Horror movies as a part of American Popculture

Seminar Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The History of the Horror Genre
2.1. Horror of the 1930s and 1940s:
2.2. Horror of the 1950s and 1960s:
2.3. Horror of the 1970s and 1980s:
2.4. Horror of the 1990s:

3. The Affection for Horror Movies
3.1. Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory (Essay by Walter Evans)
3.2. Why We Crave Horror Movies (Essay by Stephen King)

4. Conclusion – Horror as the Maligned Genre


1. Introduction

“Fear is the most powerful emotion in the human race and fear of the unknown is probably the most ancient. You are dealing with stuff everybody has felt…If you are making a horror film, you get to play with the audiences feelings.”

John Carpenter[1]

Horror movies originate from fictional work that portrays the dark side of life with the primary aim of frightening and terrifying its audience. By presenting horrifying images, of several incorporating sub-genres and repeated themes, such as vampires and werewolves, demonic possessions, evil children, cannibals and zombies, alien invasion and mind-control, film makers like John Carpenter create a world where the worst nightmares become true. According to the adolescents who are providing the genre’s target group, monster movies always deal with the irresistible temptation of the unknown and forbidden, and therefore shock with a horrific impact of terrifying elements.

Furthermore, horror movies often work in conjunction with other genres like science fiction and slasher movies which contain likely dark futuristic aspects and mindless violence. Thus, the horror genre offers a huge and versatile collection of themes, characters and symbols dealing with a variety of religious, scientific, political and even cultural matters which in a broader sense are related to concerns of real life[2].

However, what is at issue are the questions where the roots of the horror movies come from and how their genre has changed and developed since its advent to the movie theatres; in what way do monster movies serve as representatives of American society and its popular culture and how far can we go concerning the interpretation of the historical background by focusing on the impact of the horror genre on American culture? Moreover, what are the things that people are scared of and therefore why do so many people feel drawn to horror movies? According to boundless brutality that is usually presented in monster movies, do we have to fear any harmful influence on the viewers of these movies?

Thus, a timeline covering the whole development of the horror genre throughout the last eighty years provides an appropriate overview of its cultural extent. Furthermore, two essays, one published by Walter Evans and the other one by the well-known author Stephen King, present two different theories regarding the affection for and the popularity of monster movies, and therefore offer the incentive for an open discussion whether showing these movies means a serious danger to the viewing public or whether they only serve as a peculiar sort of pure entertainment.

2. The History of the Horror Genre

Since horror and monster movies stand for an important part of the American film industry and with it of its popular culture throughout the last eight decades, it is useful to look at the development of the horror genre in its historical and cultural context, and thus to focus again on the question of interpretive perspective. As horror movies, despite all obscurity, still deal with real fears of a society or the urge to break with social conventions, concentrating on the change of themes, styles and characters of the genre, means to learn more about the American collective consciousness and what was bothering a whole society during the 20th century.

2.1. Horror of the 1930s and 1940s:

The 1930s and 1940s may be considered to be the decades of “Universal monster movies”[3] where the impossible became realized in a false world of studio-built landscape. Tod Browning’s Dracula and Freaks (both from 1931)[4], James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)[5], Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1933)[6] and George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941)[7] came out picking up the themes of gothic mystery of earlier Gothic literature. These films are usually of a “demonic character”[8] showing “strange and forbidden regions of violence and dark desires”[9], terrorizing their audience with the physically “abnormal”. As presented in Freaks, where physically deviant characters such as armless women, legless men and Siamese twins combined with their frightening vicious behaviour, create a sense of atrocity. Furthermore, “the use of confined spaces like castles or prisons symbolizes extreme emotional states”[10] of darkness, loneliness and obscurity and consequently creates terrifying scenes.

These two decades describe a time of controversies. On the one hand, the invention of movie theatres just like the movie’s advent itself still enjoyed great infatuation and popularity among the people; on the other hand this all took place at a time where people suffered from after-effects of the Great Depression, war and dissatisfaction concerning governmental restrictions like the prohibition.

Thus, the monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s signified an expression of the darker sides but also of the amusement about the existing absurdity.

2.2. Horror of the 1950s and 1960s:

Contrary to the gothic-oriented monster movies of the earlier decades, the horror genre of the 1950s and 1960s rather turns toward the modern, dealing primarily with concerns about the speed and motives of scientific changes, especially regarding the threat of nuclear weapon. In particular, the 1950s were defined by the anxiety and paranoia of the Cold War and the fear of communism in general[11]. Beside the Red Scare coming rather from the outside, political activists with anarchic beliefs allegedly established the menace of disrupting the social order. Furthermore, the UFO sighting that had already begun in the late 1940s turned into a rush, so the existence of extraterrestrial life outside the planet Earth provided a main subject for further disaster movies. Therefore, the horror genre stood in a strong connection with science fiction at that time, called post-war science fiction. These stories frequently have a prophetic nature, foreshadowing how technological advances may affect society, whose future is often presented dehumanized, post-apocalyptic and therefore dystopian.


[1] Carpenter, John, author, director, filmmaker (e.g. Halloween in 1978, The Thing in 1980)

[2] Compare: Science Fiction, p. 779-780 (its significance of holding a mirror to the societies)

[3] website: Timeline2

[4] website: filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html

[5] website: filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html

[6] website: filmsite.org /horrorfilms.html

[7] website: filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html

[8] Thompson, Douglass, H., Gothic Fiction, p. 779

[9] Gothic Fiction, p. 781

[10] Gothic Fiction, p.780

[11] website: filmnotes, links: “McCarthy” and “Paranoia” during the 1950s

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Horror movies as a part of American Popculture
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Institut für Angelistik und Amerikanistik)
American Beliefs and Popular Culture
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ISBN (Book)
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Horror as a maligned genre. American consciousness for social political threat and fictional horror on screen. The role of horror in American culture. Quotes by Steven King and others..
Horror, American, Popculture, American, Beliefs, Popular, Culture
Quote paper
Sarah Rehberg (Author), 2004, Horror movies as a part of American Popculture, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/70912


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