equilibrium.

There have been vast changes to the Horror genre as it has developed. However it has also been able to remain correspondent to many social and cultural upheavals to which it runs parallel. Much like how the genre has become subject of mass debate and controversy because of the subject area it deals with. If the purpose of the horror film genre is to horrify its audience, it can be said that an objective as this has very little redeeming social merit (Wells). The horror film creates varying complex feelings and brings about emotions in its audiences and viewers, the horror film can provoke fear, panic, disgust, dread but also laughter (ibid).

Horror films have been made since film’s inception, with George Méliès’s three minute film, TheHouse of the Devil (1896). This film is regularly referred to as the first ever horror film (Bordwell &Thompson, 2008). There were also some attempts at horror films in Japan and also the ThomasEdison produced adaptation of Frankenstein (Dawley, 1910). Jancovich in Horror illustrates thatmany of the early feature length horror films were made during the era of German Expressionistfilms. These films are considered to be some of the most important to the genre. Some of the morenotable German Expressionist works were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920) and Nosferatu(Marau, 1922). Nosferatu was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula albeit an unofficialadaptation (Frank, 1974). It starred Max Shreck as Count Orlock, the film’s counterpart to CountDracula.


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Establishment of a Genre. Hollywood Horror in the 1930s
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Christopher Hartmann (Author), 2011, Establishment of a Genre. Hollywood Horror in the 1930s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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